Internet Shakespeare Editions

About this text

  • Title: Hamlet: Critical Approaches
  • Author: David Bevington
  • General textual editors: James D. Mardock, Eric Rasmussen
  • Coordinating editor: Michael Best
  • Associate coordinating editor: Janelle Jenstad
  • ISBN: 978-1-55058-434-9

    Copyright David Bevington. This text may be freely used for educational, non-profit purposes; for all other uses contact the Editor.
    Author: David Bevington
    Not Peer Reviewed

    Critical Approaches

    1Hamlet was a very real success in its own day. An unauthorized quarto, Q1, was published in 1603, so corrupt and abbrieviated that it prompted the publication in 1604 of a quarto (Q2) that was, according to its title page, "Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and perfect copy." Other quartos followed in 1611 and some time before 1623, suggesting a strong demand by the reading public. The classical scholar Gabriel Harvey lauded the play as having the capacity "to please the wisest sort." Anthony Scoloker, in 1604, described true literary excellence as something that "should please all, like Prince Hamlet." Ben Jonson, though he faulted Shakespeare for having "small Latin, and less Greek," and for too often ignoring the classical unities, generously allowed, in his commendatory tribute in the Shakespeare Folio edition of 1623, that Shakespeare was worthy of comparison as a tragic writer with Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, and without a rival as a comic dramatist even in "insolent Greece or haughty Rome." During the Restoration in 1660 and afterwards, Hamlet was accorded the unusual respect of being performed without extensive adaptation, though it was substantially shortened. Samuel Pepys, in his Diary, greatly admired the play, as performed repeatedly by Thomas Betterton from 1661 until 1709; in 1688 he praised the role of Hamlet as "the best part, I believe, that ever man acted."

    The Earl of Shaftesbury appears to have spoken on behalf of other eighteenth-century observers when, in his Characteristic Advice to an Author (1710), he praised Hamlet as "almost one continued moral, a series of deep reflections, drawn from the mouth upon the subject of one single accident and calamity, naturally fitted to move horror and compassion." Hamlet "appears to have most affected English hearts, and has perhaps been oftenest acted of any which have come upon the stage." Thomas Hanmer, in Some Remarks on the Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (1736) similarly found an instructive universality in the play that demonstrated brilliantly how it conforms with the demands of poetic justice. Samuel Johnson commended Shakespeare for his "just representation of general nature." These comments are notably consistent in their view of the play as morally instructive and universal.

    Romantic criticism of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries turned in quite a new direction, toward a study of character and emotion. Goethe was perhaps the first to focus on Hamlet's hesitation to act. "Amazement and sorrow overwhelm the solitary young man," wrote Goethe in his Wilhelm Meister, 1778 and 1795. Many critics have wondered if Goethe was not talking at least partly about the brooding melancholic protagonist of his own autobiographical meditation, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774). The same suspicion lingers in an appraisal of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Notes and Lectures upon Shakespeare, 1808, where the author frankly admitted that to understand Hamlet fully "it is essential that we should reflect on the constitution of our own minds." "I have a smack of Hamlet in myself," Coleridge wrote. The writer who was addicted to laudanum and who, according to legend at least, composed his "Kubla Kahn" following an opium-induced dream and then left it unfinished, might be expected to see Hamlet as one who "vacillates from sensibility, and procrastinates from thought, and loses the power of action in the energy of resolve." The critical sentiment is all the more powerful in that it reflects Romantic sensibility in many other writers. Charles Lamb wrote (On the Tragedies of Shakespeare, 1811) of his desire "to know the internal workings and movements of a great mind, of an Othello or a Hamlet for instance, the when and the why and the how far they should be moved." William Hazlitt declared, in 1817, that "It is we who are Hamlet," most of all in the way in which his "powers have been eaten up by thought." For August W. von Schlegel, in 1809, the burden that Hamlet faces "cripples the power of thought."

    This fascination with character as the central concern of drama spilled over into other characters in Hamlet as well, most of all with Ophelia. "Poor Ophelia!" wrote Anna Jameson. "Oh, far too soft, too good, too fair to be cast among the briers of this working-day world, and fall and bleed upon the thorns of life!" (Characteristics of Women, 1832). Critics like Thomas Campbell lambasted Hamlet for his insensitivity in his dealings with Ophelia. A new interest in women was to be seen everywhere. Her drowning, as described by Gertrude, became the subject for many paintings by John Everett Millais (1852), Henry Tresham, Richard Westell, and others. Mary Cowden Clarke imagined what the girlhood of Ophelia might have been like in her The Girlhood of Shakespeare's Heroines(1851-2). Helen Faucit similarly wondered about the afterlife of Ophelia in On Some of Shakespeare's Female Characters, 1885. George Eliot, in Mill on the Floss, 1860, proposed that "we can conceive of Hamlet's having married Ophelia" and then managing to get through life "with a reputation for sanity." The characters of Hamlet, as with Falstaff and Cleopatra and other legendary figures, took on lives of their own. Critics delighted in wondering what it would have been like to know these characters and to pursue their destinies outside the bounds of the plays as Shakespeare had written them. The interweaving of author, character, reader, and viewer was seen as a fundamental quality of dramatic creation through which Shakespeare had become so intensely personal. Shakespeare had become England's great national poet through whom the nation could celebrate its cultural and political greatness in the nineteenth century. Hamlet stood as his quintessential play at the center of this cultural triumph.

