The Psychology of Art. Vygotsky 1925
The Riddle of Hamlet. “Subjective” and “Objective” Solutions. The Problem of Hamlet’a Character. Structure of the Tragedy. Fable and Subject. Identification of the Hero. Catastrophe.
The tragedy of Hamlet is generally considered an enigma. It differs from Shakespeare’s other tragedies as well as from the works of others in that its course of action never fails to surprise and bewilder the spectator. This is why the essays and critical studies on the play are more like commentaries. They have one trait in common: all try to solve the riddle set by Shakespeare. After his first encounter with the ghost, Hamlet is expected to kill the king—why is he unable to do this? And why does the play reflect nothing but his failure to act? Shakespeare does not explain the reasons for Hamlet’s inertia, and thus the critics approach the riddle from two different angles: the first, from the character and personal experiences of Hamlet, and the second, from the environmental obstacles in his path. According to one viewpoint, the problem lies in Hamlet’s personality. Critics of this persuasion attempt to show that the reason for Hamlet’s delay in taking revenge is that his feelings rebel against an act of violence, that he is irresolute and weak willed, or that, as Goethe claimed, too heavy a task was placed on his weak shoulders. Since none of these interpretations allows for an exhaustive explanation of the tragedy, we can positively say that they are devoid of any scientific significance, for exactly opposite views may exist just as rightfully. Other critics explain Hamlet’s lingering as a manifestation of his state of mind, as if he were a real person. These critics usually argue from true-life experience and human nature, not from the artistic structure of the play. They go so far as to say that Shakespeare intended to show the tragedy of the weak-willed person called upon to perform a task for which he is not properly equipped. They regard Hamlet as a tragedy of weakness and the absence of will, despite the scenes in which the hero exhibits just the opposite character traits and appears as a man of extraordinary determination, courage, valor, and implacability in the face of moral considerations.
Another school of critics seeks to explain Hamlet’s procrastination by the objective obstacles that lie on the path to his goal. The king and his courtiers exert opposition against Hamlet, who does not kill the king at once, because it is impossible for him to do so. These critics, who follow Werder’s view, claim that Hamlet’s task is not to kill the king but to expose his guilt and chastise him. We can, of course, find as many arguments in favor of this view as opposed to it. These critics are badly mistaken, because they miss two fundamental points. First, nowhere in the tragedy does Shakespeare formulate such a task for Hamlet, either directly or by implication. The critics, therefore, are attempting to write for Shakespeare by inventing new, complicated tasks, again proceeding from common sense and life experience rather than from the aesthetics of tragedy. Also, they are shutting their eyes and ears to many scenes and monologues in which Hamlet, aware of the subjective character of his procrastination but unable to understand the reasons for it, attempts some explanations, none of which suffices fully to support his actions.
Both groups of critics agree however, that the tragedy is highly enigmatic; this admission takes most of the substance out of their arguments. Indeed, if their considerations were correct, the tragedy would have no riddle. How could the play be mysteriously enigmatic if Shakespeare intended merely to portray a weak and undecided person? It would be clear from the outset that the hero’s procrastination is due to his irresolution. A play about a weak-willed character would be a bad one if his weakness were concealed in a riddle. If the critics of the second group, those who claim that the main difficulties arise from external causes, were correct, then Hamlet would fail because Shakespeare, unable to represent with clarity the real meaning of the tragedy (this very struggle with external obstacles), would disguise it, too, with a riddle. The critics are trying to solve Hamlet’s mystery with arguments irrelevant to the tragedy itself. They approach it as if it were a case from actual life, which must be explained and understood on the basis of common sense. According to Berné’s very pertinent remark, a veil has been thrown over the picture, but in trying to lift it in order to examine the picture beneath we discover that the veil is painted into the picture itself. This observation is quite accurate, for it is easy to show that the riddle has been intentionally built into the tragedy. The tragedy is structured as a riddle, which cannot be explained nor solved by strictly logical means. By depriving the tragedy of its riddle, the critics deprive the play of its most essential element.
Let us now consider the enigma of the play. Despite differences in approach, critics unanimously note the obscurity and ambiguity of the play. Hessner speaks of Hamlet as a tragedy-mask. According to Kuno Fischer, we stand before Hamlet and his tragedy as if we were standing before a curtain. We expect the curtain to rise and reveal the image, but we discover that the image concealed is none other than the curtain itself. Berné says that Hamlet is an absurdity, worse than the death of one that has not yet been born. Goethe refers to some somber mystery associated with the tragedy. Schlegel compares it to an irrational equation. Baumgardt mentions the complexity of a fable that contains a long series of diverse and unexpected events. “The tragedy Hamlet indeed resembles a labyrinth,” writes Kuno Fischer. “Hamlet,” says Brandes, “is not permeated by a ‘general meaning’ or by the idea of unity. Certainty and definition were not the ideals which Shakespeare was striving to reach ... The play is laden with riddles and contradictions, but its charm and attractiveness are due mostly to its obscurity. Speaking of “obscure” books Brandes claims that Hamlet is one such: “At times a gulf opens between the action that envelops the play like a mantle, and the core of the play.” “Hamlet remains a mystery,” says C O Brink, “but an infinitely attractive one, because we know that it is not artificially construed but draws its origin from nature’s wisdom.” “But Shakespeare created a mystery,” to quote Dowden, “which remains a question, forever exciting, but never fully explained. Therefore one cannot assume that an idea or a magical formula can solve the difficulties presented by the drama or suddenly shed light upon all. Obscurity is characteristic of a work of art concerned, not with a specific problem, but with life; and in that life, in the story of a soul that treads the shady boundary between dark night and bright day there are many things that defy or confuse investigation.”
We could continue forever with these excerpts and quotations, since almost all critics dwell on this subject. Even such deprecators of Shakespeare as Tolstoy and Voltaire state essentially the same view. Voltaire, for example, in the introduction to his tragedy Semiramis states that “the course of events in the tragedy Hamlet is a huge mess.” Rümelin describes the play as a whole as “incomprehensible.”
All these critics see in the obscurity a mantle that conceals a center, a curtain that hides an image, or a veil that prevents our eyes from seeing the picture underneath. But if Hamlet is what the critics claim it to be, why is it shrouded in so much mystery and obscurity? Frequently the mystery is greatly exaggerated, and even more frequently it is based on utter misunderstanding. Such misunderstanding underlies Merezhkovskii’s view that “the ghost appears to Hamlet in an atmosphere of solemnity and romanticism, with claps of thunder and earthquakes… The ghost tells Hamlet of the secrets of the dead, of God, blood, and vengeance.” This might be read in operatic libretto, but certainly not in the actual Hamlet.
