Search for Meaning in Shakespeare's Hamlet

Search for Meaning in Shakespeare's Hamlet

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Search for Meaning in Shakespeare's Hamlet


But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon (3.4.208-10)

What is real? This question, begged by humanity from day one, seems to grow in importance and urgency as the twenty-first century looms on the road ahead. When religion, culture, family, and meaning are all forced to play second fiddle to the almighty dollar, where do we turn for understanding? I think the answer is that we turn inward. After all, there must be something within the human animal to suggest a moral, or a message, or at least an explanation. Hamlet deals specifically with this introspection, this search for meaning. Prince Hamlet's world has come apart at the seams and he is desperately groping for some sort of guidance. He needs a foundation, a primary principle, an answer of even the smallest kind with which to build a coherent worldview. Unfortunately, Hamlet's philosophical free-fall may be a result of his own inability to connect to a world outside of his own grief and confusion. He is adept and resourceful in the world of ideas, but flat-footed and indecisive in the world of actions. Whereas Shakespearean characters such as Hotspur and Coriolanus suffer from shortsightedness and rash judgements, Hamlet suffers broad abstract thoughts and paralyzing ambivalence. This may be why the play has been able to so stalwartly defend its V.I.P status in the Western cultural conscious. Any thinking modern citizen knows what it means to fit round ideals into square realities. Therefore, it makes sense for Hamlet, one of our foremost fictional figures, to have trouble matching his internal ideals to the external world.

In his introduction to the Norton edition of the play, Stephen Greenblatt points out that Hamlet, "seems to mark an epochal shift not only in Shakespeare's career but in Western drama." Greenblatt is referring to the dominance of Prince Hamlet's psyche over all aspects of the play's perspective and mood. Hamlet transports its audience into the Prince's mind and forces them to look at the world from the inside out. The view is startling. It is the source of the play's unanswered questions and thought provoking ambiguities. Shakespeare lets us see the world through the eyes of a man struggling to decide whether any of it even matters.

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The existence of this internal struggle is, ironically, the only sure footing to be found in an otherwise doubt-ridden play. Hamlet can be acted in a variety of ways, and critics can speculate that this or that is the key to understanding the Prince's psychology, but his search for truth is without a doubt the play's driving force. His questions are our questions, his fears our fears. What does it mean to die? How can a man be loved and happy one minute, dead and buried the next? Does revenge make things "even" in any way? Are there any true values beyond pragmatism? We ask these questions and make attempts to fit our answers into the play as a whole. What it comes down to is this: whether you love Hamlet or hate Hamlet, whether you see him as a whiney coward or a noble moralist, how would you answer and act upon the issues facing him if you were in his place? Would you bide your time, risking failure but protecting against mistake or would you, like Laertes, seek immediate revenge without first considering circumstance? This is the line Hamlet must walk. It is the difference between knowing what's right and doing the right thing. Never in the play does he make a full-fledged commitment to either side of that divide. He is certainly interested in knowing what's right, but he is also keenly aware that his musings may be paradoxically keeping him from the very action that would transcend mere speculation and add substance to his rhetoric. In the final act, he finally takes his revenge, but it happens in a flash of rage, rather than a planned blow for justice. At the very moment of truth, when he is about to cross into "Not to be" territory, Hamlet decides that there is something worthwhile to revenge. Finally stating his thoughts publicly, he exclaims, "Here, thou incestuous, murd'rous, damned Dane," and wounds him with the poison-tipped rapier. Why did he wait for so long? Again, the play unfolds from Hamlet's perspective, and the answer is therefore left up in the air. There is a sense of, "Yes, finally got the bastard," but it is counterbalanced by the inevitable reply, "But at what cost?". Like any truly great work of art, Hamlet leaves a lot to be considered. Different directors can certainly slant the play in different ways depending on how they view its many gray areas, but to stay faithful to its complexities, they must illustrate the conflict between Hamlet's swirling thoughts and his sense of duty. Luckily, there is a genre of acting that cares not for faithfulness, and laughs out loud at complexity.

