Hamlet – Critical Interpretations

T.S. Eliot (quote) “Hamlet is gripped by an Oedipus complex, which obstructs his action”. This depicted in Lawrence Olivier’s 1948 psychosexual interpretation.
Freud on Hamlet Hamlet unconsciously desires to kill his father and possess his mother. Thus, he cannot bring himself to punish Claudius since his uncle has fulfilled Hamlet’s desires.
Since Freud, the marital bed has rarely been absent from the closet scene
When Hamlet lectures Gertrude on her sexual depravity, 18th Century critics didn’t suspect incestuous desire. rather they interpreted Hamlet as a compassionate preacher.
The religious imagery in his orders “confess yourself to heaven” and calls for “abstinence” suggest Hamlet is genuinely concerned with saving his mother’s soul.
The relationship between fathers and sons plays a crucial role in the play. The fathers are, at times, paternal and foolish, but at other times, overpowering and commanding.
2001 RSC Steven Pimlott: Hamlet embraces a natural-looking ghost This staging emphasises the pathos of father and son longing for each other.
Marxist critic Terry Eagleton Hamlet’s refusal to accept the identity demanded of him by either his feudal father or Machiavellian uncle makes him a modern and radical hero.
2016 Kelly Hunter: omits the political dimension entirely and becomes a soap opera staged on a single black leather sofa. Rather than the dare of a nation resting on Elsinore, the play ends in a melodramatic, unsatisfactory bloodbath. The production fails to recognise that the action of the play stems from Claudius’ illegitimate succession not just his fratricidal crime.
Jan Kott: ‘Hamlet’ is “a drama of political crime”. Hamlet attempts to correct this crime by murdering Claudius, but only Fortinbras can lead Denmark to stability.
18th Century critics criticised the play’s comedy and farce because it challenged the neo-classical codes of decorum, propriety and poetic justice.
Voltaire described the play as “the fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage”
20th Century critic Maurice Charney: Hamlet’s jokes have a thread of bitter satire running through them. “Through madness, the character can suddenly make a forceful assertion of their being”. He jokes have a thread of bitter satire running them.
Hamlet’s madness licences him to play the part of the fool and speak uncomfortable truths in a stifled and superficial court
Romantic critics focused on Hamlet’s psychological state, as madness is a common theme in Romantic poetry. They talked about this ‘antic disposition’ as though it was a real life, independent entity.
The Victorian critics, Hugo and Taine believed that Hamlet’s madness was real
Although the 20th Century critic Bradley thought Hamlet was afflicted by a melancholy similar a mental disease, which explains his verbal tics.
New Historicists critics came to the fore in the 1980s. They believe that all authority are shaped consciously and unconsciously by the ideologies of their culture.
The New Historicist critic Karin Coddon related Hamlet’s madness to the Earl of Essex’s dangerous subversion to Elizabeth’s authority
Essex’s rash and unpredictable behaviour became a threat to the Tudor state, just as Hamlet’s madness becomes a threat to Claudius’ state.
New Historicists: In the Elizabethan period, Madwomen were believed to be ill with hysteria, an illness associated with disturbances in the womb
The cultural shift towards Aristotle’s poetics in the 17th Century resulted in a great deal of criticism of Ophelia’s immodest portrays and sexually suggestive singing
Maurice Charney: Ophelia’s broken syntax and unhindered imagination allows her to break through society’s constraints. This makes her madness a powerful weapon.
Maurice Charney (quote) “Through madness, the individual can suddenly make a forceful assertion of their being”
2015 Barbican Lyndsey Turner: Ophelia is missing chunks of her hair and is playing the piano erratically, showing her in a psychologically vulnerable state.
Branagh’s 1996 film: Kate Winslet’s Ophelia appears in a straitjacket like that of a mentally ill patient
New Historicists: Tudor monarchs were cautious and dealt harshly with individuals who threatened to ignite unrest of rebellion, e.g. the execution of Essex after his 1601 rebellion
Robert Renwick compared Claudius to a Machiavellian king In the book ‘Prince’, Machiavelli argued it was justified for a king to have a cynical disregard of morality to maintain political control
New Historicism: The Book of Commons and Bible (Leviticus 18:16) forbade a woman from marrying her husband’s brother
1964 Lunt-Fontane production: Richard Burton, who was lauded for his sonorous voice sneeringly barks out the word “woman!” at the end of “Frailty, thy name is…”
Ophelia stands in contrast to Shakespeare’s feisty women who often challenged male authority figures such as Portia, Hermia and Beatrice. In ‘As You Like it’, Rosalind has over a quarter of the lines.
