Four tragedies - Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Othello, the Moor of Venice, Macbeth and King Lear - David Bevington and David Scott Kastan 1988, 2005
Hamlet, prince of Denmark
Alexander, Nigel. Poison, Play, and Duel: A Study in “Hamlet.” London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1971. Alexander argues that the play’s representation of complex moral and psychological problems depends upon three dominant symbols—poison, play, and duel—that structure the play’s action and language. Through these powerful images, which come together in the play’s final scene, Shakespeare conveys a sense of the inescapable difficulties of moral choice and action.
Bevington, David. “ ’Maimed Rites’: Violated Ceremony in Hamlet.” Action Is Eloquence: Shakespeare’s Language of Gesture. Cambridge and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1984. Bevington traces how Shakespeare shapes our responses to the play through visual means. Hamlet, he argues, is a play of “maimed rites,” perversions of ceremony that reflect the moral and social disruptions in Denmark. In the final scene, the solemnity with which Hamlet is borne offstage serves to rehabilitate ceremony, restoring “some hope of perceivable meaning in the ceremonial meanings that hold together the social and moral order.”
Bohannan, Laura. “Shakespeare in the Bush.” Natural History 75 (1966): 28—33. Rpt. in Every Man His Way: Readings in Cultural Anthropology, ed. Alan Dundes. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1968. Bohannan, a cultural anthropologist, narrates the response of the elders of the Tiv tribe of West Africa to her retelling of the story of Hamlet. Her lively essay is a lesson in cultural relativity: familiar critical issues like the ghost, the incestuous marriage, Ophelia’s madness, and Hamlet’s revenge are freshly viewed from the perspective of a culture with non-Western ethical values and practices.
Booth, Stephen. “On the Value of Hamlet.” Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama, ed. Norman Rabkin. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1969. Booth focuses on the audience’s experience of the play. His patient analysis of the opening scene sets forth the process whereby Hamlet’s frustrated desire for certainty and coherence becomes the audience’s own. The result for Booth is that “Hamlet is a tragedy of an audience that cannot make up its mind.”
Bowers, Fredson. “Hamlet as Minister and Scourge.” PMLA 70 (1955): 740—749. When Hamlet calls himself a “scourge and minister,” Bowers argues, he signals his awareness of a conflict between his roles as private avenger and agent of providential design. By locating Hamlet within the moral and dramatic traditions of Elizabethan revenge tragedy, Bowers discovers the cause of the hero’s delay in Hamlet’s desire for heaven to define and facilitate his complex responsibility.
Bradlay, A. C. “Hamlet.” Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904. Rpt., New York: St. Martin’s, 1985. Bradley explores the sources of Hamlet’s delay, locating it not in a temperament characteristically resistant to action but in a “violent shock to his moral being” that produces an enervating melancholy. The Ghost’s revelation and demand for revenge is “the last rivet in the melancholy which holds him bound,” and the play presents “his vain efforts to fulfill this duty, his unconscious self-excuses and unavailing self-reproaches, and the tragic results of his delay.”
Calderwood, James L. To Be and Not to Be: Negation and Metadrama in “Hamlet.” New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1983. Calderwood’s metadramatic reading provocatively examines the tensions between illusion and reality, absence and presence, negation and assertion, inscribed into a play that relentlessly proliferates uncertainties and contradictions, but that, as Calderwood’s title suggests, ultimately accepts and contains them.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Hamlet.” Coleridge’s Writings on Shakespeare, ed. Terence Hawkes. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1959. Coleridge, along with other early nineteenth-century intellectuals, was strongly drawn to Hamlet (“I have a smack of Hamlet myself”) and saw him as an agonizing intellectual, endlessly reasoning and hesitating, detached from the world of events. In Coleridge’s influential psychological reading, Hamlet is a man both “amiable and excellent” who is defeated by his “aversion to action, which prevails among such as have a world in themselves.”
Eliot, T. S. “Hamlet and His Problems.” Selected Essays, 1917—1932. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1932. The “problems” Eliot identifies in his influential essay are not in Hamlet’s character but in the play itself. Eliot believes that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s revision of a lost revenge play onto which Shakespeare’s main theme—the effect of a mother’s guilt upon her son—is unsuccessfully grafted. Hamlet’s emotions are “in excess of the facts as they appear,” Eliot finds; Hamlet can neither understand nor objectify them, since Shakespeare himself is unable to find any “objective correlative” in his play for Hamlet’s complex psychological state.
Frye, Roland Mushat. The Renaissance “Hamlet.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1984. Drawing upon a rich array of historical, literary, and pictorial evidence, Frye seeks to reconstruct the challenges and excitement that Hamlet offered to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan audience. The rich specificity of the background that Frye reconstructs acknowledges “the complex and sophisticated concerns of Elizabethan minds” and the complexity of the play itself.
Goldman, Michael. “ ’To Be or Not to Be’ and the Spectrum of Action.” Acting and Action in Shakespearean Tragedy. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1985. Goldman argues that the challenges the role of Hamlet poses to an actor are analogous to the challenges the play poses to an audience. Each must engage in an act of interpretation that will discover unity and coherence in the multiple and often contradictory evidence of language and action.
