Barbara Everett on ‘Hamlet’

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.

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