Enduring mysteries in Hamlet

I took advantage of this recent MLK Day long weekend to reread Hamlet in light of the fascinating conversation I had with Seth Duerr, Director of the York Shakespeare Company, in New York City a few weeks ago. Among the many things we agreed on was that our opinion of Hamlet was fairly unenthusiastic, at least in comparison to some of the rest of the Shakespeare canon and in comparison to the play’s iconic cultural status. My rereading confirmed many of my reservations, but also rekindled interest in the play itself, its somewhat puzzling role in popular culture and some of the core mysteries about it that I think the lie at the heart of the fascination it continues to hold.

There’s no doubt that overall and over time Hamlet has proven to be Shakespeare’s most influential and popular play, but it has certainly endured mixed fortunes across the centuries. It was apparently very popular in its own day, with numerous references to it in several contexts, but in the 17th and early 18 centuries, critical reception was often unenthusiastic. The generic and plot-oriented formalist criticism of the Restoration period felt that Hamlet indefensibly mixed elements of comedy and tragedy, debased royalty and aristocracy, and otherwise failed to adhere to the strict rules of classical drama. It was thereby adjudged at best flawed, and at worst a failure. Nonetheless, it remained a popular performance piece with theater-going audiences. Increasingly during the 18th century, critics found Hamlet a compelling heroic figure. As modern literary criticism emerged towards the end of the century, Romantic commentators such as Coleridge, Goethe and Schlegel shifted attention from genre and plot to character and psychology, and thereby lighted on Hamlet, a play about the tension between contemplation and action and an exercise in representing interior thought in a medium that had theretofore invariably emphasized action rather than mentation, as not only Shakespeare’s greatest achievement, but perhaps all of literature’s.

Its reputation grew to almost preposterous proportions in the 19th century, which saw the rise of a fanatical cult of bardolatry with Hamlet as the jewel in the crown of the king of high culture. The 20th century saw a slow but steady decline in the fixation on Hamlet, at least among academics and critics, with modernists like T.S. Eliot drawn more to the dazzling heights of the poetry in Antony and Cleopatra, myth-oriented critics like Wilson Knight and others including many “new critics” increasingly drawn to the formal perfection of King Lear (now probably the leading candidate for “greatest Shakespeare tragedy,” whatever that means), post-colonialists to the social commentary and raw power of Othello, and new historicists to directly topical plays like The Tempest and Coriolanus (with obvious overlaps — The Tempest, for example, is also staple of postcolonial criticism, etc.) In the process, Hamlet has faded somewhat as an object of obsessive preoccupation in the Shakespeare canon among critics and academics. However, the play remains an enormously powerful force in popular culture — more than any of these late-coming rivals for the top spot — in part due to its uncanny ability to appeal to a wide audience in spite of its enormous length and extreme complexities, and in part due also to its iconic cultural status acquired during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Kline, Ethan Hawke and (sigh) Mel Gibson are among the actors and movie stars to have undertaken the role on film in recent years, and one has the impression that the Adam Sandler Hamlet cannot be all that far behind. Still, it could be worse — Richard Burton’s 1964 performance, preserved on a kind of early video, has all the quality of shock and awe, insofar as it’s shockingly awful. He seems to have confused acting with shouting, and the louder the better. If you can get past the first 20 minutes, you have more of a resistance to headaches than I do (although to be fair, Hume Cronyn did make a splendid Polonius). Branagh’s 1996 four-hour, 70 mm “uncut” epic strikes me as so self-indulgent, self-important and thoroughly over-the-top that it can only be described as obnoxious. As he delivers the third soliloquy in front of a mirror, it’s not only Hamlet addressing Hamlet, but also Branagh exulting in the glory that is Branagh. However, because its drawbacks, however breathtaking, are offset by some fine performances and imaginative production, it has to be classified as one of the least bad Hamlets on celluloid. The best one can get at home, I think, is the 1980 BBC production with Derek Jacobi doing a superb starring turn (as it happens, I saw Jacobi playing Hamlet at the Old Vic in 1978, and this TV performance is pretty close to what we got on stage), with lots of secondary performances that are at least as good, especially Patrick Stewart’s flawless, definitive Claudius. One of the most interesting things about Branagh’s 1996 version is watching an older Jacobi shift from Hamlet to Claudius, and contrasting not only Branagh’s Hamlet with Jacobi’s, but Jacobi’s Claudius with Stewart’s (I think both earlier performances win hands-down).

