This week’s video blog – mainly on the topic of soliloquy – can be found here:
Those of you who succeeded in consulting the English Short Title catalogue on the British Library website last week and managed to look at the first two quartos of Hamlet as part of an alphabetical listing of almost everything else printed in 1603 and 1604 will remember that the play appears not under the letter H for Hamlet but under the letter T, as The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet Prince of Denmarke. I thought I might consider some of the implications of that word ‘tragicall’ in this week’s blog, but first to my customary miscellaneous round-up, of items mentioned on the comments pages this week, and of news items with a bearing on the course.
An afterthought from last week’s blog on Hamlet and its comic spin-offs: one famous descendant of this play’s wandering, reflective, memory-haunted, loose structure is the most remarkable shaggy-dog story in English, Laurence Sterne’s experimental comic novel Tristram Shandy (1759-67). Far more interested in his own passing ideas and the vagaries of his own memory than in explaining his life in any sensible chronological order, the eponymous, soliloquizing narrator frequently remembers a parson called Yorick, and Sterne, himself a vicar in Yorkshire, adopted ‘Yorick’ as his nickname, not only in his own travel memoir A Sentimental Journey (1768) but when he published his sermons as The Sermons of Mr Yorick. In an apocryphal incident full of gravedigger-scene black comedy, after Sterne’s death in London his body was supposedly misappropriated by anatomists, and it was only reburied after a friend who was a Cambridge medical student recognized the shape of Sterne’s skull during a dissection. When the graveyard in which the reburial had taken place was removed to make way for development in 1969, a skull was once more identified as Sterne’s, this time by comparison to a portrait bust, and this was reburied once more, this time in ‘Parson Yorick’’s parish in Yorkshire. More on Sterne, who provides an intriguing side-route from Elsinore to stream-of-consciousness fiction, at the website maintained at Sterne’s former home, Shandy Hall, Coxwold.
The most exciting news to offer this week, from my point of view, is that various parts of the world are about to have the opportunity to see a touring production of the version of Hamlet generally known by its subtitle Der Bestrafte Brudermord (The Punishment of Fratricide) – the first ever German adaptation of Hamlet. The play has been translated back into English -- or rather, translated anew into English, since this German script includes all sorts of interpolated comic material absent from Shakespeare’s versions. Those lucky enough to get tickets to this Hamlet, moreover,will for once actually see the puppets dallying, since the company – Hidden Room Theatre -- seek to recreate the kinds of performance given in fairground booths in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. See http://www.hiddenroomtheatre.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/brud-poster.jpg. Think Hamlet meets Punch and Judy: do have a look at the trailer below:
Hidden Room’s project draws on the research currently being carried out into Shakespeare’s engagement with the traditions of fairground drama by Tiffany Stern of Oxford University, herself a world authority on the first quarto of Hamlet. On Hamlet and Germany more generally, see the blog I posted in week 4 last year.
Speaking of the first quarto, we have all been immensely impressed by the alacrity with which many of you have not only sought out some of the optional extra reading we mentioned in week 1 but have even demanded more, and one of the new books on Hamlet which has appeared even while the course has been under way deals brilliantly with that text and the questions it raises. Zachary Lesser has just published ‘Hamlet’ after Q1: An Uncanny History of the Shakespearean Text, which offers both a fascinating story about what happened when the ‘bad’ quarto first came to light (as recently as 1823) and a serious rethinking of the nature of authorship in the Elizabethan playhouse.
Lesser’s book, though eminently readable, offers a highly specialized piece of textual and cultural analysis, and I want to mention two other recent books aimed at a much wider readership. Someone on the course asked some time ago whether I could recommend a reliable beginner’s guide to Hamlet, and here it is: Ben Crystal’s Springboard Shakespeare: Hamlet(first published by Bloomsbury in 2013). Crystal (who has himself played Hamlet, in an attempted reconstruction of Elizabethan pronunciation) takes a fresh, informed theatregoer’s approach to the play. Those more interested in the verbal texture of Hamlet and the task of writing about it as literature may prefer Dympna Callaghan’s Hamlet: Language and Writing(also from Bloomsbury. This isn’t officially published until next week but I have my copy already and I can promise you that it is an excellent student guide to the play. More introductory materials on Hamlet, and more images and other details from past productions, can be found on the RSC website.
