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Critical Approaches to Hamlet 

The way we interpret a piece of literature depends on the perspective we come from.  Largely it is determined by the constructs or social, religious and cultural conditioning that have influenced our way of seeing the world and our way of thinking.  To assume all people will interpret a text the same as we do is presumptuous, self-indulgent and parochial. 

Traditional methods can also be called orthodox or dominant views while alternative ones can be variant, divergent, dissident, resistant or subversive views.    There are no prescribed ideologies you need to consider, merely alternative ones. No approach has a monopoly on truth or absolute correctness.  

What the syllabus actually says:

There is no mention of the ‘isms’ in the syllabus. They are not mandated.

Module B states:

This module requires students to explore and evaluate a specific text and its reception in a range of contexts. It develops students’ understanding of questions of textual integrity. 

It demands close study of the text and also requires that students ‘research others’ perspectives of the text and test these against their own understanding and interpretations’. In doing so, they need to ‘evaluate the ways in which the set work has been read, received and valued in historical and other contexts [and]… extrapolate from this study …to explore questions of textual integrity and significance. 

The emphasis is on a critical reading, ie evaluating various readings ‘against their own and others’. The end point of the study is that students question the integrity of the text asking: how can a text be read differently in different times and by different people? What is it about the context of reception that influences meaning? 

Hamlet is a rich, complex and problematic play.  Of all Shakespeare’s plays it has generated the greatest amount of commentary and criticism.  Fashions in criticism and scholarship come and go but Hamlet stays the same like Keat’s Grecian Urn “to tease us out of thought/ as doth eternity”.  Some critics emphasise stagecraft and dramatic unities while others focus on language and textual analysis.  For hundreds of years critics have mulled over the play and failed to find unanimous consensus.  As Oscar Wilde says: 

 “The moment you think you understand a great work of art, it's dead for you.

On almost every issue in the play, critics will have variant interpretations, opposing points of views, depending on where they are coming from.  

Shakespeare’s plays are a rich minefield of layers and layers of meaning and we can often find recurring concerns developed in similar or differing ways. Variations upon a theme will reinforce the message.  Motifs help to foster textual integrity.   Hamlet is full of recurring references, allusions, images and language that provide a pattern of meaning, including Providence (are we the masters of our own identity?) Deception,  Betrayal,  Loyalty……

Shakespeare embodies the moral relativism of the Post-Modernists. One can never be sure whose side he is on. Shakespeare is full of moral and philosophical ambiguities.  As John Bell states: “he doesn’t commit himself to any one stance....he didn’t have to believe anything.  His great objectivity lead to ambivalence because life is ambiguous. 

Even though the term existentialism had not surfaced in his time, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is pre-occupied with nature, human nature, the health of the state and the destiny of mankind.  Mystery, riddle, enigma and metaphysical questions become the focus of a dialectical dialogue. 

In some ways Hamlet is a Murder Mystery with Hamlet the righter of wrongs: 

Oh cursed spite that ever  I was born to set it right” 

Hamlet becomes more and more isolated and at the end dies the noble death of an avenger.

The Question of Hamlet  (excerpts from a review in the New York Times)  James Shapiro APRIL 19, 2018   

Hamlet and the Vision of Darknessby Rhodri Lewis,  Princeton University Press, 365 pp., $39.95

In the decades after it was first staged, probably in 1600, Hamlet seems to have been popular, though not especially so. It was performed at the Globe Theatre, in Oxford, Cambridge, and elsewhere, and revived at least twice at court. But editions of Hamlet were published less frequently than those of Richard III, Richard II, or even Pericles, and aside from echoes of it in the works of other dramatists, the play is mentioned by only a couple of Shakespeare’s contemporaries (one saying that it appealed to the “wiser sort,” another that it managed to “please all”). It wasn’t until 1711 that anyone wrote at length about Hamlet; the Earl of Shaftesbury spoke of it then as the Shakespeare play that “appears to have most affected English hearts” and was perhaps the most “oftenest acted,” which likely owed much to the popularity of Thomas Betterton, one of the great Hamlets.

Another century would pass before Hamlet became Shakespeare’s most celebrated play, a position from which it has yet to be dislodged. Much of the credit for this goes to Romantic writers in Germany and England who were drawn to its intense exploration of the self and who saw their own struggles reflected in Hamlet’s. Goethe’s coming-of-age novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795–1796) turned Hamlet into a model for subsequent portraits of the artist as a young man. William Hazlitt wrote that “it is we who are Hamlet…whose powers of action have been eaten up by thought,” and Samuel Taylor Coleridge declared: “I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so.” “We love Hamlet,” Lord Byron would add, “even as we love ourselves.”

