New Arden English is a specialised, hybrid language – Elizabethan in some features, modern in others, but essentially unlike any English written in any period. That doesn’t disturb most people, including critics who would never dream of quoting Donne or Jonson from modernised texts: but it does mean that only the naive will suppose that the editorial aim is to give us, as nearly as possible, what Shakespeare wrote. The author of Hamlet wrote margent at 5.2.152, but in the New Arden text this is changed without comment to margin. Both the second Quarto of Hamlet and the Folio agree on impitious at 4.5.100, but this is changed to impetuous. Here there is a note, in which Professor Jenkins explains that the ‘secondary connotations’ of impitious were sacrificed in order to make clear the ‘primary meaning’ of the word which has gone. Given the context, that primary meaning could never have been unclear; moreover, the elimination of ‘connotations’ leaves us with a weaker idea, uncomfortably close to tautology. Jenkins should have left Shakespeare’s word in the text, and added a footnote on its ‘connotations’.
But of course an editor may modernise without being insensitive, just as we may object to this instance without attacking modernisation per se. Similarly, modernised punctuation may be more or less sensitive to the movement of Shakespearean verse – despite the theoretical difficulty that punctuation modifies metrical rhythm, which is a constituent of meaning. Dover Wilson and W.W. Greg believed that the light, dramatic pointing of the second Quarto Hamlet was both Shakespearean and a valuable guide to delivery. Modern punctuation is logical and syntactic, and therefore essentially different, but this does not mean that it has to be heavy and undramatic. Here is Dover Wilson’s version of Hamlet, 1.4.84-6, in the New Cambridge edition:
Still am I called, unhand me gentlemen;
By heaven I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me!
I say, away! go on, I’ll follow thee.
And here is the New Arden version:
Still am I call’d. Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heaven I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me.
I say, away. – Go on, I’ll follow thee.
Which sounds more like a man who ‘waxes desperate’? Or consider the ludicrously leisurely effect of sandwiching ‘happily’ between two commas when the excited Hamlet is begging the Ghost to speak:
If thou art privy to thy country’s fate,
Which, happily, foreknowing may avoid ...
Conversely, in a text as heavily punctuated as the New Arden Hamlet the omission of a comma or semicolon may sweep us on when we shouldn’t be rushed, as in
Taint not thy mind nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught.
I want the pause after ‘mind’: it makes sense, whereas the pedantic framing of ‘happily’ encourages an unwanted, metrically disruptive emphasis and doesn’t make sense in human and dramatic terms. Modernisation is the lowest form of translation, but still an art.
Since every ‘Shakespearean’ is likely to recognise indebtedness to Professor Jenkins, it is a pity to have to report that this long-awaited edition of Hamlet arouses yet graver misgivings: but the other volumes in this latest batch are very welcome. Brian Morris’s edition of The Taming of the Shrew is a model of its kind, for its critical as well as textual insights. The latter are especially significant since Morris conclusively establishes that Shakespeare’s play preceded The Taming of a Shrew, and must be assigned to a date considerably earlier than the ‘late start’ Malone-Chambers chronology allowed. The notes are excellent (that on 5.2.32 is typically judicious); there are particularly good discussions of the play’s relation to Gascoigne’s Supposes and of its folklore elements. Antony Hammond’s edition of Richard III argues, no less convincingly, for an early dating of that play (1591). His introduction includes a shrewd discussion of the importance of role-playing in the play, and of the ways in which the consequent Verfremdungseffekt ‘lessens the realistic and strengthens the dialectical, ritualistic qualities of the play’. Not surprisingly, Hammond needs to devote his first 53 pages to the daunting textual problems, whereas A. R. Humphreys needs only ten pages at the end of his introduction to Much Ado about Nothing – a refreshing reminder that the Arden format is adaptable and doesn’t demand a dragon at the gate. The comedy’s sources are well discussed, and so is its prose style; I liked the way the discussion of euphuistic elements continues in the second appendix. The lengthy discussion of whether the ‘world of Messina’ is ‘essentially good-natured’ or ‘hard’ seemed hampered by the impulse to generalise (the ‘world of Messina’ is made up of different people) and by Humphreys’s determination to exonerate the ‘shy and well bred’ Claudio; but he doesn’t underestimate the significance of the tomb scene and its music; and his discussion of the stage history is (like Hammond’s) critically enlightening. Each of these three editions opens doors – whereas the commentary and notes in the New Arden Hamlet resound with the noise of door after door being irritably banged shut.
