Reading Shakespeare: Hamlet

Writing anything about Hamlet is to be a decided amateur, a devoted duffer. The hopelessly amateur golfer likely loves the game, knows the course(s) he plays inside and out, immerses herself in the world and lore of the sport, and knows that there’s nothing he can do that hasn’t been done before and better by those before…but he loves the hell out of it all anyway. I know I’ll never be the equal of the play—or the critics who have written so much about it—but I feel compelled to write anyway.

I need some kind of full-page-size highlighter or underlining device when reading Hamlet. There’s hardly a page (a half-page in the edition I’ve been reading) that doesn’t have a passage worth noting. The blue veins of my underlining throughout the text indicate a dense circulatory system of creativity and brilliance. I don’t have the superlatives needed to describe how mind-blowingly good Hamlet was this time around, though I was re-reading it for the umpteenth time. I give a lot of credit to the excellent annotations of the Arden edition of the text which put a bright light on many subtleties and allusions I’d previously missed. The verbal riches of this play alone are absurd.

I wouldn’t say Hamlet is wasted on the young, but it’s a play that deserves to be read slowly and attentively as an older adult. What I appreciate about Hamlet can be likened to an expanding set of concentric circles…what I liked about it in high school, then what I understood in college, what moved me so much in my mid–20s, and the amazing importance it has assumed for me in my late 30s. There are so many layers of wordplay, so many levels of humor and wisdom, and so many mysteries and ambiguities in the nature of the characters (some intentional, some perhaps not) that I doubt I will ever come close to unraveling and getting a fix on even a simple majority of them. So, if these notes are a bit scattered, so be it. It’s my blog; I’ll ramble if I want to.

This time around, I’ve been rethinking my thoughts about the character of Hamlet…and I’m going to write a bit about that despite the danger of becoming disconnected from the play and/or immersed in myself, both of which I think someone whose name I can’t remember had in mind when they wrote:

“Hamlet without Hamlet has been thought about all too much.”

I’ve never been comfortable with the common notion that Hamlet represents the inability to act that comes from excessive contemplation. Since my first reading I’ve felt Hamlet wasn’t conflicted about what to do nor was “to be or not to be” a reflection on any simple decision(s) such as suicide, taking action against Claudius, or being responsible to one’s core beliefs. My idea has been that Hamlet was “broken,” not in the traditional sense of madness (unless one engages in a kind of regression ad absurdum, asserting that Hamlet’s madness must be real because his feigned madness is so effective, and so on), but in having somehow gone through to the other side of anger and frustration into that realm of pure angry clarity, where taking action is probably best left a temptation, and consideration of that action a kind of succor. Doesn’t this better explain how the “indecisive” Hamlet can maintain his act of madness, down to the winking asides, while so capably skewering Polonius—verbally and then literally—and so easily take action when he must? If we consider that Hamlet kills Polonius not out of (just) anger at Polonius’ close ties to Claudius (from Hamlet’s perspective, and mine, Polonius must suspect Polonius of, at best, willful ignorance regarding Claudius’s treachery) but because Gertrude cries out for help and implies that she could be in mortal danger, and how deftly and quickly he outmaneuvers and puts in place a counter plot to foil the foils in the form of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, it seems to me that Hamlet is decisive when he needs to be.

And that’s the key—there’s no indecision in Hamlet when he needs it. So why is he seen as indecisive and ineffectual? Because that’s one way of interpreting the long-pauses and self-talking soliloquies. Another way would be that Hamlet is waiting, an act of great rationality and prudence. Claudius must act. Hamlet will wait for him to do so in order to ensure that when he strikes, he does so most decisively. If anything, Hamlet is showing great restraint in taking action through such a circuitous route.

But, serendipitously, I’ve been reading Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy and he has a take on Hamlet’s position that encompasses and exceeds my own. He writes:

The ecstasy of the Dionysian state, with its obliteration of the customary manacles and boundaries of existence, contains, of course, for as long as it lasts a lethargic element, in which everything personally experienced in the past is immersed. Because of this gulf of oblivion, the world of everyday reality and the world of Dionysian reality separate from each other. But as soon as that daily reality comes back again into consciousness, one feels it as something disgusting. The fruit of that state is an ascetic condition, in which one denies the power of the will. In this sense the Dionysian man has similarities to Hamlet: both have had a real glimpse into the essence of things. They have understood, and it disgusts them to act, for their action can change nothing in the eternal nature of things. They perceive as ridiculous or humiliating the fact that they are expected to set right again a world which is out of joint. The knowledge kills action, for action requires a state of being in which we are covered with the veil of illusion—that is what Hamlet has to teach us, not that really venal wisdom about John-a-Dreams, who cannot move himself to act because of too much reflection, because of an excess of possibilities, so to speak. It’s not a case of reflection. No!—the true knowledge, the glimpse into the cruel truth overcomes every driving motive to act, both in Hamlet as well as in the Dionysian man. Now no consolation has any effect any more. His longing goes out over a world, even beyond the gods themselves, toward death. Existence is denied, together with its blazing reflection in the gods or in an immortal afterlife. In the consciousness of once having glimpsed the truth, the man now sees everywhere only the horror or absurdity of being; now he understands the symbolism in the fate of Ophelia; now he recognizes the wisdom of the forest god Silenus. It disgusts him.

