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From classic studies like Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy to the more recent Prosser's Hamlet and Revenge to the latest issue of Shakespearean Quarterly, criticism of Hamlet abounds, and few could keep pace with all but a fraction of its scope. Part of studying Shakespeare is coping with critical interpretation and using it to temper your own analysis and insight. What follows are brief excerpts from major critics. There are complete texts devoted to Shakespearean criticism:
Eastman, A. A Short History of Shakespearean Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1968.
Ralli, A. A History of Shakespearian Criticism. Two Volumes. New York: The Humanities Press, 1965.
Kermode, F. Four Centuries of Shakespearian Criticism. New York: Avon Books, 1965.
Readers note that few critics agree, and each interpretation considered individually seems to be the "definitive" word on the play. Perhaps it is a tribute to the text that it can sustain so many varied reading, or perhaps as the last critic mentioned, the distinguished American poet and commentator, T.S. Eliot, there is a flaw in the play itself. Take a position, but remember there is no substitute for a thorough examination and consideration of the primary source.
How can Shakespeare cause Hamlet to exact revenge? he must convince himself that the time is not right--that striking would be ineffective. Hence Hamlet is prompted to refrain from killing Claudius too soon since he is praying. Hamlet's damnation speech is in the revenge tradition common to Shakespeare's plays.
Play not really concerned with external reality. Hamlet' s delay comes from an aversion to action that is often characteristic of the intellectual spirit. Shakespeare dramatized the fact that intellect alone is not sufficient if it renders action impossible. Action for Hamlet consists in a resolve to act; not in action itself. It is only a resolve.
Hamlet's disposition reflects both his mother and father's personality. That is, resolution and infirmity. Thus his intentions are countered by weak performance. Hamlet is conscious of his own defect. His life is one of constant analysis of alternatives. Imagination is so active that thinking about something becomes better than doing it. To one in the world of ideas, the world of acts is not significant. Hamlet's will is paralyzed by his intellect. He knows what not do-- He lacks the faith to act; he is a doubter.
Hamlet is part of higher reality of philosophy and poetry. Thus he lacks practical efficiency. His intellect is the instrument of his passion--he cannot miss an opportunity to speculate.
Hamlet feels anguish caused by his father being replaced in his mother's affections. There are three refutations: 1) Hamlet is not aware on a conscious level of this jealousy, 2) There is not textual evidence of old subconscious memories, 3) Claudius does not prevent Hamlet from loving his mother. To refute these objections it should be noted that Hamlet may have repressed thoughts of wanting his father dead so he could not have to share his mother. Thus the actual killing of Hamlet Sr. reawakens these memories. Modern psychology proves this. Thus Hamlet's inactivity is caused by thoughts of incest and parricide.
Hamlet is a Renaissance man loving contemplation and physical action. A Modern audience does not appreciate the context in which Hamlet was written.
Hamlet is a genius a larger than life hero finally crushed by a burden that he can no longer carry. The imagery of disease and decay in the play is countered by a divine providence which shapes the action. For justice does prevail. Hamlet recognizes his role as an instrument of that justice. Hamlet's soliloquies are dramatizations of a brilliant mind, but at the same time, they reflect the geocentricism of youth. Thus Hamlet's judgments are the harsh judgments of youth. The play dramatizes how he suffers and grows as he comes to realize the role providence ordains for him.
A play of ghosts, battles, and courage. Deals with the mystery of the universe. The opening is simple, and the rest is a puzzle. Play asks metaphysical questions--presents an almost solutionless problem.
A grotesque world literally, but also a metaphor of conflicting moods and loyalties. Hamlet lacks a sense of reality; he is more a philosophical idealist. Play should be read as a spiritual exercise and not as a simple revenge tragedy. Physical events are occasions for reflections.
Revenge is the theme as old as man. Hamlet is the folly of one who tries to set the world right. Brutality of revenge and violence of sanctification. Hamlet' s revenge is barbaric and holy a the same time. Violence is often a part of spiritual growth.
Savage nature disguised in civilization. Play illustrates revenge as a moral duty. The time is a period of transition from barbarism to civilization. Hamlet's doubt stems from that very conflict in his own soul.
The ghost is the ambiguity in that he may be from purgatory or hell; he seeks revenge which in Christian terms is a sin. Hamlet accepts without realizing these implications. Thus his later doubts are logically part of the play's structure.
Play's theme is bafflement. Hamlet seeks justice but vengeance is outside justice. Play is an confusing attempt to reconcile these elements. Something outside of life is trying to influence life. The contrast is of the philosopher placed in the world of the physically corrupt. All but Hamlet feed on the intellect while contributing nothing. Hamlet's indecision is based on the inability of a superior intellect to come to grips with the defilement of his own ideals.
Hamlet delayed for if he did not, the play would end in act one!
Hamlet's insanity is clearly feigned. He is more acted upon than the actor.
