I recently re-read ‘Hamlet’ . I hadn’t since studying it for ‘A’ level, more years ago than I care to admit, though I have seen that 1980’s BBC performance, where I thought David Robb’s Laertes was far more sympathetic than David Jacobi’s Hamlet.
While I normally love reading Shakespeare, I can’t say that I enjoyed ‘Hamlet’ much when first I read it, brilliant though I found the dramatic sweep and the breadth of vision of the play.
I was dismayed by the misogyny which pervades it and Hamlet’s brutal treatment of Ophelia. It seemed to me that the eminent critics seemed to think that didn’t matter much, and to concentrate more on the question, say, of whether or not he does delay excessively in carrying out the injunction of the ghost of his father to avenge his murder.
Re-reading it now, I am glad that the approach seems to differ, and the misogny that underlies the thinking in the Danish court is seen as frankly absurd.
In fact, I was very struck by the comment of the critic in the edition I read, that it is almost as if Shakespeare is deliberately emphasizing how women are frequently blamed for situations where they have little or no power.
Alan Sinfield, the co-editor of the late TJB Spencer’s 1980’s Penguin edition of the play, remarks: ‘Misogyny is routine, re-iterated, and active in the plot, as though the play were designed to persuade us of it as a fact’.
It may even be that Shakespeare was exposing a tendency to shift the blame of social problems onto the behaviour of women.
Despite my reservations about it, I have always found it a fascinating play. That is hardly surprising, it being one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, written at the height of his powers.
Being by Shakespeare, it goes without saying that what might be in the hands of another playwright a drama with an exciting but shallow revenge theme, cannot avoid being transmuted into an absorbing tale with what have often been called ‘universal themes’.
It becomes an exploration of motivation, frustration, tormented self-doubt, of the corrosive effects of a corrupt world upon youthful love and aspirations, of the morality of the role of the avenger, of the shifting world of alliances and power politics in the treacherous court of Denmark as an analogy of the wider world.
I also found it illuminating that this point is also raised by Alan Sinfield: it largely accounts for the frustration that many have felt when trying to make sense of the seeming inconsistencies in the behaviour of Hamlet and the other characters.
‘Placing too much emphasis on character, many commentators have said, is too expect an early modern play to answer to a critical approach that would suit a nineteenth century novel.’
There are certain inconsistencies in Hamlet’s character as there are in all the supporting ones. Fascinating as they are, I have to agree that full and rounded characterisation was probably not Shakespeare’s main focus of interest.
Least of all is this the case with secondary characters. If we are left feeling confused over what goes on in Hamlet’s head, then we are even more so over that of the rest. Gertrude, for instance, gives us no clue as to how her private discussion with Hamlet – during which he has stabbed to death the eavesdropping Polonius through the arras – has changed her attitude to the King.
In that interview, she raises no objections to her son’s suggestion that she keep away from Claudius’ bed; but whether or not she has kept to this resolve, and how far her relations with Claudius have been changed through Hamlet’s insistence that he is a murderer, we don’t know. She is given no lines that cast light on this.
It could be that those lines have been lost – as I suspect that lines have been lost from the last scenes of ‘All’s Well That Ends Well’, ‘Measure for Measure’, ‘Two Gentleman of Verona’ and others. But it could equally be that Shakespeare lost interest in the marital difficulties that Gertrude must have been left with because they were no longer directly part of Hamlet’s further adventures.
We only know that when Polonius’ son Laertes returns, determined to avenge Polonious’ death, and accompanied by a crowd who are willing to elect him ruler, Gertrude calls them ‘False Danish dogs’.
There are various troubling inconsistencies in the time frame (obviously, far less obvious in performance) . We are unsure how long it is since the death of King Hamlet, and how long it is since Claudius married his widow. It seems odd when near the beginning, Hamlet’s great ally Horatio says that he has come to the court from university for the funeral. Yet, this is presumably some weeks later, and yet he has not only not returned to Wittenberg, but Hamlet has seemingly not met him. Perhaps he is too self-effacing to call on the Prince.