Although nobody would underrate the textual difficulties confronting the editor of Hamlet, Professor Jenkins’s worst difficulties are of another, self-imposed sort. His text is conservative: setting aside spelling and punctuation differences, I totted up 66 verbal departures from Dover Wilson’s revolutionary New Cambridge edition, and in about two-thirds of these cases Jenkins opts for the second Quarto readings where Dover Wilson – who established the authority of Q2 – had resorted for one reason or another to the Folio text. Although we are all taught to be circumspect about saying such things, few of the differences are critically significant – that is, likely to change our understanding of Hamlet. Some of the notes are excellent (e.g. 1.3.130, 2.2.73, 3.1.121), some are sensible and persuasive (e.g. 1.1.96, 1.1.124); in other instances, even where Jenkins is arguing flat out against Dover Wilson (3.3.79, 4.7.166, 5.2.350) it is far from certain he has the stronger case.
Any critic of Hamlet, and especially an editor of a critical edition which offers to appraise different responses to the problems this play represents, must be prepared to address two leading questions. First, ‘why has this play so compelled the Western imagination, through four centuries?’ Second, ‘how is it that this play could have given rise to, and at least seemed submissive to, so many different and entirely incompatible interpretations?’ If he is to learn from what he regards as the mistakes of predecessors, the critic requires his own share of negative capability; nor can there be any convincing ‘explanation’ of the play’s difficulties which does not also suggest, explicitly or implicitly, why a satisfying explanation has been so long in coming. Here the New Arden Hamlet is depressingly reactionary and indeed anti-critical. Professor Jenkins’s dislike of ‘the sophisticated modern theatre-goer’ and of ‘clever critics’ twitches through his commentary like a nervous tic. So, for example, in sneering at the sophisticated theatre-goer who is watching the King, not the dumb-show, Jenkins explains that this is the ‘unholy legacy of criticism’ – and forgets that the purpose of the Mousetrap is to provoke a response from the King: we have heard Hamlet explaining this, telling Horatio to give Claudius ‘heedful note’, and promising to ‘rivet’ his own eyes to the King’s face. But Jenkins assures us that the play ‘counts on’ the spectator ‘not to ask’ how the King reacts to the dumb-show, and even claims this as an example of Shakespeare’s wonderful ‘tact’. Indeed the whole problem is, ‘strictly speaking, no problem’: we have only to stop thinking about it and stop reading damnably clever critics. True, there is a teeny bit of a problem for a producer and actor: in conceding as much, Jenkins advises that the actor should ‘remain inscrutable’. But whatever is a problem for the producer or actor is necessarily a problem for the sensitive reader: it never occurs to Jenkins that a good reader will be staging the play in his mind, and that is most revealing.
Revealing, but not surprising, since Jenkins has no grasp on the fundamental principle that the printed text of a drama is at best an imperfect record of the dramatist’s conception. Where the text submits to different readings we must make choices, testing different possibilities against our provisional understanding of the play as a whole, while recognising how that overall view depends on a host of related choices. In Shakespearean texts accidental ambiguities arise when significant stage directions are missing: we can only try to infer how Claudius reacts to the dumb-show, or why, in the final scene of Measure for Measure, Isabella maintains her deafening silence when her supposedly dead brother reappears. But in Jenkins’s vocabulary ‘infer’ is a dirty word, which he reserves to characterise, and dismiss, other critics’ arguments, and he cannot see that he is only offering a counter-inference of his own when he meets Greg’s arguments about the dumb-show with pronouncements on what the play ‘obviously expects’ or ‘counts on’; and because he is disinclined to scramble down the declivities of a presumed critical error and all too inclined to accord his own inferences the status of facts, Jenkins keeps supposing he has settled questions which have exercised more scrupulous minds. Three relatively self-contained examples illustrate this refusal to recognise and distinguish between different kinds of critical problem.