Granville-Barker, Harley. Preface to “Hamlet.” Princeton, N.J.: Princeton Univ. Press, 1946. This book-length “Preface” draws upon Granville-Barker’s insights as a theatrical director and literary critic in its focus on the structure and tone of Hamlet. The first half of the study contains a detailed analysis of the three distinct movements (rather than the imposed five-act structure) that govern the play’s action. Granville-Barker concludes with a discussion of the characters in this “tragedy of thwarted thought and tortured spirit.”
Greenblatt, Stephen. Hamlet in Purgatory. Princeton and Oxford: Princeton Univ. Press, 2001. Starting with an exploration of the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory, Greenblatt explores the play’s focus on death and the human desire somehow to remain in contact with the dead. Not only a reconstruction of early modern religious belief, Greenblatt’s book offers an extended reading of the play that attempts to account for its uncanny power to fascinate audiences and readers.
Jones, Ernest. Hamlet and Oedipus. New York: Norton, 1949; published in 1910 in an earlier essay form. Jones, a student of Freud, considers the personality of Hamlet from a psychoanalytic perspective and diagnoses his delay as symptomatic of an Oedipal complex. Hamlet is incapable of revenge because of his unconscious identification with Claudius, who has enacted Hamlet’s unconscious wish to kill his father and marry his mother. Jones extends his provocative argument with the suggestion that the play’s Oedipal aspects have their origin in Shakespeare’s own psychology in 1601, the year the play was possibly written and in which Shakespeare’s father died.
Kastan, David Scott, ed. Critical Essays on Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” New York: G. K. Hall, 1995. A generous and thoughtful anthology of essential essays on the play, including Laura Bohannan’s anthropological piece on Hamlet among the Tiv, and critical essays by, among others, Stephen Booth, Barbara Everett, Michael Goldman, Lisa Jardine, and Paul Werstine.
Kerrigan, William. Hamlet’s Perfection. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, 1995. A short, engaging book whose ambiguous title indicates Kerrigan’s interest in both the aesthetic perfection of the play itself and the thwarted search for perfection by its title character.
Kliman, Bernice, ed. Approaches to Teaching Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2002. A remarkably useful selection of short essays on strategies for teaching the play, with essays considering various pedagogical problems, including considerations of how to teach metrics, how to think about the multiple texts of the play, how to incorporate perfomance into the classroom, how to use internet resources, as well as essays that engage more traditional critical concerns.
Levin, Harry. The Question of “Hamlet.” New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1959. Levin’s rhetorical analysis of the play’s tone and action focuses on three dominant figures of speech (which are simultaneously modes of thought): interrogation, doubt, and irony. These, Levin finds, are organized dialectically, with the play’s and Hamlet’s own pervasive irony serving as a synthesis that permits us to face—though never to solve—the contradictions that the play’s questions and unexpected answers expose.
Lewis, C. S. “Hamlet: The Prince or the Poem?” Proceedings of the British Academy 28 (1943 for 1942): 11—18. Rpt. in They Asked for a Paper. London: Bles, 1962; and in part as “Death in Hamlet” in Shakespeare, the Tragedies: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Alfred Harbage. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964. Lewis takes issue with the focus on Hamlet’s character that has dominated critical discussion of the play since the nineteenth century. He argues that the true subject of the play is death. The fear of being dead, born of a failure to understand human nature or the nature of the universe, is, for Lewis, the source of the play’s powerful presentation of doubt and dread.
Mack, Maynard. “The World of Hamlet.” Yale Review 41 (1952): 502—523. Rpt. in Shakespeare, the Tragedies: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Alfred Harbage. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964. Mack’s sensitive account of the play’s verbal texture establishes the “imaginative environment” of Hamlet that is dominated both by a deep and disabling inscrutability and by an overriding sense of morality. In the final act, Mack argues, Hamlet comes to understand what it means to live in such a world and to accept the mysterious condition of being human.
Nietzsche, Friedrich. “The Birth of Tragedy, or Hellenism and Pessimism” (1872). The Birth of Tragedy and the Case of Wagner, trans. Walter Kaufmann. New York: Vintage, 1967. Nietzsche rejects the common nineteenth-century notion that Hamlet fails to act because he is paralyzed by excessive thought in favor of a view of Hamlet’s “nausea” induced by looking “truly into the nature of things.” What inhibits Hamlet is his tragic knowledge of the futility and folly of action in a world that is out of joint. “Knowledge kills action,” Nietzsche asserts; “action requires the veil of illusion.”
Prosser, Eleanor. Hamlet and Revenge. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford Univ. Press, 1967. Surveying Renaissance ethical codes and dramatic conventions, Prosser examines Hamlet in light of the Elizabethan understanding of revenge and ghosts. She contends that once we accept that the moral universe of the play (as well as of the audience) is Christian, we must see the Ghost as “demonic” and Hamlet’s commitment to revenge as immoral and appalling.