BBC Radio has started a pleasant practice of filling the Christmas season with murder plays, mostly dramatised detective stories from the classic English phase of the 1920s and 1930s. This joining of the festive with the lethal provokes thought. There may well be some long line in English culture that links the Christmas visit to The Mousetrap with a point at least as far back as that splendid moment in Medieval literature when the Green Knight, his head cut off, stoops to pick up the rolling object, and rides out of Arthur’s Christmas Court with the head lifted high and turned in the hand to smile genially here and there at the gathered knights and ladies as he goes. ‘A sad tale’s best for winter.’ If there is such a tradition of smiling violence, clearly there must be a place in it for the original ‘Mousetrap’ itself, Shakespeare’s tragedy of court life. Indeed, as the work of the most formally inventive of all literary geniuses, Hamlet could even be called – particularly since its presumed Kydian predecessor is lost – the first ever detective story or civilised thriller. The drama critic James Agate, who once savagely described Donald Wolfit’s Hamlet as a private detective watching the jewels at the Claudius-Gertrude wedding feast, may have said more than he knew.
Yet to praise Hamlet as the first detective story makes sense mainly in terms of a conceit, feasible partly because ridiculous. Literary artists have worked in the genre: Poe, Wilkie Collins, Simenon, Chandler and Michael Innes among others. But the true English ‘classics’ of the 1920s and Thirties, the books we evoke in recalling a body in a locked library in a country house, hardly go in for artistry. V.S. Pritchett once wrote down the whole genre as philistine, and many are notably badly written, their characters stereotypes and their language a cliché. These particular classics of the Thirties are fictions that evade not only the public horrors they seem faintly to shadow, but more private intensities of self-contemplation: they work, in short, as ritual games and puzzles, effective by their exclusions – their interesting mix of violence and nullity the opium, perhaps, of the English rectory and manor-house during the troubled inter-war period.
With an extraordinary unanimity, good representative Introductions to Hamlet and critical essays on it speak of it as ‘the most enigmatic play in the canon’, ‘the most problematic play ever written by Shakespeare or any other playwright’: a theme that has been with us since the late 18th century or thereabouts, when the tragedy for the first time began to become ‘a mystery’, a ‘question’, most of all a ‘problem’. Some critics assume that, for all its interest, Hamlet simply fails to hold together; others more tentatively voice the difficulty of knowing ‘what the play is really about’. There can be a relief in recognising that the problematic may itself be subdued into entertainment – that ‘Whodunnit?’ is in itself a pleasurable system, with the Prince as detective, victim and villain rolled into one. Acted out in a confined world of rituals and conventions – court politics, revenge, a clock that records time always passing – the tragedy of Hamlet gives the deep if quizzical solace of all games and puzzles. Its hero an undergraduate, the dominance in the play of a great free-wheeling exercised intelligence (‘I will walke heere in the Hall ... ’tis the breathing time of day with me’) makes the work what it is, the world’s most sheerly entertaining tragedy, the cleverest, perhaps even the funniest. Dr Johnson meant this when he gave it ‘the praise of variety’, adding: ‘The pretended madness of Hamlet causes much mirth.’
Yet even Johnson had something like ‘problems’ with the play: he was too honest not to mention that ‘of the feigned madness of Hamlet there appears no adequate cause’ – for the very distinction of Hamlet is the degree to which it makes us reach out and in for ‘causes’. Even when compared with those earlier dramas of Shakespeare which have done so much to nourish it, the English Histories in particular, the tragedy is self-evidently great. But this is not just because it is entertaining: or rather, it has managed to stay so for four hundred years because the human mind, which is entertainable in a large variety of ways, is always discovering ‘a hunger in itself to be more serious’. The Christmassy detective stories of the Twenties and Thirties we are nostalgically reviving now for their unseriousness, the efficiency with which they don’t matter. Shakespeare’s tragedy matters. It means something.
Hamlet is sometimes described as the first great tragedy in Europe for two thousand years. The achievement perhaps owes something to Shakespeare’s unique mastery of ends hard not to state as opposites: the power to entertain and the power to mean. The bridging of the two in the writer’s work gives some sense of his giant reticent power of mind. To quote William Empson, on another subject: ‘The contradictions cover such a range’ – yet they are always reciprocal, in communication with each other. The meaning of Hamlet must be intrinsic with what in it holds audiences and readers. And, even if King Lear has come, at this point in a violent and in some sense paranoic culture, to be ranked as ‘the greatest’, Hamlet is still manifestly enjoyed, indeed loved, by readers and audiences, even by critics. It has always been so, ever since the extraordinary furore caused by its early performances, probably in the last year of the 16th century. The tragedy seems to have been one of the world’s great successes, producing – we can tell from the profusion of admiring, amused and envious contemporary references, quotations and parodies – a kind of matching madness in its audiences. It may be that this was the response of human beings to a literary work that went deeper, not just entertainingly wider but truthfully deeper, than any aesthetic work of their experience: deep in a way that was slightly out of their control.
