Hamlet (Vol. 82)
See also Hamlet Criticism (Volume 35), and Volumes 37, 44, 59, 71.
In addition to being his most popular tragedy, Hamlet (c. 1600) is Shakespeare's most frequently analyzed play. In fact, critics have noted that Hamlet has inspired more critical writing than any other work of Western literature. The play recounts the murder of a Danish king, apparently at the hands of his brother, and the subsequent emotional turmoil that his son, Prince Hamlet, undergoes as he struggles with the idea of vengeance. Critical opinion about the central characters in the play—for example, Polonius, and even Hamlet—has evolved over the centuries, while scholars have continued to examine the play's poetic and rhetorical devices, and its treatment of the themes of politics, power, and friendship. Commentators are also interested in the connection between the plot of Hamlet and contemporary changes in Renaissance England as it prepared to enter the early modern era under the rule of an aging queen.
Although character studies of Hamlet have been popular since the play's inception, critics have shown renewed interest in the personalities of several characters in the play, reinterpreting many of them. Catharine R. Stimpson (2002), for example, rejects the characterization of Polonius as a foolish “meddler,” arguing instead that he should be viewed as a seasoned political insider whose downfall comes as the result of “overconfidence about his schemes and his mastery of manipulative tactics.” Polonius, she concludes, could easily be imagined living today, although instead of being killed he would be investigated for political or personal indiscretions and “forced to resign.” Prince Hamlet's characterization comes under new scrutiny by John Hardy (see Further Reading), who contends that what makes Hamlet such a memorable character is his “unpretentiousness” as well as his sincere attempt to seek the truth. Hardy asserts that it is not moral weakness or melancholy that distinguishes the Prince, but his moral strength and “an uncompromising honesty”—both of which lead him to think carefully before acting. Ronald Knowles (1999) asserts that Prince Hamlet's thought processes reflect the evolution of Western beliefs about the place of human reason and emotion in society and notes that Hamlet's “unique selfhood, realized through grief and loathing, cannot be sustained, since his mind is shaped by an essentialist humanism which undermines its very possibility.”
Hamlet remains Shakespeare's most popular play on stage and screen. Many recent productions have distinguished themselves by updating the setting of the play, thereby, some critics suggest, making Hamlet more accessible to modern audiences. In his review of Campbell Scott's 2001 filmed version, Ken Eisner (2001) observes that the relocation of the action to a mansion on the brink of World War I enhances the play's theme of aristocracy—and by extension the monarchy—in irreversible decline. Patrick Carnegy (2001) discusses the effect on the audience of a barefooted, t-shirted Hamlet and Laertes in Steven Pimlott's 2001 stage production, especially when contrasted with “the world of suits” represented by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and their master, Claudius. Carnegy warns that while Pimlott succeeded in providing theatergoers with an intimate connection to the play, he risked portraying Prince Hamlet as immature. Elvis Mitchell (2000) examines Michael Almereyda's 2000 cinematic release of Hamlet starring Ethan Hawke as the Prince and notes that “Hamlet is a movie about urban isolation and the damage it causes, using corrupted wealth as a surrogate for stained royalty.” The critic finds that the transfer of action to twentieth-century Wall Street works well, but argues that Hawke's Hamlet wastes too much time in adolescent “moping.” Reviewing the same film, Peter Rainer (see Further Reading) contends that Almereyda's focus on Hamlet's similarities to the world of corporate New York occurs at the expense of the play's other themes.
