Barbara Everett on Hamlet

‘Hamlet’ is perhaps the most popular literary work ever put down on paper. This does not necessarily make it any easier to see clearly, or to come to terms with intellectually. This is especially so in a period when scholars say that there is no Hamlet, clear or not: there are only the incompatible early editions and the abundance of theatre productions ever since. I think myself that Hamlet exists; that Shakespeare’s first major tragedy has through all its forms a character so definite as to constitute something real and singular. Certainly, an event hit the English stage for the first time around 1600 that not only revolutionised revenge drama but made a difference to a powerful amount that has been written or staged since.

It’s an interesting fact that theatre people don’t speak about the ‘play’ they’re involved with, but the ‘show’: ‘Have you seen the show yet?’ Hamlet could seriously be said to be the greatest show on earth, a must for failing theatres and rising actors alike. In the 19th century in particular, its ghost, its court, its play scene and its duel scene, its mad adorable heroine and above all its sad soliloquising black-clad hero all took on iconic status, as symbols of theatre or even of the arts themselves, incessantly quoted from, happily alluded to (there is a character in Dickens mentioned as looking like Hamlet’s aunt, and this must have made sense to most of his readers).

We may therefore conclude that this is our culture’s leading night out: even in an electronic age, one of the best shows going. But it’s worth recalling that the word ‘show’ took on precisely this usage only late in the 19th century. When Shakespeare says of the universe, in Sonnet 15, ‘This huge stage presenteth naught but shows,’ he demonstrates the slight hint of adverse judgment in the word among Elizabethans – and we still call something ‘showy’. In the light of the intellectual Puritanism or Francophile classicism which gained new purchase not much more than forty years after Shakespeare’s death, minority but important voices declare that they don’t care for shows. In 1661 John Evelyn noted that ‘the old plays’ like Hamlet were starting ‘to disgust this refined age’, and a decade later Dryden felt that the play smelled ‘a little too strongly of the buskin’ – the archaic theatrical boot.

These are English Restoration views, patronising but less brutal than Voltaire’s furious repetition, a century later, of the words ‘vulgar’ and ‘barbarous’. Garrick was still arousing gasps of awe as the prince, and Samuel Johnson loved the play. But neoclassical principles generally demand clear form and order, and a self-evident morality, and these are choices that Hamlet has always been able to frustrate or violate. This restricted sense of the civilised re-emerged last century with Modernism, which looked for abstraction in works of art, emphasising openness to interpretation. The young T.S. Eliot called Hamlet ‘almost certainly an artistic failure’ on these grounds. And during the last sixty or seventy years, many literary academics, asked which was Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy, would have answered King Lear.

Modernism played its part in the formation of academic studies in literature. It’s unsurprising, then, that a note of reservation still sounds among professionals who would state the warmest admiration for the play. This takes the form of the extraordinary recurrence of the word ‘problem’. Perhaps the best single introduction to Hamlet is the long essay that prefaces Harold Jenkins’s Arden edition. Jenkins opens his critical discussion with a sub-section entitled ‘Problems’, which begins: ‘Few, I imagine, would challenge the assertion that’ – here he quotes from Harry Levin – ‘“Hamlet is the most problematic play ever written by Shakespeare or any other playwright.”’ And a similarly recommendable though much briefer introduction, Frank Kermode’s to his Riverside edition, confines itself to an elegant review of the play’s problems, chronological, textual and critical.

Kermode calls Hamlet ‘the first great tragedy Europe had produced for two thousand years’, but he declines the risky advance into explanation: ‘How Shakespeare came to write it is, of course, a mystery on which it is useless to speculate.’ His refusal to speculate may here be too implacable; there are a good number of relevant things that may be speculated about. For instance, there is a distance between Hamlet and the two very early tragedies, Titus Andronicus and Romeo and Juliet, that is measurable and not mysterious. The first is a hugely promising melodrama, the second a lyrical myth of romantic pathos, but neither has achieved what might be anachronistically called its own symbolism. An anti-Modernist short story by Mary McCarthy tells of a creative-writing teacher in an American university who is informed happily by a pupil, as he finishes his fiction, ‘I’m just putting the symbols in’; there are moments in the two early tragedies (the arrows shot at the gods in Titus, the golden statues in Romeo) when we feel that the symbols are being put in.