It’s a truism that no one accepts anyone else’s reading of Hamlet. And for at least two hundred years, no generation has been comfortable with its predecessor’s take on the play. It’s hard to think of another work whose interpretations so uncannily identify what the play calls the “form and pressure” of “the time.” Critics and actors usually register cultural shifts a bit belatedly; but on occasion the most astute seem to anticipate them.

Then and Now,” a short essay Rhodri Lewis recently posted on the Princeton University Press website argues that Shakespeare offers us an unflinchingly brilliant guide to the predicaments in which we find ourselves in Trumpland and on Brexit Island. …by enabling us to experience a world in which the prevalent senses of moral order (political, ethical, personal) bear only the most superficial relation to lived experience.

I’ve  (James Shapiro) taught Shakespeare to Columbia undergraduates for three decades, and while my students over the years haven’t changed their minds much about A Midsummer Night’s Dream or Macbeth, they have about Hamlet. As in everyone’s classes on the play, the conversation in mine inevitably turns to why Hamlet delays. Back in the 1980s, thanks to the influence of a generation of high school teachers who had seen the 1948 film of Laurence Olivier’s Oedipal Hamlet and had likely read Hamlet and Oedipus, I could always count on a few students to say that Hamlet couldn’t readily avenge himself on a man who acted on his own desires to kill his father and sleep with his mother. (These days no student mentions the Oedipal theory, and when I offer it as a possibility, the suggestion is met with groans or laughter.)

The older Romantic view of Hamlet as an intellectual paralyzed by excessive thought still appealed to procrastinating students, so I’d hear versions of that too. But as the years rolled by I’d hear new explanations. Some of my students suggested that Hamlet couldn’t act because he was a coward, others that he was experiencing a spiritual crisis. By the end of the century a new paradigm began to emerge: Hamlet was profoundly depressed—that’s why he is immobilized, has trouble with his girlfriend, and feels so alienated. As one student memorably put it, if Prozac had been available there would have been no delay.

As the long dominance of New Historicism, which so powerfully shaped my own work, has come to an end, I find myself increasingly curious about what the next generation will make of Hamlet and what its view of Shakespeare and his most popular hero might reveal about our cultural moment. Rhodri Lewis’s absorbing and original Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness is the first major reinterpretation of the play in some time and suggests where things may be heading.

Lewis is clearly impatient with how critics have previously understood Hamlet. He argues that it is wrong to impose “the retrojection of Romantic, Freudian, or any other kinds of individuality onto a period in which they would scarcely have been comprehensible.” Lewis also pushes “back against the ideologically interpellated subject that became an article of faith for an earlier critical generation.” All that warring over the multiple texts of Hamlet strikes him as pointless, and he is comfortable reverting to Jenkins’s mix-and-match Arden edition, having decided that the texts resemble each other closely enough to overlook their differences. In another retro move, Lewis declares that his book “is an exercise in literary criticism,” not to be mistaken for one of those modish studies that uses “Shakespeare to furnish examples with which to illustrate or to challenge the history, theory, or politics of x.”

Scraping away all these layers of critical varnish exposes for Lewis a much bleaker play than the one familiar to modern readers and playgoers:

Hamlet is not thus a model of nascent subjectivity, the first modern man, a dramatic laboratory for the invention of the human, or even a study of the frustrations attendant upon sixteenth-century princely dispossession. He is instead the finely drawn embodiment of a moral order that is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions.

Lewis’s Hamlet turns out to be “a victim, a symptom, and an agent” of a world built on hollow and self-serving humanist truisms and a “confused, self-indulgent, and frequently heedless” one at that. He doesn’t so much delay in taking revenge as discover that he isn’t all that motivated to act on behalf of a father who failed to secure his succession.

It gets worse. Lewis’s Hamlet is “a thinker of unrelenting superficiality, confusion, and pious self-deceit. He feints at profundity but is unwilling and unable to journey beyond his own fears, blind spots, and preoccupations.” At least Claudius knows what sort of game he is playing; Hamlet, “unlike his uncle, is unable or unwilling to register in himself the corruption that he diagnoses in others.” “For all Claudius’s dishonesty,” and “for all Polonius’s self-serving lucubration,” Lewis concludes, “the young Prince Hamlet is the inhabitant of Elsinore most thoroughly mired in bullshit, about himself and about the world around him.” And Hamlet’s thoughts on the workings of providence are the “summa of his bullshit.”

