Elsinore’s Star Bullshitter

Michael Dobson

  • 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.

I think the point at which I stopped trying to count the number of reasons health and safety officers would have used to prevent this show ever happening in Britain, stopped wondering about asbestos dust and fire escape routes and biohazards and surrendered wholly to Derzhypilsky’s production, came not when Oleksiy Hnatkovsky’s Hamlet first broke out into soliloquy, but when he first broke into sarcastic black comedy. In English the dialogue, near the end of I.ii, runs thus:

My lord, I came to see your father’s funeral.

I prithee do not mock me, fellow-student;
I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.

Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.

Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.

This is always a key moment when the play is performed, usually the first laugh in the show, but a very dark and complicated one. It provides our first inkling that the character emerging as the protagonist of a play so loosely structured around him that it was once called a ‘one-man stand-up tragedy routine’ (by Samuel West, a fine Hamlet for the RSC in 2001) might also have given Yorick a run for his money as an incisive jester. I can’t think of anything in English drama before Shakespeare comparable to this quip, and it certainly isn’t the kind of remark Oedipus was ever allowed to make: previous tragic characters may have spoken of funerals, but they didn’t mention the cost of the catering or implicitly liken their remarried mothers to a meat dish inappropriately served twice. In Ivano-Frankivsk, as elsewhere when this play is done well, Hamlet’s line achieved a sudden uncanny sense that we were in the presence of a consciousness at once as ordinary and as extraordinary as our own, someone whose self-lacerating wit might license him to comment not only on his situation but on ours.

It is a measure of how overwhelmingly popular and influential this play was from the outset that it is now so hard to imagine a world before Hamlet, or to reconstruct exactly what the play meant when it first appeared, the daunting task undertaken by Rhodri Lewis in Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness. At some point around 1600, when the play was still new, the Cambridge scholar Gabriel Harvey was already noting (in a blank space at the end of his copy of Chaucer) that Shakespeare’s Lucrece ‘and his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark have it in them, to please the wiser sort’. While the claim on the title page of the first quarto edition of 1603 that Hamlet had been acted ‘in the two universities of Cambridge and Oxford’ is difficult to reconcile with the ban on professional theatrical performances then officially in force at both, this play was certainly well known in Oxford too by the time of Shakespeare’s death in 1616. Some time around 1614 the Christ Church academic Thomas Goffe wrote for student performance an English version of the Oresteia that is largely composed of near quotations from Hamlet. Its Orestes, the ur-detector of his father’s murder by his mother’s second husband, even carries the bones of the slain Agamemnon around with him so that he can apostrophise them from time to time in lines that invite their hearers to tick off their echoes of what Hamlet says in the graveyard. Just in case anyone misses the resemblances, Agamemnon’s ghost turns up, making equally derivative demands to be remembered and avenged.

Donnish games aside, the printing of a much longer second quarto of Hamlet in 1604, which with its faithful promise of a text ‘enlarged to almost as much again as it was’, imagines buyers of the first edition keen enough to want this one too, attests to the play’s wider currency. Three further quartos would follow before the Civil War. Meanwhile Hamlet’s impact on Shakespeare’s immediate colleagues in the entertainment business is demonstrated by a range of imitations and borrowings made by other dramatists, among them John Marston, Thomas Middleton (most spectacularly in The Revenger’s Tragedy, 1606) and John Fletcher. In his Jew’s Tragedy, written in the 1620s, William Heminges even includes the line ‘To be, or not to be, I, there’s the doubt.’ Perhaps he thought that as the son of one of the compilers of the 1623 Shakespeare folio, which prints a more streamlined and performance-friendly revised text of Hamlet (shorter than the one in the second quarto by a whole soliloquy and more, but including some new passages too), he had a hereditary right to recycle its contents.

