Hamlet in His Modern Guises

By Alexander Welsh | Go to book overview
Save to active project

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

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).
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.


Notes for this page

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this page

Cited page

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited page

Bookmark this page
Hamlet in His Modern Guises


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this book

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen
/ 178

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?