This is a minor defect, though even so important a detail as Hamlet’s age is contradicted in the text, though he is often referred to as youthful. And certainly, his attitude of thunderstruck amazement and horror towards Gertrude’s remarriage – before he knows of the murder, that is – makes more sense in a youth in his mid teens than in a man. Of course it is also true that by the standards of Shakespeare’s time, Gertrude’s remarriage to her former brother-in-law is incestuous.
Of course, it is hardly surprising that there are inconsistencies in Shakespeare’s timing and the lines given to various characters, given that there are no definitive texts for any of his plays, only various prompt copies possessed by theatre employees that comprise various ‘folios’ which frequently contradict each other. There may well be missing lines for all the characters which might go a long way to solve the difficulties and inconsistencies to be found in his plots and his characters.
Yet, it is also possible that the missing lines may not explain anything about the motivation of Shakespeare’s creations, for the reasons mentioned above.
To me, the most disturbing thing about this play is the potential happiness lost between Ophelia and Hamlet. In being drawn into the plot of her father Polonius and the King, Ophelia becomes suspect to Hamlet as a spy. He rants wildly at her about women’s sluttish ways and denies he ever said he loved her, despite the passionate notes he has previously sent her.
Later, Polonius is spying behind the arras again when Gertrude and Hamlet have their supposedly private confrontation, and mistaking him for Claudius, Hamlet, who before then has rebuked himself for his delay in carrying out his killing, immediatly stabs him to death.
After this, and Hamlet’s subsequent banishment (which he seems to accept despite the fact that it greatly reduces his chance to avenge his father by killing his uncle) Ophelia runs mad and sings about desire and betrayal:
‘Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window
To be your Valentine.
Then he up and donned his clothes,
And dupped the chamber door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.
By Gis and by St. Charity,
Alack and fie for shame!
Young men will do’t if they come to’t,
By Cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, ‘Before you tumbled me
You promised me to wed.
“So would I ha done, by yonder sun,
An thou hast not come to my bed.’
Finally Ophelia falls into a river and drowns.
Hamlet returns to Denmark to witness her funeral. Here, when her brother in his anguish leaps into her grave, her estranged lover (in the old sense) rushes forward, and claims that he loved her more than ‘Forty Thousand Brothers’. He and the outraged Laertes wrestle in the poor girl’s grave.
King Claudius sees a way of disposing of his troublesome nephew and heir by exploiting Laertes’ vengeful fury and arranging a duel, with a poisoned sword tip.
By the end of the play, not only Polonius and Ophelia, but Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Gertrude, Claudius and Hamlet are all dead.
Horatio would like to follow his friend, but Hamlet pleads with him to stay alive to clear his name.
At the end of ‘King Lear’, though the slaughter and waste caused by injustice and selfish ambition has been similarly tragic, I felt that Edgar’s final speech offered a sense of optimism for the future. But despite the youthful energy of Fortinbras as the new ruler, I didn’t have that sense of optimism with Hamlet. I felt, above everything, a sense of weary sadness.
There is a stark grandeur to the story, as in all of Shakespeare’s tragedies. Still, when the play closes, leaving Polonious, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Gertrude, Laertes, Claudius and Hamlet dead from the chain of events set in motion by late king’s plea from purgatory to be avenged on his murderer brother, I felt a sense of great futility and a senseless waste of lives.
The demand of the murdered King from purgatory, that his son avenge his murder, has led to this grim scene. Was vengeance for his murder and betrayal by his brother worth this price? I can’t feel that it was.
Critics notoriously argue that there are severe problems with a traditional, pagan revenge drama being set within the Christian era. as I say, my reaction at the end was different from the feeling of carthasis I had on finishing ‘King Lear’.
Yet, perhaps this weary sadness is exactly the effect for which Shakespeare was aiming. This play certainly should be read by those with a vengeful disposition – I am sometimes guilty of that myself – just as ‘King Lear’ should equally be read by those whose judgement is weakened by flattery. That is a fault we all no doubt share.