The Attendant Prince

The mode of subjective interpretation gives the play its exceptional dynamic. The reality of Hamlet is Hamlet’s. It is through his eyes that we see everything. Alone of all Shakespearian drama (except perhaps for those parts that concern Falstaff), there is no perspective other than the central character’s. This is no accident. Hamlet may employ moral reasoning in the manner of a Renaissance Prince, but Shakespeare the humanist drew upon mythic sources from the Dark Ages. Amleth, the Old Norse poem, now barely remembered, is a darker tale of sibling rivalry and incestuous desire. Shakespeare omits the murdered brother, Feng, entirely. Ophelia is no longer Hamlet’s sister.

Title page of Hamlet 2nd quarto (1604)
FROM The Tragicall Hiftorie of Hamlet,
Prince of Denmark

BY William Shakespeare
PHOTO: Wikimedia Commons

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a palimpsest of the strange original. Fratricide and incest were themes Shakespeare may have thought too dark and dangerous for presentation before the nobility and princes on whom he relied for patronage. The artistic gain was the attention given to the mind rather than the passions. Hamlet subdues his impulses to his reasoning mind. He is a political plotter, an enlightened avenger. He is a precursor of the modern idealist whose vision leads to inexorably to violence. Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a humanistic reflection on violence. Emotion is tamed by intellect.

This version may seem to us both more credible and more imaginative, and thereby the more enduring. Possibly following Thomas Kyd’s lost revenge tragedy, Shakespeare rejects a linear narrative of divers heroes for the fragmentary and partial account of single-sourced perceptions. It is a nightmare recollected in the first light of day.

By this device we may find an affirmation of the poet’s time and situation. Consider Shakespeare’s situation circa 1600. The Tudors were, to a loyal subject, the restorers of order and prosperity after generations of civil war. The Protestant and Humanist ascendancy of Elizabethan England was a triumph of enlightened progress. In this way of thinking the God we can believe in is the truth we can confirm by our sensory experience. Though there may be walking spirits from other, unknown worlds, in this world we must take responsibility for the undeniable realities of our lives.

He has mastery at his command, but he cannot forgive himself the possibility of where his actions may lead.

Interpreting Shakespeare’s beliefs usually says more of the interpreter than it does of Shakespeare. But we know the poet to have been worldly enough to have amassed a fortune in the theatre. He courted and flattered the monarchs he served. Delineating opinion in Shakespeare is a reading of the runes. He is more concerned with what is than what ought to be. Reading into his words their ‘true meaning’ can become an act of divination in the guise of analysis. All we can be sure of is that Shakespeare was a man of his times, a sceptical politique for whom pragmatic capabilities serve the world better than disruptive ideals. Hamlet’s objective is to restore the natural order. Agonizing over his moral position, carefully plotting his strategies, the Prince may be considered the least self-serving of Shakespeare’s tragic heroes, perhaps the most deserving of success in an ideal world. But only a fool believes in an ideal world.

However, the depiction of the Fool in Shakespeare is not derisory or contemptuous. We have only to think of the poignancy of Hamlet with Yorick’s skull in hand. The scene is one of the most familiar in Shakespearian iconography. The folly of life ends in death. Hamlet holds this unbearable yet unavoidable truth in his hand. Hamlet is seen grasping at truth. Is it irrelevant to be reminded Oliver Twist’s bowl held out? He wants more than the world can offer him. That is also Hamlet’s position. He, too, is orphaned and deprived. The resemblance of Court to a workhouse is less fanciful when we remember that life at Court is one of obligation and subjection even to the point of humiliation. As Queen Elizabeth tartly reminded her courtiers, a fart is never forgotten.

It is an unforgiving world that Shakespeare depicts here and elsewhere. The problem for Hamlet is that his self-knowledge is perpetually undermined by self-doubt. He lacks the cunning to temper his conscience so that it might serve his ends. He is not driven by the interventions of Fate. He has mastery at his command, but he cannot forgive himself the possibility of where his actions may lead.

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