Commentary Magazine


Alas, Poor Hamlet

Is Hamlet, as T. S. Eliot concluded, ultimately an artistic failure, a work of unintegrated parts and layers, of mismatched borrowings and techniques that leave its central character vainly searching for a significant action and its author for a dramatic event that will encompass the play’s breadth of emotion and intelligence? Or is the play, as Francis Fergusson argued in his book, The Idea of a Theater, a finely wrought network of analogies and internal reflections, a drama held together by the traditions of religion, state, and theater, and thus an example of subtle cultural cohesion that is both different from and greater than the consistencies of psychological realism?

Having thus bracketed the “problem” of the play with these very different judgments, and added the punctuation of self-addressed question marks, I admit to a feeling of impatience and weariness, a feeling which the recent New York Shakespeare Festival production of Hamlet did little to allay. Why add any more to the burden of interpretation that weighs this play down so that, in a sense, it justifies itself as a theatrical marvel simply by coming alive, despite the handicap of three centuries’ worth of critical annotations, each time it is even adequately performed? Why presume to be any better an interpreter of the events at Elsinore than those who, in their enthusiasm over the play and the character of Hamlet, have turned the Prince into aspects of themselves, or who, in their prim reservations, have turned themselves into curios of criticism? When exegesis has been so loosely inclusive as to find evidence in this story of murder, meditations, and revenge to support theses ranging from the Oedipal to the existential, what illumination is left that will not turn out to be simply another perhaps clever but ultimately unsatisfactory critical conceit?

Already my uneasiness has me answering one set of rhetorical questions with another. Before being accused of a Hamlet-like hesitance, then, I will plunge ahead and answer that, despite the misgivings of a literate mind over saying anything at all about Shakespeare’s most famous play and hero, the temptation to commentary that the work offers is ultimately irresistible. Irresistible but not particularly pleasant, a temptation that does not even promise much pleasure before the aftermath of regret. One simply feels numbly fated to yield to the enticement, preordained to capitulate, and so it is best to get on about it with dispatch and to bolster oneself with the notion that it is impossible to write for any length of time about the nature of the theater without delivering an opinion of Hamlet and feeling that in the deliverance there is an obvious truth that no one has discussed before.

So: Eliot’s famous criticism, that Shakespeare has not found an objective equivalent for the emotions within his play, seems to me correct as a partial explanation of the dramatic means of Hamlet and totally misapplied as a critical censure. Perhaps because of his lack of sympathy with excessive, undisciplined personality, Eliot mistook the problem of Hamlet’s world for a failure in Shakespeare’s play. Hamlet, as much as Eliot, desires objective correlatives for his feelings, passionately wishing at almost every opportunity that his setting will display some confirmation of the magnitude of his understanding and emotions. Shakespeare may have presented us with a character uncomfortably fettered by the plots and moods of earlier treatments of the Prince of Denmark’s story, but it is precisely that dramatic discomfort which he turns to advantage by using it thematically. The tense disjunction between Hamlet and the doings around him, the evident lack of balance between his notion of significant action and the machinations, intrigues, and “shufflings” that encircle him—this forms both the play’s theme and the crux of Hamlet’s character. Thus, what Eliot sees as an aesthetic deficiency is turned into a proposed deficiency of life itself, or at least as Hamlet conceives life to be through most of the drama. When, for example, he says, in his first self-description, that he cannot be denoted truly by “forms, moods, shapes,” and that he has “that within which passes show,” he announces himself to be someone apart from conventional depictions, and also someone who does not wish to be depicted in any manner that involves the “stale . . . uses of the world.”

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Such uses—modern idiom would say “usages”—which Hamlet dismisses as pretenses to form and order in life, are not abandoned without paying a painful price in estrangement and egoism. Everyone, after all, would like to find the world fashioned after the design of his self and his ambitions, and to realize that this is not so, to perceive suddenly that one is in an “unweeded garden,” is as dark a revelation of individual fate as any glimpsed by antique heroes. In an odd way, then, Eliot, in his fussing over the lack of precise equivalents of feeling in Hamlet, is more like the play’s hero in his criticisms than either Goethe or Coleridge, both of whom Eliot chastised for having put too much of their own creative points of view into their studies of Shakespeare’s play.

Of course Eliot, a more sophisticated man than Hamlet, knew that neither in life nor in poetry are satisfactory images for thought and feeling easy to come by or believe in. But he had concluded, as do the great majority of us during our coming to terms with the world, that such objective sanctuaries for the mind and emotions do exist for those who, through various forms of discipline, earn the right to use them. For Eliot, such respites from artistic and spiritual vagueness are already involved in our notion of culture, and to proclaim them inadequate, or outrightly to defy them, is merely the naughty and envious act of an adolescent.

Had Eliot not been, at twenty-five, a poet of old age and hardening categories, he might have sensed that Shakespeare was indeed depicting the aspirations and imperatives of adolescence in a manner that did justice both to its excesses and to its poignancies. But Eliot was too much on guard against the Romantic point of view to bother with distinctions between youthful imperiousness toward the world and the, to him, vague effusions of a misguided poetic.

