Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Hamlet: The Madness & The Critics

The Making of a Critical Tradition

Why does Hamlet delay? Why does he go mad? Or, if he doesn’t go mad, when, why, how does he feign madness? Does he feign madness? These are the famous questions that everyone knows about, even those who have never seen the play or read it. They were asked, for the first time, by the critics of the late Eighteenth and early Nineteenth centuries.

For a long time—from 1600 to 1736, to be exact—no one asked these questions; not in print, at any rate. Hamlet was referred to often during that time, but no one seems to have thought him weak or irresolute, or found anything odd, strange or problematical about the play.
In 1710 a nobleman and philosopher, the Earl of Shaftsbury, gave Shakespeare and especially this play his stamp of approval. He had reservations about Shakespeare’s “natural rudeness” of style, “his want of method and coherence,” but these were his only reservations and were of little consequence compared to the “justness of [Shakespeare’s] moral, the aptness of many of his descriptions, and the plain and natural turn of several of his characters.” Shakespeare pleases, he said, by his moral substance not his style, and he singled out Hamlet in particular for its direct, uncomplicated thought and morality: “That piece of his, the tragedy of HAMLET, which appears to have most affected English hearts, and has perhaps been oftenest acted of any which have come upon our stage, is almost one continu’d Moral; a series of deep reflections, drawn from one mouth, upon the subject of one single . . . calamity, naturally fitted to move horror and compassion.”

No one in 1710 or earlier, so far as we know, would have disagreed with these sentiments. Nor, it seems, had anyone tried to be specific about the play’s “one continu’d Moral,” or connected that moral with Hamlet’s reflections. No one had tried to think through the logic of the play or its plot. That changed twenty-six years later, in 1736, with the publication of an anonymous pamphlet (attributed to Sir Thomas Hanmer), Some Remarks on the Tragedy of Hamlet. For the first time, praise of the play was qualified by objections. There’s something here that doesn’t quite make sense. Having gotten himself into one absurdity, says Hanmer, Shakespeare is forced to have recourse to another. Since there is no reason why Hamlet should have to delay his revenge, Shakespeare has him fill up the time by pretending to be mad. This is a lame device, for it attracts attention instead of diverting it.

"To conform to the groundwork of his plot, Shakespeare makes the young Prince feign himself mad. I cannot but think this to be injudicious; for, so far from securing himself from any violence which he feared from the usurper, which was his design in so doing, it seems to have been the most likely way of getting himself confined and consequently debarred from an opportunity of revenging his father's death. To speak truly, our poet, by keeping too close to the groundwork of his plot, has fallen into an absurdity; there appears no reason at all in nature why this young Prince did not put the usurper to death as soon as possible, especially as Hamlet is represented as a youth so brave and so careless of his life. The case, indeed, is this: had Hamlet gone naturally to work, there would have been an end of our play. The poet, therefore, was obliged to delay his hero’s revenge; but then he should have contrived some good reason for it."

“A youth so brave and so careless of his life.” An uncomplicated young man. That was how Hamlet had been played by Betterton for almost fifty years (from 1661 to 1709) and by Garrick for thirty-four (1742 to 1776): strong-willed, active and energetic in pursuit of revenge with hardly a hint of weakness or passivity. Behind that uncomplicated view of Hamlet was a complicating fact. Both Betterton and Garrick simplified Hamlet and the play by cutting, in performance, lines that suggested vacillation or irresolution.

No one objected to their emendations, not even Johnson, until Richard Sheridan, as Boswell reports in his journal for April 6, 1763, “in his usual way railed against Mr. Garrick” and especially Garrick’s interpretation of the play.

"He gave us... a most ingenious dissertation on the character of Hamlet... He made it clear to us that Hamlet, notwithstanding his seeming incongruities, is a perfectly consistent character. Shakespeare drew him as the portrait of a young man of a good heart and fine feelings who has led a studious contemplative life and so become delicate and irresolute. He shows him in very unfortunate circumstances, the author of which he knows he ought to punish, but wants strength of mind to execute what he thinks is right and wishes to do. In this dilemma he makes Hamlet feign himself mad, as in that way he might put his uncle to death with less fear of the consequences of such an attempt. We therefore see Hamlet sometimes like a man really mad and sometimes like a man reasonable enough, though much hurt in mind. His timidity being once admitted, all the strange fluctuations which we perceive in him may be easily traced to that source."

