Magazine article The Spectator

Prince of Self-Pity

Magazine article The Spectator

Prince of Self-Pity

Article excerpt

TS. Eliot thought Hamlet an 'artistic failure', Shakespeare being unable to reconcile the theme of the old revenge tragedy on which the work is based with the conception of the character of Hamlet himself. One may agree with this while still finding the play compelling; indeed the most puzzling of the tragedies.

The revenge theme is admittedly tiresome and the reasons for postponing the act of vengeance both unconvincing and boring. We can accept the ghost only as a convenient theatrical convention. No doubt Elizabethan audiences saw it differently. Belief in ghosts was then common, and one wonders to what extent Shakespeare shared it. Banquo's ghost appears only to Macbeth and is invisible to the other dinner-guests; invisible to Lady Macbeth also. So the ghost scene in that play is psychologically convincing. It's different in Hamlet. Francisco, Bernardo and Horatio all see the ghost, though it refuses to speak to them; subsequently speaking only to Hamlet himself. This suggests that Shakespeare may have regarded the ghost as something more than a useful dramatic device. But it is the character of Hamlet that gives the play its perennial interest, and it is his character which puzzles us, or ought to do so.

Is he a good man? Paul Johnson in a recent essay calls him a 'paragon' and a 'confused but essentially benevolent young genius'.

Considering what a botch he makes of things, 'genius' seems an over-statement. An earlier Johnson (Samuel) thought he was 'represented as a virtuous character', but clearly had doubts, being shocked, as a Christian, by the speech in which Hamlet resolves not to kill the king while he is at prayer, preferring to wait till he is 'at some act /That has no relish of salvation in't.' Johnson found this speech 'in which Hamlet . . . is not content with taking blood for blood, but contrives damnation for the man he would punish, too horrible to be read or to be uttered'.

Hamlet can be played as an indecisive and self-questioning Romantic intellectual (the Gielgud interpretation), or as a mixed-up kid, immature, uncertain of himself, veering from self-love to self-loathing by way of self-pity.

His obsession with his mother -- unhealthy and quasi-incestuous, as Olivier played it -- marks him off from Osborne's Jimmy Porter, the quintessential 1950s Angry Young Man. …

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