Hamlet (Vol. 71)
See also, Hamlet Criticism and volumes 37 and 44.
Considered to be the world's most popular tragedy, Hamlet combines the emotional power of a family in crisis with the political intrigue surrounding the corruption of the Danish court. Hamlet finds himself at the center of this drama following the death of his father, the King of Denmark, whom Hamlet believes has been murdered by the king's own brother, Claudius. To make matters worse, Claudius has married Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and has become the new king. The character of Hamlet continues to be a source of major critical commentary and debate. Critics are particularly interested in Hamlet's delay in avenging his father's death, and his supposed madness. Other areas of critical concern include the role of the theater and of theatricality within the play, issues of sexuality and gender roles, and the play's treatment of the conflicts between reason and emotion, and between man as a victim of fate versus man as the controller of his destiny. Modern film and stage directors of Hamlet grapple with how to dramatically represent these issues as well.
Hamlet's delay in avenging his father's death has perplexed many readers and critics. Paul Gottschalk (1973) examines the prayer scene, in which Hamlet has the opportunity to kill Claudius while he is praying, and discusses both Hamlet's delay and his overall character. Hamlet states that he does not kill the king during prayer because his revenge would be spoiled; he believes that Claudius, killed at prayer, would not be damned to Hell. Gottschalk contends that this scene reveals Hamlet's villainy, and finds it to be a true low point in his spiritual journey. However, by the end of the play, Gottschalk maintains, Hamlet ultimately achieves redemption and spiritual regeneration. Taking another approach to the analysis of Hamlet's delay, John Hunt (1988) examines the play's use of corporeal imagery in order to show that Hamlet is unable to adequately react to the demands made upon him by the Ghost until he accepts his own physicality and overcomes his contempt for the body. Hunt suggests that the physical body is used not only as a symbol of Hamlet's disgust for physicality, but it additionally serves as a representation of the spirit, Christ, the Church, and the body politic. Psychoanalytical interpretation of Hamlet's character is a popular area of critical study as well. Bennett Simon (2001) reviews the major trends in the psychoanalytic analysis of Hamlet, the play, and several other characters. In his discussion, Simon analyzes Hamlet in light of trauma theory, which suggests that the shattering of basic assumptions—including the assumption that close individuals may be trusted and that the stability of family and the natural world may be counted on—results in the development of a sense of unreality in the affected individual. In Simon's survey, he examines the question of whether Hamlet is acting or is truly mad.
The play's treatment of theatricality and the role of the theater is another area of critical study. Charles R. Forker (1963) analyzes the implications of the way the theater functions as a symbol in Hamlet, contending that the theater serves as a symbol for the exposure of unseen realities and the revelation of secrets. Brent M. Cohen (1977) argues that Shakespeare's use of the theater, particularly the unique design of the Elizabethan theater, allowed Shakespeare to challenge his audience in unique ways. Cohen shows that the absence of physical barriers between the stage and the audience in the Elizabethan theater gave the audience a conflicted understanding of their role within the action of the play. Cohen emphasizes that in Hamlet, Shakespeare used the theater, theatricality, artifice, and performance to develop the audience's sense of self-consciousness; he did not use the theater, Cohen stresses, for the purposes of encouraging audience identification with the characters in the play. Critics Michael Taylor (1971) and Eric Levy (2001) have studied the play's conflicts between fate and destiny, and between reason and emotion, respectively. Taylor contends that the central conflict in Hamlet is between “man as victim of fate and as controller of his own destiny.” Taylor characterizes the first four acts of the play as being pervaded by the notion that man is the master of his own destiny, and argues that this idea is reflected in the way language is used by characters to control and disguise meaning. In the fifth act, Hamlet's attitude changes, Taylor contends, in that Hamlet has come to believe that man is in fact limited in his ability to affect his destiny. Levy is concerned with the play's treatment of the control of emotion through reason, and demonstrates that Hamlet is concerned not just with controlling emotion through rational thought, but with the use of rational thought to provoke emotion. Levy's analysis is informed by his study of the Christian-humanist doctrine on reason and emotion as outlined in the Aristotelian-Thomist system. Exploring the issues of sexuality and gender roles, James W. Stone (1995) investigates the way in which androgyny is represented as a collapse of sexual difference through the portrayal of Hamlet as feminized and impotent and the depiction of Gertrude as masculinized and castrating. Such a collapse in sexual difference, Stone maintains, generates a related collapse in moral meaning and a disintegration of moral boundaries in the play.