Sheridan’s analysis of Hamlet’s character sounds familiar; people and critics are still talking this way about Hamlet. Sheridan, however, was somewhat ahead of his time. When Samuel Johnson turned his attention to the play, in 1765, he (like Hamner) found fault with the play not its hero.
Hamlet, wrote Johnson, in the notes to his edition of The Plays of William Shakespeare (1765), is clearly a wonderful and wonderfully entertaining play, but its “conduct is perhaps not wholly secure against objections. The action is indeed for the most part in continual progression, but there are some scenes which neither forward nor retard it.” And, while “the pretended madness of Hamlet causes much mirth,” there seems to be no good reason for it, “for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity. He plays the madman most when he treats Ophelia with so much rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton cruelty.” And Johnson had other objections:

"Hamlet is, through the whole piece, rather an instrument than an agent. After he has, by the strategem of the play, convicted the King, he makes no attempt to punish him; and his death is at last effected by an incident which Hamlet had no part in producing. The catastrophe is not very happily produced; the exchange of weapons is rather an expedient of necessity than a stroke of art. A scheme might easily be formed to kill Hamlet with the dagger and Laertes with the bowl. The poet is accused of having shown little regard to poetical justice, and may be charged with equal neglect of poetical probability. The apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose; the revenge which he demands is not obtained but by the death of him that was required to take it; and 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."

None of the critics who came after Johnson wanted to follow his lead and find fault with Shakespeare. The defects that Johnson had noted, they said (in effect) are not in the play but in the hero. In 1778, two years after Garrick retired, George Steevens announced that Hamlet must be really insane. Nothing else, he said, can account for what is “unnatural and indefensible” in his conduct:

"The late Dr. Akinside once observed to me, that the conduct of Hamlet was every way unnatural and indefensible, unless he were to be regarded as a young man whose intellects were in some degree impaired by his own misfortunes: by the death of his father, the loss of expected sovereignty, and a sense of shame resulting from the hasty and incestuous marriage of his mother. I have dwelt the longer on this subject because Hamlet seems to have been hitherto regarded as a hero not undeserving the pity of the audience; and because no writer on Shakepeare has taken the pains to point out the immoral tendency of his character."

Dr. Akinside seems not to have brought anyone but Steevens around to his way of thinking. If Hamlet is really mad, what’s the point of the play? And how should we account for the fact that he has always been “regarded as a hero not undeserving the pity of the audience”? A madman might deserve our pity, but it is hard to see how he could have become the hero of the hugely popular tragedy that Shaftsbury was referring to, “which appears to have most affected English hearts and has perhaps been oftenest acted of any which have come upon our stage.”

But if Hamlet is not mad, how else shall we account for the “immoral tendency of his character”? That is the question, it seems to me, that was beginning to agitate the critics. And since those immoral tendencies were part and parcel of Hamlet’s wit, which the audiences always find hugely entertaining, the question became especially urgent.

Though the play would continue to captivate popular audiences, some of the critics were shaking their heads. Not liking the Hamlet that Shakespeare had given them, they invented a new one. What were they looking for? Not wit but feeling and—that new word or thing—sensibility. Hamlet, they said, is a man of such exquisite sensibility, pure motives and high ideals that he has to fail. People like him are too noble for this ugly world. Forced to clean it up, his mind gives way. Instead of celebrating his wayward wit, they turned him into a victim of the world and its ways: a hero-victim who falls upon the thorns of life, and bleeds. And if you had been in his position, you might also have acted in ways that would strike others as mad. (When Coleridge tried to imagine what it might be like to be Hamlet, he found the man that, to his sorrow, he thought he had become: “a man living in meditation, called upon to act by every motive human and divine, but the great object of his life defeated by continually resolving to do, yet doing nothing but resolve."

Let us examine this process of romantic identification in more detail. “We feel,” wrote Henry Mackenzie in 1780, not only the virtues, but the weaknesses, of Hamlet as our own; we see a man, who in other circumstances would have exercised all the moral and social virtues, placed in a situation in which even the amiable qualities of his mind serve but to aggravate his distress and to perplex his conduct. Our compassion for the first, and our anxiety for the latter, are excited in the strongest manner; and hence arises that indescribable charm in Hamlet which attracts every reader and every spectator, which the more perfect characters of other tragedies never dispose us to feel....When Horatio exclaims, on the death of his friend, ‘Now cracks a noble heart’ we forget the murder of the King, the villainy of Claudius, the guilt of Gertrude; our recollection dwells only on the memory of that ‘sweet prince,’ the delicacy of whose feelings a milder planet should have ruled, whose gentle virtues should have bloomed through a life of felicity and usefulness.

