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The Question of Hamlet

AGIP/Bridgeman Images
Jean-Louis Trintignant in the role of Hamlet, at the Théâtre de la Musique, Paris, 1971

In the decades after it was first staged, probably in 1600, Hamlet seems to have been popular, though not especially so. It was performed at the Globe Theatre, in Oxford, Cambridge, and elsewhere, and revived at least twice at court. But editions of Hamlet were published less frequently than those of Richard III, Richard II, or even Pericles, and aside from echoes of it in the works of other dramatists, the play is mentioned by only a couple of Shakespeare’s contemporaries (one saying that it appealed to the “wiser sort,” another that it managed to “please all”). It wasn’t until 1711 that anyone wrote at length about Hamlet; the Earl of Shaftesbury spoke of it then as the Shakespeare play that “appears to have most affected English hearts” and was perhaps the most “oftenest acted,” which likely owed much to the popularity of Thomas Betterton, one of the great Hamlets.

Another century would pass before Hamlet became Shakespeare’s most celebrated play, a position from which it has yet to be dislodged. Much of the credit for this goes to Romantic writers in Germany and England who were drawn to its intense exploration of the self and who saw their own struggles reflected in Hamlet’s. Goethe’s coming-of-age novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795–1796) turned Hamlet into a model for subsequent portraits of the artist as a young man. William Hazlitt wrote that “it is we who are Hamlet…whose powers of action have been eaten up by thought,” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge declared: “I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so.” “We love Hamlet,” Lord Byron would add, “even as we love ourselves.”

Searching through surviving records from Stratford-upon-Avon not long before this, Edmond Malone discovered that Shakespeare’s son Hamnet (the spelling was interchangeable with Hamlet) had died at the age of eleven in 1596. Malone was the first biographer to create a chronology of Shakespeare’s works and reconstruct his life out of his plays and poems. Unsure of when to date King John, and assuming that “a man of such sensibility” as Shakespeare would not “have lost his only son…without being greatly affected by it,” Malone proposed that such heartfelt lines as “Grief fills the room up of my absent child” made it likely that King John was written in the immediate aftermath of Hamnet’s death.

But nobody much cared about King John. Biographers eventually proposed that Shakespeare’s expression of grief for his son’s untimely death was suspended for four years until it at last found a proper outlet in the aptly named Hamlet. As long as you overlooked that Hamlet is about a son mourning a father (not the other way around), that Shakespeare was rewriting an old play called Hamlet, and that he may not have seen his child more than a few times after leaving his family behind when he moved to London in the late 1580s, this proved to be a much better story. Moreover, critics now felt licensed to conflate the experiences of Hamlet and Shakespeare.

Hamlet had initially been published in a pair of quartos, printed in 1603 (Q1) and 1604–1605 (Q2). A third version of the play appeared in the First Folio edition of 1623 (F1), which trimmed 230 lines from Q2, added 90 new ones, and included a number of substantive changes. When Nicholas Rowe freshly edited Hamlet in 1709 he drew on passages deriving from both the Q2 and the F1 versions (at the time no copy of Q1 was extant), producing a kind of “best bits of Hamlet” that would be more or less copied for the next three hundred years. Then, in 1823, a copy of Q1 was belatedly found, calling into question much of what was understood about the play. This earliest printed version differed considerably from the other two and was considerably shorter. Was Q1 pirated or perhaps written much earlier? Were Shakespeare’s plays trimmed in performance? Did Shakespeare revise his work? Since that discovery, scholars have fiercely debated these questions, which are as consequential for the ways in which we imagine how Shakespeare wrote as they are for how we interpret Hamlet.

It’s a truism that no one accepts anyone else’s reading of Hamlet. And for at least two hundred years, no generation has been comfortable with its predecessor’s take on the play. It’s hard to think of another work whose interpretations so uncannily identify what the play calls the “form and pressure” of “the time.” Critics and actors usually register cultural shifts a bit belatedly; but on occasion the most astute seem to anticipate them. In the early nineteenth century, as traditional gender roles began to change, women actors, including Sarah Siddons, Charlotte Cushman, and Sarah Bernhardt, began to compete with men for the title role. In 1875 the influential biographer Edward Dowden assigned Hamlet to a dark place in the playwright’s life: after writing his romantic comedies, Shakespeare was “touched by the shadow of some of the deep mysteries of human existence” before he recovered and achieved the “grave serenity” of his late, redemptive plays. But in this interim Shakespeare had joined Hamlet “in the depths.”