Hamlet's continued popularity has made it a favorite of both film and stage productions. John P. McCombe (1997) and Samuel Crowl (1998) both examine Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film production of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson in the title role and Glenn Close as Gertrude, and find that it focuses heavily on the mother-son bond between Hamlet and Gertrude. McCombe charges that Zeffirelli is overly concerned with this relationship and its dysfunctional nature, to the point that the play's political issues are ignored. Crowl takes a more favorable view of Zeffirelli's somewhat narrow focus. He praises Zeffirelli's casting, textual editing, and exploitation of cinematic space and landscape, and claims that the film offers a full exploration of the play as a family romance centered around Gertrude. Hamlet remains popular on the stage as well. Marguerite Tassi (2001) reviews a stage production of the play directed by Peter Brook, noting that Brook's adaptation is often viewed as controversial. Tassi explains that Brook eliminated from the play all that he deemed “inessential,” resulting in a simple and stark production designed to direct the audience's awareness to the play's exploration of the philosophical problems of being. While Tassi praises Adrian Lester's performance of Hamlet, she contends that the production suffered from problems related to Brooks's textual alterations. Bernice W. Kliman (2001) assesses Brooks's production as well, comparing it with John Caird's version of the play for the Royal National Theater, starring Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet. Kliman praises both productions, particularly the performances of Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet in Caird's play and Adrian Lester's Hamlet in Brook's production.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Blits, Jan H. Introduction to Deadly Thought: ‘Hamlet’ and the Human Soul, pp. 3-21. Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001.
[In the following essay, Blits offers an overview of Hamlet, examines the play's characters, language, structure, and content, and argues that play provides a critique of the Renaissance.]
Hamlet takes place in the early sixteenth century—a time of intellectual rebirth and religious reformation in Denmark. As we see throughout the play, Hamlet's Denmark is marked by the ongoing rediscovery of classical or neoclassical antiquity on the one hand and the rising reformation of the Christian doctrine of salvation on the other. While the Middle Ages still cast a long shadow, the medieval world of constancy, chivalry, tradition, honor, and martial virtue has largely given way to a new age of mobility and change—of tradesmen, industry, wealth, diplomacy, and commerce (1.1.73-98).1 The manly virtue of old Hamlet now seems to be merely a memory:
A was a man, take him for all in all, I shall not look upon his like again.
Virtually all the characters in Hamlet still believe in purgatory, angels, saints, and ghosts, and take very seriously the rites of the Catholic church. Denmark is still a Catholic country.2 Yet, Shakespeare not only has Hamlet conspicuously pun on the Diet of...
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Gottschalk, Paul. “Hamlet and the Scanning of Revenge.” Shakespeare Quarterly 24, no. 2 (spring 1973): 155-70.
[In the following essay, Gottschalk examines Hamlet's character, contending that although he reveals his villainy and spiritual confusion in the prayer scene, he ultimately achieves redemption and spiritual regeneration at the play's end.]
One of the most perplexing moments in the perplexing play of Hamlet comes in the Prayer Scene when Hamlet, convinced of the King's guilt and ready “to drink hot blood,” happens upon Claudius at prayer, unsheathes his sword, is about to kill him—and then does not, giving as reason his unwillingness to send Claudius' soul to heaven and thus mar his own revenge:
Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent, When he is drunk asleep; or in his rage; Or in th' incestuous pleasure of his bed; At gaming, swearing, or about some act That has no relish of salvation in't— Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven, And that his soul may be as damn'd and black As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays. This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.
(III. iv. 88-96)1
In a famous gloss, Dr. Johnson raised the dilemma for critics to come: “This speech, in which Hamlet, represented as a virtuous character, is not content with taking blood for blood, but contrives damnation for the man that...
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SOURCE: Hunt, John. “A Thing of Nothing: The Catastrophic Body in Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 39, no. 1 (spring 1988): 27-44.
[In the following essay, Hunt analyzes Hamlet's corporeal imagery as a means of exploring Hamlet's persistent state of indecision, asserting that before Hamlet can respond to the demands of the Ghost, he must first come to accept his own physicality and overcome his contempt for the body.]