Two themes of particular concern to critics who study Hamlet are those of politics and power, especially as they relate to the political tensions of Shakespeare's Elizabethan England. Zdravko Planinc (1998) limits his discussion to a definition of power and the ideal ruler, using Plato's Republic as a model. Planinc asserts that the play focuses on three types of leaders, two of whom are faulty. The late King Hamlet, he claims, indulged in acts of plunder after success in battle. The current King Claudius is, among other things, a regicide. Only Prince Hamlet, he contends, has the greatness of mind to become Plato's philosopher-king. Larry S. Champion (1993) remarks on the numerous proverbs that appear in the play, suggesting that they are used not only to delineate the characters, but also to highlight the political tensions surrounding the aging Elizabeth I and the lack of an heir to her throne. Like Champion, Donald K. Hedrick (1984) examines the theme of politics and Elizabethan society in his exploration of the play. Hedrick argues that Hamlet is both a heroic and a satiric play, and notes that in both Renaissance England and Hamlet's Denmark satire is used by the powerless to undermine the unscrupulous acts of the powerful. Studying the theme of friendship in Hamlet, Keith Doubt notes that there are three types of friendship in the play: the loyal friendship that Horatio sustains with the Prince; the ultimately self-serving friendship extended by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and the friendship that the dying Laertes offers. In Doubt's view, Laertes's friendship is the most meaningful because it is the most charitable.
Criticism: Overviews And General Studies
SOURCE: Knowles, Ronald. “Hamlet and Counter-Humanism.” Renaissance Quarterly 52, no. 4 (winter 1999): 1046-69.
[In the following essay, Knowles asserts that Prince Hamlet's thought processes reflect the evolution of Western beliefs about the place of human reason and emotion in society and that, therefore, the play is an important Renaissance document.]
In the study of the development of Western culture the question of subjectivity is a much debated issue which is often directed to the Renaissance in general, and to Hamlet in particular. Beginning with section 1, “Alexander died,”1 this essay reapproaches the question in the play. Sections 2 and 3 expand on the backgrounds of the later Middle Ages, Humanism, and skepticism, while section 4 focuses on rhetoric, particularly on the commonplaces of consolation, in relation to the proscribed status of passion in the individual and society.2 The fifth section considers role-playing and reappraises the nature of Hamlet's experience: his unique selfhood, realized through grief and loathing, cannot be sustained, since his mind is shaped by an essentialist humanism which undermines its very possibility.3 To evade alienation Hamlet embraces the scripted roles within and without him;4 and to understand this experience the critic of early modern culture needs, like Hamlet, to look “before and after” (4.4.37)....
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Criticism: Character Studies
SOURCE: Stimpson, Catharine R. “Polonius, Our Pundit.” American Scholar 71, no. 4 (autumn 2002): 97-108.
[In the following essay, Stimpson rejects the characterization of Polonius as a foolish “meddler,” arguing instead that he should be viewed as a seasoned political insider.]
I once worked with a man who reveled in his authority but was too shrewd to revel in it gloriously, exuberantly, or crassly. Although his power base was a local institution, he had been a part of some of the large events of his time. He had served on national commissions. He had names on his Rolodex that he could and did drop. He believed in good manners, but at more informal gatherings, he would wear a bright, loosely tied scarf and chat up younger women with a glee that pushed at the envelope of his moderation. He thought of himself as a good man, and often spoke of his contributions to high-minded causes. Just as adamantly, he thought of himself as a wise man and diplomatic counselor, and was proud of his ability to come to the heart of the matter with the precision of a cardiologist. Slipping into retirement, he was even more absorbed by the delicacies of hierarchical arrangements and prickly about his position. He fussed at length about who should or should not be included in meetings. Once, when he thought he had been wrongly excluded from the routing of a draft report, he wrote, in anger, without irony, “There's a...
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Criticism: Production Reviews
SOURCE: Mitchell, Elvis. “A Simpler Melancholy.” New York Times, late edition (12 May 2000): B1, E1.
[In the following review of Michael Almereyda's 2000 film adaptation of Hamlet, Mitchell commends the modern setting of the film, as well as the performances of most of the actors, but suggests that actor Ethan Hawke's portrayal of Prince Hamlet lacked depth and maturity.]
