Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

The Uses of Interpretation in Hamlet

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

The Uses of Interpretation in Hamlet

Article excerpt

Hamlet is the most problematic play ever written. Inconsistencies arise from the variousness of its medieval and Renaissance sources; from discrepancies between printed versions of Shakespeare's drama; and from a host of unresolved thematic and psychological problems, such as the famous question of why the Prince delays his revenge. Hence the endless interpreting of the play. Yet interpretation is not simply a matter for scholars and critics. The Prince and virtually every other main character indulges in it. Shakespeare, in giving interpretation this significance, bad to develop previous versions of the story. So when one considers the issue of interpretation in the play one is also examining a prime example of how texts undergo alteration from period to period. Specifically, there are two influences on the metamorphosis of Hamlet: the intellectual climate in which it was written and the nature of the sixteenth-century political world. Together, they put at Shakespeare's disposal transformations of his inherited versions that are highly revealing of his creative processes. Shakespeare gives important dramatic voice to a newly emergent form of Europe's early modern self.


T. S. Eliot called Hamlet "the 'Mona Lisa' of literature." It is true. No other work has presented more uncertain meanings. Interpretation has thrived. Hamlet is quite simply "the most problematic play ever written by Shakespeare or any other playwright." (1) Inconsistencies and difficulties derive from the dramatist's need to integrate his medieval and Renaissance sources. The various printed versions of the author's text have to be reconciled, but sometimes resist this. A host of deeper questions arise. Among the most celebrated are: what is the reason for the Prince's delay in revenging his father's murder; is his madness genuine or feigned; what is the true status of his feelings for Ophelia?

Most of these questions do not admit of definitive solutions. Nor will there be a search here for possible answers to the second and third. For in the case of the thematic and psychological issues there is a seemingly impenetrable ambiguity. Ambiguity is, in fact, a striking characteristic of Shakespeare's work. Hence William Empson's continuous resort to him for examples in Seven Types of Ambiguity. Indeed he once wrote that a given sonnet, rather than having a single meaning, is more like a musical instrument on which the critic may play a variety of tunes.

As it happens, Empson's image of the musical instrument is also used in Hamlet, by the Prince. It occurs on two occasions. Hamlet greets Horatio admiringly, saying what a well-balanced man he is. Those who combine passion and judgment harmoniously "... are not a pipe for Fortune's finger/To sound what stop she please" (III, ii, 70-71). (2) The image recurs soon after, once Claudius has burst out of the play within the play. Hamlet orders music. Then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive to ask the Prince to visit his mother, distressed at his behavior. Taking one of the recorders, Hamlet says to them:

   Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you
   make of me. You would play upon me, you would
   seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the
   heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my
   lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is
   much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet
   cannot you make it speak. "Sblood, do you think I
   am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what
   instrument you will, though you fret me, you cannot
   play upon me. (III, ii, 354-63)

In each case, Hamlet rejects the idea of being used as a mere instrument for the advancement of another's designs. But he concedes, reluctantly, that Fortune does play him in contrast to the better-adjusted Horatio. Moreover, there is an alleged mystery-the Prince-to be recognized, even though Rosencrantz and Guildenstern use inadequate means to "pluck" it out. …

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