If Hamlet actually writes down moral lessons on his tablets as he studies his revenge, many of them surely have to do with how life is lived, and lost, in bodies. Far more even than in Macbeth or Coriolanus, the human body in Hamlet forms human experience, being the medium through which men suffer and act. But the body also deforms human beings and threatens ultimately to reduce them to nothing. The nonbeing lurking at the material center of being announces itself everywhere in the play's corporeal imagery, and occupies Hamlet's mind as he tries to find his way from the regal death that initiates the action to the regal death that concludes it. This essay examines the problem in two parts, using an analysis of the imagery as an approach to the great mystery of the play, Hamlet's quandary about how to act. It suggests that Hamlet cannot adequately respond to the Ghost's commands until he learns to accept physicality, with all its dissolute inconstancy, as...
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SOURCE: Simon, Bennett. “Hamlet and the Trauma Doctors: An Essay at Interpretation.” American Imago 58, no. 3 (2001): 707-22.
[In the following essay, Simon reviews the major trends in the psychoanalytic analysis of Hamlet, and interprets both the play and Hamlet's character on the basis of trauma theory.]
In the 400 years of Hamlet interpretation, psychoanalysis is a relative newcomer, only a century or so old. During that century, there have been notable shifts in the mode of interpreting the play, both in the critical world at large and in the narrower psychoanalytic world. In part, changes in the psychoanalytic interpretation of the play have had to do with shifts in dominant psychoanalytic paradigms—a process even more striking in the history of interpretation of Oedipus Rex than of Hamlet.1 In part, however, changes in the dominant mode of literary critical interpretations of the play have set the stage, as it were, for new psychoanalytic approaches.2
I would like, in this essay, to review several broad trends in the history of interpretation of the play and to locate within those trends some dominant themes in psychoanalytic interpretation. In that context, I then want to offer my own late-twentieth-century psychoanalytic interpretation—both of Hamlet and Hamlet—based on trauma theory.
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: McCombe, John P. “Toward an Objective Correlative: The Problem of Desire in Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet.” Literature/Film Quarterly 25, no. 2 (1997): 125-31.
[In the following review, McCombe assesses Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film production of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson as Hamlet and Glenn Close as Gertrude. McCombe faults the production for its overemphasis on the dysfunctional bond between Hamlet and Gertrude, and notes that the film fails to fully explore the political elements of the play, such as the corruption of the Danish court.]
It is a disheartening comment on the current state of Shakespeare in Hollywood that many productions undermine the ambiguities which make his plays so readily available to interpretive criticism. One such example is the 1990 film version of Hamlet, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Like many representations of Shakespeare on film, Zeffirelli carefully edits the play to adhere to what Hollywood believes to be the approximately two-hour attention span of the cinema patron. In the process, Hamlet becomes less a tale of political corruption in the Danish court and, instead, more closely resembles a dysfunctional family melodrama. Hamlet successfully occupies both positions at once.
Because the affairs of state have been de-emphasized, Zeffirelli's Hamlet does not have to reconcile the demands of his position as...
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SOURCE: Crowl, Samuel. “Zeffirelli's Hamlet: The Golden Girl and a Fistful of Dust.” Cineaste 24, no. 1 (1998): 56-61.
[In the following review, Crowl examines Franco Zeffirelli's 1990 film version of Hamlet, starring Mel Gibson as Hamlet and Glenn Close as Gertrude. Crowl praises Zeffirelli's casting, textual editing, and exploitation of cinematic space and landscape, and claims that the film offers a full exploration of the play as a family romance centered around Gertrude.]
Franco Zeffirelli, the maker of the most commercially successful of all Shakespeare films, has received paradoxically less critical attention than any of the other major directors of Shakespeare films. Olivier, Welles, Kurosawa, Kozintsev, and Branagh all have found their work at the center of scrutiny in the growing body of critical literature devoted to Shakespeare on film. But not Zeffirelli. Of the six books which appeared between 1988 and 1992, and which constituted a mini-explosion of critical interest in Shakespeare as a subject for film, only one, Peter Donaldson's Shakespearean Films/Shakespearean Directors, contained an extended analysis of a Zeffirelli film.1 He was ignored by the others, as he was by Charles Eckert's pioneering collection of essays on Shakespearean films which appeared in 1972 just four years after the release of Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet.2 Only...
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SOURCE: Kliman, Bernice W. “A Richness of Hamlets.” The Shakespeare Newsletter 51, nos. 248-249 (spring-summer 2001): 39, 42, 44.
[In the following review, Kliman compares two stage productions of Hamlet, one directed by John Caird and the other by Peter Brook. Kliman praises both productions, particularly the performances of Simon Russell Beale as Hamlet in Caird's play and Adrian Lester's Hamlet in Brook's production.]