Both the first and second quartos assert that as well as featuring in the London repertory of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men and visiting the universities, Hamlet had also been performed ‘elsewhere’, and its elsewheres soon included not only the English provinces (the 1605 pamphlet Ratsey’s Ghost depicts the titular highwayman giving Hamlet-like advice to a troupe of touring actors, including a recommendation that their star player should go to London and try to rival Richard Burbage’s performance as Hamlet) but other countries. There are records of a performance by ‘Englische Comoedien’ in Dresden as early as 1626, possibly of the practicably short first quarto text that lies behind the oldest surviving translated version of any Shakespeare play, the anonymous Der Bestrafte Brudermord (eventually published in 1781 from a now lost manuscript of 1710, though it probably dates from nearly a century earlier). Back home, it was one of the Shakespeare plays that remained in the King’s Men’s active repertory long after the playwright’s death, as we know both from later memoirs about the passing on of the title role from Burbage to Joseph Taylor and from records of performances in the 1630s for Charles I’s court. Even after London’s playhouses were closed by the outbreak of Civil War in 1642, an anonymous adaptor produced a truncated version suitable for surreptitious performance at fairs and taverns called The Grave-Makers, which provided the dialogue between Hamlet and the gravediggers and thus at least gave the big emblematic moment with the skull. Revived soon after the Restoration (and much reprinted in further quarto editions of its current acting text from 1676 onwards), Hamlet became a showcase for Thomas Betterton, who played the title role for more than forty years, and it has remained one for every Anglophone stage actor who wishes to be taken seriously ever since then.

As Heminges’s plagiarism suggests, Hamlet’s most famous speech enjoyed a partly independent classic status from very early in the play’s life. Arguably ‘To be, or not to be’ was already begging to be an anthology piece when the play was first composed, since, because it makes nothing happen in the plot, it can be moved or removed at will and indeed is placed at different points in the action in the first two quarto texts. (Hence the feasibility of Lyndsey Turner’s ploy, abandoned during the previews of her 2015 production, of having Benedict Cumberbatch deliver it as a freestanding prologue, getting what has become a hyper-canonical hurdle out of the way at the show’s outset.) Samuel Pepys’s diary, as well as citing the passage when contemplating mortality and the plague, records that he spent a whole afternoon reciting ‘To be or not to be’ to himself in 1664, and in 1680 he commissioned a recitative setting of the speech from Cesare Morelli, an expatriate Italian composer. Edward Bysshe later anthologised it in his Art of English Poetry (1702), Anthony Ashley-Cooper praised it in his Characteristicks (1710), John Hughes discussed it in the Spectator (1712), Voltaire cited it in his Lettres philosophiques (1733), and in 1749 Robert Dodsley recommended memorising it as an exercise in mental self-training. In Derzhypilsky’s production, having been performed beautifully in its familiar Q2 position in the third act, the soliloquy got an encore at the end of Act V when Hamlet, still not finally or definitively dead despite having wishfully sighed that the rest was silence, found himself alive once more, and recited the speech in dismay as an epilogue to the show.


I have dwelt on the play’s early reception history and its continuing centrality to world drama because it is symptomatic of Lewis’s approach that his own account of Hamlet and its original significances is highly selective in its treatment of both. Lewis discusses Gabriel Harvey, a don, and Ashley-Cooper, an aristocrat and philosopher, but the fact that Hamlet was an instant classic of the popular stage and has by now been a staple of theatrical repertoires from London to the Ukraine and well beyond for centuries are things of which Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness seems determinedly unaware. This is a book about Harvey’s Hamlet rather than Burbage’s, a book that sees Hamlet as a text largely concerned with the contents of university libraries and in its turn largely confined to them. Only the wiser sort need apply. According to the account provided in Lewis’s introduction and reiterated in his conclusion, the play was a misunderstood flop when it first appeared, and ‘the first sustained critical engagement with Hamlet would have to wait until 1736.’ Since Lewis doesn’t specify what this was, I am not sure what constitutes ‘sustained critical engagement’ here, or which if any of Shakespeare’s other plays could be said to have received it before 1736. In any case, Hamlet, we are told, only ‘attained critical favour’ in the 18th century, when first Ashley-Cooper and then the German Romantics mistakenly decided that it was all about Hamlet.

