‘Hamlet, that tragedy of maniacs, this Royal Bedlam, in which every character is either crazy or criminal, in which feigned madness is added to real madness and in which the grave itself furnishes the stage with the skull of a fool; in that Odeon of shadows and spectres where we hear nothing but reveries, the challenge of sentinels, the screeching of the night-bird and the roaring of the sea’. François Rene de Chateaubriand, 1837.
Is there a dramatic logic to Shakespeare’s Hamlet; or is the play more like the sensational theatricalising of insanity which Chateaubriand describes above? What rationale can be given for Hamlet’s brutal and callous treatment of Ophelia, which troubled observers from the first and still does today? Why does the play devote so much time and attention to a feigned madness which Hamlet’s task of revenge does not even require, let alone benefit from? And what does it imply about the play’s narrative that different productions can put the ‘To be or not to be’ speech in such widely differing places in the text?
The pages on this site look not at Hamlet‘s artistic value or meaning, which have always been disputed over the centuries, but at its primary object of representation: the action at its heart. That action describes a singular thing – an underlying spine of activity formed by Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ – but the pattern of cause and effect which develops out of it has complex and powerful repercussions. These, it is argued, all turn upon the fate of the soul; a fate which is both terrifying and peculiar to Hamlet alone. On this interpretation, Hamlet belongs alongside Marlowe’s Dr. Faustus as a scholar’s and philosopher’s tragedy more than it is a revenger’s. Yet, while Faustus’ tragedy ultimately turns upon the immortal nature of his soul, Hamlet’s tragedy, these pages argue, hinges on precisely the opposite problem.
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