"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Monday, April 4, 2011

Hamlet

I have just finished re-reading Hamlet after 45 years! I was an English major at Yale, but now, after having re-read all of the Histories, King Lear, and Hamlet (I intend to reread all), I realize a good education was wasted on me.  I don’t fault the teaching, although I remember little, but given the way I am now approaching the plays, I would have preferred taking longer on each play and doing the following: 1) read a synopsis of the play for orientation and context; 2) read the play, slowly and deliberately, with attention paid to the footnotes.  Not all editions have the same detail in the notes.  The Pelican Shakespeare which we used was very sparse; but the new Folger Library edition is excellent; 3) read various works of criticism to get a critical review of the plays, important for professional insight and to confirm or challenge personal interpretations or ideas; 4) watch the play while following along with the text.  This is an excellent way to be sure to read every line and to get the actors’ interpretation.

For literary criticism of Hamlet I read Harold Bloom’s edited volume HAMLET in which he presents criticism all the way from Samuel Johnson to Jacqueline Rose, an 80s radical feminist critic.  Fascinating to see how each age added its interpretation to the work.   Other critics included are: Goethe, Hugo, Coleridge, Turgenev, Nietzsche, Freud, Eliot, and Joyce.

Most focussed on the character of Hamlet and why he did what he did.  Was he a moralist, a romantic, indecisive, a plotter; a depressive (melancholic)?  How did his relationship with his mother, Gertrude affect his actions? What about his pre-play history suggest as reasons for his actions (or inactions)? etc.

Having read through all of this – from what I would consider a straightforward analysis of critics in the late 1800s and early 1900s (Bradley, Lowell), to the more unidimensional interpretation of Freud and the feminists, and the Deconstructionists, I think the simplest explanation is underplayed – that Hamlet was indecisive, and this characteristic determined his central actions.  An element of this indecision was a repressive anger, common in people who are frustrated by their inability to act – a lashing out or intemperate lashing of others, especially those close to them. D.G. James in "The New Doubt" agrees, stating:
Is there really anything mysterious about a man who has come to no clear and practiced sense of life, and who in the face of a shocking situation which quite peculiarly involves him, shuffles, deceives himself, procrastinates, and in his exasperation cruelly persecutes the person he best loves in the world (my italics)?

Hamlet is indecisive, and he himself says so on many occasions; and he knows that his intellectual and philosophical nature were at the root of this indecision and compromised his will to action.  “On the one hand, on the other…..”.  He admires the young Fortinbras and especially Laertes as men of action.  We all know people like Hamlet – smart, sensitive, with an ability to see an issue in all its dimensions; but often crippled when it is time for action.

As Anatole France noted in his famous apostrophe to Hamlet:

What one of us thinks without contradiction and acts without incoherence? What one of us is not mad? What one of us does not wsay with a mixture of pity, comradeship, admiration, and horror, 'Goodnight, sweet Prince'

We also know many people who repress this frustration – they hate the fact that they cannot act on all their desires, or act decisively.  The inability to act is the cause for far more frustration than the inability to think.
Lowell quotes Dante:
And like the man who unwills what he willed
And for new thoughts doth change his first intent
So that he cannot anywhere begin
Such became I upon that slope obscure
Because with thinking I consumed resolve
That was so ready at the setting out.
Nietzsche said: “Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion….Not reflection, no – true knowledge, an insight into the horrible truth, outweighs any motive for action, both in Hamlet and in the Dionysian man”

Secondly, I think that his political naivete has been underplayed, particular when seen in the context of the Histories where plotting, scheming, and universal mistrust is the order of the day. Mothers, brothers, sisters, wives, uncles, fathers are ALL plotting for power and position.  Shakespeare, having created so many calculating characters (and often contrasting them with weak and philosophical ones – Henry VI and Richard II), must have deliberately cast Hamlet with the weak princes.  Thus, he did not think that his mother, Gertrude’s, haste to marry his uncle was expected.  That is the interpretation I have always adhered to when thinking about Lady Anne’s quick agreement to marry Richard – they practically and self-servingly took the steps that would protect them, keep them in high regard.

So, Hamlet is na├»ve about his mother, but invents because of the frustration I refer to above, this withering criticism of her as a slut.  I don’t buy the Oedipal fixation of many critics.

Jones says: “Hamlet is being deprived by Claudius of no greater share of the Queen’s affection than he had by his own father, for the two brothers had exactly similar claims in this respect….”

This same frustration from inaction carried over to Ophelia.  In both women he saw action or potential action. Everyone – Polonius, Laertes, Claudius and Hamlet saw her sexuality and knew that she would not be constrained by imagined duty or morality.  Gertrude not only acted, but she acted in less than two months of her husband’s death.

Much has been made of Hamlet’s feminine side, and an early critic far removed from the late 20th century suggested that Horatio was masculine to Hamlet’s feminine.  The critic did not go so far as later critics and suggest that their relationship was homoerotic – far from it – just that Horatio was the stability and reason that Hamlet lacked.

OK, that’s enough from a rank amateur!

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