Published in JOURNAL OF LITERARY CRITICISM Allahabad, India, in 2005 and 2006.
Experiencing HAMLET: A Deweyan Approach
John Dewey (1859-1952) is the only major philosopher of democracy with the intellectual range to have written interestingly on education, psychology, logic, science, ethics, language, religion, politics, culture, nature, metaphysics, the nature of experience, aesthetics, and on philosophy itself as a “criticism of criticisms.” Over the course of his 70 years of published writings, Dewey showed his deep concern with the mostly defective American form of democracy by trying to impel it toward a democratic way of life. He was an international thinker who made educating journeys to Turkey, Russia, Scotland, Mexico, South Africa, Japan and, for nearly two years, to China. In 1934, he published his one great work on aesthetics, Art as Experience, in which he separated himself temporarily from his tendency toward scientism (though without giving up his faith in the ethical value of science): “art,” says Dewey, “the mode of activity that is charged with meanings capable of immediately enjoyed possession, is the culmination of nature, and… science is properly a handmaiden that conducts natural events to this happy issue.” I will call upon Dewey here to assist me in developing a renewed discussion of what experiencing “Hamlet” might mean. In carrying out this project, I will engage in the grungy work of direct explication, an unavoidable task of literary criticism that has come to be looked down upon as not having sufficient theoretical glitter.
In Experience and Nature (1929), Dewey describes how "genuine dramatic quality," comes into existence. As we move through a play, there must be a "suffusive presence" in our minds of what has been said and done up to any given point. But we should not confuse this presence with "recall," because it is "more intimate, direct and pervasive" than that. There has to be a story, some "integrated series of episodes" in a drama, and these episodes will mean something different from what they might mean in any other context. The episodes are perceived "in terms of the story, as its forwardings and fulfillings." But at the same time, the meanings of events in a drama cannot be charted: the effective drama will "constantly evoke a meaning which was not absolutely anticipated or totally predicted." Were "complete and assured prediction" possible, the play would go dead, dramatically, and then it would disappear from consciousness. In the play, as in consciousness itself, we have "a continuum of meaning in the process of formation." Where that does not occur, and we just have repetition of a known story, our attention moves elsewhere.
Dewey marks drama as a normal function of human life: "Every case of consciousness is dramatic; drama is an enhancement of the conditions of consciousness." Words may be used in such a way as to be evocative of a situation in "some particularly illuminating way."
It seems to me that anyone who installs himself in the midst of the unfolding of drama has the experience of consciousness in just this sort of way; in a way which enables him to give significance to descriptive and analytic terms otherwise meaningless.
Dewey's words here are part of his discussion of consciousness. In it, he comments for a moment on one of the most interesting imaginations of consciousness ever written: the character of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In an elaboration of his statement that there is an often observed empirical but not experiential opposition between "theory" and "practice," Dewey roughly sketches "the difference between the contemplative reflective type and the executive type..." In our habitual thinking, it may seem that the contemplative is to be equated with "theory," and the active with "practice."
It is, however, a contrast between two modes of practice. One is the pushing, slam-bang, act-first and think afterward mode, to which events may yield as they give way to any strong force. The other mode is wary, observant, sensitive to slight hints and intimations; perhaps intriguing, timid in public and ruthless in concealed action; perhaps over-cautious and inhibited, unduly subject to scruples, hesitancies, an ineffective Hamlet in performance; or perhaps achieving a balance between immediately urgent demands and remoter consequences, consistent and cumulative in action.
Here Dewey connects the sensitive person with the one who is "ruthless in concealed action." This connotes not Goethe's sweet and gentle prince, but in rare combination, the sensitive mind and the ethically unscrupulous. He is developing his view of consciousness through a consideration of the generic traits drama shares with it, but he is doing this with a balance unusual for Dewey. The emphasis in his remarks on drama is on consciousness within the ongoing stream of experience. This is recognizably William Jamesian, and not very Deweyan, if we mean by the latter having a concern with the public role of drama--a role that is often noted in discussions of the theater and which would have fit snugly into Dewey's own belief in the social meaning of art. Here, he does not move toward that fit. Could it be that "Hamlet" is one of the reasons, or rather, the character Hamlet, he of the notorious soliloquies?
More startling still is the possibility Dewey offers within the same long sentence that the sensitive, ruthless-in-private type of practice which most moralists would condemn--may achieve a balance between the two modes of action. Can we see in Hamlet, in the latter parts of the play, someone who "achieves a balance between immediately urgent demands and remoter consequences, consistent and cumulative in action"? Various claims of this kind have been made about Hamlet. One of the more recent is by Harold Bloom, in Shakespeare and the Invention of the Human. For Bloom, Hamlet by the end of the play has cured himself of whatever pathology he might have been suffering. Dewey here is articulating an attractive concept of psychological health. But is it credible to find that Hamlet, even the somewhat wiser Hamlet of the last two Acts, behaves in a "consistent and cumulative" manner? My inquiry will attempt to re-consider this question, but only in the context of re-experiencing the whole play.
Experiencing Hamlet untouched by what people have thought about it would be almost impossible, given the centuries of interpretation that have attached to the play. Yet for someone like myself, living in the university level of the academic world, however, this can also be an advantage: the swirls of interpretation virtually force the reader or teacher back into the web of the play to find its strongest emotional centers. Following Dewey's major insight on emotion in a work of art, I accept that the whole of the play takes its coloration or "quality" from these primary emotional sources. Were there no emotional core, we would have no clue as to how to take the drama, indeed we would have no drama. The play would feel like an even table of scenes, each with equal importance. These could eventually flatten response out, even if virtually every scene were played at maximum dramatic intensity. Such maximizing seems to have been the strategy, actually, of the complete version on film directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh. Impressive as I found it, as an experience of the play, it seemed misleading. Branagh's apparent effort to externalize the character of Hamlet, and to stress public interaction rather than lyricism, social reality rather than the poetry of the soliloquy, and to portray Hamlet's character in a bravado mode rather than as someone caught up by inner conflict, has only served to show me that the great emotional scenes will continue to demand our primary attention. As the reviewer in New York Magazine inadvertently revealed, to play Hamlet as Branagh does is to offer us a person who simply enjoys acting like a madman and confounding others. It could be called playing at Hamlet just for fun.
Based on my experiences of reading the play, seeing it on various occasions, considering its major critical problems and teaching it, I have come to the conclusion that there are two huge and unavoidable emotional centerpieces. These are Hamlet's shocking verbal assault on Ophelia, the so-called Nunnery scene, and his even more extreme emotional scene with his mother, the "Closet scene," both in Act III. These are quite horrible in feeling-quality. "Horrible" is a word I use here with recognition that in Deweyan criticism, such emotional marker-terms are only shorthand for a unique quality that cannot be described through a common label. Yet the common notion of something horrible as that which is so loaded with fear and disgust that it makes your hair stand on end--a definition that has some basis in the Latin root-word, Horridus, meaning "bristling, rough"--is a fair approximation at this point.
There is feeling and emotion in every scene of Hamlet, but nothing of quite this caliber in the other scenes of the play. Surely these are scenes of maximum dramatic conflict: were the play any more conflict-laden at these points, I imagine it would become literally unbearable and lose its aesthetic focus.
The value for experience of starting with these scenes as an opening of interpretation is that it sets discussion on a path of emotional contact with the play. Other scenes will fall into place, as much as that is possible in Hamlet, and some will stick out partially unassimilated. Such formal irregularity is a good thing to realize, since I am thereby challenged to understand how they are related to the play's central thrust, without trying to be clever about working them all into a smoothly unified whole.
This choice of these two scenes is not an absolute necessity, obviously. I can imagine good interpretations starting from the Ghost's "horrible" tale, for example. From a Deweyan point of view, one can say that the quality of horror first introduced with the Ghost is reformulated, or dramatically transformed as the play goes in, in a most unpredictable way. As an approach to experiencing this or nearly any literary work, I suggest that you can start virtually anywhere in the text, at any place that draws your interest, and just keep going: you will eventually activate all the other main nodes of energy. There is only a general guideline from Dewey on this, namely that since experience itself is not primarily a matter of cognitive thought, it is therefore probably a poor bet to put a great deal of emphasis on problems in the play that are basically cognitive issues. Two of these problems are, first, the question of whether Hamlet really delays, and second, the question of whether Hamlet is experiencing madness or merely acting it.
But what about the section of the play that contains Hamlet's meeting with the traveling players, the recitation of lines from popular stage drama that shortly follows, or even "The Murder of Gonzago," the drama that these players soon perform at the court? That too is a poor place to start. That section is full of interest, fascinating in its way, but its emotional force tends to be submerged in issues that inevitably have an abstract quality. These scenes are overhung with the problems of literary self-reflexiveness: what does it mean for Hamlet--or rather for the actor playing Hamlet--to launch into a discussion of the art of drama with actors who are playing at being professional actors? And what is implied for aesthetic experience by having one play encapsulated within another one?
There is nothing wrong with such questions--the play cannot be fully experienced without some attention to them--except that if you start with them, you are led out of the play into a domain of semi-philosophical discourse where the play itself is not necessary. Indeed the specifics of the play will become obstacles to the theorization of these issues of self-reflexivity in drama. The temptations of such abstracting moves must be avoided. Or rather, they must be avoided at the start of trying to experience the play. We have seen too many highly intelligent critics and teachers lose touch with the play as they climb the ladder of abstraction. Instead of the experience of the play they are likely to arrive at a key to it. But any such key to Hamlet must be thrown away; believing one has found the key to all the themes in the play is simply too close to trying to locate an essence, rather than traversing the confusing pathways of experience.
If the players and their play and Hamlet's relation to them are taken up in the context of the more crude or shattering scenes, there is a much better chance of thinking in a mode that Dewey calls "qualitative thought.'' As Dewey says in his passage on the nature of dramatic quality, these episodes will mean something different in this play than they would if taken outside of its context. For one thing, the emotional dissonance between Hamlet taking pleasure in the details of dramatic performance, crafting his own version of a play, and Hamlet as the man who next appears in the "To be or not to be" soliloquy, is staggering. Whatever the conversations of Hamlet and the players may come to mean, we will have to inquire and find out; we will not be seeking an experiential shortcut through an imaginary admission to Shakespeare's creative mind.
The conflict scenes with Ophelia and with Gertrude are vastly different in quality from the pleasurable speeches on acting and performance. These scenes are "crude;" they are crude personal confrontations, in a sense of "crude" which does not mean they are in any way simple. Their focus is not on the cognitive knowledge we can get out of them.
What can be known of Hamlet's character prior to the awful scene with Ophelia? Answering this on the qualitative side, surely the great first soliloquy, beginning "Oh that this too, too solid flesh..." takes a central position. With it, character exposition takes a new turn, one that is unmatched in any of the other great tragedies of Shakespeare. We get "inside" Hamlet's mind, in an extremely intimate way. In fact even his prior long speech, to his mother, where he expounds on "seems," is proto-soliloquy in quality, inasmuch as it contains lines unlikely to make sense to her, while it intentionally refers to his inner feelings. These he insists are verbally inexpressible. With that speech, one demand upon anyone experiencing this play begins to be clear: energy must be summoned to feel a connection with Hamlet's inner feelings. For that connection to take place, his feelings must be imagined in our own minds, amply spurred and hazardously guided by what the text provides. This I would consider an obvious feature of experiencing this play; yet simple as such an engagement may seem, there is very little in any of the current modes of theorizing literature that would authorize or encourage it, and much in our varieties of hermeneutic suspicion to discourage it.