Now by claiming that Hamlet is an embodiment of adolescence I do not mean to diminish him, although, after the recent decades spent in the psychological and sociological catering to that period of life, many people might justifiably find the word “adolescence” fraught with connotations of shallow complaint and militant self-centeredness. Hamlet, to be sure, does have much in his nature that smacks of youthful misanthropy and self-drama, the sort of sour idealism that marked a good deal of the 1960′s youth movement. However, Hamlet is of another time and a prince, and to understand him as Shakespeare must have done, history as well as psychology is needed. Using both, I would construct his profile as follows:

A young aristocrat, perhaps around twenty years old, who sets off for his studies at the University of Wittenberg—the university, be it remembered, of that most famous metaphysical malcontent, Dr. Faustus—with himself and his universe fairly well in tune. His mind is not disabused by his studies of that belief in the nobility of human action which his rank and earlier education had given him. The New Learning complements quite well the medieval culture from which he has come, coupling to its attitude of religious veneration the classical conception of heroic virtue and the specialness of great men’s fates. Although he becomes no scholar, Hamlet does know his Hyperion from a Hecuba, and feels that if man is no god, he is nevertheless godlike.

Then his father’s death occurs—to Hamlet an event of great magnitude, but in the worlds of politics and natural commerce, only a minor incident to be ceremonially noticed and then passed over. Hamlet’s horror at the quick marriage of his mother to Claudius, it must be remembered, is full grown long before the ghost adds the account of murder to the event. The dignity of life itself, as Hamlet has fashioned it in the adolescent manner, has been sullied by this continuation of state and “country” matters in spite of the noble death that has occurred.

There is, of course, youthful exaggeration in all this. Hamlet’s father after all was no Oedipus or Theseus; his most memorable public achievement seems to have been a magisterial frown when he smote the sledded Polacks. Nevertheless, to that part of Hamlet’s mind that had been stirred by humanist studies, his father seems a heroic enlargement, an embodiment of the new estimation of human qualities, the passing of which is sufficient reason for there to be a deep and lengthy pause in the ordinary doings of state and nature.

When this does not happen, when his mother shows more fealty to the pleasures of incestuous sheets than to the memory of his father, when intrigues of state continue as if a royal death were of no more consequence than a broken trade agreement, when the platitudes of Polonius roll on as if death had not proved them irrelevant, then Hamlet condemns life for not living up to his expectations. Many of his accusations seem nobly made, but, in terms of the ways and needs of the world, they are overdemanding and petulant—that is to say, adolescent.

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With the introduction of the ghost’s testimony, however, the form of Hamlet’s adolescence changes. No longer is it a matter of the world’s falling short of his ideals, but of his failing to meet the standards which he believes the world—or, I should say, that part of the world which, heroic and absolute, exists in Hamlet’s mind—has set for him. Called upon to act, Hamlet is simply unprepared; he has not yet grown up to what is demanded of him. The arguments he had used to prove the ordinary world a place of little consequence, he now turns upon himself and his situation, flaying the former for its baseness and charging the latter with insoluble contradictions and absurdities. Knowing himself now to be unfledged and unsure, he swaggers about in feigned madness and slinks off for private moments of self-pity and recrimination. Scraps of undigested philosophies comfort and distress him, and only Shakespeare’s compulsive ability as a poet keeps those celebrated monologues from revealing themselves as little more than youthful harangues and diatribes.

As the play progresses, Hamlet does mature, but not overmuch. When he confronts the gravediggers and Yorick’s skull and uses the logic of his university curriculum to prove to Horatio that Alexander might well be now stopping up a bunghole—the scene that is taken by many to portray the deepest destruction of Hamlet’s once-heroic conception of life—he is still, it seems to me, speaking in set phrases and with an overdramatic sense of conceit, in both senses of that word. Confronted by this base image of human life, Hamlet still follows the spur of a quibble, as Doctor Johnson would have said, rather than the route of action he feels he must begin in order to claim his rights of manhood.

Only when he is dying and confides to Horatio his worries over the reputation he will leave behind him, does Hamlet finally appear, in the best and worst sense, to have grown up.

Now this notion of Hamlet as the supreme adolescent, while I believe it to be correct, and to supply an objective consistency to Shakespeare’s play, does not, of course, harmonize well with the second of the antithetical points of view with which I began this discussion, Francis Fergusson’s idea of Hamlet as a play of ritual, a structure of mirrored imagery in which personal and public decay pervades in a well thought out balance. But this idea of Hamlet as a study of a diseased body politic is only acceptable if we assume the Prince’s own evaluation of himself and his surroundings and even then we must force ghosts, clowns, players, and the mischances of melodrama to support a structure which they can bear only with the help of the most baroque critical buttressing.

Of course there is more afoot in Hamlet than the aspect I’ve chosen to emphasize—Hamlet’s sexual attitude, for instance, with its distaste for women’s physicalities, and with its refined-young-man’s pre- and post-coital depressions—but I feel I’ve yielded enough to temptation in stating what I think the main scheme of Hamlet to be. For the insight that has resulted, gratitude should be given the New York Shakespeare Festival production mentioned above, whose tepid albeit clear rendition of the play allowed me to muse and theorize undisturbed by any obtrusive theatrical entertainment.

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