Into the War by Italo Calvino

Into the War by Italo Calvino“The story writer, born in Cuba and raised in San Remo, Italy, near the French border, was just 16 when Mussolini linked up with the Nazis to make war against his neighbor. Young Italo was forced to join a Fascist youth group with a lot of other Italian adolescents who spilled over the border at the Riviera into France. Out of this experience came three early stories, which translator Martin McLaughlin has put together into a slim volume under the title Into the War. Each piece is thoroughly autobiographical and realistic; each is based on Calvino’s time as a teenager during the war.

“To see the self-portrait of the young artist as an unwilling proto-Fascist turns out to be quite rewarding. As he dramatizes the very first hours of the first day of Italy’s involvement in the war, as he describes how he joined scores of young men like himself in the rampage of the French town of Menton, and as he recollects how he teamed up with a friend to serve as a youthful guard in his hometown back across the border, his pages make for a convincing if idiosyncratic study of a small part of the population at a time of war.”

“…the true pleasure of reading this early work comes from young Calvino’s easeful sense of metaphor — how, for example, marching among the art nouveau buildings of Menton, abandoned by the French, he feels the city is “a theater with its lights out, with scenery discarded and in disrepair.” And Calvino is a prodigy at the job of creating mood, as when the young narrator, “wandering along the seafront with its low, prickly palm trees” notices:

…the slow beating of the sea against the rocks mingled with the natural stillness of the countryside and enclosed in a kind of circle the deserted city and its unnatural silence, which was broken now and again by isolated noises echoing through it: the ta-ra-ra of a trumpet, a song, the roar of a motorbike.

“In this way these first pages suggest just how much the mature fabulist would give us later in life.”


It is interesting to compare this collection to the Fitzgerald one. Calvino’s volume was first published in 1954 and it is a world away from Fitzgerald’s – which of course it should be – but only 20 or 30 years separate them, apart from a world war and an ocean, as well as a language – and what must have been a huge shift in how writers and readers viewd the function of fiction – what is the point of fiction?

For both Clavino and Fitzgerald, fiction had to have a purpose over and above entertainment; what might be termed “generating insight” and communicating it to the reader was integral to either’s project – yet who is more effective at doing this? Is this even a sensible question? When you start to compare such different authors, though the use the same form, and though they are concerned with many of the same themes, they seem more and more to speak for their generation and their countries – they are of their time and place – and little more can be said. But then, when you compare either author to the other authors of their respective times and places, it might be possible to see just what each author was specifically about.

For me, Calvino is the more relevant author; though he is more modern, I don’t feel this need necessarily be the case.

Mr A



The Crack-Up With Other Pieces And Stories by F Scott Fitzgerald

The Crack-Up With Other Pieces And Stories by F Scott FitzgeraldThis is a volume made up of two very different halves – the first half being a collection of autobiographical pieces – centred on The Crack Up of the title, and the second half a collection of five short stories by Fitzgerald that is a good illustration of how he plied his trade in the 1920s and 30s as a short story writer for the magazines such as The New Yorker, back when magazines paid for a published short stories form the best writers of the time and people actually read them and wanted them – people bought short fiction in sufficient numbers to make it a viable form. The first half is interesting – patches of good writing and all of it clearly imbued with Fitzgerald’s ability as a writer and the power he had to express complex ideas. The second half is a good illustration of how to make a good short story of a certain kind – the variety, I think, which still today most informs our idea of what a short story should be. The stories are polished and artfully structured. Maybe they’re a bit too slick for today’s reader.

Mr A

Jean-Paul Sartre on How American Jazz Lets You Experience Existentialist Freedom & Transcendence

In Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1938 philosophical novel Nausea, which he considered one of his finest works of fiction or otherwise, the stricken protagonist Antoine Roquentin cures his existential horror and sickness with jazz—specifically with an old recording of the song “Some of These Days.” Which recording? We do not know. “I only wish Sartre had been more specific about the names of the musicians on the date,” writes critic Ted Gioia in a newly published essay, “I would love to hear the jazz record that trumps Freud, cures the ill, and solves existential angst.”