1. In his note on 3.4.42-8 Jenkins fancies he has settled the question whether Gertrude was adulterous: ‘This passage is impossible to reconcile with the contention that the play does not present the Queen as having been unfaithful during King Hamlet’s life.’ But the fact that Hamlet echoes the Ghost’s charge of adultery does not establish the truth of the charge; nor does the Queen’s baffled, indignant reply. 2. In his note on 1.2.8 (and subsequently 1.2.157 and 3.4.14) Jenkins fancies he has settled the vexed issue of incest: ‘The incestuous nature of the marriage is made clear from the first.’ But what is not made clear is why Claudius’s reference to ‘our sometime sister’ is so casually matter-of-fact; or why the Queen is still asking, ‘What have I done?’ after Hamlet has addressed her as ‘your husband’s brother’s wife’; or why the decent Horatio expresses surprise that the second marriage took place so soon without seeming shocked that it took place at all. Within the play, only Hamlet and the Ghost are concerned with the charge of incest, and what we make of that depends on what we make of them. Citing Elizabethan law, The Book of Common Prayer and Leviticus only explains how we have a problem: it won’t resolve the problem unless we also suppose on a priori grounds that an automatic response of disgust and condemnation must follow any revelation of technical incest. The relevant laws in modern Scotland are still based on Leviticus, and admit no distinction between incest with a blood relative and with a relative by marriage: but I think most Scots would recognise the distinction and think it important. 3. In his note on Hamlet’s reference to death as the realm from which ‘no traveller returns’ (3.1.80), Jenkins wearily warns that ‘some clever critics, remembering the Ghost, charge Shakespeare with inconsistency.’ (Actually, I think Chateaubriand first remarked on this problem.) The point is, we are then assured, that Shakespeare allows Hamlet to say this ‘because it is what would occur to any well-read Renaissance man meditating upon death’. But Hamlet is not in the situation of any well-read Renaissance man, for the simple reason that he has seen the Ghost. In each of these cases the confident offer to resolve a problem betrays an inability to see what the problem is – a form of ‘aspect blindness’.
Until I went through this edition I had supposed that it was generally agreed that we could no longer share Bradley’s view of the Ghost as a nobly suffering apparition of great moral majesty, a representative of the hidden ultimate power of divine justice. Scholars like Dover Wilson and, more recently, Eleanor Prosser have shown how, from the first, Shakespeare raises doubts about the Ghost’s provenance. Indeed, the question is not so much whether the Ghost is divine or infernal – ‘wicked or charitable’, ‘a Spirit of health, or Goblin damn’d’ – for if those are the only alternatives there is much more evidence of his infernal origin. Rather, the question is whether we conclude very quickly that the Ghost is infernal, or whether Shakespeare manages to keep us in doubt as well as Hamlet. Protestantism had of course dispensed with Purgatory, and in Hamlet and Revenge Prosser collects an impressive body of evidence to establish that Elizabethans were ‘bombarded’ with arguments that souls could not return, since they were justified by faith alone and proceeded directly to Heaven or the other place. But such evidence is counter-productive: the prolonged ‘bombardment’ would not have seemed necessary to the State Ecclesiastical unless popular ideas were more incorrigibly jumbled with scraps of folklore and Catholicism than some tidy-minded scholars care to suspect. Moreover, if we do suppose that the Ghost is quickly identified as an instrument of darkness sent to ensnare Hamlet, then the whole scope and interest of the play is reduced. The sceptical pessimism which invades and corrodes Hamlet’s mind, and which he expresses in poetry no age has been willing to forget, would be ‘placed’ as sinful before it could take hold of our imagination. We would be left with a period piece which shows how immoderate grief is every bit as sinful as Claudius suggests, and how melancholy is a weapon taken into Satan’s hand.
