The Attendant Prince

Hamlet’s Apparition, 1893
(Oil on canvas, 95 × 170 cm)
BY Pedro Américo
Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo

There is comedy in Hamlet quite apart from the set-piece clowning of the gravediggers. We think of the play as tragedy, ignoring the absurd and ironic elements that propel the drama. Yorick the fool is dead, but his prince lives on. He has made of his life a perpetual existential dilemma. To the worldly-wise that is foolish, for it can end only in the way it is seen to end. The Prince asks the most absurd questions, knowing that every answer and every consequence shall dissatisfy his incessant questioning. The process becomes idiotic. He takes on the world and its wisdom.

Hamlet’s idiocy we are encouraged to see as a rare dignity. He may be foolish, but he is not witless. Wit is one of the sharper weapons in his armoury. With privileged access to the Prince’s mind, we who watch what is happening on stage may feel Hamlet’s nonsense makes sense — if only to Hamlet’s way of thinking.

Contrary to our expectations, Hamlet’s mind is exceptionally balanced. He carefully weighs the evidence, and considers all variety of possibilities before taking every action of his course. There is nothing silly about his decisions. Intelligent and articulate, he discusses within himself what he cannot say out loud. He is the only sane person in a mad world.

Everything has become meaningless. It is Hamlet’s task, his destiny even, to restore truth and justice. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is not a tragedy of moral failings in a heroic figure. It is akin to a farce where everyone is crazy except one person, apparently the craziest, who is desperately trying to restore order.

Hamlet conducts himself in a comedic way. He acts a part. He plays tricks. He employs verbal wit in the most serious situations. He devises a play at the crucial moment when he seeks to stir the conscience of his enemies. To a modern audience Hamlet’s holding of Yorick’s skull in the graveyard may resemble Chaplin in The Great Dictator playing with his floating globe. Hamlet certainly carries the world on his shoulders, though he makes light of it.

In Prince Hamlet there lies something of the street-corner orator, the prophet without honour, the one alone who claims to know what must be done.

Where there is tragedy in the play of Hamlet it lies not in the Prince’s failure to see what must be done. He sees, and he is surely resolved to set matters right. The tragedy lies in his failure to communicate to others a rational defence of his actions. He speaks to a ghost. He speaks to himself. To the one person who, through love, seeks to understand the Prince advises silence and enclosure. Ophelia is rejected because she comes too close.

In Prince Hamlet there lies something of the street-corner orator, the prophet without honour, the one alone who claims to know what must be done. Of course his position at court gives him advantage, but he remains without authority, the solitary idealist transported by chance into a proximity to power. His one hope is to catch the conscience of the king. He is privileged to enact his dreams of revenge and power. But this privilege is frustrating. Hamlet can enact his dreams. He cannot act upon them. He has taken Yorick’s position as the licensed fool. Everyone hears. No one is prepared to listen.

Concerned as it is with spectres, fantasies and desires, the play has the quality of a dream. Yet it is a play voiced with clarity and reason. The soliloquies have insight and moral force. They are not the ramblings of a disordered mind. We do not need to unravel Hamlet’s complexities when he acts as his own analyst. He offers imaginative resolutions of his situation. Hamlet has the soul of a philosopher. He considers before he takes a course of action. Where Oedipus is hot with passion, Hamlet is cool with uncommon awareness and its handmaid, self-control, the principal of his virtues. Hamlet is one who while he sleeps is aware he is dreaming. The irony is the key to the play’s strength. Hamlet would have found in Freud a kindred spirit rather than a bringer of unbearable revelations.

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.

Modern approaches to Hamlet have been strikingly critical of the Prince and the play. “So far from being Shakespeare’s masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure.” That is not Shaw in playful mood, but T.S. Eliot in deadly earnest. And why is the play a failure in his eyes? “In several ways the play is puzzling, and disquieting as is none of the others.” For Eliot there is action without motive. Hamlet’s response to facts goes beyond the facts. And for Eliot that is a puzzle. But that is the point. What happens in Hamlet is what Hamlet says is happening. What we see are events in the mind of the Prince. Hamlet is not a tragedy. That is not simply it fails the Aristotelian criteria. The same can be said for all Shakespearian tragedy. Hamlet is not a tragedy because the events are not presented as objectively true.

This lends the work to parody because it is itself a parody. That is not to dismiss it, but it is to regard as a subversive commentary, an anti-drama, an absurdist revolt against reality. All its truths are subjective. So regarded, the play becomes a precursor of the modern. There is some resemblance to Pirandello’s Enrico Quarto, where a count feigns madness in order to retain his sanity in a mad world. Hamlet is a drama of questions to which there appear to be no answers. The world has no meaning, no centre, no reason beyond the fact that it turns and that we live on it.

