Hamlet (Vol. 37)
See also Hamlet Criticism (Volume 35), and Volumes 44, 59, 71, 82.
Peter B. Murray, Macalester College
In some influential post-structuralist commentary on Shakespeare's representation of character, Hamlet is regarded as psychologically incoherent, and humanist critics are said to project onto the inscription of this character the notions of inwardness and an essential self which were fully developed only in the century following the composition of the play.1 Francis Barker argues that Hamlet is unable to define the truth of his subjectivity directly and fully because his interiority is merely "gestural," so that at his center there is "nothing" (36-7; cf. Belsey, Subject 41). Contrary both to the views of the post-structuralists and to the view attributed to humanist critics, I will argue that Hamlet is not psychologically incoherent but has the divided and only partially self-aware and self-controlling subjectivity that in Shakespeare's time was said to characterize human beings. Hamlet is unable to define the truth of his subjectivity directly and fully because he has a complex interiority that makes self-knowledge difficult. Thus this character is himself able to think about how his thinking may be in error. After all, his own statements that his inaction is caused by cowardly thinking are the main source of the theory that he rationalizes to delay revenge (esp. 4.4.32-46; cf. Belsey's opposed view of how to interpret Hamlet's soliloquies, Subject 50, 52).
Regarding the general question of how to think of the text of a play in responding to a character, there is certainly a sense in which a character exists only in the performance of an actor; but on the other hand insofar as we are aware of the actor performing, we are aware, too, that he or she is performing a text. The text is the starting point for both actor and reader. As Harry Berger argues, we infer a character from the text of a play, and this has an important corollary: "a character or dramatic person is the effect rather than the cause of his or her speech and of our interpretation" (147). Whether we are actors, audience, or readers, however, according to the Elizabethan ideas developed in Chapter 1, our imaginations will mostly assimilate scripted speeches and actions to imagined persons who, like real persons, are the cause of their speech and action. And because we respond to imagined persons as if they were real, we infer "inner" thoughts and feelings from scripted words and deeds in the process of interpreting the characters as the effect of these phenomena in the way Berger says.2
As explained in Chapters 1 and 3, the text is—and was for the Elizabethans—a score for a performance, and a critic who has seen many performances may be able to perform the analysis of the psychology of a character by responding to the text and to memories of performance as evoked by reading the text. My readings have been...
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1 For the view that Hamlet is psychologically incoherent, see Barker 39-40, Belsey, Subject 41-2, and Weimann, "Mimesis," and for an important earlier essay that has contributed to this view, cf. Booth. Ferry sees Hamlet as having an inwardness we can recognize as like our own (2-3), but she is not specifically concerned with the cultural materialist concepts of the subject: see my discussion of these concepts in Chapter 1, 5-22 and my notes there. Ferry argues that the tradition before Shakespeare provides very little sense of the sort of inward life we find in Hamlet. For powerful defenses of the view that Hamlet's character has a certain identity within its great variability, see Frye; Marvin Rosenberg, The Masks of Hamlet, esp. ix-xv. Cf. Friedman; Morin; see Cruttwell for an earlier essay with this view, esp. 121-8.
On Hamlet as a subject, cf. also Edward Burns 139-58; Eagleton, William Shakespeare 70-3; William O. Scott; States, Hamlet; Wilks 100-24; Luke Wilson. Wilks's use of Renaissance ideas of conscience, reason, and passion to analyze Hamlet's moral struggle converges with my analysis on a number of points.
I am not persuaded that the variability of Hamlet can in part be attributed to revisions in the second quarto edition making him a different character from the Hamlet of the first folio edition (see David Ward and also Werstine on this possibility). Thus I...
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