We can therefore disregard all criticism, which tries to separate the enigma from the tragedy and take the veil from the picture. However, it may be of some interest to see how this criticism deals with the inscrutability of Hamlet’s character and behavior. Berné says that “Shakespeare is a king who does not obey laws. Were he like anyone else, we could say that Hamlet is a lyrical character who defines dramatic processing.” Brandes also notes this incongruity: “We must not forget that this dramatic phenomenon—an inactive hero—is required to some extent by the technique of the play. If Hamlet were to kill the king immediately upon receiving the ghost’s message, the play would have to be restricted to one act. Hence, it becomes imperative to find delaying tactics.” But this need to delay would imply that the subject is not suited to tragedy, that Shakespeare artificially delays an action that could be completed instantly, and introduces four superfluous acts into a play capable of being resolved in a single act. Montague notices this, too, and provides an excellent formula: “Inaction is the action of the first three acts.” Beck comes to a similar interpretation. He explains everything by the contradiction between the plot of the play and the character of the protagonist. The plot belongs to the chronicle into which Shakespeare has woven his subject, and Hamlet’s character belongs to Shakespeare himself. Between the two there is an irreconcilable contradiction. “Shakespeare was not fully the master of his own play and was not completely free to use all its component parts,” a deficiency which can be attributed to the chronicle. This view, however, is so simple and self-evident that it is pointless to look elsewhere for solutions or explanations. Thus we turn to a new group of critics who seek the solution to Hamlet either in the requirements of dramatic technique (as mentioned by Brandes) or in the historic and literary roots of the tragedy. In this case, however, it is obvious that the author’s talent is defeated by the rigid rules of technique, or that the historic background of the subject exceeds the possibilities of artistic treatment. In either case we must regard Hamlet as a failure because Shakespeare was unable to select a suitable subject for his tragedy. Then Zhukovskii would be correct in saying that “Shakespeare’s masterpiece, Hamlet, looks like a monstrosity to me. I don’t understand its meaning. Those who find so much in Hamlet exhibit the wealth of their own thought and imagination rather than prove the superiority of the play. I can’t believe that Shakespeare, when composing this tragedy, thought in exactly the same way as Schlegel and Tieck did, when they read into its incongruities all the unsolved riddles of human life ... I asked him to read Hamlet to me and then tell me in detail his thoughts on this monstrosity.”
Goncharov holds the same view. He claims that Hamlet cannot be played on stage. “Hamlet is not a typical role. No one can play it; there has never been an actor who could play it ... He would lose himself in it as if he were the Wandering Jew ...Hamlet’s character is a phenomenon which anyone in a normal state of mind simply cannot comprehend.” Not all the literary critics who seek to explain Hamlet’s wavering by technical or historical means think that Shakespeare has written a bad play. Many of them point to the positive aesthetic aspects of Hamlet’s procrastination. Volkenshteyn, for instance, holds a different view, which is the opposite of Heine’s, Berné’s, Turgenev’s, and many others, who believe that Hamlet himself is weak willed and spineless. The opinions of this group are reflected in Hebbel’s words: “Hamlet is a corpse, long before the curtain rises. What we see are the roses and thorns which sprung from his corpse.” Volkenshteyn feels that the true essence of a drama, particularly a tragedy, is the tension and stress of passions; he also feels that a tragedy is always supported by the hero’s inner strength. This is why he believes that the view of Hamlet as a weak-willed and spineless person “is based on the blind trust in semantics which characterizes some of the most profound literary criticism.
“... A dramatic hero cannot be taken for what he says he is. He must be judged for his acts. Hamlet’s acts are energetic. He alone carries on a long and bloody fight with the king and the entire Danish court. In his tragic striving for the restoration of justice, he attacks the king three times: the first time he kills Polonius by mistake; the second time he spares the king because the latter is praying; and the third time, at the end of the play, he succeeds. With superb ingenuity he sets a trap to corroborate the statements of the ghost. He deftly eliminates Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from his path. Indeed, he conducts a titanic struggle... Hamlet’s versatile, strong character corresponds to his physical fitness: Laertes is the best fencer in France, yet Hamlet defeats him because he turns out to be more adroit (how this contradicts Turgenev’s assertion of Hamlet’s physical weakness!). The protagonist of the tragedy shows a maximum of will. ... We would not feel the tragedy in Hamlet if its hero were irresolute and weak.” There is nothing new in outlining those traits in Hamlet which denote his strength and courage. This has been done many times before as has the demonstration of the obstacles facing Hamlet. What is new is the treatment of the material which deals with Hamlet’s irresolution and weakness. According to Volkenshteyn all the monologues in which Hamlet reproaches himself for his lack of resolution are but instruments to whip up his will; they do not illustrate weakness, but rather his strength.
Thus, according to Volkenshteyn, Hamlet’s self-accusations are yet another evidence of his extraordinary strength of character. His titanic struggle requires a maximum of effort and fortitude, but he is not satisfied with himself and he demands still more of himself. This interpretation proves that the contradictions are not accidental but have been introduced intentionally and that, moreover, they are only seemingly fortuitous. Any mention of weakness and irresolution is evidence of exactly the opposite—Hamlet’s formidable will. But even this attempt to solve Hamlet’s problem is not entirely successful. As a matter of fact, it repeats, only in slightly different terms, the earlier view of Hamlet’s character, without explaining why he procrastinates, why he does not kill the king in the first act, immediately after the revelations of the ghost (as suggested by Brandes), or why the tragedy does not end with the first act. We are thus forced to side with Werder, who claims that the exterior obstacles represent the true cause of Hamlet’s procrastination. This view, however, is in complete contradiction with the meaning of the play. We may agree, though, with the fact that Hamlet is conducting a titanic struggle, if we proceed from Hamlet’s own character. Let us assume that tremendous forces are concentrated within him. But with whom does he conduct his struggle, against whom is it directed, and how does it express itself? No sooner are these questions asked than it becomes obvious that Hamlet’s opponents are nonentities and the forces preventing him from murder are insignificant; he himself blindly gives in to the machinations directed against him. The critic cannot but note that although prayer saves the king’s life once, there is hardly any indication that Hamlet is devout or that he spares the praying king because of any deep personal conviction. On the contrary, this reason crops up as if by accident and is almost incomprehensible to the spectator. The accidental killing of Polonius proves that Hamlet’s decision to kill was made immediately after the players’ performance before the court. Why, then, does his sword smite the king only at the very end of the tragedy? Finally, no matter how premeditated or accidental, no matter how limited by outward circumstances his struggle may be, most of the time Hamlet is parrying blows directed against him rather than carrying on his own attack. The murders of Guildenstern and all the rest are nothing but self-defense, and we cannot possibly term such self-defense a titanic struggle. We will show that Hamlet’s three attempts to kill the king, to which Volkenshteyn refers, are evidence of exactly the opposite of what that critic sees in them.