But if Prosser fails to allow how the play involves us in Hamlet’s own doubt, so that we feel suspicious but uncertain, Jenkins will not take Hamlet’s doubts as seriously as Hamlet. It is true that Hamlet recognises from the first that the Ghost may be a ‘Goblin damn’d’; that the Ghost’s injunctions are contrary to the Scriptures; that the Ghost starts like a guilty thing when the cock crows. But Jenkins is not shaken even by the cellarage dialogue, when the Ghost behaves like a stage devil and Hamlet addresses it as one: ‘whether Hamlet believes, or affects to believe that he is talking to a devil is perhaps too rational a question.’ So much for the ‘Sovereignty of Reason’. Jenkins even quotes with approval R. H. West’s flippant remark that ‘we simply do not need to know the ghost’s denomination.’ We must not ‘infer’, like ‘clever critics’, that ‘Hamlet himself at the present moment has doubts of the Ghost’s story,’ since ‘such a view would conflict with his assertion of the Ghost’s honesty.’ The obvious objection is that this ‘assertion’ conflicts with others made by Hamlet himself, for example in 2.2.594-5 – on which Jenkins offers a most pertinent note, while refusing to assimilate any of its implications into his critical commentary. A closed mind is a wonderfully impervious thing, and Jenkins flings off further difficulties as they occur. Why, for example, does the Ghost reappear in Act Three and reproach Hamlet for not getting on with things, when Hamlet has just mounted the Mousetrap and killed a man? Jenkins explains that the Ghost appears because Hamlet is ‘dull’: once again, part of the problem is produced as a solution to the problem. No wonder Jenkins gets so cross with ‘clever critics’. The Ghost is King Hamlet (it says it is); King Hamlet was a ‘model of human perfection’ (doesn’t Hamlet say so?) and ‘a man of heroic valour’, ‘the noblest of heroic fathers’, ‘the godlike man’, ‘man in his highest capacity’, the ‘godlike king’, etc, etc. ‘The command to revenge, coming from father to son and not one for nature to resist, is enforced by a power beyond nature in which it would seem that heaven and hell conjoin.’ Nay, Jenkins, I know not ‘seem’.
We are entitled to expect that a scholarly edition will set forth the problems, whether or not it can also resolve them. Jenkins won’t see them, and of course he can’t see why the Mousetrap is difficult, since he can’t or won’t see why the Ghost is difficult. If my remarks seem harsh, I hope the reader will at least consider the extraordinarily high-handed and dismissive way in which Jenkins brushes aside unwanted complications. His treatment of Greg is a case in point. In ‘Hamlet’s Hallucination’ Greg argued that since Claudius was not disturbed by Hamlet’s appalling behaviour, this shows that he could not have committed the murder in the manner depicted. Jenkins: ‘Were it not for the controversy it provoked, one would hardly have thought this ingenious deduction in need of serious confutation. The play obviously expects us to accept that the King’s conscience is caught “upon the talk of poisoning” (1.283) and accordingly to join with Hamlet in taking “the ghost’s word” (1.280).’ If Greg’s ‘notorious’ argument needs ‘serious confutation’, this will not do; we might as well suppose we have confuted a philosopher who lectures on the Unreality of Time by pointing out that he started his lecture punctually. Whether Greg needs serious confutation is established, not by the existence of controversy, but by examining the text. What is obvious to Jenkins (‘The play obviously expects ...’) was not obvious to Greg, and is not obvious in the text. I have no wish to appear as Greg’s champion, but Jenkins cannot see the real problems Greg was addressing; and that point is well worth pursuing, since it illuminates more general problems concerning the status of a dramatic text and the nature of critical inference.
