Realism and Imagination Within Hamlet

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Realism and Imagination within Hamlet

No doubt, Shakespeare’s tragic drama Hamlet is composed of both realistic and poetic or imaginative elements. Let us explore the presence of both with the play.

According to the best of literary critics, realism is basically “representing human life and experience” (Abrams 260). In the essay “An Explication of the Player’s Speech,” Harry Levin explains how the playwright achieves an “imitation of life” in his play:

Since the theater perforce exaggerates, amplifying its pathos and stylizing its diction, it takes a specially marked degree of amplification and stylization to dramatize the theatrical, as Schlegel realized. Conversely, when matters pertaining to the stage are exhibited upon the stage, to acknowledge their artificiality is to enhance the realism of everything else within view. The contrasting textures of the Player’s fustian and Hamlet’s lines, like the structural contrast between the prevailing blank verse and the rhyming couplets of the play-within-the-play, bring out the realities of the situation by exposing its theatricalities. By exaggeration of drama, by "smelling a little too strongly of the buskin” in Dryden’s phrase, Shakespeare achieves his imitation of life. (42)

Having been briefly exposed to the realism within the play, let us with Richard A. Lanham in “Superposed Plays” consider the poetic or imaginative side of Hamlet:

The real doubt comes when we ask, “What poetic do we bring to the Hamlet play?” As several of its students have pointed out, it is a wordy play. Eloquence haunts it. Horatio starts the wordiness by supplying a footnote from ancient Rome in the first scene, by improving the occasion with informative reflections. Everybody laughs at Polonius for his moralizing glosses but Hamlet is just as bad. Worse. Gertrude asks him, in the second scene, why he grieves to excess and he gives us a disquisition on seeming and reality in grief. The King follows with h is bravura piece on grief. Everybody moralizes the pageant. The Hamlet play abounds with triggers for straight revenge-tragedy response. The whole “mystery” of Hamlet’s hesitant revenge boils down to wondering why he doesn’t go ahead and play his traditional part, complete with the elegant rants we know he can deliver. (89)

The real battle in the play between imagination and realism is forcefully presented by another literary critic. Harold Goddard’s essay, “Hamlet: His Own Falstaff,” highlights this battle in the play:

Hamlet, the conclusion is, is a failure because the materials Shakespeare inherited were too tough and intractable. Too tough and intractable for what? That they were too tough and intractable for a credible historical picture may be readily granted. But what of it? And since when was poetry supposed to defer to history? Two world wars in three decades ought to have taught us that our history has not gone deep enough. But poetry has. The greatest poetry has always depicted the world as a little citadel of nobility threatened by an immense barbarism, a flickering candle surrounded by infinite night. The “historical” impossibility of Hamlet is its poetical truth, and the paradox of its central figure is the universal psychology of man. (14)

The play opens on the ramparts of Elsinore castle – a very realistic setting. But very soon the imaginative element of a ghost, the likeness of dead King Hamlet, makes its appearance before Barnardo, Marcellus and Horatio. Mysteriously, it says nothing, prompting Horatio and Marcellus to leave in search of Hamlet, the prince and their friend, who might be able to interpret this spectral figure. Hamlet is meanwhile at a courtly gettogether with his stepfather Claudius, the king, his mother, Gertrude, the queen, the royal chamberlain’s family, and courtiers. Hamlet, deeply grieved over the quick marriage of his mother to his father’s brother, is more idealistic than others...
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