The goal of any parody is to give its target a bit of a shove. For maximum effect, the target should be well known and well respected. Quantity and quality common sense says that it's best to shove really large and good things. It is not surprising then, considering its timeless popularity, that Hamlet was the first Shakespearean play ever to be parodied. J. Poole's Hamlet Travestie was published as a piece of literature in 1810 (it was, however, performed several times) (Wells, 52). Poole notes in his preface that the parody is a reaction to a handful of Shakespearean critics that had emerged at the time of its writing. Furthermore, a quote set as introduction to this preface reads, "Commentators each dark passage shun, And hold their farthing candle to the sun." Poole was clearly annoyed at the level of seriousness that had grown like crabgrass around one of his favorite pieces of literature. As we all know, seriousness is not to be tolerated when it exists for its own sake. Hamlet Travestie offers absolutely no insight into Shakespeare's master piece, it merely substitutes silly rhymes for beautiful prose and silly songs for beautiful poetry. In doing so, it shoves Hamlet from its platform of gravity and urges a viewing of the play that is a little more passionate and a little less intellectual. As for the dominance of Hamlet's psyche over the original play's action, the Prince in Poole's parody holds no such grip on his audience. It is difficult to be mesmerized by the mental maneuverings of a man whose final words are, "going-going-gone." (VI, 83) After Travestie comes to its stunning emotional conclusion, Poole drives his point home by adding a slew of fictitious critical comments entitled "Annotations by Dr. Johnson, and George Stevens, Esq. AND other Commentators." In this quasi-humorous addendum, "intellectuals" participate in a ludicrous discussion of Hamlet Travestie. The nitpicking and dissecting of a play that is nothing if not joyfully meaningless makes Poole's point bluntly: It is possible to overanalyze something and turn it into something it's not. In a sense, overanalyzing a work of art is comparable to Hamlet's inability to stop thinking and start acting. When literary critics become too tightly enwrapped in obscure theory and marginal reference, they tend to loose sight of the power and vibrancy of good literature. At the same time, Hamlet's critics may say that he gets too tightly wrapped in abstract concepts and ambivalence, and that he tends to loose sight of the true meaning and energy of life. Being the first parody of Hamlet, Hamlet Travestie is too reactionary to care for such intricacies as meaning, but some later parodies have been able to knock Hamlet off his pedestal of rhetoric, knock Hamlet off of its intellectual tower of isolation, and still manage to make some interesting statements about the meaning of the play. These renditions offer interesting perspectives on Hamlet's character because, to succeed within their genre, they must move him from a shifting world of gray to a predictable one of black and white. As we have discussed in class, Hamlet has often held a mirror up to the nature of its critics, and the text has been used to support both flattering and judgmental views on Hamlet himself. A parody containing at least some dimension beyond levity can serve to accent these biased readings. First they sound a shrill whistle to get the critic's attention, then they display one of those twisted mirrors you find at carnivals so that the critics can see they've been staring too long at their own mugs. If nothing else, they clarify a very specific way of looking at Hamlet that can be compared to the true text for accuracy. W.S. Gilbert's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (1903) shows Hamlet to be a sniveling, attention starved whiner, unworthy of being called "hero" by even the most cowardly of lions. At the other end of the spectrum is Last Action Hero, a horribly acted Schwarzenegger flick in which Arnold plays the anti-Hamlet. In highlighting the emptiness of his inverse, Last Action Hero affirms his nobility and humanity. The middle point where these two takes on Hamlet converge combines the fluidity of parody with the level-headed thinking of balanced critique.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern makes its sympathies crystal clear as early as Tableau one, line 16. Claudius tells Queen Gertrude that he has a haunting past he would like to put to rest. Far from regicide however, Claudius' criminal past involves a deplorable play he wrote as a youth: "Listen, then, to me: /Many years since-when but a headstrong lad-/I wrote a five-act tragedy" (1.16). The tragedy was so bad, in fact, that no subject of Denmark may mention it under penalty of death: "The play was not good-but the punishment of those who laughed at it was capital" (1.66-67). Perhaps the most subversively important element of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is the minor detail that Hamlet is the son of Claudius. This effectively strips Hamlet's most passionate soliloquies of their foundation, leaving him a whiny melodramatic nincompoop. Using wordplay and some genuinely funny plot twists, Gilbert builds his parody to a grand finale in which Hamlet falls from the King's favor as a result of his own vanity. Naturally loving the horrid melodramatics of Claudius' banished tragedy, Hamlet unwittingly performs it in front him and gets banished to the far away land of "Engle-land" where "They're welcome to his philosophical brain" (3.138). More important to the parody's theme however, is the fact that in Engle-land "Men will rise or sink in good esteem/ According as they worship him, or slight him!" (3.133-134). Here we find a criticism of academia in the tradition of Poole's Hamlet Travestie, with the added element of an unflattering reading of Hamlet himself. The result is a message to critics saying, "Hey, you guys only love this eloquent Momma's boy because he's smart, predictable, and overly serious about meaningless questions. Just like you!" In a particularly funny passage, Ophelia gives an overview of some thoughts on Hamlet's sanity while effectively dismissing his complexities:

