The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 29.0174 Friday, 13 April 2018
Date: April 13, 2018 at 6:13:40 AM EDT
Subject: The Question of Hamlet
The Question of Hamlet
April 19, 2018 Issue
Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness
by Rhodri Lewis
Princeton University Press, 365 pp., $39.95
AGIP/Bridgeman ImagesJean-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.
[ . . . ]
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.
[ . . . ]
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.)
[ . . . ]
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.
[ . . . ]
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.