Shakespeare's Creation: The Language of Magic and Play

By Kirby Farrell | Go to book overview

VIII.
This Bodiless Creation Ecstasy: Manipulation and Play in Hamlet

Shakespeare dramatizes Portia's autonomy through her mastery of roles. We imagine in her a heightened awareness which enables her to conceive and act out crucial "plots": a courtroom drama and, with the rings as props, a comedy of reaffirmed love. She takes a part in the drama she creates even as she sees beyond it, and thereby transcends it.

Like Portia, Hamlet plays out a movement toward autonomy. And like her, he sees beyond conventions. Yet for him the outcome is an agonistic "madness" and death. Seeking out his father's ghost, discovering in himself a depth "which passes show" (1.2.85), he suffers increasing alienation. To take his place in the world he must act out the will of a ghost, and attack a king, symbol of order and governance. To create, that is, he must take the role of murderer, and destroy.

Portia plays in order to actualize a vision of benevolent fortune. She has not only her father's will to guide her, but also the fertile and harmonious future she anticipates. For Hamlet, by contrast, the future looms as a dreadful gulf, and fortune is "a strumpet." Play itself holds a threat for him:

Being thus benetted round with villainies,
Or I could make a prologue to my brains,
They had begun the play.

[5.2.29-31]

Unable to fathom the play of events, he cannot freely choose roles. He cannot choose himself.

Guided by Portia, we are privy to truth at every turn. In Hamlet, however, our efforts to fathom Denmark's sinister mysteries complement Hamlet's own, and become an appreciation of

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