William Richardson, having found “the principle and spring of all his actions” in the “turpitude” of his mother, commented in 1784:

To erase an established affection, and substitute aversion, or even indifference, does violence to our nature; our affliction will bear an exact proportion to our former tenderness. So delicate is your affection, and so refined your sense of moral excellence, when the moral faculty is softened into a tender attachment, that the sanctity and purity of the heart you love must appear without a stain. Such is the condition of Hamlet. Exquisitely sensible of moral beauty and deformity, he discerns turpitude in a parent. Surprise adds bitterness to his sorrow . . .

In 1795, Goethe endorsed the view of Hamlet that Mackenzie and Richardson had been developing: a man of lofty and fragile sensibility, pure motives and high ideals thrust into the real world. Here is how his fictional theater-buff, Wilhelm Meister, invites us to imagine Hamlet (in Wilhelm Meister, Bk. V):

Tender and nobly descended, this royal flower grew up... Figure to yourselves this youth, this son of princes, conceive him vividly, bring his condition before your eyes, and then observe him when he learns that his father's spirit walks... A horrid shudder seizes him.... And when the Ghost has vanished, whom is it we see standing before us? A hero panting for vengeance?... No! Amazement and sorrow overwhelm the solitary young man... The time is out of joint: “O cursed spite, That ever I was born to set it right!” In these words, I imagine is the key to Hamlet’s whole procedure, and to me it is clear that Shakespeare sought to depict a great deed laid upon a soul unequal to the performance of it...

Mackenzie, Richardson and Goethe each invite us to put ourselves in Hamlet's position, to wear his shoes, on the assumption that what seems strange or odd in him will then seem only natural. There’s nothing strange or mysterious about him; at bottom he’s just like us. Hazlitt says as much: “It is we who are Hamlet.” But we aren’t, not at all. That’s why he’s interesting, because he is not like us. If we are like him, in some sense, the likeness is remote. Trying to naturalize Hamlet, these critics domesticated him. Coleridge, trying in 1808 to ground him and his ways in the immutable laws of human nature, pushed this process about as far as it can go.

“In order to understand Hamlet, it is essential that we should reflect on the constitution of our own minds. Man is distinguished from the brute animals in proportion as thought prevails over sense; but in the healthy processes of the mind, a balance is constantly maintained between the impressions from outward objects and the inward operations of the intellect; for if there be an overbalance in the contemplative faculty, man thereby becomes the creature of mere meditation, and loses his natural power of action. Now, one of Shakespeare's modes of creating characters is to conceive any one intellectual or moral faculty in morbid excess, and then to place himself, Shakespeare, thus mutilated or diseased, under the given circumstances. In Hamlet he seems to have wished to exemplify the moral necessity of a due balance between our attention to the objects of our senses and our meditation on the working of our minds—an equilibrium between the real and imaginary worlds. In Hamlet this
balance is disturbed... "

Coleridge assumes, here, that minds are everywhere and at all times the same. It is a neo-classical assumption, but the moralistic tone is all his own. The concept of mental health that Coleridge is invoking is conventional, as is his concept of ‘reason’. Reasonable people, he implies, don’t permit themselves to become so caught up in their private meditations and fantasies as to lose the power of action in the public world.

It is odd to be lectured at in this way, on the moral necessity of finding a proper “equilibrium between the real and the imaginary worlds,” by the man who had written, in 1798, that quintessential romantic poem, Kubla Khan, a poem that does as much as a poem can to remove or straddle the boundary between real and imagined worlds.

In 1864, Thomas Kenny noticed, briefly, that our uncertainties and doubts about Hamlet are caused by the “devious” and “disordered” energies of the play itself. His oddities are not part of his character but built into the play.

Hamlet is, perhaps, of all the plays of Shakespeare the one which a great actor would find most difficult to embody in an ideally complete form. It would, we think, be a mistake to attempt to elaborate its multiform details into any distinctly harmonious whole. Its whole action is devious, violent, spasmodic. Its distempered, inconstant irritability is its very essence. Its only order is the manifestation of a wholly disordered energy.

