Delay, the reasons for delay, the question as to what kind of behaviour is going on in the business – indeed, the industry – of delaying, is worth some time. For one kind of modern mind, there’s no problem: delay is simply the tedious exterior of the lazy sod, the sod beneath the skin. Delaying isn’t an activity, with hidden meanings that may be of interest: here, it’s a gap in nature, or a sign of complete inactivity. This seems an increasingly unattractive line to take, usually emanating from people unable to grasp that some kinds of ‘work’ are pathological, and that a life that cannot work at a number of things besides ‘work’ is not always a good life. There are certainly new kinds of manager around, unable to stop ‘working’ (or face the weekend void), who see delay as a nuisance, and who seem quite happy to confer a universe of delay, and unemployment, on others, partly as a form of self-protection. Here the possibility – as with so many so-called neuroses – that delay is a struggle for health, or at the very least a way of stalling disease, is not permitted. You’re late. You’re out.
Hamlet, no less, sees into another area where the uses of delay have even more sinister pay-offs: ‘the law’s delay’. In his justly celebrated Arden Shakespeare edition of the play, published in 1982, Harold Jenkins looks at the vast literature that has already appeared on the subject of ‘delay’ in Hamlet, and reminds the reader that many critics have found it an exhausted subject that should be put aside. Ruth Nevo, for example, in 1972 dismissed the question as ‘misconceived’. Jenkins isn’t so dismissive, but he does say one very odd thing, which I imagine others have pointed out: in the second footnote on page 137, he says that the word delay is ‘never used by or of Hamlet in the play’. This must be wrong, since Hamlet certainly does use it, seeing how it pays the professions, content in their monopoly, to keep you waiting. The sentence to be passed, or the damages to be awarded, go into a permanent suspension, and, as in Bleak House, entire lives can pass as Time attempts to utter those three words: ‘the law’s delay’ becomes part of the menace of bureaucratic life, linking Hamlet to Kafka, the latter being someone who would certainly have acknowledged the connection through Dickens. Delay is what the Americans would call a ‘double-header’, even a ‘double-whammy’: you delay, you’re for it; they delay, you’re for it. Hamlet, the play, affiliates delay with death, not as dying, but as what comes up next, and one can see what terrors Shakespeare was speaking of.
Delaying has rightly received the attention of psychoanalysis, with interesting results. Often discussed as ‘deferred action’ (nachträglichkeit), Freud posits deferral as a stratagem by which the self can incorporate, under later and altered conditions, traumatic events from the past that could not be borne at the time they might be said to have happened. Within the non-linear, fractured, uneven development of the self, traumas are repressed, and then readmitted into the later life of a ‘maturer self’, now able to deal with them. The catch, of course – or, for the inimitable Jacques Lacan, the joke – is that the version that the later self will allow into consciousness cannot be anything other than a translation, an alteration, even a new story. The history of maturation depends upon deferred action, upon the deferred rather than divided self, and yet the glorious moment when the repressed material emerges is also a moment in fiction, bringing both psychical effectiveness and, wonderfully, altered meaning. Delaying, in this deeply humane account, is inevitable, and of enormous benefit. What has to be jettisoned, à la Hume, is too much anxiety about being a consistently transparent continuous self, since health itself, wrapped in the Fabergé egg of delay, depends upon healing fictions. As with ‘lying fallow’, or ‘being lazy’, the psychoanalytic view of delay, not for the first time (if you see what I mean), reminds one of the great capacity for human insight that curious discipline still offers. And one of the reasons this needs stressing is that this whole possibility, the possibility that one might wake up, having dreamt the past into the future, is forbidden and rendered impossible for Hamlet, who instead lives in a prison of sexual fruitlessness, disgust and stasis. In Ophelia’s words: ‘By Cock, they are to blame.’
For Hamlet, ‘this loneliest of heroes’ as Philip Edwards calls him in his new edition, there is no evolutionary potential within life, since the appearance of the ghost, whoever he may be, condemns him to death. Delay is where Hamlet lives, if that is not too strong a word, since if his self is to have an existence at all, if the play is to exist, he must delay, only if long enough to mourn his own life. Of course, he will do more than that, and it is part of Martin Dodsworth’s task in Hamlet Closely Observed to examine the code of conduct, and the place of honour, in the life of the Prince and others, to bring out what might be called the under-examined social history of the play. But Hamlet, one way or another, has entered some part of the lives – perhaps even the unconscious – of almost everyone who has come upon him, and part of the reason, surely, is that he inhabits the cul-de-sac of terror where the bad dream is the real thing. In his delay, in his agony, we see him.
