- 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).
- 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
HISTROICAL CONTEXT: OPEN UNIVERSITY
‘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’
THE QUEEN’S AUTHORITY
‘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.’
CHANGING CRITICAL VIEWS
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.”