Conscience and the King: A Study of Hamlet

Conscience and the King: A Study of Hamlet

Conscience and the King: A Study of Hamlet

Conscience and the King: A Study of Hamlet

Excerpt

Whoever comes to study Hamlet seriously is very soon aware of one of the great difficulties besetting the would-be critic of any of Shakespeare's plays: there is much disagreement among his modern devotees whether he is to be read with the assurance that he is accessible to any mind of average sensibility, or whether he is in fact often largely misunderstood unless his words, his situations and all that they imply are interpreted in accordance with the meaning which they can be shown to have had for his contemporaries.

Logically it is to be expected that the more one knows and understands of the civilization and mental atmosphere for and in which a man has written in the past, the smaller is the possibility of misunderstanding him. That this applies to Dante and Chaucer is generally accepted: their work is open to modern sensibility, yet they are very much of their own age, and no one would dispute that they can only be really understood in the light of mediaeval habits of thought and feeling. But what is conceded with Dante and Chaucer is more often than not denied in the case of Shakespeare; and the general reader feels confident that whatever he can or cannot understand of Hamlet, he may safely ignore anything unusual which scholarship might have to contribute to interpreting the play.

It is not difficult to see how this situation has arisen. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, it was uncritically assumed that the educated Elizabethan was "enlightened" in the way that the reader of Addison or . . .

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