There is an old joke about Hamlet being full of quotations. So it is: but perhaps so it always was, even for its first audiences. If we can associate this great drama with detective stories and thrillers trivial at their best, as a ‘sad tale ... best for winter’, the reason is that ‘Christmassy’ quality I have tried to hint at: something in the drama profoundly reminiscential, nostalgic, obscurely looking back, so that the murderous court and castle are nonetheless eerily cosy, as if we had always lived there. This familiarity may be explained at one level by the fact that the tragedy is so deep-rooted in our literature, our culture, even our schooling, and its first audiences perhaps savoured in much the same way the work’s relation with a now non-existent predecessor. But this harking-back quality is intrinsic, not merely incidental. The play’s opening scene builds a great past for the work to inhabit: even the Ghost has been before, last night and the night before that. Recurrence has its climax at the end of the scene, which features an actual mention of Christmas:
that Season ...
Where in our Saviour’s Birth is celebrated.
The play would be different without this curiously stirring legend that ‘the Bird of Dawning singeth all night long’ – it would lack some endorsement, some sense of otherwhere. Commentators don’t seem to ask why Shakespeare failed to use the more conventional association of cock-crowing with Easter. But the New Arden editor is surely right to hint that the writer invented rather than found this myth of Christmas. And if Shakespeare did so, then his reason was that Christmas was needed in his play.
Horatio answers Marcellus’s Christmas speech with:
Let us impart what we have seene to night
Unto yong Hamlet.
Coming as this does so soon after the visitation by the late King’s ghost, this designates Hamlet as the Son, the Prince, Hamlet Junior. But the phrase ‘Young Hamlet’ has a more absolute meaning. In an early allusion, the writer of an elegy for Richard Burbage after his death in 1619 names his great roles as
young Hamlett, ould Hieronymoe,
Kind Leer, the Greved More
– where Hamlet is young as Lear is kind and the Moor grieved. The phrase, which may have been regular in use, gives a valuable suggestion as to something vital in the tragedy that we have now largely lost.
Artists may work through a highly sophisticated complexity – such as Shakespeare certainly mastered in his career – to achieve a startlingly original simplicity. That simplicity comes into being with the existence of ‘Young’ Hamlet. The court that holds him is a brilliant creation reflecting back to us high-level existence of the period in all its details, both mundane and powerfully formal – the ‘world’ as Shakespeare perceived it at this height of his career. And it is this court which makes the tragedy so real, so permanently interesting, so unshakably ambiguous. But we see it through a given very individual observer, an innocence – however corruptible – locked inside its experience: Young Hamlet.
Our tragic sense is mainly inherited from two sets of ancestor, the universalising Victorians and the symbolising Modernists. Both in their antithetical ways may equally neglect simple facts about Elizabethan life and art. The only great tragedy we have derives from a materialistic culture whose philosophy is obsessed by crime and punishment. Its highbrow reading is characterised by Seneca’s closet-drama, whose dingy gang-warfare of revenge bequeaths to Hamlet itself its local claustrophobia. The two brilliantly gifted predecessors to whom Shakespeare perhaps owed most, Marlowe and Kyd, were both in their very different ways absorbed by this same mechanism of sheer human will: Marlowe through the great thugs who became his heroes and Kyd through his insight into the Machiavellian Court.
What is original to Shakespeare is his revelatory sense of the natural, of what is both fresh and classic in human feeling and human experience. In a now rather underrated comedy, The Merry Wives of Windsor, the burgher Master Ford thinks of experience as a jewel he has ‘purchased at an infinite rate’. But purchasing experience is what all Shakespeare’s characters are in the end engrossed by. And what manifests the writer’s original genius from the beginning is his unique sense of what makes experience fully human, shareable yet monolithic in its elements. In his very first two tragedies, Titus Andronicus is a father, and Romeo and Juliet are children. The long rich series of what may be formally Shakespeare’s own invention, the English History Plays, work in Henry IV, I and II to a climax that could be subtitled ‘Fathers and Sons’.
Implicit in these Histories from the first is a tragic potential: the weak Henry VI must observe the effect of his weakness, a son who has killed his father, and a father who has killed his son. Only in Hamlet does that potential fulfil and complete itself, as the play gives to history dimensions at once mythical and internal. Its soliloquising hero is the Prince, the Son, the ‘young ’un’: his remembering consciousness is a surrogate for, almost at moments a part of the past of, the play’s readers and audiences, reflecting as they watch a drama itself holding ‘a mirror up to nature’. Young Hamlet, as it were all Europe’s ‘Elder Son’, the white hope of history, grows up to find that he has grown dead: his is the body in the library not merely of Elsinore but of Western culture at large.
Victorian literary critics sometimes asked questions whose literalism makes them equally wrong-headed and useful. The practice is summarised in the mocking footnote we attach to Bradley: ‘How many children had Lady Macbeth?’ A similar topic, once much debated though now rarely reverted to, is: ‘How old, exactly, is Hamlet?’ The dimensions of the problem are these. The Prince is introduced to us as an undergraduate. But in the last phase of the tragedy, when Hamlet is returning home after long absence on the high seas, he meets in the Graveyard a Clown who tells him how old he must be, by dating his own long career as Gravedigger:
I came too’t that day that our last King Hamlet o’ercame Fortinbras ... It was that very day, that young Hamlet was borne, hee that was mad, and tent into England ... I have been sixeteene [sexton] heere, man and Boy thirty yeares.