Equally poor interpretation was the staging of Hamlet by the Second Moscow Art Theatre, a production which followed Volkenshteyn’s line closely. The directors proceeded from the clash of two distinct aspects of human nature. “One is protesting, heroic, fighting to assert its own sense of life. This is our Hamlet. In order to emphasize this aspect of our hero we hid to shorten the text of the tragedy considerably and eliminate from it all that could possibly interfere with the whirl of events. ...As early as the middle of the second act Hamlet takes his sword in his hand and does not let it go until the end of the tragedy. We have also underscored Hamlet’s activity by condensing all the obstacles which he encounters in his path. This was our guideline in the treatment of the king and the other characters. King Claudius personifies everything that attempts to thwart the heroic Hamlet...And our Hamlet dwells continuously in an impassioned state of struggle against all that is personified by the king ... To emphasize the shades and colors in the play we found it necessary to transfer the action to the Middle Ages.” Thus spoke the directors of the play in their announcement of plans for the staging of Hamlet. They admit quite openly that for stage requirements and for better understanding of the tragedy they had to perform the following three operations on the play: to discard from it everything that prevents such an understanding; to condense the obstacles that lie in Hamlet’s way; and to accentuate the shades and colors in the play, while transferring the action to the Middle Ages (despite the fact that the play is usually seen as taking place during the Renaissance). After three such operations it is obvious that any and all interpretations of the drama are possible. It is also obvious that these three operations transform the tragedy into something diametrically opposed to the author’s intent. The fact that such radical surgery was required to produce a particular interpretation of Shakespeare’s work is the best evidence of the immense discrepancy between the true meaning of Hamlet’s story and the meaning attributed to it by the critics. To illustrate the almost colossal contradictions which beset this staged version of Hamlet, it suffices to mention that the king, who has a fairly modest role in the original play, suddenly becomes the heroic counterpart to Hamlet . If Hamlet, as the focal point of heroic, enlightened will, is one of the tragedy’s poles, then the king, as the focal point of the antiheroic, dark power, is its other pole. But to reduce the role of the king to The personification of all the negative principles of life would require the writing of a new tragedy with a purpose different from that pursued by Shakespeare.
Much closer to the truth are those explanations of Hamlet’s irresolution which, while also proceeding from formal considerations, try to solve the riddle without performing major surgical operations on the original text. One such attempt is an explanation of some of the peculiarities of Hamlet based on the technique and design of the Shakespearean stage . Its importance, cannot be denied; indeed study of the subject is vital to a proper understanding of the tragedy. In this regard, significance is acquired by Prels’ law of temporal continuity in the Shakespearean drama which requires from both audience and author a concept of staging totally different from that of our modern theaters. We divide a play into acts, each involving only the brief time interval during which the events represented in it occur. Important events, and their effects, take place between acts, and the audience learns about them subsequently. Acts may be separated by intervals of several years. All this requires specific stylistic techniques. Things were totally different in Shakespeare’s day: the action was continuous, a play apparently was not divided into acts, the performance was not interrupted by intermissions, and everything happened before the eyes of the audience. This important aesthetic convention was bound to have a considerable bearing upon the composition and the structure of any play. Many things become clear once we acquaint ourselves with the technique and aesthetics of the stage of Shakespeare’s time. But if we overstep the boundary and assume that by establishing the necessity of some technical measure we have solved the problem of the play, we commit a grave error. We must be able to discern the extent to which each device is really due to the stage technique of that time. This, however, is not sufficient, for we must also show the psychological significance of the device. We must explain why from among many such devices Shakespeare chose this one, since to admit that a device can be explained only by its technical indispensability is tantamount to a declaration of the supremacy of bare technique over art. There is no doubt that the structure of a play greatly depends upon its technique, but it is also true that each and every technical device acquires its own aesthetic significance Here is a simple example. Silverswan says: “The poet was greatly hampered by a specific stage arrangement. Among the cases that show the inevitability of the exit of the actors from the stage, or the impossibility of having the play or scene end with a group of persons on stage, we have those in which there are corpses on stage. They cannot be made to rise and walk out. But in Hamlet, for instance, Fortinbras appears at the end (he is otherwise totally superfluous), with many other people, for the sole purpose of exclaiming:
Take up the bodies: such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.
Exeunt all, bearing off the dead bodies.
The reader can find a great number of such instances if he reads Shakespeare’s plays carefully. Here we have an example of an interpretation of the final scene of Hamlet based solely upon technical considerations. It is obvious that without a curtain, with the action unfolding before the audience on an open stage, the playwright must end his play in such a way as to allow someone to carry away the corpses. Someone has to remove the bodies in the final scene of Hamlet; however, this could be done in several different ways. The bodies could be taken by the courtiers, or simply by the Danish guard. Thus, even from this strictly technical necessity, we should never conclude that Fortinbras appears only for the purpose of removing the corpses, that he is otherwise totally superfluous. Let us look at Kuno Fischer’s interpretation of the tragedy. He sees the theme of revenge embodied in three different characters: Hamlet, Laertes, and Fortinbras, all avengers of their respective fathers. Thus, it becomes immediately evident that Fortinbras’ final appearance acquires a deep artistic significance, since the revenge theme reaches its final resolution. The procession of the victorious Fortinbras before the bodies of the other two avengers, who have been constantly juxtaposed to him, is highly significant. Here a strictly technical device acquires an aesthetic meaning. We shall be forced more than once to resort to such an analysis, and the rule established by Prels will prove very helpful in explaining Hamlet’s procrastination. This, however, only the beginning of the investigation. The principal task consists in arriving at an understanding of the aesthetic expediency of a device once its technical necessity on stage has been established. Otherwise we shall have to conclude, with Brandes, that technique wholly dominates the poet, not vice versa, and that Hamlet procrastinates during four acts merely because Elizabethan plays were written in five acts rather than one. We shall never understand why the same technique that confines and restricts Shakespeare exactly as it does other authors creates one aesthetic in Shakespeare’s work and another in the tragedies of his contemporaries; or moreover, why the same technique compels Shakespeare to write Othello, King Lear, Macbeth, and Hamlet in completely different ways. Obviously, within the limits allowed the poet by his technique, he retains freedom of creation and composition. The same inadequacy is found in attempts to explain Hamlet entirely from formal requirements, which establish perfectly correct rules that may help to understand the tragedy but are totally inadequate for its explanation. This is how Eichenbaum casually speaks about Hamlet: “As a matter of fact, it is not because the action in the tragedy is delayed that Schiller has to analyze the psychology of procrastination; quite the contrary, Wallenstein [one of Schiller’s tragic heroes] procrastinates because action in the tragedy must be held back, and the delay must be concealed. The same happens with Hamlet. It is not in vain that there exist directly contradictory interpretations of Hamlet as a personality. All of these are correct in their own way, because all of them are equally mistaken. Both Hamlet and Wallenstein represent two aspects indispensable for the treatment of tragic forms: a driving force and a delaying force. Instead of a simple movement forward on the path of the subject, or plot, we have something like a dance with complex movements. From a psychological point of view we run into contradictions. This is inevitable, because psychology serves only as a motivation: the hero only seems to be a personality; in reality he is a mask.
