Hamlet vs. "Hamlet"

Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet is his most popular and most performed play. At nearly 4000 lines, it is also his longest. The play has evoked a variety of responses in the four centuries since its being penned by the bard. Hamlet the character has been elevated in the post-modern era, thanks mainly to a fetishist obsession with psychology and the Freudian literary critics who promulgated it. Of these, Harold Bloom is probably the best known, although he might balk at being associated with any one school. Individuality is everything for Bloom, his own special kind of gnosis. Against the Freudians, the New Critics developed a method of literary criticism that insisted upon viewing the work as a self-contained whole. Meaning, for the New Critics, is to be found only in the language used by the author. T. S. Eliot is often portrayed as the father of New Criticism, but he distanced himself from the movement several times. Yet, what Eliot does share with the New Critics is a repudiation of the Freudians. He and Bloom represent the two most common approaches to Shakespeare’s most famous play. And, they are as opposed to one another as oil and water.

Hamlet the Man

I read a quote somewhere long ago in which Bloom identifies himself as a gnostic Jew. But, in his criticism, his brand of gnosis is not so much a special kind of knowledge as a particular kind of power. Bloom is also Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale University where he has been teaching literature as religion for over half a century. I appreciate Bloom’s defense of the Western Canon, contra most of academia, however, like all Freudians, his reading of the Canon is often highly idiosyncratic, almost to the point of wish fulfillment.

You know what you’re in for from the first sentence of Bloom’s essay “Hamlet,” which appears in his thick book Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. “The origins of Shakespeare’s most famous play are as shrouded as Hamlet’s textual condition is confused.” Bloom is referring obliquely to some uncertainties regarding the origins of Shakespeare’s play. The uncertainties are mostly Bloom’s and his fellow Freudians’, who made it vogue to doubt even that Shakespeare was one person. The majority opinion among critics attributes Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Thomas Kyd’s revenge play The Spanish Tragedy. For Bloom, there is room for speculation because no earlier text is extant, penned either by Kyd or Shakespeare, with which to compare the play’s final form. In the end, Bloom dismisses the Ur-Hamlet altogether, concluding “Hamlet and Hamlet are more indebted to the Henry IV plays and Falstaff than to an embryonic Hamlet.” For Bloom, all roads lead to Falstaff.

Bloom finds significance in certain details of Shakespeare’s life, such as the similarity between the names Hamlet and Hamnet, the latter being the name of Shakespeare’s son, who died at the age of 11; or, that it is believed Shakespeare himself played the role of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, more than once. With comical hubris, Bloom engages in a form of necro-psychoanalysis that would astonish even Freud who, as far as I know, was never able to diagnose someone dead for 400 years. Undaunted, Bloom determines that “Hamlet is also Shakespeare’s death, his dead son and his dead father.” He concludes “we may surmise that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s own consciousness.”

Bloom places the utmost value on individuality. What makes Hamlet’s individuality so complete is his freedom, which he achieves through negation. Bloom writes “Hamlet abandons the will, and so is free.” Bloom turns to Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy to support his claim. Nietzsche writes of the “chasm of oblivion” that separates the Dionysian state and the every-day world. When the realities of the every-day world reassert themselves, the Dionysian state fades and a “will-negating mood” settles in. Such is Hamlet for Bloom. But, a misanthrope perpetually in a “will-negating mood” can hardly meet the requirements of a staged drama where something must happen. Bloom reassures us not to worry about this. “We can forget Hamlet’s ‘indecision’ and his ‘duty’ to kill the usurping king-uncle.” By Act V, Bloom announces, the message of the Ghost of Hamlet’s father “has no power, and we come to see that hesitation and consciousness are synonyms in this vast play.”

For Bloom, Hamlet is all about Hamlet, which is to say it is a play about a consciousness that has reached the zenith of internalization. He is free of any sense of duty, to father, to Ophelia, to the kingdom. This makes Hamlet Shakespeare’s greatest achievement in Bloom’s view. Many in the post-modern era agree with Bloom, which explains Hamlet’s popularity in an age obsessed with self-identity. But, how does one stage a consciousness? This was the crux of Eliot’s critique of this play, a critique which Bloom dismisses without serious consideration. Yet, claims that Hamlet is a character without a play are not without merit.

Hamlet the Play

Thomas Stearns Eliot was an American ex-patriot who settled in London. He was a publisher, literary critic, essayist, playwright, and one of the best poets of the 20th century. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948, back when the folks in Sweden knew what they were doing.

Eliot wisely resisted the Freudian penchant for wildly speculative psychoanalysis, preferring instead to restrict his comments to what we do know, which is Hamlet, the play. And, the play, Eliot succinctly posited, is “an artistic failure.”