The undergraduate is therefore 30 years old. Scholars and commentators once used to try to resolve these figures by dissolving them. But this is a mistake. The ‘thirty’ is heralded by Hamlet’s own start to the chain of figures, his evocation of his own seven-year-old self on Yorick’s shoulders – for Yorick has, we are told implacably, been dead just 23 years. Equal solidity is the rule early in the play. Shakespeare has worked at Hamlet’s establishment as an undergraduate, and the confusions of Horatio’s role may in part depend on it. Moreover, those haunting repetitions in the Prince’s speech which occur only in the Folio (‘Indeed, indeed sirs,’ ‘Wormwood, wormwood’) and which the New Arden attributes to actors’ interference may rather be Shakespeare’s additions to help characterise the undergraduate by making him do what the type still touchingly does: imitate the pedantic mannerisms of an admired tutor.
Why should Shakespeare so desire to make real Hamlet’s attachment to Wittenberg? The place had, of course, its own connotations – it was Faustus’s university, as well as one much attended then by Danes of good birth. But Wittenberg is surely no more than likely: what is necessary is making Hamlet an undergraduate. And it is necessary because it is the simplest, solidest but most economical way of showing the Prince as young. Further, while Hamlet’s age in years is not the important issue, as an undergraduate he would by no means be 30 years old. The play takes us directly and deeply at many points into a social history whose loss can cut us off from a sense of the work’s simplicities. A university education at this almost incomparably well-educated period was too important, yet also too common a factor for a dramatist to play games with, particularly given that most of Shakespeare’s literary contemporaries and a good number of his audience had been to Oxford or Cambridge or the Inns of Court, or some combination of these. If Hamlet went to the university, he was between about sixteen and about twenty-three, the seven years that allowed first for the BA, then, for those who stayed on, the MA. Aristocrats and Roman Catholics went to the university earlier; sometimes much earlier; only eccentrics like Gabriel Harvey stayed for ever.
These are the norms, and Hamlet’s intellectual youth, high in nuisance value, indicates that he adhered to these norms. Even the black of his mourning garments must have helped suggestively to support the point of his youth (attention is drawn to it): for university ‘sub-fusc’ was so much more intensive at this time, and so unavoidable by the young, that black indicated the scholar as much as the bereaved. The peculiarly social, even legal role of academic black, the part it played in holding certain youthful orders in thrall, serves as a useful key to a larger question. There are issues here not at all easy to disentangle, and both Hamlet and Elizabethan society in general positively refuse to keep them apart. I have hinted that to ask precisely how old Hamlet was has to be classed as a non-question. Many Elizabethans would have agreed in regarding it as a non-question, partly because – as Keith Thomas has pointed out in an admirable lecture, ‘Age and Authority in Early Modern England’ (1976) – many didn’t themselves know how old they were. What they did know, or resentfully wished not to know, was their place – and youth had, or resentfully wished not to have, a place in 16th-century society. This issue has for historians its special focus in terms of undergraduates. As Joan Simon remarks, ‘in the history of the universities in England the late 16th century stands out as the age when a young man’s “university days” first came to be regarded as a period for the “sowing of wild oats” ... A gentleman of Renaissance England fitted himself for his future role of governour ... after he left university.’ The university is the characteristic ante-room or waiting-place for the life of mature years: the life of power.
‘Age’ in Renaissance Europe is politically and socially adjusted. Behind that adjustment is a very thorough negation of modern systems of timing and ageing. There are, in short, figures and numbers in Shakespeare’s tragedies, and they matter, but they are not our figures and numbers. Recent studies from both social and literary historians have documented that vague sense which any reader can get from Elizabethan literature that its characters simply don’t know how old they are. The most complete and compendious of these scholarly works, John Burrow’s The Ages of Man (1986), reaches back through Medieval to Classical times to show how very differently existence was measured before our own pervasive if shallow mathematical and technological revolution. He reminds us that the Gospels record no fact in Jesus’s life between his boyhood encounter with the Doctors at 12, and the beginning of his ministry at thirty or thereabouts. This pair of dates blended with the Classical, principally Aristotelian patterning of human life into what were sometimes seven but more often three stages: the loose and variable but influential categories of ‘youth’, ‘maturity’ and ‘age’. The dates of these stages can shift considerably: their concepts cannot. This is the ‘positive’ Burrow argues. His book contains a ‘negative’ which seems to me of equal importance: ‘Most ancient and medieval authorities speak of the course of human life not as a process of continuous development but as a series of transits from one distinct stage to another ... They generally saw the transitions between these estates as datable events rather than gradual processes. Medieval narrative displays a corresponding lack of interest in the process of change from one age to another ...’
