Identity, Self-knowledge, & Perception

From Martin Scofield, The Ghosts of Hamlet: The Play and Modern Writers (Cambridge University Press, 1980) From Martin Scofield, The Ghosts of Hamlet: The Play and Modern Writers (Cambridge University Press, 1980)

Chapter Nine: Hamlet and modern literature


What over-all impression can be formed of Hamlet from the tradition, as I think it can be called, of the creative use of the play as a source of allusion, myth, mask and symbol? Despite the differences of the writers discussed, the differences of genre and the fact that they see Hamlet in different ways, certain common preoccupations do emerge, elements which it seems to me must be present in any modern reading of the play.

The flrst of these might be described as a preoccupation with Hamlet's 'identity', with what finally, if anything does, constitutes the essence of his character. And this preoccupation seems to be inevitably involved in the modern period with the idea of the ambiguity of Hamlet's experience. All the writers I have been discussing see Hamlet's 'character' as uncertain, shifting, impossible to speak of in any single and simple way. After contemplating the Hamlet of these writers it would seem that no view which ignores either the 'sweet prince' or the 'errant knave' can claim to account fully for the play; so that neither the romantic view of Coleridge, and of Bradley after him, nor the opposing modem view of, say, Wilson Knight, can seem adequate on its own. There is in the creative 'interpretations' which I have discussed a common theme of doubt about the good and evil in Hamlet, a need to give due weight to both sides. In Mallarmé, Hamlet is a type of the hero of the spirit who seeks, like the symbolist poet, to create or act in such a way as to embody the truth of life in his creation or action, to banish chance from a conception of life and discover a sense of freedom and order. But he is also the 'mauvais Hamlet' who may destroy himself and the lives around him in the effort towards this ideal, the 'black doubter' whose hesitation spreads poison. His nobility remains only latent, a 'jewel intact beneath the disaster', but it is never realized. In Igitur the hero seems to separate his finite, limited self from his true self, which watches the former disappearing into the mirror. There seems here to be a kind of crystallization of identity. But the upshot is curious: having become himself, the only task for the young prince is to die. There is no vengeance to perform as in Hamlet. The work seems as I have said to be a kind of private ritual to free Mallarmé from 'the monster of impotence' - Igitur dies and Mallarmé is left to create. The personnage referred to in Igitur seems, I have suggested, to be the hero's 'character', that romantic conception of identity which dominated nineteenth-century Shakespeare criticism and which is here described as an anachronism. Igitur's personnage, his romantic 'identity', is what disappears into the mirror: Mallarmé frees himself from the 'self'. In his criticism of Hamlet Mallarmé sees the hero's nature as radically ambiguous: In his own creations inspired by Hamlet and drawing on play and hero he seeks to explore this ambiguous identity and separate out its elements, so that the pure creative principle can emerge. In 'Le Pitre Châtié' the clown tries to shed his role but finds he needs its protective covering. In Igitur the hero separates his essential self from the inessential. In 'Un Coup de Dés' the young hero, dimly glimpsed, is utterly destroyed in the storm, but the dice is thrown and the constellation, the poem, remains: here 'identity' and self are abandoned utterly to leave the pure detached utterance.

Does Hamlet achieve any firm sense of self or identity, or does he too abandon it, and act not decialvely (that is, with resolution), but abandon himself to chance? What is Hamlet at the end of the play - a noble hero who deserves a soldier's burial? A man who has made a mess of things? As I have argued elsewhere, the feeling that chance is dominant and that Hamlet acts merely because he is prompted by events seems to me the strongest one; and we are left with various different views of Hamlet, none of which finally sums him up. And yet Claudius has been killed: perhaps we can say that as in 'Un Coup de Dés' the fall of the hero has, for him, 'no human result' - it does not crystallize or fix his identity in any way - but through it the action is carried out.

Claudel,like Laforgue,seems to respond particularly to the 'antic' side of Hamlet when, in a letter to Marcel Schwob, he remarks that 'after the apparition of the inhabitant of the other world [Hamlet] does no more on this side of the stage of life than to play a role'. One might expand this by saying that once Hamlet has glimpsed beyond the grave some kind of ultimate spiritual state, however ambiguous, his life and actions on earth seem, sub specie aeternitatis, to lose reality and to become a passing show. Claudel also, like Mallarm, seems in this letter to see Hamlet as unable to impinge decisively on events while alive, and able only by his death to bring anything about: 'Minister of death, it is only when dead already himself that [Hamlet] will be able to carry out death's works' (pp. 1455-6) - and the phrases here have overtones of destructiveness which relate Claudel's view to Wilson Knight's essay 'The Embassy of Death'.