Eliot begins his essay Hamlet in a much different manner than Bloom begins his. Where Bloom begins (and ends) in confusion, Eliot is clear. “Few critics have ever admitted that Hamlet the play is the primary problem, and Hamlet the character only secondary.” Eliot then aims a barbed riposte at the Freudians. Of these, Eliot writes “Hamlet the character has had an especial temptation for that most dangerous type of critic: the critic with a mind which is naturally of the creative order, but which through some weakness in creative power exercises itself in criticism instead.” Such critics have forgotten that their “first business was to study a work of art.”

Eliot commends a contemporary critic, one Professor Stolls of the University of Minnesota, for urging us to recollect the work of 16th and 17th century critics who “knew less about psychology than more recent Hamlet critics, but they were nearer in spirit to Shakespeare’s art.” Along with Professor Stolls, Eliot insisted on considering the effect of the whole, not the importance of one part, such as character. This is Aristotelianism, which Bloom adamantly wants to discredit. For Aristotle, and Eliot, the excellence of an artifact, its beauty, results from the appropriate alignment of the parts into an ordered whole. The only interpretation a critic ought to engage in “is the presentation of relevant historical facts which the reader is not assumed to know.” Small wonder Bloom has such a strong distaste for Eliot.

Eliot, taking the play as whole, observes that insofar as it is Shakespeare’s, it is “a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son, and that Shakespeare was unable to impose this motive successfully upon the ‘intractable’ material of the old play.” Thus, Eliot concludes, “so far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure.”

Historical Roots of Hamlet

The historical facts Eliot has in mind are regarding Kyd’s Hamlet, mentioned above. Kyd’s play in turn was most likely based upon a Norse legend composed in Latin in 1200, by Saxo Grammaticus, in which the central character, Amleth, must avenge his father’s death at the usurper king’s hands, but fears for his life and must keep his plot hidden. The story was printed in Paris in 1514, and a French translation by Francois de Belleforest appeared in 1570. An English version was printed in England in 1608, but since Shakespeare’s Hamlet was written by 1600, some scholars believe the English version of Saxo Grammaticus’s story was based on Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which means Shakespeare was either fluent in French, or was using some other translation of the story for his Hamlet. Both possibilities seem unlikely. Most scholars concur that Shakespeare based his play on Kyd’s, known as the Ur-Hamlet, which followed a traditional revenge motif. Shakespeare made significant alterations to Kyd’s play. For example, what has become Hamlet’s famous indecision, or consciousness as Bloom describes it, was in Kyd’s play only a stall tactic while Hamlet devised a means of assassinating a king who was constantly surrounded by guards. In Kyd’s Hamlet, the prince’s madness is feigned to avoid detection by the king. In Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the prince’s madness arouses the king’s suspicion. Eliot notes “there are verbal parallels so close to the Spanish Tragedy as to leave no doubt that in places Shakespeare was merely revising the text of Kyd.” Bloom and the Ur-Hamlet skeptics ignore all of this.

Aristotelian Assessments

In Aristotelian terms, Eliot’s critique of Hamlet is that its parts are not ordered to the whole, it lacks what Aristotle calls a proper magnitude. Hamlet the character is too big for Hamlet the play. It’s like an elephant with the legs of a deer. Eliot observes, “Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.” Shakespeare has missed Aristotle’s Golden Mean. Hamlet’s problem, Eliot goes on to say, is that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but she is inadequate to objectify this feeling. We understand Lady Macbeth’s horror when she sees blood on her hands that she cannot remove. But, Eliot notes that regarding Gertrude, Hamlet’s “disgust envelops and exceeds her.” Thus, Hamlet, and Shakespeare, are left with a dominant feeling that cannot be understood by either of them. Thus, “none of the possible actions can satisfy it.” There is nowhere Shakespeare can go with Hamlet.

For Bloom, Hamlet the man is one of Shakespeare’s greatest inventions. For Eliot, whatever interest Hamlet the man might hold, he is a poor excuse for a bad play. Hamlet the man is a mottle of inexpressible emotions that merely fester until the malcontent prince is put out of his, and our, misery.

The Catholic View

Fr. Peter Milward, S.J., published a slim volume titled The Catholicism of Shakespeare’s Plays. In the chapter on Hamlet, Fr. Milward acknowledges the validity of Eliot’s criticisms, but he posits an alternative means of understanding the play. He suggests the play must be understood in the context of Elizabethan England rather than medieval Denmark. Fr. Milward believes “the dramatist is thinking not only of the particular tragedy of Hamlet in mediaeval Denmark, but of the general situation of Catholics in Elizabethan England; and in this play he reflects that situation more clearly than in any previous play.” When Hamlet laments, “But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue!” (I.ii.163), Fr. Milward hears Shakespeare “lamenting the sad passing of Catholic England.” Again, at the conclusion of the play, when the dying Hamlet tells his friend Horatio “report me and my cause aright,” Fr. Milward sees a parallel with English Catholics of Shakespeare’s time, for whom “it was indeed a matter of concern for them that their cause should be reported aright, when it was so widely misunderstood and misreported through the constant official propaganda.” This interpretation seems valid considering the perplexity scholars have expressed regarding Hamlet’s last instruction to his friend. What was his cause? Why does a man so disillusioned with life want to be remembered? Considering this scene in the context of Shakespeare’s England might suggest some answers.