Here the experiential versus the analytical responses tend to separate--temporarily. The dramatic function of the "too, too solid flesh" soliloquy is to connect Hamlet's emotional life with our own. But for the analytical reader or viewer, the speech can be taken as merely fuel for a diagnosis. Diagnosis is what Janet Adelman's psychoanalytical reading of the soliloquy, in her powerfully argued Suffocating Mothers: Fantasies of Maternal Origin in Shakespeare's Plays (1992) is all about:
Hamlet's soliloquy is in effect his attempt to locate a point of origin for the staleness of the world and his own ull toward death, and he discovers this point of origin n his mother's body. He tells us that the world has been transformed into an unweeded garden, possessed by thingsrank and gross, because his mother has remarried.
However perceptive this commentary may be, from my Deweyan perspective it is a case of theory or cognitive inquiry running roughshod over experience. The reference in the speech to Hamlet's mother's remarriage is made to work, "in effect," as a cancellation of the indeterminateness and openness of the beginning of the speech. For Adelman, Hamlet's "infantile fears and desires" are emerging from the first line of the soliloquy. Experientially, to give the whole speech this single emphasis, is delimiting and damaging. Hamlet begins the speech by referring to "this world," and not to his mother's marriage, because it is a sense of the whole world he is feeling. What threatens here is that reference to that world--the human world--is likely to be felt as a reference to "the" world in which even we live. Can such a reference really work? For the receptive reader or viewer, I venture to say that there is something sharable in Hamlet's complaint about "this world": who has not felt at some time that the "uses" of the world are "weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable"? There could be few in either our own era or in Shakespeare's who are personally unfamiliar with such a feeling. And many surely have felt it to the extent of wishing to be out of it--or of knowing people who did wish that or who even have acted on the wish toward suicide. If we can make those common connections, we will begin to have a sympathetic grasp of the way Hamlet feels: all the customs of this world seem "stale, flat and unprofitable" because that is the way the world would feel, given his personality and situation. The theory that tells us such a feeling is infantile in its psychological roots is irrelevant as a way to center a response to the situation.
Later in the play, the delimitation of "world" to mean "infantile fantasy of motherhood" would come back to disable the reader who will have to face Hamlet's "To be or not to be" with its burden of life's troubles. Will such a reader be stuck with the task of making "The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/ that flesh is heir to" reducible to infantile fantasies? Or are these shocks at least also actual problems that occur, as Dewey would insist, in social living, regardless of one's fantasies?
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely
The pangs of despised love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes...?
This too is evoking something of the world--our own world of social disorder and unfairness in the way people get treated--as well as the rank garden of Hamlet's imaginary sexual grossness. Adelman says nothing of this striking soliloquy, in her long essay that deals almost entirely with Hamlet's mind and character. There is nothing in the speech that refers to Hamlet's having been confronted by the Ghost and told a certain story and assigned a specific revenge task: the speech is an act of generalization, taking the personal threat and dealing instead with the impersonal or common problem. Without "To be or not to be," we are trying to experience Hamlet without a great part of the Prince and his world.
Dealt with in accordance with the major quality of the play, the speech masks an indefinable sense of horror concerning what it means "to be" alive. This quality of horror, for which I have nothing in the soliloquy to quote as evidence, is all the more poignant because in it Hamlet gives the impression of really understanding how horrible life can be. Moreover, his horror now has taken on another trait: it is horror sexualized. Read as a separate speech, out of context, it has no such quality. As a set piece, it could have no commerce with the horror of the Ghost nor with Hamlet's horror of his mother's hasty remarriage. Here it is bound to have that quality, and it is still in the process of picking up its full charge of emotional meaning as the play goes on. Indeed, immediately following lies the assault on Ophelia, a scene so different in quality from the soliloquy that we can only believe that Hamlet is expressing two entirely different parts of his mind, and the one that wracks Ophelia feels as if it is incompatible with the one that asks "the question" of being or not being. That discrepancy tells us something of the nature of his disturbance as well as of the quality of experiencing the play.
Cognitively, we never "know" what the soliloquy really "means," but when we have undergone the whole play it means more and differently than it did at the point of utterance. For all that I "know" that this is a super-famous speech, I find that its language still has such individuality that I am led to read it, listen to it, ponder it afresh, on virtually any encounter with Hamlet. Yet if it were not part of the character of Hamlet, it would be merely a text to attempt to make sense of--if, that is, there were any motive to try.
When Hamlet then unexpectedly smashes into Ophelia's attempt to return his tokens of love to him, there is both an emotional increment and a jagged change from what had been going on. For some weeks or even months, she had been repelling his letters and refusing to see him; he would have reason to be upset with her. And now encountering her with his letters in hand, he could ask her why she has been acting this way, and why she is returning them. He does no such thing. Or, we might expect that he could lash out at her. But we have been in no way prepared for his sudden cynical laughter, as well as for his question as to her chastity: "Ha, ha! Are you honest?" After his further toying with her over denial of the fact that he had given her many assurances of his love, we are still less prepared for the huge emotional assault of "Get thee to a nunnery," some 17 lines further on. And as the scene continues, he hammers away at her, destroying her self-worth and undermining her sense of identity. He also reveals a detailed, palpable disgust with women, all women, that had not been evident at this qualitative level in his earlier complaints about his mother's hasty re-marriage after the death of King Hamlet. Hamlet's "Frailty, thy name is woman," a few scenes earlier, has a connection with this scene that is not to be missed, but in format it is too like an apothegm or proverb to indicate that the speaker will go to the lengths he does with Ophelia. Not that the quantum leap in terms of sheer anguish is entirely mysterious: he has learned in the intervening period that his father had been murdered, and that his mother was implicated in that horrible event. But that would explain neither why Ophelia is the target, nor why Hamlet's assault on her is combined with exceedingly harsh blaming and demeaning comments about himself.
This scene as most scenes is open to many interpretations. Its experiential quality of horror, however, is unavoidable. To be sure, this is not the same horror of the ghost's declaration, earlier, of "O Horrible! O Horrible! most Horrible!." That line could have been Hamlet's own cry, if we follow the Quarto text--but the point is that Horror, whether spoken first by the Ghost or by Hamlet, enters the play as a major controlling emotional quality. It can do so not because it is a fine piece of textual evidence (were it just the term "horrible" it would be no more than a placard naming an emotion), but as the imbued quality of the Ghost's deliverance of his story to Hamlet. We might have been primed in the Ghost's great first scene with Hamlet to take such horror as horror "of" the murder of the father, and the guilt of the mother, but horror thus far in the play is rendered ambiguous by Hamlet’s ability to play with impunity opposite his father’s spirit as “old Truepenny.” We learn in the scene with Ophelia that there is a broader and much less comprehensible horror for us to take in. The force of the scene is such that unless we are taking self-defensive measures, we do take it in. It is not easy to say precisely what has changed, but one thing that has changed with the enactment of this scene is the type of identification we feel with--or the affection we may feel for--Hamlet himself. Up to this scene he can be taken as a virtuous yet troubled person, and an intelligent one, a master of language, a lover of dramatic performance, a courageous and honest man, a person who values friendship--in crude terms, a "good guy" placed within a drama of perplexing victimization. Now, with his assault upon Ophelia's self-worth, he cannot be taken that way, or at least not without a heavy admixture of the bad guy as well. He has suddenly become cruel. None of the many efforts by actors (such as Branagh) to portray Hamlet as simultaneously expressing love for Ophelia even while he rejects her--as brought out in Marvin Rosenberg's huge work of 1992, on the stage history of the play, The Masks of Hamlet--are able to deny this cruelty.
It is at this point that a certain kind of "experience blocker" (my term) may take hold. It would affect certain types of readers: students who are still in an adolescent phase in which they require moral perfection of anyone they admire; some varieties of feminist reader who can identify only with Ophelia's hurt, and not with Hamlet's needs; anyone who habitually lays on a strict moral code to any event that might be encountered. Here is a chance to turn off, to deny any sympathy with Hamlet. That will kill the play--or it will create an entirely different play, with Hamlet as the simplified object of hatred.
A subtler way to block the experience is to try to excuse Hamlet on grounds that sound something like common sense: he has been so betrayed by his mother and so hurt by Ophelia's rejection that he simply must lapse into misogyny. But to fall back on the assumption that all of womanhood is naturally implicated in his disappointments with Gertrude and Ophelia is to beg the question of why that should be so. And it dodges having to feel the weird and upsetting specific tones, words and actions of Hamlet in these scenes.
The Closet scene outdoes anything that could have been expected from Hamlet, even after the Nunnery scene and his acting-up at the staging of "The Murder of Gonzago" in front of the court. Enraged and now able to feel self-righteous and self-confident, Hamlet here combines a terrifying programmatic assault on his mother's character with his spontaneous murder of Polonius, whom he did not mean to target for death, soon to be followed by an unacknowledged act of disobedience toward his father's Ghost, who orders him to stop terrifying his mother.
In discussing this scene I will delineate a reading that is not overshadowed by the millions of critical words that have encumbered Hamlet. That will take some doing, but it can be done. I will not be concerned with trying to say anything new; that preoccupation is exactly what Richard Shusterman in Pragmatist Aesthetics has identified as a prime reason for the many failures of professional critics to pay attention to the experience they could be having. As Dewey retorts in Experience and Nature to those who say we can't just start fresh, with no biases or prior interests (which of course is true), we can make the effort on some occasions toward freeing our perceptions from being totally controlled by habit.
We cannot achieve recovery of primitive naivete. But there is attainable a cultivated naivete of eye, ear, and thought, one that can be acquired only through the severe discipline of thought.
If such an "intellectual disrobing" (Dewey's phrase) were not possible, then there could never be a new experience. Aesthetic experiences are the occasions for such disrobing, else we rob them of their impact and waste them.
A Context for the Closet Scene
By the time the Closet scene occurs, the viewer or reader would have been called on to absorb a great deal. The context that has been built up is dense, complex, charged with meanings that are still in the process of formation--and bearing an aura of mystery. I will recount some (and only some) of what this context contains without trying to smooth over the way the parts are probably not felt (as yet) as integrated. Or rather, we say that they never are fully integrated, and that if they were, it would be a diminishing of the power of the play.
Certain elements would be difficult to overlook. If we are drawn into the play at all, then we would have tried to absorb the contradictory commands of the Ghost, as part of an identification with Hamlet that surely forms in the early scenes, as well as in our situation as spectators of Hamlet. The play quickly calls out for a genuinely complicated response to and with its main character. We would also have begun to absorb the un-funny comedy of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who play their version of the power game with their friend as chief pawn. That element would be still held in suspension, since it is not clear just what sort of effect this pair is going to have in the play.
Much more definite is the triple confirmation in the two scenes just preceding the Closet scene of the fact of Claudius's guilt: once in his aside, "How smart a lash doth that speech doth give my conscience," again through his distressed halting of the play within the play, and again, conclusively, with his confession in soliloquy while at prayer.
Another theme that has been building is that of "sex-negativism." (The term is Wilhelm Reich's). There is the sex-negative wisdom of Polonius, made uncomfortably palpable in his protective supervision of his daughter. But that same sex-negative bias is also there, though less blatantly, in the way he plans to send someone to spy on his son, urging that the son may be portrayed in various compromising activities, of which "drabbing," which means whoring, is the climax toward which his speech, in its bumbling fashion, has been leading all along. Polonius has some difficulty explaining to the spy-servant Reynaldo how that calumny should be broadcast without damaging the son's good name. In explaining, Polonius arrives once more at the sexual example: "a house of sale, videlicet, a brothel." Polonius speaking thus behind his son's back must drastically alter the first impression of him as a well-meaning, protective and sententious father.
