Elsinore’s Star Bullshitter
- Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness by Rhodri Lewis
Princeton, 365 pp, £30.00, November 2017, ISBN 978 0 691 16684 1
I saw a great performance of Hamlet this spring, at Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, in a Soviet-era theatre built on a similar brutalist scale to the National in London but with less of its self-effacing eagerness to fit in. Or rather I saw Hamlet not in the Ivan Franko Music and Drama Theatre but under it. The theatre’s ambitious artistic director, Rostislav Derzhypilsky, had discovered that beneath the public areas of the building there was a cavernous concrete basement, only partly full of heating ducts and obsolete electrical equipment, and since the theatre was pointedly built on top of a German war cemetery the opportunity to set the most famous gravediggers in world drama to work in close proximity to some real graves was clearly too good to miss. About four hundred of us were led through dark passages and down rusting stairs into this shadowy modern crypt by hooded figures carrying candles, and there among the broken floor tiles and rusting cables the principal characters in Shakespeare’s play were laid out on biers as if dead. Once we had taken our places on a precarious-looking bank of benches at one side of the space, it turned out that these figures were not as dead as the young male corpse in black, set apart from the others, might have feared or hoped. Selectively revived in turns by a sort of black mass (performed by a coven of witches evidently visiting from Dunsinane), the cast of Hamlet were compelled once more to enact the fatal events which had convened this feast in Death’s eternal cell, in a mode that combined the nakedly and convincingly traumatic with a Goth-influenced rock soundtrack and some exquisite passages of wordless dance. In a frightening, potentially endless postmodern limbo, its prince, denied the certainty even of his own mortality, had gone to sleep only to dream, and they weren’t nice dreams. The whole play, as supposedly obsolete and defunct as Old Hamlet before he appears to the sentries, had like him become an old mole in the cellarage, discontentedly returned from some undiscovered country and as fiercely capable as ever of shaking our disposition with thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls.
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 40 No. 18 · 27 September 2018
Michael Dobson is right that my book Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness doesn’t pay much attention to the long and celebrated history of Hamlet in performance (LRB, 13 September). This history is important in its own right, but as it only begins in the later 17th century, it was of little use in thinking about my chosen field of inquiry: that is, how and why Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as he did, when he did. Dobson’s insistence that my readings of particular scenes or characters are dubious because he doesn’t know of their being performed in similar fashion is a lot like declaring that the text of the Bible can’t possibly mean such and such because such and such is at odds with the doctrines of the true universal church. Deeply felt and ideologically sound, no doubt, but unlikely to advance an understanding of the biblical text. Dobson is puzzled by my statement that ‘the first sustained critical engagement with Hamlet would have to wait until 1736.’ I had in mind George Stubbes’s Some Remarks on the Tragedy of Hamlet; it’s a good text to argue with and Dobson should give it a try.
When he finally turns to the substance of my book, he walks the line between inattention and distortion. One example will suffice. He says that my Polonius is simply ‘a buffoon’. I say, apropos Polonius’s change of heart about Hamlet’s feelings for Ophelia, that his ‘self-criticism is courageous and humane … Despite his theatrical origins in the Pantalone figure of the commedia dell’arte, to say nothing of the way he is often played, Polonius was not written as a caricature of flimsily moralistic expediency.’ You decide.
Dobson now unburdens himself of the view that I am ‘driven by an animus [against Hamlet] of which [I] seem largely unaware’. Apparently, my remark that Hamlet’s vision of the cosmos ‘is a staple of ancient and medieval thought’ shows that I have unfairly ‘taken Hamlet to task’. Likewise, my concluding suggestion that Hamlet belongs to the category of the adolescent as the early moderns understood it resembles ‘the coup de grâce patronisingly delivered to a rival’. Blind though I might be to the inner workings of my mind, the only animus here belongs to the reviewer: a high priest of institutionalised Shakespeare studies casting around for anything that might help him to defend the territories he thinks of as his own.
As for Dobson’s pronouncement that I see Hamlet ‘as a play that presents a set of events and even motivations as definitive and unchanging as those of a realist novel’, I wonder whether he has read many ‘realist’ novels; not the same ones as me, certainly. We infer what we can from the action and language of the play. The rest (How exactly did Claudius kill Old Hamlet? Did Gertrude know? Did Hamlet and Ophelia ever have sex?) is a matter of interpretation. I make much of what I take to be Hamlet’s insistence that since drama is a heuristic art such interpretations can seldom, if ever, be singular or fixed. Dobson presumably skipped these pages.
Rather than ‘an entire monograph dedicated to the proposition’ that early modern humanism was ‘a confidence trick’, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness concerns itself with humanism as a means of better understanding the plight in which Hamlet and the rest of Shakespeare’s dramatis personae find themselves: ‘the design of the present work is to establish Hamlet as a play that depicts – with varying degrees of sympathy, impatience and horror – the experience of being confined to the darkened space between two moral and cultural worldviews. One dead, the other powerless to be born. One a ghost, the other as yet confined to fantasy.’ At the core of my argument is the claim that, in scripting the part of Hamlet within Hamlet, Shakespeare explores the uncomfortable truth that the failure of moral and cultural order alienates us not only from one another, but from ourselves; like everyone else in the play, he is ‘a victim, a symptom, and an agent’ of the ills that afflict his world. As current in 2018 as it was c.1600? Discuss.
