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 wrong when it said that in the field of English there was little left to be done. History changes—not the documents, but the explanations that link them. Worse still, we live in a time when what we examine with most tenderness is our own instrument of investigation, so that the philosophy of such explanations compromises the explanations themselves. Change is accelerated; criticism nowadays requires a lot of thought. Whether the reason for this is the Zeitgeist, or the fact that over the last half-century a number of people who really know how to think have drifted into the profession (a good effect of its having grown so, just as the explosion of sub- and non-books is an effect of the same expansion) this is no place to decide. This ought to make life harder for the simple philologist, reconstructing Shakespeare’s “ideal audience” or somebody else’s ideal reader. It doesn’t, very noticeably, simply because the two wings of the profession don’t read one another’s books. They are too many, and usually too long. The time has come for a vogue of aphoristic brevity, a favored manner at once allusive and transparent, and calling for brain and skill.

SHAKESPEAREANS, of all people, have little need to spell everything out. Miss Prosser spells everything out. Mr. Frye, allusive, transparent (I do not say lucid: only the other day I noticed a reviewer calling a book “objectionably lucid”) does not. Mr. Frye is one of the thinkers mentioned in the previous paragraph. Miss Prosser isn’t. She thinks we are all wrong about Hamlet because it does not occur to us that Shakespeare might have been as moral about revenge as we are, and proposes to herself the task of answering the unfashionable and perhaps unanswerable question: “How does Shakespeare intend his audience to regard the ethics of private revenge?” First she studies what contemporaries said about the ethics, and then writes a 200-page commentary on Hamlet to show that it conforms.


An important point seems to be that the audience, far from assuming that Hamlet should obey the Ghost, would have known that it was a devil speaking the truth only for its own purpose, and would therefore want the hero to disregard it. This is not an absolutely new view, as it happens; Greg long ago argued that the Mouse Trap showed the Ghost to be lying, and even if it was telling the truth there obviously remains the question whether it was recommending a proper course of action. That Shakespeare made the Ghost theologically ambiguous has long been a matter of scholarly comment. In the original Hamlet it was doubtless a simple plot agent, a way of letting Hamlet know. Shakespeare certainly makes it complicated, but the conclusion is neither what Miss Prosser thinks to be the old wrong one, “Hamlet is bound to do as the Ghost tells him,” nor is it Miss Prosser’s own, “The Ghost is not honest but demonic and gives wrong advice which Hamlet ought not to follow.” Like so many other things in Hamlet, the Ghost is elaborately overpainted, defying schematization and asking you, if you choose, to consider not only its own status but that of theatrical illusionism in general. If Hamlet puzzles about it at his level—he must act, or not act—we have a problem which is a shadow of his, for we are not ourselves acting, but considering a dramatic action in which the actor won’t act, as Hamlet himself later points out.

It is essential to this kind of pleasure that the Ghost, like everything else, should be far from simple. But Miss Prosser holds that an Elizabethan audience, brainwashed by its media, could never, whatever its feelings, have allowed such ambiguities; for them and for Shakespeare the right answer was for Hamlet to leave revenge to heaven. So Shakespeare stresses that the Ghost is a demon, not a soul from purgatory, and he makes Hamlet melancholy because that predisposed a man to demonic influence. When Hamlet takes the devil’s bait he grows more and more depraved by unregenerate passion; Nature takes over from Virtue. “The moral code from which he escapes is basically medieval,” says Miss Prosser, “but his instincts are with the Renaissance.” Or, to descend from these historiographical heights to simple instances, Hamlet is very nasty to Ophelia in the Nunnery scene because his Renaissance Nature is getting the better of him, so that it is unfair of Ophelia’s critics “to castigate her for lacking spunk.” The audience would also have thought Hamlet shockingly depraved when he spoke of sending the King’s soul to hell. However, he returns from his abortive English trip converted to the view that he must not try to do God’s work for him; and so he saves his soul. The reason why we basically, and now with a clear historical conscience, feel the same way about it, is that we are in the same Christian tradition as the original and ideal audience: “Hamlet cannot be understood outside the Christian perspective.” In fact Shakespeare is more Christian than the other revenge writers, since he asks us to apply to his Ghost certain “established Christian tests.”

Miss Prosser has one of the merits of the scholar-critic, which is that in the course of her argument she forces us to take another look at something we may have filed away in our memories as settled—always a mistake with a great writer. She certainly makes a few theatrical points along the way. But it is plain that no amount of contemporary evidence—on revenge, ghosts, or anything else—can tell us what to think about a play in which the greatest of all dramatists finally found his full voice. Hot for certainties, such inquiries ignore a great deal that is obviously in the play, which is partly about doubt and ambiguity, about the relation between fictive and existential imperatives, fictive and existential action. The play itself doubts, delays, acts; is cautious and mad, sweeps to and abstains from revenge, prevaricates and speaks true. The minute you forget that the play does all these things, and begin instead to speak of a necessary conformity—in the play, and in all its audiences—to Christian precept, or to the audience’s ethical set, you are talking about something else, not about this unique work. It shrugs you off, leaving you to talk, as lengthily as you like, about other revenge plays and the authors of handbooks of Christian morality.

