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William Shakespeare



One would judge that by temperament [Hamlet] was inclined to nervous instability, to rapid and perhaps extreme changes of feeling or mood.... This temperament the Elizabethans would have called melancholic.... Next, we cannot be mistaken in attributing to [him] an exquisite sensibility to which we may give the name "moral."... To the very end, his soul, however sick and tortured it may be, answers instantaneously when good and evil are presented to it, loving the one and hating the other.... Now, in Hamlet's moral sensibility there undoubtedly lay a danger. Any great shock that life might inflict on it would be felt with extreme intensity. Such a shock might even produce tragic results.... A. C. Bradley, from Shakespearean Tragedy, Lecture 3, 1904

So far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure. In several ways [it] is puzzling and disquieting as is none of the others.... Probably more people have thought Hamlet a work of art because they found it interesting, than have found it interesting because it is a work of art. It is the "Mona Lisa" of literature.... The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion... and this is precisely what is deficient in Hamlet. Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear.... Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him.... We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem that proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know. T. S. Eliot, from "Hamlet and His Problems," in Selected Essays, 1920

Whenever a person cannot bring himself to do something that every conscious consideration tells him he should do- and which he may have the strongest conscious desire to do- it is always because there is some hidden reason why a part of him doesn't want to do it; this reason he will not own to himself and is only dimly, if at all, aware of. That is exactly the case with Hamlet.... The more intense and the more obscure is a case of deep mental conflict, the more certainly will it be found on adequate analysis to center about a sexual problem.... [Hamlet's] long "repressed" desire to take his father's place in his mother's affection is stimulated to unconscious activity by the sight of someone usurping this place exactly as he himself had once longed to do. More, this someone was a member of the same family, so that the actual usurpation further resembled the imaginary one in being incestuous. Without his being in the least aware of it, the ancient desires are ringing in his mind, are once more struggling to find conscious expression, and need such an expenditure of energy again to "repress" them that he is reduced to the deplorable mental state he himself so vividly depicts. Ernest Jones, from Hamlet and Oedipus, 1949

Yet his soul's adventure, which seemed but to lead him to defeat, was heroic too. For if men shirk such perils, how are these high matters to be brought home to spiritual freedom? Nor will mere intellectual venturing suffice, if lively faith, in its health and strength, is to be found and enjoyed again. Hamlet, being called upon, flings his whole being- mind and affections both, the best and the worst of him, weakness no less than strength- into the trial. And he widens the issue till he sees eternal life and death, his own and his enemy's, at stake. He will reconcile himself, as he is and in all he is, with these now unveiled verities of this world and the next, if that may be. In which Promethean struggle towards the light he is beaten- as who has not been?- with havoc wrought, not in him only, but by him, even to his own despite. It is none the less a heroic struggle.

Here, for me, is the master-clue to Hamlet's "mystery." The "sane" world around him has naturally no sense of it, nor the too sane spectator of the play. He does not pluck out the heart of it himself. Neither are we meant to. For his trouble is rooted in the fact that it is a mystery. Harley Granville-Barker, in Prefaces to Shakespeare, Vol. I, 1946



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