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Monday, August 24, 2009

The Tragedie of Hamlet, "Jerk" of Denmark.

It seems that everywhere I go in search of Shakespeare on the web lately, when it comes to the topic of Hamlet and his character, I can find someone ready to take a vicious stab at The Melancholy Prince.

Scholars of all stripes (from the time of Goethe, through Freud and on to today) attack everything in his nature. From his "indecision" and failure to act, to his lack of courage and heroism, to his "secret desire" to sleep with his mother (YUCK!), to his failure to embody the qualities defining "Tragedy" and the "Tragic Hero" set down by Aristotle; Academia is, and has always been, more ready to find his "flaws" as opposed to his virtues.

Time after time, Commercial Shakespeare's producers and directors, from Hollywood to Broadway, in production and/or 'adaptation', support these theories, always finding ways to 'read into' and play on the theme of Hamlet's weaknesses, rather than his strengths. The tragedy is always the result of his faults. Close examination of gaping character flaws in those who surround him, and the monumental exigencies supplied for him by simple fate will usually take a back seat, compared to the emotional sensationalism provided by pecking at the proposed hero with juicy personality complaints, however niggling, until he's brought down to his knees--or better yet--to the pedestrian level of the nigglers themselves.

This comes as no surprise. Many people are uncomfortable in the presence of genius, whether it be the intellect of a Hamlet or... a Shakespeare. From today back to Alexander Pope, who, in 1723, modestly claiming he knew better (most kindly meant, I'm sure) what Shakespeare the literary bumpkin was attempting to do--and therefore say--eliminated and/or changed words, phrases, and whole passages in the Plays, 'Editors' of Shakespeare have formulated wholesale rationalizations and suppositions as starting points from which to support their 'emendations' of the text and their theoretical 'reading into' the true meaning of his Work.

Since Hamlet is Shakespeare's 'wordiest' play; since Hamlet himself is his most vociferously intellectual character; since Hamlet is thought by many to be Shakespeare's greatest accomplishment (ironic in light of so many complaints about it); Hamlet gets the most attention in the way of analytical "help" from those Absolutists who think they know better than what the lines say--what Shakespeare said.

These theoretical notions--for that and only that is what they are--having been accepted and supported for so long, have had an enormous influence on the way the play and its central character are perceived. Hamlet is first read into before it is even read. The omnipresence of all this theoretical bantering has had the effect of strongly imprinting an initial image of Hamlet the Dane as a weak milk toast; a mewling, puking, adolescent; selfish and impotent, callous and completely self-centered; incapable of any heroic action; most simply, it seems, and worst of all, a woman-hater by nature. This impression is now the accepted premise and influential starting point from which any further analytical thought regarding Hamlet's character emerges. Any conclusions about the Prince seem to be powerfully influenced by it. Seemingly, when it comes to this play, events as they occur in sequence, difficulties which arise (as they would be perceived by any other human being--not allowed perception for Prince Hamlet), and even the lines themselves, are ignored in favor of a powerful gauze-like opaqueness, which seems to mask the obvious truth of the above to the eyes of an observer under the influence of any one of these "popular notions".

In fact, more casual readers and playgoers (and believe it or not, their opinion is the more important one to me and therefore the most disturbing in this context) many times simply refer to Hamlet as a "Jerk", citing his "callousness" and lack of "feelings". The 'proving-ground' of this opinion is located mainly in his obvious treatment of "poor Ophelia" in what has come to be known as "The Nunnery Scene".
Attached to his callousness, the idea of Hamlet's selfishness, his self-centered attitude, of his being "too caught-up in his own drama" are shortcomings often offered as support in an argument which 'proves', without a doubt, his "Jerky-ness".

My question is: Exactly whose Drama IS The Tragedie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke?


  1. Whose drama is it anyway? It belongs to the actors and to the audiences. The storytellers and the spectator. And why not? The characters and the play are entertaining and thought provoking. As for the scholars... let em eat cake.