“Absurdity” was the missing, important aspect of my own conception. Shakespeare spends a lot of time establishing just how smart Hamlet is. Perhaps Hamlet is too smart and, because of this, he perceives an existential absurdity that would only be explicated directly hundreds of years later by Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Sartre, etc (and that essentially created modernism, and that I can trace with even my meager knowledge of dram as a line from Hamlet through Waiting for Godot to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). It is a terrible clarity, but one with much deeper roots than the anger I’d always attributed it to.

And to take it just a bit further, this has completely—and unwittingly—informed my own thinking about existence and suicide, inclinations toward the latter of which are surely part of the reason I (and probably many others like me) glommed on to Hamlet so readily. If one looks around and truly feels that there’s nothing that he or she can change, that the world rolls on regardless, that only a most famous handful will have any existence even in memory—and even that ethereal reflection of existence owes as much to happenstance and/or tragedy than any action on their own parts—then any action feels ineffectual and one’s position absurd. In the face of that, when the easiest action is to, in effect, give up and swallow the bromides of self-help or just lay back and let the waves carry you where they may, wrapped up in television, sports, Facebook, and the like, isn’t suicide in some sense a most courageous act? Not the most courageous—that respect I reserve to those who maintain that there is some intrinsic value in a certain kind of action, the people who for no reason other than that they’ve reached a point of being comfortable with actions-in-themselves, maintain their manners even while the plane they are on is going down—but an act nevertheless as likely borne of heart as cowardice?

And I think my feeling that Hamlet has inhabited this kind of exceptional clarity is further supported by his final words:

You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time—as this fell sergeant, death,
Is strict in his arrest—O, I could tell you—
But let it be.

Isn’t it likely that what he could have told Horatio was the secret of existence as a theater of the absurd no more or less rational than the very theater (and the theater within the theater) that was his—and every one else’s life?

This is the kind of stuff that tempts me toward serious literary investigation and criticism despite knowing how poisonous such pursuits can be for me if I’m not extremely careful…

I find myself rethinking other characters as well. Polonius is often played for laughs with his overwrought language and excessive deference. But I wonder if he isn’t quite a bit sharper than we would suppose. Though Hamlet gets the best of him in their verbal jousting, who would not? It seems clear to me that the deferential way in which Polonius approaches Claudius is quite different from the way he approaches Hamlet. In the former he is exercising prudence; in the second he is administering a test.

Polonius doesn’t get a lot of time to make a case for himself. Our perception—as with most of the play—is really that of Hamlet. The parallel between Hamlet’s verbal humiliation of Polonius and his similar goring of Osric, when the two victims are poles apart in even the least charitable reading, has to call Hamlet’s assessment of Polonius into question. Further, in one of the few scenes in the play in which Polonius can speak freely, he acquits himself rather well, explicitly apologizing to Ophelia for being wrong about the cause of Hamlet’s madness:

I am sorry that with better heed and judgment
I had not quoted him: I fear’d he did but trifle,
And meant to wreck thee; but, beshrew my jealousy!
By heaven, it is as proper to our age
To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions
As it is common for the younger sort
To lack discretion. Come, go we to the king:
This must be known; which, being kept close, might move
More grief to hide than hate to utter love.

This can be played for more laughs, but it seems a bit of a stretch to me. Polonius still doesn’t understand what is afflicting Hamlet, but thats hardly a serious knock against him, all things considered!

Finally, I also feel I’m coming to a clearer understanding of the role of Horatio as more than mere foil. Horatio’s background, like some other “simple” details in the play, is muddled (just how old is he anyway?)—at one point he is cast as relatively new to Denmark, at another he’s explaining Denmark’s internal politics with some authority, but he’s clearly Hamlet’s best friend. Or does he become so as the play progresses and partly as a function of Rosencrantz and Guildensterns’ unwitting betrayal?

And again, presaging an implication of Nietzsche’s argument (which I read only after jotting this down in my notebook), is Horatio’s willingness to sacrifice his own life at the end of the play a simple matter of being bonded to a best friend or is he performing for us the role of an audience member to the tragic finale, one who is—as we are meant to be—moved at the dramatic height of the action into forgetting his self in true Dionysian fashion?

I could go on at much greater length, but I’ve exhausted my time (and energy) for the moment. Perhaps I’ll throw in some additional thoughts along with my commonplace book entries.

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