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Hamlet: An Introduction to Interpretations. Grand Poetical Puzzle. Play best reflects the universality of Shakespeare’s genius, yet most enigmatic Hamlet has caused more discussion than any other character in fiction, dramatic or non-dramatic. Two Hamlets in the play. I. “Sweet Prince”

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Hamlet an introduction to interpretations

Hamlet: An Introduction to Interpretations

Grand poetical puzzle
Grand Poetical Puzzle

  • Play best reflects the universality of Shakespeare’s genius, yet most enigmatic

  • Hamlet has caused more discussion than any other character in fiction, dramatic or non-dramatic

Two hamlets in the play
Two Hamlets in the play

I. “Sweet Prince”

  • Sensitive young intellectual and idealist

  • Expresses himself in unforgettable poetry

  • Dedicated to the truth

Two hamlets cont
Two Hamlets, cont.

II. Barbaric Hamlet

  • Treats Ophelia cruelly

  • Slays Polonius – then speaks of lugging guts into another room

  • Callously reports sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths

    Did Shakespeare transmute an old play without reconstructing it?

Critics don t accept the idea that shakespeare was not careful
Critics don’t accept the idea that Shakespeare was not careful

  • Audiences and readers find themselves sympathetic to Hamlet

  • Try to find the key to his character through intensive study of Renaissance thought

H n hudson shakespearean critic
H. N. Hudson, Shakespearean critic careful

  • “It is easy to invent with plausibility almost any theory respecting [Hamlet], but very hard to make any theory comprehend the whole subject.”

  • From his Introduction to Hamlet, 1870

Tragic hero
Tragic Hero careful

  • Must start with the assumption that the tragic hero has a clear and sacred obligation to kill Claudius and to do so without delay

  • Basic question: Why does so much time elapse before the young Prince sweeps to his revenge?

  • It is argued that if he had acted quickly in killing Claudius, that everyone, including Hamlet, would still be alive at the end of the play

Six interpretations i hamlet the victim of external difficulties
Six Interpretations: carefulI. Hamlet, the Victim of External Difficulties

  • Simple answer

  • Hamlet faces external difficulties which make immediate, positive action impossible

  • Claudius too powerful; only once placed himself in a defenseless position.

  • If H. acted, how could he have convinced the people that he justifiably had executed revenge?

Ii hamlet the sentimental dreamer
II. Hamlet, the Sentimental Dreamer careful

  • Romantic critics of the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw H. as gifted but incapable of positive action.

  • Goethe first pointed out a sentimental interpretation – Hamlet is a young man of “lovely, pure, and moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero.”

Ii sentimental dreamer cont
II. carefulSentimental Dreamer, cont .

  • Goethe’s Prince is an impractical dreamer

  • A.W. Schleger – Hamlet has “no firm belief either in himself or in anything else […] in the resolutions which he so often em- braces and always leaves unexecuted, his weakness is too apparent […] his far-fetched scruples are often mere pretexts to cover his want of determination”

    - Dramatic Art & Literature, 1810

Sentimental dreamer cont
Sentimental Dreamer, cont. careful

  • Coleridge – Hamlet suffers from an “over-balance of the contemplative faculty” and “thereby becomes the creature of mere meditation and loses his power to action”

    - Notes & Lectures on Shakespeare, 1808

  • William Hazlitt – “At other times , when he is most bound to act, he remains puzzled, undecided, and sceptical [sic], dallies with his purposes, till the occasion is lost”

    - Characters in Shakespeare’s Plays, 1818

Iii the victim of excessive melancholy
III. The Victim of Excessive Melancholy careful

  • Theory comes from 18th century

  • Hamlet’s grief is pathological.

  • It is a destructive thing which causes him to procrastinate and leads to his death.

  • “Melancholy” – called the “Elizabethan malady”

  • Was recognized as a disease

  • Treatises written on it

Excessive melancholy cont
Excessive Melancholy, cont. careful

  • Melancholy characters of one kind or another appeared often in elizabethan and Jacobean plays

  • Hamlet has been classified as the intellectual melancholy type

  • Disease that afflicts him is most destructive kind, melancholy adust

  • When his mood shifts from deep depression to elation, he is following the pattern of behavior peculiar to the melancholic described by Bright in his A Treatise of Melancholie, 1586

Iv the victim of the oedipus complex
IV. The Victim of the Oedipus Complex careful

  • Freudian, or neo-Freudian, interpretation of Hamlet that appeals to people today

  • Dr. Ernest Jones, disciple and biographer of Sigmund Freud, wrote Hamlet & Oedipus in 1910

  • Hamlet suffered from an undue and unhealthy attachment of a son for his mother which is apt to be morbidly suppressed and cause great mental distress

Oedipus complex cont
Oedipus Complex, cont. careful

  • Harry Levin rejects the theory

  • This theory “motivates Hamlet’s delay by identifying him with Claudius, through whom he has vicariously accomplished the Oedipal feat of murdering his father and marrying his mother”

    -The Question of Hamlet

V motivated by ambition
V. Motivated by Ambition careful

  • Play seen as one of the Elizabethan ambition plays

  • The reason for Hamlet’s desire to kill his uncle is not to avenge his father’s “foul and most unnatural murder,” but rather to make possible his own advancement to the throne

  • The delays and inner conflicts are the result of his awareness that personal ambition and pride, not sacred duty, motivate him.

Vi misled by the ghost
VI. carefulMisled by the Ghost

  • Not all critics agree that the ghost is an honest ghost or that Hamlet has a solemn duty to slay Claudius

  • This denies the assumption that Hamlet is the instrument of divine vengeance – public justice – and is instead a sinner & must suffer for his sins

  • Hamlet is a tragic hero who should not take vengeance into his own hands

Misled by the ghost cont
Misled by the Ghost, cont. careful

  • Renaissance theories of revenge will help us understand H’s dilemma

  • The test of the Ghost’s honesty is not to establish Claudius’s guilt, but to establish the nature of the Ghost’s injunction

  • If Ghost is not honest, the Prince is called upon to execute private vengeance, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, which is contrary to Christian teaching

  • H’s problem – a man who believes in heaven and hell and whose reason tells him that the man who defies divine ordinance ultimately must face judgment

Misled by the ghost cont1
Misled by the Ghost, cont. careful

  • Shakespeare, then, portrays a tragic hero who should not take vengeance into his own hands and a Ghost that is “a spirit damn’d.”

  • This is Eleanor Prosser’s theory – Hamlet and Revenge, 1967

  • Instead of seeing H as one whose propensity for thought prevents him from performing the necessary action, Prosser finds him to be one whose conscience, which operates with reason, restrains him for some time from acting impulsively in response to instinct.

Conclusions careful

  • Shakespeare’s tragedy is a work of surpassing interest and genius, and the tragic hero is universally attractive and fascinating.

  • Only the naïve will start with the assumption that there is one obvious interpretation of the play and that critics, not Shakespeare, have introduced complexities into it.