Opinion is divided. Some men hold/That he's the sanest, far, of all sane men--/Some that he's really sane, but shamming mad--/Some that he's really mad, but shamming sane--/Some that he will be mad, some that he was--/Some that he couldn't be. But on the whole/(As far as I can make out what they mean)/The favourite theory's somewhat like this: /Hamlet is idiotically sane/With lucid intervals of idiocy (1.115-124)

This offhand analysis of Hamlet's psychology, especially since it comes from Ophelia, suggests that it doesn't really matter what forces are at play in Hamlet's head, because he's unwilling to get out of his tortured shell and live a little. I say, "especially coming from Ophelia," because she is the character most ambivalent about Hamlet throughout the parody. Other characters genuinely dislike him, but Gilbert reserves the coldest view of Hamlet for Ophelia. She doesn't care about him one way or the other, because he isn't even worth her concern. In the first tableau, Rosencrantz, who was once Ophelia's lover and who snags her when Hamlet is banished, asks her whether she cares for the Prince:

Ros. Thou lovest Hamlet?

Oph. (demurely) Nay, I said we were betrothed

Gilbert's view of Hamlet is pitiful in almost every imaginable way, and Ophelia's response here firmly tacks "Love life" to the end of that list of ways. Although it should be obvious even from these short passages that Gilbert is aiming for laughter, I have to believe that his comedy stems from a real antipathy towards Hamlet's melodramatic inaction.

My favorite passage of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern centers on Hamlet's tendency to soliloquize. In Shakespeare's play, the Prince's beautifully crafted soliloquies are among his most appealing characteristics. They illustrate his complexity, his intellect, and his preference for rational thought over hasty action. For Gilbert, the soliloquies make him predictable, boring, and intolerable. The following passage is somewhat lengthy, but its Monty Python style humor and sarcastic criticism are reflective of the parody as a whole. By order of the Queen, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern must stop Hamlet from soliloquizing at any cost:

Music. Enter Hamlet. He stalks to chair, throws himself into it.

Ham. To be--or not to be!

Ros. Yes--that's the question-Whether he's bravest who will cut his throat rather than suffer all.

Guild. Or suffer all rather than cut his throat?

Ham. (annoyed at interruption, says, "Go away-go away!" then resumes).
To die--to sleep-

Ros. It's nothing more--Death is but sleep spun out--Why hesitate? (Offers him a dagger)

Guild. The only question is-Between the choice of deaths, which death to choose. (Offers a revolver) (2.23-33)

The scene continues like this until Hamlet shouts them away with "It must be patent to the merest dunce/Three persons can't soliloquize at once!" (2.58-59). Immediately following this is a spoof on Hamlet's famous suckering of Guildenstern into the line, "'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?" (3.2.339-340) In this version Hamlet too hastily assumes Rosencrantz to be a novice at the pipe, only to find that he is "rather good upon the flute." This reversal of Shakespeare's metaphor
sums up the sort of Hamlet to be found in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He is long-winded and predictable, and he is predictably inactive. He will choose word over substance in a heartbeat and never look back. While this view of the Prince can be justified by the original text in many places, Last Action Hero puts forth a very different, but equally conceivable kind of Hamlet .

