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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: July ::
SBReview_4: Margreta de Grazia's _Hamlet without
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0371  Tuesday, 14 July 2009

From:       Hardy M. Cook <
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Date:       Tuesday, July 14, 2009
Subject:    SBReview_4: Margreta de Grazia's _Hamlet without Hamlet_

SBReview_4:

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.

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