The point is that while the play’s stature is somewhat diminished among academics and critics, with theatergoers and in popular culture it is not and that’s reflected in the large number of (mostly bad) versions on film. There are a great many reasons why Lear, Othello and the other pretenders with their passionate academic champions remain secondary in the popular consciousness and culture, and I wouldn’t begin to try to identify, let alone explain, all of them. Obviously, as I noted above, almost 200 years of relentless drumbeat pressing its iconic status as the height of English language and even global theatrical (and possibly even literary) achievement, is the single most important element. Another is the simple fact that this is, in both its longest and second-longest versions (more on this later), the most sustained play in the Shakespeare canon and therefore the most detailed and richly drawn. Obviously, it’s always going be possible to get people to pay close attention to any compelling meditation on the mysteries of life and death that obsess the drama and its central character. And it is this very quality of mystery that I think is one of the factors that has given the play not only its iconic status, but also its enduring popularity. There are an extraordinary number of riddles and irresolvable puzzles in and surrounding Hamlet.

Some of the most well-known conundrums leave me fairly cold, insofar as I don’t think they’re that resistant to a semi-satisfactory answer.

Is Hamlet ever really crazy? I think he plainly is, and certainly when it comes to his three private and semi-private encounters with Ophelia, as he says “it hath made me mad,” in which I read a heavy and surprised emphasis on the “hath.” I think you can add to this the wrenching and incredibly powerful scene in which he berates his mother in the most obscene terms (only thinly-veiled, at most) after he has killed Polonius. In those four instances, there is almost no doubt that the character has absolutely lost self-possession, and the common theme is women and sexuality. At the simplest level, he has completely lost faith in the two women he loves, seeing his mother as at best betraying his father’s memory and at worst being an accomplice in his death, and Ophelia as being, through her father’s commands, another instrument of Claudius against him. The chronology of events suggests that it is Ophelia’s rejection of him at precisely the time when he is confronted with the ghost of his father and the monstrosity of the situation that sends him over the edge. Both women are transformed in his mind into “whores,” leading to a horror of sexuality and an obsession with sexual corruption, corporeal revulsion and syphilitic infection (the play is permeated with imagery of venereal disease). Unlike the political intrigue in the court, in which his “antic disposition” is an obvious and badly performed affectation, Hamlet’s sexual hysteria is, I think plainly, genuine and it indeed hath made him mad.

Other familiar problems have become overdetermined and stale, most notably: why does Hamlet delay?

The whole play is basically a meditation on that theme, but following Coleridge, Jones, Eliot, Wilson Knight, Lacan, Bloom, Greenblatt and everybody else, this problem has become as overworked, one might almost say scarred, as the clichéd-to-death third soliloquy (to go over this yet again, or not to go over this yet again, that is the question). It obviously needs to be continuously re-asked and answered, but must be approached obliquely to get around all that scar tissue left by hundreds of years of hacking away at the nub. And, it should not be forgotten (as it usually now is), that one of the most obvious answers is that the endless delays are a necessary plot device to keep the play going, since if revenge were taken immediately as ordered by the ghost, the drama would never make it past Act I.

In this context it is important to recall that Hamlet is firmly part of a well-established genre, the Senecan Revenge Tragedy, and that it is a distinctive feature of the Elizabethan version of the genre that the avengers hesitate, vacillate or delay for one reason or another. They also usually feign madness and consider suicide (all of this applies to the first of many English Renaissance characters of this type, Hieronimo in Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy, which, like Hamlet, also includes a play-within-the-play). Vacillation or delay, for whatever reason, is an essential plot device in these narratives, but it also reflects the key hesitations in the Gospel accounts of the crucifixion of Jesus in which Christ, Pilate and other key figures hesitate before taking their final, cosmically momentous decisions. In all three of these instances — hesitation, feigned madness and suicide — Shakespeare takes elements of the generic form and builds upon them in a manner that creates something new, remarkable and unique. (Horror of feminine sexuality and male hysteria about female chastity and sexual agency are also marked features of this genre, traits Hamlet shares with many other protagonists of English Renaissance revenge tragedies.)

Hesitation is an almost universal characteristic in the world of Hamlet as well, although not everyone hesitates or vacillates as much as the title character. However, Laertes certainly hesitates when he returns to Elsinore seeking revenge, and again hesitates before deliberately poisoning Hamlet during the duel. Claudius hesitates before his attempted and failed repentance. And, most tellingly of all, in the speech recited by the First Player at Hamlet’s request, Pyrrhus, shocked by a giant crashing sound, hesitates before the gruesome slaughter of Priam. I take this to be the most telling echo of the broader play of Hamlet within the First Player’s speech — not the avenging son killing the guilty father-murderer, but rather the telling moment of hesitation. The only avenging son who does not, as far as we can tell, hesitate (although he is restrained by Old Norway) is Fortinbras, who, perhaps not coincidentally, ends the play not only revenged, but on the throne of at least two countries, and with almost no effort on his part.

