Hamlet as the Complete Man

Hamlet as the Complete Man

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Hamlet as the Complete Man


Tragedy, Shakespeare had come to see when he was writing Hamlet, is a kind of consecration of the common elements of man's moral life. Shakespeare introduces the common man in Hamlet not for what we are apt to think of as his "commonness" but for this strange power however you care to name it that he possesses-we have used art, or virtue, or we might have borrowed from Henry James "the individual vision of decency." In Tragedy there is no longer a Chorus moving round the altar of a god; but if Proust is right the spectators are still participants in a supernatural ceremony.

Perhaps I may put the aspect of Tragedy I wish to keep before you more clearly by drawing on Professor Harbage's study of Shakespeare's ideal man. Collecting the approving references he finds that this ideal man is soldierly, scholarly, and honest. If these men seem to lack the larger idealism that is so common and abundant in our own generation, there is no suspicion that Shakespeare's men will fail to back with their own skin their apparently modest programs. As Professor Harbage says: "All soldierly, scholarly, honest men are potential martyrs -you can substitute for "martyrs" tragic figures. Of that Shakespearean type Hamlet is the ideal. Shakespeare had before him in Saxo and Belleforest what was presented as an ideal type. This type Shakespeare transformed. To what may be called the instinctive wisdom of antiquity and her heroic passions, represented so impressively by Hamlet's father, Shakespeare has united the meditative wisdom of later ages in Hamlet himself. There is no surrender of the old pieties, and the idea of the drama comes from the impact of new circum1stances upon the old forms of feeling and estimation; there is a conflict between new exigencies and old pieties, that have somehow to be reconciled. The play dramatizes the perpetual struggle to which all civilization that is genuine is doomed. To live up to its own ideals it has to place itself at a disadvantage with the cunning and treacherous. The problem Mr. Chandler (1) sets his hero is infinitely complicated in Hamlet-to be humane without loss of toughness. The hero must touch both extremes: without one he is just brutal, lacking the other he is merely wet.

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The problem Mr. Chandler has posed for the writer of the story of crime Shakespeare solved, I am suggesting to you, just after his thirtyfifth year, when he finally transformed the ancient sagalike story preserved for us by Saxo into the play we know as Hamlet.

Works Cited

Hamlet, Father and Son (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1955), pp. 183-185 Copyright (c) 1955 by the Clarendon Press.

1) Raymond Chandler, a modern writer of detective stories, who describes his fictional hero in terms also applicable to Hamlet: a man who is typical of humanity and yet unusual, a humane and honorable person with a disgust for sham who must combat human meanness by sometimes ruthless means.
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