“It is curious; one never thinks of attaching Hamlet to any special locale,” the critic Kenneth Tynan once wrote of Shakespeare's tragedy, and the director Michael Almereyda has brilliantly seized upon that by rooting his voluptuous and rewarding new adaptation of the play in today's Manhattan. The city's contradictions of beauty and squalor give the movie a sense of place—it makes the best use of the Guggenheim Museum you'll ever see in a film—and New York becomes a complex character in this vital and sharply intelligent film.
Mr. Almereyda contours the material to his own needs, even though he was inspired by the 1987 “Hamlet Goes Business,” a deadpan update by the renegade Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki. This Hamlet is also set in the corporate world, where Claudius (Kyle MacLachlan) has risen to the top of the Denmark Corporation.
But where Mr. Kaurismaki presented his take as a slapstick tragedy that bordered on sadism, Mr. Almereyda layers his...
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SOURCE: Carnegy, Patrick. “Hamlet.” Spectator 286, no. 9014 (12 May 2001): 48.
[Carnegy reviews Steven Pimlott's 2001 stage production of Hamlet, concluding that overall it was a memorable and powerful production.]
On Hamlet's 400th birthday, Steven Pimlott's new production turns its harsh floodlights on a world of grey-suited courtiers and youthful dissidents. The setting, developed from the white box of Pimlott's Richard II, is a high-tech space for surveillance, theatrical experiment and maybe even self-discovery. Its designer, Alison Chitty, is also responsible for a radical makeover of the theatre, bringing the stage forward and stretching it across the full width of the now carpetless auditorium. Acoustics and sightlines are greatly improved. The actors, nearer to us than ever before in a theatre originally designed to set them apart behind a frame, want us in on the action. Sam West's Hamlet, giving his notes to the Players seated on the floor around him, brings the houselights up and turns the troupe round to face us, showing just what he means by holding the mirror up to nature.
The reflection in this particular mirror is of a purgatory ruled by a modern presidential Claudius surrounded by identity-tagged staff who like to applaud him, and of ill-at-ease youngsters looking for a way out. Seldom, outside school and college, can the play...
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SOURCE: Isherwood, Charles. “A Pacifist Prince in Brits' Latest Hamlet.” Variety 383, no. 3 (4 June 2001): 24.
[In the following review, Isherwood compares John Caird's Royal National Theater production of Hamlet to Peter Brooks's production at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, remarking that while Brooks's shortened version of the play lacked emotion, Caird's lacked credibility. Isherwood notes that although Simon Russell Beale's performance in Caird's production was conscientious, the actor was too overweight and somber to make a convincing Hamlet.]
The strongest argument in favor of Peter Brook's Hamlet, seen recently at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, may well be John Caird's Hamlet, now stopping at the same venue for a brief run at the end of a national tour.
Brook's version pared the text down to a smart, streamlined and thoroughly dry 2 1/2 hours. Caird's Hamlet, for London's Royal National Theater, is an hour longer but rarely more emotionally engaging. Life is short, even if Hamlet isn't, and I'd rather be unmoved for 2 1/2 hours than 3 1/2 hours, thank you very much.
Caird's production seems to be taking place in some dusty, disused chamber of a massive cathedral. Paul Pyant's crepuscular lighting, the most distinguished element of the design, streams in from the wings as from high Gothic windows. Choir practice is...
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SOURCE: Eisner, Ken. “Hamlet.” Variety 383, no. 9 (23 July 2001): 20.
[In the following review, Eisner describes Campbell Scott's 2001 film adaptation of Hamlet as “the most accessible … yet” and notes that Scott's pre-World War I setting suits Shakespeare's theme of decay.]
