Imagination versus Realism in Hamlet
Is the Shakespearean tragic drama Hamlet basically an imaginative work or basically a realistic work? This essay seeks to answer this question and related questions, with the help of literary critics.
Harold Goddard’s essay, “Hamlet: His Own Falstaff,” highlights the battle between poetry and realism (history) in the play:
Hamlet, the conclusion is, is a failure because the materials Shakespeare inherited were too tough and intractable. Too tough and intractable for what? That they were too tough and intractable for a credible historical picture may be readily granted. But what of it? And since when was poetry supposed to defer to history? Two world wars in three decades ought to have taught us that our history has not gone deep enough. But poetry has. The greatest poetry has always depicted the world as a little citadel of nobility threatened by an immense barbarism, a flickering candle surrounded by infinite night. The “historical” impossibility of Hamlet is its poetical truth, and the paradox of its central figure is the universal psychology of man. (14)
Robert B. Heilman in “The Role We Give Shakespeare” indicates how the Bard’s rich imagination is the cause which gives the effect of universality of appreciation to his work:
Shakespeare has both feet on the ground; but in him the common ground is transfigured, revealed in a new dimension; nothing is too mean for him, but the mean itself is raised to a supernal plane. Shakespeare is the ultimate all-purpose book, with imaginative breadth and depth, for a humanity not limited by age or sex, immediately open to all who will read (a view not entirely shared by the caste of professional interpreters). (12)
The play opens on the ramparts of Elsinore castle – a very realistic setting. But very soon the imaginative element of a ghost, the likeness of dead King Hamlet, makes its appearance before Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio. Mysteriously, it says nothing, prompting Horatio and Marcellus to leave in search of Hamlet, the prince and their friend, who might be able to interpret this spectral figure. Hamlet is meanwhile at a courtly gettogether with his stepfather Claudius, the king, his mother, Gertrude, the queen, the royal chamberlain’s family, and courtiers. Hamlet, deeply grieved over the quick marriage of his mother to his father’s brother, is more idealistic than others in the court. They more truly reflect a realistic presentation in that they could care less about such issues. The first soliloquy occurs when the hero is left alone after the royal social gathering in the room of state. It emphasizes the general corruption of society and the frailty of women – an obvious reference to his mother’s hasty and incestuous marriage to her husband’s brother – thus expressing a rather imaginatively idealistic outlook on the situation:
O, that this too too solid flesh would melt