    "...his (1) "indecision" and failure to act, to his lack of (2) courage and heroism, to his "secret desire" to (3) sleep with his mother (YUCK!), to his failure to (4) embody the qualities defining "Tragedy" and the "Tragic Hero" set down by Aristotle"

    1) Well Mr. Scholar, de decides RIGHT AWAY that he's going to act crazy, just as the prince in Amleth - the source material - does, and hides behind the mask of insanity to avoid suspicions that he's snooping or suspects foul play on Claudius' part. And don't think keep getting in his way of the intended action? Hamlet can't just kill a guy, that's too simple. He's the freaking prince! The people love him, he's next in line to be king... kind of in a tight spot. And Claudius must not just be killed, he must go to hell so that Hamlet is revenged properly. If there were nothing standing in Hamlet's way from being revenged, I promise you the play would have been much much much shorter.

    2) Courage and heroism? He's not Henry V! He's an intellectual! A college boy who happens to be royalty in Denmark. Would you, Mr. Scholar, show courage and heroism in this situation or run away back to school with the warm and fuzzy familiarity of your peers? Perhaps this point is part of the allure of Hamlet. He's NOT a war hero, he's a young man with a big mouth. What happens if we take a classic revenge tale and put you or you or the next guy as the hero? You get Hamlet.

    3) Damn you, Freud.

    4) As I said in #2, THAT'S THE POINT! And why does Shakespeare have to adhere to what Aristotle said about tragedy? Aristotle wasn't being prescriptive, he was being DEscriptive. He picked the qualities that Oedipus Rex possessed that made it effective. Effective for what? For Greek Drama! For the Greek population. For Religious and purgative purposes. The author's intent behind Greek and Elizabethan playwrights are hugely different. That's like berating the Discovery channel program for not following the structure that makes an effective saturday morning cartoon.

    Why can't people concentrate on what DOES happen? The actors do. The audience does. That's why they like the play. What DOES happen is the story. The story that these scholars are following is one that Shakespeare never wrote... for a good reason: Shakespeare's version is much more entertaining.

  2. Once again Gedaly, "hear, hear!"

    It's such a shame that so many of these theoretical musings have infected the impressions many of the general public have about this play and its Title Character. First and foremost it's HAMLET'S drama--he's the one burdened with the tasks, fate, idiosynchrosies and damnable aspects of those around him. Rhetorically speaking, who the hell else would be "caught up" in his own drama but the individual experiencing it?!

    It seems as though people expect Hamlet to do other than what they themselves might be forced to do in a similar situation--Prince or no Prince--he's Human. And all that needs to be done to recognize the things both you and I have mentioned, in addition to many other things we haven't yet mentioned, is to be Text-aware.

    Love #3 !-- made me laugh out loud.

  3. When I hear or read scholarly criticisms that sound like the aforementioned, I can't help but wonder "why?" Why do you, Sir or Madam Scholar, think that? What is it that you don't want to believe about what Shakespeare wrote?

    Can one be a scholar and not criticize?

    I recognize the importance of literary scholarship, I find it interesting to learn the historical significance of this and that, new-historicism has its merits, and everyone is entitled to their opinion... but sometimes I just don't know what to say to these people.

    I am reluctant, however, to say that theatre artists know better than scholars when it comes to Shakespeare; there are boatloads of directors with questionable ideas out there too.

  4. Hamlet is one of my favourite theatre shows. I know all the scenes by heart so it was nice to remember again in your post. Thanks for bringing back some fond memories about Hamlet . This weekend I’m going to visit my sister and I've compared tickets prices tix for free before via this:
    So I'll be analyzing as well as enjoying the show.

  5. Hi Taylor,

    Thanks for stopping by on your way to "hear the play".
    Hamlet is the favorite, or one of the favorites of quite a few. That's the reason I can't resist commenting on it, along with the fact that it's my favorite for lots of other reasons. I think it's a very important statement with so many facets to be explored. As you might have noticed, I think many of those facets are sometimes covered up by the need to "sell" the play or the idea of a particular production. Since it is such a Universal statement, I think it's important to open it up to "the rest of us" so to speak.
    Since you'll be analyzing as well, please stop by on your way back and give us your Review. I'd love to hear what you thought about it. As with all of Shakespeare, and especially with this play that seems to speak to everyone, no impression is unimportant.

    Thanks again for the visit and for the links. Enjoy your trip and hope to hear from you soon. Have fun!