Reading or watching the play freshly, we can notice that Laertes' anticipated life in France is not something related to Hamlet, or at least not in any obvious sense; that it is not a "sub-plot." That is important for recognizing that Hamlet, central as he is, is not the whole of the play. Similarly, if Ophelia's later decline into madness can be attributed to what Hamlet has done, her actual statements, songs, cries, and body movements, are hers, as an individual.
We have also been rudely immersed by the time of the Closet scene in Hamlet's more problematic sex negativism, his sexual disgust for his mother. What Polonius and Laertes tell Ophelia can be understood as having at least the pretext of protecting her from social harm, and Polonius's interest in his son's private life can be taken rather lightly as the foolish old man's confused dealing with sex. (Still, Polonius's foolishness is portentous in its own way.) But Hamlet's words about his mother suggest an underlying fascination with her sexual life, something that goes beyond what would be commonly acceptable as normal--whether in Shakespeare's time or our own.
This sexual disgust has become outright "sex-nausea" (as J. Dover Wilson aptly named it) in the first of the great emotional core scenes, the Nunnery scene, discussed already.
But throughout the first half of the play, prior to the Closet scene, there is also something in the play's atmosphere that does not seem to fit with these elements of character relations: namely, the nebulous but threatening background of the political situation in Denmark, as the country faces a possible invasion or loss of territory or war, and Claudius's effective moves to deal with this threat. This is one of the easiest aspects of the play to "lose," experientially; it doesn't seem to fit in with the drama in the foreground. Many performances omit as much of it as is possible. But how wise is that? In experiencing this play, I usually find the political struggles hard to connect with the personal conflicts, but at the same time I have a sense that they are in some significant way connected.
I have reviewed these main elements of the play as a way of recalling the context of the Closet scene. As the scene begins, the immediate prior context is our having just heard Hamlet vowing to control himself so that he won't kill his mother. If we have an ability to imagine this scene without too much knowledge born of familiarity, we will surely feel a concern that indeed he might do that. Matricide is not out of the question. Being able to feel that threat will help us to imagine what Gertrude is feeling as the scene begins to develop. The idea of matricide then becomes transformed as the scene develops: what we do see and hear in this scene probably feels as disturbing, in some respects, as matricide itself.
The initial quality, in the first few lines, is that of a conspiracy between Gertrude and Polonius to investigate Hamlet's strange behavior. But this is shattered by Hamlet's opening words in the scene (in the 1623 Folio version), "Mother, mother, mother!" That is not a call or an announcement of entry that any viewer would have expected; it is, portentous, and we don't know of what. It can be acted in tones of baby-talk, helplessness, mockery, aggression, deliberate histrionics--depending on the choices the actor or director or reader will make, but it is bound to sound unexpected.
Next develops Hamlet's verbal assault on his mother, which is astonishingly not seriously interrupted by the son suddenly killing a man--the murder of Polonius. The qualities of Hamlet's speeches, up to the surprise entrance of his father's Ghost, are a complex fusion of rage, insult, articulate volubility--and yet symmetry in the comparison of the two portraits of "your husband", which implies prior rehearsal on his part. His crude accusations of murder and of hateful, disgusting sexual behavior are juxtaposed as if there is no discrepancy with an elaborate metaphor of the sun and earth:
Heaven's face doth glow,
And this solidity and compound mass,
With heated visage, as against the doom,
Is thought-sick at the act.
Hamlet's direct assault on his Mother's self goes on for some 44 lines, and even with (or because of) the interruption of his murder of Polonius, his effect upon her is devastating. Her "soul," her inner self, is revealed.
O Hamlet, speak no more.
Thou turns't mine eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will leave their tinct.
Her anguish contains confirmation: Hamlet who seems in the opening Act to have been abnormally disturbed by his mother's hasty remarriage, is now validated by the woman who should know.
Gertrude recognizes that she has done something extremely wrong. For readers or viewers who want to "defend" her, the experience becomes more difficult to sustain. Although Ernest Jones in his study of Oedipus and Hamlet noted dryly that early remarriages take place with a fair amount of frequency and without causing such gigantic distress, this is a particular situation in which the problem is huge. For Hamlet and his mother, the remarriage was obscenely early. There seems to have been a kind of unconscious communication between them. Listening to the whole text of the play up to this point, I intuit that even at the play's beginning, she had communicated to her son that her marriage to Claudius contains an element of contempt for her just-deceased husband, and/or that he had communicated this to her, with neither of them stating it. He had received this message all too clearly, and has gone on to amplify it in his own mind, blending it with whatever sorely unmet needs he has been nursing. But the fact that Gertrude is brought to recognize her guilt does not clear away the difficulty of the Closet scene: Hamlet is not "right" to express his need by attacking his mother.
The intensity of the conflict between mother and son in this scene now builds to almost unbearable levels; this time, unlike the assault on Ophelia, it is not mixed with self-accusations of Hamlet's worthlessness. "Virtue" has taken hold of Hamlet. Shakespeare breaks the conflict off, temporarily, as he re-introduces the Ghost of King Hamlet. Here, with the Ghost's commands, we, the audience are primed to expect that now Hamlet will revert to his assigned mission of taking revenge upon Claudius, and that he will leave off tormenting his mother. Neither thing occurs, and thus the scene adds still more force to the verbal assault, which continues almost immediately after Hamlet--prompted by the Ghost to help rather than hurt his mother--asks her: "How is it with you, lady?"
A new quality that the Ghost does seem to bring into the scene is Hamlet's tender love for his father; Hamlet is on the verge of tears in the face of the "piteous action," the Ghost's looking at him. Hamlet refers to the Ghost as "My father, in his habit as he lived!": the words suggest a clearly personal relation rather than a confusion of King, father and man, with which Hamlet has characterized him earlier in the play as well as in this scene. This more personal note has an important effect on the rest of the scene. After the Ghost departs, the assault on Gertrude continues, but there is no longer an emphasis on what a great King this father had been in comparison to Claudius. In fact, King Hamlet's Kingliness is no longer a topic, and Hamlet's vicious formal comparisons of Claudius (bad) and his father (good) are broken off, not to be taken up again.
More precisely, Hamlet's cursing out of his step-father is broken by his Mother's plea, "No more," at which point the Ghost enters. Since she cannot even see the Ghost, it may seem at first that this dramatic appearance is solely for Hamlet's benefit, but the sequence suggests that King Hamlet arrives in response to Gertrude's call for help. The help is to permit or create a change in quality: once the Ghost has come and gone, it is as if Hamlet now can attempt to deal with his parents as members of a family, without having to consider their embeddedness in the violent politics of the throne. When his mother says she hears and sees "nothing but ourselves," she is inadvertently marking the entrance of this new quality. When she promises not to tell Claudius of Hamlet's pretended madness, she speaks in primal, body terms of life and death, not of Queenliness:
Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,
And breath of life, I have no life to breathe
What thou hast said to me.
This is utterly personal, not regal; it conveys a quality of sincerity by limiting itself to single-syllable words (except for "assured"); and it resonates with the kind of mother's love that would find its own life less valuable than that of its child. As a Deweyan reader, I will not be too snobbish to allow myself to have this common feeling of a return to, or a restoration of, the great bond between mother and child. The public sphere is forgotten: reminded about Hamlet's up-coming deportation, Gertrude next says: "Alack,/I had forgot. It is so concluded on."
Hamlet's explosive use of terms expressing sexual disgust in his accusation occurs only after the formal comparison he forces upon her of the two "husbands." This is extremely powerful stuff; it shapes the experience in much the way Dewey maintains an emotional core operates to create aesthetic form. We know that this attack is predominantly "about" sex: sexual distress and disgust and betrayal and her female sexuality. If we credit Hamlet with having any mind at all, we know that he realizes somewhere that his desperate contrast of the two has already been made into nonsense by his mother, who has found both men eminently worth having sex with. Or, worse yet, she has found that Claudius is the more perfect lover, since, if the Ghost's account is to be credited, she betrayed her husband for him. Hamlet is acting out of a sense of horror. He must remember that the Ghost said Claudius "won to his shameful lust/the will of my seeming-virtuous queen."
We also know that there is a good basis in the reality of the play's plotline for a contrast between the two husbands, since it is now very clear that one of them is the murderer of the other. As audience, we know more about this than even Hamlet, but his intuition/information on the matter is accurate. Claudius committed the murder not only to gain the throne but to gain Gertrude. That circumstance would have to have unconscious as well as conscious repercussions in Hamlet's mind. It is a sexual-political truth of the play's action, one in which sexuality and politics are horribly fused.
Experientially considered, Hamlet's earlier lines in this scene are given the quality (even if retroactively) of horrifying sexuality, and so are the remaining passages in the scene, down to the point near its conclusion, where there is a definite change in tone and topic. The quality is not uniform: it varies enough so that it is not only Gertrude's sexuality that is implicated, but Claudius' male sexual lovemaking as well. Having reduced his mother to a state where she can only ask "What shall I do?" Hamlet answers:
Not this, by no means, that I bid you do:
Let the bloat king tempt your again to bed,
Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling on your neck with his damned fingers,
make you ravel all this matter out...
The crude language of this answer, replete with sexual-love detail, goes far beyond a simple demand for a guilty mother's abstinence.
In view of this crude sexual emphasis, it may seem difficult to include within the experience of this scene the fine flung metaphor of earth and sun that I have quoted above. Yet we encounter the scene only if we retain its major elements, however initially incongruous they may seem. Hamlet's simultaneous combination of being nearly out of control and yet having an ability to fashion his language with precision and artistry, gives his character its special quality here. Hamlet's reason is thoroughly involved with and in his rage. In Dewey's terms, in his early article on "The Theory of Emotion" (1895), Hamlet expresses rage, but he never simply rages, either in this scene or in the Ophelia massacre; his anger does not gain "complete possession" of him. His rage is aesthetically shaped, even though it teeters on the edge of control. For Hamlet, such shaping in this scene is accomplished through the sexualization of his language.
In this light, how then might an experiencing reader take these lines of Hamlet?:
Forgive me this my virtue.
For in the fatness of these pursy times
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg,
Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good.
Given the power of the sexual emphasis of the speech leading up to this elaborate figure (as well what lies beyond it), a certain indefinable but still sexual quality permeates these lines. Reading them in the Deweyan manner I am suggesting, the lines need not be seen as a disjointed intrusion of "public" reference into what had been a private accusation, but neither must they become simply grist for psychoanalytic hermeneutics. I notice that the "vice" in this segment is conceivably the "him" of the last line, thus qualifying Adelman's insistence that the play's language locates evil only within female sexuality. But the sexual quality is not an invitation to reduce this grieved complaint about "these pursy times" to a purely sexual reference. The public focus in this speech is indeed public; the trope is Renaissance in its assumption of social meaning in allegorized moral terms, and yet is framed in such direct and simple terms that its import can hardly fail to be felt, in audiences that are now 4 centuries away from Elizabethan England. The social reference itself will be felt as sexualized, without necessarily having any definable sexual meaning. As social, and as sexual, it seems to reach the limit of Gertrude's ability to take what Hamlet is dishing out. It is in the next line after this trope (and not during the just prior crude wording concerning her personal "trespass," "the ulcerous place" , the "rank corruption," and the "compost on the weeds," that Gertrude begs: "O, Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain."