For Lewis the main thing the play has been doing since then is occasioning a good deal of misguided and perplexed academic literary criticism. He aptly quotes Stephen Booth’s objection to those commentators who have indulged ‘a not wholly explicable fancy that in Hamlet we behold the frustrated and inarticulate Shakespeare furiously wagging his tail in an effort to tell us something’, but his own study takes its place in just that tradition of treating Hamlet as a hitherto unsolved riddle. While he explicitly admires Margreta de Grazia’s ‘Hamlet’ without Hamlet (2007), with its salutary insistence that the play is not only about a proto-modern individual but also about feudal property rights, the assertiveness with which Lewis offers his own formidable knowledge of 16th-century humanist doctrine as the answer to what he represents as the play’s previously misidentified problems sometimes makes his own study more reminiscent of J. Dover Wilson’s What Happens in ‘Hamlet’? (1935). Although Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness contains various disclaimers to the effect that Lewis really does understand that Hamlet is a play (or rather a piece of ‘poetic drama’, which for him usually seems to mean closet drama, something to be read, not acted), like Dover Wilson before him he sees it as a play that presents a set of events and even motivations as definitive and unchanging as those of a realist novel. As many have remarked, in Hamlet Shakespeare deliberately withholds certain key pieces of information from his audience (such as the nature of Gertrude’s relationship with Claudius in Old Hamlet’s lifetime), obliging us to listen intently to the way his characters interact from one moment to the next instead of fitting their behaviour into a single conveniently explicated schema (a trick much imitated later by the former Shakespearean actor Harold Pinter). Lewis’s reading of Hamlet nonetheless includes confident if literal-minded deductions about how much time has intervened between different scenes and events (Hamlet isn’t as well informed as he wants to sound about the current fortunes of ‘the tragedians of the city’, for instance, because ‘he has been away from Wittenberg for at least the duration of the summer vacation’), and he makes equally confident declarations about its characters’ natures and intentions. Ophelia, for instance, displays ‘pious coquetry’ in the nunnery scene; Polonius is a buffoon; and when Gertrude responds to Hamlet’s question as to how she is enjoying ‘The Murder of Gonzago’, just after Gonzago’s wife has vowed that if her husband dies she will never remarry, with the words ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks,’ she is ‘nonplussed, and shows no sign of recognising the likeness of herself in the Player Queen’. I have never yet seen a Gertrude this stupid in performance; more often her reply is played as a defiant rebuke. Similarly, while I have indeed seen a few piously coquettish Ophelias and a few monotonously buffoonish Poloniuses, these readings do not begin to exhaust the possibilities of their characters’ lines.

Once one has accepted the limitations of Lewis’s perspective, however, it has much to offer, particularly in his first two chapters, ‘Hamlet, Humanism, and Performing the Self’ and ‘Hamlet, Hunting, and the Nature of Things’. It isn’t news that the account of the self and its relation to a public persona dramatised in Hamlet doesn’t correspond to the model recommended in 16th-century schoolbooks, but as a thorough description of Prince Hamlet’s imagined Wittenberg education and what it has and hasn’t equipped him to think and to do the chapter is valuable and informative. Similarly, it isn’t really a revelation that the Elsinore depicted in Hamlet is the place of a relentless struggle for power better described in terms of the hunt than of Providence. The idea that Shakespeare’s tragedies depict lamentable but temporary blips in an otherwise divinely sanctioned hierarchical order is one that was fading even before Jonathan Dollimore published Radical Tragedy (1984), one of few major relevant studies absent from Lewis’s bibliography. But Lewis is at full erudite cry as he pursues the traces of hunting imagery through every level of the play’s text. Even the nickname Hamlet gives to ‘The Murder of Gonzago’, ‘The Mousetrap’, turns out to come under the heading of bloodsports, and Lewis reproduces an illustration from a splendid 1590 treatise to prove it, Leonard Mascall’s A Booke of Engines and Traps to Take Polcats, Buzardes, Rattes, Mice, and all other Kindes of Vermine and Beasts Whatsoever; Most Profitable for all Warriners, and such as Delight in this kinde of Sport and Pastime. For good measure, he also reproduces a 1580 print of hunters getting close to a herd of deer by hiding behind a cow, even though he admits that Shakespeare refers only to stalking horses rather than stalking cows and only in plays other than Hamlet.