As with so much Shakespearean criticism, and all three authors here are alive to this, there are real questions as to why one adds to the mountain range of existing commentary. The play’s the thing, so why not leave it? There are, of course, good reasons for pressing on – the need to give a history of various earlier editions, for example, or a desire to contextualise and place. One feels, especially with Dodsworth’s Hamlet Closely Observed, that the fruitfulness of delaying is not unknown, since this is a book that has clearly taken years of thought and work. It is fastidious, slightly cliquey (in its references to other commentators), and meticulous. It seeks to avoid the rhetoric that may be said to come from over-identification with Hamlet himself, by looking instead at anthropology, in its best sense: how social roles can be played, and then not played, both to damage others and yet to complete a tragic action. Which brings me, unfortunately, to the reasons for my own delay in writing this review. Try as I have, I cannot respond to this book, cannot pretend that I found it instructive, lively or moving, and therefore cannot delay further in saying the depressed and depressing thing: that Hamlet is so closely observed, by a critic of admirable qualities, that he disappears.
He has chosen to write in certain tones, not schoolmasterly, but always tight, that make a novel view of the play, a view that manages to be genuinely disinterested, into something dull and unanswerable. The conundrum is that a responsible and formally coherent account, much influenced by authorities as diverse as William Empson and Julian Pitt-Rivers, seems not to be powerful. I hope this can be said without being taken as part of some (Tom) Pauline conspiracy of Irish bull merchants.
It is not at first sight a ‘political’ problem, since one of the things that Dodsworth manages to do, very well, is to bring class and class questions back into Hamlet criticism. The play’s leading characters inhabit – or contradict, or are finally enmeshed in – a tacky finale of bungled, semi-honourable resolutions that display what has happened to honour as the play proceeded. As Dodsworth writes of the fight at the end, ‘an almost-King, an almost-reconciliation and an almost-duel naturally conspire together to produce “accidental judgments, casual slaughters”.’ The trouble is, as with some 19th-century reactions to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, reading Hamlet Closely Observed makes you feel that the sheer amount of considered thought that has gone into the sentences, and indeed into the careful structure of the overall argument, so distances the issues at hand that they become remote and abstract. One does not have to endorse the rhetoric of some of the ‘new, alternative’ Shakespearean criticism to feel that critics like Dodsworth are in danger of making nit-picking into an ideology, neutralising living questions, and flattening them into the equivalent of the White Paper. And, yes, I admit that I want my Hamlet critics to have at least some sense of sex and violence, some power to evoke what Empson, in his 1953 essay, called Hamlet’s ‘crazy magical behaviour’. Various doubts creep in about the account of the play on offer, the list being something like: soft on Polonius, soft on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, hard on the Prince, not actually scared by the play.
With customary care, Dodsworth asks us to see Hamlet as unhappy in his own body, as well as doomed to unhappiness of spirit, thereby caught up in a dualism, a mind-body divorce, that is painful, even diseased. (He sometimes points out that others force their arguments when discussing the play but his own contribution is so finely honed that one longs for a bit of force to get it into the mind’s eye.) On the question of Hamlet’s ‘transformation’ and his ‘antic disposition’, Dodsworth dismisses various present-day accounts and has already warned us that (regrettably) he will not be arguing, with or against, earlier views – Johnson, say, or Coleridge. But while seeing it as too simple to think of Hamlet as merely melancholic, or of assumed madness acting as a hiding-place, Dodsworth ends up with such a mistily complicated account of ‘over-determination of motive’ that he could himself be called out on the charge of failing to deliver. Apart from the difficulty of over-determination as a concept (is he being Freudian, or alluding to Eliot on excess?), these passages add to the feeling that Dodsworth adds unnecessary mysteriousness to what is already known to be a mystery. And the application of the dualistic model to Hamlet leads to sentences which seem close to nonsense. For example: ‘Was it Hamlet who killed Polonius, or was it merely his body acting in dissociation from his mind?’ The point is not that Dodsworth does not have a coherent argument. When read more than once, the structure of his case reveals itself more clearly: connections between bodies, dead bodies and bodies soon to die; subtle routes by which the practice of honourable conduct is lost and then, degenerate but still noble, is represented and embodied; a Goffmanesque series of insights into aristocratic role and role distance.
