by Phillip Burton
Just as every actor is supposed to want to play Hamlet, it would seem that every author wants to write about him. He has received more performances in the theatre and more explication on the printed page than any other character of Shakespeare. Theatergoers collect Hamlets as philatelists do stamps, and in both cases, it would seem, the rarer and stranger the specimen the more it is cherished. Since every actor is unique, no two performances of any role will be exactly alike, not even when an understudy strives, or is made to strive, hard to copy his principal, but it is particularly true that all Hamlets are different. More than once in the history of the play, four separate productions have been offered to the public in one city in one year. Hamlet is such an all encompassing human phenomenon that it will absorb and be illuminated by actors of quite contrary qualities. It is a particularly naked part, and no actor will succeed in it who tries to hide himself, and no actor will completely fail who is content to let Hamlet take hold of him rather than he of Hamlet. Just as every actor’s Hamlet is himself, so is every writer’s. He sees in the character what his personality, predilections prejudices, beliefs lead him to see. And so do I. In what follows I am prompted by two considerations: to contradict Goethe’s conception of Hamlet and the many subsequent versions of it, and to provide for an actor a blueprint of the character as I see it, always remembering that a blueprint is not the building.
To begin with, a brief quotation from Carlyle’s translation of William Meister’s Apprenticeship, which gives the essence of Goethe’s conception of Hamlet: "A lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero, sinks beneath a burden it cannot bear and must not cast away. All duties are holy for him; the present is too hard. Impossibilities have been required of him; not in themselves impossibilities, but such for him." "Without the strength of nerve which forms a hero." If that is true, Hamlet, and with him the play, lacks true tragic stature. Coleridge’s Hamlet, while more impressive as a tragic figure than Goethe’s, is from a similar mold: "He is a man living in meditation, called upon to act by every motive human and divine, but the great object of his life is defeated by continually resolving to do, yet doing nothing but resolve." These conceptions of an ineffectual saint are much better descriptions of Shakespeare’s Henry VI than his Hamlet. In arriving at the "lovely, pure, noble, and most moral nature" concept, one feels that Goethe must have completely missed Hamlet’s gross obscenities, and Coleridge’s "doing nothing but resolve" seems to ignore the fact that Hamlet has an extraordinary record of slaughter; in the course of the play he willfully causes the death of five people, one on impulse, two in anger, and two by diabolical cleverness; this spineless wretch is the first to jump aboard in an attack on a pirate ship. It is, of course, true that the whole action of the play derives from Hamlet’s hesitation in killing Claudius, but I think the hesitation to be that of a strong man, not a weak one. Before we proceed to trace Hamlet’s character as he is revealed in the play, we must consider his age. Shakespeare’s use of time is poetic and dramatic rather than chronometric. To quote what I have said elsewhere:
How old is Hamlet? There is only one clear indication, and that is in the graveyard scene, after his return from England, when we learn by implication that he is thirty years old. But he is a student in the university at the beginning of the play, and in Elizabethan days students usually left the university at the age at which they now enter; we are to think of him as a very young man. The action of the play occupies but a few months and yet in that time Hamlet has aged ten years. This, I think, is precisely what Shakespeare intends; the...
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