MR. FRYE’S book is brief and contains within its own characteristic plot, a fantastic number of insights. The line Miss Prosser takes is dismissed in a muttered aside, when he says that Shakespeare doesn’t expect us to “take a view that coincides with whatever Shakespeare had in mind” (though even this implies too powerful a certainty concerning these expectations); Frye illustrates this from Henry V, of which it is impossible that there should be one correct view. But the recurring question, when we are dealing with what is certainly one of the really distinguished minds, is not whether he gets this elementary point right, but whether it is tolerable that the Frye insights require the Frye apparatus. He has recently replied to this very criticism, remarking that without the apparatus there would be no insights. All right, but this does not mean that we should venerate the apparatus. Indeed this remarkable book—it is a series of three lectures—seems to prove that Frye’s systems are mnemotechnical in character, a way of making fruitful connections between disparate activities of an extraordinary mind.


The system here is not closely related to those of other books, being a once-for-all Shakespeare affair, dividing the tragedies into the three categories (three lectures) of order, passion, and isolation. The categories fit where they touch, and I shall not expound them. What matters is Frye’s unhesitating attack on the heart of the problem, the human situation in time, subject to death, and open to the experience of heroic energy. While it is the small men who carry on, it is the big ones who look into the abyss; and this is tragedy. (It is also, in a way, criticism.)

FRYE IS THE MASTER of unexpected and rewarding collocation. He will show you how acute and dramatic was Shakespeare’s habitual sense of history, and show not only the history plays but also the “tragedies of order” in a new light; he will remark, with as much originality as rightness, that “the tragic vision begins with being in time, and time is always time after.” It is not only time after the great catastrophes: Troy, Actium, Richard’s England; it is time after the death of the heroic parent, as when in Hamlet “all this magnificent vision of heroic energy is poured out as a sacrifice to a dead father, to a ghost who returns [pace Miss Prosser] screaming for blood from what is supposed to be a place of purification.” Miss Prosser, you, I, may disagree with a lot of the detail, but it is there to be disagreed about; what matters is that heroic energy.

The “passion tragedies” are distinguished from the first set by powerfully lacking any “ironic” order figure; the issues are more exclusively Dionysian, and the rhetoric changes. Since Troilus and Cressida is such a tragedy, Frye has to demote Ulysses from his conventional place as an order figure. The reward is some very acute writing on this play, which contains Ulysses’s great speeches on time and being, the “two great tragic conceptions,” and the remarkable central debate in the Trojan council, on the Dionysian Will. The Dionysian night-world which formerly found its imagery in the Falstaff plays now dominates Antony and Cleopatra (a play which is here given half a dozen brilliantly original pages).

FRYE’S LAST GROUP of tragedies are the tragedies of isolation, which culminate in visions of “absurd anguish.” In these there is none of that compliance with the stock moral responses of an audience which characterizes melodrama; being authentically tragic they have no design that is intelligible “to human imagination, human emotions…human moral instincts.” Nor is their heroism subject to the qualification or correction that we might apply if the plays encouraged us to measure them by some external religion or idea of order—a process Frye regards as ultimately ironical, since irony breaks up the Dionysian, heroic energies of tragedy. Since such plays represent an anguish which is morally unintelligible, what becomes of the old question: Is tragedy compatible with a Christian view of life? Frye’s answer to this illustrates as well as anything he has ever written the originality and authenticity of his own critical imagination:

Christianity as an institutional religion, giving a mysterious sanction to society’s moral anxieties, is inconsistent with tragedy because it is simply incapable of the tragic vision. But the reality, that is, the myth, of Christianity is very different: it tells us that all we can see, out there, of the activity of God in human life comes to a focus in the absurd and anguished figure of the crucified Christ. The heroic effort which Christ made against the irony of universal death was, Christianity tells us, successful. But the earthly end of his career, so far as we can see it, was exactly the same as the end of a failure, and of all Christian doctrines, the doctrine that Christ died is the most difficult to disbelieve. The moral or melodramatic attitude can do nothing with this crucifixion vision except reverse it, seeing it as followed by a second moral judgment in which Christ is the judge and those who condemn him are his writhing victims. In this double gyre of sadomasochism there is no place for the heroic struggle against irony, which is, so to speak, the tragic enzyme. A genuinely tragic Christian attitude would see suffering as a participation in the passion of a hero who was both divine and human, and so would establish a place within Christianity for the tragic hero.

I have quoted this at length because it has so much of the best of Frye in it: an old topic will never look the same again, not because it has been reclassified, but because a strong and idiosyncratic intelligence has focused it. Frye’s Apollonian and “ironic” structures are not for me, except in so far as the Dionysian critic needs them. Like any other schemata, like philosophical or aesthetic prepared positions, they are the fictions by which criticism gets done. Within them we can look for the parenthetic, Dionysian insight. For all such structures are self-ironical; they know they cannot be of interest for long. It is clearer than ever that the preeminence of Mr. Frye depends upon the self-consciously fictive character of his schemes as well as upon their power to make him speak more than they know. Criticism is now most certainly an art, though one can say so without meaning to add to its dignity; and it is good in so far as it helps, in the manner appropriate to art, to make sense of the world. Mr. Frye’s book is, accordingly, a successful work of art. The sociological force which assisted at the creation of its genre also threw up hundreds of other books which are not. We must not mind this, any more than we object to the fact that there are dozens of worthless Elizabethan plays, or that Hamlet belongs to the same genre as The Atheist’s Tragedy, Hoffman, and Lust’s Dominion.

This Issue

October 12, 1967