A corollary question, not quite so overdetermined as the first, might provide an oblique entry point: does Hamlet ever really decide to take his revenge? Has he at any point in the narrative actually resolved the contradiction between contemplation and action and decided to avenge his father proactively, or is vengeance forced on him by his enemies’ botched plot against his own life? The contradiction only really applies to the specific task of killing Claudius — Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are callously dispatched and he takes bold, indeed rash, action in the killing of Polonius. It seems impossible that he would really have thought that it was the King behind the arras since he had only just gone to his mother’s chamber having left Claudius in mid-prayer unharmed. Indeed, his question upon the killing — “Is it the king?” — I think demonstrates that he is pretty sure that it isn’t. Moreover, Hamlet is an extremely cruel character with a strong sadistic streak and takes many actions to torment those he is angry with. It’s this one specific task that causes so much difficulty.

Many efforts have been made to explain this anomaly, and Hamlet struggles with it throughout the entire play. Certainly the question of his mother is at the heart of the problem. The ghost, after all, has set him what appears to be a contradictory task: take revenge on Claudius but do no harm to Gertrude. Insofar as she remains in love with her husband, it’s an impossible task. Moreover, killing the King is an act of high treason. Hamlet wishes to be king, and bitterly complains that his mother’s “o’er hasty marriage” was needed in order to ensure that Claudius rather than Hamlet acceded to the throne (this is what most strongly makes her an accomplice to the crime — her decision to quickly re-marry ensured the killer achieved what he calls “those effects for which I did the murder, my crown, mine own ambition and my queen.”). There is enough of the medieval, divine right of kings, monarchism, just enough of Richard II, in Hamlet’s worldview to make regicide, no matter how justified, an especially difficult task. But I do think that the explanation suggested by Freud in The Interpretation of Dreams and later elaborated by Jones remains the most powerful reading of the problem: Hamlet’s greatest difficulty is that he is implicated in Claudius’ desires, if not his actions. The killing of Claudius becomes metaphorically and at the level of liminal and subliminal desire an act of self-accusation and self-destruction, and so it literally proves in action.

In many productions much is made of the fourth soliloquy, in which it is often said Hamlet decides to become a man of action rather than of contemplation and to do the deed at last. In Branagh’s film, it’s centrality as a turning point is unmistakable as it is staged as an outrageous set piece with the camera pulling back onto a gigantic mountainous landscape as it reaches a thoroughly overblown crescendo, coming very close to unintended parody. However, this is hardly the first time that Hamlet has resolved to kill Claudius, and, when he returns to Denmark, he does no such thing. It’s true that there doesn’t appear to be a lot of time for him to act, but circumstances are driven forward not by anything he does, but by the Claudius-Laertes plot. Hamlet accepts the challenge delivered by Osric but asserts first that he will “win at the odds,” and then in his beautiful “there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow” passage he stoically accepts the prospect of his own death. But at no time does he explain how he’s going to use the occasion to fulfill his revenge, or indicate that he believes that Claudius and/or Laertes can be killed in the duel. Hamlet’s hand is forced, and there’s nothing in the plot or the action to suggest that he ever actually decides to take his revenge, at least until the point where both he and his mother are dying and there is nothing left to lose at all. Jones argues that the death of Gertrude frees Hamlet from his Oedipal conundrum and he can now kill Claudius, but I think it’s important to remember that Laertes has told him that he’s been poisoned and he himself is going to also soon die. So, whatever the causes for Hamlet’s indecision and inaction — he lists numerous reasons himself, and critics have advanced countless explanations — to me it seems to be a state that he never really overcomes, and I think understanding it requires recognizing this.

Another important question, and one that that I think is not considered carefully enough, is how we should read Hamlet’s instructions to the players on how to perform The Mousetrap. Traditionally, and even today, the advice is generally regarded as Shakespeare’s own opinion of how acting should and should not be done on stage. But I think the passage is quite different and far more complicated. There is no doubt much of it is sound advice, and at first glance it seems to make a lot of sense. However, much the same can be said of Polonius’ advice to Laertes, which is usually regarded as a mockery and as again demonstrating the old courtier’s tedious pomposity. The quality of the advice in both cases, it seems to me, is quite beside the point, and these pronouncements are not intended to be taken by the audience as either a guide for living or for acting, but rather are designed to illuminate aspects of the personalities of both characters. Polonius’ advice reveals him to be anxious, cautious, Machiavellian and self-interested. It reflects the attitude of a man who is very concerned about getting what he needs and deeply frightened about the ability of other people to take that away. His famous parting comment, “to thine own self be true,” is not about honest, introspective self-criticism, it’s about looking after numero uno. It’s certainly what Polonius does, and he’s urging his son to adopt the same cautious, politic and self-serving attitude.