That disordered energy frightened or repelled Coleridge and he tried to impose an order of his own on it. What is strange in Hamlet is, he would have us believe, merely the natural effect of “an overbalance of the imaginative power, beautifully illustrated in the everlasting broodings and superflous activities of Hamlet's mind...” Hamlet is a problem to be explained, not celebrated. And this way of explaining him is necessarily reductive, as all good explanations are. It is not the power of Hamlet’s imagination, or wit, that interests Coleridge but the way it beautifully illustrates the truth of a psychological theory which finds his wit “superfluous.”

The unromantic method of trying to make Hamlet conform to contemporary conventions of reason and morality led Coleridge, in his lecture of 1812, to say something uncharacteristically simple-minded:

"Shakespeare wished to impress upon us the truth: that action is the chief end of existence—that no faculties of intellect, however brilliant, can be considered valuable, or indeed otherwise than as misfortunes, if they if they withdraw us from, or render us repugnant to action..."

And so that which is strange, wild, wayward and original—the qualities that have made people think Hamlet might actually be slightly mad—drops out of Coleridge's reading of the play.
Kenny's insight did not attract attention, then or later—not even his own. It was offered merely in passing, toward the close of the chapter on Hamlet in his sensible but otherwise unremarkable book, The Life and Genius of Shakespeare, and he made no further use of it.

When A. C. Bradley wrote his hugely influential Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), he took it for granted that the problems of the play are grounded in the character of its hero. He thereby perpetuated the bad nineteenth-century habit of confusing Hamlet and the play. C. S. Lewis's 1942 lecture, “Hamlet: The Prince or The Poem?” was an attempt to correct that habit. In order to see the play whole, he had to rescue it from the critics who had been confusing it with the Prince. But old habits die hard.

Why does this one habit die so hard? Because it is easier to talk about Hamlet’s character than to talk about the play? That’s part of it, but I think there is a more interesting answer. C. S. Lewis put a finger on it when he said that the play does not contain enough information “for any portrait of the kind critics have tried to draw.” Hamlet's procrastination can’t be explained because it is a given; not a problem put there for us to solve but a premise that the play is built on. But instead of discouraging speculation, the absence of information has become a hole that criticism has tried to fill.

Shakespeare also put something in the play that has encouraged criticism to focus on the Prince, and he did it for a reason—though not for that reason. I am talking about the “antic disposition” that Hamlet warns his friends, and the audience, that he may from time to time “put on.”

Johnson took it for granted that Hamlet's madness is not real but feigned. That had evidently been the traditional view. It broke down when medical science began, in the late eighteenth-century to think seriously about madness as a disease of the mind. Dr. Akinside's diagnosis of clinical insanity coincides exactly with the critical turn from the idea of a defective play to a defective hero. Then, for roughly a hundred years, the question was seriously debated: is Hamlet really mad or is he just pretending? Beginning with Bradley, that particular question was dropped. Bradley prefers “melancholy” to “mad” and notes, without much interest, that an “antic disposition” is occasionally put on. Twentieth-century criticism tended to go in one direction or the other: some assume, like Steevens, that Hamlet's disordered energy is pathological, others that he’s putting it on. While neither of these assumptions can withstand scrutiny, the latter at least is in the text of the play—all of them, beginning with the First Quarto.
Why is it in the text? If the “antic disposition” speech does no work in the play, why is it there? To answer this question, we must go back to Shakespeare's sources and think about how he might have used them.

The Sources

Madness had, from the beginning, been an important part of the Hamlet story. Shakespeare’s play came by it naturally, so to speak. How this happened is not well understood. Here is what we know about the story, especially the madness motif, before Shakespeare undertook the task of writing his own version.

In both Saxo’s twelfth-century Historiae Danicae and in Belleforest's sixteenth-century recension, Histoires Tragiques, the hero, Amleth, is a boy when his father is murdered by his brother, the boy’s uncle. Since the murder and identity of the murderer are common knowledge, there is no need of a ghost to inform Amleth about it and incite him to revenge. He pretends to be mad—an imbecile, actually—so that his uncle will think he is harmless and let him live. That is, under the circumstances, a reasonable thing for him to do. When, eventually, he becomes a man he springs his long planned and carefully laid trap and avenges the murder of his father.