A generation later there emerged a more radical rethinking of Hamlet and Shakespeare’s state of mind when writing it. Sigmund Freud, searching for confirmation of his theory of the Oedipus complex, wrote to his friend Wilhelm Fliess in 1897 that “the same thing might be at the bottom of Hamlet as well. I am not thinking of Shakespeare’s conscious intention, but believe, rather, that a real event stimulated the poet to his representation, in that his unconscious understood the unconscious of his hero.” Freud went on to suggest that Shakespeare’s own Oedipal crisis provided the long-sought explanation for Hamlet’s delay in avenging his father’s death: “How better than through the torment he suffers from the obscure memory that he himself had contemplated the same deed against his father out of passion for his mother?” Other pieces of the Hamlet puzzle quickly fell into place:

His conscience is his unconscious sense of guilt. And is not his sexual alienation in his conversation with Ophelia typically hysterical?… And does he not in the end, in the same marvelous way as my hysterical patients, bring down punishment on himself?

Freud’s theory would have a profound effect on both scholars and actors; a play that straddled the political and the familial was now increasingly viewed as a domestic tragedy. And Freud’s disciple Ernest Jones’s popular Hamlet and Oedipus (1949) extended his influence for another generation.

By the 1980s, these psychological approaches were swept aside in favor of ones better suited to a generation of academics that had come of age during the cultural turmoil of the 1960s. New Historicists refocused attention on the politics of Hamlet, including the triumph of the opportunistic Fortinbras, whose seizure of power at the play’s end had long been cut in performance. I recall watching elderly playgoers gasp at a production in which Horatio’s sentimental farewell to Hamlet (“Good night, sweet prince,/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”) was now followed by the entrance of Fortinbras, who, as he recited the play’s final line—“Go, bid the soldiers shoot”—unholstered a pistol, put it to Horatio’s head, and pulled the trigger.

Harold Jenkins’s popular Arden edition of the play (1982), which had followed the time-honored practice of conflating the multiple versions of Hamlet, was now deemed suspect, and was replaced in 2006 by a new Arden edition that published all three versions—Q1, Q2, and F1—separately. As New Historicists became interested in Shakespeare’s faith, the (quickly disabused) notion of a Catholic Shakespeare had lingering ramifications for how Hamlet, on his return from Protestant Wittenberg, confronts the ghost of a father come from Purgatory. It’s hard in retrospect to determine whether the desire to rethink the theological underpinnings of Hamlet drove scholars to recast Shakespeare’s own beliefs or vice versa.

I’ve taught Shakespeare to Columbia undergraduates for three decades, and while my students over the years haven’t changed their minds much about A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Macbeth, they have about Hamlet. As in everyone’s classes on the play, the conversation in mine inevitably turns to why Hamlet delays. Back in the 1980s, thanks to the influence of a generation of high school teachers who had seen the 1948 film of Laurence Olivier’s Oedipal Hamlet and had likely read Hamlet and Oedipus, I could always count on a few students to say that Hamlet couldn’t readily avenge himself on a man who acted on his own desires to kill his father and sleep with his mother. (These days no student mentions the Oedipal theory, and when I offer it as a possibility, the suggestion is met with groans or laughter.)

The older Romantic view of Hamlet as an intellectual paralyzed by excessive thought still appealed to procrastinating students, so I’d hear versions of that too. But as the years rolled by I’d hear new explanations. Some of my students suggested that Hamlet couldn’t act because he was a coward, others that he was experiencing a spiritual crisis. By the end of the century a new paradigm began to emerge: Hamlet was profoundly depressed—that’s why he is immobilized, has trouble with his girlfriend, and feels so alienated. As one student memorably put it, if Prozac had been available there would have been no delay.

As the long dominance of New Historicism, which so powerfully shaped my own work, has come to an end, I find myself increasingly curious about what the next generation will make of Hamlet and what its view of Shakespeare and his most popular hero might reveal about our cultural moment. Rhodri Lewis’s absorbing and original Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness is the first major reinterpretation of the play in some time and suggests where things may be heading.