It would be foolish trying to defend Hamlet by quoting his most famous soliloquy, since its words, stitched together out of empty pieties that he should critique but merely recycles, “comprise another study in superficial humanism, made up of commonplaces and sententiae divorced from the contexts that make them meaningful.” “To be or not to be” “sounds terrific,” but “it designedly does not make sense.” Nor should we take Hamlet’s talk of suicide seriously, since he is just “posturing.” Hamlet “pretends to engage” with the “prospect of self-murder because he is attracted to the image of himself disdaining the world, and because he has no intention of following through on the deed.”

Lewis’s Hamlet turns out to be as lame a drama critic as he is a historian, poet, and philosopher. By mocking Polonius’s response to the actors, Hamlet tries to distract us from his own “undercooked theorizing.” But we shouldn’t be misled; neither Polonius nor Hamlet “fully knows what he is talking about, though both are determined to conduct themselves as if they do.” The two are “high-born philistines whose pushiness and culturally deep pockets compel the professional artists to hear them out.”

Why have earlier critics failed to see Hamlet in this way? It’s tempting to blame Shakespeare for not signaling his intentions clearly enough. But Lewis, I imagine, is more likely to shift the blame to our collective refusal to register the ways in which the play turns on Shakespeare’s own rejection of humanism. So as not to misrepresent his book’s central argument, and to give a sense of how passionately it is expressed, I’ll quote at length:

Shakespeare repudiates two fundamental tenets of humanist culture. First, the core belief that history is a repository of wisdom from which human societies can and should learn…. Second, the conviction that the true value of human life could best be understood by a return ad fontes—to the origins of things, be they historical, textual, moral, poetic, philosophical, or religious (Protestant and Roman Catholic alike). For Shakespeare, this is a sham…. Like the past in general, origins are pliable—whatever the competing or complementary urges of appetite, honour, virtue, and expediency need them to be.

The fruitless search for absolutes by which to act or judge is doomed to failure: “Hamlet turns to moral philosophy, love, sexual desire, filial bonds, friendship, introversion, poetry, realpolitik, and religion in the search for meaning or fixity. In each case, it discovers nothing of significance.”

The absence of any moral certainties means that it’s a “kill or be killed” world, and the most impressive chapter in Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness establishes how the language of predation saturates the play. Lewis’s brilliant analysis here gives fresh meaning to long-familiar if half-understood phrases, including the “enseamed” marital bed, “Bait of falsehood,” “A cry of players,” “We coted them on the way,” “Start not so wildly,” “I am tame, sir,” “We’ll e’en to it like French falconers,” and “When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”

A generation later there emerged a more radical rethinking of Hamlet and Shakespeare’s state of mind when writing it. Sigmund Freud, searching for confirmation of his theory of the Oedipus complex, wrote to his friend Wilhelm Fliess in 1897 that “the same thing might be at the bottom of Hamlet as well. I am not thinking of Shakespeare’s conscious intention, but believe, rather, that a real event stimulated the poet to his representation, in that his unconscious understood the unconscious of his hero.” Freud went on to suggest that Shakespeare’s own Oedipal crisis provided the long-sought explanation for Hamlet’s delay in avenging his father’s death: “How better than through the torment he suffers from the obscure memory that he himself had contemplated the same deed against his father out of passion for his mother?” Other pieces of the Hamlet puzzle quickly fell into place:

His conscience is his unconscious sense of guilt. And is not his sexual alienation in his conversation with Ophelia typically hysterical?… And does he not in the end, in the same marvelous way as my hysterical patients, bring down punishment on himself?

Freud’s theory would have a profound effect on both scholars and actors; a play that straddled the political and the familial was now increasingly viewed as a domestic tragedy. And Freud’s disciple Ernest Jones’s popular Hamlet and Oedipus (1949) extended his influence for another generation.

By the 1980s, these psychological approaches were swept aside in favor of ones better suited to a generation of academics that had come of age during the cultural turmoil of the 1960s. New Historicists refocused attention on the politics of Hamlet, including the triumph of the opportunistic Fortinbras, whose seizure of power at the play’s end had long been cut in performance. I recall watching elderly playgoers gasp at a production in which Horatio’s sentimental farewell to Hamlet (“Good night, sweet prince,/And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”) was now followed by the entrance of Fortinbras, who, as he recited the play’s final line—“Go, bid the soldiers shoot”—unholstered a pistol, put it to Horatio’s head, and pulled the trigger.

Excerpts from New York Times Review of Books:   The Question of Hamlet

James Shapiro APRIL 19, 2018   Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness

by Rhodri Lewis,  Princeton University Press, 365 pp., $39.95


For Mythological Approach click .

For a Psychological Approach

What you need to do is consider opposing points of view and then articulate what you think in a cogent clear manner.  Good luck!


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