Hamlet’s reasons for devising the Mousetrap are clearly stated, both at the end of Act Two and in his brief exchange with Horatio before the ‘play’:
Observe my Unkle: If his occulted guilt
Do not it selfe unkennell in one speech,
It is a damned Ghost that we have seene:
And my Imaginations are as foule
As Vulcan’s stithy.
Hamlet recognises the need to establish two things: the Ghost’s provenance and Claudius’s guilt. In allowing that his imaginations may be foul he is also admitting (to his credit) how much he wants to believe the Ghost. Yet our only substantial authority for supposing that the Mousetrap achieves either of these objectives is that Hamlet himself behaves as if it had been successful. The King’s guilt is not unkenneled in any ‘speech’ until we hear him (although Hamlet doesn’t hear him) at prayer. The most worrying consideration is that Claudius would have every reason to terminate the play even if he were as innocent as a lamb. Hamlet’s attempts to wound and humiliate the Queen are grossly provocative, and the play’s subject – the killing of a king by his nephew (not his brother) – is all the more provocative when accompanied by the outrageous interpolations of Claudius’s nephew. ‘To let his madnesse range’ is, as Claudius observes in the next scene, clearly risky; it is quite naturally assumed that Hamlet is threatening his royal uncle.
We will soon know that Claudius is a murderer, but how could Hamlet know this? He has no reason for feeling confirmed in his suspicion, unless we infer that the King must have behaved like a guilty man in the Mousetrap scene. The inference creates at least as many difficulties as it resolves. The Court gives no sign of suspecting that Claudius killed the King, nor will it do to take that as the measure of the Court’s corruption. For if the King had betrayed his guilt, the diffident, obsequious Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would never dare to babble to Claudius about the cess of Majesty, as they do in the next scene. They clearly think Hamlet is the potential King-killer; Polonius thinks the same, to judge from his diplomatic reference to Hamlet’s ‘pranks’; and so does Gertrude. She was in a position to observe Claudius, yet her reproach to Hamlet at the beginning of 3.4 sounds genuine, and if it is not genuine we must think her a very nasty piece of work indeed. (Oddly, some critics still suppose that she summons Hamlet because of the Mousetrap – Andrew Gurr’s recent book speaks of her being finally stirred to action: but she is simply proceeding with the plan hatched by Claudius and Polonius before the Mousetrap.) Even the loyal Horatio equivocates when Hamlet tackles him: ‘half a share’ shuffles in embarrassment.
It would be astonishing if Shakespeare had included so many suggestions that the Mousetrap aborts, while making its success depend on some precarious stage business; and it’s hard to see how the business could be convincingly managed (my worries about this scene began in the theatre) since the audience and Hamlet must see something which is not evident to the others on stage. I do not say that this could not be managed through clever blocking and skilfully contrived stage business: the question is whether the text makes plain that it should be done. Professor Jenkins has no time for the ‘sophisticated theatregoer’; although he admits no doubt about what the play ‘obviously expects’, he does not ask how Claudius could reveal his guilt in a convincingly unequivocal way. There could be no revealing exchange of glances (although countless productions offer this), since Claudius would then know that Hamlet suspects him. That would make his soliloquy puzzling, since in his prayer he speaks as if God alone knows of his crime: he refers to shuffling successfully in this world, and of retaining ‘th’ offence’. Nor do Shakespearean characters lie in soliloquies, even though they may, like Macbeth, deceive themselves. We might notice too that there is no textual support for the common assumption (made by Bradley, Morris Weitz, W.W. Robson and others) that Claudius plans to have Hamlet killed in England before he has learned of Polonius’s murder.
For Jenkins, the controversy on why Claudius fails to react to the dumb-show is as misplaced as Bradley’s question about Hamlet’s whereabouts when his father died. Both worries should be seen as examples of the ‘documentary fallacy’: we should not expect people in a play ‘to behave as they would in the real world’. But the two cases are essentially dissimilar, since Claudius is on stage and we want to know how he behaves there. We show respect for Shakespeare’s text by recognising where its deficiencies give rise to different kinds of difficulty. But Jenkins is logically as well as critically confused; what motivates his curious discussion of the so-called ‘fallacy’ is a disabling dislike of critical problems. So, he tells us, what is wrong with all ‘theories’ about the King’s reaction ‘is that they make additions to the text’: ‘They all apply to imaginary events the kind of rational inference appropriate only in the real world. In a world of fiction what we do not know because the fiction does not tell us cannot be presumed to exist.’