In his 1996 film, Kenneth Branagh cast Simon Russell Beale, who already had a distinguished career on stage, as the Second Gravedigger. Branagh darkened the shots with Beale almost to impenetrability and positioned him with back to camera or off-frame. But you can't keep a good man down. In the recent Royal National Theatre touring production, Beale embodied Hamlet, almost miraculously, as a good man in the deepest and richest sense of that bland word “good.”
The concurrent Hamlet by Adrian Lester provides an opportunity to compare two formidable performers and directors. In the Cheek by Jowl production of As You Like It, Lester played a superb Rosalind with wit, intelligence and depth. His character in the Mike Nichols film Primary Colors is as serious and thoughtful as his Hamlet is manic. He has the variety, the vocal and physical range, of all great actors. His portrayal of Hamlet, like Beale's, is a gift to those who love the play....
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SOURCE: Tassi, Marguerite. “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Peter Brook's Adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet.” The Shakespeare Newsletter 51, nos. 248-249 (spring-summer 2001): 39-40.
[In the following review, Tassi comments on Peter Brook's stage production of Hamlet. Tassi observes the production's simplicity and starkness, praises Adrian Lester's performance of Hamlet, and notes that the production at times suffered from problems due to Brook's script alterations.]
On Sunday, April 15 at the Mercer Arena in Seattle, Washington, the evening performance was The Tragedy of Hamlet, British director Peter Brook's controversial adaptation of Shakespeare's play. In the program notes, Brook asserted, “It is only when we forget Shakespeare that we can begin to find him.” In this enigmatic statement we find Brook's justification for his alteration of the play's form and his search for vital, even primal, forces at work in character and language that have not been emphasized by other directors. This production was clearly not a resurrection of the Elizabethan theater, for Brook's concern was not to aim for an authentic reproduction of the early modern play (as much as that is possible), nor was it to stay faithful to the First Folio's or second quarto's forms. In The Tragedy of Hamlet, Brook's third professional attempt at the play, he stripped away everything he found...
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SOURCE: Forker, Charles R. “Shakespeare's Theatrical Symbolism and Its Function in Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 14, no. 3 (summer 1963): 215-29.
[In the following essay, Forker analyzes the implications of the way the theater functions as a symbol in Hamlet, contending that the theater serves as a symbol for the exposure of unseen realities and the revelation of secrets.]
A rapid glance at any concordance will reveal that Shakespeare, both for words and metaphors, drew abundantly from the language of the theater. Terms like argument, prologue, stage, pageant, scene, player, act, actor, show, audience, rant—these and their cousins which evoke dramatic connotations occur again and again throughout his plays in instances which range from very literal or technical significations to highly figurative and symbolic ones. This constant recourse to dramatic vocabulary suggests an analogy in Shakespeare's mind between life and the theater—an analogy which he himself makes explicit and which even the name of his own theater, the Globe, reinforces. Examples are not far to seek. Everyone will recall the famous references of Jaques (“All the world's a stage …”)1 and Macbeth (“Life's but … a poor player, / That struts and frets his hour upon the stage …”); and there are many others. Not infrequently the figure is associated with pain or...
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SOURCE: Taylor, Michael. “The Conflict in Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 22, no. 2 (spring 1971): 147-61.
[In the following essay, Taylor contends that the main conflict within Hamlet is between man as fate's victim and man as the master of his destiny. Taylor further argues that this conflict reflects the confusion in ethical and religious thinking that pervaded Shakespeare's time.]
In our over-riding concern, as literary critics, with the drama and the poetry of the early part of the seventeenth century, we often lose sight of the fact that neither the drama nor the poetry was the staple reading diet of the average “middle-class” Elizabethan. A glance at Louis B. Wright's Middle-Class Culture in Elizabethan England is revealing. We see that what, in particular, concerned such an individual were tracts devoted in some way or other to self-improvement. Such a concern involved the promulgation and dispensing of a host of essays dealing with the numerous ethical problems social mobility produces. Above all, religious writings dealt not so much with theological cruxes as with problems of everyday morality. In an article devoted to religious writings, Wright notes:
… we are more interested in Shakespeare's dramatic development than in the career and influence of his contemporary, the Reverend William Perkins: but for every Elizabethan who saw or...
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SOURCE: Cohen, Brent M. “‘What Is It You Would See?’: Hamlet and the Conscience of the Theatre.” ELH 44, no. 2 (summer 1977): 222-47.