Similarly, Hamlet’s advice to the players reveals a lot more about his own character than it does about the craft of acting. It shows him to be an elitist with a strong sense of propriety and a marked distaste for the popular and the entertaining. He is especially concerned that excessive clowning might attenuate the pointed message aimed at Claudius, and has very harsh words about clowns generally, and especially clowns who extemporize and ham it up. In contrast, Shakespeare adores clowns, uses them in every single play, and often attributes to them the sharpest insights. This was no aristocratic elitist, like Hamlet. Shakespeare was a money-making, populist playwright, and was much criticized for this by the university wits and others in his own time.

Moreover, Hamlet’s attack on clowns is strikingly ironic because he himself is the main clown in his own drama. Particularly when he is affecting his antic disposition in the court, his main symptoms are punning riddles, clever paradoxes, practical jokes, mockery and other attributes of a Shakespearian clown. Even more ironically, his performance as a clown is a complete failure in the sense that if it’s designed to provide him cover to develop his revenge plot, it absolutely backfires, calling a great deal more attention and suspicion to him that if he had simply and quietly gone along with things until suddenly striking, and it increasingly alarms Claudius. The other clown in the play, the gravedigger, gets the better of Hamlet every time in their comical exchanges — he’s the only person in the drama capable of not only keeping up with Hamlet’s wit, but bettering it at every stage (more evidence, I think, of Shakespeare’s profound affection for his clowns). So Hamlet’s advice to the players not only shows him to be a cerebral, overly-serious elitist (we knew that already, but it’s underlined), it also suggests a powerful blind spot about his own role and behavior. Of course, one could note that after ripping Polonius to shreds with mockery, he tells the First Player, “Follow that lord; and look you mock him not,” which might indicate that he’s consciously giving himself license to perform clowning that he disapproves of in everybody else. But it seems more reasonable and consistent to read the extemporizing and over-the-top clown Hamlet’s attack on extemporizing and over-the-top clowns and clowning as indicative of a certain blindness and self-deception in his own personality.

There are scores, and perhaps hundreds, of other enduring mysteries surrounding Hamlet, some of them not particularly fascinating, that continue to engage scholars, critics, readers and audiences. But at least one strikes me as exceptionally rich (though ultimately undecidable): what is the relationship between the three distinct versions of the play?

The earliest known published text, the 1603 First Quarto (Q1), is much shorter than the other two, and contains different and in many cases much less compelling language (“To be, or not to be, aye there’s the point, To die, to sleep, is that all? Aye all: No, to sleep, to dream, aye marry there it goes…”). When it was discovered in the early 19th century, and for many decades after, it was generally assumed that this was a first draft or a rough draft of the final product, but this view is now generally rejected for a variety of complicated reasons. Q1 is one of the quintessential “bad quartos” that have historically been regarded as garbled versions of the real thing. It’s still not highly regarded, although it is heavily studied, in academic circles, but many actors have expressed appreciation for the pacing of this much shorter version of the play, and there have been numerous performances of Q1 in the past hundred years or so (John Gielgud called it “Hamlet with the brakes off.”)

The 1604 Second Quarto (Q2) is more than twice as long as Q1, contains much more familiar and obviously superior poetry, and because of its length is often considered to be definitive. The 1623 First Folio (F1) is much closer to Q2 than Q1, but is missing a good deal of Q2 material and introduces or restores some very important passages — most notably the extended conversation about the children’s acting companies that seems to reflect the theatrical rivalries in London at the start of the 17th century, precisely when Hamlet is generally held to have been written. F1 is also given primacy in many cases because F1’s texts appear to have been much more carefully prepared and presented than any of the quarto editions of the plays, and they come with stamps of approval from Shakespeare’s acting fellows John Heminges and Henry Condell, and from Ben Jonson.

It’s not really possible to hold to an obvious chronology of composition that coincides with the order of publication leading from Q1 to Q2 to F1. But the current theory en vogue which holds that composition actually went from Q2 to F1 to Q1 makes very little sense to me because of the obvious deficiencies in the language of Q1 — I mean, radical cuts for staging are obviously needed (Branagh’s four-hour plus “uncut” version combines all of Q2 and F1 with pretty dire consequences for the audience), but why on earth would anyone deliberately jettison the often profoundly superior passages in Q2/F1 for the comparatively awful stuff sometimes found in Q1 (as in the opening of the third soliloquy cited above)? And then, of course, there is the additional complication of the relationship of Shakespeare’s “foul papers” (his discarded and long-lost working manuscripts) to these three very different versions of the play. Like so much else regarding Hamlet, the mystery of the nature of the relationship between the different versions of the text and the really strange conundrum of the chronology of its composition is both fascinating and ultimately irresolvable.