It has been argued that Hamlet acts without reflecting and reflects without acting, and is therefore mad. There is one strange fact--he conceals his discovery, and postpones vengeance. This however is due more to a weakness in his will than in his intellect. Hamlet ironically seeks the good in a way that will never lead to it. The brilliant futility of the sick at heart is Hamlet. Hamlet is a tragedy of a soul stripped and trapped in a world which it cannot escape or understand.
Did Hamlet have a mental disorder? It is impossible to seek the answer outside the play itself. Modern psychology is of no help.
KITTREDGE: What is Hamlet's motive for acting the madman? It allows others to speak freely in his presence for their guard will be down. Thus the words of the ghost may be confirmed. See I,v,169 ff. Does it work? No. The king is too clever, and the queen is not an accomplice.
Hamlet's speech upon seeing the king at prayer is offensive and not heroic. He should have sought revenge, but to hope Claudius burns in hell is another matter.
One must realize the inner movements which result in a Shakespearean tragedy. The substance is a tale of suffering and calamity leading to the death of a noble character. The center of tragedy is action issuing from character, not simply character itself. There is the outer conflict ending in the hero's are exceptional. They are made of the same stuff or ordinary men, but intensified. They are one-sided and identify their whole being with one object or passion. This for Shakespeare is the tragic trait and though it is a fatal gift, it has a touch of greatness when joined to nobility of mind. The tragic world is one of action to which accidents and character contribute but there is a moral order and necessity. Agents are responsible for their actions, and the catastrophe is the return of the action upon the agent. Evil chiefly disturbs the order of the world, and this order cannot be friendly to evil or indifferent to good or evil. The ultimate power must have a nature alien to evil. Evil in a man destroys other but allow himself; therefore the inner being of this order must be one of nature with good. It reacts through the necessity of its own moral nature, and tragedy shows this convulsive reaction. Yet evil is also within the order and in expelling it, the order loses part of its own substance, so that the tragedy is the waste of the good involved. The contradiction is that the order seems to have a passion for perfection; yet engenders this evil within itself, and in the effort to overcome and expel it, it is agonized with pain and driven to mutilate its own substance and lose not only evil, but the priceless good. Hamlet's interview with his mother is the key. Hamlet assumes that he can obey the ghost and that he ought and says nothing of moral scruples. In the crisis of his life, he shows hardness. The theory that it is a tragedy of reflection does not answer to our imaginative impression. Excessive reflection is not the direct cause, but melancholy--an abnormal state of mind is the cause. Before his father's death, Hamlet was more than a scholar. He was the observed of all observers. He had exquisite moral sensibility, and an unbounded faith in all things, aversion to evil, and care for human worth, Such a nature would feel any shock intensely. It was a tragedy of moral idealism. Although no philosopher, he had intellectual and speculative genius and he did not live the life of a dreamer. But after the shock there was no immediate call to act, and he had time to sink into melancholy. Thus the speculative habit was one indirect cause and would reappear as a symptom. Moral sensibility and imagination are now his enemies, and his condition is one of melancholia--not to be dispelled by the will. But it is not insanity and he is not irresponsible. The immediate cause of inaction is disgust at life. The result is unconscious weaving of pretexts for inaction, aimless tossing as on a sick bed; and it also explains his energy. In the interview with his mother, his desire is to save her soul, and he is at home in this higher work, unlike the rough work of revenge. The fatal feeling "it is no matter" never appears. The play brings home to use the sense of the soul's infinity and the sense of doom which not only circumscribes that infinity but appears to be its offspring
Widely regarded as the greatest poet and literary critic of the modern age. T.S. Eliot spoke of Hamlet::
So far form being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure. In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the others. of all the plays it is longest and is possibly the one of which Shakespeare spent most pains; and yet he has left in it superfluous and inconsistent scenes which even hasty revision should have noticed. Both workmanship and thought are in as unstable position.
1. Hamlet and the relationship to Gertrude: Hamlet is a play dealing with the effect of a mother's guilt upon her son, and that Shakespeare was unable to impose this motive...
2. Material in the play is on the sub-conscious level and cannot be dramatized.
3. The emotions in Hamlet are in excess of the facts as they appear.
4. Hamlet's bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent** to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator. Gertrude is not an adequate equivalent for his disgust. his disgust envelops and exceeds her. He is thus a feeling which he cannot understand, and he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him. To have heightened the criminality of Gertrude would have been to provide the formula for a totally different emotion in Hamlet; it is just because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feelings which she is incapable of representing.
4. We simply admit here that Shakespeare simply tackled a problem here that was too much for him.
**THE OBJECTIVE CORRELATIVE:
...is a set of words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion, such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.
In other words, the emotional and the objective must correlate such as the state of mind of Lady Macbeth in her sleep walking scene.
ELIOT claims that Hamlet does not meet the "objective correlative" criteria.
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