Sunday, June 3, 2012

Review of Hamlet

The Tragicall Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke by William Shakespeare, ca. 1604. Glossy's rating: 4.5 out of 10.

When you get so sick of liberal imbecility that you want to flee to an age before the poison had spread, what greets your eye first? A sincere belief in ghosts. Humanity never liked thinking straight, so moralizing fairy tales are probably the best ideology with a chance.

I probably shouldn't have expected to like Shakespeare's stuff. I frequently found his lines elegant, but not elegant enough to deserve one thousandth of the praise they've received. And sure, a lot of the original beauty and wit must have been obscured from me by time. It's not just the archaic vocabulary and allusions, although they certainly tripped me up - the pronunciation must have changed enormously. Most of the verse here is blank, but in the few short passages where it obviously isn't he rhymed words like moon and done, love and move, speak and break, propose and lose, try and enemy. This implies that modern readers are seriously mispronouncing most of his lines. It's a wonder that any of the intended elegance is still discernible.

To me the most surprising feature of his language was the abundance of shortenings that have since disappeared. Do't for do it, saw't for saw it, e'il for evil, 'gins for begins, fay for faith, wi for with, ope for open, hap for happen, 'havior for behavior and many more. Does this mean that the language in which I'm writing this review descended from some sort of a cousin of Shakespeare's English and not from the thing itself? Why would a dialect that was already well on its way to losing the v in evil and the i in it ever willingly pick them up again?

There is a lot of laconic wisdom here  - "neither a borrower nor a lender be, for loan oft loses both itself and friend, and borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry", etc. All of this wisdom is sound, but that's still not why I read plays or any sort of literature. "Show, not tell" really does work best. When a character announces another's death here he almost invariably adds a few timeless observations on loss, the transience of life and similar topics. Even when I was young and stupid enough to be able to find a lot of such wisdom wrong, encountering it in apothegm form did not help me see the light.

I've always been curious to find what the past knew about its own past. Shakespeare was definitely aware that centuries before his birth England used to pay tribute to the Danes. Yet he also mistakenly thought that there were already cannons and universities in Europe at that time. And why do so many Danes in this play bear Romance names?

The most baffling point for me didn't involve any anachronisms though. It's stated here several times that one of Claudius's motives for killing Hamlet's father was lust for Hamlet's mom. Claudius is now king, he could have anybody he wants, and yet he marries the mother of a 30-year old man? And not for any political or financial reasons, but out of lust?

I was surprised by the amount of sexual innuendo in the play. After one of his double entendres to Ophelia Hamlet describes the bawdier of the two possible interpretations as "country", i.e. countrified. I think that the point when coarseness becomes associated with urbanity instead is as good as any to mark the start of cultural rot. It would be interesting to compile a table listing the dates of earliest literary references to the connection between urbanity and coarseness for different cultures. This doesn't always have do be due to racial change. I would guess that in 1850 Paris was already less wholesome than the French provinces. But when exactly did it become so?

There are long disquisitions on theater in Hamlet. That reminded me of the long critique of contemporary books in Don Quixote, of the critique of great books in Candide. I have a feeling that literature only finally grew up when writers stopped putting that sort of thing in their works.

I'll end by saying that in general I found this play much more interesting as a window onto another time (Shakespeare's of course, not Hamlet's) than as literature.