The gratuitous provision of the stalking cow is about the last generous gesture Lewis’s book makes. Perhaps the most striking thing about Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness is the discrepancy between the argument it professes to be making and the emotional colouring of its prose. Intellectually, this is an impressive book, learned and ingenious, but tonally it is completely out of control. While some of his apparent tone-deafness to particular effects and responses in the play can be put down to a bracingly counter-intuitive determination to look for something different for a change, Lewis’s tone-deafness to the dominant affect of his own writing seems to be native. Despite objecting in his introduction that most previous studies of Hamlet have been overly preoccupied with Hamlet at the expense of his contexts and his fellow characters, he devotes his last three chapters – two-thirds of his book – to extended, well-nigh obsessive discussions of Hamlet’s personal shortcomings, driven by an animus of which he seems largely unaware.

Chapter 3, ‘Hamlet as Historian’, consists of a relentlessly elaborate attempt to demonstrate that even though Hamlet talks a lot about memory and especially about remembering his father, he doesn’t really remember anything properly, or at least not in the way he says he does. The next chapter, ‘Hamlet as Poet’, expounds at length on what an incompetent and pretentious poet, playwright and literary critic Hamlet is. For Lewis, for example, his enthusiasm over the Player’s Marlovian recitation about the death of Priam should simply tell audiences that he isn’t a very good judge of drama (Hamlet has clearly failed to notice that this necessarily stagey piece of dramatic-poetry-within-a-dramatic-poem isn’t written in the same dazzlingly fluent style as his own sections of the script). More ingeniously, Lewis also claims that Hamlet is wholly unsuccessful in his attempt to use ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ as a means of provoking Claudius into behaviour that will confirm his guilt. Hamlet betrays in everything he says about acting, moreover, that he has ‘precious little idea of how drama might be said to function,’ that he is an intellectual snob, and that he is ‘uninterested in either the form or content of the plays he admires. Uninterested in the way they have been written … Uninterested in staging, casting, or the dynamics of an acting company. Uninterested in the opinions of audience members who do not agree with him.’

By the time one reaches Chapter 5, ‘Hamlet as Philosopher’, Lewis has been asserting for a hundred pages that Hamlet only speaks to make himself feel better and to evade the things he claims to be talking about – Lewis’s index, under ‘Hamlet’, points to four separate passages on ‘inwardness of (purported)’ – and so it won’t shock many readers to find that he has little time for those passages in which Hamlet appears to be thinking. Here the hapless Hamlet is sometimes taken to task for faithfully reproducing the teachings of 16th-century universities, as in Lewis’s account of a favourite passage of Withnail’s:

Telling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that he has ‘lost all [his] mirth’, Hamlet opines that ‘this goodly frame the earth seems to me a sterile promontory, this most excellent canopy the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire, why it appeareth nothing to me but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.’ For all the vividness – indeed the enargeia – with which it is expressed, this vision of the cosmos is a staple of ancient and medieval thought.