The song was first recorded in 1911 by a Ukranian-Jewish singer named Sophie Tucker, who made her name with it, and was written by a black Canadian named Shelton Brooks. But Sartre’s hero refers to the singer as an African-American, or as “the Negress,” and to its writer as “a Jew with Black eyebrows.” Was this a mix-up? Or did Sartre refer to another of the hundreds of recordings of the song? (Perhaps Ethel Waters, below?). Or, this being a work of fiction, and Roquentin himself a failed writer, are these identifications made up in his imagination?

In his description of the recording, Roquentin reduces the singer and composer to two broad types: the jazz singing “Negress” and the “Jew”—”a clean-shaven American with thick black eyebrows,” who sits in a “New York skyscraper.”

This stereotyping creates what Miriama Young calls “an objectification of the voice and the persona behind it.” In the novel’s strangely happy ending, Roquentin recovers his disintegrating self by attaching it to these nameless, static figures, who are as repetitious as the record playing over and over on the phonograph, and who are themselves somehow “saved” by the music.

Sartre,” James Donald argues, “still believed in the redemptive power of art.” In the last mention of the record, Roquentin asks to hear “the Negress sing…. She sings. So two of them are saved: the Jew and the Negress. Saved.” And yet, rather than discovering in the music a redemptive authenticity, argues Donald, Sartre’s use of jazz in Nausea is more like Al Jolson’s in The Jazz Singer, a “creative act of mishearing and ventriloquism,” or a “generative inauthenticity.”

Sartre’s early conception of “the redemptive power of art” depended on such inauthenticity; “the work of art is an irreality,” he writes in 1940 in The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination. As in Roquentin’s diary, writes Adnan Menderes, or the novel itself, “in a work of art the here-and-now existence of human being could be shown as interwoven in necessary relations. But in contrast to the work of art, in the real world the existence of human being is contingent and for this very reason it is free.” It is that very freedom and contingency out in the world, the inability to ground himself in reality, that produces Roquentin’s nausea and the existentialist’s crisis. And it is the jazz recording’s “irreality” that resolves it.

Sartre’s use of the racialized types of “Negress” and “Jew” as foils for the complicated, troubled European psyche is reminiscent of  Camus’ later use of “the Arab” in The Stranger. Though he critically explored issues of racism and anti-Semitism at length in his later writing, he was perhaps not immune to the primitivist tropes that dominated European modernism and that, for example, made Josephine Baker famous in Paris. (“The white imagination sure is something when it comes to blacks,” Baker herself once wearily observed.) But these types are themselves unreal, like the work of art, projections of Roquentin’s imaginative search for solidity in the exotic otherness of jazz. Nearly ten years after the publication of Nausea, Sartre wrote of the pull jazz had on him in a short, tongue-in-cheek essay called “I Discovered Jazz in America,” which Michelman describes as “like an anthropologist describing an alien culture.”

In the 1947 essay, Sartre writes of the music he hears at “Nick’s bar, in New York” as “dry, violent, pitiless. Not gay, not sad, inhuman. The cruel screech of a bird of prey.” The music is animalistic, immediate, and strange, unlike European formalism: “Chopin makes you dream, or Andre Claveau,” writes Sartre, “But not the jazz at Nick’s. It fascinates.” Like Roquentin’s recording, the Nick’s Bar jazz band is “speaking to the best part of you, to the toughest, to the freest, to the part which wants neither melody nor refrain, but the deafening climax of the moment.”

Gioia recommends that we abandon Theodor Adorno as the go-to European academic reference for jazz writing (I’d agree!) and instead refer to Sartre. But I’d be hesitant to recommend this description. Jazz, improvisatory or otherwise, does extraordinary things with melody and refrain, tearing apart traditional song structures and putting them back together. (See, for example, Dizzy Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts” from 1947, above.) But it does not abandon musical form altogether in a sustained, formless “climax of the moment,” as Sartre’s sexualized phrase alleges.