    5A landmark of literary criticism of Hamlet in the early twentieth century is A. C. Bradley's Shakespearean Tragedy, 1904. Hamlet is, for Bradley, one of the four "great" Shakespearean tragedies, along with Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth. Hamlet is, like the others, "great" in its embrace of universal issues: good and evil, temptation and sin, self-knowledge and betrayal. Hamlet stands revealed in this broad moral context as an idealist, deeply sensitive, vulnerable to the shocks of a father's murder and a mother's hasty remarriage. He generalizes philosophically in ways that resonate with our longing to understand ourselves and the universe in which we find ourselves. Bradley deftly incorporates the resources of "character" criticism that the nineteenth century had found so compatible and enlightening. Character criticism continued to pursue its aims, especially in Ernest Jones's Hamlet and Oedipus (1910 and 1959), where this disciple of Sigmund Freud enlarged upon the psychoanalytical thesis that Freud had himself propounded in The Interpretation of Dreams (1899), namely, that Hamlet is driven subconsciously by an incestuous desire for his mother which complicates his task of avenging the murder of his father; how can he kill the hated uncle for having taken sexual possession of the mother whom Hamlet himself yearns for? Gilbert Murray, in Hamlet and Orestes (1914), pursued a parallel method of psychological and anthropological analysis by studying Hamlet as a kind of ritual drama that is profoundly related to ancient tribal customs and ceremonies. This approach owed much to the work of Carl Jung. Northrop Frye's Anatomy of Criticism (1957) and other studies proposed that drama can be seen as a response to mythic patterns that include the seasonal changes of the year: Hamlet, in these terms, is autumnal, wintry, melancholic. Maynard Mack's "The World of Hamlet" (Yale Review, 1952), sees the play as dominated by the interrogative mood, by questions, riddles, enigmas, and mysteries.

    At the same time, critical responses to "character" criticism were emerging. One of the most insistent was that of historical criticism. Practiced in good part by academic scholars motivated by a new professionalism in their ranks, the method insisted, as did Sir Walter Raleigh (a Professor of English Literature at Oxford, not related to the courtier named Raleigh or Ralegh who served Queen Elizabeth and James I), that "A play is not a collection of the biographies of those who appear in it," nor is it a moral play (Shakespeare, 1907). Instead, a play is a kind artifice arising out of a particular historical milieu. E. E. Stoll's Art and Artifice in Shakespeare (1933) adroitly captures this critical point of view. Hamlet, for Stoll, is not a study of psychological types; it is a revenge play, the resources for which are provided by the conventions of a dramatic type. Hamlet's delay is, in these terms, necessary in order that Hamlet may test whether Claudius is indeed the murderer that the Ghost has declared him to Be. Lily Bess Campbell's Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion (1952) declares by its title its commitment to historical circumstances, and especially to Elizabethan understanding of melancholy. John Dover Wilson, in What Happens in Hamlet (1935) locates the play in the Elizabethan playhouse as a way of asking, among other matters, whether Hamlet perceives that he is being overheard by the King and Polonius during his painful interview with Ophelia. Theodore Spencer, a Professor at Harvard, looks closely at Shakespeare's indebtedness to innovative and heterodox thinkers in the Renaissance like Copernicus, Montaigne, Mirandola, and Machiavelli (Shakespeare and the Nature of Man, 1942). Historical criticism continues to this day.

    The 1930s saw another critical revolution, this time vested as a critique of historical criticism. The so-called "New" critics, such as G. Wilson Knight, Derek Traversi, and L. C. Knights, insisted that historical criticism was too often dry and philological in its quest for factual information about writers' biographies an other historical concerns. Surely, criticism should turn its attention instead to close reading of texts, to image patterns, to the sounds of poetry. Caroline Spurgeon's Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us (1935) catalogued Shakespeare's images in related clusters: diseases, poison, ulcers, blisters, and the like. Maurice Charney's Style in "Hamlet" (1971) turned the new interest in imagery to the theater, where stage picture, gesture, props, and all that is scenic could be seen as creating a language of theatrical gesture. Historical critics quickly realized that they could contribute to such theatrical insights rather than simply allowing themselves to be pilloried as academic pedants. Andrew Gurr (Playgoing in Shakespeare's London, 1987) and Ann Jennalie Cook (The Privileged Playgoers of Shakespeare's London, 1576-1642 (1981) provided a wealth of new information and insight about those who came to see the plays of Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