In one of the most accessible versions of Hamlet yet committed to film, Campbell Scott's self-helmed Great Dane is more than ever a man for our time. Falling somewhere between Kenneth Branagh's fastidious grandeur and Ethan Hawke's slouchingly colloquial take on the troubled prince, the veteran thesp—who returns to the role after several legit runs—injects considerable humor and lots of edgy anger into his screen version, which runs a reasonable three hours. Fulsome text is most notably trimmed where oedipal angle is concerned, emphasizing instead the intensely erotic connection between Blair Brown's youngish Gertrude and her new husband, the power-hungry Claudius, played by Jamey Sheridan at his steeliest.
As the eighth filmed take on the play in only a decade, Scott's Hamlet faces an uphill battle in finding new fans. Existing ones, however, will be fascinated by the variations he wrings out of these familiar themes, and the pic should enjoy a brief theatrical run before getting another slot with Hallmark, which last December aired its handsome production only on the small...
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SOURCE: Gates, Anita. “Aye, in a Harlem Courtyard, the Witching Time of Night.” New York Times, late edition (27 July 2001) B18, E20.
[In the following review, Gates praises the Classical Theater of Harlem's production of Hamlet for its use of an outdoor, multi-leveled setting and its vivid costumes, but notes that the actors had a “less than flawless command of Shakespeare's language.”]
The Classical Theater of Harlem's Courtyard Theater on 141st Street is a very pleasant place to be on a summer night. And the two-year-old company, founded by Alfred Preisser and Christopher McElroen, makes excellent use of the space in its current production of Hamlet.
The ramparts scenes, including the first appearance of King Hamlet's Ghost (Adam Wade, who is commanding and ominous even when he isn't speaking a word), are played on the roof of the Harlem School of the Arts' two-story brick building, which surrounds the courtyard. The rest of the action takes place on a raised terrace on the main level, with a three-story-plus backdrop of lush green vines. And when Polonius (Dan Snow) is stabbed, he's concealed behind a bush, not an arras. Kimberly Glennon's costumes are colorful, inventive and character-enhancing, with a lively blend of influences from Denmark to Dahomey.
If the members of the company have a less than flawless command of Shakespeare's language,...
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SOURCE: Hedrick, Donald K. “‘It Is No Novelty for a Prince to Be a Prince’: An Enantiomorphous Hamlet.” Shakespeare Quarterly 35, no. 1 (spring 1984): 62-76.
[In the following essay, Hedrick argues that Hamlet is both a heroic and a satiric play, and notes that in both Renaissance England and Hamlet's Denmark satire is used by the powerless to undermine the unscrupulous acts of the powerful.]
I shall begin by quarreling with a formulation by R. A. Foakes that has an unassuming and unprovocative appearance, namely that Hamlet is “basically an heroic tragedy … in spite of the elements of satire.”1 What I take exception to is not the view of the play as heroic rather than “dark,” but the phrase “despite the satire,” which implies that satiric and heroic characterization, satiric and heroic temperaments, are essentially incompatible. I wish here to offer historical, literary, and theoretical evidence to the contrary, providing an examination of the special connection between the satiric and the heroic. The satiric and heroic temperaments, and by extension their corresponding literary modes, as I hope to show, are connected in a special way. They are compatible or structurally interdependent but not reducible to a common element. The connection between them to be found in Hamlet derives ultimately, I believe, from a historical dialectic of power and...
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SOURCE: Champion, Larry S. “‘A Springe to Catch Woodcocks’: Proverbs, Characterization, and Political Ideology in Hamlet.” Hamlet Studies 15, nos. 1/2 (summer/winter 1993): 24-39.
[In the following essay, Champion remarks on the numerous proverbs that appear in Hamlet, suggesting that they are used not only to delineate the characters, but also to highlight the political tensions surrounding the aging Elizabeth I and the lack of an heir to her throne.]