Yet in this new jazz—the crashing, chaotic bebop so unlike the crooning big band and show tunes Sartre admired in the 30s—it would be easy for the enthusiast to hear only climax. This music excited Sartre very much, writes Gioia; he “called jazz ‘the music of the future’ and made an effort to get to know Miles Davis and Charlie Parker [above and below], and listen to John Coltrane,” though “his writings on the subject are more atmospheric than analytical.”

With humor and vivid description, Sartre’s essay does a wonderful job of conveying his experience of hearing live jazz as an amused and overawed outsider, though he seems to have some difficulty understanding exactly what the music is on terms outside his excitable emotional response. “The whole crowd shouts in time,” writes Sartre, “you can’t even hear the jazz, you watch some men on a bandstand sweating in time, you’d like to spin around, to howl at death, to slap the face of the girl next to you.”

Perhaps what Sartre heard, experienced, and felt in live bebop was what he had always wanted to hear in recorded jazz, an analogue to his own philosophical yearnings. In an article on one of his major influences, Husserl, written the year after the publication of Nausea, Sartre describes the way we “discover ourselves” as “outside, in the world, among others,” not “in some hiding place.” Strong emotions, “hatred, love, fear, sympathy—all those famous ‘subjective reactions that were floating in the malodorous brine of the mind…. They are simply ways of discovering the world.”

We come to authentic existence, writes Sartre—using a phrase that would soon resound in Jack Kerouac’s coming existential appropriation of jazz—“on the road, in the town, in the midst of the crowd, a thing among things, a human among humans.” In this way, Gioia speculates, Sartre likely “saw jazz as the musical manifestation of the existential freedom he described in his philosophical texts.” Sartre may have misread the formal discipline of jazz, but he describes hearing it live, among a sweating, throbbing crowd, as an authentic experience of freedom, unlike the recording that saves Roquentin through repetition and “irreality.” In both cases, however, Sartre finds in jazz a means of transcendence.


Shirley by Charlotte Brontë

Shirley by Charlotte BrontëIt’s difficult to find a decent review of this on line: why is this novel of Charlotte Brontë’s relatively ignored and rarely, it would seem, read?

The novel is less “difficult” in many ways than “Vilette” – it’s a proper rip-roaring novel with lots of stuff happening and with a full panoply of great characters who suffer and set in motion all sorts of events. Also, it’s full of curiosities as well as insight – a big novel and probably Charlotte Brontë’s most ambitious – I wonder which novels she particularly was inspired by, which novels she was responding to, taking issue with: what impact did this statement make at the time and what impact had Bronte hoped it would make?

What stood out for me was the character of Shirley herself – who we only get to meet 160 or so pages in: surely with the novel already well underway there isn’t space for a new character, never mind an eponymous heroine: why does Bronte delay her introduction for so long? Does it work? Yes. But is it necessary? Probably not. But then again, when Shirley does turn up she really does have an impact, and how she resonates for the reader! How she contrasts to the other characters! How she gives the novel’s momentum such a kick, and how she goes on to give a range of character such a shake or such a deserved kicking, it’s all worth the wait. But it is the sheer perversities of the character that Bronte gives play to – Bronte is having so much fun with this character – that make her such a great literary creation. She’ll not be trifled with, but she will trifle!

There may perhaps be too much going on in the novel – I’m sure an editor could have taken out whole chunks – but I’m glad this didn’t happen, because each chapter shines on its own. One chapter late on in the novel, where a young character of no importance fails to achieve anything of significance for the narrative – but at the same time illustrates once again the absurdity of love – is beautiful: it’s great to see such narrative obsolescence in a novel of this period – it could only exist in a novel in which the author has given herself free reign and writes with the confidence of a latter day literary great.

So yes – well worth reading. So different to the other Charlotte Bronte novels. For me now there are a range of disparate Bronte novels, as opposed to the works of three such different sisters – such is the difference between each of Charlotte’s three big novels.