As the scene continues, new qualities emerge; the reach of the audience or viewer in "summoning energy" to meet the scene, which Dewey calls for--but only because the experience itself cries out for this--must be extended. Quite new is Gertrude's love for her son, as shown in her concern for his sanity: "O gentle son," she addresses him, after having been verbally beaten by him. And there is Hamlet's holding out hope of an affectionate, reciprocal, even sacred relation with his mother, providing she practice sexual "abstinence" in her marriage to Claudius:
Once more, good night,
And when you are desirous to be blest,
I'll blessing beg of you.
Here even Janet Adelman, who otherwise insists that Hamlet can only deal with his mother as a fantasy of dangerous female sexuality, makes a rare but revealing comment on her own experience: "[t]hese lines seem to me extraordinarily moving, in their evocation of desire for the maternal presence that can restore the sense of the world and the self as blessed."
There is the peculiar quality of delayed closure, as Hamlet must say his "good-night" to his mother several times over, introducing new material into the scene all the while. Yet some feeling of closure surely is there to be had. He and his mother are not in the same relation as they were at the beginning of the scene, nor at the height of its violence: there has been change, which is a felt quality. But the terror is still close at hand: even within his series of goodbyes to his mother, he is still sarcastically urging that she "break your own neck down," should she dare to fail to comply with his demand that she not tell Claudius about his supposed sanity. This is the "neck" that Claudius might be "paddling in...with his damned fingers." But there now is some sense of intimate trust between Hamlet and Gertrude. Notably, he confides in her his plans for dealing with Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, and again uses an elaborate metaphor, but this time without aiming the aggression at her:
For `tis the sport to have the enginer
hoist with his own petar, and `t shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines
And blow them at the moon. O, tis most sweet
When in one line two crafts directly meet.
I wonder, in fact, if this sweetness of two crafts meeting is somehow related to, and only made possible at this point by, the gratification of his just having had a meeting with his mother, one that was felt utterly "directly," by him, by her and by the responsive audience. It is a passage that develops additional meaning later, when Hamlet proudly tells how he arranged for the killing of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern.
These last matters in the Closet scene mark the emergence of quite a new tone or quality, one that is not there at first, even during the saying goodbye. This new quality has been long in coming, and is by no means as upsetting as the assault throughout the scene. We in the audience or in the readership must have the feeling that we have been through a lot, before this relative let-up. Up to here we have a horrifying situation, where a man of impressive traits insists on crudely forcing his way into the most intimate topic of his mother's sexuality, crudely threatening her. This is not merely shocking (although it is that), but disturbingly illuminating. The "reason" for Hamlet's action, which is far from obvious to anyone, must at the least mean one thing to us: he needs to do what he is doing. To deny that he is expressing a basic, peremptory, mandatory need is futile. No viewer can seriously say that Hamlet is simply enjoying putting his mother through a lot of trouble, and could have chosen not to do so if he had a mind to be nice. But his human need (or if you like, his masculine need) is also felt as "wrong"; in a helpless and ridiculous reaction, I still feel after a hundred readings that this action should not be happening. And yet I know it must happen. It is tragic. Hamlet, both here and in his assault on Ophelia, is expressing something that is both vital and ethically terrible. He is grappling with something that he simply must deal with; he is in his own way taking action "against a sea of troubles." The phrase may suggest an amorphous all-engulfing threat that neither he nor his mother--nor I, and I believe not Shakespeare either--can fully understand. The dramatic action of the scene brings them both into this struggle--Gertrude as much as Hamlet. But I know they are struggling with something of profound importance in human relationships. It took me a long time--many readings and viewings--to realize, that just for the fact of their engaging in such a struggle, I find them deeply admirable. Their interchange, all the same, is undeniably disturbing for me to participate in. That involvement is what makes the experience horrible, or that is what "horrible" now means in the deepest reach of this play. And it is a horror that seems never to be further clarified in the rest of the play.
The Oedipus: Undeniable But Not the "Solution"
To say that sexuality in a sense of disturbance is the primary pervading content of the emotional quality in the scene, however, is not sufficient. Since at least the time of Ernest Jones's Hamlet and Oedipus (or since 1910, when Jones wrote his first article on this topic), there has been a powerfully stated argument that Hamlet's character must also be understood as involving not only his adult sexuality but his sexual fantasies of childhood or infancy. In our own day, Janet Adelman has provided the major correction of this exclusively Oedipal view of the play, insofar as it badly slights the vital role of the maternal relationship, and of the infant's development prior to the onset of the Oedipal stage, which Freud thought took place at about age 3. This shift allows Adelman to give extended attention to the Closet scene, about which, amazingly, Jones said little. In fact, there has been surprisingly little detailed commentary on this scene (with all its sexual focus) in the critical literature--which is evidence, I would say, of massive avoidance of the experience. Similarly in the stage history: most of the sexual subject-matter of the scene simply was deleted from stage performances, as Rosenberg's Masks of Hamlet makes clear, until it was gradually re-introduced about a century ago. There was much to dodge, in Shakespeare's offer of experiencing Hamlet.
But what about the Oedipus in Hamlet, in our own time, when the Freudian revolution has become old news? When Deleuze and Guattari, in their polemical psycho-philosophy, have declared it unfit for use in thinking about the human condition? Is there any way to drop it? I do not think it is possible to experience this play without giving thought to adult sexuality, and to the child's (the son's, and even the daughter's) sense of sexuality. That implies a concern with both Hamlet's and Ophelia's role as children, since they are the "infants" in this play, although it is unnecessary and probably unwise to think of them strictly in terms of the Freudian "infantile" sphere. They don't have to be babies. Their effective stage of development could be that of adolescents, as that perilous stage is theorized in Peter Blos's psychoanalytic book of 1979, The Adolescent Passage. Blos found that a second individuation process occurs in adolescence, and some people never get through it. It involves the primary fantasy of father as rescuer, which in Hamlet would be especially confounded by the sexualization of the play's major struggles. But the infantile in some important sense can hardly be omitted from any deep experience of the play. To complete these minimal elements for an Oedipal presence in the play, there is the unconscious: profoundly unconscious processes are going on whenever such a panoply of topics is under consideration. To deny Oedipal dynamics in this play would be a pointlessly self-blinding tactic for today's audiences and readers. But it will not be easy to admit it either: we would have to summon energy to take in the whole range of these topics, qualitatively, and relate them, since they are so strong in the play. This is not easy: as Dewey says, "To think effectively in terms of relations of qualities" is the great challenge for intellectual effort.
Dewey in Art as Experience dares us: "If an Oedipus complex is part of a work of art, it can be discovered on its own account." Dewey seem to be gingerly modifying his apparent rejection of psychoanalysis in Human Nature and Conduct, published 12 years earlier. Fine: the Oedipal theme becomes intrinsic and undeniable as soon as we hear Hamlet's complaints, in his first soliloquy, running to 20 powerful poetic lines, of his Mother's hasty and "incestuous" re-marriage; it is ground in even more firmly when Hamlet speaks to Horatio of Gertrude's re-marriage only 20 lines further on, in the same scene:
the funeral bak'd meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven
Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!
My father--methinks I see my father.
This last line, the jolting and unexpected contiguity of the image of his father with Hamlet's too vivid memory of his mother's marriage ceremony, immediately suggests a powerful internal drama of his parental figures. The same subject matter is reiterated and placed in a murderous context, in the new dramatic shock of what the Ghost tells Hamlet: a telling in which the Ghost is barely able to focus on the mission that Hamlet must carry out, the killing of Claudius, without spilling over into rage at Gertrude's sexual betrayal. The theme of feminine evil has innumerable parallels in literature, but the unburdening of such a tale by the father to the son, where the son is ordered not to deal with it and at the same time is inflamed with the incentive to do so--that still is crucial to the unique quality of Hamlet.
Dewey's notion, that when we experience a work of art we follow a pathway of struggle and discovery that is analogous to the one the artist must have followed in creating the work, has relevance here. Part of that pathway, might have been roughly like this: Shakespeare in the process of composition became involved in deepening the dramatic functions of the Ghost, taking this aspect of the play beyond anything in his sources. This essentially transformed his material, so that the father of Hamlet is present in the play in a way that makes him both alive and dead. In the sources, the Hamlet figure has no conflict felt between parents, and in some passages can scold his mother for her sexual misbehavior quite openly. But with the father around, dramatically present and yet vanishing, the situation becomes far more hazardous and unpredictable. It begs for depth-psychological understanding.
If we are called upon to make a judgment as to which parent Hamlet gives most of his attention to, surely we will answer that it is Gertrude and not King Hamlet. That is one of the most upsetting facets of the play; it is the basis for the Freudian view, and for the basic unfairness we perceive as the son attacks his mother for her sexual behavior, rather than concentrating on the crime of murder committed against his father. On the other hand, this preponderance of attention directed upon the mother does not eliminate--it scarcely reduces in fact--the dramatic interest that the play demands to be focused on Hamlet and his father as well. We do not, experientially, subtract one from the other.
But to say this is to blunder into glib generalization: that the viewer or reader simply must simultaneously "undergo" (Dewey's term) the relationship of Hamlet and his mother along with that of Hamlet and his father. The play may call for such dual attention, but I would expect that few if any readers or viewers can consistently perform such a feat. This conundrum leads to one of the major experiential features of this play: we cannot take in Hamlet's conflicts in any smooth, well-integrated manner during the active experience of the play. As we empathize with Hamlet, we are going to feel battered and dragged, back and forth, between the horror of his mother and the horror of his father. His long monologue in Act 3, Scene 1, beginning "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I," for example, shows Hamlet's concern for his "dear father murdered;" Gertrude, who in other speeches of Hamlet is desperately important, receives no mention. And to just realize that we must continually shift the weight of our attention between his two parents (which is probably what many viewers of the play have always been doing) is to learn something major about the play's aesthetic quality. It is the dramatic concomitant of Hamlet having such an interesting mind, and being such a poetic master of language. If he were an ordinary son or a dull one, we couldn't get involved enough with him to perform the experiential shuttle I have just described. By shuttling, or being dragged back and forth, a viewer or reader will learn what it is like to be Hamlet. If the shuttling were not intrinsic to the experience of the play, it would be a much easier work to come to terms with, although not nearly as deep.
Adelman's reading, like most other readings including my own earlier ones, tends to deny the shuttle effect. For her, the problem is centered on Hamlet's irrational, infantile fears of female sexuality. The father may just as well be ignored, and the dramatic report of his murder is not taken in, experientially. Had there been no murder, Adelman's reading, which essentializes itself in the first soliloquy of Hamlet prior to the Ghost's report of how King Hamlet was killed--would be the same as it is now. The shuttling effect is rendered unnecessary, since for her, the play is basically engaged in reiterating and elaborating its essential idea in scene after scene. A fantasy about Gertrude's sexuality, perceived as poisonous, "turns out to be the whole story." This is the kind of "assured prediction" that Dewey realized would destroy any play.
My intention however is certainly not to refute Adelman, but to revisit the play on behalf of a wider experience. Adelman is far from being mistaken in her insistence on the importance of the son/mother relationship.
From a Deweyan perspective, I find that the fusion of factors called the Oedipus complex (Hamlet's sexuality, in relation to that of Gertrude, Ophelia, Claudius, and King Hamlet, with unconscious elements involving infantile or childhood sexuality) is undeniably and centrally part of what the experience of this play is all about. And that is a new point: while some Hamlet readers and critics recognize the importance of Oedipal dynamics in the play, and others do not, I am claiming that it is indispensable.