Shakespeare introduces the ghost into his tragedy and makes a philosopher out of Hamlet, thus motivating both movement and procrastination. Schiller forces Wallenstein to become a traitor almost against his will in order to create movement in the tragedy; then he introduces astrology as a factor to bring about procrastination.
Here a number of perplexing questions arise. Let us agree with Echenbaum that for the proper treatment of art forms, the protagonist must simultaneously develop and delay the action. Can this insight explain Hamlet? No more than the need to remove the corpses at the end of the play can explain the appearance of Fortinbras. This is true for both Shakespeare and Schiller. Why, then, has one written Hamlet, and the other Wallenstein? Why have an identical stage technique and identical formal requirements led once to the creation of Macbeth and another time to Hamlet, two plays which are completely opposed in their composition? Let us assume that the protagonist’s psychology is nothing but the audience’s illusion and is introduced by the author only as a motivation. But then, is the motivation chosen by the author of any significance to the tragedy? Are the motivation and its selection arbitrary? Does motivation mean anything in itself, or is the effect of the rules of tragedy identical no matter what the motivation or the concrete form of its manifestation, just as the correctness of an algebraic formula remains constant, no matter what arithmetic values are substituted in it?
Thus, formalism, which began with a healthy respect for concrete form, degenerates to the point of reducing certain individual forms to algebraic formulae. No one will contradict Schiller when he says that a tragic poet “must drag out the torment of feelings”, but we cannot understand why this torment is dragged out in Macbeth where the action develops at a breath-taking pace, and again in Hamlet, where the action is very slow. Eichenbaum believes that his formula explains Hamlet completely. S hakespeare introduces the ghost as a motivation for movement. He makes Hamlet into a philosopher in order to bring about delay. Schiller uses other motivations—astrology in place of philosophy and treason in place of a ghost. Why, then, do we have two completely different consequences from one and the same cause? Or must we admit that the cause given here may not be the true one or that it may not explain everything sufficiently? Indeed, it may not even explain the most superficial events. Here is an example: “For some reason,” says Eichenbaum, “we love ‘psychologies’ and ‘characteristics.’ We naively believe that a writer wants to ‘express’ or ‘represent’ a psychology or a character. We rack our brains about Hamlet—did Shakespeare really want to express procrastination, or did he want to express something else? In point of fact, however, the artist does not represent or express any such thing, for he is not concerned with psychology. Nor do we go to see Hamlet to study psychology.” ‘
All this is true, of course, but does it follow that the choice of the character or the psychology of the protagonist makes no difference to the author? It is true that we do not see Hamlet in order to study the psychology of procrastination, but it is equally true that were we to change Hamlet’s character, the play would lose its entire effect. Of course the author has not written the tragedy for the purpose of giving a treatise on psychology or human character. Nevertheless, the hero’s psychology and character are neither meaningless, random, nor arbitrary elements they are extremely important aesthetically, and to explain Hamlet in one sentence the way Eichenbaum does is not satisfactory. If we claim that action is delayed in Hamlet because the hero is a philosopher, then we must accept and repeat the opinion of the dull books and articles Eichenbaum tries to disprove. Indeed the traditional approach psychology and the study of character asserts that Hamlet fails to kill the king because he is a philosopher. The same shallow approach claims that the ghost is introduced in order to force Hamlet into action. However, Hamlet could have gotten the information from other sources. All we have to do is turn to the tragedy itself to realize that action is not delayed by Hamlet’s philosophy but by something else.
Those who want to study Hamlet as a psychological problem must abandon criticism. We have tried to show how little guidance it gives the scholar, and how it can occasionally lead investigators astray. The first step toward a psychological study of Hamlet is to discard the 11,000 volumes of commentary that have crushed the hero under their weight, and of which Tolstoy speaks with horror. The tragedy must be taken as it stands if we are to understand what it reveals, not to the sophisticated commentator but to the honest beholder; it has to be taken in its unexplicated form and looked at as it is. Otherwise we run the risk of interpreting a dream rather than studying the play. Only one such attempt to look at Hamlet with unsophisticated simplicity is known to us. It was made by Tolstoy who, with ingenious boldness, wrote a brilliant article on Shakespeare which, for some unfathomable reason, is generally considered stupid and uninteresting. This is what he writes:
None of Shakespeare’s characters shows, in such a striking fashion, the playwright’s - I don’t want to say inability—complete disregard for proper characterization as does Hamlet. None of his other plays reveals as much as Hamlet the blind worship of Shakespeare, the unreasoning hypnosis which does not even admit the thought that a work of Shakespeare’s can be anything but brilliant or that one of his main characters can be anything but the expression of some new, deeply involved idea.
Shakespeare takes a reasonably good story or drama written some 15 years earlier, writes his own play from it, putting into the mouth of the principal character, quite inopportunely (as he always does), all those ideas of his own which he thinks worthy of consideration. But, in doing so ... he is totally unconcerned about when and under what circumstances these ideas are uttered. Thus the character who expresses all these ideas becomes Shakespeare’s mouthpiece and loses his own essence to the extent that his deeds do not correspond to his words.
Hamlet’s personality is quite understandable in the story from which Shakespeare drew his play. He is outraged by his uncle’s and mother’s deed, wants to take vengeance on them, but is afraid his uncle might kill him as he did his father, and therefore feigns insanity. ...
All this is clear, and it follows from Hamlet’s character and position. But by putting into Hamlet’s mouth those ideas which Shakespeare wants to tell the world, and by forcing him to perform those actions which Shakespeare needs for preparing the most effective scenes, the author destroys the character of the Hamlet of the legend. For the entire duration of the play Hamlet does not act the way he might want or might like to, but the way the author requires him to act: at one time he is terrorized by his father’s ghost, and another time he chaffs at him, calling him an old mole; first he loves Ophelia, later he teases her cruelly, and so forth. It is impossible to find an explanation for Hamlet’s actions or words, and it is therefore impossible to assign to him any character at all.