Proverbs so fascinated sixteenth-century England that they accomplished the unlikely journey from the edge of folklore to the core of academic learning. Those who collected them or who acclimatized foreign proverbs to English soil were “hailed as benefactors who enriched the ‘copy’ of their native tongue” (Wilson, “Shakespeare” 186).1 In the first two forms of the grammar school the proverb came to be regarded as an invaluable aid in the teaching of translation, the purpose being both to “help the child to his Latins by known precepts culled from the spoken idiom” and to “inculcate in the stripling a suitable moral sentiment” (Orkin 79).2 Such materials readily available to the Elizabethan pupil included John Withal's A Dictionary in English and Latin Deuised for the capacitye of Children and young beginners, Richard Tavener's Proverbs or Adagies gathered out of the Chiliades of...
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SOURCE: Doubt, Keith. “Hamlet and Friendship.” Hamlet Studies 17, nos. 1/2 (summer/winter 1995): 54-62.
[In the following essay, Doubt examines three types of friendship in Hamlet: the loyal friendship that Horatio sustains with the Prince; the ultimately self-serving friendship extended by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and the friendship that the dying Laertes offers. In Doubt's view, Laertes's friendship is the most meaningful because it is the most charitable.]
“At this a back cloud of grief enveloped Laertes / And taking a dark double-handful of dust he poured it / Upon his grey head, while one groan followed another. As he watched his dear father, the heart of Odysseus was moved / And at once his nostrils tingled with keen compassion. / Quickly he went and took the old king in his arms / And kissed him.”
(The Odyssey of Homer, trans. Ennis Rees, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1960).
There are two examples of friendship in Hamlet: one, very positive, the other, very negative. Hamlet's friend Horatio, on the one hand, is about as perfect a friend as anyone could ask for. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on the other hand, are exceedingly imperfect in their friendship with Hamlet.
In Book VIII of the Nicomachean Ethics, Artistotle says that there are three kinds of...
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SOURCE: Planinc, Zdravko. “‘It begins with Pyrrhus’ (2.2.451): The Political Philosophy of Hamlet.” Hamlet Studies 20, nos. 1/2 (summer/winter 1998): 35-49.
[In the following essay, Planinc contends that Hamlet is evidence that Shakespeare's abilities as a political philosopher are on par with those of Plato. Planinc asserts that both King Hamlet and King Claudius come up short as Platonic ideals, but that Shakespeare endowed Prince Hamlet with the greatness of mind to become Plato's philosopher-king.]
Shakespeare is as good a political philosopher as Plato. And if he had had a Socrates to write about, he would have been better. As it is, his portrayal of Hamlet, a contemplative prince struggling to attain intellectual and spiritual maturity, as well as his rightful crown, is as close as anything we have in literature to Plato's account of the difficult education of philosophers and the likelihood that they will become kings. And, in one important sense, Shakespeare's project is broader: he attempts to describe a contemplative king who transcends the distinction between pagan and Christian—someone of whom it could be said, taking him for all in all, “‘A was a man” (1.2.187; 3.2.31-32).1
Shakespeare, like Plato, has no doctrine or theory to advance; his judgment of practical and political matters exists only in the particular. Consequently, like...
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SOURCE: Terry, Reta A. “‘Vows to the Blackest Devil’: Hamlet and the Evolving Code of Honor in Early Modern England.” Renaissance Quarterly 52, no. 4 (winter 1999): 1070-86.
[In the following essay, Terry outlines the ways in which Shakespeare used the characters of Horatio, Laertes, and Hamlet to reflect England's notion of honor as it shifted from the chivalric code of the medieval period to one based on the individual's relationship to the state.]
Contemporary Shakespearean scholars have demonstrated a renewed interest in both Renaissance concepts of honor and the historical context that surrounds these concepts.1 In practical terms, this means that critics attempting to understand a literary text by placing it within the context of its creation must cross the constructed boundaries that exist between literary texts and historical documents, whether they be sermons, tracts, government papers, private letters, published or unpublished works, all of which are themselves texts. The study of honor in Shakespeare's drama, then, must include an examination of the way that honor was referred to in a multiplicity of texts. This is not to say that an historical context can be entirely recreated and thus provide a definitive meaning or interpretation that is ascribable to Shakespeare's plays. The recognition that history cannot be completely knowable is, in part, what separates New...
