Hamlet and Death Wish: Part IIOne more thought and then I'll drop this topic--it is kind of silly, I guess. One aspect of the Hamlet/Death Wish contrast that intrigues me is how sophisticated and...
One more thought and then I'll drop this topic--it is kind of silly, I guess. One aspect of the Hamlet/Death Wish contrast that intrigues me is how sophisticated and nuanced the violence and murder scenes are in Hamlet opposed to Death Wish and revenge dramas like it. To me, Shakespeare seems to be questioning how we as an audience should respond to violence and vengeance. In DWII, for example, Bronson corners a criminal and says, "Do you believe in Jesus? You're about to meet him!" Then he caps the guy. As an audience, we're supposed to feel vindication, pleasure, and maybe some mirth besides. When Hamlet knifes Polonius in Act III, he also makes jokes, but the jokes are unfunny, Hamlet's behavior is confusing, and we're left wondering what to make of the whole scene. The violence throughout is shocking, confusing, and baffling. The play's ambiguities are puzzling and frustrating at times, but I'm wondering if ambiguity, confusion, and shock are precisely the emotions Shakespeare wanted to provoke and elicit.
This is an interesting comparison...I have found Hamlet to be more than a little cluttered and strange. This could be, in part, attributable to the fact that it is not entirely original. It's something of a re-write according to T.S. Eliot and the choices as to what to leave in, what to take out, and what to tweak from the original may lead to some of the opacities in the play. (These particular oddities do not exist in Macbeth and Lear...)
I do give Hamlet full credit for presenting us with a difficult moral dilemma. When Hamlet takes revenge on his uncle he is also, by default, taking revenge on his mother. This disturbs him and, to me, is reminiscent of some Greek tragedies.
The story of Hamlet is not unlike the story of Agammemnon and his children. When Clytemnestra kills her husband Agammemnon and takes on a new husband, the children decide to take revenge against both murderers.
They are compelled to exact vengence but commit a rather reprehensible crime when they kill their mother. This leads to severe punishment from the Furies and the children are condemned.
Sartre re-wrote this story as The Flies and presented an argument that the children could only be found guilty of injustice if they accepted guilt for killing their mother. If they acted out of a pure sense of justice, they should not be considered guilty and should not think of themselves as criminals.
Hamlet plays both sides of this moral dilemma. This does not lead to a moral ambiguity, exactly, but to a complex situation where "you're damned if you do and damned if you don't". Hamlet is caught between two forms of guilt, one of action and one of inaction, necessarily bound to betray one of his parents.
I've read Eliot's essay "Hamlet And His Problems," (I think that's the title), and he seems to agree with many of us that, though Hamlet might be Shakespeare's most baffling play, it's not necessarily his best play. Eliot says it's the flaws, inconsistencies, and unevenness that make it so fascinating. Frank Kermode actually came out and pronounced "Hamlet" to be an "artistic failure." Leo Tolstoy also made some famous comments about how Hamlet the character has no character at all, but that Shakespeare was manipulating his actions and words to explore ideas that were interesting to him (i.e., Shakespeare) as a playwright. I enjoy many of Shakespeare's other plays, but I have to admit "Hamlet" has always been something of a mixed pleasure for me. It might be the case that Shakespeare wanted the Elizabethan revenge play to support more artistic weight than it could possibly bear. I'm no Shakespearean or scholar, but I've often wondered if maybe Shakespeare just didn't get things quite right in this play.