on 2 December 2013
If you are a Hamlet freak, obsessed by and with this ever-mutating, ever-inspiring masterwork (I am, I am), then you will dive into Critchley's and Webster's fresh, brazen, sexy, mordant, and exquisitely nuanced banquet of many-layered insights and go deep, deep until you wonder if you will ever want to come up again for air. This is a book of criticism for right now, as contemporary and insightful as Rory Kinnear's recent and brilliant turn as Hamlet at the National Theatre. Words, words, words - yes, yes, and yes - thank you, Critchley and Webster for making them (and the play) seem newly minted once more.
Hamlet is widely regarded as the bard’s most intellectually challenging work. In simple terms its tragedy centres on the perils of indecision and hesitation, but it offers many degrees of complexity, some on the surface, some deep down in the darkest realms of the soul.
It is in these murky depths that Critchley and Webster’s The Hamlet Doctrine dwells.
Some of the commentary inhabits fairly familiar and well-trodden ground, such as the Oedipal interpretations grounded in Freudian psychoanalysis, but often the strength of the book’s narrative is in its juxtaposition of several different commentators to set up corroborations, comparisons and conflicts.
Some is challenging and provocative, as the authors ruminate on Hamlet’s essential unlikeability, his apparent role as a spymaster and tyrant-in-the-making, the possibility that Horatio is Fortinbras’s spy, the numerous potential interpretations of Ophelia’s role in the drama, and Laertes’s part as twin, mirror image and (though they don’t use the word, to my recollection) doppelganger. Their speculation that Hamlet is a nihilist, based on the repetition of the word “nothing”, may be less controversial now than when I suggested the same of Shakespeare himself in a youthful essay on Lear and Macbeth, where the word is pivotal, but they go further and combine the thesis with a romp through poor Ophelia’s sexual organs and make the connection between these and the “O” in Ophelia and the word “nothing” itself, a point explored more deeply, if you’ll pardon the expression, in Wells’s book Shakespeare, Sex And Love.
Throughout are woven a multitude of references, classical to contemporary, with Plato, Euripedes, Sophocles, Beckett, Eliot, Joyce, Racine, and ( both in bucketloads) Nietzsche and Hegel all getting a look in. There are interesting factual nuggets such as the story that Hamlet’s world premiere was on a boat off the coast of Africa, and the almost inevitable identification of Sophocles with Eeyore and Hegel with Winnie-the-Pooh. What I think they miss is that both Hamlet and Pooh have a Hum, though they do ponder the import of the prince’s for some time.
Some of the writing is somewhat irritating, as in the early stages with the repeated use of the rather unliterary and totally banal “from the get-go”, but in general the style is pop-book academic with a colloquial seasoning to inject a little rock’n’roll. Although I’d have enjoyed it in my days as an official Shakespeare scholar I’m glad it wasn’t around at the time as it would have stolen my thunder.
Our ability to approach it on many different, sometimes quite esoteric, levels is a great strength of Shakespeare’s work. It is why for over four centuries people of all classes have flocked to see it performed: each time you see a Shakespearian play it reveals something new to you. Sometimes these revelations are enhanced by commentaries like The Hamlet Doctrine. After you’ve read this, let’s see what you notice next time you attend a performance of Hamlet.