In recent decades, attempts have been made to discredit the popular belief that Shakespeare was Catholic. While we cannot know the man’s beliefs, there is no doubt whatsoever that William’s father, John Shakespeare, was a practicing Catholic. In a book titled Shakespeare and Catholicism, authors H. Mutschmann and K. Wentersdorf observe that “Hamlet has more than once been quoted to prove the alleged paganism of its author.” Yet, the play “contains a surprisingly large number of Christian, and more especially, Catholic elements.” While Bloom insists Hamlet is not a Christian play, Mutschmann and Wentersdorf assert that “during the time of its composition, Shakespeare must have been dwelling in his mind more than usual on the problems of religion.” Revenge is not a Christian motive, and the play is filled with a series of murders. This would seem to distance Hamlet from Catholicism. What are the Catholic elements of the play, then?

Mutschmann and Wentersdorf identify five specifically Catholic elements in Hamlet. First, they describe the Ghost of Hamlet’s father as a Catholic Ghost because he has come from Purgatory. He claims he had been sent to his death “unhouseled, disappointed, unaneled.” This means he died without last rites and is now being purged of his sins. If so, it seems the elder Hamlet is not making much progress since he tells his son to avenge his death. Second, Hamlet encourages Ophelia to retreat to a nunnery. This is interesting advice considering the Dissolution of the Monasteries by Elizabeth’s father Henry VIII. Third, King Claudius seeks forgiveness from God in prayer for the guilt he feels over being a fratricide. Initially, he feels confident in God’s mercy, then he wavers. Mutschmann and Wentersdorf observe that “in complete accordance with Catholic doctrine” Claudius realizes that the Divine Mercy requires at least imperfect contrition. Without contrition and reparation, there can be no forgiveness of sins. Claudius despairs in this moment because he knows he is not repentant. Fourth, the burial of Ophelia is described in detail, and it is clearly a Catholic burial. Her death is suspected to be suicide, so she is only granted “maimed rites,” but these are in accord with Catholic Canon law according to Mutschmann and Wentersdorf. The authors also cite Protestant critics who are amazed at Shakespeare’s knowledge of medieval Catholic practices. With wry humor, Mutschmann and Wentersdorf comment that “it would only be curious if we did not know that the poet had been brought up in a Catholic environment, and that he must have been in contact with priests of the Roman Church throughout the long years of his stay in London.” Fifth, Hamlet believes in an afterlife. His final words before he dies are “the rest is silence” (V.2.372). Many scholars have seized upon this line as “proof” that Hamlet did not believe his soul would live on after the death of his body. However, as Mutschmann and Wentersdorf note, this makes no sense given Hamlet’s conclusion in the famous “To be, or not to be” soliloquy, that the soul will be judged in the next world after the body dies. Hamlet’s final words, then, are to be understood only as the punctuation mark to his final speech to Fortinbras in which he seeks to appoint an able man as the next king of Denmark to preserve the kingdom from civil war. He has done all he can. There is no more he can say.

Harold Bloom, the Freudian, looks past the play Hamlet to the man Hamlet. Eliot, perhaps, ignores the man too much because the primary problem, the play, is insurmountable. The New Critics would reject Fr. Milward’s attempt to find parallels in Elizabethan England. But, the efforts of Fr. Milward, Mutschmann and Wentersdorf might help Catholics, at least, to appreciate a level of meaning in the play that others miss. But, Eliot is right. Hamlet the character is the secondary problem. But, he is a big problem because he speaks almost all of the nearly 4000 lines in the play.

We can never know what Shakespeare’s beliefs were. Yet, viewing the play from a Catholic perspective seems the most helpful to me. Allowing myself a bit of speculative inquiry, I think Shakespeare was reflecting upon the state of England under Elizabeth. Hamlet is certainly Shakespeare’s most philosophical play. “What is a man?” Hamlet asks, echoing the Psalmist. Other questions are implied. What is a mother? A father? What is justice? What is a king? St. Paul tells us the authority of kings is derived from the authority of God. Henry VIII abused his authority when he repudiated the authority of God’s Vicar on Earth. Anglican Elizabeth forced her Catholic sister Mary from the throne. Thus began the increasingly draconian treatment of Catholics in England and Ireland. Perhaps Fr. Milward was right. Maybe Shakespeare was mourning the loss of Catholic England. We cannot know. We have only this vast, disjointed play with its inimitably enigmatic protagonist. The rest is silence.

Tom Jay