Mr A



Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis

Time's Arrow by Martin Amis

“For all its cleverness and sombre theme, this seems to me one of Amis’s slighter works.

“When Time’s Arrow was published in 1991 it received a few doubting reviews but many more that were extravagant in their praise. These were fulsome even by the standard of the critical love letters that are so often directed at Martin Amis. Rose Tremain said: “Time’s Arrow turns the bored, banjaxed, broken-hearted old reader into a breathless, bedazzled young reader for whom the novel becomes once again a source of illumination and an act of hope.” James Wood described the book as “a stunning achievement, perilous and daring”. Time’s Arrow also had the distinction – absurdly – of being the only novel by Amis Jnr to be nominated for the Booker prize.

“Now though, I suspect it is viewed as one of his lesser works. A search on Google brings up far fewer results (by a factor of at least 2:1) for reviews of Time’s Arrow than for London Fields or The Information. (Money and Experience have even more results, but too many of those must be false positives). And, speaking personally, unlike other Amis books, I’ve never had much of an urge to read it. I always thought that the idea of a novel about the Holocaust told backwards, through the eyes of someone living inside the head of a Nazi war criminal, seemed like too much of a gimmick. Carrying it off successfully seemed quite a task, even for someone of Amis’s prodigious talent. Now I have read it, I’m only more sure I was right.”

There are flashes of clever and exciting writing, but I agree with the review above, the novel just about manages to fizzle then fizzle out. It could have been a great novel, but one must wonder at the writer’s judgment on every second page: in a successful novel the writer must get the call right on each page, in this novel Amis sets himself up to fail too frequently, perhaps asking too much of himself or the novel’s informing idea. I’ve only read one good Amis novel – “Money” – and I don’t think I’ll read another – it probably doesn’t exist.

 Mr A

Yale Presents a Free Online Course on Literary Theory, Covering Structuralism, Deconstruction & More

It’s been a hallmark of the culture wars in the last few decades for politicians and opinionators to rail against academia. Professors of humanities have in particular come under scrutiny, charged with academic frivolity (sometimes at taxpayer expense), willful obscurantism, and all sorts of ideological crimes and diabolical methods of indoctrination. As an undergrad and graduate student in the humanities during much of the nineties and oughts, I’ve witnessed a few waves of such attacks and found the caricatures drawn by talk radio hosts and cabinet appointees both alarming and amusing. I’ve also learned that mistrust of academia is much older than the many virulent strains of anti-intellectualism in the U.S.

As Yale Professor of British Romantic Poetry Paul Fry points out in an interview with 3:AM Magazine, “satire about any and all professionals with a special vocabulary has been a staple of fiction and popular ridicule since the 18th century… and critic-theorists perhaps more recently have been the easy targets of upper-middle-brow anti-intellectuals continuously since [Henry] Fielding and [Tobias] Smollett.” Though the barbs of these British novelists are more entertaining than anything you’ll hear from current talking heads, the phenomenon remains the same: “Special vocabulary intimidate and are instantly considered obfuscation,” says Fry. “Reactions against them are shamelessly naïve, with no consideration of whether the recondite vocabularies may be serving some necessary and constructive purpose.”

Maybe you’re scratching your chin, shaking or nodding your head, or glazing over. But if you’ve come this far, read on. Fry, after all, acknowledges that jargon-laden scholarly vocabularies can become “self-parody in the hands of fools,” and thus have provided justifiable fodder for cutting wit since even Jonathan Swift’s day. But Fry picks this history up in the 20th century in his Yale course ENGL 300 (Introduction to Theory of Literature), an accessible series of lectures on the history and practice of literary theory, in which he proceeds in a critical spirit to cover everything from Russian Formalism and New Criticism; to Semiotics, Structuralism and Deconstruction; to the Frankfurt School, Post-Colonial Criticism and Queer Theory. Thanks to Open Yale Courses, you can watch the 26 lectures above. Or you can find them on YouTubeiTunes, or Yale’s own web site (where you can also grab a syllabus for the course). These lectures were all recorded in the Spring of 2009. The main text used in the course is David Richter’s The Critical Tradition.