One particularly humane person on the comments pages has suggested that I should mention any work with a particular bearing on Hamlet that has been published by members of the course team. At the risk of our being accused of naked commercial self-interest (though I can assure you that despite the high retail prices of many academic books the royalties they earn, if any, are negligible), I will just quickly mention Erin Sullivan’s co-edited collection The Renaissance of Emotion: understanding affect in Shakespeare and his contemporaries, Abigail Rokison’s prize-winning Shakespearean Verse Speaking(which uses many examples from Hamlet), and also Abigail’s fine study of Laurence Olivier’s career as a Shakespearean, published in Great Shakespeareans, volume XVI: Gielgud, Olivier, Ashcroft, Dench, edited by Russell Jackson. In the same series, Peter Holland’s volume II, Garrick, Kemble, Siddons, Kean,considers four of the most interesting and influential players of Hamlet of the Romantic era, and it includes my own account of the career of John Philip Kemble.
Kemble was a forbidding, vatic, self-consciously dignified actor, usually hopeless in comedy, who regarded many in his Regency audiences as ignorant groundlings: his Hamlet was one of the most high-mindedly serious incarnations of the Dane ever seen. Thomas Lawrence’s 1801 portrait of Kemble in the role, a print of which is occasionally visible in the videos on this course, records something of its tragic grandeur. Perhaps this picture has at last brought us to the question of Hamlet as a tragedy.
Thanks in part to the lasting influence of A.C. Bradley’s book Shakespearean Tragedy (1904), many of us were encouraged in school to try to assimilate what Bradley identified as Shakespeare’s four ‘great’ tragedies (Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello and King Lear) to a formula for describing the genre derived from the ancient Greek account of tragedy offered by Aristotle, in his Poetics. These plays, we were told, depict great individuals – ‘tragic heroes,’ of exalted rank and thus closest to the gods -- who cause their own downfalls thanks to some ‘tragic flaw’ in their natures. These stories of inevitable punishment nonetheless inspire pity and fear -- allowing their audiences to experience a sort of emotional purging, called ‘catharsis’ (or is that what the tragic characters themselves experience? Aristotle isn’t entirely clear) -- because the heroes’ sufferings seem to be worse than their flaws deserve.
There is something in this account, of course, but there are problems with it too: for one thing, although Shakespeare once mentions Aristotle as a moralist (in Troilus and Cressida), there is no evidence that he knew the Poetics, even in translation, and no European writers of his entire period seem to have had anything to say about the notion of ‘catharsis,’ which they simply ignored. The word ‘hamartia,’ moreover, which subsequent translators rendered as ‘tragic flaw,’ actually means something more like ‘tragic error’ or ‘fatal mistake.’ Aristotle’s chosen case-study of a tragedy is Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, in which the hamartia, according to the critic, is Oedipus’ offstage failure, long before the action which the play shows, to recognize the obstructive Laius (with whom he quarrelled, and whom he killed) as his father. Since Oedipus had been cast out as an infant and had never met his parents, this ignorance of Laius’ identity hardly seems like an expression of Oedipus’ character. In any case for Aristotle character is always subordinate to action: we know people by what they do in the stories to which they belong, and it is they who are expressions of those stories rather than vice versa.
Hence the sort of productive and digressive mismatch which Shakespeare develops between Hamlet’s consciousness and the events in which he finds himself trapped would have been unthinkable to Aristotle. Shakespeare may refer to ‘outstretched heroes’ in Hamlet but he never mentions ‘tragic heroes’ anywhere, and while this play has much to say about tragic drama and its emotional effects – offering both a classical specimen of tragedy in the form of the Player’s recitation about the fall of Priam, and a more up-to-the-minute, drama-documentary sample in the form of ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ – the fatal medical ‘purgation’ with which Hamlet punningly threatens Claudius in his dialogue with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern after the play-within-the-play has nothing to do with theatre.
Shakespeare and his colleagues certainly did pick up some of their ideas about tragedy from classical writers, however, notably the idea that as the stage’s equivalent of epic – aspiring to serious subjects such as the destruction of Troy and dealing in the fortunes of kings and the destinies of nations – tragedy is the most prestigious type of drama one can write. When Heminge and Condell decided to arrange Shakespeare’s works in the folio under the successive headings of comedies, histories and tragedies, they were essentially putting the plays into an ascending neoclassical hierarchy of status. (On other aspects of the compilation and marketing of the Folio, incidentally, see http://www.theguardian.com/books/2001/nov/08/shakespeare, and to admire and compare two copies, do visit the website of the glorious Folger Shakespeare Library, at http://www.folger.edu/template.cfm?cid=436.) Throughout the Folio Heminge and Condell even promoted Shakespeare to being an honorary noble Roman by giving the plays Latin names for their act and scene divisions – Actus Primus, Scena Primaand so on.