Valéry does not directly consider Hamlet's 'identity', but one of his remarks about the difference between a finished work of literature and its author's intention bears on the question. 'Once the work has appeared its interpretation by the author has no more validity than anyone else's interpretation.' And his comment on this a few lines later suggests how Hamlet is a particularly apt example of a work, and a character, who leave themselves open to many interpretations and even to recreations like the examples considered in the present study: 'Once [the work of art] has appeared, others use it as they wish - cf. Hamlet, Tartuffe' (p. 1191). it is particularly Hamlet's lack of'identity', I would suggest, that makes him so fitting an example in this case.

Laforgue uses the mask of Hamlet to embody his sense of himself as the failed idealist or idealist-turned-decadent, at once expressing and mocking his disgust at life. In this way he questions the violence of any attempt on his part at heroism, and shows himself unworthy to be a hero, but preserves the echo of that sense of life in his new awareness. In his ironic version of the Hamlet story, and in the poems of Laforgue's middle period, the first part of this process is evident. But at the same time there is, in his use of epigraphs from the nunnery-scene, a tendency to stress Hamlet's and his own cynicism and satiric bitterness. In Laforgue we see brought to life the element of the fool or 'antic' in Hamlet's character, the buffoonery and self-mockery by which Hamlet seems to evade any decisive action and self-definition, the self-mockery of 'your only jig-maker', who makes up little rhymes and jests to lighten the burden of those crucial moments in the play like the one after the Play-scene, where Hamlet talks of getting 'a fellowship with a cry of players'. Laforgue lntensifies our sense of Hamlet as the Fool, that element which Gilbert Murray pointed out was from the first a feature of the Hamlet myth (Amloi in Saxo's version meaning 'the fool'). In the Derniers Vers the satirical element is less self-righteous and there is a new kind of decency and generosity - particularly towards his Ophelias - without suggesting any self-congratulation at the achievement. He begins to incorporate into his poetic self those elements of generosity that we see in Hamlet (towards Horatio, or the Players). Laforgue sees himself still as confused and indeterminate, but with a newly clarified sense of what that confusion is like, a new sense of proportion. And I suggest that this is remarkably like Shakespeare's Hamlet, who returns from England not resolved, but with a calmer sense of his own confusion.

T. S. Eliot, using Hamlet ironically in juxtaposition with Prufrock, reminds us both of the traditional heroic Hamlet and at the same time of Hamlet the Fool: the contrast modifies both characters. In his essay 'Hamlet and his Problems' he points to Hamlet's obsessiveness, his possession by something he cannot express. In 'Little Gidding' we see the poet in the process of achieving a new

self-awareness, almost creating a new identity, 'knowing myself yet being someone other', at the moment when he meets his ghost. Eliot is moving beyond the spirit of harshness, the mood of 'things ill done and done to others' harm / Which once you took for exercise of virtue'. Four Quartets is partly the creation of a new, profounder poetic identity. It shows by contrast something of the spirit that Shakespeare's Hamlet lacks, the spirit of remorse for things ill done, of forgiveness, and the need for the 'refining fire'. Hamlet never achieves this kind of profound identity, which sheds the Prufrockian foolery and the moralist's self-righteousness. Torn between his command to put an end to an evil usurper and his sense of the confusion of his own spirit he can only finally act in a spirit of fatalism and egoism.

Joyce's Ulysses has for one of its main subjects the discovery of a new artistic identity via the development of Stephen. At the end of A Portrait of the Artist Stephen is a kind of self-righteous Hamlet, and this persists in much of Ulysses. He is out to rid Ireland of 'the Priest and the King', but he is also aware of the confusion in himself, the priggishness, melancholy, and lack of humanity. His theory of Hamlet is the product of a deep sense of doubt about life and creativity, and he sees the play as the product of the spirit of jealousy and revenge. In the psychological melting-pot of the 'Circe' episode this kind of consciousness begins to be dissolved and the theory of Hamlet is evaporated by exaggeration. And in the meeting with Bloom we see a new Stephen beginning to develop, a self modified by the awareness of Bloom, a movement towards the ideal artistic view of life, the 'sane and joyful spirit'. Does [Shakespeare's] Hamlet move in this direction by the end of the play? We need only recall the morbid reflections of the graveyard scene, or that as he goes off to the duel all is ill about his heart. Hamlet never achieves a fully human sense of the world. But Joyce's presentation of Hamlet as it exists in the mind of Bloom reminds us that the play is not all Hamlet the character. The spirit of the gravediggers makes us aware of a simpler and more robust sense of life which, together with other suggestions in the play, give us a context in which to view the dilemma of Hamlet himself.