An example Burrow gives is the reminder that ‘the events of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale occupy more than a decade,’ but that ‘Palamon and Emily remain “young” throughout.’ Hamlet, too, shows signs of spanning something like a decade – though we should be unwise to time the play on these terms. But Hamlet does not ‘remain “young” throughout’, unlike any Medieval or indeed contemporary character. Shakespeare is imagining that procedure of development and continuity, at once internal and psychological yet locked up in public events, which seems simply non-existent in most earlier thinking. But to appreciate this we have to ‘set back’ our clocks, and – as when crossing some geographical date-line – allow for a very different time-system.
The vital question of development or ‘growing’ I shall return to. For the moment, I want only to establish that the notion of time most relevant here is a definition not merely in terms of human life and human procedures, but specifically political. Age is status, age is power. Or rather, maturity is status and power: for in this period (so Keith Thomas argues) age recedes to join youth among the disadvantaged: ‘In Early Modern England the prevailing ideal was gerontocratic: the young were to serve and the old were to rule ... By analogy it justified the whole social order: for the lower classes at home, like the savages abroad, were often seen as “childish” creatures, living in a state of arrested development, needing the mature rule of their superiors.’ But, Thomas points out, the 16th and 17th centuries – except when social crises like war enforced otherwise – defined ‘maturity’ so narrowly within the forty and fifty-year-olds as to create in practice an enormous class (over 90 per cent) of the ‘young’ and the ‘very old’ who were disadvantaged and dependent.
It may not be irrelevant to remember the main characters of the first three of Shakespeare’s great tragedies: Hamlet, whose youth disadvantages him; Lear, whose extreme age debilitates him; and Othello, whose Moorish distinctiveness allows the vicious to alienate him as a ‘stranger’ within his own society, so undermining his power and apparent maturity. Macbeth, like Eliot’s Gerontion, seems to have relationships with all three human estates – youth, maturity and age – and to forfeit the rewards of all three by the damage he does to his own humanity. Of the first three, Hamlet, Othello and Lear, the young man, the ‘alien’ mature man and the old man, we must surely feel that these choices of character are not accidental. Shakespeare is spanning the full range of adult experience. Yet to their disadvantage or capacity for suffering the writer adds a complicating factor: each of these heroes is royal, or has some relation to royalty. The fact that Hamlet is the Prince, in a play that carefully obscures Denmark’s politics of primogeniture, gives a clue to what Shakespeare has done with the role. Hamlet is all the double strength and weakness of youth and sonship; and this always ambiguous state of youth, held in the memory of every grown member of Shakespeare’s audience (‘you your selfe Sir, should be as old as I am, if like a Crab you could go backward’ – ‘going backward’ is at once remembering, retrogressing, and making obeisance to royalty), in its turn generates a large and wholly original tragedy of consciousness.
I am suggesting that the unusual degree of political vulnerability attending the out-of-power ‘young’ in Shakespeare’s England helped him towards the creative ambiguities locked up in his first great tragic hero. Four hundred years after Shakespeare, a writer possibly influenced by Hamlet in this, Henry James, made a fascinating near-tragedy out of the subject of the ‘Awkward Age’, the period in the lives of young Late Victorian women when they were neither in the schoolroom nor entirely out in the world, safely married – a period of cruel subservience and limitation yet also of heroic freedom to seec and to think. Because of the political conditioning of ‘youth’ in the English Renaissance, Shakespeare’s Prince himself exists at an ‘age’ or time which the dramatist has invented, a time also savagely confined yet endowed with peculiar freedoms. To grasp this time, which is the heroic medium, is perhaps to resolve into simplicity some of the elements in the drama which have become its most inordinately-examined problems. I have already mentioned Dr Johnson’s honesty in protesting that, though he found it entertaining, he saw no dramatic ‘cause’ for Hamlet’s ‘madness’. But he had perhaps forgotten what he once said (or Boswell at least makes him say) of his undergraduate youth at Oxford: ‘Ah, Sir, I was mad and violent. It was bitterness which they mistook for frolic.’ Hamlet too, and many real young people after him, might have added that, like Johnson, he ‘thought to fight his way by his literature and his wit’, and that he ‘disregarded all power and all authority’. Hamlet’s dangerous subversive humour – which is neither madness nor sanity, but a denial of the authority of the society that holds him – permanently defines a freedom and impotence of the young. The same kind of simplifying process may be used for some illumination on literature’s best-known line and indeed the whole soliloquy that follows it, ‘To be or not to be’, long-debated as to whether its subject is suicide, or revenge, or any other definite topic. There is a certain relevance in a line from a Philip Larkin poem. ‘Vers de Société’: ‘Only the young can be alone freely.’ Only the young can so detachedly if tormentedly survey the prospect of adult existence as to be lieve that they have the option ‘To be or not to be’; the adult, with ‘promises to keep’, more often has to shrug and trudge on.
