The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.2034 Wednesday, 1 December 2004
From: David Bishop <
Date: Wednesday, 1 Dec 2004 01:10:29 -0500
Subject: Greenblatt's Hamlet
The following letter was sent to the New York Review in response to
Stephen Greenblatt's essay on Hamlet (10/21/04), but not published, so
I'm posting it here in case anyone has any interest.
To the editors:
Stephen Greenblatt's theory that Shakespeare excised the rationale for
Hamlet's actions, thereby deepening the effect of the play, though in a
sense true, is a little misleading. Another way of looking at the play
is that Shakespeare does not excise motive so much as he multiplies it,
and submerges it, at times, into a murky area where a character may
think and feel without becoming fully aware of what he thinks and feels.
In Hamlet Shakespeare created a character who is driven by motives both
conscious and unconscious. Hamlet is waist deep in the big muddy of his
It's true that Shakespeare excised motives in the sense that he partly
removed them from the surface, so the professed motive that drives
Hamlet, revenge, does not bring about the promised killing of Claudius
for so long that Hamlet himself, with anger and self-disgust, wonders
why. The audience also must wonder why, and the questions to which this
mystery gives rise have eluded final explanation, as no doubt they
always will. But this excision is balanced, at least partly, by the
suggestions about Hamlet's unexpressed motivations that Shakespeare
included in the play.
"Tearing away the structure of superficial meanings," Professor
Greenblatt writes, Shakespeare "fashioned an inner structure
through...the intertwining of parallel plots," among other techniques.
The parallel with Laertes, for example, suggests some of the obstacles
to taking revenge that Hamlet has not mentioned, but which are so much a
part of common wisdom that he must somehow feel their influence. When
Laertes comes charging in to take revenge for his father's death by
killing the king, he says
To hell, allegiance! Vows to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation.
Allegiance and conscience work against revenge because allegiance
prohibits killing the king, and a Christian conscience opposes taking
personal revenge on anyone. Killing a king in revenge-even though the
king is guilty-threatens the killer with damnation.
What does it mean to dare damnation? Does a son have a filial duty to
take revenge in defiance of God? Is it cowardly to fear God? Does
following conscience make us cowards? Hamlet raises a similar question
when he speculates that his delay may spring from "some craven
scruple/Of thinking too precisely on th'event." Could this "craven
scruple" be an oxymoron, considering that a genuine scruple cannot be
craven? These conceptual difficulties suggest a source of Hamlet's
confusion. In thinking so precisely, if not always consciously-in
imagining what would happen in the event that he did take revenge-Hamlet
may hear the still, small voice of his conscience, consider the will of
God, and hesitate.
Another possible motivation is suggested by the parallel between
Claudius and Polonius. Hamlet, at the moment when his pose of madness
becomes hardest to distinguish from his genuine rage, mistakenly kills
Polonius, thinking he is Claudius: "I took thee for thy better." When
Hamlet later confronts Laertes he uses his madness as his excuse: "What
I have done...I here proclaim was madness." Could the inner structure of
the play include Hamlet's unexpressed intention to establish an alibi of
madness which his mistake forces him to expend on Polonius?
When Hamlet finally does kill Claudius he doesn't say he's doing it for
revenge. He barely alludes to his father's death. Instead, Claudius's
unintentional killing of Hamlet's mother, and especially his intentional
killing of Hamlet, supply the rationale for killing a king who is now a
publicly proven tyrant, who has murdered the heir to the throne.
Claudius's tyranny is proved by the commission in which he suborned the
king of England to kill Hamlet, and, more immediately, by the dying
testimony of Laertes and by Hamlet's death. When Claudius is
conclusively proved-and not by the evidence of a ghost-to be a murderous
tyrant, Hamlet, in the inner structure of the play, takes over as the
rightful king and metes out justice by killing him. This is why Stephen
Greenblatt is mistaken when he says that the play "ends just after
Hamlet exacts his revenge." With dramatic alchemy, Shakespeare
transforms Hamlet's revenge into justice.
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