Tuesday, April 21, 2015

William Shakespeare: Hamlet (1600)

Peter O'Toole as Hamlet

[Image source: http://theshakespeareblog.com/2013/12/shakespeares-hamlet-and-the-charisma-of-acting/]

Somewhere between the monumental savageries of Saxo's story of Amleth and John Marston's Antonio's Revenge comes a play called Hamlet.


We're just ordinary people....  (John Legend, 2004)

Revenge plays, prior to Hamlet (and after, too) had tended to be violent, rhetorical gorefests. But when we think about Hamlet it always comes as something of a surprise to look back on the final scene and find it studded with corpses. Everyone seemed so normal!

For the ordinary soldiers in the opening scene, taking note of the ghost's alarming appearance, Horatio speaks their thoughts: "This bodes some strange eruption to our state". No-one at that point sees fit to connect the eruption with the recent change of ruler or with the questionable marriage of Claudius to his dead brother's wife that is taking place concurrently. Their interest as commoners is more taken up with the clear preparations for war, including the heightened state of watchfulness in which they participate.

One of the problems that Hamlet faces, we imagine, is that the injunction to revenge feels out of sync with the apparent ordinariness of the court going about its business. After Hamlet has spoken to the Ghost, he returns to a court that outwardly looks innocent. As a matter of fact, it is innocent, all but one man. Nobody abetted Claudius in his crime. No-one suspects it. And Claudius is no Piero (the equivalent figure in Antonio's Revenge), i.e. an out-and-out villain exulting in the powers of hell. (Shakespeare would return to that motif in Iago and Edmund; but Claudius shows no sign of loving evil for its own sake.)

The super-abundant richness of Shakespeare's realization of the Danish court is a matter of people behaving ordinarily. The family scene with Laertes, Ophelia and Polonius is a good example.

Guildenstern, Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia and Gertrude make unexceptionable conversation about the players and the play they perform. Their remarks are not out of character, but also not narrowly related to the roles these speakers play in the drama (Gertrude's apart, perhaps). A year or two after Hamlet had already been successfully performed, Shakespeare seems to have inserted a highly topical discussion of the children's companies (Harold Jenkins gives the details). In this passage Rosencrantz provides the lively satire, and Hamlet is the casually interested questioner; the tensions between these two characters seem to be put on hold; they can lay them aside and just be ordinary people again. And there's nothing jarring about this - in the world of Hamlet such non-sequitur is characteristic and convincingly naturalistic. It's difficult to imagine any other play, even of Shakespeare's, being so capacious as to allow this. But here everyone, good or bad or mixture of both, can behave in an ordinary way.

This complicates our grasp of causality in Hamlet. Everyone knows that there's no clear explanation for why Hamlet delays, or why he decides to assume a guise of madness (in Saxo and Belleforest these matters follow logically from Amleth's situation, but not here). But Hamlet isn't alone in being resistant to explanation. Ophelia, distressed by the nunnery scene, is reasonably perky in the play scene. When we next see her she has gone mad; we can make reasonable guesses about why, but she can't tell us. Nor do we ever really know Gertrude's thoughts after the closet scene. The ghost seems to say that she was seduced before her first husband's death, but she never confirms it. Whether she really loved Claudius, and whether she now hates him, remain enigmas.  Hamlet's accusation to Guildenstern - "You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery" - can be directed to us interpreters too, seeking to prise definite causalities out of an action which proceeds with a marvellous impression of naturalism but with many non-sequiturs. Why does the Ghost say that he comes "to whet thy almost blunted purpose" not before but after Hamlet has just taken steps to confirm the king's guilt, and has just killed Polonius, thinking him to be the king? Or to take a much smaller thing, why does Hamlet reduce Ophelia's "tis twice two months" to "two months"? - what chiefly strikes us is the verisimilitude; this is the slipshod way that ordinary people talk.

