The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0371 Tuesday, 14 July 2009
From: Hardy M. Cook <
Date: Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Subject: SBReview_4: Margreta de Grazia's _Hamlet without Hamlet_
Margreta de Grazia. _Hamlet without Hamlet_. Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 2007. ISBN 0521870259; xii + 267 pp. US$101
(hardcover) $39 (paperback)
Reviewed by David Richman, University of New Hampshire
"Landless in Elsinore"
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the first of a seemingly endless line
of critics who ignore Hamlet's warning and try to pluck out the heart of
the Prince's mystery. As one contemplates what Coleridge and Schlegel,
Bradley and Freud, Lacan, Derrida, and Bloom have wrought, one is moved
to ask Oscar Wilde's question: are the commentators on _Hamlet_ mad or
only pretending to be?
In her always enlightening and often entertaining book, Margreta de
Grazia summarizes and assesses the modern critical tradition, beginning
two centuries after Shakespeare's old-fashioned play first took the
stage and still very much with us. She makes a sweeping claim, and she
strongly supports it in a series of interlinked essays. Her contention
is that the Hamlet created by modern philosophers and critics,
psychologically disturbed, phallically deprived, Oedipally repressed,
exemplar of modern subjectivity, type and symbol of modern
consciousness, draws attention away from Shakespeare's great and complex
historical tragedy. For Hamlet to appear modern, she argues, the premise
of _Hamlet_ must drop out of sight.
Margreta de Grazia's achievement in this book is brilliantly to restore
the play's premise to the attention of post-modern readers and
audiences. The book's central chapters copiously illustrate the argument
that _Hamlet_ is a play about the loss of land, the fall of empire, the
tragic extinction of a royal line. The play begins with the threat of
invasion and ends in military occupation. In scene after scene,
characters fight over the possession of dirt -- and these scenes
climax in the fifth-act grapple in the grave. "Like the
play-within-the-play, the plot of the play is driven by the desire for a
plot" (36). Drawing upon her vast and deep knowledge of intellectual,
social and political history, law, and scripture, de Grazia makes clear
that loss of land amounts to loss of identity. If the dispossessed
Prince speaks clearly, he will be guilty of high treason, so he is
constrained to use the jesting riddles and ambiguities -- to put on
the feigned madness that disguises his real subversion. Hamlet's
obsession with his mother, made so much of by Freud, Jones, Lacan, and
their disciples, makes better sense when one considers, as de Grazia
leads us to consider, that Gertrude "imperial jointress" embodies quite
literally the present possession of the kingdom. The Prince's loss of
his patrimony tells us far more about the character than do the
thousands of pages about the modern metaphysical Hamlet and his mental
diseases. De Grazia expatiates on her argument that patrimony is not all
that Hamlet loses. By play's end, the royal line of Denmark will be
extinct, and that tragic extinction will be embodied in Ophelia's corpse
and reinforced by references to Alexander, Caesar, and even to the
stand-off between Luther and the Holy Roman Emperor. "Your worm is your
only emperor of diet."
This summary only hints at, and does not do justice to, de Grazia's
book. Her erudition is matched by a precise sensitivity to the changing
meanings of complex words. Her readers will never again hear words like
"modern," "romantic," "mole," "mother, matter, matrix," "doom, domain,"
"human, humus" in quite the same way. "Flesh and earth repeatedly
coalesce through overlaps of sound and sense, as they do in the name of
the first man, called after not his father but the dust from which he
was fashioned, _adamah_, the Hebrew word for clay"(3). "Doomsday
conjoins domain and doom, land and judgment, a pairing that twice recurs
when land and law appear as textual alternatives" (5.) Even the play's
title and the eponymous hero's name slip into a second meaning. " . . .
it is tempting to connect the landless Hamlet with the humble unit of
land whose name he shares. A hamlet is a diminutive ham, the Saxon word
for a settlement, often marked off by a ditch, with too few dwellings to
warrant a church" (44).
Time and again, de Grazia opens possibilities suggested by the play's
three early texts -- possibilities often foreclosed by modern
editorial conflations. That Hamlet leaps into Ophelia's grave is
suggested by a stage direction in the so-called "bad Quarto," but that
indecorous leap is denied by many critics and even a few stage
directors. "Granville-Barker's claim that only Laertes leaps into the
grave was much welcomed; it spared Hamlet the undignified leap" (151).
De Grazia's dazzling reading of the fight in the grave, figuring forth
all those fights over land so central to the play, demonstrates that she
is always alive to the play's use of theatrical resources: props,
costumes, and bodies hurtling through stage space. In her penetrating
analyses of the play's action and language, especially the zaniness
after Hamlet's encounter with the ghost and the frenzy in the grave, de
Grazia does not diminish Hamlet's many-sided, always compelling
character, but she puts that character back into the plot and the world
from which so many modern critics have sought to extract him.
Not every reader will agree with everything de Grazia says, and I
suspect each reader will find something to disagree with. Hamlet, for
example, can speak the phrase "robustious, periwig-pated fellow" as
quietly as may be, even though he indisputably ignores his own advice to
the players by tearing the occasional passion to tatters. Other faults
of the book may be due to the form in which de Grazia, and all of us,
are constrained to write. The book does suffer from some repetition.
Matter in the first chapter is repeated in the last, and each chapter
has a few langeurs. I found the first third of the chapter on Hamlet's
delay tedious going because, like de Grazia, I do not think delay is the
play's most necessary question, and I wish she had dispatched her
summary of what so many critics have made of that question in fewer
pages. Writing this review for an electronic list, I must wonder whether
the book-length study is the best form. _Hamlet without Hamlet_ might
have been more effective if it were thirty or forty pages shorter, but
at that length, it might have been too long for an article and too short
for a book -- especially a book at this price. The book, graced with
nineteen illustrations, may be beyond the price range of most readers.
Amazon.com lists the hardcover at $101, and the paperback at $39.
But every library ought to own this book. Most of the thousands of books
and articles on _Hamlet_ concentrate on the Prince; De Grazia is one of
the few who follow Dover Wilson in looking at what happens in the play.
She does not mention Brecht by name, but she performs the Brechtian
maneuver of causing us to look at something we thought we knew in a
fresh light. After reading her book, we find that _Hamlet_ is a richer,
deeper, more important play.
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook,
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the
opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the
editor assumes no responsibility for them.