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SOURCE: Zamir, Tzachi. “Doing Nothing.” Mosaic: A Journal for the Interdisciplinary Study of Literature 35, no. 3 (September 2002): 167-82.
[In the following essay, Zamir contends that Prince Hamlet's failure to avenge his father's death is the result of his fear of revealing his own individuality.]
Some still-influential theories of meaning in philosophy have regarded the literary treatment of a philosophical concept to be informatively redundant (Ayer; Curtler; Stevenson). Such conceptions have important counterparts in Formalist aesthetics (e.g., Richards; Brooks) and are continuous with a long historical tradition both in the history of philosophy (Nussbaum, Love's 10-23) and in the history of rhetoric (Perelman).
The case against the knowledge-yielding capacities of literature comes in both a strong and a weak version. According to the strong version, informative discourse is exhausted by what may be termed “theoretical language”: “literal” (at least ideally) truth claims and argumentation. Philosophy is a “cognitive discipline,” that is, it is an activity that seeks to gain information concerning its subject matter, and so literary texts are irrelevant as far as philosophical concerns go. The weaker version assumes that the term informative should cover a broader range. Non-theoretical discourse, such as figurative language, may well be informative, and,...
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SOURCE: Foakes, R. A. “Hamlet's Neglect of Revenge.” In Hamlet: New Critical Essays, edited by Arthur F. Kinney, pp. 85-99. New York: Routledge, 2002.
[In the following essay, Foakes argues that Hamlet is not a revenge tragedy but a play about whether or not violence is an acceptable choice in a world caught between the ancient heroic code of retaliation and the Christian commandments that reject it.]
Hamlet has commonly been regarded as a revenge tragedy, its early impact being marked by works that capitalized on its success, like John Marston's Antonio's Revenge and the anonymous Revenger's Tragedy, possibly written by Thomas Middleton. In the twentieth century, critics from A. C. Bradley, writing in 1904, to the editors of the three editions that appeared in the 1980s, all have had much to say about Hamlet's “task” or “duty” to carry out his revenge. Hamlet could be seen as having to deal with “the predicament, quite simply, of a man in mourning for his father, whose murder he is called on to avenge” (Jenkins 126). Hence a central concern for many critics has been the question of why Hamlet delays or avoids taking his revenge on Claudius. He might be seen as pathologically disabled by his speculative intellect and sensitivity in a world of action, handicapped by weakness of character (Dover Wilson), tainted by a “fatal aestheticism” (Nevo 162), or...
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Andreas, James R. “The Vulgar and the Polite: Dialogue in Hamlet.” Hamlet Studies 15, nos. 1/2 (summer/winter 1993): 9-23.
Examines how the vulgar (language of the people) and the polite (language of politics) are used against one another in Hamlet. Andreas demonstrates that the polite language used by Claudius is duplicitous, while Prince Hamlet uses the straightforward language of the people to disconcert and expose Claudius and his retinue.
Cary, Louise D. “Hamlet Recycled, or the Tragical History of the Prince's Prints.” ELH 61, no. 4 (winter 1994): 783-805.
Warns against correcting apparent inconsistencies and errors in the text of Hamlet on the basis that those so-called errors may in fact have been intentionally made by Shakespeare.
Fendt, Gene. “Is Hamlet a Christian Tragedy?” In Is Hamlet a Religious Drama? pp. 161-78. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 1999.
Argues that Hamlet has a Christian basis, which surfaces as soon as Prince Hamlet speaks to what appears to be the ghost of his father.
Grady, Hugh. “Conclusion: Hamlet and the Tragedy of the Subject.” In Shakespeare, Machiavelli, and Montaigne: Power and Subjectivity from Richard II to Hamlet, pp. 243-65. Oxford: Oxford...
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