The absence of life, the sense of a formal, flat account that misses a vital dimension, might seem beside the point. Why should a view of the play that examines minutiae (echoes, single words and, rather splendidly, sighs) be penalised for absence of vivacity? Because this absence, this mandarin distance from events, has the effect of robbing Hamlet of its power, and indeed its political power. The crisis of identity that the play enacts – ‘Who’s there?’ is, after all, its first line – must be part of any living idea of the play. But it has left Dodsworth intact: there is no sense of his having entered the psychological space, the dark world of deferred action, of alienation, of distrust, that is Hamlet.
At its simplest, its most Bradleyan and, for certain critics like Wilson Knight, its most repulsive, this idea of ‘entry’ is close to a protective love for a heroic prince: we love him, that old crowd of nasty hit-persons are out to get him, we want him to be all right. A rather more elegant version was one developed by the philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in a brilliant article in the Monist in 1977. MacIntyre sees Hamlet as reflecting ‘the crisis of the self as a crisis in the tradition which has formed the self’; Hamlet dwells in an unintelligible world and an unintelligible self, close to breakdown, a breakdown not far from that to be described by Hume in the first book of his Treatise. Thus Hamlet is truthful to this crisis: a crisis of identity that is also a warning, a call to suspicion, a politics of complete doubt. Any attempt, under such conditions, to describe the world, in some even, matter-of-fact way, is an absurdity, since the play is the contradiction of such a project. As MacIntyre writes, ‘there is perhaps a possible world in which “empiricism” would have become the name of a mental illness, while “paranoia” would be the name of a well-accredited theory of knowledge.’ Hamlet’s father’s ghost takes him into the dark, and he takes us there. To describe this in purely formal terms, to produce criticism that does not share in an epistemological breakdown, is to de-politicise the play. There is no chance, as it were, that Dodsworth might have given an inadequate performance, precisely because he has not made his entry.
These are not light matters. In ways that literary critics scandalously neglect, a whole body of literature on Hamlet exists that recognises this power, this edge, and quite unashamedly sets out to counteract it. I mean the work on the play done by (mostly 19th-century) psychiatry. For almost all eminent psychiatrists, Hamlet is the dream of the perfect – albeit menacing – patient, with a serious problem that can be cracked. Part of the banality of this literature is its naive admission that this fellow is a damned nuisance, but can now be properly accounted for, and dealt with. It is clearly part of the ideal of Victorian psychiatry to put Hamlet in an asylum, and it would be instructive if Shakespearean critics could explain why this might be the case, since such an explanation cannot be managed simply by giving an account of the play. Something else is going on, and we groan at those who do not acknowledge Hamlet’s edge.
Which brings us to Romanticism, or more particularly, to the question of identification with Shakespearean character, and the insights that refusal to identify brings, and the strengths that come from some admission of identification. It is, as Philip Edwards reminds us, the Romantics, especially Coleridge, who initiate the identification with Hamlet, and it was Hazlitt who wrote in 1817 that ‘it is we who are Hamlet.’ Edwards’s account of the history of critical response is welcome, allowing us to envy the simplicity of many famous feelings on the matter (Doctor Johnson: dislike, both of Hamlet and the play as a whole; Goethe: love for Hamlet, burdened and powerless). Modern writers have to deal with T.S. Eliot, who famously warned against identifying critics who, through a weakness of creative power, ‘often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realisation’. Part of R.M. Frye’s purpose, in his superbly researched Renaissance Hamlet, is to protect against the danger of spurious, and vicarious, identifications. It is part of the merit of Frye’s book that he shows how close the Elizabethan view of Hamlet – as an ‘admirable protagonist’, a ‘restorer of order’ – might be to that of a political Romantic.
However alert we must be to a Whig reading of the play, the important fact in the Romantic view of Hamlet is not that of selfish or narcissistic identification but a claim for something more disinterested. More Keatsian, one might say, and Keatsian because the greatest formulation of this position is made by Hazlitt, in some senses Keats’s teacher and certainly the missing political critic in the gap between Coleridge and Arnold. We must remember what Hazlitt says, in saying that is we (not I, not Prufrock) who are Hamlet:
Hamlet is a name; his speeches and sayings but the idle coinage of the poet’s brain. What then, are they not real? They are as real as our own thoughts. Their reality is in the reader’s mind. It is we who are Hamlet. This play has a prophetic truth, which is above that of history. Whoever has become thoughtful and melancholy through his own mishaps or those of others; whoever has borne about with him the clouded brow of reflection, and thought himself ‘too much i’ th’ sun’; whoever has seen the golden lamp of day dimmed by envious mists rising in his own breast, and could find in the world before him only a dull blank with nothing left remarkable in it; whoever has known ‘the pangs of despised love, the insolence of office, or the spurns which patient merit of the unworthy takes’; he who has felt his mind sink within him, and sadness cling to his heart like a malady, who has had his hopes blighted and his youth staggered by the apparitions of strange things; who cannot be well at ease, while he sees evil hovering near him like a spectre; whose powers of action have been eaten up by thought, he to whom the universe seems infinite, and himself nothing; and who goes to a play as his best resource to shove off, to a second remove, the evils of life by a mock representation of them – this is the true Hamlet.