Finally, I should note that on two or perhaps three occasions, I have been seated in close proximity to Dobson at the theatre. If I muttered darkly or otherwise marked myself out as beyond the pale, he was on each occasion polite enough to feign obliviousness.
Michael Dobson’s wide-ranging review has one startling lacuna – no mention of the criticism of A.C. Bradley. It was Bradley who established the trend to see the plays (Hamlet in particular) as novels, an approach mocked in Guy Boas’s poem ‘Lays of Learning’, first published in 1926:
I dreamt last night that Shakespeare’s Ghost,
Sat for a civil service post.
The English paper for that year,
Had several questions on ‘King Lear’,
Which Shakespeare answered very badly.
Because he hadn’t read his Bradley.
Vol. 40 No. 19 · 11 October 2018
Although Rhodri Lewis’s letter displays some of the same hectoring and sneering which mar Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, I gather it is at least more gracious than the draft he circulated to his Twitter followers, or the long emails with which he has favoured other reviewers of the book (Letters, 27 September). It also appears to rescind one of the passages to which I objected in my review (the one about the way Hamlet explores the proposition that humanist philosophy is a confidence trick). However, his letter has not inspired me to offer any comparable recantation.
Contrary to what Lewis says, I do not regard readings of Hamlet that haven’t been endorsed in its stage tradition as heretical, but I do find it at least suggestive that even the most attention-seeking producers of the play have yet to experiment with some of Lewis’s more impressive heuristic feats. One example I cited is his claim that Claudius is left unaffected by the talk of the poisoning in ‘The Murder of Gonzago’, interrupting the performance at that point by sheer coincidence in order to go away and attempt a solitary repentance for his fratricide. I should perhaps have added that Lewis explains the usurper’s indifference to the play-within-the-play’s near representation of his crime by arguing that any intelligent reader will have realised that since Old Hamlet was asleep when he was murdered he cannot be regarded as a reliable witness to the exact cause of his death, so that his account of having poison poured into his ear, accepted so glibly and uncritically by his son, represents either a rhetorical spicing-up of a more banal poisoning or a misguided posthumous leap to an obvious but mistaken conclusion. For Lewis the pay-off for this impressive piece of deduction (whereby Claudius can ignore an onstage poisoning via the ear because the actual poisoning used some other, unspecified orifice) is that it enables him not only to represent Hamlet’s staging of the play as futile but also to represent the prince’s claim that it has succeeded in startling his uncle into betraying his guilt as yet another piece of deluded self-congratulation. In short, even without the characteristic tone of Lewis’s prose, I do not think that one has to be suffering from the quasi-papal paranoia which Lewis attributes to me to think that Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness reads less like a book with a thesis than like a book with a grudge.
As for the thesis itself – that, once properly read within the erudite milieu of intellectual culture to which it originally belonged, Hamlet can at last stand revealed as a play that precisely anticipates the crisis through which we are ourselves living – I am still not convinced. It seems to me symptomatic that in his letter Lewis still clings to the notion that when it was first performed Hamlet was caviar to the general, rather than one of the public stage’s most successful products. How can any study of ‘how and why Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as he did, when he did’ ignore the play’s original audiences, medium and impact? What does Lewis mean, ‘the long and celebrated history of Hamlet in performance … only begins in the later 17th century’? (Which part of ‘As it hath been diverse times acted by his Highness’s servants’ does he not understand?) I quite enjoy Lewis’s eloquence about ‘the experience of being confined to the darkened space between two moral and cultural worldviews. One dead, the other powerless to be born. One a ghost, the other as yet confined to fantasy.’ I even agree that this experience may be as relevant in 2018 as it was c.1600. But I would point out that most historical periods have sooner or later been described, plausibly enough, as times during which people have stumbled blindly around in the present feeling anxiously torn between a past that hasn’t quite finished and a future that hasn’t quite started, including periods well before Shakespeare’s and most of those between his and ours. I would also point out, again, the fairly notorious fact of cultural history that there has so far been practically no period between 1600 and the present to which Hamlet has not seemed an uncannily pertinent piece of drama, even when read without Lewis’s assistance.
Lewis closes by observing that ‘on two or perhaps three occasions I have been seated in close proximity to Dobson at the theatre,’ and he is generous enough to speculate that my apparent obliviousness of his presence may have been feigned out of politeness. I am sorry to have to report that my obliviousness was merely genuine. However, now that I have read Lewis’s letter and his book and seen his image on a dust jacket, it will be possible for me to ignore him in future every bit as politely as he could wish.