But since it is generally accepted that the great Shakespeare could not possibly write anything bad, scholars and critics have racked, and are racking their brains to discover some unusual beauty in an obvious defect, which is particularly evident and quite irritating in Hamlet, where the protagonist has no character. The wise critics now proclaim that Hamlet expresses, with extraordinary power, a completely new and profound character, whose distinguishing feature is the absence of character, and that only the genius of a Shakespeare could create such a profound characterless character. Having established this, the scholarly critics proceed to write volume upon volume to praise and explain the greatness and significance of the characterization of a person without character. It is true that some of the critics occasionally produce timid remarks that there might be something odd about that character, that Hamlet is an unsolvable riddle; but no one finds the courage to say that the emperor is naked, that it is perfectly plain that Shakespeare was either unable or unwilling to give Hamlet a specific character. Nor did he understand that it was at all necessary. And so the scholarly critics continue to study, investigate, and extol this mysterious literary production. ...
We defer to Tolstoy’s opinion, not because we believe his conclusions to be correct or absolutely trustworthy. The reader will understand that Tolstoy’s final judgment of Shakespeare issues from non-artistic motivations; the decisive factor in his moral condemnation of Shakespeare is the fact that he regards the latter’s morals as irreconcilable with his own moral ideals. We must bear in mind that this moralistic approach has led Tolstoy to disapprove not only of Shakespeare but of many other authors and their works. Toward the end of his life he considered even his own writings harmful and unworthy, proving that this moralistic view reaches beyond the boundaries of art, is too broad and universal to take account of details, and cannot be applied in the psychological investigation of art. However, Tolstoy supports his moralistic conclusions with purely aesthetic arguments; these appear to be so convincing as to destroy that unreasoning and unreasonable hypnosis which surrounds Shakespeare and his opus. Tolstoy looks at Hamlet with the eyes of the child in Andersen’s fairy tale of the emperor’s new clothes; he is the first who has the courage to say that the emperor is naked, i.e., that all the merits, such as profundity, precision of character, penetration of the depths of the human psyche, and so forth, exist only in the spectator’s imagination. Tolstoy’s greatest merit lies in his statement that the emperor is naked, with which he exposes not primarily Shakespeare but the preposterous and false concept of the Bard, with which he compares his own opinion which he considers diametrically opposed to the one accepted by the entire civilized world. Thus, pursuing a moralistic aim, Tolstoy destroys one of the most absurd prejudices in the history of literature. He was the first to express boldly what now has been confirmed by many, namely, that Shakespeare fails to give convincing psychological motivation to quite a few of the intrigues and actions in his plays, that his characters are often implausible, and that frequently there are serious incongruities, unacceptable to common sense, between the protagonist’s character and his actions. Stoll, for instance, bluntly asserts that in Hamlet Shakespeare is more interested in the situation than in the hero’s character, that Hamlet should be viewed as a tragedy of intrigue in which the decisive role is played by the sequence of events and not by the disclosure of the hero’s character. Rugg holds the same view. He speculates that Shakespeare does not entangle the action in order to complicate Hamlet’s character, but that he complicates the character to make the hero fit more easily into the traditional dramatic concept of the fable. Such commentaries are by no means unique, nor do they stand alone among other conflicting opinions. In other Shakespearean plays, quite a few facts have been found which prove incontestably that Tolstoy’s assertion is basically correct. We will show how Tolstoy’s opinion can be properly applied to such tragedies as Othello, and King Lear, how convincing he has roved the irrelevance of character in Shakespeare’s works and how precisely he has understood the aesthetic significance of Shakespeare’s language.
We take, as the starting point for our discussion, the obvious view, according to which no specific character can be assigned to Hamlet, for he is made up of contradictory traits, and it is impossible to find a credible explanation for his words and actions. However, we will dispute Tolstoy’s views on Shakespeare’s complete inability to represent the artistic progress of the action. Tolstoy fails to understand, or perhaps does not want to accept, Shakespeare’s aesthetics. By narrating the latter’s artistic devices in plain language, he transposes the author’s poetic language into a language of prose, removes the devices from the aesthetic functions which they perform in the drama—and reaches a nonsensical conclusion. This, of course, is bound to happen if we perform a similar operation on the work of any other poet and deprive his text of its proper sense by narrating the story in plain language. Tolstoy proceeds to recount King Lear, scene by scene, to show the preposterousness of their concatenation. Were we to do the same to his Anna Karenina, we would reduce that novel to a similar bundle of absurd nonsense. What Tolstoy says about Anna Karenina can also be applied to King Lear. It is impossible to retell the facts of a novel or a tragedy and express its meaning, because meaning can only be found in the combination of ideas. Tolstoy claims that this combination is not made up of thoughts but of “something else” which cannot be expressed in words but only through images, scenes, situations, and so forth. To retell King Lear in one’s own words is as impossible as putting music into words. This is why narration is the least convincing method of artistic critique. His basic mistake, however, did not prevent Tolstoy from making a number of brilliant discoveries which will supply students of Shakespeare with many interesting problems for years to come and which of course will be interpreted in a way different from Tolstoy’s. While we agree with Tolstoy that Hamlet has no character, we persevere in our argument: Could this lack of character be an artistic intention of the author rather than just a mistake? Of course Tolstoy is right when he points out the absurdity of those arguments that maintain that the depth of Shakespeare’s character lies in this absence of character. We cannot dismiss the idea, however, that in this tragedy, Shakespeare had no intention of revealing, describing or studying a character per se, and that he may intentionally have used a character totally unfit for the particular events of the play in order to obtain a specific artistic effect from the paradox.
We shall show the fallacy of the idea that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is a tragedy of character. At this point, however, we shall merely assume that the lack of character is the author’s intention, and that he uses it as a device for specific artistic purposes. We shall begin by analyzing the structure of the tragedy.
We can proceed with our analysis in three different ways: First, we have the sources used by Shakespeare, the original treatment of the material; then, the plot of the tragedy; and, finally, a new and more complex artistic feature—the dramatis personae. We shall now try to determine the interrelationship between these three elements.
Tolstoy rightly begins his investigation by comparing the original saga of Hamlet with Shakespeare’s tragedy. In the saga everything is clear and understandable. The motives behind the prince’s acts are obvious. The action is well coordinated, and each step is justified both psychologically and logically. Many of the earlier studies of the play have elaborated this point sufficiently. The riddle of Hamlet could hardly have sprung up if the story had been confined to the old sources, or at least to its older pre-Shakespearean dramatic forms, since there is absolutely nothing mysterious or obscure in them. This fact enables us to draw a conclusion diametrically opposed to Tolstoy’s view that all is clear and obvious in the legend but muddled and unreasonable in Hamlet and that consequently Shakespeare has spoiled the legend. It is more correct to follow an opposite trend of thought: since everything is logical and understandable in the saga, Shakespeare had available to him ready-made logical and psychological motives. If he chose to process this material so as to ignore all the obvious ties which hold the original saga together, he must have had a special intention. We are inclined to believe that Shakespeare created Hamlet’s enigma for stylistic reasons and that it is not the result of the author’s inability. We therefore choose to approach the problem from a different angle. As a matter of fact, we no longer consider it to be an unsolved riddle or a difficulty to be overcome; we consider it an intentional artistic device that we must try to understand. The question we ask is, “Why does Shakespeare make Hamlet delay,” rather than, “Why does Hamlet delay?” Any artistic method, or device, can be grasped much more easily from its teleological trend (the psychological function it performs) than from its causal motivation, which may explain a literary fact but never an aesthetic one.