Mary Salter (Ophelia quote) “Ophelia is an innocent pawn sacrificed during the course of the play”
Romantic critics raise a chorus of concern about Ophelia. For example, Jameson called Ophelia “too soft, too good, too fair”
Elaine Showalter disputed Ophelia’s emotional frailty (quote) “the madwoman is a heroine who rebels”
Screenplay to Branagh’s 1996 film states that Gertrude drinks the poisoned wine defiantly as “a declaration of her independence from the King”
Feminist critics take charge with the fact that the play asks its audience to admire a protagonist who hates women
Rebecca Smith argues that close attention to Gertrude’s language shows she is a “nurturing and caring maternal presence” not a shallow sensualist, as Hamlet’s soliloquies portray her
This is in line with 1930s New Criticism which emphasises close reading of language
Kiernan Ryan, 21st Century (quote) Hamlet “sabotages the revenge-play formula”. However, this should not be regarded as a criticism but a form of praise.
The incompatible value systems of the Roman and Christian codes of honour comes into direct conflict
The result is that ‘Hamlet’ is a far more complex Revenge Tragedy than ‘The Spanish Tragedy’ or ‘Antonio’s Revenge’
Sean McEvoy notes that revenge was unsuitable in Elizabethan England as private revenge had been taken out of the hands of individual nobles and placed under royal jurisdiction.
Thomas Hammer, 17th Century, makes the practical point that Hamlet’s delay elongates the play; if Hamlet had carried out the Ghost’s instructions immediately, there would have been no play
Character analysis was the standard method of Victorian criticism
Ulrici, Victorian, argued that Hamlet delays because he struggles to reconcile the code of revenge with his Christian faith.
Ulrici (quote) In Hamlet, we witness “the Christian struggling with the natural man”
Francis Bacon, 17th Century, condemned revenge as “a kind of wild justice”. The Church insisted that vengeance and retribution were in the hands of God not man.
2000 film: Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet walks into a Blockbusters video store and sees a murder from an action film before performing the line “To be, or not to be”. It emphasises the idea that revenge is a popular cultural narrative, but not necessarily a moral absolute.
Garrick, 18th Century actor, cut parts of the play to improve Hamlet’s moral stature. He took aware his bloodthirsty thoughts of wishing to send Claudius’ should to hell and responsibility for the death of R + G.
Eleanor Prosser, 20th Century, believes that Laertes embodies the true avenger: “he defies his conscience and his God”
New Historicist: Draw comparisons between Laertes and the Earl of Essex, a rash and reckless courtier who led the 1601 rebellion against Elizabeth
1964 Lunt-Fontanne: Richard Burton performs Hamlet’s soliloquy in Act 4 with an indifferent, nonchalant manner, ending unconvincingly “my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth”
The agonies of an individual alienated from society shares similarities with the Romantic experience
2010 Nicholas Hytner: Hamlet hands out T-Shirts with smiles faces and villain written on them, parodying Claudius, “the smiling, damned villain”
Hamlet’s grief revolves around his mother’s deception He is horrified that Gertrude, who wept so conspicuously and copiously at Old Hamlet’s funeral is now married to her husband’s brother.