The ethos of such a presentation is that people are weak. "Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?" That sense of vague tolerance for inevitable weakness affects even our judgment of Claudius. He wanted power and he wanted Gertrude, and he did an evil thing to attain this, but what mainly strikes us is a certain helplessness. Claudius knows that his prayers are vain - God doesn't pardon him - but I believe his soliloquy goes a long way towards winning our pardon.
We see that he has a conscience. More than that, we see that restitution would be difficult and perverse, and his reluctance to give up his gains is all too understandable. He, too, is ordinary. Of course we see a more openly ruthless Claudius in the later acts, but even here our condemnation is modified, he hardly seems to exult in what he sees as self-defence; it is only the threatening and murderous Hamlet that he seeks to snuff out.

Hamlet too incurs that complex forgiveability. When at the end of the play, Horatio says "Now cracks a noble heart", the judgment does not strike most of us as a moral affront, we feel it's well justified.* Few will feel that cowardice - his own self-accusation - adequately describes the natural reluctance that he feels to "sweep" to his revenge. Yet Hamlet was cruel, he indulged in misogynistic diatribes, his behaviour (in one way or another) led to Ophelia's death, he cared little for accidentally killing Polonius and not at all for deliberately sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths - surely a disproportionate response to their rather venial involvement in keeping tabs on him.

Pure goodness isn't available here: we see that it's an effect of distance and selection. Hamlet's praise of his father doesn't shake our conviction that this war-like father likely committed a few acts in the course of his career that fully merited significant expiation in Purgatory. As for Hamlet's praise of Horatio, we feel its object squirming. Hamlet, we feel, is choosing for reasons of his own to make a great point of something he can't really know, Horatio being so much his social inferior. We believe, of course, that Horatio's a good sort, but that's a rather different thing from the moral ideal that Hamlet paints.

Yet most of us* are apt to believe that Horatio's testimony about Hamlet is sound. Partly because of what we see - that Hamlet has many lovable and fine qualities - , but also because the play teaches us that we, the audience, can't see the whole of any character.

While Harold Jenkins and Stephen Greenblatt have rightly praised Hamlet's dramatic advance in the depiction of inwardness, we should add that it is also a depiction of inscrutability. The more real the characters appear, the less they can be certainly known. Hamlet tells us much about himself, but we understand more of Hamlet than he is able to tell us; and at the same time we are also made aware of much that we cannot understand, and that the play will never explain. It's the same complex mixture of understanding and ignorance that characterizes our own relations with people we know.



The chief objection to D.H. Lawrence, Rebecca West or Simon Critchley, is that their highly negative views of Hamlet unbalance the play. If we can't identify with and feel pity for Hamlet when he's given his terrible mission by the ghost of his father, then all the life fizzles out of this most lively of plays.





The above is the interesting story of Amleth as it appeared in Saxo Grammaticus, Historiae Danicae aka Gesta Danorum Books III-IV. (written c. 1185-1220). (in the nineteenth-century translation of Oliver Elton, slightly revised by D. L. Ashliman.)

"Revenge is best served cold".  The motto suits Amleth, who is very different from Hamlet. It takes him years to execute his monumental revenge; years of patient steady dissimulation. He is apparently in a far more dangerous situation than Hamlet is. His pretended madness is a survival tactic.

As Jenkins points out, it isn't Hamlet's "delay" that is the issue, it's his indecision and procrastination. Delay is fine, so long as you have a definite plan, like Amleth does.

My two-pennyworth on this perennial topic is that anyway the delay isn't noticeable during a performance; Hamlet in play-time is always active, always doing something that either furthers his revenge directly or at least is calculated to confront his enemy. It's true that Hamlet beats himself up for being cold, sluggish, etc, and these statements are a portrait of frustration and impatience under the burden of an unpleasant but pressing duty; but when we're are under that kind of burden even ten minutes spent in idle talk may strike us as culpable procrastination. The impact of these speeches in no way depends on us knowing exactly how much procrastination there has been, and accordingly Hamlet himself provides no specific examples; he doesn't tell us that for a week he's been off hunting or that for a month he's been downloading DVDs. What produces the much-discussed problem is commentators interpreting these speeches in the light of their own inference that a lot of time has indeed gone by  (e.g. from Ophelia's "twice two months", or the return of the ambassadors from Norway); but surely these are unexceptional instances of "double time", typical of Shakespeare's practice throughout his career; no different, really, from Act I Scene 1, where we pass from midnight to dawn in about 8 minutes; and in my opinion not to be taken as hard evidence of Hamlet idling away time.]