Expanding with the rapid growth and democratizing of universities after World War II, literary and critical theories are often closely tied to the contentious politics of the Cold War. Their decline corresponds to these forces as well. Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the subsequent snowballing of privatization and anti-government sentiment, many sources of funding for the humanities have succumbed, often under very public assaults on their character and utility. Fry’s presentation shows how literary theory has never been a blunt political instrument at any time. Rather it provides ways of doing ethics and philosophies of language, religion, art, history, myth, race, sexuality, etc. Or, put more plainly, the language of literary theory gives us different sets of tools for talking about being human.

Fry tells Yale Daily News that “literature expresses more eloquently and subtly emotions and feelings that we all try to express one way or another.” But why apply theory? Why not simply read novels, stories, and poems and interpret them by our own critical lights? One reason is that we cannot see our own biases and inherited cultural assumptions. One ostensibly theory-free method of an earlier generation of scholars and poets who rejected literary theory often suffers from this problem. The New Critics flourished mainly during the 40s, a fraught time in history when the country’s resources were redirected toward war and economic expansion. For Fry, this “last generation of male WASP hegemony in the academy” reflected “the blindness of the whole middle class,” and the idea “that life as they knew it… was life as everyone knew it, or should if they didn’t.”

Fry admits that theory can seem superfluous and needlessly opaque, “a purely speculative undertaking” without much of an object in view.  Yet applied to literature, it provides exciting means of intellectual discovery. Fry himself doesn’t shy away from satirically taking the piss, as a modern-day Swift might say. He begins not with Coleridge or Keats (though he gets there eventually), but with a story for toddlers called “Tony the Tow Truck.” He does this not to mock, but to show us that “reading anything is a complex and potentially unlimited activity”—and as “a facetious reminder,” he tells 3:AM, that “theory is taking itself seriously in the wrong way if it exhausts its reason for being….”

Introduction to Theory of Literature will be added to our list of Free Online Literature Courses, a subset of our meta collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

Hamlet – Critical approaches in Context

hamlet-Sir-Laurence-Olivier (1)Renaissance period

  • Interpretations of Hamletin Shakespeare’s day were very concerned with the play’s portrayal of madness. The play was also often portrayed more violently than in later times.
  • By the early Jacobean period the play was famous for the ghost and for its dramatization of melancholyand insanity.




  • When the monarchy was restoredin 1660, theatres re-opened. Early interpretations of the play, from the late 17th to early 18th century, typically showed Prince Hamlet as a heroic figure.
  • Critics responded to Hamletin terms of the same dichotomy that shaped all responses to Shakespeare during the period.
  • Jeremy Collierattacked the play on both counts in his Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage, published in 1698. Comparing Ophelia to Electra, he condemns Shakespeare for allowing his heroine to become “immodest” in her insanity, particularly in the “Flower Scene”.


Early eighteenth century

  • The ghost scenes, indeed, were particular favourites of an age on the verge of the Gothic revival. Early in the century, George Stubbes noted Shakespeare’s use of Horatio’s incredulity to make the Ghost credible. At midcentury, Arthur Murphydescribed the play as a sort of poetic representation of the mind of a “weak and melancholy person.”
  • In 1735, Aaron Hillsounded an unusual but prescient note when he praised the seeming contradictions in Hamlet’s temperament… After midcentury, such psychological readings had begun to gain more currency.
  • Tobias Smollettcriticized what he saw as the illogic of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy, which was belied, he said, by Hamlet’s actions.
  • Samuel Johnson…doubted the necessity of Hamlet’s vicious treatment of Ophelia, and he also viewed sceptically the necessity and probability of the climax. Hamlet’s character was also attacked by other critics near the end of the century.
  • However, even before the Romantic period, Hamlet was (with Falstaff), the first Shakespearean character to be understood as a personality separate from the play in which he appears.
  • Not until the late 18th century did critics and performers begin to view the play as confusing or inconsistent, with Hamlet falling from such high status. Goethe- 1795 novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, “Shakespeare meant…to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it…A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden which it cannot bear, and must not cast away.”
  • This change in the view of Hamlet’s character is sometimes seen as a shift in the critical emphasis on plot (characteristic of the period before 1750) to an emphasis on the theatrical portrayal of the character (after 1750).