Lewis is clearly impatient with how critics have previously understood Hamlet. He argues that it is wrong to impose “the retrojection of Romantic, Freudian, or any other kinds of individuality onto a period in which they would scarcely have been comprehensible.” Lewis also pushes “back against the ideologically interpellated subject that became an article of faith for an earlier critical generation.” All that warring over the multiple texts of Hamlet strikes him as pointless, and he is comfortable reverting to Jenkins’s mix-and-match Arden edition, having decided that the texts resemble each other closely enough to overlook their differences. In another retro move, Lewis declares that his book “is an exercise in literary criticism,” not to be mistaken for one of those modish studies that uses “Shakespeare to furnish examples with which to illustrate or to challenge the history, theory, or politics of x.”

Scraping away all these layers of critical varnish exposes for Lewis a much bleaker play than the one familiar to modern readers and playgoers:

Hamlet is not thus a model of nascent subjectivity, the first modern man, a dramatic laboratory for the invention of the human, or even a study of the frustrations attendant upon sixteenth-century princely dispossession. He is instead the finely drawn embodiment of a moral order that is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.

Lewis’s Hamlet turns out to be “a victim, a symptom, and an agent” of a world built on hollow and self-serving humanist truisms and a “confused, self-indulgent, and frequently heedless” one at that. He doesn’t so much delay in taking revenge as discover that he isn’t all that motivated to act on behalf of a father who failed to secure his succession.

Private Collection/Look and Learn/Peter Jackson Collection/Bridgeman Images
Program for a nineteenth-century production of Hamlet

It gets worse. Lewis’s Hamlet is “a thinker of unrelenting superficiality, confusion, and pious self-deceit. He feints at profundity but is unwilling and unable to journey beyond his own fears, blind spots, and preoccupations.” At least Claudius knows what sort of game he is playing; Hamlet, “unlike his uncle, is unable or unwilling to register in himself the corruption that he diagnoses in others.” “For all Claudius’s dishonesty,” and “for all Polonius’s self-serving lucubration,” Lewis concludes, “the young Prince Hamlet is the inhabitant of Elsinore most thoroughly mired in bullshit, about himself and about the world around him.” And Hamlet’s thoughts on the workings of providence are the “summa of his bullshit.”

It would be foolish trying to defend Hamlet by quoting his most famous soliloquy, since its words, stitched together out of empty pieties that he should critique but merely recycles, “comprise another study in superficial humanism, made up of commonplaces and sententiae divorced from the contexts that make them meaningful.” “To be or not to be” “sounds terrific,” but “it designedly does not make sense.” Nor should we take Hamlet’s talk of suicide seriously, since he is just “posturing.” Hamlet “pretends to engage” with the “prospect of self-murder because he is attracted to the image of himself disdaining the world, and because he has no intention of following through on the deed.”

Lewis’s Hamlet turns out to be as lame a drama critic as he is a historian, poet, and philosopher. By mocking Polonius’s response to the actors, Hamlet tries to distract us from his own “undercooked theorizing.” But we shouldn’t be misled; neither Polonius nor Hamlet “fully knows what he is talking about, though both are determined to conduct themselves as if they do.” The two are “high-born philistines whose pushiness and culturally deep pockets compel the professional artists to hear them out.”

Why have earlier critics failed to see Hamlet in this way? It’s tempting to blame Shakespeare for not signaling his intentions clearly enough. But Lewis, I imagine, is more likely to shift the blame to our collective refusal to register the ways in which the play turns on Shakespeare’s own rejection of humanism. So as not to misrepresent his book’s central argument, and to give a sense of how passionately it is expressed, I’ll quote at length:

Shakespeare repudiates two fundamental tenets of humanist culture. First, the core belief that history is a repository of wisdom from which human societies can and should learn…. Second, the conviction that the true value of human life could best be understood by a return ad fontes—to the origins of things, be they historical, textual, moral, poetic, philosophical, or religious (Protestant and Roman Catholic alike). For Shakespeare, this is a sham…. Like the past in general, origins are pliable—whatever the competing or complementary urges of appetite, honour, virtue, and expediency need them to be.

The fruitless search for absolutes by which to act or judge is doomed to failure: “Hamlet turns to moral philosophy, love, sexual desire, filial bonds, friendship, introversion, poetry, realpolitik, and religion in the search for meaning or fixity. In each case, it discovers nothing of significance.”