[In the following essay, Cohen demonstrates that the physical conditions and structure of the Elizabethan theater allowed Shakespeare to challenge his audience in unique ways, for example, by giving audience members a conflicted understanding of their role within the action of the play. Cohen emphasizes that in Hamlet, Shakespeare used the theater, theatricality, artifice, and performance to develop the audience's sense of self-consciousness; he did not use the theater, Cohen stresses, for the purposes of encouraging audience identification with the characters in the play.]
My title, which quotes Horatio's question to Fortinbras near the end of Hamlet (5.2.364),1 might stand for the kind of question the play frequently asks its audience. Critics, like Dover Wilson in What Happens in Hamlet,2 who attempt to resolve the uncertainties of what we do see, treat the audience as if, like Fortinbras, it somehow has been absent from the play it has just witnessed. That we continue to question what happens in Hamlet suggests, however, that it is less a question we should expect the play to answer than one it asks of us. Why after seeing Hamlet don't we trust ourselves to know what we have seen? Fortinbras' final...
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SOURCE: Stone, James W. “Androgynous ‘Union’ and the Women in Hamlet.” Shakespeare Studies 23 (1995): 71-99.
[In the following essay, Stone studies Shakespeare's representation of androgyny in Hamlet, and finds that the collapse of sexual difference in the play leads to a parallel disintegration of moral boundaries.]
Some wish to see in Hamlet a womanish, hesitating, flighty mind. To me he seems a manly, resolute, but thoughtful being.
I cannot see Hamlet as a man. The things he says, his impulses, his actions entirely indicate to me that he was a woman.
Hamlet has proven to be an interpretive mystery for critics interested in gender, a play whose proverbial excess of meaning has led some critics to gender the excess and the mystery of the text itself as feminine. Since the problem of this problem play is femininity as such, Ernest Jones was prompted to call Hamlet the Sphinx of modern literature, and Jacqueline Rose, following T. S. Eliot, calls it the Mona Lisa.1 In what follows I will explore the various ways androgyny, the collapse of sexual difference, is represented, whether in figuring Hamlet as a feminized, impotent man, or Gertrude as a masculinized, castrating woman. The penetration or invagination of...
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SOURCE: Levy, Eric. “The Problematic Relation between Reason and Emotion in Hamlet.” Renascence 53, no. 2 (winter 2001): 83-95.
[In the following essay, Levy investigates the conflict between reason and emotion in Hamlet, demonstrating the ways in which the play explores not only the importance of rational control of emotion, but also the role of reason in generating emotion. Levy also comments on the relevance of Christian-humanist doctrine to the play's treatment of the relationship between reason and emotion.]
Hamlet opens on a state of incipient alarum, with martial vigilance on the battlemented “platform” (act 1, scene 2, line 252) of Elsinore and conspicuous “post-haste and rummage in the land” (1.1.110).1 For the sentries, this apprehension is heightened by the entrances of the Ghost—a figure whom Horatio eventually associates with a threat to the “sovereignty of reason” (1.4.73). In the immediate context, loss of the “sovereignty of reason” entails “madness” (1.4.74). In turn, madness is here associated with the disastrous inability to control emotional impulse (exemplified in this instance as either terror induced by the Ghost's monstrous metamorphosis at “the summit of the cliff” 1.4.70 or “desperation” 1.4.75 provoked by looking “so many fathoms to the sea” 1.4.77). Thus, as formulated on the platform, the fundamental danger...
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Cohen, Michael M. “The Deceitful Hamlet.” Upstart Crow 1, no. 1 (fall 1978): 41-52.
Demonstrates that although Hamlet professes to be disgusted by duplicity and hypocrisy, he excels at deceiving others throughout the play. Cohen concludes that Hamlet's participation in deceit reveals that the play uncovers more moral problems than it resolves.
Elliott, G. R. Scourge and Minister: A Study of Hamlet as Tragedy of Revengefulness and Justice. New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1965, 208 p.
Book-length study of Hamlet as a poetic drama. Elliott contends that the play's meaning is revealed through its structure and sequence, and thus adopts a scene-by-scene analysis.
Fendt, Gene. Is Hamlet a Religious Drama? An Essay on a Question in Kierkegaard. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1999, 264 p.
Examines the possibility that Hamlet should be viewed as a Christian tragedy, and explores the characterization of Hamlet and his delay.
Graves, Neil. “‘Even for an Eggshell’: Hamlet and the Problem of Fortinbras.” Upstart Crow 2 (fall 1979): 51-63.
Investigates several problems related to the character of Fortinbras, including: questions pertaining to Fortinbras's name and his claim to Denmark's throne; the issue of...
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