Romantic criticism

  • Already before the Romantic period proper, critics had begun to stress the elements of the play that would cause Hamletto be seen, in the next century, as the epitome of the tragedy of character.
  • 1774, William Richardson: Hamlet was a sensitive and accomplished prince with an unusually refined moral sense; he is nearly incapacitated by the horror of the truth about his mother and uncle, and he struggles against that horror to fulfill his task.
  • Richardson, who thought the play should have ended shortly after the closet scene, thus saw the play as dramatizing the conflict between a sensitive individual and a calloused, seamy world.
  • Henry Mackenzie: “With the strongest purposes of revenge he is irresolute and inactive; amidst the gloom of the deepest melancholy he is gay and jocular; and while he is described as a passionate lover he seems indifferent about the object of his affections.”
  • Like Richardson, Mackenzie concludes that the tragedy in the play arises from Hamlet’s nature: even the best qualities of his character merely reinforce his inability to cope with the world in which he is placed.
  • The Romantic period viewed Hamlet as more of a rebel against politics, and as an intellectual, rather than an overly-sensitive, being. This is also the period when the question of Hamlet’s delay is brought up, as previously it could be seen as plot device, while romantics focused largely on character.
  • Samuel Coleridge… Hamlet …is an intellectual who thinks too much, and can’t make up his mind. He extended this to say that Shakespeare’s ultimate message was that we should act, and not delay.


Late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries


  • Bradley…held the view that Hamlet should be studied as one would study a real person: piecing together his consciousness from the clues given in the play. His explanation of Hamlet’s delay was one of a deep “melancholy” which grew from a growing disappointment in his mother.
  • Freud also viewed Hamlet as a real person: one whose psyche could be analysed through the text. He took the view that Hamlet’s madness merely disguised the truth in the same way dreams disguise unconscious realities. He also famously saw Hamlet’s struggles as a representation of theOedipus complex. In Freud’s view, Hamlet is torn largely because he has repressed sexual desire for his mother, which is being acted out by and challenged by Claudius.

Mid- and late-twentieth century 

  • S. Eliotfamously called Hamlet “an artistic failure”, and criticized the play as analogous to the Mona Lisa, in that both were overly enigmatic. Eliot targeted Hamlet’s disgust with his mother as lacking an “objective correlative”; viz., his feelings were excessive in the context of the play.
  • Questions about Gertrude and other minor characters were later taken underwing by the feminist criticism movement, as criticism focused more and more on questions of gender and political import. Current, New Historicist theories now attempt to remove the romanticism surrounding the play and show its context in the world of Elizabethan England.