Last Action Hero is very sly in its defense of Hamlet and the sort of philosophy he represents. This is surprising, because the film is decidedly un-sly in all of its other aspects. Rather than show a cartoonishly vivid version of their own interpretation of Hamlet (as Gilbert does) the directors of Last Action Hero chose to put forth a cartoonishly vivid version of the antithesis to their own. Who could possibly be more different from Hamlet than Arnold Schwarzenegger? Hamlet always thinks before he acts, ad nauseum even. Arnold always plays a large laconic man who takes out the trash and lets God sort 'em out. For instance, in Last Action Hero, Schwarzenegger plays a movie character named Jack Slater, and at the same time he plays a real life version of himself that plays Slater in movies. A young boy named Danny Madigan is obsessed with his entire creatively titled catalog: Jack Slater I-III, and the newly released Jack Slater IV. A golden movie ticket ala Charlie and the Chocolate Factory pulls him into Slater's world, in which bad guys are always caught and good guys always save the day. For the rest of the film Danny and Slater move between the two worlds trying to catch the bad guys while remaining sane. Sound familiar? This plot outline may not immediately seem to be related to Hamlet, but a quick survey of the film's themes suggests otherwise. First and foremost, a short parody of Hamlet occurs just ten minutes into the film. Danny is at school where his English teacher is showing a scene from Laurence Olivier's version of Hamlet. As Hamlet pauses to reflect before killing the praying Claudius, Danny protests, "Don't talk, just do it!". Suddenly Olivier's Hamlet morphs into Jack Slater and the scene progresses somewhat differently:

Jack Slater: Hey, Claudius. You kilt my foddah.

Announcer's Deep-Bass Voice-Over: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
[Slater grabs Claudius]

Jack Slater: Big Mistake. [He throws Claudius out of one of Elsinore's large, stained glass windows to his death] (Mallin, 128)

Next Slater throws a skull at a guard, slices several extras, and blows Polonius away with a submachine gun. The castle explodes behind him as he wryly remarks, "To be, or not to be? [lights cigar] Not to be." As soon as the scene ends we realize that Arnold was not meant to be a preferable alternative to Shakespeare's Hamlet. When Elsinore fades into a violently one dimensional-(but can we admit, funny?) Roadrunner cartoon, it is already apparent that the Schwarzenegger-Hamlet is flat and dehumanized. Though direct references to Hamlet become scarce later in the film, the prince in Danny Madigan lingers. Danny Madigan is Hamlet, and Jack Slater is Hamlet's urge for a perfect world, his urge for perfection through revenge. As the film progresses, Slater begins to become aware of his own fictional status. To Danny's dismay, Slater begins to show emotion and long for things too complex for his cinematic world. Meeting Danny's mother, Slater attempts genuine conversation and marvels in joy at the sound of classical music on the radio (only hard rock is allowed in Jack Slater movies). I'm not a big fan of Oedipal theories on Hamlet, but this is a little too obvious to be ignored. If Jack Slater represents Hamlet/Danny's urge to seek revenge and become a warrior king like his father was, doesn't it make sense for that father to flirt with and be attracted to his mother? Like Queen Gertrude, Danny's mother is a widow. This makes perfect sense because Slater, fatherly in his relationship with Danny and yet not quite real, is a twenty-first century-digital version of the Ghost in Hamlet. Eric Mallin draws the parallels much better than I in his essay, " 'You Kilt My Foddah': or Arnold, Prince of Denmark":

In the idiom of such advertisements, the poster reads: "Arnold Schwarzenegger is Jack Slater." This claim of absolute yet fissured identity shocks the hero. He is not, he discovers, a person after all. He is, instead, a Ghost: an identity without a reality to attach itself to. In this sense he bears similarities to King Hamlet, who shuttles between his purgatorial holding cell and Elsinore, and, curiously, to Schwarzenegger himself, a "star" in a fictive and unstable firmament (Mallin, 133).

I believe that this comparison works exceedingly well. According to Last Action Hero, Danny, like Hamlet, is groping for the cut and dry values of a non-existent but somehow present father figure. As he realizes that these values are as transparent as Slater himself, Danny learns to give them substance by applying him to the real world where punching windows means bloody knuckles. This theme reaches an apex during a scene in which death has emerged from an old film to inspect a dying Slater. Approaching Slater and Danny he explains, "I was only curious. He's not on any of my lists. But you are, Daniel." This scene makes it evident that Danny is in a struggle to accept Death and the real world it affects. A world without death lacks substance, and Last Action Hero suggests a Hamlet that is not cowardly, but rather struggling to come to terms with this truth. Last Action Hero presents the opposition to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's sardonic criticism. Hamlet should not succumb to the Ghost of his father and seek immediate revenge because in doing so he would become like Jack Slater and give up any hope for meaning or morality.