Someone it seems adapted the Hamlet story for the stage in the late 1580s. This “Ur-Hamlet” (as it is usually referred to) was very popular which, no doubt, is why Shakespeare’s company decided to refurbish it. Shakespeare's play was so wildly successful, in turn, that it completely eclipsed the older play. We know nothing more about that play but what can be gleaned from a few disdainful references. We know from one of them that it had a ghost, who “cried miserably for revenge,” and that therefore Kyd (or whoever it was) must have radically changed the older story. Since the ghost cries for revenge, the hero would probably not have been a boy but a man who is capable of carrying it off. While the fact that he learns about his father’s murder from his father’s ghost means that the murder is not public knowledge but a secret known only to the ghost, the murderer and now the son. The son, therefore, has no reason to feign madness, and every reason to act as if nothing has happened—to look, as Lady Macbeth tells her husband, like the innocent flower but be the serpent under it. It is almost certain that this earlier Hamlet does feign madness, nevertheless. Kyd (if the play was by Kyd) uses the device in his (other?) revenge play, The Spanish Tragedy and so does Shakespeare himself in Titus Andronicus. Shakespeare's first audiences may have been expecting something similar. When Shakespeare has Hamlet warn his friends of strange antics to come, he could have been playing to that expectation.

It is not clear that he does much to satisfy it. Hamlet is sufficiently strange and odd, to be sure, and he tells us so (he is as much a puzzle to himself as to us) but if one comes to this play expecting antics, clowning, deliberate foolery, you are likely to be left wondering—unless the actor who is playing this part deliberately cues the audience through some bit of stage business that that is what he is doing. Johnson's remark suggests that that may have been how the part was traditionally played in his time: “the pretended madness of Hamlet causes much mirth...” That tradition seems to have lasted well into the nineteenth century. William Maginn doubts, in 1836, that the “common spectator” could abide the play “without having Polonius buffooned for him, and, to no small extent, Hamlet himself; as he always was whenever I saw the part played, and as the great critic, Dr. Johnson, would seem to think he ought to be. For he says, ‘the pretended madness of Hamlet causes much mirth!!!’”

Why did Johnson take it for granted that Hamlet is feigning? It is an important question. The text of the play is genuinely ambiguous, and this is not something that 20th century criticism has invented. Though Hamlet tells us to watch out for the “antic disposition” that he just might “put on”, there are no cues to show that here he is pretending to be mad and here he is just being his normal self—whatever that is; nothing to show that he ever puts on the appearance of madness or even that lesser thing, an antic disposition, or that he doesn’t. Shakespeare left this matter to the discretion of the player or the director, and Garrick it seems never questioned the theatrical tradition. So the question, above, has to be rephrased: not, why did Johnson take it for granted that Hamlet’s madness is feigned, but why didn’t he question Garrick's assumption that it is?

Well, in a way, he did question it, except that he directed his criticism at the play, not its interpretation. He did not say that Hamlet is unclear or ambiguous on the question of madness, feigned or otherwise, but that feigned madness does not make sense: “Of the feigned madness of Hamlet there appears no adequate cause, for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity.” This, he implies, is a fault in the play.

Johnson was right and I think Shakespeare would have agreed with him. He too must have noticed that the pretence of madness no longer serves any useful purpose, either in the “Ur-Hamlet” or his own: a wheel spinning idly, rubber that doesn’t meet the road. So why did Shakespeare bother to raise the question at all?

Shakespeare left the question of madness—real, feigned or neither—hinted at but unresolved for both obvious and not-so-obvious reasons. Perhaps he did not want to ruin a good thing. The pretended madness of Hamlet had already been shown, in the earlier play, to be the cause of much mirth. It was good theater and good theater was his business. That’s the obvious reason. It is not, perhaps, the most important one. To get at the one that matters, you have to ask yourself some such question as the following: what would it mean for the play as a whole if Shakespeare had cued the text to indicate when Hamlet is pretending to be mad and when he is not? It would, for one thing, have made the play much more crudely theatrical, since each of these cues would be taken by the actors as an invitation to show off his technical brilliance. So the play would consist of a series of arias and every time it was put on, the actor playing the part would try to outdo his predecessor in buffoonery. And there would have been a subtler effect: the existence of such cues would mean that Shakespeare himself had taken a position on some necessary questions of the play, questions which the play leaves open: what is madness, what is sanity?

