Reading Shakespeare’s Mind

Hamlet and Revenge

by Eleanor Prosser
Stanford, 287 pp., $7.50

Fools of Time: Studies in Shakespearian Tragedy

by Northrop Frye
University of Toronto, 121 pp., $4.95

William Shakespeare
William Shakespeare; drawing by David Levine

The one obvious thing about Hamlet is that nobody could possibly say what it means; but people who think they have stumbled on something in it that everybody else has overlooked do not notice this. Although the graduate schools now go in for all manner of metacritical precautions, it is still a common enough ambition to find and follow the clue which will show that quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab omnibus, that trinity of squares, have been wrong all the time. For instance, it can be argued that we shall be nearer a true understanding of Hamlet if we get close to what an Elizabethan audience might have thought it said, and the result of the research is almost certain to be a conviction that everybody since then, everywhere and practically always, has been getting it wrong; which is the conviction that prompted the inquiry in the first place.

In principle the difficulties of such an undertaking might seem a strong deterrent to all but the most subtle historians; but they have not proved so, and Miss Prosser is not the first scholar to read the mind of Hamlet’s audience and author. What, in the prescribed period, did people think about revenge? What were they told to think, in the theater and out of it? If we know that, we shall know what Shakespeare intended. Leaving aside the argument about Intention, it is probably enough to say that Hamlet, as Miss Prosser knows very well, is remarkably unlike other revenge plays; that it is a play by a writer of sufficient merit to have distinguished himself from the run-of-the-mill dramatists who “gave the public what it wanted”; and that it is in many ways the strangest and most crucial of his works, a sort of Demoiselles d’ Avignon, painted and repainted, a piece of the past technically prepared for a new age, changing theater, drama, and audience as it changed itself. It would have to have been some extremely dull member of the audience who did not sense any of this, but stared stupidly through Hamlet to some diagrammatic ethical revenge play beneath. Nowhere did Shakespeare do more to disconcert his audience, and quite possibly much of the initial interest lay in wondering what in God’s name was going to happen next to the familiar story. One can, certainly, imagine a man dull enough to see only what matched his commonplace expectations, but who wants to know him? For scholars who recreate “the Hamlet of Shakespeare’s Audience” he is a memento mori.

Does it follow that a great deal of Shakespeare scholarship has been and still is founded on a false historical premise? It does. It does not, however, follow that all literary history is bunk. It is like any other form of history, which is, incidentally, why a notorious review on Donne in the TLS a few months back was…

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