Wilson Knight, 20th Century (quote) “Claudius is a good and gentle king”
Claudius has no qualms about defying biblical authority by marrying his sister in-law (Leviticus 18:16) and failing to observe the appropriate period of mourning for a dead king
The plot is set in motion by Claudius’ murderous ambition to supplant his brother, the king
2015 Barbican Lyndsey Turner: In the second half, the theatre floor is piled high with stones and rubble representing the emotional and physical devastation, as Denmark falls into the hands of Fortinbras. The characters struggle over it, sinking into the court’s moral corruption
New Historicist: Elizabethans believed that Christians could achieve salvation through prayer and repentance
Kozintsev’s 1964 film: Claudius speaks his soliloquy to a mirror as though honestly examining his own conscience
Anna Nauman: Productions in West Germany in the 1970s emphasised Hamlet’s existential crisis as the country became divorced from its social reality. Hamlet’s anger against his mother is rooted in the fear that if someone’s life can be easily forgotten after death, life itself has no meaning. His crisis is therefore an existential one, not a moral one
Kozintsev’s 1964 film: Hamlet’s first soliloquy (starting “O that this too too sallied flesh would melt”) in the prince’s head as he walks amongst the court, emphasising how isolated he is
1982 Joseph Papp: Hamlet is played by a woman to highlight his effeminate and vulnerable side This production depicts Hamlet weeping unabashedly and unashamedly
As a student of Wittenberg, where Martin Luther launched Protestantism Hamlet is a scholar and philosopher by education
2016 RSC Simon Godwin: Emphasised this point by inventing a graduation ceremony at the start of the play
Mary Salter (Hamlet quote) “Hamlet is a true hero because he is aware of the larger moral implications of his actions”
Goethe, 18th Century, judged Hamlet as “beautiful, pure and noble”. His delicate poetic sensitivity makes him too philosophical for the world of politics.
Kozintsev’s 1964 film: The final short shows Hamlet’s body being carried out of the castle to a crowd of concerned Danish people. This emphasises the political rather than the purely personal significance of the play’s catastrophic tragedy.
New Historicist: Noticed parallels between Fortinbras and the Earl of Essex The rash and impulsive early was Elizabeth I’s courtier and, like Fortinbras, was driven by the thrill of military adventure and attempted an armed coup in 1601.
Phillip Edwards, 20th Century (quote) “Fortinbras is success as Hamlet is failure” and Fortinbras takes over the kingdom without firing a single shot
Irving 1874: The production ended with Hamlet’s line “the rest is silence”, giving him rather than Fortinbras the last word
Hamlet’s election of Fortinbras as the new king of Denmark is the closest the play comes to achieving tragic decorum, which the Neo-classists Rymer and Collier believed was essential in a tragedy
Branagh’s 1996 film: Suggests a usurpation over a peaceful transition when Fortinbras’ soldiers pull down a statue of Old Hamlet. It remind the modern audience of the statues of Stalin that were pulled down after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.
This creates an important political point; royal families, once overthrown, are only replaced by new tyrants
Branagh’s 1996 film: Rufus Sewell performs Fortinbras’ line “Hamlet has proved most loyal” with palpable insecurity. We are left uncertain about what military rule by a foreign leader might bring.
1990 Cheek by Jowl production: The soldiers of the fascistic and leather-cals Fortinbras round up the remaining members of Claudius’ court for execution, undermining a sense of closure.
New Historicists: Elizabeth’s court was full of factions and sycophantic counties, such as Lord Burghley and the spymaster, Walsingham
The notion of pretence and putting on an act is prominent in Macbeth As Lady Macbeth instructs her husband, “look like the innocent flower, but be the serpent under it
2009 RSC Greg Doran: The theme is surveillance is captured memorably through the use of security cameras, whereby those in power can watch and control Hamlet, who poses a threat to the social order
2015 Barbican Lyndsey Turner: Shows Ophelia isolated herself from reality Played by Sian Brooke, she begins to record the detail of her life on camera, like a digital age obsessive who becomes removed from the real world
John Dover Wilson called the Ghost: “the linchpin of ‘Hamlet’, remove it and the play falls to pieces”
The ghost can be misleading; while he uncovers the truth, we are unsure about his status or intentions
1980 Jonathon Pryce: The ghost never appears He is an effect of Hamlet’s psychologically disturbed state and his lines are spoken by Hamlet is a tormented, distorted voice.
W.W. Greg also famously argued that the ghost is hallucinatory in his 1917 article “Hamlet’s Hallucination”
2010 Nicholas Hyter: The ghost is ashen and his clothes are blackened as though he has been burning in purgatory
1980 Royal Court Richard Eyre: Cut the opening scene with its careful confirmation of the Ghost’s objective reality
New Historicist: Elizabethan’s believed that wicked hellish spirits haunted the Earth at night Consequently, contemporary productions played on the idea that the devil was impersonating the Ghost and leading Hamlet into sin.
