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Hamlet Brainwashed

In response to:

Reading Shakespeare's Mind from the October 12, 1967 issue

To the Editors:

Having developed genuine respect for Frank Kermode over the years, I awaited his criticism of Hamlet and Revenge with anticipation. His reviews in the past have shown him to be an admirable scholar and perceptive critic, a man who combines vast knowledge with critical acumen and humanity. In short, I awaited what would surely be a thoroughly documented, compassionate analysis of the book’s strengths and weaknesses, a constructive, honest, objective review of the argument.

The review that appeared in your issue of October 12 was thus a shock. In defiance of every principle his own work exemplifies, Mr. Kermode launches a savage attack ad hominem, brutally misrepresenting my critical assumptions and method as well as the book’s argument. I have compassion for Mr. Kermode’s anger. All of us who have worked on the book have long known that it would arouse violent response. Hamlet touches us all personally; for many he is almost a matter of faith. Curiously, we often feel free to analyze “Shakespeare’s conscious philosophic patterns” and even to speak “unrepentantly of his intentions” in regard to other plays, but Hamlet must not be sullied with any “meaning.” (Incidentally, the quotations are from Mr. Kermode’s Introduction to the Arden Tempest. Even I would hesitate to use the word “conscious”) That a scholar such as Mr. Kermode’s may find serious defects in my use of evidence, or fallacious reasoning rendering my conclusions totally invalid, is possible. But it is certainly not just, and certainly not helpful, to mock a straw horse.

It is clear that Mr. Kermode was doing just that. To be specific. The review contains three quoted assertions, ostensibly from the book. Not one is an accurate quotation. One (about the Ghost) is a paraphrase of what is, to be sure, an underlying argument of the book, but it is stated in such childishly simple language that it is patently ludicrous. One (“Hamlet cannot be understood outside the Christian perspective”) is, paradoxically, what the book denies. (The argument is that instinctive response would suffice if scholarship had not misled us. The Christian orientation is emphasized only as a corrective.) One (“the moral code from which he escapes is basically medieval”) omits a crucial “cannot” and thus makes nonsense of my position; moreover, the twisted assertion is lifted from its true context (discussion of “To be or not to be”) and grotesquely applied to a context in which no such philosophical concepts were considered (discussion of the Nunnery Scene). I doubt that Mr. Kermode intentionally perverted these quotations. He probably closed the book and let his irritation guide his pen….

Equally serious is the flat misrepresentation of several points. Nowhere in the book do I suggest that the “brainwashed” Elizabethan audience “stared stupidly through Hamlet to some diagrammatic ethical revenge play beneath”; that the audience “would have known” that the Ghost was a devil and “would therefore want the hero to disregard it”; that Shakespeare “makes Hamlet melancholy because that predisposed a man to demonic influence” (nonsense!); that “Shakespeare is more Christian than the other revenge writers” (absolutely no inferences are drawn as to Shakespeare’s own faith).

…Nowhere do I argue that we cannot understand Hamlet without intensive study of Elizabethan morality and stage tradition. Quite the contrary. I urge that our instinctive response to the play is our best guide. Again and again throughout the book I argue that we have been prevented from responding naturally by a series of misconceptions that have hardened into critical and theatrical tradition. Nowhere, moreover, do I assert that we respond to the play as did Shakespeare’s audience because “we are in the same Christian tradition.” Quite the contrary. I suggest that by recognizing Shakespeare’s poetic method—his use of Christian signs familiar to his audience—we become free to recognize a basic human dilemma common to all civilized men. Perhaps the most misleading aspect of the review is Mr. Kermode’s implication that I not only envisage a pat moral issue in the play but think the Elizabethan audience did the same. Throughout the book I have tried to maintain awareness of the agonizing “dilemma”—a word that appears repeatedly in the book but not once in the review….

Most unjust, perhaps, is the implicit suggestion that I capriciously force an irrelevant moral code on a shuddering work of art. At all times I have earnestly tried to maintain rigid focus on the script itself, to refer to other documents only to correct misreadings—only, that is, to demand that the lines Shakespeare wrote be taken on their own terms. If I have failed (and, being human, I have undoubtedly been blinded sometimes by my own enthusiasm), is not the critic’s task clear? If he rejects conclusions based not on theory but on the lines of the script themselves, is it not incumbent on him to show that the lines are misread? It will not do simply to assert that nobody could possibly find the meaning of Hamlet—and then walk away.

Eleanor Prosser

Associate Professor Of Dramatic Literature

Stanford University


Frank Kermode replies:

I apologize for the one real misquotation in the review, which, though bad, makes no substantial difference to the argument. As to the rest, (1) Miss Prosser writes: “It is my belief that we can understand Hamlet‘s unrivaled power to move emotions and stimulate thought only when we grant the basic Christian perspective from which it was written.” (2) Her method still seems to me to be as I described it. She leads off with ninety-four pages describing Elizabethan views of revenge, which she sums up as follows; “On the question of revenge, then, Shakespeare, preachers, moralists, and the majority of the Elizabethan audience were all in agreement.” Thus, and by reading these conclusions into the play itself, she “corrected misreadings.”

I do not know why she thinks my review so savage or ad hominem. It was not intended to be either.

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