  • Feminist critics point to the common classification of women as maid, wife or widow, with only whoresoutside this trilogy. Using this analysis, the problem of Hamlet becomes the central character’s identification of his mother as a whore due to her failure to remain faithful to Old Hamlet, in consequence of which he loses his faith in all women, treating Ophelia as if she were a whore also.
  • Carolyn Heilbrun‘s 1957 essay “The Character of Hamlet’s Mother” defends Gertrude, arguing that the text never hints that Gertrude knew of Claudius poisoning King Hamlet. This analysis has been praised by many feminist critics, combating what is, by Heilbrun’s argument, centuries’ worth of misinterpretation. By this account, Gertrude’s worst crime is of pragmatically marrying her brother-in-law in order to avoid a power vacuum.
  • Ophelia has also been defended by feminist critics, most notably Elaine Showalter. Ophelia is surrounded by powerful men: her father, brother, and Hamlet. All three disappear: Laertes leaves, Hamlet abandons her, and Polonius dies. Conventional theories had argued that without these three powerful men making decisions for her, Ophelia is driven into madness. Feminist theorists argue that she goes mad with guilt because, when Hamlet kills her father, he has fulfilled her sexual desire to have Hamlet kill her father so they can be together. Showalter points out that Ophelia has become the symbol of the distraught and hysterical woman in modern culture.
  • In his The Interpretation of Dreams(1899), Freud proceeds from his recognition of what he perceives to be a fundamental contradiction in the text: “the play is built up on Hamlet’s hesitations over fulfilling the task of revenge that is assigned to him; but its text offers no reasons or motives for these hesitations“.
  • He considers Goethe’s‘paralysis from over-intellectualization’ explanation as well as the idea that Hamlet is a “pathologically irresolute character”. He rejects both, citing the evidence that the play presents of Hamlet’s ability to take action: his impulsive murder of Polonius and his Machiavellian murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
  • Instead, Freud argues, Hamlet’s inhibition against taking vengeance on Claudius has an unconscious In an anticipation of his later theories of the Oedipus complex, Freud suggests that Claudius has shown Hamlet “the repressedwishes of his own childhood realized” (his desire to kill his father and take his father’s place with his mother).
  • Confronted with this image of his own repressed desires, Hamlet responds with “self-reproaches” and “scruples of conscience, which remind him that he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish.” Freud goes on to suggest that Hamlet’s apparent “distaste for sexuality”, as expressed in his conversation with Ophelia (presumably in the ‘nunnery scene’ rather than during the play-within-a-play), “fits in well” with this interpretation.
  • Since this theory, the ‘closet scene’ in which Hamlet confronts his mother in her private quarters has been portrayed in a sexual light in several performances. Hamlet is played as scolding his mother for having sex with Claudius while simultaneously wishing (unconsciously) that he could take Claudius’ place; adultery and incest is what he simultaneously loves and hates about his mother.
  • Ophelia’s madness after her father’s death may be read through the Freudian lens as a reaction to the death of her hoped-for lover, her father. Her unrequited love for him suddenly slain is too much for her and she drifts into insanity.
  • Freud uses Hamlet to explain the nature of dreams: in disguising himself as a madman and adopting the license of the fool, Hamlet “was behaving just as dreams do in reality […] concealing the true circumstances under a cloak of wit and unintelligibility“. When we sleep, each of us adopts an “antic disposition”.
  • After reviewing various literary theories, Freud concludes that Hamlet has an “Oedipal desirefor his mother and the subsequent guilt [is] preventing him from murdering the man [Claudius] who has done what he unconsciously wanted to do”. Confronted with his repressed desires, Hamlet realises that “he himself is literally no better than the sinner whom he is to punish”
  • John Barrymore‘s long-running 1922 performance in New York, directed by Thomas Hopkins, “broke new ground in its Freudian approach to character”, in keeping with the post-World War I rebellion against everything Victorian. He had a “blunter intention” than presenting the genteel, sweet prince of 19th-century tradition, imbuing his character with virility and lust.
  • Maynard Mack, in a hugely influential chapter of Everybody’s Shakespeareentitled “The Readiness is All”, claims that the problematic aspects of Hamlet’s plot are not accidental (as critics such as T.S. Eliot might have it) but are in fact woven into the very fabric of the play. “It is not simply a matter of missing motivations,” he says, “to be expunged if only we could find the perfect clue. It is built in“. Mack states that “Hamlet’s world is pre-eminently in the interrogative mood. It reverberates with questions“. Hamlet himself realizes that “he is the greatest riddle of all”. Mack says that the confusion of the drama points “beyond the context of the play, out of Hamlet’s predicaments into everyone’s”.


Hamlet historical context and early critics



‘the idea of self-government was in fact so deeply embedded in the English psyche that blood feud and duelling continued in England until the latter part of the century … The idea of the blood feud is raised in the play through the retributive actions of both Hamlet and Laertes, and their private revenge acts are ultimately shown as entirely destructive.’