To find an answer to the question of why Shakespeare makes Hamlet delay, we must compare the Hamlet legend with the plot of the tragedy. We have already mentioned that the treatment of the plot follows the law of dramatic composition, prevalent in Shakespeare’s time, known as the law of temporal continuity. Action on stage was considered continuous, and consequently the play proceeded according to a time concept completely different from that of contemporary plays. The stage was never empty, not even for an instant. While a dialogue took place on stage, some lengthy events of perhaps several days’ duration occurred backstage, as the audience learned several scenes later. The spectator thus did not perceive the passing of real time, for the playwright operated with a fictitious stage time of totally different proportions. Consequently, there figures a tremendous distortion of the concept of time in the Shakespearean tragedy. The duration of events, everyday occurrences, and actions are distorted to fit the requirement of stage time. How absurd then it is to talk of Hamlet’s temporizing in terms of real time! By what real time units could we measure his procrastination? The real time periods are in constant contradiction in the tragedy and there is no way of determining the true duration of events in the tragedy. We are unable to estimate how much time elapses between the first apparition of the ghost and the killing of the king. Is it a day, a month, a year? It is therefore evident that the problem of Hamlet’s procrastination cannot be solved psychologically. If he kills the king only a few days after the first appearance of the ghost, then there is no delay, no procrastination, in terms of the course of our everyday life. But if it takes him longer, we must seek different psychological explanations for different periods of time; that is, there is one explanation if it takes him a month and another if it takes him a year to kill his uncle. In the tragedy, Hamlet is not in any way bound by these units of real time, since all the events of the play are measured and related to one another in terms of conventional stage time units. Does this mean that the question of Hamlet’s delaying no longer arises? Could it be that the author allocated to the action exactly the amount of time it requires on stage and that therefore everything happens on schedule? We shall see that this is not the case. Indeed, all we have to do is remind ourselves of the monologues in which Hamlet reproaches himself for procrastinating. The tragedy apparently emphasizes the temporizing of its hero and, surprisingly enough, gives several quite different explanations for this procrastination.
Let us follow the main plot of the tragedy. Immediately upon the revelation of the ghost’s secret, when Hamlet learns that he has been charged with the duty of revenge, he says that he will fly to revenge on wings as swift as love’s desire. From the pages of memory he deletes all the thoughts, feelings, and dreams of his entire life, to devote himself entirely to the secret behest. Already at the end of this scene he sighs under the unbearable burden of the discovery that has befallen him. He bemoans the fact that he was born to perform a fateful exploit. After his talk with the actors, Hamlet reproaches himself for the first time for his inaction. It astonishes him that an actor is carried away by passion and inflamed by a meaningless plot, while he himself remains silent and inactive in the face of the crime which has destroyed the life and the reign of a great sovereign—his father. The remarkable thing in this famous monologue is Hamlet’s inability to understand the reason for his delay. He reproaches himself by speaking of shame and dishonor, but he alone knows that he is no coward. Here we are given the first motive for delaying the death of the king: perhaps the words of the ghost are not to be believed. Indeed, the accusations must be thoroughly verified. So, Hamlet sets his famous “mousetrap,” and only after it snaps are all his doubts gone. Since the king has given himself away, Hamlet no longer doubts the veracity of the ghost. When Hamlet’s mother calls him, he convinces himself not to lift his sword against her:
’Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on. Soft! Now to my mother.
O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom:
Let me be cruel, not unnatural;
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites;
How in my words soever she be shent,
To give them seals never, my soul, consent! (III, 2)
Hamlet now is ready to kill, and he fears that he might even harm his own mother. Oddly enough, this realization is followed by the prayer scene. Hamlet enters, takes his sword, and places himself behind the king whom he could kill on the spot. We have left Hamlet ready to avenge, ready to kill, we have left him as he was convincing himself not to raise arms against his mother; now we expect him to perform his act. But instead we hear
Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I’ll do’t: and so he goes to heaven ... (III, 3)
A few verses later Hamlet sheathes his sword and gives a completely new reason for his procrastination: he does not want to kill the king while the latter is praying or atoning.
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed,
At gaining, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in’t,
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn’d and black
As hell, whereto he goes. My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days. (III, 3)
In the next scene Hamlet kills Polonius, who is hiding behind a tapestry, by unexpectedly making a pass with his sword through the arras and calling out “A rat!” From this, and from his words to the dead Polonius it is obvious that he intended to kill the king, who is precisely the rat caught in the mousetrap; it is the king to whom Hamlet refers as “thy better” and for whom he mistook Polonius. The motives that have stopped Hamlet in the preceding scene have disappeared, so much so that it appears irrelevant. One of the two scenes must include an obvious contradiction if the other is correct. Kuno Fischer says that most critics consider the scene of Polonius’ killing to be proof of Hamlet’s unplanned, thoughtless actions. Many productions, and quite a few critics, omit the prayer scene because they fail to understand how it is possible to introduce a new motive for procrastination without prior preparation. Nowhere in the tragedy, either earlier or later, does this new condition for killing the king (to kill him while he is sinning in order to destroy his soul after death) appear. During Hamlet’s scene with his mother the ghost appears again, and Hamlet thinks that he has come to reproach him for putting off the revenge. Hamlet does not resist being exiled to England; in the monologue after the scene with Fortinbras he compares himself to that courageous leader, and once again reproaches himself for his weak will and inactivity. He feels that his procrastination is a disgrace, and finishes his monologue resolutely:
this time forth
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (IV, 4)
Later when we find Hamlet in the graveyard, or again talking to Horatio, or finally during the duel, there is no mention of revenge. Not until the very end of the play is Hamlet’s promise that he will think only about blood kept. Before the duel he is full of premonitions:
Not a whit, we defy augury; there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? (V, 2)
He feels that his death is approaching, and so does the audience. Not until the very end of the duel does he think about revenge. The final catastrophe seems to be contrived for completely different reasons. Hamlet does not kill the king to fulfill his promise to the ghost. The spectator learns that Hamlet is virtually dead because the poison is already in his blood and he has less than half an hour to live. Only now, with one foot in the grave, does he kill the king.
The final scene leaves absolutely no doubt that Hamlet kills the king for his latest crime: the poisoning of the queen, and the killing of Laertes and Hamlet himself. Not a word is said about Hamlet’s father, and the audience has completely forgotten about him. The denouement is astonishing and inexplicable—nearly all the critics agree that the killing of the king leaves us with the feeling of duty unfulfilled, or, at best, fulfilled by default.
