Hamlet in His Modern Guises

By Alexander Welsh | Go to book overview
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CHAPTER TWO
Hamlet's Mourning and Revenge Tragedy

BECAUSE DEATH imposes itself so heavily on the action—and because there is a much lamenting ghost—it seems odd that more interpretations of Hamlet are not directly concerned with grief and mourning. In 1930 Lily Bess Campbell contributed a chapter on the play as “a tragedy of grief.” Hers was a level-headed assessment of “three young men—Hamlet, Fortinbras, and Laertes—each called upon to mourn the death of a father,” which assumed that Shakespeare was concerned to show how men of different temperaments “accept sorrow when it comes to them.” Campbell was not entirely consistent in her moralizing, for while she seemed to think that Fortinbras was the most rational of these young men—in truth Hamlet offers little evidence of his grief at all—she also believed the play demonstrated “the essential humanness of grief in its passionate refusal of the consolations of philosophy.” Patently Shakespeare was less interested in Fortinbras's reasonableness than in Hamlet's excesses, but Campbell at least took the measure of the multiple plot: “Laertes, too, was the victim of excessive grief, but his grief was that which moved to rage. Ophelia is also the victim of excessive grief, her own and Hamlet's.” Campbell's reading was restorative, for “in our own day we are sentimental about grief and those who grieve.” Her book set out to document instead a Renaissance theory of the passions.1

Today both the observation that we are sentimental about grief and the prospect of canceling sentiment by applying reason and morality seem rather Victorian—and indeed Campbell was born in that era. Awkwardly, her position is roughly that of Claudius also, in the first court scene. It is only in the twentieth century that the literature of consolation is less often at hand, as life expectancy has vastly increased in the developed world and death has become a more impersonal business, often relegated to an institution remote from home.2 In such a remoteness, it is perhaps to be expected

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1
Lily B. Campbell, Shakespeare's Tragic Heroes: Slaves of Passion(1930; rpt. New York: Barnes and Noble, 1968), 109–10, 144–45. In the same year, G. Wilson Knight published his more free-wheeling “Embassy of Death,” in The Wheel of Fire(1930; rpt. New York: Meridian, 1957), 17–46. His argument that Hamlet is essentially about death does not hold up as well as Campbell's, but again “Hamlet's pain is a complex of different themes of grief (22).
2
For the bearing of the classical literature of consolatio on Shakespeare, see Brian Vickers, "Shakespearean Consolations,” Proceedings of the British Academy 82 (1993), 219–84. Geoffrey Gorer, Death, Grief, and Mourning in Contemporary Britain(London: Cresset, 1965), gives a contrasting account of twentieth-century attitudes.

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