"Hamlet", Noboday Wants To Be Him

1495 words - 6 pages

In some ways, all men (and a few actresses) want to be Hamlet. He is intelligent and funny, he knows how to value true friendship (Horatio), how to tease sycophantic phonies (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern), how to treat pompous political authority (Polonius). Yet there are problems. He is glib and unconvincing in his fifth-act apology to Laertes and both confused and cruel in all of his encounters with women. My reasons for not wanting to be Hamlet, however, turn out to be theological.Someone wisely remarked that "every fresh critic who sets out to define the intentions of the author of Hamlet ends up in his own particular dead-end in queer street."2 This is just what happened to me. Years ago, I wrote an earnest but tedious "theological interpretation" of Hamlet, defining confidently the theological significance of everything that was in the text, and of a great deal that was not: ghosts, Hamlet as Wittenberg Protestant,3 sullied flesh, suicide, sleep, kings at prayer, fifth-act conversions to providence.4I ended up with a not altogether virtuous Hamlet, prone to violence and, at the end, confusing himself with God. That old essay had a curious performance history. In the mid-1960s, a close friend was cast as Hamlet in a production at the summer Shakespeare festival in Stratford, Connecticut. He decided to use my essay to shape his reading, stressing the darkness of the prince. The egregious Maurice Evans was the festival's artistic director, and when he saw what my friend was up to, he fired him.But my old essay was not altogether wrong. I am still convinced that there is a shadow side to Hamlet and that it is related to his temptation to confuse himself with God. He is, after all, an exceptionally callous murderer, impetuous with Polonius (3.4.213; 4.3.17ff.), calculating with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (5.2.46-47, 58).5 He twice rejoices at the idea of killing men who have not made their peace with God (3.3.73ff.; 5.2.47), and there is that savage, probably sexual, violence directed against his mother in the closet scene (3.4). As witness, I gladly call on one of America's finest recent Hamlets, Kevin Kline: "But there's a side of him that is-just a whole other level of playing him that is-it's just more encompassing. The Hamlet who becomes the monster he most fears, the monster he's hunting.... It's there, it's in the text."6What was wrong about my old, evil Hamlet was the assured way I explained the evil. This is the outlandish explanatory pattern I used: Hamlet, trained as a Protestant to believe that ghosts were always devices used by the devil to do damage, decided, against his training, that this ghost, enjoining blood revenge, is a true spirit from purgatory, engaged in a legitimate penitential mission. The Protestant student submits to the Catholic view of ghosts. But the Protestant position is the correct one (I impudently imagined Shakespeare saying), so Hamlet's "yes" to the ghost is in fact a "yes" to the devil. As a result of...

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