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A Range of Interpretations of Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Hamlet: Range of Interpretations

Comments on John Russell Brown’s Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet Though I am in almost complete agreement with John Russell Brown’s close reading of Hamlet’s dying words and with his contention that “Shakespeare chose, very positively, to provide a multiplicity of meanings at this crucial point” (30), I wonder whether his analysis, helpful as it is for an understanding of the text in the study, is equally valid in the theatre. If we were speaking of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets I should find it much easier to believe in the co-existence of four or five distinct meanings, even if they “tend to cancel each other out” (27). In performance, however, we might find ourselves rather in the position of Jane Austen’s “inferior young man” Mr. Rushworth, who “hardly knew what to do with so much meaning.”1 It is true that each actor will have to choose between a range of possible interpretations, as John Russell Brown says–and no-one knows it better!–, but it is also worth paying closer attention to the textual problem involved.

Thinking about Hamlet’s last moments on the stage, I should like to make a plea for the Folio’s reading, “The rest is silence. O, o, o, o.”2 The four letters following “silence” are easily one of the most neglected utterances in the canon, surprising enough in a play in which hardly a single punctuation mark has been left unscrutinized and uncommented on.3 Most editions either ignore them completely or dismiss them as some actor’s invention. An honourable early exception is the edition of Nicolaus Delius where he explains the Folio reading as “Hamlets Todesgestöhn.”4 The only modern edition I know to take this reading seriously is The…

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…njustified derision” (352). Honigmann’s interesting article makes no direct reference to the Hamlet passage. [Back to text]

7. See, for instance, Mercutio’s “Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man” (3.1.98-99; ed. Brian Gibbons, Arden Edition [London: Methuen, 1980]). [Back to text]

8. Troilus and Cressida 5.10.22 (ed. Kenneth Palmer, Arden Edition [London: Methuen, 1982]). [Back to text]

9. This is also emphasized in Marvin Rosenberg’s stimulating study The Masks of Hamlet (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1992), who suggests a range of possible meanings even beyond John Russell Brown: “Os can be most eloquent. (Try them)” (924). It would be foolish to deny, though, that, for the actor at least, “the Os may indicate, apart from dying, something of the final mystery of Hamlet’s last perception” (923). [Back to text]

10. See Hawkes 22.

Madness and Insanity in Shakespeare’s Hamlet – Insanity in Hamlet

Insanity in Hamlet

A consideration of the madness of the hero Hamlet within the Shakespearean drama of the same name, shows that his feigned madness sometimes borders on real madness, but probably only coincidentally.

Hamlet’s conversation with Claudius is insane to the latter. Lawrence Danson in “Tragic Alphabet” describes how Hamlet’s use of the syllogism is pure madness to the king:

What Hamlet shows by his use of the syllogism is that nothing secure can rest on the falsehood that masquerades as the royal order of Denmark.

From Claudius’s point of view, however, the syllogism is simply mad: its logic is part of Hamlet’s “antic disposition.” Sane men know, after all, that “man and wife is one flesh” only in a metaphoric or symbolic sense; they know that only a madman would look for literal truth in linguistic conventions. And Claudius is right that such “madness in great ones must not unwatched go” (III.i.end). For the madman, precisely because he does not accept society’s compromises and because he explores its conventions for meanings they cannot bear, exposes the flaws which “normal” society keeps hidden (70).

Phyllis Abrahms and Alan Brody in “Hamlet and the Elizabethan Revenge Tragedy Formula” consider the madness of the hero to be completely feigned and not real:

Hamlet is a masterpiece not because it conforms to a set of conventions but because it takes those conventions and transmutes them into the pure gold of vital, relevant meaning. Hamlet’s feigned madness, for instance, becomes the touchstone for an illumination of the mysterious nature of sanity itself (44-45).

Hamlet’s first words in the play say that Claudius is “A little more than kin and less …

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…y Martin). On Some of Shakespeare’s Female Characters. 6th ed. London:

William Blackwood and Sons, 1899.

Felperin, Howard. “O’erdoing Termagant.” Modern Critical Interpretations: Hamlet. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. Rpt. of “O’erdoing Termagant: An Approach to Shakespearean Mimesis.” The Yale Review 63, no.3 (Spring 1974).

Foakes, R.A.. “The Play’s Courtly Setting.” Readings on Hamlet. Ed. Don Nardo. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1999. Rpt. of “Hamlet and the Court of Elsinore.” Shakespeare Survey: An Annual Survey of Shakespearean Study and Production. No. 9. Ed. Allardyce Nicoll. Cambridge, Eng.: Cambridge University Press, 1956.

Shakespeare, William. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. 1995. No line nos.

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