Hamlet in His Modern Guises

By Alexander Welsh | Go to book overview

CHAPTER FOUR
Hamlet's Expectations, Pip's Great Guilt

IN THE POLITY of Shakespeare's plays, expectations tend to be royal. Expectations that matter most and absorb the interest of all ranks are those of princes for the ensuing kingship. In Ophelia's distraught summary of what Hamlet seemed to be before his mind was overthrown, he was “th' expectancy and rose of the fair state” (3.1.146). This notion of succession and inheritance is a far cry from the private dream of improving his lifestyle that teases the imagination of Dickens's young hero even before the lawyer Jaggers—“as the confidential agent” of someone—announces that Pip has “great expectations.”1 Those Victorian expectations, quite apart from the irony that plays about them and the narratives of crime and resentment that eventually explain them, are of nothing more than money and gentility, and so much like the prospect of winning a lottery that they emphatically confirm the opinion of the players in Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre that chance—“guided and controlled by the sentiments of the personages,” to be sure—will hold sway in a novel, as contrasted to fate in a drama.2 Since there is little likelihood that Pip will inherit anything of value, he overinvests in luck.

Scott's heroes inherit property, which entitles them to a managing interest in the state of which their real estate is a portion. The sense of history afforded by their experiences accommodates the past by mourning it and thereby grows confident of a future. But Pip's expectations originate in private longings in the first instance, unknown benefaction in the second, and criminal connections in the end. Great Expectations would seem to be about individual advancement and accompanying repression rather than a role in history. Its mourning ritual has to do with a personal case, the case from which Pip longs to escape all the more when he meets his secret benefactor. As in Hamlet, the most sensational revelation is closely guarded by the hero, and the discovery that finally matters seems wholly interior. One feature that distinguished the action behind Shakespeare's play and

____________________
1
Charles Dickens, Great Expectations, ed. Margaret Caldwell (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993), 1.18.136–37. Citations of the novel by “stage” of Pip's expectations (or volume in the 1861 edition), chapter, and page number will be given in parentheses; but to facilitate reference to most other editions, I have supplied continuous chapter numbering rather than renumbering chapters for each stage or volume.
2
See above, chapter 3, note 16.

-102-

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