Some part of this extreme originality of insight clearly came to Shakespeare from the Elizabethan political situation – from the dramatist’s ability to render private and internal what began in public life. The Jacobean Hamlet, who drove audiences mad with pleasure, amusement and alarm, was a Malcontent, a political subversive – as indeed was the play’s Hamlet, being from the first too much the ‘son’, over-fathered by too much (and too unkind) ‘kin’; and so were all those who felt that their society made of them no more than a ‘captive good attending Captain Ill’. The new political studies of Shakespeare in general take the stance of assuming that the chief of the King’s Men must have been conservative. But the writer of the Sonnets can envisage that ‘Captains’ might or must be ‘ill’; and poetry itself was in Elizabethan society specifically no more than a toy for the young. The mature man, the man of power, had his attention engaged elsewhere. Thus ‘authors’ – E.H. Miller tells us, in his valuable study of The Professional Writer in Elizabethan England – viewed themselves as prodigal sons’ Fundamentally, Miller points out, ‘Elizabethan writers accepted the premises as well as the fears and aspirations of Tudor culture. “Profite”, or utility, was an obsession with English humanists’ – who therefore speak through Claudius’s rebuke to Hamlet for the frank wastefulness, the sheer childishness, of his grief for his dead father. Indeed, formally most Tudor writers themselves spoke with him, apologising for what they tended to throw away (like Puttenham) as ‘but the studie of my yonger yeares in which vanitie raigned’. The rest of the world concurred. ‘Though they be reasonable wittie and well don yet’ (a letter of John Chamberlaine’s groans over elegiac lines by Donne when Dean of St Paul’s) ‘I could wish a man of his yeares and place to give over versifieng.’
The point here is in the ‘yeares’ and ‘place’. Even a social and cultural theory most repressive to the young could grudgingly accept the kind of stress laid in Cicero’s Pro Caelio on the necessary element of ludus to be allowed to the very young: ‘Everybody agrees in allowing youth a little fun ... Let some fun be granted to youth.’ With this near-identification of ‘youth’ with ‘a little fun’ or, in a word, ‘play’ – with which most Elizabethan educationalists and politicians would have been in nominal accord – we come directly and fully back into Shakespeare’s play. I have been hoping to suggest the very large and significant network of conditions – some contemporary, some much more permanent and lasting – ‘Young Hamlet’ brings with him into his court and his play. It is hard to imagine any of the later heroes as what the Prince is, an amateur but devout poet and playwright and even producer; and Shakespeare plainly gets a good deal of quiet ambiguous pleasure from dramatising the lordly certainty with which his brilliant young aristocrat tells the tired polite professionals how to act. This amusing detail helps to illustrate the point at which I began, the peculiar entertainingness to be found in the tragedy. From his first wild, dangerous but liberating evasions of Claudius, the ironies that are also (politically) his first ‘madness’ of youth (‘More then kin, and lesse then kinde’, ‘I am too much i’ th’Sun’), Hamlet brings into the confining world of power exercised that spaciousness of intellectual play which gives the work its largeness. It is significant, in the context, that Claudius first addresses him with a ‘But’ – ‘But now my Cosin Hamlet, and my Sonne?’ – a remark which accompanies the turn from the easily-handled Laertes with a certain casual offensive ness, and Hamlet repays the insult with muffled interest. But Hamlet’s own father, loved as he is, reacts to his son with something like the irritation of his hated brother; the quick true skittering sympathy proper to Hamlet’s age, ‘Alas poore Ghost,’ the Ghost himself crushingly repels:
Pitty me not, but lend thy serious hearing
To what I shall unfold.
Both Father-Kings identify the ‘serious’ with the purposive. From his first skirmish of wit to the final court-duel that kills him, Hamlet defines the ‘serious’ so as to contain a violent play, his dance around the two revenge-held Kings opening out in the drama those dimensions and depths which we associate in the comedies with women and Fools, in the preceding Histories with such characters as the Bastard Faulconbridge and the great ‘player’ Falstaff. But the game gives the Kings and the play itself both time and occasion to destroy him – or Hamlet time to destroy himself.
Hamlet’s involvement with ‘play’ in the first half of the action has its climax, naturally enough, in the arrival of the Players – the more usual Elizabethan word for what we now describe as ‘actors’. The Players are often discussed as one of the tragedy’s major problems, the randomness of their presence characterising all in the drama that is wayward and enigmatic. There is, of course, something in this: Hamlet’s whole world is, by accident and by principle, wayward and enigmatic. Yet there is at the same time a very marked decorum in the Players, an appropriateness in their appearance. Two important circumstances seem never to be noted. The Players are carefully introduced by Rosenerantz and Guildenstern, who make them indeed seem to ‘hold the mirror up to nature’: for their case both resembles and reverses Hamlet’s. Where his youth is trapped by Authority in a humiliating close court, they have been driven out of the city by triumphant children, who – Hamlet at once perceives the relevance- ‘Exclaim against their own succession’, verbally war gainst the stage of life they must themselves in time come to. The point is underlined immediately the adult Players arrive, for Hamlet greets them affectionately as the only-just-not-children-themselves that they are: this young face so newly bearded, that boy-girl player suddenly grown tall.
