T. S. Eliot caught a bit of flak in the 1920s when he claimed that Shakespeare’s most famous play Hamlet was, of all things, a flop: “Far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece,” he said in “Hamlet and His Problems,” published in 1922, “the play is most certainly an artistic failure. In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the others.”
Although the bardolaters were predictably outraged, he surely had a point. The plot is a mishmash of disparate narratives; the expository opening scene, when soldiers on the night watch recount the tensions between Denmark and Norway, is deadening; and Shakespeare’s need to get Hamlet back to Denmark after his exile to England forces the playwright to resort to the preposterous expedient of having Hamlet’s ship be boarded by a subspecies of men previously unknown to history, well-intentioned pirates, who helpfully spirit the prince back to Elsinore without even demanding a ransom.
But of course the real problem with Hamlet, dramatically speaking, is the hero’s refusal to go into action, always a challenge to portray on any stage, since drama has to display action from start to finish, or it is not dramatic.
But Eliot’s complaint went deeper: it has never been clear to the audience, he claimed, exactly why Hamlet did not seek revenge for his father’s murder after promising his father’s ghost that he would do so. Indeed, no sooner has the ghost of his father returned to his place of punishment than Hamlet tells Horatio that he plans to “put an antic disposition on.” Why?
What was missing, Eliot said (in a coinage that became famous as a key term in his literary criticism), was “an objective correlative” to Hamlet’s inaction: that is, a motivation that makes sense to the audience.
Again, surely he has a point, as can be seen in the enormous variety of interpretations the play has witnessed in the last four centuries. Indeed, those readings often tell us more about the generation interpreting the play than they do of the play itself.
Thus Romantics like Coleridge and Goethe saw the prince as too morally sensitive to carry out his father’s command. Like Goethe’s young Werther, Hamlet lived in a brutal and uncomprehending age, hopelessly out of joint in an uncaring, Machiavellian polity. The Freudians, on the other hand, hypothesized that Hamlet refused to obey his father’s ghost because he was subconsciously relieved that his father had been dispatched and thus secretly identified with a deed he had all along really wanted to do himself.
But then came the New Historicists, who showed, at least to their satisfaction, that Hamlet’s motivation is perfectly understandable when set against the play’s contemporary Renaissance background. Since the Renaissance represents the confluence of two antithetical cultures, classical antiquity and Christianity, of course Hamlet is conflicted.
Revenge, after all, was never a problem for the ancient world, as Homer’s Achilles and Seneca’s plays glaringly demonstrate, nor was suicide ever condemned as such. Consider Shakespeare’s Brutus in his Julius Caesar, who shares many of Hamlet’s traits: he is introspective, takes forever to make up his mind, and bungles the job when he finally decides to act. Yet at the end of the play, he commits suicide with no compunction whatever.
But Hamlet cannot follow that route, because Christianity forbids both suicide and revenge (Rom. 12: 17-21). Brutus might well have had only the vaguest idea of an afterlife. But not so for Hamlet, who knows full well that the Almighty has set “his canon ’gainst self-slaughter.” This idea of the afterlife “puzzles the will” and forces Hamlet to “lose the name of action.”
True enough, says Stephen Greenblatt in Hamlet in Purgatory, but Hamlet lived not just in the time of the Renaissance but also during the Reformation, which raises the issue of which version of the afterlife had been puzzling Hamlet’s will: the Protestant version, with its outright denial of purgatory, or the traditional Catholic one, which included a very elaborate heaven, hell, and purgatory, as we know from Dante.
After all, it can hardly be accidental that Shakespeare places the prince as a student in Luther’s Wittenberg when his father is murdered. Moreover, when the ghost first appears to his son, he avows his residence in purgatory:
I am thy father’s spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. (I v 9-13)
Thus, for Greenblatt, Eliot’s “objective correlative” is there for all to see, and has been all along. Hamlet’s hesitation is theological in nature: he must test the authenticity of the ghost because he cannot decide which eschatology is right, the Catholic or the Protestant one:
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be a devil, and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me. I’ll have grounds
More relative than this. The play’s the thing
Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. (II, ii, 585-592)
But Hamlet means too much to the culture, and its wildly variant interpretations of the play have embedded themselves too deeply in our minds, for the New Historicists to be able to claim exclusive rights to a purely historical setting.
Once that point is conceded, by far the freshest and most arresting interpretation I have ever seen of the play comes from a recent production sponsored by the Royal Shakespeare Company that was so successful on stage that it was later filmed and recently broadcast on PBS and now happily available on DVD. It stars, among other superb actors, Star Trek’s Patrick Stewart as Claudius and as Hamlet David Tennant, who until recently portrayed the eponymous hero of the popular BBC science-fiction series, Dr. Who.
