When Shakespeare sat down to write Hamlet sometime in the late 1590s it seems to me that he was beset by a number of preoccupations which went far beyond the healthy desire to write a popular play that would keep the crowd happy. It is my favourite of the works I have read and the one that I know intimately. The play is by a significant margin the lengthiest of Shakespeare’s plays as if even he could not quite fit everything he wanted in the ‘two hour traffic’ of his stage. For the longest time it was considered his masterwork but I think that critical opinion has now shifted, like a distracting crosswind, in favour of King Lear. Tradition has it right I think. Shakepeare’s most transparently personal play is a marvel and unarguably one of the wonders of the European literary tradition.
In common with all my posts I do not pretend to a critical appreciation. For a start the nature of blogging does not allow it in any depth. As with Beowulf, with which Shakespeare’s play has certain historical connections, the academic end is listless. A great starting point is Ann Barton’s introduction to the New Penguin Shakespeare. Here is Ann on the T.S. Eliot hypothesis that the play represents an unsuccessful attempt on Shakespeare’s part to dredge material deeply submerged in his unconscious. ‘Neither Eliot’s idea that Hamlet is an artistic failure, nor his theory of the ‘objective correlative’, developed in an attempt to characterise that failure, has worn particularly well.’ Gotta love that dryness of attack.
Eliot’s attempt to slay the sacred cow needed a sharper knife. Many attempts have been made on the cow’s life but four hundred years later the cow is still mooing. Mary Shelley, I believe, once remarked that Byron had the ‘vanity to be jealous of Shakespeare.’ The catty attempts of various egocentric literary personalities to take hold of our bard and ‘shake’ him (if you’ll forgive that atrocious pun and there’s no reason why you should, although in my defence the Elizabethans loved their puns and Will’s iambic verses are chock full of them) are doomed to failure. As with all such things they are interesting enough but in the end they always, as Mary Shelley shrewdly observed, say more about the person making them than about Shakespeare. As of course with the flat-earthers who battle on against the odds to prove their particular favourite the author of the plays. Perhaps some sacred cows really are sacred.
But why do I like it so much? It is not the revenge plot or Shakespeare’s oblique approach. It is not even the famous speeches which leave you drop jawed by their sheer figurative audacity, and which I have to say are almost impossible to act, at least I have yet to see anybody do them real justice, simply because they are too famous, too demonstrative, and the very reverse of the naturalistic lines we have all become accustomed to. No, for want of a better word, it is its existential atmosphere that holds me in thrall, and not particularly the marshy fumes of the humorous gravedigger scene, or the musing of the most famous soliloquy in English beginning, ‘to blog or not to blog that is the question’, although these alone contain meditations the rival of any. It is the strangeness and uncertainty from the ghost to the rest is silence. The whole play is soaked in tentative feelings about the world and about a human being’s place within it. It is dosed to the gills in a peculiar and voluble agnosticism.
The fact that Hamlet should be so voluble about things that can never be known and upon which it is therefore useless to cogitate is very human. But then Hamlet has seen a ghost. Hasn’t he? He himself is never entirely sure. This is the powerful undertow that takes hold of me when I read or hear this wonderful play. And of course certain lines are declarative. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. But the exact nature of this providence is something of a guessing game. If, indeed it is Christian, it is certainly of the mystical rather than doctrinal variety. His father’s ghost seems to dwell by day in a Catholic purgatory to expiate his sins but seems hellbent on revenge. The inconsistencies in the play are perplexing. These may be intentional on Shakespeare’s part or may simply be happy accidents towards which a spirit of genius is instinctively drawn. Or perhaps they are somewhat representative of an English Catholic’s emotional thinking in a time of suppression. It is peculiar to think of Shakespeare as being Catholic, or to the Catholic side of the via media if in fact he was, and writing Hamlet not ten years before that treasure trove of the Reformed faith, the King James Bible came into existence. Many who have a psychological need to rope the Anglican faith to England’s national poet get quite hot under the collar by suggestions that he was Catholic. What is certain is that he would have been schooled as an Anglican and grew up while the powers that be asserted that the church was now of England rather than in England.
It cannot be a coincidence that Shakespeare’s own father died in 1601. The year in which it seems likely the play was finished. This has led to persistent psychoanalytical speculations of the type embraced by Eliot. And I’m sure such analyses are still prevalent. Sometimes it seems that everything regrettable is still prevalent. The death of his father set Will off on metaphysical speculations I have no doubt, but because Shakespeare was a literary superman he gave us Hamlet rather than a short confessional lyric.
I cannot help feeling that the provenance of the story in addition to the genius that has been worked upon it, is what lends the play its unique flavour. It is redundant to say that there is argument over Shakespeare’s sources for the story. What is clear is that the legend first appears in fuller form in the Historiae Danicae by Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish chronicler writing in the twelfth century. There is evidence that the tale of Amleth and the murder of his father by his uncle and the subsequent marriage to Amleth’s mother was old even then. It has the feeling of an archetype. Saxo seems to give us pretty much the original tale, although he is influenced by other sources, and the reason I say that is not because of any scholarly knowledge but because the story is devoid of any sophisticated moral compass. Justice is ancient and it is bloody and it is what it is.When Amleth’s uncle lays a trap for him in the guise of Amleth’s foster sister, the hero steals away with her to enjoy her in secret. It does not occur to him that it is possibly not a good idea to have sex with his foster sister. Given the prevalence of incestuous relationships in pagan literature perhaps we should be grateful it is his foster sister. Likewise when Amleth discovers the spy in his mother’s chamber he merely butchers him and feeds him to the pigs. As you do. In his final vengeance he slays his uncle and fires the hall killing everyone trapped inside. It need hardly be said that there are still many who adhere to this uncomplicated philosophy. The tale has all the hallmarks of a Germanic Age of Migration legend. It is interesting that it is followed in the Danish History by the story of Offa, the famous ancestral king of the Angles, who set the border of Angeln in Southern Jutland by defeating a Saxon champion.