The play, it would appear, was obscure and enigmatic because Hamlet had not killed the king. Now that he has performed the killing, the enigma should vanish; instead it has really only now become apparent. Mezieres quite correctly states: “Indeed, everything in the last scene surprises us; everything from the beginning to the end is unexpected. Throughout the play we have been waiting for Hamlet to kill the king. Finally he strikes—but no sooner does he perform the deed than we are again astonished and bewildered.” Says Sokolovskii, “The last scene of the tragedy is based on a collision of accidental circumstances that happen so unexpectedly and so suddenly that some commentators with old-fashioned views have accused Shakespeare of blundering. The intervention of an external force had to be invented. ... It is purely accidental, and in the hands of Hamlet it functions like those sharp weapons which we occasionally allow children to handle but all the while guide their grip on the hilt.”
Berné is correct in saying that in killing the king Hamlet avenges not only his father but his mother and himself as well. Johnson reproaches Shakespeare for having the king killed not according to a premeditated plan but as a totally unexpected accident. Alfonso states, “The killing of the king is due to events totally beyond Hamlet’s control; it is not the result of a well-prepared plan. Had it been left entirely to Hamlet, the king would never have been killed.” If we take a closer look at this new line of plot, we see that Shakespeare at times emphasizes Hamlet’s procrastination and at other times conceals it. He composes several scenes in a row without ever mentioning the task set before the prince, and then he has Hamlet reveal his weakness once more in statements and monologues. The audience is reminded of Hamlet’s procrastination in sudden, explosion like spurts, rather than being apprised of it in a continuous, uniform fashion. After the sudden explosion of a monologue, the spectator looks back and vividly realizes the existence of procrastination. But the author rapidly covers it up until the next explosion, and so on. In the spectator’s mind are combined two fundamentally incompatible ideas. On the one hand, Hamlet must avenge his father and let no internal or external causes prevent him from going into action. The author even plays with the audience’s impatience and makes it see Hamlet draw his sword but then, quite unexpectedly, not strike. On the other hand, the audience realizes that Hamlet is delaying, but fails to understand why. It observes the drama of Hamlet evolve, torn by contradictions, evading the clearly set task and constantly straying from the path which is so clearly outlined.
Given such treatment of the subject, we may plot our interpretational curve of the tragedy. The plot of our story runs in a straight line, and if Hamlet had killed the king immediately after hearing the ghost’s revelations, he would cover the distance between these two events in the shortest possible way. The author, however, proceeds in a different fashion. Because at all times he lets us see, feel, and be aware of the straight line which the action should follow, we are even more keenly conscious of the digressions and loops it describes in actual fact.
It appears as if Shakespeare had set himself the task of pushing the plot from its straight path onto a devious and twisted one. It is quite possible to find in these the series of events and facts indispensable for the tragedy, on account of which the play describes its oblique orbit. We must resort to synthesis, to the physiology of the tragedy, in order to understand this fully. We must try to guess the function assigned to this curve from the significance of the whole. We must try to find out why the author, with such exceptional and in many respects unique boldness, forces the tragedy to deviate from its straight path.
Let us consider the end of the tragedy. Two things immediately strike the critic’s eye. First of all, the main line of development of the tragedy is fuzzy and obscured. The king is killed in the course of a melee; he is but one of four victims, whose deaths occur as suddenly as a bolt from the blue. The audience is caught by surprise, for it does not expect events to proceed in this fashion. The motives for the king’s death are so obviously implicit in the final scene that the audience forgets that it has finally reached the point to which the tragedy had been leading without actually reading it. As soon as Hamlet sees the queen die, he shouts:
O villany! Ho! let the door be lock’d:
Treachery! Seek it out.
Laertes reveals to Hamlet that these plots are all the king’s. Hamlet then exclaims:
The point envenom’d too!
Then, venom, to thy work.
Finally, as he gives the king the poisoned goblet,
Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,
Drink off this potion. Is thy union here?
Follow my mother.
Nowhere is there any mention of Hamlet’s father, and all the motivations are based on the events of the last scene. Thus the tragedy reaches its catastrophe, but it is concealed from the spectator that this is precisely the point to which the plot development has been directed. Yet, in addition to this direct camouflage another, exactly opposing one, reveals itself, and we can easily show that the scene of the killing of the king is treated on two diametrically opposed psychological planes: On the one hand, the king’s death is overshadowed by a series of immediate causes, as well as other deaths; on the other hand, it is distinguished from the series of killings in a way that has no comparison in any other tragedy. All the other deaths come to pass almost unnoticed. The queen dies, and no one seems to take note. Only Hamlet bids her farewell “Wretched queen, adieu!” Even Hamlet’s own death seems to be blurred and overshadowed. Once dead, nothing is said about him any more. Laertes dies inconspicuously and, significantly, he exchanges forgiveness with Hamlet before his life leaves him. He forgives Hamlet Polonius’ death and his own, and begs Hamlet to forgive him for having killed him. This sudden and quite unnatural change in Laertes’ character has no motivation in the tragedy. It is necessary only to calm the audience’s reaction to these deaths and make the king’s death stand out more clearly against this dimmed background. As mentioned earlier the king’s death is made to stand out by means of a highly exceptional device that has no equal in any other tragedy. What is so unusual about this scene is the fact that for some unexplained reason Hamlet kills the king twice, first with the tainted sword, then with the poisoned potion. Why? The action does not call for it. Both Laertes and Hamlet die from the effect of one poison only, that on the sword. It would appear that the killing of the king has been split into two separate actions, to emphasize it and to impress upon the audience the fact that the tragedy has reached its conclusion. We can easily find a reason for this double killing of the king, which would appear to be absurd from a methodological viewpoint and futile from a psychological viewpoint. The meaning of the tragedy is in its catastrophe, the killing of the king, which we have been expecting from the first act on, but which we reach by a totally different, unexpected path. In fact, the catastrophe comes as a result of a new plot, and when we reach that point we do not immediately realize that it is the point to which the tragedy has been carrying us all along.