This truthfulness is at odds with Eliot in his cold-fish-casting-a-human-shadow manner, with some kinds of severe historical contextualisms, and with Dodsworth. Indeed, so unmoved is Dodsworth, so determinedly exegetical and so eerily calm, that at 3.2.46-64, where Hamlet speaks to Horatio of wearing him in his ‘heart’s core’, Dodsworth says that Horatio is not even being addressed, that Hamlet is speaking to himself. Dodsworth thinks that Hamlet ‘takes note of Horatio briefly’. We think that Hamlet is alone with his fate, and that he loves Horatio and that Horatio loves him: ‘Oh my dear lord’. It is not part of a Romantic reaction to collapse identification, a sense of common experience, into vicarious replication. It is not a part of the Hazlittian position either to disown or to over-identify. Instead, a bold (and simple) claim for the universality of the play is made that does not wish to be curtailed by slick identifications; Hazlitt was surely offended by just this in Coleridge’s first-person-singular ‘I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so.’
As Edwards, and Harold Jenkins before him, make clear, part of the source of Hamlet’s curious structure comes from a confusion of original versions and later revisions, not unlike the creative confusions that come from bootlegging modern musical performers. Edwards and Jenkins are the guardians of the text, but they are also like thriller writers, steering the reader through the history of the (imagined) manuscript, the ‘foul papers’, the first and second quarto, the first folio. Edwards is clear on matters that have much engaged Hamlet exegetes – ‘fishmonger’ and ‘nunnery’ are defended from any slangy sexualisation; he also makes clear his agreement with the view that part of the fearfulness of the Ghost’s story is that Gertrude and Claudius had committed adultery before the poisoning in the orchard. At a very reasonable sum, all readers will find this a worthwhile edition, alive as it is to the dramatic history of the drama, how the play changed at the hands of the players, and how one may dream of an ideal version, somewhere between Q2 and F, that will never appear.
The timelessness of Hamlet, however rooted within context, comes from its describing a fixed fate, a fate that delay both temporarily halts – Hamlet is, as it were, permanently temporary – and then lets go. The extent to which it has entered the reckonings of the human mind allows any reaction to it to be of interest, although some will seem to count for more, on the grounds of being alive. Alive, for example, in parodic violence, as with Richard Curtis’s splendid ‘Skinhead Hamlet’ in the recent Faber Book of Parodies:
Fortinbras: What the fuck’s going on here?
Horatio: A fucking mess, that’s for sure.
Fortinbras: No kidding. I see Hamlet’s fucked.
Fortinbras: Fucking shame. Fucking good bloke.
Horatio: Too fucking right.
Fortinbras: Fuck this for a lark then. Let’s fuck off.
Alive, too, as in Nietzsche’s powerful statement in The Birth of Tragedy:
Dionysiac man might be said to resemble Hamlet; both have looked into the true nature of things; they have understood and are now loth to act. They realise that no action of theirs can work any change in the eternal condition of things, and they regard the imputation as ludicrous or debasing that they should set right the time which is now out of joint. Understanding kills action, for in order to act we require the veil of illusion; such is Hamlet’s doctrine, not to be confounded with the cheap wisdom of John-a-Dreams, who through too much reflection, as it were a surplus of possibilities, never arrives at action.
It may seem nasty, or pointless, or perhaps romantically wayward, to place these items alongside the rest of what has been said. Hamlet Closely Observed is not an aggressive book, but it means business, and should be taken on those terms. The claims it makes for its own attentiveness are modest, and the task is carried through. Perversely, the result is disembodiment, assisted by a wan anthropological method that is novel and aware of its own structure and implications, while achieving a deeply anti-dramatic end. Romanticism, as an alternative response, risks the dangers of exaggeration, of mere fancy, of appropriation to current histrionics. But if this risk is taken, if the fear of false identification is acknowledged as a danger both in the play and in criticism, then criticism itself becomes dramatic, and an old promise of Romantic idealism – that things can come to life – is kept.
Hamlet is a unique achievement in art that we may come to feel is behind us, is exhausted, and then: ‘But soft, behold, lo where it comes again!’
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.