I have tested this notion during several teaching experiences and discussions. I have challenged students and colleagues to read this play convincingly without this complex of factors, for which I have accepted the name, Oedipus complex. None have been able to do so. One professional reader, who had written a book on theory of tragedy, said that he did not use the term "Oedipus complex" in discussing Hamlet, but that he used words of his own that covered the same area of meaning. He had thus deprived Freud of a conquest--but to what avail? Harold Bloom dismisses out of hand the Oedipus in this play, but fails to argue the case; he refers to his earlier work, The Western Canon (1994), where he fulminates against Freud by claiming he was pathologically jealous of Shakespeare (the paranoia of influence?), and against the Oedipus in Hamlet, by ridiculing Freud's stylistic failings and factual errors in the various scattered footnotes and letters where Freud entered into the matter--but Bloom never tackles the actual full-scale argument given by Ernest Jones. Again--to what avail? The necessity of the Oedipus also can be tested on the pulse of any reader's experience: if you de-emphasize the thematic material we now label Oedipal, and do not deal with it as a deep psychosexual conflict of a disturbed son with his mother--considered as his mother, as his father's wife, and as a woman whose sexuality fascinates him-- will you have any play left for yourself to experience?
The Oedipal relationships in the play could become a straight-jacket, a drastic reduction of the possibilities of experience. That is the illogical assumption of Bloom, who thinks that if you admit the Oedipal, you have reduced the play to a rather silly formula. It is not hard of course to do so: as Laurence Olivier portrayed Hamlet in film (1948), the Oedipus become a literal formula: Hamlet and his mother are overtly erotic together, a strategy that badly misrepresents Freud. Franco Zeffirelli in his film version (1990) had Hamlet kissing Gertrude on the mouth when the Ghost enters. Alternately, the Oedipal relations in this play could lead to a great many different interpretations even if accepted as objectively there.
The best uses for our experience of the Oedipal recognition we are likely to make in this play will not be to show how every corner of Hamlet is further evidence of Oedipal dynamics. These relations do not tell us how to read the play--there is no "Oedipal reading"--but they do cause us to focus on an element of primary importance. In a Deweyan view, the play's Oedipal material is inextricably fused with the dramatic form; it is not a formula from outside that may be "applied" to it. But the Oedipal dynamics give a special sense of tragic necessity to the agonizing knots in the relationships that make up the play. What we each make of those knots in our own experiences will vary enormously. But the Oedipal relations, or whatever name we want to give to the sexual conflicts of the play, cannot be denied or read as anything less than supremely important. This is a "warranted assertion," as Dewey would put it: it is worth asserting, based on a sufficiency of evidence (textual, personal, experiential, and shared within our culture) for the present time. As a warranted assertion, it does not claim to be true for all time: as Dewey and Arthur F. Bentley wrote, in Knowing and the Known, what is "hard" fact for one time is not necessarily so for "all" time, whatever "all" may mean. Or, as Stephen C. Pepper, elaborating his own exceptionally clear vision of Pragmatism, in his World Hypotheses: A Study in Evidence (1942) put it: "there is no final or complete analysis of anything."
From Dewey's point of view, we can say that we are perceiving something objectively without pretending that this same quality would necessarily be "there" in the work for all past and future readers. In Dewey's terms, Hamlet with the Oedipus is not being revealed for what it "really" always has meant, if only people had noticed the fact; the fact itself is part of an "object of knowledge" which critical inquiry into the play has created. This, however, is by no means an admission that the object has been fabricated out of whole cloth: the inquiry could not have been worthy of the name if that were the case. The inquiry must honestly come from and be part of the experience. Nor does the claim for objectivity in one aspect of perception in a play entail that the play can be viewed overall as a work whose meanings are determinate or determinable. Hamlet experiencing, to adopt Freud's phrase, is more like analysis interminable.
Psychoanalytic interpretations can be uniquely perceptive and fatally limiting at the same time. But the limitations may be endemic to criticism in general, which tends to erect "experience-blockers" exactly at the point of its own entries into the work. This however is not due to some occult opposition of blindness and insight, but in a Deweyan view, from failure to attend to the needs of the experience while performing analysis to "get at" it. Near the end of her interpretation of Hamlet, Janet Adelman says:
In creating for Hamlet a plot in which his mother's sexuality is literally the sign of her betrayal and of her husband's death, Shakespeare recapitulates the material of infantile fantasy, playing it out with a compelling plot logic that allows its expression in a perfectly rationalized, hence justified, way. Given Hamlet's world, anyone would feel as Hamlet does -- but Shakespeare has given him this world.
Let us accept this statement as an encapsulation of what is undoubtedly one of the major psychoanalytic readings, probably the preeminent one in the field at the present time. I consider Adelman's reading, in fact, the most compelling Hamlet interpretation of recent decades. Despite this, there are three major experiential depletions implied in Adelman's statement. And any of these is fatal to experiencing the play.
One: if we say that the plot is expressed in "a perfectly rationalized" way, we make the play "behave" rationally, neatly understandable in terms of a psychoanalytic formulation. The play loses its raw feels and its rough edges. The baffling, irrational and uneven quality of its sequence of episodes and lines is denied, forgotten. The loss does not end there: the horror of the play is also enclosed within the psychoanalytic conclusion, which inevitably acts as a buffering explanation. Is this not true of any explanation? Dewey's answer to that, or at least my Deweyan answer, is No, not necessarily, simply because we take the explanation into our consciousness and re-experience the play. If we find we have lost emotional force then we know we are not experiencing. In Adelman's statement, the emotional core of the play is explained--but also explained away: the play is made to exemplify a powerful psychological-feminist message that Adelman wishes to blazon. This is no invitation to go back into the play.
Second: from rational solution we can move to the deflection of the play's experienced "world" to a supposition about the author's strategic mind, which will be duly considered as a mind subject to psychoanalytic axiom. Hamlet's environment is controlled by Shakespeare, according to this account, in order to insinuate a rationale for Hamlet's acts. This critical attitude suggests that viewers/readers of the play quit absorbing what they are undergoing in the text or on the stage before them, and start thinking about Shakespeare as a manufacturer, technician, or manipulator of the plot. From a Deweyan perspective, this shift of focus from the play to the playwright's plot-making easily can be an experience-blocker. It can only avoid being that if it is undertaken as a difficult co-creative activity of the sympathetic imagination, somehow working alongside our imagined vision of Shakespeare in the construction of the work of art. This is a distinction is virtually unknown outside of Dewey. The Shakespeare so envisioned, however, cannot be a pseudo-artist who writes to formula. Which is not to say that Shakespeare is exempt from all such a negative inspection: as I will try to show, there may be places in Hamlet where Shakespeare appears to be trying to make a conventional dramatic process give us experiential values that it simply cannot provide. But this comes much later than the Closet scene, and it is surely due to the playwright feeling that he has to wring some sort of stage-able resolution out of the irresolvable situation he has created.
Third: if "anyone" would have acted as Hamlet did, in this world, then the individuality of Hamlet is lost. Not just "anyone" would have given thought, for example, to "what a piece of work is a man."
Adelman's overall argument may be largely valid; I suspect that it is. If it has any fault as an argument, it is in the way it loses touch with Hamlet's fascination with--not just his horror of--Gertrude's sexuality. Adelman's pre-Oedipal focus thus loses something from the Oedipal one it displaces. But my real complaint is that once again the horror, as well as the felt confusions of this play become submerged. It is as if the play has been written and experienced in order to advance the social acceptance of a feminist-psychoanalytic truth. But that cannot be the point or the main effect of experiencing "Hamlet."
The celebrated passage in which Hamlet addresses Claudius as "dear mother" is an occasion for Adelman's use of the play to advance her programmatic commitments. When Claudius protests, Hamlet provides a confounding explanation, "Father and mother is man and wife, man and wife is one flesh; so my mother." Adelman discusses the passage in the context of "the terrifying adulteration of male by female that does away with the boundaries between them." (my emphasis). She goes on to say that Hamlet's comment shows him imagining "all sexuality" as "an adulterating mixture." But in the first place, when reading or viewing this part of Act IV. scene 3, do we feel anything terrifying? Or is the quality of terror something demanded by Adelman's psychoanalytic framework? The reader/viewer may go back to the play and answer these questions for herself. To my ear, Hamlet is playing fast and loose with Claudius's mind here, and not making any assertion about "all sexuality." There is no denying the thematic Oedipal resonance of a substitution of mother for father. But Adelman is reading these lines as if they were from an ideological position paper by Hamlet, rather than a dramatic interchange between him and Claudius.
To use Dewey's term, the Oedipal relation is one of the special "subject-matters" that gives this play, in Shakespeare's hands, its special qualities. At an irreducible minimum, the play I find has two subject-matters: the demands of authority as these are pressed upon the character of Hamlet, and the Oedipal connections. The combination as Shakespeare creates and transforms it is so complicated, unsettled, unsettling and just plain idiosyncratic, that it is immune from paraphrase.
On immediately experiencing the play, its quality of horror is not "of" anything, not even Freud's or Adelman's "material of infantile fantasy." Eventually we may realize that in the Closet scene, the horror is what we experience at Hamlet's treatment of his mother; it is what we experience as the deterioration of his responsible self, the enslavement to a very ugly sexualized passion that his sensitive, highly intelligent mind undergoes and here gives itself to, willingly. Indeed Ophelia's concern, displaced grotesquely from herself as the injured person, onto the psyche of Hamlet, gains more and more force: "O what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!" It is o'erthrown, however in a sense other than that of "madness." Hamlet both vigorously denies that he is mad, and later on claims that he has been--although the later claim, addressed to Laertes, is phrased in strangely schematic, simple terms. Whatever we try to decide here, the way toward a simple diagnostic categorizing of the character is blocked, and the experience gains in richness and mystery. Nor is the displacement of sympathy from those Hamlet hurts to Hamlet's own suffering ever allowed to be the whole point: Hamlet is deteriorating, yet not only in a pathological sense private to himself, as his Mother assumes when she realizes he can see a ghost that is "Nothing at all," but in the damage we can feel to Ophelia, Polonius, and to his Mother--as well as to himself. The double deterioration of having committed the killing of Polonius as a panicky, hate-filled, horrible error--and having terrorized his mother with the expression of rage at her sexual conduct, is bound to be registered by virtually any viewer or reader.
Part Two: EXPERIENCING “HAMLET”: A DEWEWAN APPROACH.
Almost any denouement after the Closet scene would feel relatively peaceful. And up until the final scene, the momentum of the play is far less determined or driven. There are drastic events, of course, such as Hamlet's report of having fixed the executions of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, Ophelia's madness and death, and the screaming conflict of Hamlet and Laertes over the grave of Ophelia. But these events are just some of what goes on. The passing of Fortinbras's army, the conspiratorial suborning of Laertes by Claudius, the thematic interlude of the talk of the two grave-digging "clowns", Osric's ridiculous entrance into the play, Hamlet's sardonic reflections on the power of death, his philosophical mood of finding that "readiness is all"--it is as if the play has adopted a looser or more expansive focus. Its quality has changed: with the important exception of Ophelia's madness and demise, the quality of horror sexualized is seldom palpable. When Hamlet's letter to Horatio (in IV.6) is read, that quality just seems not to be there. Meanwhile, the play's looming problem of its plot, that of how Hamlet is going to act to change the situation, remains in suspense. So too does the problem of Hamlet's inner conflicts: his pathology, his experience of cascading increments of shock brought about by his mother's remarriage, by his father's Ghost, his father's murder, his rejection by Ophelia--and no doubt by his own treatment of Ophelia, Polonius, and Gertrude--all of which must register somewhere within him, but we now seem to be at a remove from these effects.
