Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 530

The title of The Hamlet of Stepney Green might suggest that it is a modern Jewish reworking of the Shakespearean tragedy. It features a father who claims to have been poisoned by his wife while lying in a garden, a need for revenge, a hasty remarriage of the mother, a sense of unease on the youthful hero’s part, his bizarre behavior and the question of his insanity, and his rejection of the girl who loves him. The parallel plot details, however, are inexact; for example, Sam does not commission David to take revenge: David takes it upon himself. Also, Bessie marries after the ghost appears, and her marriage is sanctioned by the ghost.

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Genre differences are much more significant than the plot differences. While Shakespeare’s Hamlet may be seen as a subversion of the revenge tragedy, it remains a tragedy. Kops, however, turns everything into comic fantasy. In fact, his plot is a deliberate reversal of tragedy: Revenge gives way to a celebration of life. Kops called his autobiography The World Is a Wedding (1963), basing his title on a Jewish saying. This love of life is the central theme of this play in which funerals give way to weddings.

There is, in fact, a considerable amount of autobiography in the play, as might be expected from a first work. For example, Sam is a poor Jewish immigrant who left Russia at the beginning of the century; Kops’s own family had similar origins. The conflict between Sam and David mirrors exactly the account Kops gives in The World Is a Wedding (1963) of his own father, even to his ambivalence, his realization that his own life had not really been fulfilled, and his paradoxical pushing of his son into the same pattern. The autobiography finishes with an account of Kops’s second, very happy marriage, which clearly transformed him from a dropout to someone who embraced life fully. In the play, when David finally allows himself to love Hava, the audience senses that he will similarly be transformed. Thus, the “melancholy artist” in David is a sign not so much of Weltschmerz as simply of immaturity to be brought into maturity by allowing himself to love and be loved. David’s search for meaning finds its goal in true love—a love that has been waiting for him. Ultimately, then, Kops’s own life journey has imposed a much stronger pattern on the play than did his Shakespearean prototype.

Much of the background and stage matter reflect Kops’s own Jewish background, as does the setting in the East End. Kops has made the play far more pastoral, however, than real life would allow; Stepney Green, including Kops’s house, was bombed flat during World War II. In fact, the idealization may account for a certain thematic fuzziness in the play. Kops is writing intuitively and spontaneously, in the glow of good feelings about life, instead of allowing the depth and shape of his earlier rebellion to express itself. David’s ambitions are typically adolescent and probably do not represent any sort of social or moral criticism of the lifestyles and values of his family or society in general.

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Characters