Hamlet is something else again. It appears to contain and emanate symbolic power without ever having had its symbols put in. One explanation of this is the tension between ‘show’ and ‘problem’. The play is both, though individuals may respond to one more than the other: on the one side, the fiction, the whole rich and entertaining and sometimes apparently random tissue of events and roles; on the other, the prince who ‘enters reading’ and who must make sense of what he reads, as we must make sense of him. Shakespeare brings together the public world and the private psyche, the play and the poem, as never before. It is only with Hamlet that the playing time extends to that more-than-four-hours range common to almost all later Shakespearean play-texts, and that gets called, in Hamlet’s case, the ‘Eternity Version’. The sheer size and scale involve the willing reader like an enfolding new world, but have forced most theatres ever since to abbreviate: hence the severe textual problems that start with the three earliest versions of the play.

The court that is ‘show’ and the prince who is ‘problem’ are exceedingly original creations, and seem to have emerged at a long distance from their sources; but they did have sources. A revenge play now lost, though presumably of the same name, since it featured Hamlet, dated from a decade or more earlier; it seems to have taken its events from a French prose narrative of the 1570s, which itself translated and adapted a Norse legend embedded in Saxo Grammaticus’s 13th-century Danish History. The original Norse legend is very brutal and very bloody. The further source or impulse of Elizabethan revenge drama in general can be traced back earlier still, to the Latin closet-dramas of Seneca (so called because they were probably never acted), which in their turn perpetuated the ferocious noble myths of Greek tragedy; Seneca’s plays being translated into English in Shakespeare’s time as the Ten Tragedies.

Over the last fifty and more years, both revenge drama and revenge itself have been taken very seriously as a key to Hamlet. This may be a mistake. If the importance of Shakespeare’s play lies in its difference from the convention, and the difference it makes to it, then the chances are that the genre itself can tell us little. The permeation of revenge through the drama of the time, and indeed through Shakespeare’s own work, may be explained in terms of the usefulness, to the dramatic structure, of revenge at its simplest and most mechanistic. A dog-eat-dog pattern of violent reaction will give a play, if nothing else, a plot – a push-me-pull-you dualism of basic form. And this remains true even when the revenge code is treated as the more complex macho worship of honour in the aristocratic world. Beyond this, Shakespeare appears to be interested only in what revenge does to human beings. The revenge passion in those who seek to protect the loved and vulnerable – Titus with his ruined daughter beside him, Beatrice telling her honourable lover to ‘Kill Claudio,’ Kent’s beating of Oswald because Lear has been humiliated – endangers souls who are deeply sympathetic though unwise. Those whose rage is neurotic or vicious (Iago hating the Moor for failing to promote him, Cloten planning to rape Imogen for being already married) have little to be said for them.

Time spent wondering whether Hamlet is right or wrong in his role of elective revenger is probably time wasted. Dramaturgically and morally, revenge is a brutally simple reactive automatism that will give little fruit to scrutiny. But it is possible that some of the contextual conditions of revenge fiction interested Shakespeare a great deal. Seneca’s plays are on the whole terrible, violence frozen at the bloodiest point of crisis and transposed into elaborate, witty and static rhetoric. Yet these savage sketches had more effect on the 16th century than their Greek pseudo-sources could have done. Not many Elizabethans knew Greek drama at all well, and the plays were perhaps too archaic, and too grand in themselves, to be directly borrowed from or used. But Seneca’s apothegmatic wit was transportable; and, for a reader of the right genius, his plays’ naked structure of revenge had a point through its very sterility: it suggested the torturing issue of action in a world grown wholly corrupt.

Both Hamlet and Lear quote or adapt lines from Seneca’s Thyestes. Yet this kind of direct borrowing may be less important than something more indirect and diffuse: the sense of Seneca standing behind Hamlet’s world. Seneca remains a question to classicists, because his behaviour and principles reflected his always ambiguous position. Probably even more respected during the 16th century than his X-certificate plays were the philosophical essays he wrote from a Stoic or quietist standpoint, preaching abstemiousness, vegetarianism, the treatment of slaves as brothers, and an abhorrence of the cruelties of the arena; and yet he was himself a millionaire with great power in his hands. Until Nero at last enforced his suicide, he was the emperor’s tutor and ghost-writer, and, during Nero’s youth, half-ran the empire for him. He ran it well, though his situation was always self-contradictory. Indeed, it was this imperilled quality in his wisdom and probity that made him a figure who haunted later political periods that had some analogy to his own: the sick imbalance between the bloodthirsty action of his plays and the withdrawn and mild-minded decencies of his essays. The philosopher cannot be dissociated from political conditions at their most corrupt.

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