Even when it comes to the status of his protagonists, however, Shakespeare often ignores the fundamental rules of classical tragedy (Romeo and Juliet aren’t royal, for instance, and neither is Othello), and in Hamlet he amply defies the ancients’ sense that the audiences of tragedies ought to witness their disastrous events unfold as though they were happening in real time (how many days, weeks or months do youthink elapse between a set of Danish soldiers seeing a ghost on the battlements and a set of Norwegian ones firing a funereal salute? Time in Hamlet is at once leisurely, elastic and vague, until the deadline produced by the impending news to Claudius from England that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been executed introduces some urgency into the final act). He also juxtaposes the sorrows of a prince with the gallows humour of two gravediggers. As we saw last week, one result is that some have been happy to make Hamlet into comedy, while others have felt moved to try to delete the gravediggers entirely.
Over the century since Bradley, a number of other critics have tried to describe the characteristic aims and procedures of tragedy. Here follow some of their ideas, ludicrously distilled into a set of competing truths, half-truths and provocations. If you like, re-read in particular the last section of what most editions number as act 2 scene 2, from the arrival of the players through to Hamlet’s soliloquy ‘O what a rogue and peasant slave am I,’ and see what ideas the play itself entertains about the nature and uses of tragedy. Above all, see which of the following statements fits the whole of Hamlet as you understand it:
- Tragedies celebrate exceptional individuals who die in the course of their self-defining struggles against malfunctioning or corrupt societies.
- Tragedies depict the necessary expulsion and destruction of criminal and maladjusted individuals who threaten social harmony.
- Tragedy offers a socially acceptable way of enjoying watching other people kill each other, during which we can appease our consciences by feeling that we are learning the great truths which the characters may articulate when mortally wounded.
- While Shakespearean comedy celebrates the fact that the species breeds and hence survives, Shakespearean tragedy laments the fact that individuals fight and die. Hence fertile young women are central to the comedies but are generally the first to be killed in the male-ego-driven tragedies.
- While in comedy children successfully defeat and supplant their parents, in tragedy children die as a result of their parents’ quarrels.
- Shakespearean tragedy is essentially an expression of Christian morality in that it shows that certain wicked actions have fatal consequences. Its characters’ self-revelations are akin to confession or public penitence.
- Shakespearean tragedy is essentially pagan in that it laments the loss of mortal life rather than depicting it as a mere prelude to eternity. Its characters’ self-revelations are expressions of inappropriate earthly pride and self-importance.
- Renaissance tragedy is innately religious, since it deals with the threshold of the spirit world: it defines the playhouse as akin to a temple or oracle, where we can see ghosts and other supernatural beings.
- Renaissance tragedy is innately secular, since it offers a searching critique of earthly political systems and their destructive failings: it defines the playhouse as akin to a parliament, in which we can see affairs of state debated in public.
- Tragedy is innately primitive: it is the nostalgia of civilization for human sacrifice.
- Theatre is a social artform designed to reinforce collective norms by sharing information about private behaviour in a public forum, so most plays are designed to let us eavesdrop on situations which it would be too embarrassing or taboo to witness in real life. Comedy allows us to watch simulated lovers in their privacy, so that we can learn how to court. Tragedy allows us to watch simulated deathbeds, so that we can learn how to die.
- While watching tragedies we are distracted from our own mortality and that of our loved ones by the represented deaths of fictitious, historical or legendary characters: these imagined and to us harmless deaths even give us the pleasures of aesthetic closure. In watching tragedies we experience simulated bereavements in the hope that these will inoculate us homeopathically against real ones.
- Tragedy is snobbish: it shows that princes are special, since their comparative freedom of action means that their deaths really say something about them as individuals.
- Tragedy is egalitarian: it shows that princes are just mortals too.
- Tragedy is bad for us: it exploits our morbid interest in death and makes us the callous and passive spectators of simulated murder.
- Tragedy is good for us: it reminds us of the value and frailty of human life and teaches us how to feel for the sufferings of others.
As I say, which of these claims stands up to your own experiences of Hamlet? We’ll be hearing something of what tragedy does for and to the RSC’s most recent Hamlet, Jonathan Slinger, next week.