The absence of any moral certainties means that it’s a “kill or be killed” world, and the most impressive chapter in Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness establishes how the language of predation saturates the play. Lewis’s brilliant analysis here gives fresh meaning to long-familiar if half-understood phrases, including the “enseamed” marital bed, “Bait of falsehood,” “A cry of players,” “We coted them on the way,” “Start not so wildly,” “I am tame, sir,” “We’ll e’en to it like French falconers,” and “When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” Thirty years ago this analysis might have been the basis of an important, if localized, study—but that sort of book could never find a major publisher today. Here, it becomes a clever way of establishing what for Lewis is the play’s bass line:

Whatever an individual might strive to believe, he always and only exists as a participant in a form of hunting—one in which he, like everyone else, is both predator and prey.

It would have been bold enough to claim that Shakespeare wrote a play about the rot at the heart of sixteenth-century humanism. But for Lewis this turns out to be symptomatic of something larger, a crisis experienced not just by literature’s most famous character, but by Shakespeare himself, who “came to find humanist moral philosophy deficient in the face of human experience as he observed it.” For the Shakespeare of Hamlet, “humankind is bound in ignorance of itself.” We are told that “Shakespeare’s target is not Hamlet, or not just Hamlet. Instead, he sets himself against Boethius, against Cicero, against the conventions of humanism in the philosophical and religious round.” And Shakespeare apparently sets himself against God too:

There is no divine author scripting human affairs; no list of approved parts for humankind to play; no heavenly audience passing judgment on human performances.

These biographical claims, which can be traced back to Edward Dowden’s fantasies about Shakespeare “in the depths,” are the weakest part of the book and the most indebted to the psychologizing that Lewis elsewhere scorns. And Lewis dodges the question of what triggered Shakespeare’s profound disillusionment, declaring it to be “beyond the scope of this book.” We are left to wonder if Shakespeare ever overcame his despair, and whether in his late and seemingly redemptive plays he was merely faking it. We are also left in the dark about Lewis’s own turn against a humanist tradition in which he is so steeped; most scholars with this much Latin and Greek end up celebrating humanist culture, not exposing it as fraudulent.

Another question that the book doesn’t clearly answer is whether this is a story about a bad student—Hamlet—who merely regurgitates half-digested scraps of a Renaissance humanist education he doesn’t fully grasp, or whether he is a true product of that humanist tradition and conveys its arguments accurately, arguments that are revealed to be shallow and self-serving. Was Shakespeare—who never attended a university yet knew his Seneca and Tacitus—ever this invested in classical humanism, as Lewis wants us to believe? I’m not persuaded by his claim that Hamlet likely speaks his most famous soliloquy while holding a copy of Cicero’s Tusculan Disputations.

I searched in vain while reading this book for what drove this grim argument—before finding a provisional answer in “Hamlet: Then and Now,” a short essay that Lewis recently posted on the Princeton University Press website. He argues there that Shakespeare

offers us an unflinchingly brilliant guide to the predicaments in which we find ourselves in Trumpland and on Brexit Island. Not by prophesying the likes of Farage, Bannon, and Donald J. Trump…but by enabling us to experience a world in which the prevalent senses of moral order (political, ethical, personal) bear only the most superficial relation to lived experience.

If I understand Lewis correctly, we have paid a steep political price for failing to heed Shakespeare’s warning in Hamlet that the world has always been amoral and predatory.

Our political situation has altered with dizzying speed of late. Somehow, we collectively absorb these changes, even if many of us refuse to reconcile ourselves to them. But resistance to change is even fiercer when it comes to radical reinterpretations of our favorite works of art, and Lewis and his antihumanist approach to Hamlet, though it suits our moment, will, I suspect, win over very few adherents, at least in the short term.

Reading this book prompted some speculation of my own. I wondered what it revealed about the disillusionment of scholars like Rhodri Lewis, who, Hamlet-like, expected, when their turn came, to inherit an academic kingdom. With funding for higher education slashed, literature departments downsized, full-time faculty replaced by adjuncts, and illustrious universities like my own choosing to hire only at the entry level to replace those of us who will be retiring, the prospects facing the next generation of academics are dismal. Depressingly, there is only a single position advertised this year in all of North America for a senior Shakespeare scholar. The need to make a splash, even to overstate claims, is understandable.

Lewis’s Hamlet is not mine, nor is his Hamlet. The difference in our approaches and conclusions may simply be generational. But I admire his relentless questioning of underexamined beliefs that have long guided our reading of Hamlet and, if he is right, have been instrumental in leading us into the political mire in which we now find ourselves.