Hamlet is a drama of questions to which there appear to be no answers. The world has no meaning, no centre, no reason beyond the fact that it turns and that we live on it.

The comedic possibilities the play offers are rich. Parodies began appearing in the Nineteenth Century. These may be summarised in W.S. Gilbert’s description of Irving’s Hamlet – “funny without being vulgar.” It was in part a lampooning of Victorian pomposity characterized by the greatest actor of his age. It was also a recognition of the absurdist deconstructions of Hamlet which were to come in the twentieth century. In 1930’s Moscow the traveller Peter Fleming saw a production of Hamlet that played, like Chekhov, as a comedy of manners.

It was a vital principle in theatre to demystify and deconstruct Shakespeare. Central to the necessary project was, of course, the play generally regarded as the masterwork, the quintessence of the elusive genius we name as Shakespeare. Charles Marowitz led the way with his curious collage, The Marowitz Hamlet (1968), every line of which was Shakespeare’s, but rearranged. “I am Hamlet the Dane” is intended to assert authority, even terror. But in this version it produces only laughter at Court as the powerless Prince fights insuperable odds. Marowitz has declared his contempt for Hamlet, an ignoble unworthy of great drama Shakespeare has given him.

There is not much time for the Prince in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1967), a consciously absurdist pastiche that relates the narrative from the viewpoint of minor characters. In their place we have the attendant prince. His presence is marginal to the concerns of the play.

After the characteristically “60s” exuberance of these plays was John Wain’s long poem Feng (1976). Wain returns to the Scandinavian myth in which Amleth is but one character in a wider canvas of power and consequent revenge. The return to source rediscovered the fundament of darkness out of which a humanist poetry was wrought. At the same time came Medium Fair’s Amleth, an enterprising travelling theatre company’s staging of the folktale.

No true Hamlet is ever of one tradition alone. There is too much conflict of view for a definitive version to remain unchallenged. The velvet doublet and hose romantic outsider beautifully enunciating much-treasured verse was satirised even at is Victorian height. The late Romantic, “Lawn Tennyson” presentation has been superseded by modern portrayals of internal conflict. The backdrop can be only a bleak landscape that offers no consolation.

The playing of Hamlet to the modern actor is a challenge wholly different kind from any facing Sir Henry Irving. In place of panache and mellifluous speaking the modern actor may hear Churchill’s startled observation backstage to Richard Burton: “That was a very virile Hamlet.” Virility may not be a quality we especially associate with the ineffectual dithering that is traditionally seen as character flaw that fells the tragic hero. But dithering is not a heroic quality. Nor is it a tragic quality. It was Burton’s feeling that another approach was due for consideration.

The force of intellect and imagery in the verse is a constant, but experience and shame wrought from history reflect upon the way the words are acted and are heard.

In a career punctuated by errors of judgement, Richard Burton offered several interpretations, each one refining and redefining how the part may be played, all true both to the poetry and to flesh of the play. Embodying the conflicts in the earlier versions, by 1964 in New York may be said to be living them. Time’s reviewer noted: “A thinking man’s Hamlet…What Burton does is to turn sensibility into sense, modulate a phrase so that it rings with present meaning rather than bygone eloquence.”

If human feeling, for good or ill, is timeless, its sensibility is mutable. No two generations are alike in the lessons learned and unlearned from experience. Richard Burton was not Richard Burbage. There are four centuries transforming the meanings made of words on paper. The force of intellect and imagery in the verse is a constant, but experience and shame wrought from history reflect upon the way the words are acted and are heard. Richard Burton’s Prince is a man who knows too much. The spirit of the dead has spoken to him, and he cannot pretend that life is for the living. It is a Hamlet of his century, though he reaches back into the myths from which both history and poetry emerge.

“A modern reflection upon Hamlet,” Burton was to write, “is that it is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind. To choose a possible will-o’-the-wisp, to risk death by drowning in its pursuit, let us postulate that there is ‘within the precincts’ a Hamlet who not only could make up his mind, but who knew very well what he was about.”

The challenge is directly aimed at Olivier whose film of Hamlet begins “This is the story of a man who could not make up his mind.” Generations of schoolchildren have passed examinations by writing of the Prince’s procrastination. It is a given, an unchallengeable truth that Burton explicitly calls into question if only for the sake of a refreshing vitality that the museum of accepted verities cannot display.

Burton’s postulation is radically aware of the play that lies with the play, the vision beyond the image. In this view of Hamlet the Prince passes through mirrors. He becomes the conscience of the king, rather than his avenger. This Hamlet is much greater than himself. He has within him a knowledge he has yet to know.

It is the “yet” that makes the tragedy. Hamlet’s predicament is his need to wait, against all the presages of his situation. He has the need to wait upon what he alone can bring. He must act, even though he cannot act. His problem is absurd. It makes him look foolish. The tragedy is that he knows that life is mocking him.

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