In [D.H.] Lawrence the question of Hamlet's 'identity', that which constitutes his true being, is central. He makes us aware of the conflict between Hamlet's sincerity and his obsessions. He sees Hamlet as the type of the Renaissance European who becomes disillusioned with the flesh, the 'ego ', the idea of aristocracy and the king. His Hamlet is a Puritan and a regicide. He cannot 'be' in the body, in the old assertion of the ego, yet he is commanded to 'be' by avenging his father. He hovers between this vengeful assertion and the resignation, the 'not-being' of Christian spirituality. There is, for Lawrence, no reconciliation between the two at the end. Hamlet does not achieve an identity: one might say that this is Hamlet's fundamental tragic failure.

In the Kierkegaardian view of Hamlet the same sense of conflicting possibilities of good and evil is also central. Hamlet can never be either the hero or just the neurotic meddler (a Gregers Werle) because he is made up of too many elements which never resolve themselves into an identity. The action of the play is the postponing of the moment of decisive action which would crystallize this identity, or rather a magnification of that period before action in order to consider it fully. Hamlet is 'shut up', never reveals himself fully. The conflict between his demoniacal nature and his heroic and humane nature is never settled, and I think Kierkegaard would have seen this as the essence of the tragedy. In all the other Shakesperian tragedies the protagonist does reveal himself, takes the step into the tragic action which decides his fate, and reveals the depth of his nature in which the good is defeated by the evil but not destroyed. All the other tragic heroes are forced at some point to face what they have done and to know themselves, although in Lear the realization that 'I am a very foolish fond old man' is fleeting, and in Othello a self-deception, a clinging to heroism, persists to the end. But in Hamlet all is confusion, and Hamlet can only say 'I do not know': his 'real self' is still at the end in a kind of latent state (Mallarmé spoke of the 'latent hero' in Hamlet). Hamlet has, in this sense, not been 'put on', as Fortinbras says. 'Courtier, soldier, scholar', 'sweet prince', 'errant knave'- Hamlet has become none of these: they are still all in solution at the end of the play.

Hamlet, this train of thought suggests, is a tragedy of identity. I mean the phrase to incorporate, the idea of self-knowledge, and the perception of others' identities. For without the latter there can be no achievement of identity, the sense of a known self and its relations with others. Kierkegaard's 'dread' is a dread of what the self may become, or rather what it will turn out to be when revealed. It is as I suggested above, an ignorance of the self and the future. Claudel suggested a Hamlet (and, a Mallarmé) who was a 'professeur d'attention', attentive to the signs which surround him, each of which carries a hidden meaning. The world of Hamlet, for all the characters in the play, is a world of such signs, and they remain enigmatic. None of the characters, in answer to their question, What may this mean?, ever discovers fully what is going on and how much the others know. Claudius dies without revealing whether he realizes that Hamlet knows about the exact circumstances of his crime. Nor does his guilt ever 'unkennel itself in one speech' as Hamlet hoped it would. We do not know exactly how much Hamlet tells Horatio, or how much Horatio credits it. We do not know exactly how much Hamlet loved Ophelia, or why Ophelia calls Hamlet 'unkind' so early in the nunnery scene - before his unkindness has shown itself in the play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not pluck out the heart of Hamlet's mystery, but nor does anyone else, and nor does the play. 'Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in the shape of a camel?', Hamlet asks Polonius. And Polonius:
  - By th' mass and 'tis, like a camel indeed.
  - Methinks it is like a weasel.
  - It is backed like a weasel.
  - Or like a whale.
  - Very like a whale.

Shapes are ambiguous and uncertain in Hamlet, perception is blurred. Did the King see the Dumb Show? If so, what did he see? Does Hamlet interpret his reaction correctly? We do not know. Our perception is mainly through the eyes of Hamlet, but we cannot be sure that those eyes themselves are clear because we cannot know Hamlet himself. If, in Kafka's words, 'Evil is a radiation of the human consciousness in certain transitional positions', we must say that Hamlet's consciousness seems to remain in some transitional position, so that we cannot be sure if Hamlet has seen evil and detached it from himself, or if he is still involved in it and projecting it on what he sees.

  - Who's there?
  - Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

But Hamlet's self is never unfolded.

.... among those aspects to which modern writers have most responded [is] the essential idea of Hamlet as a 'divided man', and the idea of the fallibilities of perception. If these things are there in the play they are the fitting discoveries of an age which has felt acutely the ambiguities of temporal and spiritual authority, the relativities of perception, and the problems of identity.