Frank Kermode, in his introduction to Hamlet in the Riverside edition, calls the play “extremely theatrical” because it is so continously self-referential; it is full of references to playing and acting. But that’s meta-theatricality. Theatricality is different and, like realism, is relative: more or less theatrical than what? The relevant comparison, as William Empson showed us in 1953, is with the “Ur-Hamlet” (which he assumed to be Kyd’s) which was almost certainly more naively theatrical than Shakespeare’s, not less. Kyd’s theatricality, wrote Empson, had gone out of fashion by 1600 and it was Shakespeare’s job to bring the old play up to date and replace it. Here is what Empson had to say about the way Shakespeare might have approached this task:

The current objection to the old play Hamlet, which must have seemed very hard to surmount, can be glimpsed in the surviving references to it. It was thought absurdly theatrical. Even in 1589 the phrase “whole Hamlets, I should say handfuls, of tragical speeches” treats Hamlet as incessantly wordy, and the phrase of 1596, “as pale as the vizard of the ghost which cried so miserably at the Theater, like an oyster wife, Hamlet Revenge”, gets its joke from the idea that her dismal bawling may start again at any moment... The objection is not against melodrama, which they liked well enough, but against delay. You had a hero howling out “Revenge” all through the play, and everybody knew the revenge wouldn’t come till the end.

Shakespeare solved this problem by making the audience forget, from moment to moment, that it is in a theater, and he accomplished this feat of dramatic illusion, as Empson goes on to show, by making the play self-referential: he made the play less theatrical, more natural, by—paradoxically—introducing the various meta-theatrical devices that Kermode mentions. Empson, curiously, calls it a “purely technical decision.” He thought: “The only way to shut this hole [delay] is to make it big. I shall make Hamlet walk up to the audience and tell them, again and again, ‘I don't know why I'm delaying any more than you do; the motivation of this play is just as blank to me as it is to you; but I can't help it.’ What is more, I shall make it impossible for them to blame him. And then they daren’t laugh." It turned out, of course, that this method, instead of reducing the old play to farce, made it thrillingly life-like and profound... Looked at in this way, the plot at once gave questions of very wide interest... Whole areas of the old play suddenly became so significant that one could wonder whether Kyd had meant that or not; whether Hamlet really wants to kill Claudius, whether he was ever really in love with Ophelia, whether he can continue to grasp his own motives while “acting a part” before the Court, whether he is not really more of an actor than the Players, whether he is not (properly speaking) the only sincere person in view.... Surely this is what critics have long found so interesting..."

Goethe had also noticed (in Wilhelm Meister) that this play gives the illusion of not being a play at all:

It pleases, it flatters us greatly to see a hero who acts of himself, who loves and hates as his heart prompts, undertaking and executing, thrusting aside all hindrances, and accomplishing his great purpose. Historians and poets would fain persuade us that so proud a lot may fall to man. In Hamlet we are taught otherwise: the hero has no plan, but the piece is full of plan. Here is no villain upon whom vengeance is inflicted according to a certain scheme, rigidly and in a peculiar manner carried out.... Here in this play of ours, how strange! Purgatory sends its spirit and demands revenge; but in vain! All circumstances combine and hurry to revenge; in vain! Neither earthly nor infernal thing may bring about what is reserved for Fate alone. The hour of judgement comes. The bad falls with the good. One race is mowed away, another springs up.

If Goethe and Empson are right about Shakespeare’s intention in Hamlet, to write a play that gives the illusion of not being a play, that has consequences for the way we read it. Feigned madness is out because feigning is inherently theatrical; it has to be enacted in ways that will be obvious to the audience. So I think we have to take Hamlet seriously when he disclaims ‘seeming’ in his first scene: “Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’” This is a play about a man who cannot understand why he does not or cannot act and the play keeps reminding us that acting and seeming go together: to act politically is to play a part out in the public world. (The association of politics and theater was a commonplace in the 1590s and for a good reason: no court has ever been more brilliantly theatrical than Queen Elizabeth’s.)

A person who does not act, who is what she seems, is sincere. Sincerity is an untheatrical virtue. It is Hamlet’s virtue.

Johnson thought that Shakespeare had shown, in Hamlet, little regard for either poetical justice or poetical probability. He cannot have been the first person to notice that, on the whole, the play is strangely indifferent to the moral expectations of its audience; just the first not only to say so but to judge such indifference objectionable. Previously, so far as we know, audiences had more or less happily acquiesced in the way Hamlet reflects the irrationality of life and the world.

Succeeding generations preferred to blame their discomfort on Hamlet. They were less interested in his wit than his pathology, and less interested in his strangeness than in trying to explain it. Deceived by Shakespeare’s innovative, anti-theatrical realism, they insisted on talking about Hamlet as if he were a real person, or a character in a novel which to them was almost the same thing. They passed their assumptions on to succeeding generations and these assumptions have infected attitudes toward this play ever since.

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