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The 'Mona Lisa' of literature


It is 400 years since 'Hamlet' was written and performed in England. The play has been, and continues to be, a favourite with actors and audiences all over the world. It remains the most widely published play. S. JAGADISAN and M.S. NAGARAJAN look at the reception the work has received down the ages.

Nothing can please many and please long but just representations of human nature.

- Samuel Johnson

T.S. ELIOT declared in 1919, with a nonchalance uncharacteristic of a sober scholar-critic, that "Hamlet" "is most certainly an artistic failure... Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear". Failure or no, this play, the longest of Shakespheare's, has now attained the status of a classic worthy of inclusion in the Western canon for, what Harold Bloom calls, its "achieved anxiety". The year 2001 marks the quarter-centenary of the composition and performance of the play. Acted, seen, just read or studied with diligence and interpreted with gusto in myriads of ways, the play - performed more than any other ever written - has had an uninterrupted vogue in its 400-year history. As time rolls by, newer and newer insights into the play are gained, enriching it all the time. Each generation sees new things in the play. "It turns a new face to each century, even to each decade". And, with newer modes of epistemological inquiry developing, the multivalence of the play is bound to appear more and more to future generations. One can hardly reach the core of its mystery. Such is the enduring aesthetic value of the "Hamlet". The play is "of the age" as well as "of all time".

Saxo Grammaticus, a Danish historian of the 13th Century wrote Gesta Danorum, a history of the Danes, in Latin. This contains the legend of Hamlet. It appeared in a French prose translation in Belleforest's Histories Tragiques. The Stationer's Register has the following entry under the date July 26, 1602: "A Booke called the Revenge of Hamlett Prince of Denmarke as yt was latelie acted by Lord Chamberleyne his servants". Francis Meres (1565-1647) in his Palladis Tamia, Wits' Treasury (1598), a collection of quotations and maxims from various writers, includes references to Shakespeare's plays. He gives a list of contemporary authors. He mentions 12 of Shakespeare's plays along with "Venus and Adonais", "Rape of Lucrece", and his sugared sonnets among his private friends. He makes no reference to "Hamlet". These two external evidences suggest that "Hamlet" should have been written after 1598 and during 1601-02. The story belongs to the Anglo-Danish cycle of legends. There are hints of the legend Amleth and Amlothe in Scandinavian and Icelandic literature. The Hamlet story - a primitive story of revenge - was popular and held the stage even before Shakespeare's "Hamlet". A German version entitled "Fratricide Punished" or "Hamlet of Denmark" is said to have been extant. Thomas Kyd's "The Spanish Tragedy" (1587-88) was another forerunner to Shakespeare's "Hamlet". Shakespeare might have been influenced by a play entitled "Ur-Hamlet", "Source Hamlet" attributed to Thomas Kyd. Shakespeare's play was acted "by his Highness servants in the citie of London, also in the two universities of Cambridge and Oxford". The revenge motive, abnormal state of mind, the supernatural element were the stock-in-trade of Elizabethan tragedy. As John Dover Wilson remarks in his introduction to the "New Shakespeare" edition, "the longest of all Shakespeare's plays and the turning point of his spiritual and artistic development, 'Hamlet' is also the crossroads of Shakespearean criticism at which all the highways and every conceivable lane and fieldpath seem to converge". The first collection - called the first Folio - of Shakespeare's plays was published in 1623 by Thomas Heminge and Henry Condell. They relied on good quartos, wherever available.

Said to have been staged for the first time in 1601, the year the dramatist's father passed away, this most puzzling play has a 400-year-old stage history. Right from day one, the play was staged continuously till 1642 when the theatres had to be closed down temporarily. The much-coveted role of Hamlet - an envied pinnacle for any acting career - has been performed in various ways over the centuries. Richard Burbage's role as Hamlet marks the beginning of Shakespeare acting. David Garrick omitted the famous grave diggers scene but was compelled to restore it by an angry and demanding audience. Some of the most famous theatre groups and companies like the Covent Garden Theatre, Haymarket Theatre, Drury Lane Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company have staged it in different parts of the world. Among the most well-known actors, Thomas Betterton, who played the role for 46 years, Robert Wilks who acted it for 25 years till his death, Henry Giffard Edmund Kean, Charles Kemble, Richard Burton, Alec Guinness have played, at various times, the role of Hamlet and each of them has presented the character in his own way, bringing out some aspect or other of his most enigmatic personality. The earliest film version came out in 1913. Sir Laurence Olivier's (1948) interpretation made an indelible impact on his fans and remains a major landmark. Derek Jacobi's (BBC, 1980), Mel Gibson's (1990) produced by Warner Brothers and directed by Franco Zefferelli and Kenneth Brannagh's (1996) most recent four- hour long movie are some cinematic versions of the play. And since World War II, there have been no less than 20 films in one language or another. These versions do have their merits, each version having its own uniqueness. They exhibit the vitality of the play, exploit the subtleties of the text in the fullest measure possible. The stage experience, however, pulsates with life and involves the audience in an engaging participation.

