Shakespearing #23 by David Foley
For a certain kind of theatre/English lit nerd, Hamlet was our Catcher in the Rye. Hamlet not Holden was the disaffected hero who awakened our sense that we were surrounded by phonies in a messed-up world. I remember being puzzled to learn that scholars argued back and forth about Hamlet. Is he mad or just pretending? To me Hamlet was viscerally real. His world had been turned upside down. How else should he behave?
But Hamlet isn’t an adolescent. He’s thirty, a few years younger than Shakespeare when he wrote the play. This, too, is part of the play’s allure: the perhaps illusory sense that we’re getting close to Shakespeare himself, as close as Shakespeare got to self-portraiture. We can note the deep-dyed sense of personal anguish, Hamlet’s savvy as a playwright, and (less appealingly) his revulsion against female sexuality, a revulsion that bubbles up from time to time in Shakespeare’s plays.
Still, on re-reading the play, the problem jumps out at you, the problem that, according to C.S. Lewis, caused some critics to call the play “an artistic failure” (though he added, “[I]f this is failure, then failure is better than success.”). And the problem is this: plot becomes divorced from action so that character becomes opaque. The problem is not whether Hamlet is mad or only pretending. The problem is that he says he’s going to “put an antic disposition on,” but everything he does seems only the acting out of a soul in anguish. His maddest acts—killing Polonius, hiding the body, arranging for the murder of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—are way past role-playing. We can’t draw a line between the plot development—“I must play mad in order to revenge my father’s murder”—and the action.
And it’s not just Hamlet. By the end of the Closet Scene, we think we should be able to say whether Gertrude has genuinely repented or if she’s humoring her crazy son, but we can’t, and nothing afterwards enlightens us. We can’t see what effect the scene produced on her. She’s also the first person who can’t see the Ghost, throwing another mystery into the mix. The Ghost is driving the plot. Has he now become a figment?
Stephen Greenblatt calls this “strategic opacity,” “[taking] out a key explanatory element” and thus “occluding the rationale, motivation, or ethical principle that account[s] for the action.” Greenblatt claims that this was Shakespeare’s “crucial breakthrough” in Hamlet, a new approach to character. Hamlet affects us so powerfully because he can’t be explained. We experience him as real because, like us, he’s fragmented.
It’s not just the removal of motivation, but the unlinking of motivation and action that makes Hamlet so disorienting. Our inability to say what effect the Closet Scene has had on Gertrude begins to strike us as eerie. We’re approaching Joan Didion’s “world of people moved by strange, conflicted, poorly comprehended and, above all, devious motivations.”
The other day I picked up Shakespeare’s Montaigne, which has an introduction by Greenblatt. Greenblatt says that Montaigne “experienced existence as a succession of inconsistent and disjointed thoughts and impulses,” with the result that, in the essays, “he is constantly in motion.” Montaigne himself says, “I describe not the essence but the passage.”
This seems to be Shakespeare’s method in Hamlet, to get not the plot but the passage, the motion of a soul. The irony of the play may be that Hamlet, done in by plot in the end, nevertheless escapes plot’s prison. He eludes those who would, in his own words, “pluck out the heart of my mystery.”
David Foley is a playwright and fiction writer living in Brooklyn. His plays include Cressida Among the Greeks, Paradise, Nance O’Neil, The Murders at Argos, A Hole in the Fence, and Sad Hotel, among others. His novel The Traveler’s Companion is available on Amazon. He teaches at New York University.