The Players represent what both Kings would no doubt see (Polonius’s enthusiasm is depressing in its patronage) as evasion, un-seriousness, irrelevance – and in one sense the Kings are right. But Hamlet’s comparable ‘marginality’ also leaves him free to look at things. And what he sees in the Players is not merely a capacity to act ‘revenge’ entertainingly. He also sees what they are or embody, beyond what they act: a struggle or conflict in human existence that is deeper and more permanent than the revenge-system which it resembles. The helpless division of the generations can lead to mutual destruction. Yet in the understanding of every observant human individual, the generations are really one and the same, mere ‘stages’ held in one by memory and sympathy – as Young Hamlet, watching the Player weep for long-dead Hecuba, becomes an audience, crossing a great gulf to join us in the present.
The Play-scene (III, iii) has become one of the tragedy’s great problems, in that it seems to tell us nothing of what Claudius sees in the play-within-the-play, and therefore tells us nothing to the point. But what the Play-scene does tell us is that ‘points’ are of more than one kind, as age and youth are two different generations. Hamlet’s delight in his play, which to him spells the truth, emerges in his succeeding near-intoxication. As readers and audiences, we are in no position to belittle his enchantment; the tragedy begins and ends with first Barnardo and last Horatio rendering all its past into the terms of hypnotic story, and while the play lasts it invents those terms by which reader and audience alike become ‘young’ again, cut off from time, exchanging active power for a freedom more detached and contemplative.
But the murderous King is hardly a natural playgoer. If he were capable of accepting this kind of truth he would be less successful at his own. He lives by a different clock: ‘That we would do, we should do when we would.’ Truth as he sees it is not what happens to his brother in some theoretical past but what happens to himself in the real present. ‘The Mouse-Trap’ shows that a king may be killed by his nephew (a term that to Elizabethans could mean a bastard or a grandson or a prodigal or a successor): possibility enough to indicate that the King’s stepson was getting to be far too much of a nuisance.
Our estate may not endure
Hazard so dangerous as doth hourely grow
Out of his bourds
– a theme precisely echoed by Polonius’s ‘Tell him his prankes have been too broad to beare with.’ ‘Bourds’ and ‘prankes’ nicely focus the court insistence on the menace of Hamlet’s youth.
It may even be Hamlet’s youth which prevents him from killing the King at prayer, for reasons he gives with a savagery partly dependent on frustration. A theoretician, a perfectionist, not yet habituated to brutality, he has accepted Revenge as a system antithetical to most of himself which must be carried out with all the more Old Testament exactitude of eye-for-eye and tooth-for-tooth. To stab on other terms would be dishonouring, a mere act of murder – and Young Hamlet is as much an aristocrat as his royal father. His rage at the indecencies and injustices of mere life carries him straight to the fury of the scene in his mother’s bedroom and to the accidental killing of Polonius. From this point of randomness at the centre of the play, clumsy life’s mirror-image of the murder recalled by the fiction of ‘The Mouse-Trap, Hamlet is done for. Claudius corrupts the young and courtly-conventional Laertes and they unite against him. The Avenger has become the object of Revenge.
Readers and audiences of Hamlet seem to have experienced remarkably little difficulty with the play until a point late in the 18th century. Then, though, as ever, much loved, the drama began to be found a ‘mystery’, an ‘enigma’, and at last a ‘problem’. To understand the importance of ‘Young Hamlet’ may be a way of grasping this interesting critical shift. For literature itself records for us what happened to the reader’s image of the tragedy in this period. During the last two decades of the 18th century, while in England Wordsworth was living through the materials of his future poem on the ‘Growth of a Poet’s Mind’, in Germany Goethe was putting together a long, loose yet oddly powerful and even spellbinding romance, which recounted the adventures of a young bourgeois who leaves home to join a troupe of wandering actors, hoping to advance what he believes to be his calling as a writer, an artist: but in the end the hero changes his mind, and goes back to real life with a more practical determination to serve humanity. Renowned through Europe for a century or more, Goethe’s story Wilhelm Meister is hardly now a current classic, though still saluted by literary historians as the first of the enormously influential literary mode which it invented: the bildungsroman, or story of the life-education of a young person, whose growing-up is specifically defined as a turning away from a self-centred ‘artistic’ existence and a committed entry into society.
The ‘action’ of Wilhelm Meister is really an intense and sustained brooding on the work which obsesses the young writer Wilhelm – Shakespeare’s Hamlet, a performance of which forms the culmination of the story. The English tragedy becomes something close to a play-within-the-play, an obscure yet suggestive paradigm of the new, organically-free, always-emergent life of Goethe’s own novel – yet it has this fertilising power despite or perhaps because of the fact that Wilhelm cannot understand the tragedy, which seems to him a work ‘full of plan’ that holds at its centre a hero ‘without a plan’ (the phrases are his own). This paradox assumes considerable significance, if we recall that this is the exact moment when the tragedy begins to become a ‘mystery’. Moreover, Goethe is hardly exceptional. After a century of English novels of which the most distinguished are plainly in the line of the bildungsroman, the use made of Hamlet by the arch-Romantic writer Goethe is strikingly paralleled in the work of the arch-Modernist Joyce. James Joyce, who knew and (with reservations) admired Wilhelm Meister and even owned a copy, includes in Ulysses, his great tragi-comic story of a ‘father’ and ‘son’ reconciled, a long Goethean library-discussion of the meaning of Hamlet and its possible provenance in Shakespeare’s own life.
