Hamlet Paperback – Jan 17 1992
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Like a few other reviewers for this edition, I am not going to spend much time discussing the play itself, as my comments would no doubt just look silly compared to the huge body of critical literature that already exists. The purpose of this review is more for discussing the supplemental material in this edition, to perhaps help others decide if this edition is sill sufficient for their needs..
First of all, the text of the play, edited here by Cyrus Hoy, is based on the second quarto (sullied--or actually, sallied in this case--rather than solid, for those who understand the distinction.) While not downplaying the differences, from my layman's point of view, I have too many other things to wrestle with in reading the play, and scholarly arguments concerning the differences between the first folio and the second quarto are beyond my ability to comment on. In a preface to this edition, editor Cyrus Hoy touches briefly on those differences and justifies his choices, and that was good enough for me.
After the body of the play comes a section titled 'Intellectual Backgrounds', which are an attempt to provide the reader with the cultural and intellectual mindset of the period when Shakespeare composed the play. What did the late Sixteenth Century intellectuals think about melancholy? or ghosts? or the nature of man himself? Excerpts from Montaigne's essays and other authors of the time are included in order to give unfamiliar readers the context in which to understand the actions of the play's characters, as well as their likely thoughts. On the heels of that section is 'Extracts from the Sources,' which include Saxo Grammaticus and Belleforest. I'd never given much thought to the source material that Shakespeare drew on to provide the basis for his play, so I found learning about them enlightening. In the end, I'm glad both the 'Intellectual Backgrounds' and the 'Extracts from the Sources' were included, as opposed to a summary written in contemporary English, summing up the pertinent ideas. Although reading through 16th Century prose can be taxing, these readings brought home to me the fact that HAMLET did not just arise out of a vacuum, which--if I had ever stopped to think about it--was probably my general conception.
The last section--'Essays in Criticism'--is really the reason I seek out any Norton Critical Edition. Of the twenty-three pieces, nine are from the 18th and 19th Centuries (including the thoughts of Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Coleridge and William Hazlitt). 20th century writers include D,H. Lawrence, T. S, Eliot, C. S. Lewis, and Rebecca West, among others. Some of these critical pieces attempt to interpret the play in its totality, while others concentrate on individual ideas expressed by the characters and their actions.
This is the third Norton Critical Edition I've read ( Heart of darkness and Oedipus Tyrannus the others), and I think I've finally figured out how to use them. In all honesty, I was looking for the criticism in the back to explain these texts--something which might be possible with some literature (though I'm not even sure about that), though doubtfully very difficult with these three examples no matter WHO is doing the explication. When I was looking for answers--when I was looking for someone to tell me what to think about them (even though I didn't realize that's what I was doing)--I was disappointed. Hats off here to Cyrus Hoy's editorial efforts--it finally penetrated even this thick head that the arrangement of the supplemental material is not designed to give answers, but to provide enough information and guidance that the reader can pursue their own thoughts about the text.
Concerning the essays themselves, it seems to me that the play's ambiguity is like a lens, through which (inadvertently or no) the essayists tend to peer mostly at themselves. This is instructive in and of itself, and combined with what factual information they provide, I found the section very rewarding. I especially appreciated the last essay, by William Empson, for its dispassionate appraisal of how 16th century audiences might have perceived the play. Bearing in mind my insights regarding the revealing nature of people's opinions about HAMLET, I'm hesitant to offer any ideas of my own, for fear of what they might say about me. But, with hat in hand, I'll offer this point, which seemed key to me--whatever the reason for Hamlet's vacillation, in the end, it was Claudius' response to Hamlet's inactivity that set the tragedy in motion. One MIGHT say that Hamlet got his revenge, but events were construed in such a way that Hamlet--as he had only been capable of throughout the play--acted in a passion rather than by design. Hamlet's is a life lived in reaction, rather than action, and perhaps that is the tragedy.
Reading the play also brought to mind the different ways to experience it--reading a text as opposed to a stage or filmed version. Having already seen movie adaptations, I appreciated the ability to pay more attention to the details, but I think there is really no comparison to a well-acted version for getting across the nuance and the drama. In fact, reading the final scene on the page felt flat and disappointing, especially when thinking back to the filmed portrayal. I still don't know which is more valid; reading the lines myself, or watching actors perform them, but I'm glad I've had an opportunity to do both, and this second Norton edition was an excellent method of helping me to understand and appreciate the text.
"Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away, But that I am forbid
to tell the secrets of my prison house,"
Rather than imagining this were some sort of counter reformation ploy, I think it's more productive and reflecting great Shakespearean subtlety here that he tacitly acknowledges, despite the dawning reformation and despite decrees of kings, that from history hundreds of years past, Christians have lived in the shadow of this Christian idea of Hell, of this purge-atorial belief.
Any reading of Shakespeare deserves generous amounts of annotation and commentary to help the reader through a lot of vocabulary which isn't often used in our day. So as to narrow my scope to a review rather than a book report, I would recommend that this edition fulfills that assignment, devoting more than half the book to historical review of religious and philosophical published material about the cultural beliefs regarding ghosts, spirits, demon kind, angels, death, the occult, and the medical humors, preceding Shakespeare's writings. And, great philosopher that the Bard is, he parodies the extraordinary political trouble in religion.
This didn't immediately sink in, when first I read the ghost's remark about marriage to his "most seeming virtuous queen." It is a ghost, only a shadow of who he used to be, who complains about his wife's 'new' filial relations with his murderous, but living brother. The metaphor is yet hanging in the air while Hamlet is confronting his mother the queen.
Another truly evil piece of work is the courtier Polonius, who Hamlet slays, spying on this same confrontation between the queen and Hamlet. Polonius really is the quintessence of Grimer Wormtongue. Not only does he achieve over-kill, poisoning the well between Ophelia and Hamlet, but from our first introduction to this family, when Ophelia's brother Laertes is traveling to a foreign city to study, even in one breath Polonius extends seeming wise counsel to his departing son, then, the minute Laertes back is turned, Polonius is spitting firebrands and madness; he employs ruffians to follow after his son, seem to befriend him, tempt him into any unseemly or un virtuous behavior they may and noise about vicious slander besides, ruining any chance of his establishing social contacts or successes of his own, which might otherwise lead him to forsake returning home.
So his daughter kills herself, pressured not only by Hamlet's feigned psychosis, but further fueled by her father's treachery. When Laertes returns home all unhinged with grief for his sister, no further allusions are given to the fruit of his father's villainy, where he had gone to study. But the evil king offers us a narrative foot note, summarizing well, I think, the emotional timbre of the author, whose son also had died,
"When sorrows come, they come not single spies, but in battalions..."