If we credit the power of the Ophelia/Hamlet and Gertrude/Hamlet scenes, the changes in the play's quality may be felt as experiments in dealing with a changed situation. The problem of the play no longer is revenge, even though that remains on its agenda. But the play's looming problem is no longer what it was before Act III. It is now something more like this: how to go on after opening a profound exploration which has by this point plunged deep into unforeseen discoveries of psyche, relationships, authority, and sexuality.
Particularly noticeable is the readiness of Hamlet to be diverted from his mission of killing Claudius: after violently castigating himself for his failure to carry out the revenge in the middle of Act IV, there is little more mention of "getting" Claudius, but ample energy for telling the tale of Hamlet's escape from the pirates, for his discoursing on death, for commenting on the workings of providence, for shouting his love for Ophelia, and for making Osric feel foolish. Responding strictly to what we see enacted up until the last part of the last scene, we could even wonder if Hamlet has shaken off the revenge mission. We also could be feeling that his mission by now has been emphasized so fervently that reiteration is dramatically redundant: he has it in mind. Yet the subversive thought crosses my mind when reading this part of the play: Hamlet could be quite happy without ever carrying out his revenge. (After writing this sentence, I realized that there is a meaningful omission in the play: at no point does Hamlet actually consider any plan for his revenge against Claudius). Although Bloom is mistaken in wishfully crediting Hamlet with a conscious refusal to carry out revenge, the play is indirectly testing the demand for revenge, simply by experimenting with dropping it out of focus for a while. In one of the few times Hamlet refers to it after his return to Denmark, he surprisingly shifts his attention to the injury he had done to Laertes.
The quality of the action has changed. Hamlet himself is off-stage in the last two Acts for about 500 consecutive lines. Among the new qualities are Gertrude's lyrical, extended, sympathetic and understanding response to Ophelia's death--thus continuing her empathic mothering, first aroused by her confrontation with her son. Ophelia's insane singing and word-mixing are considerably permeated with sexuality, and that does not call out any negative, blaming judgmental response from Gertrude--or from anyone else. Of course it would be horrible if it did, but in this play, anything that is not sex-negative is an intimation of a possible better world, a world where compassion comes first. Moreover, the sexuality that infuses Ophelia's mad singing is not Hamlet's evil sexuality of the female, but the destructive sexuality of the male. Diane Dreher, in Dominance and Defiance: Fathers and Daughters in Shakespeare (1986) has phrased this shift well: "Ophelia sees herself in a world in which sexuality transforms human beings into beasts, with men the predators and women their prey." The play's most prevalent quality of sexualized horror is once again palpable in Ophelia's mad scenes. But the Oedipal dynamics here are not the point: Ophelia mad is not merely a matter of sexual repression becoming undone but of traumatic sexuality as a bodily-felt metaphor for a primary loss of contact with social reality.
Gertrude even says that she had hoped Ophelia could have married Hamlet, which would have indeed made her into Ophelia's mother. (That also casts a doubt back on all the warnings Ophelia had been given in Act I, of the huge difference in station between herself and Hamlet). But the Ophelia-Gertrude scenes do not actually mention Hamlet--which is quite a change for this play. It is Hamlet who has killed her father--but does Ophelia ever reflect that fact in her songs and lyric distress? "She speaks much of her father," but not of her terrifying lover. It is an absence of which attentive readers will at least have a weird sense. Could Ophelia have blotted this base fact from her memory? Blotting it out indeed seems one of the strains on her psyche that has helped to instigate and to characterize her madness.
Another new quality is the growth of Laertes from a dutiful son of Polonius who did not have much to do in the early scenes except to reinforce his father's admonitions--to a dutiful and enraged son who is easily snared by Claudius into a revenge plot against Hamlet. I say easily, in the sense that Laertes fails to tumble to Claudius's motives. It is not easy for Claudius to achieve what he does: it takes a lot of careful talking. Of those 500 lines in which Hamlet is off-stage, over half are taken up with Claudius and Laertes talking this issue through to the point of Laertes' complete instrumentation by his late father's King. What begins as the King's feigned personal concern, "Laertes, I must commune with your grief" ends in political chicanery. This lengthy political exchange may be occluded, dramatically, when it is cut off and eclipsed by the news of Ophelia's death. But its effects can still be felt.
But Laertes is no mirror image of Hamlet: he has no mother to deal with. Well, almost none: when he enters Claudius's court, he sounds very much like Hamlet, or like someone entangled in Hamlet's problem:
That drop of blood that's calm portrays me bastard,
Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot
Even here between the chaste unsmirched brows
Of my true mother.
But this for me has the feeling of a patch: it is so obvious and mechanical a link that it feels artificial, something planted by Shakespeare, especially in the context of all the rest of the speech between Laertes with Claudius, which is of a very different quality. Laertes' interchange with Claudius is notably a male to male talk, thematically concerned with Hamlet's murder of Laertes' father. Laertes's own deeply human first responses to seeing his sister in her mad state are washed over. Gertrude, who plainly has no real political power, injects a few supporting lines but as soon as she is out of earshot, Claudius can propose, and Laertes can thoughtlessly accept, a rotten, cowardly plan to murder her son. (Later, Laertes's conscience bothers him--perhaps enough to prevent him from duelling against Hamlet effectively). The experience of the play takes on another of its significantly dissonant qualities: the real-politik of Claudius's filial brainwashing of Laertes, an affair of the men's world, is unrelated in tone or language to the dramatic offstage death of Ophelia.
One major quality to take in is again an omission: Laertes lacks any mind for criticizing the values of his political world, while Hamlet has this capacity. (But Laertes has dramatic resonance: when he learns that Ophelia has drowned, he considers it his duty to fight back his tears in order to ready himself for manly revenge; this feels like a heartbreaking moment when I read it in the process of undergoing the whole play again.) To be sure, Hamlet is no critic of society in any rigorous theoretical sense; he is far from actually questioning the system of monarchy, and his dying speech contains his political will for the succession to the throne: "But I do prophesy the election light/ On Fortinbras. He has my dying voice." But Hamlet does show a strong distaste for the ways of power, as is evident in his caustic attitude toward Osric, his contempt for Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, and his highly articulate refusal to allow these pawns of the King to dare to imagine that they have any right to know his inner thoughts. He is drawing a line, setting a limit to what the State can claim from any person. It is Hamlet who says
...let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning.
These do not seem to be responses he has developed only since his father's death: they seem to come from something in his character. As Rosenberg points out, early in the play, he bids Horatio use the name of "friend" with him, rather than that of servant; the sentinals of Act One he corrects when they express their "duty": "Your loves, as mine to you." His arranging of the executions of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern is a triumphal double-cross, using political power in an act of contempt for such power. In the last Act, he also knows that the glory of Alexander or Caesar is as nothing before the fact of death. Such glory is not what Hamlet seeks.
The play allows ample dramatic flourish for these anti-authoritarian expressions by Hamlet, and never really counters them. His admission to Ophelia that he is "proud, revengeful, ambitious" does not accord with a picture of one who unambiguously seeks power; it is part of a listing of his "sins." He has no speeches on what a true ruler should be, or about what a better ruler than Claudius he himself would be, and his admiration for Fortinbras's army, with its thousands of men ready to lose their lives for a piece of worthless land, is not focussed on political struggle. To regard Fortinbras as Hamlet does, as "a delicate and tender prince" is a sentimental wish: it hints at a non-governmental aptitude for being delicate and tender in Hamlet himself. Hamlet does know and bitterly resent that Claudius "Popp'd in between the election [to the throne] and my hopes", but he is far from emphasizing this point in his list of grievances that should allow him to kill Claudius in "perfect conscience." And even this late in the play, in its last scene, Hamlet still puts this as a series of questions: "Does it not, think thee...is't not...?...is't not...?" to Horatio, which suggests that his Oedipal inhibitions about killing Claudius are still confusing him. We are experiencing someone who seems to have the noble qualities that we may imagine are required for filling the role of a good King, but also one who has no attachment to the ways of power. In the action of Act IV, we learn that there is support among the populace for both Hamlet and Laertes to lead a movement against King Claudius, but whereas Laertes takes advantage of this and starts an armed rebellion, Hamlet does not. He knows too well that he has failed to "cleave the general ear with horrid speech" about the murder of his father. Despite the efforts of some New Historicists (and perhaps of Kenneth Branagh in his film production) to make the play into a generic--and not very interesting--power struggle between Hamlet and the King, the play just does not feel that way. Nor is there sufficient textual warrant for such a view.
The play's political meanings are more subtle than this. I do not think they have been taken note of, as yet, in such a way that they can be formulated to allow for experience to clarify. Experientially the politics must be sought along the lines that the play suggests: 1) As I have said in discussing the relation of Laertes and Claudius, the political feels disjunctive with the personal; 2) As I maintained in commenting on the Closet scene, there is a significant (though not total) lifting of the otherwise pervasive fusion of the political with the personal, after the Ghost departs: for a precious while Hamlet and his mother are personally there for each other, not contained within the personae of Prince and Queen; 3) the pervading fusion of political and personal is sexualized, and in a horrible way. On reflection, when I back off from the action and try to "discriminate" where this experience is leading me, which is something Dewey recognized must be done, I find an implication that the personal/political disjunction is exactly what the play is dramatizing: that the portentous political struggle is useless for comprehending the human need and the unresolved problem that Hamlet is struggling with. Which is not to say that therefore the play is not "about" politics. It is about its uselessness, at best, its confounding interference at worst, about its problematic presence nearly everywhere in the web of human relationships. The disjunction may have a cause in the limited number of options politics can deal with: one person or another can be King; Denmark may be invaded or not. But for Hamlet, the human choices are dependent on formulations that his own consciousness must compose, in all his welter of feelings. The play is about the way politics has wormed its way (politick worms?) into the intimate self--but there is no reciprocal movement of energy that would have Hamlet's inner problems infusing themselves into the institution of monarchy. “What warlike noise is this?” he is forced to ask, in the midst of his last verbal utterance, and a few lines later, Horatio’s question, “Why does the drum come hither?” suggests a discordance. The play might also be about the way hard-boiled political thought bungles matters: Claudius's clever plot to get rid of Hamlet leads to a horrible mess, and even if it had succeeded it is hard to imagine how he could have explained to Gertrude that her son just happened to have been killed by a man using an unbated, poison-tipped sword in a friendly duel conveniently arranged by her husband. And, once again, the play is about the political refraction of Hamlet's Oedipus "complex"--a complex of meanings which, rather than simply confirming the close inter-relation of public and private values that Dewey would say must exist in a society, shows disorganization at work within and between family and society.