That remark is appallingly ingenuous, and representative of the repressive critical or anti-critical attitudes which inform this edition. I hardly need add that Jenkins doesn’t view his own account of the King’s presumed reaction as a ‘theory’ or ‘inference’. Nor does he see that this is another case where critical problems coincide with editorial problems, since the printed text is an imperfect record of the dramatist’s conception.
So far as the Mousetrap is concerned, the interpretative problem becomes that of explaining why, if Claudius has not revealed his guilt, Hamlet thinks he has. Hamlet himself has suggested one possible answer: his imaginations are indeed, as he feared, as foul as Vulcan’s stithy. Here we may remember how Hamlet greeted the Ghost’s story with the exclamation ‘O my Propheticke soule’, and how violently he oscillates between recognising that firmer evidence is required and believing what he evidently wants to believe. And of course such a reading is consonant with the view that Hamlet’s once noble mind is now tainted, and ‘o’erthrown’: he recognises that he must test the Ghost and Claudius, but cannot see when the test fails because he does not wish to see this. That his foul imaginings are also correct is neither here nor there, save that it points to a crucial logical gap in all of Hamlet’s worries about the Ghost. Although the New Arden note on 2.2.580 refuses to admit the difficulty in local or general terms, there is no moment at which Hamlet can logically claim to be prompted to his revenge by both heaven and hell. But then Hamlet never allows for the grim third possibility, that the Ghost is hellish and tells the truth. In the soliloquy that ends Act Two and elsewhere, Hamlet assumes that the Ghost is either a devil or not a devil and that if the ghost is a devil he must be lying. Never having seen Macbeth, Hamlet never reckons with the possibility that he may be abused and damned by the ‘pleasing shape’ of the truth.
The Ghost gives Hamlet two orders, not one. He must kill Claudius: this is, at best, the Old Testament ethic of revenge and barbaric retribution. But Hamlet must also leave the other offender ‘to heaven,/And to those Thornes that in her bosome lodge’: this invokes the New Testament ethic, with its emphasis on inner repentance and its absolute prohibition of revenge. This dissonance is more grating in Hamlet than it would be in any crudely external play (like the Ur-Hamlet): precisely because Hamlet is so concerned with ultimate issues and sanctions, and because the Shakespearean conception that is grafted onto the old play is so markedly inward, it is hard to suppose that we are importing any sense of moral difficulty.
But let us approach the difficulty from a different direction: the idea that even the best of men will go to the flames if he has the bad luck to die unaneled and unanointed sometimes appears to count for a great deal in Hamlet, and sometimes for little or nothing. It functions as a premise in the scene where Hamlet confronts the Ghost, unless we think the Ghost infernal. If we accept the Ghost’s word we must accept his account of why he is suffering so abominably – however barbaric we find the Snakes and Ladders theology. The barbarism of the premise is accentuated by the inwardness of Claudius’s prayer – since one of the play’s many twists is that the pricks and stings of conscience torment Claudius, not Gertrude. The premise reappears when Hamlet gloats that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will not even be allowed ‘shriving-time’: that is making the system work for you, I suppose, but elsewhere Hamlet is more confused. In the rogue and peasant slave soliloquy he declares that he is prompted to his revenge ‘by heaven’ as well as hell while also reflecting that the Ghost may be a devil. In the most famous of all soliloquies he forgets the premise in saying that ‘no traveller returns’; alternatively, he has decided that he dare not trust the Ghost. At the end of the play the premise is ignored when Horatio imagines flights of angels singing Hamlet to his rest – unless we are to think these lines ironically placed, since Hamlet and all the other unaneled corpses are now bound for the agonies the Ghost so horrifyingly described after saying that he couldn’t reveal anything about them.
