Oxfordian Journal Chapter 3: Realizing that Prince Hamlet is Drawn from the Author’s Own Psyche

Standing in the wings during our Hamlet production in college, I was watching and listening to the prince’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, when he winds up concluding that “conscience” is what often prevents us from making a decision and acting on it:

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, and thus and native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment, with this regard, their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.”

Hamlet and Ophelia – by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1858

On the surface he’s talking about being afraid of doing something that’ll get us killed, in which case we’d have to face the “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”  He also seems to be saying that “tough guys” don’t bother with conscience, so they never hesitate to go into battle – to take revenge, make war.  They act first, think later — without regard for the rights and wrongs, the pros and cons, the grays.

Hamlet lives in that gray world where nothing is either black or white.  He and John Wayne inhabited very different worlds.

I found myself drawn into the prince’s dilemma, to be or not to be, to fight or not to fight; and I could feel his painful self-loathing.  Then Ophelia enters.  The young lady is bewildered by his mood swings and erratic behavior, but she tries to put on a cheerful face:

“Good my lord, how does your honor for this many a day?

“I humbly thank you: well, well, well.”

And soon he turns on her, like a madman, saying, “I loved you not” and telling her, “Get thee to a nunnery!”

Hamlet & Ophelia – Kenneth Branagh, with Kate Winslet in the 1996 film

Standing just offstage, I was horrified by his treatment of her; but next came Hamlet’s speech that struck me with such unexpected force:

“Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?  I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.  I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.  What should such fellows as I do, crawling between earth and heaven?  We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us. “

Well, I knew he was still putting on his “antic disposition,” so he was exaggerating about being such a terrible guy.  But maybe because the actor playing him [the late Richard Kavanaugh] was so forceful and believable, it seemed to me he was also telling the truth – at least part of it.  Here, I thought, is no “classical” protagonist but a very modern main character of extraordinary complexity, full of surprises and contradictions, and he’s actually criticizing himself for having the worst kinds of human flaws.

Moreover it struck me right then that Shakespeare could not have drawn the character of Hamlet strictly from the “old tales” he had read, nor could he have created the prince out of whole cloth.  No, this character must be in some ways … autobiographical.  The playwright must have created Hamlet out of his own psychic turbulence.

So if Hamlet had become my friend it follows that the author must be my friend as well…

After that show I approached a member of the college faculty.  “What do we know about Shakespeare?” I asked him.  “I mean, what do we know about him as a person?”

“Well,” the professor said, “we know he was an actor.”

I waited for more.

“And,” he said, “we know he became a writer.”

“Ah,” I said.

The professor looked at me.  I finally nodded my head as though everything had become clear.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You’re welcome.”

Many years later I would remember this conversation and wonder why I’d never tried to learn more.

(To be continued)

Published in: Uncategorized on August 1, 2012 at 6:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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