To my mind, the success of this new RSC production stems from a host of factors, all of which work together in such a way that, pace Eliot, the play now finally makes sense.
First of all, each line is so freshly delivered that it sounds new (quite a feat for this play!). Even minor roles come across with distinctive personalities, including, of all people, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, who are usually played as completely interchangeable for humorous effect (other characters in the play regularly confuse the two). Here Rosenkrantz is the ambitious toady who would do anything to curry favor with the king, while Guildenstern approaches his commission to spy on Hamlet with a reluctance prompted by his affection for his old school chum. One feels guilty and the other doesn’t.
Second (and this is a negative virtue), this production eschews any Freudian interpretation, which by now has become an empty cliché, and even an embarrassment. Thus, in the famous “closet scene” in Gertrude’s bedroom, her son does not force his mother onto her marriage bed in a pose of feigned rape, and his rage against her is clearly prompted by her betrayal of a marriage that he had been depending on for his psychic health—and Gertrude herself feels so guilty about that betrayal that she too is already near a nervous breakdown. The scene is astonishingly powerful, and all without Freud’s extraneous kibitzing.
Third, the setting of the play is the contemporary national-security state, with CCTV cameras everywhere, and from whose tapes we see some of the action (interestingly, the ghost’s outline does not register on the tapes). As world literature’s most famous neurotic, Hamlet’s unstable personality is already sufficiently known by almost any audience; but in this production there is an added reason for Hamlet’s incipient madness besides his own volatile temper.
“Even paranoids can have enemies,” goes the old line; and that’s certainly true of Hamlet here: closed-circuit security cameras are everywhere, and he knows it. (At one point, right before he says “Now I am alone,” he rips out a prying apparatus lurking in one of the corners of the throne room.)
Fourth, the soliloquies are not treated as the dramaturgical equivalent of operatic arias, but flow naturally out of the action. In fact, the “to be or not to be” soliloquy is delivered almost offhandedly in a moment of philosophical reverie, while the other less famous speeches, especially the early ones, are made to reveal Hamlet’s deeply tormented soul.
Which brings me to the fifth and last great merit of this version: here Hamlet truly displays the dilemmas of his personality. It is one of the great mysteries of this play how Shakespeare manages to get the audience to sympathize with his protagonist.
Even on the surface he really is a quite appalling cad: after killing Polonius, he “lug[s] the guts” from Gertrude’s closet and calls the dead man a “foolish, prating knave”; jilts Ophelia (who clearly loves him) in the harshest manner, driving her to madness and then to her death; arranges for the death of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern without a pang of remorse (“They are not near my conscience,” he dismissively says, for which even his best friend Horatio upbraids him); and of course leaves the stage littered with corpses in the final scene.
Even Hamlet recognizes how abominable is his soul, as he avows to Ophelia:
I am myself indifferent honest [of middling virtue]; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me. I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious; with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between heaven and earth? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. (III, i, 121-130)
And yet somehow the audience identifies with him, at least in the sense of seeing things from his point of view, which is due of course primarily to the soliloquies. But also to the acting.
Here, more than in any production I have seen, Hamlet truly suffers. He is caught in some unspecified trap of his own personality that long antecedes news of his father’s murder. (His first soliloquy, “Oh, that this too, too solid flesh would melt,” is spoken before he sees the ghost.) In what must be regarded as a tour de force of acting, Tennant forces the audience to identify with him because his suffering is so acutely displayed.
In this version, there are, to be sure, some judicious cuts: the scene with the pirates is omitted (thus Hamlet’s return to Denmark is left unexplained); a few lines from the “to be or not to be” soliloquy are cut (which might seem like sacrilege to the bardolaters, but it does help undermine its over-familiarity); and Fortinbras, the prince of Norway, does not show up at the end to perform the obsequies (it being, presumably, too unlikely for a national-security state like this one to be invaded by any foreign power, let alone super-mild contemporary Norway).
But most of the play is there, yet so well-paced that the action never flags, not least because one cannot take one’s eyes off Hamlet in his suffering. As I say, here is a Hamlet that finally makes sense. Eliot was wrong after all.
Edward T. Oakes, S.J., teaches theology at the University of St. Mary of the Lake, the seminary for the Archdiocese of Chicago. His article “Hamlet and the Reformation: The Prince of Denmark as ‘Young Man Luther’” appeared recently in the Winter 2010 issue of Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture.
Eliot’s “Hamlet and His Problems” can be found here and information on Greenblatt’s Hamlet in Purgatory here. The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Hamlet can be purchased here.