That Hamlet is inconsistent need not suggest that the play is incoherent: he is a dramatic character, and his incoherence may be dramatically intelligible. However disturbed, tainted or ‘o’erthrown’ Hamlet’s mind is, it is also very obviously still subtle and powerful. But this is a further difficulty: despite his expressed doubts about the Ghost, his controversial delays, self-reproaches and metaphysical explosions, Hamlet never asks the obvious and fundamental questions about the supernatural order and the ethics of revenge. Nor can he be permitted to do so, since the play employs supernatural interventions as plot mechanisms. Hamlet does not consider the ethical contradictions in the Ghost’s speech, or his own remarkably privileged position so far as speculations about the next world are concerned. Hence the curiously Pirandellian tension, the feeling that Hamlet never belongs in the play he inhabits but seems, as Victor Hugo put it, like a somnambulist. He addresses the Western imagination with extraordinary power, but never addresses his own situation with as much intellectual acuity as we might confidently expect from a Banquo.
If this is true, it is not surprising that Hamlet’s critics feel, quite rightly, that the play engages profound questions about the meaning of life, but then find themselves running into blind alleys. Shakespeare doubtless worked miracles with the old play, but was stuck with the supernatural mechanism. The mechanism is as moral as a fruit machine, but Shakespeare couldn’t skirt that difficulty by making his own play less inward – since the play would be too barbaric to accommodate his prince. On this view (which more nearly resembles J.M. Robertson’s than Greg’s), Hamlet is a miraculous graft which could not take – since it could only have taken if Shakespeare had been content to write an inferior play. Here, too, the New Arden Hamlet is unhelpful: although it provides a long discussion of the possible textual relations between the Hamlet quartos and the lost Ur-Hamlet, it does not consider the extent to which the difficulties presented by Shakespeare’s play were inherited.
But that is not surprising, since Jenkins cannot see the difficulties. He has, however, an ‘original interpretation’ (as the inside cover tells us) of ‘Hamlet’s dual role as both agent and victim of revenge’: this must obviously be mentioned, and will allow me to conclude with a question about what we mean when we speak of ‘understanding’ a Shakespeare play. In Jenkins’s view, we should not be troubled when the Mousetrap presents the murder of a king by his nephew: ‘the likeness of The Murder of Gonzago to the murder of King Hamlet is already sufficiently established, and upon the image of the murder can now be superimposed an image of its revenge, with the single figure of Lucianus active in a dual role. The Court, who are ignorant of the brother’s murder, will see Lucianus as the nephew only and hence can interpret the Gonzago play as a threat by Hamlet against the King. For us of course it must depict simultaneously crime and nemesis.’ Not clear? Well, what is being ‘sharply focused in the person of Lucianus’ is the ‘identity of killer and avenger’, which has already ‘been symbolised in Pyrrhus’ and ‘which the tragic plot will exhibit in Hamlet himself’. ‘This is of the most profound significance, without a grasp of which the play cannot be understood.’ Some detective hopping-about reveals that Jenkins is serious in making this large claim on our gratitude and that of succeeding ages. For in different parts of the edition we learn that the ‘profound significance’ of this crucial theory has only been anticipated by a few critics, and then inadequately, since they were not able to see how its ‘moral and structural significance’ is the ‘essential foundation on which the play is built’. It follows that, after centuries of perplexity and delight, there is at last one reader who can ‘understand’ the play.
Because we grow used to working through this kind of academic product, we may never pause to consider what kind of ‘understanding’ it desiderates. Evidently, ‘understanding’ involves dusting down Timothy Bright, smacking Wilson Knight, recycling the immortal contributions of Frank A. Marshall, Swynfer Jervis, M.C. Linthicum and other Arden worthies, without any distracting glances at Goethe, Turgenev or Pasternak. It does not involve asking what it is in Hamlet that has enthralled the Western imagination. But what else is worth understanding, if not that?
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