In Saxo, the story of Amleth's revenge is only the first part of Amleth's story. He survives to pursue other stories in England and Scotland, finally suffering a violent death himself. The narrative therefore has the distanced effect of a chronicle, somewhat like the story of Lear and his daughters as told by Spenser.


The story was translated into French by Belleforest in his Histoires Tragiques (1570)

(p. 149 - 191 of the link below)


Belleforest expands on Saxo, mainly only rhetorically, but some details of the expansion make their way into Hamlet, most likely via the Ur-Hamlet . (Belleforest's version speaks of a ghost, but the ghost is unimportant: he's mentioned only at the end of the story, as dutifully placated by Amleth when the revenge has already occurred.)


The Ur-Hamlet

The Ur-Hamlet is a lost play that already existed in 1589. Harold Jenkins argues persuasively that it was written by Kyd and preceded The Spanish Tragedy.

I've always assumed that the plot-transformation by which the murder of Hamlet's father becomes a secret must have already occurred in the Ur-Hamlet, because almost the only thing we know about it is that it had a ghost who cried "Hamlet, revenge!". Jenkins points out that this is an assumption. Yet it's a natural one. Surely the Ghost must be Ur-Hamlet's father. But if Ur-Hamlet already knew that his uncle had killed his father (as Amleth did), there would be no dramatic need to bring in a ghost to urge what he must already have proposed to himself.  The ghost might, of course, have been just an incidental sensation; but Lodge's allusion suggests that the ghost was memorable.


Antonio's Revenge

Marston's play, which can be precisely dated to winter 1600-01. Jenkins convincingly shows that it borrowed from Shakespeare's Hamlet , therefore confirming the date of the latter to be 1600 (or possibly, very late 1599). With the corollary, that the material about the "little eyasses" (children's companies such as Marston's)  was a later topical interpolation into a play that already existed - a very unusual thing for Shakespeare.


Above, the 1921 Malone Society reprint of Antonio and Mellida and Antonio's Revenge . The text version is like reading subtitles through a snowstorm.  Read the PDF instead.

Compare and contrast Piero with Claudius:


Oh, let me swoon for joy. By heaven, I think
I ha said my prayers within this month at least,
I am so boundless happy. Doth she come?
By this warm reeking gore, I'll marry her.
Look I not now like an Inamorate?
Poison the father, butcher the son, and marry the mother, ha?

Interesting review by Lucy Munro of the 2011 Edward's Boys production:




Stephen Greenblatt's theory:


This is a splendid essay so far as it expresses very clearly the question about Hamlet's madness; i.e. that it's necessary to Amleth but perverse for Hamlet; that it's insufficiently motivated once the murder is transformed into a secret murder.

You can appreciate the connection that Greenblatt makes between the unmotivated madness and the new drama of inwardness without having to go all the way with him on his theory that the play has deep connections with the death of Shakespeare's son Hamnet in 1596. This was an idea that Greenblatt presumably developed from Ulysses; he extravagantly admires the biographical speculation of Stephen Dedalus and his pals in "Scylla and Charybdis"; just as they admire Wilde's "Portrait of Mr W.H."

(Nor do I feel very persuaded that a mixture of Catholic and Protestant beliefs is meaningfully foregrounded in Hamlet, as Greenblatt argues. - and Peter O'Toole before him...)


Lena Levin on Julian Jaynes, the Bicameral Mind, and Hamlet:




Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger

Nature Blog Network