Indeed, Hamlet himself suspects the ghost’s demonic deceit
Hamlet feels himself on the horns of a dilemma Loyalty to his father conflicts with his obedience to God. Perhaps his moral cofliction explains why he delays.
By moving to an understanding of divine providence in the final act, Hamlet frees himself from the Ghost and goes in search of justice not revenge.
Modern-day directions, such as Greg Doran, have interpreted Polonius more critically Beneath his paternal guise and comic vocabulary, Polonius is scheming exploiting and a product of Elsinore’s surveillance state, captured memorably with security cameras.
The gravediggers’ scene serves as a dramatic contrast to the melodrama of Ophelia’s burial and the bloodbath ending
Kiernan Ryan: The gravediggers challenge the audience’s prejudice that labourers lack refinement of feelings, especially when they engage Hamlet in a battle of wits and cast a comical yet profound light on suicide, fame and disease.
Marxist critics applaud the gravedigger as a great leveller because he buries all classes of men and women
The gravedigger is a timeless and unchanging figure, paralleling the porter in Macbeth. In fact, the gravedigger was first played by Robert Armin, who also played the porter to the gates of Hell in Macbeth
The cultural shift towards Aristotle’s poetics in the 17th Century resulted in a great deal of criticism of Hamlet’s comedy While the discussion of sexuality, corruption and death can be vulgar, we cannot subscribe to Voltaire’s view.
Voltaire (quote) ‘Hamlet’ is the “fruit of the imagination of a drunken savage”
While Garrick and Olivier’s Hamlets are governed by grief, Papa Essiedu played Hamlet as energetic, youthful and quick-qttied
For example, when he suggests that Polonius “like a crab could go backward” and get younger, Essiedu creates humour by imitating the walk of a crab. His use of physical and slapstick comedy provides light relief, but also reduces Polonius to an aging fool.
Love has been devalued into financial transactions, lust and pretence.
2015 Lyndsey Turner + designed by Es Devlin: the stage is filled with staircases, family portraits and a courtly-sized table. The characters appear dwarfed by the monumental scale, as if personal feelings have become negated in the public arena.
In ‘Chaste Constancy in Hamlet’, the feminist critic, Marilyn French, argued that Polonius treats his daughter’s virginity as a property liable to spoil by describing her chastity in crudely commercial terms. Thus, he reinterprets love as a monetary transaction and informs Ophelia that the nature of male love is lustful and deceitful.
Hamlets love for Ophelia is not returned; she betrays him to his enemies.
In the middle of Hamlet’s “Get thee to a nunnery” speech, Kenneth Branagh’s tone changes noticeably when he asks “where’s your father”.
This is the moment Hamlet becomes aware that Polonius and Claudius are spying on him and Ophelia is their pawn. At Ophelia’s response “at home, my lord”, the screenplay to the 1996 film writes “with that phrase their love is dead” as Hamlet realises he cannot trust the woman he loves.
The 19th Century Philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche connected Hamlet’s delay to the corrupted and loveless world he has found himself in. Hamlet is held back from avenging his father’s murder by tragic knowledge of the futility of his action because Denmark’s decay and collapse is inevitable.
1930s New Criticism: The relationship between Claudius and Gertrude gives rise to the stream of disease and corruption that colours the play
1990 Franco Zeffirelli: film begins with an invented burial scene, showing an interplay of furtive glances between Gertrude and Claudius, as Old Hamlet is buried. This dramatises and justifies Hamlet’s accusations of adultery and incest. Zeffirelli’s interpretation implies that love has been replaced by lust.
2017 Almeida Theatre: Presents the characters, unusually, in the grip of love. Gertrude and Claudius are intoxicated with each other. Entwined on a sofa, they have to be woken to receive an ambassadorial visitor.
1996 Branagh’s film: Making frequent use of flashbacks, the film depicts Hamlet’s sexual relationship with Ophelia, which is only implied in the text. The consummated love affair makes Hamlet’s feelings of betrayal more profound.
Garrick’s revision ends ‘Hamlet’ not with the usurpation of Fortinbras but with Horatio’s loving farewell to his friend. They emphasise Horatio’s departing words “Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince”, ending the play on a hopeful, heartfelt and sincere note.
The loving friendship between Hamlet and Horatio stands out and endures in world where love has been devalued.

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