What was Lewis hoping for, the sudden production of a telescope from under his inky cloak and a quick remapping of the solar system? But Hamlet is equally held up before the class for disapprobation when he doesn’t follow the teachings of the universities: ‘By the standards of the academic context within which Hamlet situates his fourth soliloquy, “to be or not to be” cannot serve as a question at all. Shakespeare’s student prince begins his most famous oration with a solecism.’ This is, however, only the sort of thing to be expected from this protagonist, given that ‘for all Claudius’s dishonesty – and for all Polonius’s self-serving lucubration – the young Prince Hamlet is the inhabitant of Elsinore most thoroughly mired in bullshit, about himself and about the world around him.’


Lewis’s identification of Hamlet as Elsinore’s star bullshitter isn’t completely outside the mainstream of Hamlet criticism and interpretation – it shares much with Charles Marowitz’s radical cut-up version of the play (1969) and with Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine (1977), though without espousing the Marxism which both saw as the antidote to Hamlet’s self-indulgently bourgeois introspection, and without their adoption of alternative means for making the spectacle of his perceived inadequacy interesting. Derzhypilsky’s brilliant interpretation in Ivano-Frankivsk didn’t regard its maverick prince as liable to be sung to his rest by flights of angels either. But an entire monograph dedicated to the proposition that ‘Shakespeare uses Hamlet and Hamlet to explore the notion that humanist philosophy is a confidence trick; that, like humanist historiography and poetics, it is bullshit,’ a proposition that wilfully screens out almost everything which makes the play engaging and funny and shocking and affecting and capable of outlasting the frail structures of belief which for Lewis are its sole subject matter, turns out to be a very wearing thing. Perhaps a book that displays Lewis’s depth of learning about Renaissance humanism but which has decided that Renaissance humanism wasn’t of much use is bound to sound embittered, but Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness in the end seems to see Hamlet not as a tragedy at all but as a satire, a play whose characters, especially its protagonist, should inspire only a sense of superiority.

Lewis’s book ends in would-be majestical mode: ‘I hope it is not too much to suggest that now, a little over a decade and a half into the 21st century, the time of Hamlet has come.’ This is a bit odd given the fact that as far as the theatre, the book business and the entirety of Western culture are concerned the time of Hamlet has never gone away. But it turns out that this isn’t the ending of the book at all. The conclusion is followed by a much more characteristic appendix, ‘How Old Is Hamlet?’, which argues that the text’s inconsistent suggestions about Hamlet’s age are not mere errors, or signs of Shakespeare future-proofing his script against the exigencies of casting, but are instead designed to signal to the wiser sort of reader that on top of his other deficiencies Hamlet is no good at maths. ‘So, the numbers in the graveyard scene as recorded in Q2 and the Folio designedly do not compute. They represent the inability of Hamlet and of the Gravedigger to reckon with historical numbers in their heads, and the desire of both characters to look as if they can.’ The last words of Lewis’s book, like the coup de grâce patronisingly delivered to a rival, write Hamlet off as a stereotypical adolescent: ‘It is an age of apprenticeship in the world, of preparation for the challenges ahead, and of fitting one’s understanding to one’s burgeoning physical and sexual potency; it is also marked by heat, impetuousness, and impatience. Ecce homo.

I admire Lewis’s learning, but when looking to improve my understanding of either Hamlet or Hamlet I would infinitely rather risk death watching the play in that Ukrainian cellar again than reread his book – and I very much doubt whether many of my fellow spectators, imaginatively caught up in matters of life and death, would be sitting there trying to evaluate what marks the play’s characters would have achieved in a 16th-century logic exam or blaming the catastrophe on the shortcomings of the Wittenberg philosophy syllabus. This brings me to one last eccentricity of Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness: in its 365 pages about the most famous play in world drama, complete with its denunciation of Hamlet’s supposed lack of interest in the theatre, I could find no evidence that Lewis himself has ever seen Hamlet performed. Its dustjacket does, however, carry a portrait of Rhodri Lewis. Study it well. If Lewis ever does decide to see Hamlet, and you recognise him as he takes the seat next to yours, you might want to move. Not everyone wants to see Hamlet in proximity to someone who is likely to be muttering the word ‘bullshit’ under his breath throughout the performance.