Hamlet Hamlet (Vol. 37)
by William Shakespeare

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(Shakespearean Criticism)


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).

Hamlet's Subjectivity

(Shakespearean Criticism)

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 arrived at in this way, but what I write is based on the potentialities and the constraints for any kind of interpretation that I find inscribed—or implied by what is inscribed—in the text. When I say a character thinks or may think this or that, I mean that the text implies such thoughts, and I do not assume that the character is a real person. The "I find" and "may" here indicate my recognition that any interpretation is inevitably subjective and uncertain, however much one tries to achieve objectivity by taking into account the interpretations of many others and all of the relevant contexts.

In sum, when I infer what Hamlet thinks and feels, I regard him as an imagined person created by Shakespeare to be entered into imaginatively by an actor and imagined or construed by an audience. The audience needs to be able to respond to Hamlet as an imagined person in order to respond appropriately to the play Hamlet.3 For the tragic effect, we must remain sympathetic even when Hamlet does dreadful deeds, and this requires an understanding of his character and situation so that we can see both the qualities that move him and how...

(The entire section is 26,124 words.)