At the end, where Horatio is assigned to tell the story, we see he will tell it a-politically, as a convergence of freak events and deaths "put on" by cunning individuals. These he must preface with a lie, namely that Hamlet “never gave commandment” for the execution of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Horatio would necessarily miss the quality of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy, which is notably not concerned with crafty plotting nor with weird and unheard of events: it is instead focused on the normality of suffering in a world of chronic injustice and unfairness. We can guess that Horatio is going to slight the political factors; but it is far more clear that Horatio doesn't have either the necessary information nor anything of the character traits that would allow him to convey Hamlet's intimate, sexually distressed, story. He will give that story a sufficient flavor of horror, but it will be horror de-sexualized, without the insights that the play offers to its experiencers. The fact that at the play's end, we know that Fortinbras will take over the throne, becomes significantly irrelevant to what the play has been doing. Fortinbras will comprehend nothing. Fortinbras is presented as a perfectly good successor to the throne of Denmark, which feels quite odd since he was at an earlier point trying to take over some of its territory. For that purpose, Horatio tells us, Fortinbras had "shark'd up a list of lawless resolutes" to recover Danish lands "by strong hand/ And terms compulsatory." It would have been easy for Shakespeare to have given Fortinbras a few more perceptive lines that would have allowed us to relate him to what has gone on in the play, but the playwright refrains. Fortinbras can only be aghast and amazed, in conventional horror, at how "proud death" has made a feast of "so many princes at a shot." What is he talking about? Does he think everyone lying there dead is a prince? Laertes? Even Gertrude? The line can only aggravate the feeling of turmoil, or make it more weird. The State will learn nothing. It does not have the equipment to learn the human struggle. But those who experience the play will be in a different position.
In the last two Acts, following the Closet scene, Hamlet seems to have changed his mind on one important point: when he does mention the murder of his father, he does not show any interest in blaming the crime on his mother. The Closet scene has had an effect: Hamlet's sexual horror has lost its feeling of immediacy. But I imagine he cannot help but feel an underlying doubt concerning his program for the modification of his mother's sexual life: to say to her, "Assume a virtue, if you have it not," is to admit that she may continue to desire Claudius even if she stops having sex with him. If we are tempted to hope that Hamlet in the last Act is no longer obsessed with the evils of womanhood, we are brought up short by his unexpected segue while holding the skull of Yorick; Hamlet moves from feeling "abhored in my imagination" at the cruelty and grossness of death, to imagining this skull as a macabre unmasking of the wiles of womanhood:
Now get you [that is, the skull] to my lady's chamber, and tell her, let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come. Make her laugh at that. There he leaves the topic. It would be a mistake to assume however that his misogyny is now just something to be taken in stride. Given the intense experience of destructiveness of the Nunnery and the Closet, these lines show the smoldering of a still active volcano.
For the most part, in these last scenes after his return from exile, Hamlet does not appear as someone given to the expression of rage. There is no denying a changed quality in him, a mood of being at peace with himself. Could it be that his crafty disposal of the lives of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern has provided catharsis, temporarily siphoning off the aggression toward himself that he had been fairly bursting with in his long speech in admiration of Fortinbras's army? But such peacefulness does not run very deep: the explosion over Ophelia's grave must suggest a lot of rage ready to erupt at any time. But it is no longer the same quality of rage of the Closet scene. To use Dewey's distinction, Hamlet's yelling out that he had more love for Ophelia than "Forty thousand brothers," or his brag that calls for "them" (who?) to "throw millions of acres on top of us," in Ophelia's grave, have a quality of mere raging, rather than being an expression of rage; he seems to me more out of control verbally, here, than he was in the Closet scene. As he recognizes, he has been ranting. Nonetheless, and contradictorily, Hamlet's philosophical/poetic reflections on death and political sycophancy are so attractive (to me, and as critical commentary has shown to many others)--that he grows in his potential as someone we can identify with. Yet his inner sex-nausea is still in force. The overall impression of Hamlet that I can experience thus is fractured: on the one side of the break a man who has composed himself and can speak most attractively on primal human topics; on the other side, a man whose confusions and inner conflicts are still very much there. They are there because those are the confusions and conflicts the play has brought out, into the stage-space where we can hardly fail to be experience them; to mend them would be to falsify.
The self-portrait of one who believes in the cosmic, reassuring vision of "a divinity that shapes our ends," does not jell with the dramatic image of Hamlet leaping into Ophelia's grave, bursting with rage. And if you have an absolutely required task yet to be done, how can readiness for death be "all"? His final speeches show that he is not altogether accepting of death at the time of its actual arrival:
Had I but time--as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest--O, I could tell you--
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead.
Then a few moments later:
O, I die, Horatio,
The potent poison quite o'er-crows my spirit.
And, after some 35 words on the political situation: the now unforgettable "the rest is silence." Such conflicting impressions must be "in" the play, or else we would not have had such a wealth of disputes by critics great and small who thought they could settle the issue of Hamlet's final state of mind.
Un-closure: the Diversionary Duel
Shakespeare brings the action of the play to an end with a duel. If we have read or seen the play we all "know" that; we expect that duel to happen. But what do we really know? Suppose, by way of Dewey's "cultivated naivete" we have reached the place in Act V where Hamlet has been describing his regret for having fought with Laertes. Just then, Osric enters with a message from the King. Knowing as we do that Hamlet has sworn to kill the King, and that the King has tried to kill Hamlet (and Hamlet is well aware of that), we would expect that Hamlet would suspect a trap in anything the King now proposes. Not only does the proposal for a duel come from Claudius, but the person who is selected by the King to carry it out is the very man whose father Hamlet has most unnecessarily killed. Laertes had probably been about to kill Hamlet at the grave of Ophelia, an episode that has occurred in the immediately previous scene. Ernest Jones may sound impatient with Hamlet on this point, but he is terribly hard to refute: Hamlet has agreed to "a quite irrelevant fencing match with a man he must know wants to kill him, an eventuality that would put an end to all hope of fulfilling his task..." This is Hamlet the Dane, who has explicitly noted that he has only limited time to strike, before the news from England will arrive and convict him of having engineered the violent deaths of the King's two emissaries.
The duel seems to take place only an hour or so after the confrontation at Ophelia's grave. It is also a duel with a man whose father he has killed, and whose sister he has savagely berated. Is Hamlet even aware that he has assaulted Ophelia earlier in the play? Or is his mind still disturbed enough to delete that fact? He shows no sign of knowing it, either here or at any other place--though we may intuit that his enraged statement of love for Ophelia as a distorted expression of guilt. In his derision of Osric, Hamlet sports with the notion that he and Laertes might come to this duel carrying "a cannon by our sides," an absurd image that could be felt as a sign of the intensity of aggression involved, a confusing denial that this duel is to be fought only as sport.
Although some commentators as well as some directors of the play want to see Hamlet as making a shrewd decision to fight before the king, with a plan of killing him--no hint of suspicion concerning the motivation behind this duel, nor of Hamlet's plan to use it as a chance for the revenge killing is offered in the text. The text does show Hamlet's hesitation to accept the challenge, but that is brought to an end when he hears that "The queen desires you to use some gentle entertainment to Laertes before you fall to play." "Well she instructs me," Hamlet replies. "The queen desires"... we surely are sensitized, at least aware of something portentous in, such a phrase. During the duel itself, Hamlet seems to remain unaware until the dying Laertes points him in the right direction: "--the King, the King's to blame."
The duel becomes even more grotesque, experientially, when we hear Laertes blandly accept Hamlet's apology for having killed his father, even to the point of admitting that his major motive for revenge is now satisfied. I doubt that anyone seeing or reading this play can understand what Laertes means by saying that as far as the "terms of honor" are concerned, he will accept
Till by some elder masters of known honor
I have a voice and precedent of peace
To keep my name ungored.
What "elders" is he talking about, and what could they possibly do? It is as if Laertes, presented with a verbal apology, can barely think of a pretext for continuing to oppose Hamlet, and is giving up any thought of taking violent action. But Hamlet, who knows that Laertes has every reason to be violent, offers his love to Laertes. The weird thought has crossed my mind in some of my encounters with this passage that Hamlet may be trying--with part of his mind--to get out of the obligation to have this duel. But this passes. Laertes, after uttering the obscure caveat above, accepts and returns this love. Hamlet declares "I embrace it freely." Homoerotic undertones can be felt here, by anyone not disposed to ignore them--a quality that is startling in its newness at this point and one that might reverberate uncertainly back into earlier parts of the play. With a trust that is baffling to anyone who has a grasp of the situation in which Hamlet's life is at risk, he next says he will accept "this brother's wager." Rosenberg, in his Masks of Hamlet, sees that Hamlet would have to be a "simpleton" not to suspect a trap, and does his best to pound suspicion into some lines that do not bear it.
Perhaps Hamlet is baffling here only if we forget the unconscious. There is every reason to think that his thinking, his conscious choice-making, is still subject to pressures that come not only from the Oedipal knot on which so much of the play hangs, but from the accumulation of guilts and gratifications resulting from his actions since the Ghost first appeared to him. Viewed this way, it is foolish to expect that this man, remarkable as he is, would have all the elements of his psyche operating in unison. That approach, taken by Harold Bloom in his recent essay for the new Yale Annotated Shakespeare, creates for us “the mature Hamlet,” a man of “mysterious and beautiful disinterestedness,” for whom we are to feel “veneration.” By wholeheartedly accepting the reality of Hamlet's inner confusion, we can avoid one of the great experience-depleting stumbling blocks in this play: we give up trying to discredit Hamlet's courageous struggle just because he cannot carry it out perfectly, and/or we stop trying to save his ideal image in our own minds by forcing a positive meaning onto everything he does in the last scenes.
No matter how I try to consider it, re-think and feel it in my own psyche, something is "off," in this duel. The duel does not make sense, say what we will about it. Experience could only be blocked, as far as a Deweyan reading is concerned, by allowing ourselves to rest in the faith that Shakespeare is arranging, through this duel, a thoroughly satisfactory integrative ending. Such faith is vital to the practice of those critics looking for and needing to find organic "wholeness," as Dewey and some of his followers are sometimes guilty of being. But the original and vital impetus of Dewey's aesthetic is to follow the experience wherever it may lead. From that perspective, it is possible to admit that the play is not resolving any issues or offering the sense of reconciliation that tragedy is accustomed to provide. Dewey accepts the common opinion that tragedy has a "peculiar power" to end on reconciliation rather than horror, but in Hamlet, the horror is never eliminated; although it is greatly transformed from what it was when the Ghost first announced it in Act One, it is still there in the last scene, sexualized once again, and still disturbing. Its meanings have become multiple: Ophelia's madness; the fight in her grave by her brother and Hamlet, as to which of them has loved her more; and the final duel, with its underlying confusion of motives, all add to the richness and complexity of the experience of the play's sexualized horror. But have any of these events actually deepened our understanding? We just may sense that there is no point in developing the drama any further under the conditions of the Hamlet-situation. The latter two Acts experiment with ways to draw further developments out of the depths of experience reached in the two great scenes of conflict in Act III, those of Hamlet and Ophelia and of Hamlet and his mother. That experiment is at least partly successful, it seems to me, although it gives the play a formal shape that is not as symmetrical as it would be if it proceeded from the peaks of conflict in Act III to resolution in Act V. Shakespeare does not force the conclusion: he has shown that the play's basic conflicts can only be left unresolved. The haphazard quality of the final murder-laden scene renders implausible any notion that a divinity has "shaped" these ends. But that is "right" for this play: had Shakespeare wrapped up or "resolved" matters any more clearly than he did, he would have been falsifying his own creative achievement.
In the Branagh film production, Hamlet gloriously hurls his sword into Claudius's back, which partly buffers the fact that his killing of the King is an act committed only after having been fatally wounded. (Branagh, ever pursuing his tough-guy approach to Hamlet's character, has just had him kick Laertes in the stomach, as their duel approaches its climax). It is still revenge, but it has ceased to be the satisfying act that his father had commanded him to carry out. It is not like killing the one great evil of his world. As Janet Adelman well argues, Hamlet in any case seems at this point to have his mother more in mind than he does his father. But his final call to Gertrude, which Adelman does not seem to credit, implies no reconciliation with her, and addresses her by formal title: "Wretched Queen, adieu!" Can anyone, can even Hamlet, say "adieu!" to a parent who has just died horribly, without implying some reserve of irony or insensitivity?