The enormous, rich and various inheritance of later English literature from Shakespeare’s first great tragedy is not my subject here. But one brief point may be made about some of the very best 19th-century writing in that area. Though the post-Romantic novel is of course strongly rooted in the bildungsroman, the ‘story of life-education’, the English imagination at its best turns aside from the German form and intuitively harks back to the Shakespearean ancestor, more at home with the dark or tragic than with the optimistic, socially-orientated and progressive Romantic fiction. We ought perhaps to explain the unusual formality and aesthetic coherence of Great Expectations, for instance, in terms of the book’s being a kind of reverie on the work which actually recurs in its 31st chapter as Mr Wopsle’s Hamlet, a reverie which brought into the novel the Christmas graveyard, the dead children, the ritualistic games of ‘Beggar-my-Neighbour’ in the ‘Court’ of Satis House, the cruel Petrarchan heroine, the lawyers of Little England, and above all the terrible returner from the dead who is ‘your second father. You’re my son’ – everything in the book, in fact, which seems to say to the reader, with an unnerving dark cosiness of memory, what the last chapters say to Pip: ‘Do not thou go home, let him not go home, let us not go home ...’
My point in introducing Wilhelm Meister was to propose the dependence of that major form of the European novel, the bildungs – roman, on Shakespeare’s tragedy. Hamlet, the first great story in Europe of a young man growing up, in a sense originates the bildungsroman itself. But if Hamlet invents or inspires the form, it also denies it. Romantic culture, taking its stand on the revolutionary hope of youth’s great growing-stages, found itself forestalled by Shakespeare in more ways than one. And if the play begins at this period to become a ‘mystery’, an ‘enigma’, a ‘problem’, the reason surely is what the latter half of the tragedy is actually saying. For Young Hamlet grows up and grows dead in the same instant. ‘Growing up’, ‘becoming mature’ are in the world of Elsinore’s court concepts in themselves as doubtful, as hard to sustain, as Hamlet’s brief ownership of his father’s crown. And it is in a grave, Ophelia’s grave, that the Prince at last and for the first time identifies himself with his father, taking on his father’s royal title: ‘This is I, Hamlet the Dane.’
Hamlet returns to Elsinore after an absence that makes itself felt as marked. The play even hints by the word ‘naked’ (of course metaphorical) in Hamlet’s letter, and by his talk of his ‘sea-gown’, that he has left behind for ever his undergraduate, grieving and courtly black clothes: the image that he makes is different, closer to that of Everyman. It is symptomatic, too, that we hear no more of the Ghost. His adventures on the high seas have been subject both to chance and to moral confusion – he has been saved only by pirates, ‘thieves of mercy’, and he has substituted for himself in the net of his fate two men once friends of his. These bewilderments and defeats are a hard burden, like the dead bodies of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, joining the dead Polonius in the shadows of Hamlet’s now extensively stained past. The Prince comes home, in short, through a graveyard, where he is just in time for Ophelia’s obsequies.
The Court of Elsinore is what was once known as a ‘man’s world’, one given up to the pursuit of power in a conventional system of rivalries. There is little place for women in such a world, and the women of this tragedy are markedly shadowy and faint. Gertrude can only signify her (doubtful) fidelity by moving from the side of her (politically) strong husband to that of her (politically) weak son; Ophelia is shattered by the conflict of her father, her brother and her lover. Significantly, madness comes to this pathetic and evidently virginal young girl as the belief that she has been brutally seduced, almost raped. Her passivity is essential. And this is a point very interestingly underlined by the verbal byplay of the Clowns over the morality of her death – a passage unjustly neglected by commentators. The Gravediggers’ common sense, aspiring to legal expertise, tells them that Ophelia must have committed and been guilty of a willed action – she must have drowned herself. And yet, ‘if the water come to him – drowne him; he drownes not himselfe. Argall, hee that is not guilty of his owne death, shortens not his owne life.’ She may even have ‘drowned her selfe in her owne defence.’
In its context, and within the formal peculiarities of the whole play – shapely, logical, yet deeply undermining what we sometimes allow ourselves to hope about human freedom – this nonsense makes a curious and haunting sense. Ophelia is a shadow of Hamlet, a moon by his sun: ‘cressant’, as Laertes calls the Prince, her spirited yet defeated attempts to ‘grow’ in the presence of her officious father and aggressive brother only betray her, and condemn her court existence to an end among ‘Coronet weeds’, the ‘envious sliver’, ‘the weedy Trophies’, ‘the weeping Brooke’, ‘as one incapable of her owne distress’. But her very unfreedom transmutes real guilt in her death. Really, she ‘drowned her selfe in her owne defence’ – even, ‘the water came to her – drowned her.’ The preceding scenes of the fourth act have distinctively entwined the morally dark with the natural: Claudius’s corruption of her brother with the flowers the mad girl gives, the songs she sings, the Court’s disturbed tenderness to her. That natural darkness, together with the silences of Hamlet’s own failure, lies in the shadows of the graveyard scene as it begins, and even enters the Clown’s songs about youthful love as ‘solace’, and about ‘Age with his stealing steps’. And they convert the violence of young Ophelia’s madness and death to something quieter, more profoundly natural, like the passing of time.