    In the cultural upheaval brought about by protests against the Vietnam War, racial conflict, social unrest, the assassinations of John and Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., and so much more in the 1960s and afterwards, literary criticism of Hamlet found several new forms of expression. One was the so-called "New Historicism," championed by Stephen Greenblatt, Louis Montrose, Jonathan Goldberg, and others like Stephen Orgel and Richard Helgerson who were more or less loosely allied to the movement. The new historicists owed much in theoretical terms to Clifford Geertz's Negara, 1980, and to Lawrence Stone's The Crisis of the Aristocracy, 1558-1641 (1965), where critics could find eloquent models of how public ceremonials of statecraft offered themselves as myths about the creation and manipulation of political power. Prompted by their resistance to the governorship of California and then the U.S. presidency of Ronald Reagan, the new New Historicists formed a close relationship with the Cultural Materialism of English and continental critics that included Raymond Williams, Jonathan Dollimore, Alan Sinfield, Terry Eagleton, and others. Together, they devoted their energies to politically radical interpretations of texts as expressive of rapid political and social change. They took sustenance from the galvanizing new insights offered by Jan Kott, a Polish political activist who viewed Hamlet and other Shakespearean plays against the apocalyptic background of a Europe divided by the Iron Curtain after World War II. Hamlet was for Kott "a drama of political crime." Its protagonist was one who was "deeply involved in politics, sarcastic, passionate and brutal"; like James Dean he was a young rebel intent on "action, not reflection" (Shakespeare Our Contemporary, 1964). Kott was visibly indebted to the absurdist drama and existential philosophy of Antonin Artaud, Jerzy Grotowski, Eugène Ionesco, Jean Paul Sartre, and Albert Camus. Hamlet was thus a bleak comedy of the absurd through which "we ought to get at our modern experience, anxiety and sensibility."

    Feminist criticism took on new energy in these late twentieth-century years of experiment and rebellion. Juliet Dusinberre's Shakespeare and the Nature of Women, 1975, was an inspirational study that brought the feminist concerns of the nineteenth century into a new political context. Lisa Jardine's Still Harping on Daughters, 1983, with its title derived from Polonius's response to Hamlet's "mad" discourse about daughters who should not be permitted to "walk I' th' sun," turned the focus of feminist criticism in Hamlet to animadversions against patriarchal interference in the lives of young women. Claude Lévi-Strauss, in his The Elementary Structures of Criticism, 1949, offered a bracing model of new ways of thinking about family relationships, in which men are so often the controlling force, making use of daughters as resources to be pawned and traded in commercial and political negotiations among men. Arnold Van Gennep (The Rites of Passage, 1960) and Victor Turner (The Ritual Process, 1969) offered further anthropological models for exploring the transitional moments in human life—birth, puberty, marriage, death—that made for such compelling and threatening conflicts in the lives especially of women. Both Ophelia and Gertrude provided splendid materials for analyses by Coppélia Kahn, Lynda Boose, Marjorie Garber, Madelon Sprengnether, Jean Howard, Gail Paster, Phyllis Rackin, Dympna Callaghan, Jyotsna Singa, Marianne Novy, Carol Neely, Valerie Traub, and many others. Some feminist critics like Ania Loomba brought to this lively discourse the perspective of third world experience. Still others, like Kim Hall and Margo Hendricks, looked at gender in terms of race relations. Same-sex relationships became the concern of Bruce Smith, Laurie Shannon, Jonathan Goldberg, Mario DiGangi, and still others. Hamlet was a central text in all these explorations.

    10Post-structural criticism, or deconstruction, arrived on the scene at more or less the same time in the late twentieth century. It owed its philosophical and critical origins especially to the linguistic and semiotic work on the Continent, notably in France, of Ferdinand de Saussure, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. For such thinkers, "meaning" and "authorial intent" were protean and indeterminate concepts, best understood as arbitrary signifiers in a complex system of difference. Patricia Parker and Geoffrey Hartman, in Shakespeare and the Question of Theory (1985), showed how infinitely supple Shakespeare's poetic language could be, with its incessant play of words and its delight in punning. Hamlet, viewed in this light, could be seen as superb practitioner in the art of verbal play. Deconstruction has led to new and challenging insights in editing, as well, by insisting, in Foucaultian fashion, that texts are multiple and evolving, especially in the theater. Hamlet, with its extensive differences between the second quarto and the 1623 Folio, and then even more remarkably by the variations embodied in the unauthorized quarto of 1601, continues to be a battleground for rival textual theories as to how this great work came into being and then evolved.

    In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, literary appraisals of Hamlet have had the advantage of being able to make use of new historicist, feminist, and deconstructive methodologies, along with theatrical analysis and still other perspectives, often in combination. Examples include Leah Marcus's Puzzling Shakespeare (1988), Annabel Patterson's Shakespeare and the Popular Voice (1989), Janet Adelman's "Man and Wife is One Flesh: Hamlet and the Confrontation with the Maternal Body" (Suffering Mothers, 1992), Stephen Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory (2001), William Hamlin's Tragedy and Scepticism in Shakespeare's England (2005), Linda Charnes's Hamlet's Heirs: Shakespeare and the Politics of a New Millenium (2006), Lars Engle's "Moral Agency in Hamlet" (Shakespeare Studies, 2012), Richard McCoy's Faith in Shakespeare (2013), and Andrew Cutrofello's All for Nothing: Hamlet's Negativity (2014).