There exists a non-profit educational society conceived and operating in cyberspace, devoted to archiving, researching, discussions and commentary on "Hamlet" alone. This is an online home for admirers and enthusiasts of what most scholars regard as Shakespeare's greatest play. For sure, "Hamlet" is the undiscovered country that puzzles our will. No wonder there are countless critical works and discussions on this play. "Thousands and thousands of books have been written on Shakespeare's plays and most of them are mad" (L.P. Smith). Professor Mcphail of Madras Christian College used to say that the maddest of them all are on "Hamlet". Aspects such as Hamlet's delay, madness, attitude to his mother Gertrude and Ophelia have generated interminable debates.

Starting with Nicholas Rowe's edition of Shakespeare, all subsequent editors have used their scholarship and knowledge to present, what they considered, the definitive edition of "Hamlet". Alexander Pope in 1725 modernised the play, Theobald (1733) emended many corrupt passages. There were many more editors of whom Samuel Johnson is justly famous for his Preface and elaborate and perceptive comments. H.N. Hudson's and Bowdler's expurgated editions of the 19th Century are noted for an easy rendition of the play, making it suitable for family reading and for prescription for school students. The editions by Craig, Kittredge and the variorum edition of H.H. Furness are well-known. In the 20th Century, eminent Shakespeare scholars like McKerrow, Greg, Chambers Dover Wilson have devoted their time and prodigious intellectual energy to the edition of "Hamlet". They have relied on the bibliographical method, Shakespeare's handwriting, the mechanism of typesetting and printing in the Elizabethan age to make their editions of Shakespeare's plays authentic.

There has been an unbroken line of "Hamlet" criticism down the ages. The many-sided and complex personality of Hamlet has agitated great minds. It used to be remarked on a lighter vein that if all "Hamlet" criticism were to be piled up one upon the other, it would touch the nearest planet. The play being what it is, its evaluation and criticism began even during Shakespeare's lifetime and has continued unabated with an ever-increasing pace, unmatched by any other work in the world. The relentless energy with which "Hamlet" criticism is carried on has resulted in a substantial body of critical writing on Hamlet, the prince and/or the play. Almost every great writer has some valuable remark or other about the play or the prince of Denmark. "Hamlet is not a character marked by strength of will or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment" (Hazlitt). "Hamlet is, throughout the play, rather an instrument than an agent... The poet is accused of having shown little regard to poetic justice and may be charged with equal neglect of poetic probability" (Johnson). Character criticism that dominated the latter half of the 18th Century found Hamlet a puzzling subject. "I have a smack of Hamlet myself... There is something inviolate in his character which is proof against analysis and labelling... It is we who are Hamlet" (Coleridge). "A beautiful, pure, noble, and most moral nature... Here is an oak tree planted in a costly vase, which should have received into its bosom only lovely flowers; the roots spread out, the vase is shivered to pieces" (Goethe). "It is often cast in the teeth of the great critics that each in painting Hamlet has drawn a portrait of himself. How if they were right? I would go a long way to meet Beatrice or Falstaff.... I would not cross the road to meet Hamlet. It would never be necessary. He is always where I'm" (C.S. Lewis). There are as many interpretations of "Hamlet" as there are schools of criticism - psychological, philosophical, Marxist, archetypal, imagist and New Historicist. This only proves that "Hamlet" lends itself to a variety of critical approaches.

"Hamlet" is a play in perpetual translation. Translated into almost every known language of the world, this play is the most widely published work in the world, ranking next only to the Bible. In the words of Emerson, "Great men are more distinguished by range and extent than by originality". Shakespeare's genius lies in his creative transformation of the already available material into an immortal classic. "'Hamlet' without the Prince of Denmark" has become a proverbial statement. Irrespective of scholarly interpretations, reading "Hamlet" is a rewarding experience in itself in terms of its poetry and emotional range and depth. The lines spoken by Hamlet and Horatio towards the end of the play are most touching.

Hamlet: If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,

Absent thee from felicity a while,

And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,

To tell my story... The rest is silence.

Horatio: Now cracks a noble heart. Goodnight, sweet prince.

And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

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