25 June 2008

Ur-Story: Hamlet

Today, let's take a look at The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

T.S. Eliot felt Hamlet needed a good editor:"So far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure." "Hamlet and His Problems" in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1922). Harold Bloom takes characteristically broad exception to Eliot's point in his essays on Hamlet in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human and Hamlet: Poem Unlimited. As Bloom says, "Shakespeare might have subtitled Hamlet either The Rehearsal or Unpack My Heart With Words, for it is a play about playing, about acting out rather than revenging. We are self-conscious, but Hamlet is consciousness of something." Hamlet, p. 11.

Hamlet does indeed mark the great divide in Western lit, and Eliot nails the dismount:
"The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. If you examine any of Shakespeare's more successful tragedies, you will find this exact equivalence; you will find that the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions; the words of Macbeth on hearing of his wife's death strike us as if, given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last event in the series. The artistic "inevitability" lies in this complete adequacy of the external to the emotion; and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear. And the supposed identity of Hamlet with his author is genuine to this point: that Hamlet's bafflement at the absence of objective equivalent to his feelings is a prolongation of the bafflement of his creator in the face of his artistic problem. Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him."
One thinks of the nearly half-century of conspiracy theories arising out of Oswald's assassination of JFK: how could such a great man be taken down by such a schlimazel?

For Eliot disgust is the overriding emotion animating Hamlet, the artistic aim of the play. Bloom's point is that Hamlet has a new feeling, and that feeling is consciousness. Hamlet, the fictional Dane, intuits that he is (let us say) 'like' a character in a play. The things that happen to him have a certain dramatic resonance, and he needs to craft a 'play within a play' to vet this feeling. This is the beginning of modernity, the origin of "consciousness" in Western lit. (Of course, there's the argument that a similar sort of consciousness was arising in his contemporary Quixote, but more on that anon.)

Nothing less than realism is at stake: Eliot pegs Hamlet (the play) as a departure from realism. Thoughts and feelings are splattered all over the page without any dramatic correspondence. Interiority without external cues/clues is his definition of artistic failure. Faithful readers of this blog will recognize Eliot's influence: we find that fiction strongest which builds genuine, detailed POV perceptions from the "spray of phenomena" and derives emotion from perception.

Bloom, too, pegs Hamlet's departure from the limits of the representational; though, for him, it is a good thing. Progressive. There is something considerably more than irony at work in a play about a 'fictional' character who feels himself to be caught up in a 'fiction' and who crafts a play to stage his feeling of existential unease; though it provides him no relief, we readers can recognize that somehow he is onto the 'truth': indeed, he is a fictional character who is caught up in a fiction. That, to Bloom, is the greatness of Hamlet.

We need not take sides in this dispute—I often counsel my friends who find themselves in the middle of a 'political' dispute between two bosses (let's say a department chair and a dean) at work not to get in the middle of an "elephant f--k". That's not quite what we're doing here. We just have a different take. If it were up to us, we would subtitle Hamlet "Where's the Beef?" or "This Time It's Personal". We've been theme-blogging something we call the 'Ur-Story' as a purely human way of understanding the inevitable sense of loss that accompanies death. Indeed, Hamlet is precisely about Hamlet's response to the death of his father. The traditional response to such sadness and loss (whether as a function of honor and duty or emotional satisfaction) has been to find out who's to blame and exact revenge/justice. Hamlet, then, we might say, poses the question, inter alia, 'whether the testimony of a ghost is sufficient to indict and convict someone for the murder of a king/father?' The answer, of course, is no. At best it can arouse our suspicions, maybe give us a clue where to look. (Though, in Macbeth, the appearance of Banquo's ghost is sufficient to elicit a sense of guilt in the regicide. Here, though, the ghost is merely an aide to, or representation of, conscience—not a coming to or representation of consciousness.) And that is insufficient legally to convict or, as the case may be, exact revenge.

How, then, does one confirm one's suspicions? First, you try to query witnesses, as does Hamlet to no avail. Nobody's talking, not even dear old Mother. Hamlet's frustration grows and he takes out a harmless interloper behind the arras. This atrocity, though, will not be avenged.

What then? Hamlet concocts the artistic solution: the play. He has the players re-enact the murder scene in front of the prime suspect, Claudius, so he can gauge his uncle's reactions. These prove confirmatory, but still insufficient to elicit a confession from the evildoer. Normally, one suspects, this would be enough to evoke action. For Shakespeare it isn't. It sounds like to me like WS is kicking the legs out from under the established conventions of the revenge genre. Is there satire here? (I'm not enough of a scholar of the Restoration revenge play tradition to say, but it'd be a good guess for further research.) So, yeah. Art can exactly imitate life (oh! oh! there's REALISM in the play!) and can produce genuine emotions in its readers/viewers/patrons/listeners. So what? Such aesthetic experiences are insufficient grounds on which to base a real-life life-or-death decision, Shakespeare seems to be showing us, though they can be insightful, illuminative. [Recall our discussion of Aristotle's rules for tragedy: the emotions elicited by the play provided the viewer with 'a sentimental education' in how to deal with real life loss. Hamlet tries to push the envelope with respect to their efficaciousness, alas, to little avail.]

What then? Hamlet, the proto-detective, is defeated by a lack of corroborating evidence and because of his madness (taking out Polonius, e.g.—this is how the elites are handled when they maltreat their lessers) is sent away. Here is where the murderer, Claudius, makes his big mistake: he sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to have Hamlet killed. He knows of Hamlet's suspicions and knows he's a potential rival; besides Hamlet's getting too close to the truth. Hamlet discovers and foils the plot and comes back to take his revenge for real this time, turning the tables once again on another of Claudius's plots to take out his nephew/rival: This Time It's Personal. It takes two attempts on Hamlet's life by Claudius before Hamlet finally decides he has sufficient evidence to take him out. Hamlet, if anything, is just. Revenge is a personal thing that in undoing the deed also undoes the doer.

Thus the play ends in bloodshed. It's as if Shakespeare is conceding the genre point: "Okay, Globe crowd, I know this has been a hell of a long play, and I know you're all expecting a big revenge-type finale. So, here it is! Take that." Hamlet slaughters pretty much everybody, taking himself out in the process, much to everyone's satisfaction; the story alone, and its teller, surviving.

The rest, as they say, is silence.

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