3 x Hamlet:
Hamlet’s Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt. Princeton University Press, 2001, 2002 edition. Read in February 2013.
To Be or Not to Be by Douglas Bruster. Continuum Press, 2007. Read in February 2013.
Hamlet, Contemporary Critical Essays, New Casebooks, edited by Martin Coyle. Palgrave Macmillan Press, 1992. Read in February-March 2013.
While reading and working with Hamlet I found countless texts that helped me write my analysis. These three were among them.
Stephen Greenblatt’s Hamlet’s Purgatory was the most interesting. What I didn’t know was that Purgatory as a concept has not existed throughout all of Christianity. It started emerging in the late Middle Ages and came under attack by the protestants in the 16th century. This means that in Shakespeare’s day it was a Catholic concept that was being forced out of public religion. Greenblatt shows how Hamlet’s father symbolises this conflict and how Hamlet himself must grapple with the appearances of his father’s ghost. As the play progresses he does so with increasing “terror, guilt and pity” (page 223). The conflict is sharp. Hamlet, “a young man from Wittenberg, with distinctly Protestant temperament, is haunted by a distinctly Catholic ghost” (page 240). Greenblatt asks, “But how is it possible to reconcile this apparent sceptical, secular protest with Hamlet’s obsessive quest to fulfil precisely the task that the Ghost has set him?” (page 241). Shakespeare, in Hamlet, makes brilliant use of the “violent ideological struggle that turned negotiations with the dead from an institutional process governed by the church to a poetic process governed by guilt, projections and imagination” (page 252). As with all of Greenblatt’s works I can only say: Read it. It’s fascinating.
To Be or Not to Be is, as you might have guessed, a concentrated look at the soliloquy. It’s 104 pages long, which just goes to show, if you hadn’t figured that out yourself, that this is one complex piece of writing. And there’s reason for it to be so renowned. Bruster does not go for the obvious. For example he writes, “There are suicide speeches in Shakespeare, and perhaps even in Hamlet, but this is not one of them” (page 13). Hmmm, interesting. I don’t know if I agree with him, but interesting. Line by line, word by word, comma by comma or lack thereof and Bruster’s startling conclusion could be taken from Macbeth: it’s a soliloquy “signifying nothing.” Or Much Ado About Nothing. Or to quote Bruster himself: “What does it mean that the central speech of the central character in the central play of the language’s central author is all but useless to its speaker and story?” (page 103). Cheeky, isn’t he?
Hamlet, Contemporary Critical Essays, New Casebooks isn’t nearly as interesting or provocative as the first two but it is worth reading. Among the chapters are “Tragic Balance in Hamlet” by Philip Edwards, “The Comedy of Hamlet” by Peter Davison, “A Heart Cleft in Twain: The Dilemma of Shakespeare’s Gertrude” by Rebecca Smith, “Representing Ophelia; Women, Madness and the Responsibilities of Feminist Criticism” by Elaine Showalter and many others covering a wide range of the many complexities of the play. Also valuable are the many references to Shakespearean scholars throughout the decades and the section at the end of “Further Reading”. It’s the kind of book I like to have on my shelf.