As I've already mentioned, the text of Hamlet can be read to support portions of both the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and the Last Action Hero image of Hamlet. The key difference between the two images lies in how they each define reality. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern defines reality in terms of action. Hamlet has his head in the clouds because he can't manage to pull himself from the world of thoughts. Last Action Hero, however, defines reality as the negation of thoughtless action. It too criticizes idealism, but it is much wearier of the action-oriented idealist than the paralyzed philosopher. The balance between these two perspectives echoes a larger struggle between sanity and confusion. It reflects the fact that there are many ways to lose control in life and that sanity is a very small raft situated in a very large ocean. Complicating matters is the fact that we must constantly test the waters if we want our boat to move. When our boat doesn't move we're not really sane because we sort of meld into the ocean due to a lack of energy. Entropy and such. So is Hamlet's boat moving? Hopefully my answer will be a little more helpful than Ophelia's-Ophelia's answer according to Gilbert that is. I think Hamlet's boat is in fact moving, but very slowly and in no particular direction. He tests the waters and jumps back in, tests the waters and jumps back in. He isn't exactly a cringing coward, incapable of action, but he's also no Prince Hal, ready to spring to life as soon as he gets the long division worked out. So what does that make him? I'd say it makes him a normal guy trying to deal with an abnormal situation; that may be the reason so many other "normal" guys have written so many 'words words words' about him. Looking at the text, Laertes describes Hamlet quite unfavorably in Act One:

For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour/Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood/A violet in the youth of primy nature,/Forward not permanent, sweet not lasting,/The perfume and suppliance of a minute/No more (1.3.5-8).

Despite such slanderous sentiments, Laertes is able in Act Five to beg: "Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet./Mine and my fathers death come not upon thee,/Nor thine on me (5.2.271-273)." I think this is important because of the forces that Laertes and Hamlet represent. In many ways Laertes is capable of making the decisions Hamlet could never muster, while Hamlet is capable of taking that step back Laertes never considered. In the plays closing moments, amidst death and chaos, these two forces achieve a strange sort of reconciliation. It's not exactly friendly, but it is a sort of breathless acceptance of opposing good intentions. This acceptance is either a metaphor for, or a result of, the overarching clash between stillness and motion (I haven't figured out which it is, but I have a hankering that it's both). When is it right to push for change and make a stand? When is it more practical to step back and get yourself together in preparation for inevitable change? These sorts of questions are very important to art and its interpretation. Looking at opposing readings of Hamlet should help to construct a boundary past which radical interpreters cannot cross. That is, if they are trying to stay faithful to Shakespeare's lines. Playing with time-tested themes, intentionally representing them in new and sometimes twisted ways, is what art is all about. In his defense of unconventional (but serious) representations of Shakespeare, Charles Morowitz states:

As I've said elsewhere, an audience is often like the implacable face of a stopped clock that will resist all efforts to be wound to the correct time out of an obsessive desire to maintain the integrity of its broken mechanism. It should be no wonder that art must occasionally give it a good shake to get it ticking again (Morowitz, 474).

Using parody as a tool in this analysis of Hamlet may represent a synthesis between Morowitz and his conservative detractors. Hopefully it is possible to celebrate Shakespeare for what he was, while still sparing him the hallowed status that would solidify his art and curtail the creativity in presenting his plays.

Works Cited

Gilbert, W.S. "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern." (1903) n. pag. Online. English Verse
Drama Full Text Database. Chadwyck-Healey. 1994.

Greenblatt, Stephen. "Hamlet." The Norton Shakespeare. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. New
York: Norton, 1997.

Mallin, Eric S. "'You Kilt My Foddah': or Arnold, Prince of Denmark." Shakespeare
Quarterly (Summer 1999) 50.2: 127-51.

Marowitz, Charles. "Shakespeare Recycled." Shakespeare Quarterly (Winter 1987) 38.4: 467-78.

Poole, John. "Hamlet Travestie: In Three Acts." (1810): n. pag. Online. English Verse
Drama Full Text Database. Chadwyck-Healey. 1994.

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