‘the threats to public order presented by an individual seeking justice for themselves … [and] both a theoretical and a literal challenge to Elizabeth I’s legislative bodies.’

‘as a member of the governing family of the country [Hamlet’s] private revenge has both microcosmic and macrocosmic consequences’


‘we have an important political framework in which to interpret the representation of an aging, sexual Queen’

‘Elizabeth manipulated her image to prove that not only was she the rightful and divinely appointed monarch to the English throne, but that she was also a fit warrior and political leader’

‘Her femininity and sexuality were therefore important elements in the control of her image … At a time when an aging Queen still sat on the English throne, projecting a sexualised image of herself in order to maintain political power, one context for a reading of Gertrude’s character is Hamlet’s response to her sexuality as an aspect of her position in the political court’

‘She could not be a strong, politically shrewd woman; she had to be a man in head and heart, but play up to her physical female role.’



by the early Jacobean period the play was famous for the ghost and for its dramatization of melancholy and insanity

Early interpretations of the play, from the late 17th to early 18th century, typically showed Prince Hamlet as a heroic figure

Restoration criticised Hamlet’s violation of decorum and modesty

The ghost scenes, indeed, were particular favourites of an age on the verge of the Gothic revival.

Richardson, who thought the play should have ended shortly after the closet scene, thus saw the play as dramatizing the conflict between a sensitive individual and a calloused, seamy world

The Romantic period viewed Hamlet as more of a rebel against politics, and as an intellectual, rather than an overly-sensitive, being; Romantic focus on Hamlet’s delay – Coleridge concludes that Shakespeare’s message is that we should act


“I saw Hamlet Pr: of Denmark played: but now the old playe began to disgust this refined age.” (JOHN EVELYN, founder of Royal Society, Diary, 1661)

“For Modesty … is the Character of Women. To represent them without this Quality is to make Monsters of them, and throw them out of their Kind. [Another heroine] keeps her Modesty even after She has lost her Wits. Had Shakespeare secur’d this point for his young Virgin Ophelia the Play had been better contriv’d … To keep her alive only to sully her Reputation … was very cruel.”

(JEREMY COLLIER, A Short View of the Immorality, and Profaneness of the English Stage, 1698)

“The pretended madness of HAMLET causes much mirth, the mournful distraction of OPHELIA fills the heart with tenderness”

“he treats Ophelia with so much rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton cruelty.”

“the revenge which [the Ghost] demands is not obtained but by the death of him that was required to take it”

“the gratification which would arise from the destruction of an usurper and a murderer, is abated by the untimely death of Ophelia, the young, the beautiful, the harmless, and the pious.”

“just representation of general nature.”

(SAMUEL JOHNSON, annotated edition of Shakespeare’s Plays, 1765)


“meditative excess”, “I have a smack of Hamlet myself” (COLERIDGE, early 19th century)

“It is we who are Hamlet” (HAZLITT, early 19th century)

“To me it is clear that Shakespeare meant, in the present case, to represent the effects of a great action laid upon a soul unfit for the performance of it” (Goethe, late 18th/early 19th century)


A C Swinburne (1880) challenges the traditional reading of irresolution or doubt in Hamlet, showing how his response to discovering Claudius’s plot to kill him proves ‘his cool-headed and ready-witted courage and resource’ – it is ‘rather the strong conflux of contending forces.’

TS Eliot – Hamlet and his Problems

Analyses Robertson’s comparison of Shakespeare’s Hamlet with Thomas Kyd’s earlier Hamlet, and finds an illuminating difference: “Shakespeare’s Hamlet, so far as it is Shakespeare’s, is a play dealing with the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son” (revenge sole motive in original)

“Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear … Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand … it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it”

“To have heightened the criminality of Gertrude would have been to provide the formula for a totally different emotion in Hamlet; it is just because her character is so negative and insignificant that she arouses in Hamlet the feeling which she is incapable of representing.”