By this point, the whole concept of a just revenge can be experienced as having been discredited, although not on the moral ground of feeling that shedding blood is somehow wrong. It is more like a Deweyan realization that revenge is no way to deal with the emotional complexities of the situation--nor with the political ones. The idea of revenge by this time has become something like trying to feel that convicting and executing Timothy McVeigh is a satisfying method of dealing with the destructive hatred that blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City. In Deweyan language, we might say that over the course of the play, the continuum of the relationship of means and ends which Dewey theorized has operated to effect an exploration of the whole situation in which revenge had been initially set out as the end. It has caused me to re-evaluate and discredit the "end-in-view," namely revenge. Which does not mean that I fail to become engrossed in the wish that Hamlet would indeed quickly dispatch Claudius, somehow, even though I now "know" that this will not happen. I suppose that many of the play's critics have felt the same thing going on, but have mistakenly attributed this transformation of values to Hamlet's own change. They have tried to find him incapable of, too sensitive for, or too ethically aware of the evils of, revenge. The play, however, is the thing. And the play goes far beyond endorsing such stupid social practices as killing off Claudius and then just starting over again, with a society that has learned nothing.
The havoc of the last scene still allows for some clarity. It will be an obvious and very common point I am about to make here: finally, as I experience this ending of the play, I come to the realization that despite all I know about "tragedy," it is still painful to realize that Hamlet and Gertrude die. They are characters in a play, but they are by now real parts of me. Their deaths have a far more intimate meaning for me than do those of Laertes and Claudius, and that is primarily because they are the ones who have really struggled with the devastating emotional/sexual conflicts of the play. Claudius and Laertes may rest in the wreckage that goes into the ends of a tragic play, and never reach very deep inside me. Not so Gertrude and her son.
A play like this does not end on the last line; according to Dewey in fact the last word or line or note is not the end anyway. In an aesthetic experience, there are consummations all along the way. "The consummatory phase is recurrent throughout a work of art, and in the experience of a great work of art the points of its incidence shift in successive observations of it." If we think back now to the Closet scene, we may recover the feeling of some indefinable sense of hope at its end, where Hamlet and his mother reach a plateau of trust and of non-hostility. Those good feelings were no doubt mixed and diluted with tragic forebodings, but they are not negligible. The resolution that is painfully yet lovingly created by Gertrude and her son does not simply vanish with the disastrous ending of the play. The wish for a new and loving level of relationship, and one that can accept sexuality in all its problematical mystery, is not lost. The inclusion of sexuality is the deep wish of the play, even if it is not (consciously) that of Hamlet. The fragile sense of reconciliation at the end of the Closet scene remains as a living intimation of a world the characters themselves cannot reach, but we can have some faith that it is at least possible for human beings to create. It may be more disturbing to have to recognize this than to accept tragic destruction.
I cannot forget Ophelia either. As the smoke clears, I am left with the feeling that her destruction--dramatically separate from the ending of the play--is not a tragic necessity; it is an outrage because it is so un-caringly brought on by men. Unlike Gertrude and Hamlet, Ophelia has not had the chance to struggle with the problems of sexualized horror; she has been run over by them. This was a life that was wasted. Or so I would say if I am talking about her as a character; if I am talking about her as what I experienced in the overall context of the play and its language, the fact that she cannot be forgotten means that Ophelia has been taken into my self as part of my own sense of the preciousness and vulnerability of human life.
Experiencing Beyond the End
In his chapter of Art as Experience on criticism, Dewey endorses criticism as judgment, but he allows that there may not be a great deal for the critic to judge, up to a certain point. The critic, if he or she just lays out the main lines of the experience, its artistic transformations of subject-matter, is bound to leave the "having" of the experience to the viewer or reader. The critic should not seek to be an authority. That phase of the critic's work, laying out the main lines of where the experience of Hamlet might best be had, I have tried to do, although I have left out a great deal. There remains much more to say, surely, about the play's significance. And given the countless differences in the way individuals will continue to process the play, most of it can never be said. Yet Dewey does not stop at the point where an aesthetic experience is "allowed to speak for itself." The great aesthetic experiences themselves raise the prospect of seeing life differently in the world beyond the immediate contexts of specific works of art. Dewey recognizes a "sense of increase of understanding, a deepened intelligibility on the part of objects of nature and man, resulting from aesthetic experience..." This "sense of disclosure and of heightened intelligibility of the world remains to be accounted for."
Some major implications of experience can be located, at least, in problems that continue to be widely troubling across large stretches of contemporary culture. Some of these concerns might be quite common, and merely mentioning them might be felt as an offense against the high aesthetic claims of the tragedy of “Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.” But what is common is not therefore beneath notice, and is certainly not so for a philosopher of democracy. Dewey's examination of the terms "general and common," in his chapter "The Challenge to Philosophy," is pertinent. These terms in contemporary life cannot mean what they would have to Aristotle or Sir Joshua Reynolds. If you can be "innocent" for a moment of "the underlying metaphysics," Dewey writes, the terms
have a simpler, more direct and more experimental significance. The "common" is that which is found in the experience of a number of persons; anything in which a number of persons participate is by that very fact common. The more deep-seated it is in the doings and undergoing that form experience, the more general or common it is. We live in the same world; that aspect of nature is common to all. (my emphasis)
Take the problem of what are perceived as "O'er hasty" remarriages. That is common enough. How much do we really know about why many (but by no means all) adult children (or for that matter small children) react negatively to their parent's realignment? In reply to this question, it is not satisfying to say that since Hamlet is "only" a play, we need not do anything. The pragmatist ethos would hardly settle for such an "aesthetic" signoff. If the play leads us to care, we cannot say the question of what to do about any of its major problems is meaningless as a focus for change and growth.
The problems for continuing inquiry and change that Hamlet leaves in its wake are better described not as specific questions, but as a vast task that we as inhabitants of modern culture are still necessarily deeply engaged in, whether we choose to be aware of it or not. That inquiry is the creation of human values for our own time, values that will withstand the scrutiny of our own finest psychological understanding and will meet our needs for an amelioration of the unavoidable traumas of personal relations as well as the related failings of political life.
To a large extent, we do not know what those human values are, as yet. A brilliant signal is given, it seems to me, in the very title of one of Dewey's chapters in The Quest for Certainty: "The Construction of Good." Whereas current Theory has been making the continuous rediscovery that human values are constructed and not given, Deweyan philosophy has long known that. For Dewey, the urgent task is not that piece of knowledge, but the more trying task of constructing values we can actually live with. We do not know what "the Good" is, or rather what the social "goods" might be which would be worthy of consistent practice so as to construct, from our hard-won insights and intimations, a world in which we can live and grow.
For Dewey, construction is most probably Reconstruction, as that word is used in the title of Reconstruction in Philosophy. The ethical value of responsibility is one aspect of Hamlet that cries out for reconstructing. It may seem odd, at first, to realize that few experiencers of Hamlet (or at least those who have left a record of their comments) have been attracted to the notion that he is not responsible for his actions. It would be an easy position to support, once his "madness" is credited. It is not that such a view has never been proposed. The problem of the play, according to Caroline Spurgeon, in Shakespeare's Imagery and What It Tells Us, "is a condition for which the individual himself is apparently not responsible, any more than the sick man is responsible for the infection which strikes and devours him..." But since 1935, when Spurgeon published her book, the notion of an inherent non-responsibility has not been found appealing--whether we consider Hamlet to be suffering from melancholia, from paranoia, or from an Oedipal complex crisis. For one thing the play seems to repel any notion that Hamlet, with all his verbal, poetic, dramatic and intellectual capabilities, which we witness in scene after scene, should be treated as a pathological agent who has no control over what he is doing (or not doing). Hamlet, unlike Claudius, never prays to God for help: even if he does not feel he can carry out his assigned duties, he does take them for his own human burden, despite the time being out of joint. That at least is true up until his reflections in the final scene on the providence that "shapes our ends," by which point he may have come to an awareness that he will never be able to carry out his mission as it has been given to him. Probably too, there is an awareness in many students of this play that to classify the hero as some definitely diagnosed "case" will narrow the scope of the potential experience. He suffers from a severe crisis of Oedipal desire, yes; but he is still a responsible human being.
On the other hand, the play implies that Hamlet in fact cannot carry out the responsibilities he sets for himself (under the tutelage of the Ghost). He cannot do it alone, and the many frustrated comments of readers, reviewers, actors, critics, and teachers, only serve to make this more clear. From a strictly psychoanalytic point of view, he cannot do it because the tasks are impossible in themselves, calling for fantasies of mother-son-father sexual harmony that cannot be had under any principle of reality. But this is too easily said: there is no reason why family dynamics cannot be ameliorated, or why sexual conflict need always be deadly. William Kerrigan, in Hamlet's Perfection (1994), takes the attitude that the split in Hamlet and in the male psyche of looking at all women as either whores or virgins is probably never going to be healed, "moralizers" notwithstanding. But that is resignation in advance of making the effort, and it also mis-states the problem. For a Deweyan ethic, the problem would not be how to totally eliminate the whore/virgin split, but how to bring it under intelligent control. Instead of reckoning the troubles as tragic inevitability, we would have to find out what the matter is, and then see if we could do anything about it. In other words, inquiry. The simple ploy of identifying this classic split in male consciousness as a "dualism" will not be sufficient.
As a conclusion, therefore, I will propose a course that would fit with Dewey's ethics. It is the pragmatist one of cooperative intelligence: it amounts to saying that we will have to help the Hamlets (and the Gertrudes and the Ophelias) of the world--which are likely to be ourselves or our dearest ones--to deal with their dilemmas. I am not referring here to individual therapy (a point we need not go into Shakespeare's play to make), and even less to a Claudius-like manipulation of the mechanics of revenge. This is a matter of a cooperative refashioning of the unavoidable relation of public and private needs, in order to find the creative interplay of the two. We need to replace the arrant interference of political with personal, and to get a much better measure of control over the semi-conscious playing out of family dynamics on the political stage. In the sense of “political” I use at this point, I also mean the overwhelming disfiguration of sexual desire by the commercial mass culture that parasites upon it. Such a clarification of social practice would require that we accept, if we are to "learn" anything from Hamlet at all, that responsibility (personal/social/political) and psycho-sexuality are intricately linked, whether destructively or constructively. With use of our intelligence, we can make it more of the latter. A Deweyan approach to experiencing this play leads to such efforts. They may sound ordinary or “common” or mere “common sense’; let us accept it as such without prejudice. No other approach in the history of Hamlet criticism, for all of its fascination with the personal fate of the "tragic hero," has come close to saying anything of the kind.
Granted, we did not come to the play to learn that--or anything else. We came for the experience. If it teaches us something that can be stated as the moral of the story, that is an illusion, but not (Dewey maintains) because such teaching is not there; it is because aesthetic experiences "teach" at a far deeper and more complex level than moral precepts ever can reach. Yet it would be destructive ultimately to simply deny that aesthetic experiences of the caliber of Hamlet can teach us something. As long as we continue to work on what I have identified as the common and general problem of Hamlet, then the play continues to be an instance of what Dewey believed: that there is no great aesthetic experience which, in its consummation, does not also go on to become an instrument for the further intelligent shaping of human life. "[T]here is no final term in appreciation of a work of art. It carries on and is, therefore, instrumental as well as final."
State University of New York at Buffalo