These things flow together as Hamlet comes back from the sea to hold the skull of the Fool Yorick, a man who has in memory performed momentarily something like the role of Juliet’s Nurse – the age of seven is surely used here, like Juliet’s weaning and then her arrival at 14, as one of the great Elizabethan age-divides: it was the age for starting school or, in harsher social circumstances, for starting work. Hamlet is suddenly in the presence of his lost childhood. This is one of the moments at which Shakespeare, writing within an Elizabethan culture that neither cared greatly for children nor took much interest in them (attitudes shared to some extent by the writer’s own work), reveals startlingly how he has transformed a story of crime and punishment to a tragedy of experience, in which – to use Yeats’s trenchant phrase –
The crime of being born
Blackens all our lot.
When Hamlet thinks of Ophelia later in this scene, he moves into the past tense – ‘I loved Ophelia’ – with the kind of clarity and simplicity he was far from finding as her lover; his at last loving glimpse of her pastness is like that strange, silent encounter recorded earlier through Ophelia’s own memory. The two young people really only meet in their imaginations, even their fantasies. The Hamlet we see is superb, but he is not Ophelia’s
expectancie and Rose of the fair State,
The glasse of fashion and the mould of Forme
– the delicious young girl’s images are faded, stereotypical. Similarly, the earlier undergraduate was simply more at ease with members of his own sex; both adoring and frightened of women, seeing only his mother through them. In the past tense he is certain. But Hamlet can use the past tense because he now has a past tense – he has, as used to be said of women, ‘a past’. Once human beings have a past felt as dark, as irrecoverable, and as their own, their life is beginning to be over. They are in any case no longer young.
For Hamlet, ‘growing up’ is also growing dead. He has reached 30, the Gravedigger tells us – that ancient agreement as to the year of human maturity: but he will not live much longer. This arrival simultaneously both at full manhood and at death gives the play its mythical quality: it drafts out one of the great human rites of passage. But the play’s progress is uniquely realistic as well as mythical. Hamlet’s growing is given some of that haunted naturalness with which the water reaches Ophelia; merely waiting, watching, feeling, existing and always talking, Hamlet becomes something more than the busily conforming Laeries and the marching Fortinbras, who are no more than modes of behaviour. Supported as he is by the highly original and existential rhythms of the play, divergent, lingering, contradictory and accidental, Hamlet’s growing becomes a statement of being in itself, of human experience.
One of the characters in a novel by Ivy Compton-Burnett, Elders and Betters, says of the painful growing-up of the book’s children: The process of getting used to the world seems to be too much for us. The novel is one of those innumerable English fictions about which we can feel in passing that they perhaps might not have been written if Shakespeare’s tragedy had not existed. At all events, that dry and trivial phrase ‘getting used to the world’ could be used to gloss the deep and subtle power with which the very end of Hamlet is handled. A completely new character arrives, called in the Folio ‘young Osric’ – a menacing young fop, and a King’s Man in person – whose triviality is the keynote of all this last movement. Hamlet himself finds a new tone, adult and grim, light and disturbed, wearily impatient now to have things over and done with: ‘I shall winne at the odds: but thou wouldest not think how ill’s all heere about my heart: but it is no matter.’ His formal court apology to his adversary, Laertes, brilliantly sustains the same tired and impenetrably public surface, his manner like the duel that follows, honourable, empty and – because empty – lethal. Young Hamlet’s time is all but over. Its real end is soon marked by words from Horatio:
Goodnight sweet Prince,
And flights of Angels sing thee to thy rest.
Horatio’s ‘Goodnight’ needs a word of comment it never seems to get. It might almost seem too sweet, too sentimental for the play. If it doesn’t, this may be because of a shadowy irony the lines carry in themselves. Horatio, we feel, might almost be talking to a child – but perhaps he is talking to a child. Holding as they do that private sound of a nurse’s goodnight many times over delivered to well-born, well-behaved Tudor children, the lines perhaps contain all the ironies of the play’s own goodnight to Hamlet’s corrupted youth, his freedom and his life.
And this possibility is conceivably strengthened by a curious fact in Shakespeare’s own life. Biographers sometimes speculate on the relevance to the tragedy of the death, some four or five years before the play was first performed, of Shakespeare’s own son, the 11-year-old Hamnet. What doesn’t, however, seem to be noticed is that in the very year of the boy’s death Shakespeare’s father – of the writer on his behalf – successfully applied for a coat of arms, thus ambitiously attaining the status of Gentleman. It may be that these two events became one in Shakespeare’s mind: the seed from which his tragedy of a son began growing.