It now becomes clear that at this point (the king’s double death) converge two distinct lines of action, each of which we have seen go its own way, and each of which must end in its own, separate death. But no sooner does the double killing happen then the poet begins to blur this device of short-circuiting the two lines of the catastrophe. In the brief epilogue in which Horatio, in the manner of all Shakespearean narrator-players, briefly retells what has happened in the play, the king’s death is once again obscured:
And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on the inventors’ heads: all this can I
In this general mass of “bloody acts and casual slaughters” the catastrophe of the tragedy is once again diluted to the point of obliteration. In this climactic scene we come to realize the tremendous power of the artistic treatment of the subject, and witness the effects that Shakespeare manages to draw from it. A closer look into the sequence of these deaths reveals that Shakespeare perverts their natural order to obtain a satisfactory artistic effect. The deaths form a melody, as if they were individual notes. In actual fact the king dies before Hamlet, but in the artistically treated plot we do not hear about the king’s death. All we do know is that Hamlet is dying and that he will not live for another half hour. Though we know that he is virtually dead and that he received his wound before anyone else, he outlives the rest of the victims. All these groupings and regroupings of the basic events serve to satisfy one requirement, that of the psychological effect. When we learn of Hamlet’s imminent death we lose, once and for all, any hope that the tragedy will ever reach the point toward which it has been developed. We are convinced, indeed, that all events are running in the opposite direction. But at that very instant, when we least expect it, and are personally convinced that it is impossible, the catastrophe does finally come to pass. Hamlet, in his last words, points to some mysterious hidden meaning in all the preceding events. He asks Horatio to recount how everything happened, and why, and asks him to give an impartial description of the events, the one that the audience might also remember, and concludes, “The rest is silence.” And it is indeed silence for the audience, since the rest happens in the unexpressed sequels that arise from this extraordinarily constructed play. More recent investigators quite willingly underscore that eternal complexity of the play which earlier critics neglected to notice. “We see here several plots running parallel: the story of the murder of Hamlet’s father and Hamlet’s vengeance, the story of Polonius’ death and Laertes’ vengeance, Ophelia’s story, Fortinbras’ story, the episodes with the actors, Hamlet’s trip to England, and so on. The action changes location no less than twenty times. In each individual scene we witness rapid changes of theme, character and location. An element of arbitrariness prevails ... There is much talk about intrigue ... and many episodes that interrupt, or change, the course of action.”
However, Tomashevskii misses the point by claiming that these sudden changes are only a matter of the variety and diversity of the subject. The episodes that interrupt or change the course of action are closely connected with the basic plot. They include the episodes with the actors and with the gravediggers who in a grimly jocular way re-narrate Ophelia’s death, the killing of Polonius, and all the rest. The plot of the tragedy, in its final form, unfolds before us in the following way: the story on which the tragedy is based is conserved. From the very beginning, the audience has a clear view of the outline of the action and of the path along which it should develop. The action, however, constantly strays from the path set by the plot and meanders in quite complex curves. At some junctures, such as in Hamlet’s monologues, the audience is informed, in spurts, that the tragedy has left the preset track. These monologues, in which Hamlet bitterly reproaches himself for procrastinating, are primarily meant to make us realize that things are not evolving the way they should and to keep us aware of the final point toward which all action is directed. After each monologue, we hope that the action will right itself and fall back into the preset path, until a new monologue reveals to us that the action has once more gone astray. As a matter of fact, the structure of the tragedy can be expressed by two very simple formulas. The formula of the story is that Hamlet kills the king to avenge the death of his father; that of the plot is that he does not kill the king. If the material of the tragedy tells us how Hamlet kills the king to avenge the death of his father, then, the plot of the tragedy shows us how he fails to kill him and, when he finally does, that it is for reasons other than vengeance. The duality of the story and the plot accounts for the action taking its course on two different planes. Constant awareness of the preset path, the deviations from it, and the internal contradictions, are an intrinsic part of this play. Shakespeare apparently chose the most suitable events to express what he wanted to say. He chose material that definitely rushed toward a climax, but at the same time forced him to deviate from it. Shakespeare used a psychological method quite appropriately called the “method of teasing the emotions” by Petrazhitskii, who wanted to introduce it as an experimental method. In fact, the tragedy does nothing but tease our feelings. It promises the fulfillment of the task set from the very beginning, but deviates again and again from this goal, thus straining our expectations to the utmost and making us quite painfully feel every step that leads away from the main path. When the target is reached at last, it turns out that we have been brought to it from a completely different direction; we also discover that the two paths which led away from each other in apparent conflict suddenly converge at one point during the final scene (when the king is killed twice). The same motives that prevent the killing of the king finally lead us to his death. The catastrophe reaches a point of extreme contradiction, a short-circuiting of two currents flowing in opposite directions. Add to this the fact that the evolving plot is continuously interrupted by completely irrational events, and we can see that the effect of mysteriousness and obscurity is one of the fundamental motives of the author. We think of Ophelia’s madness, of Hamlet’s intermittent insanity, of his deception of Polonius and the courtiers, of the pompous and rather senseless declamation of the actor, of the cynical conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia, of the clownish scene of the gravediggers—and we discover that all this material reworks the same events that occurred earlier in the play but exaggerates them to some extent and emphasizes their absurdity, as in a dream. Suddenly, we understand the true meaning of these events. We may liken them to lightning rods of absurdity ingeniously placed by the playwright at the most dangerous points of his tragedy, in order to bring the affair somehow to an end and make the absurdity of Hamlet’s tragedy plausible. However, the task of art, like that of tragedy, is to force us to experience the incredible and absurd in order to perform some kind of extraordinary operation with our emotions. Poets use two devices for this purpose. First, there are the “lightning rods of absurdity,” as we called all the irrational and absurd parts of Hamlet. The action evolves in such an incredible way that it threatens to become absurd. The internal contradictions are extreme. The divergence between the two lines of action reaches its apogee and they seem to burst asunder, tearing apart the entire tragedy. It is at this stage that the action suddenly takes on the forms of paradox, pompous declamation, cynicism, recurrent madness, open buffoonery. Against this background of outspoken insanity the play’s absurdity slowly becomes less marked and more credible. Madness and insanity are introduced in massive doses to save the play’s meaning. Every time absurdity threatens to destroy the play’s action, it is diverted by the “lightning rod” which solves the catastrophe that is bound to happen at any moment.
The other device used by Shakespeare to force us to put our feelings into the paradox of the tragedy is the following: Shakespeare operates with a double set of conventions stand up against actors, presents one and the same event twice (once as the real event and then as one played by the actors), splits actions in two and with the fictitious part, the second convention, obliterates and conceals the absurdity of the first “real” part.
Let us take an example. The actor recites the pathetic monologue of Pyrrhus, becomes emotional, and weeps. Hamlet points out immediately that the tears are only an act, that the actor weeps for Hecuba (about whom he does not care), but that all the emotion and passion are fictitious. But when Hamlet juxtaposes these fictitious feelings to his own, we suddenly realize that Hamlet’s emotions are true, and we an almost violently taken by them. Shakespeare uses the same device of introducing a fictitious action in the famous scene of the “Mousetrap.” The player king and queen play the fictitious murder scene, while the real king and queen sit horrified by the representation. This juxtaposition of actors and spectators on two different planes of action makes us vividly realize that the king’s discomfiture is quite real. The paradox on which the tragedy is based remains intact, because it is protected by two reliable guardians: outright lunacy on the one hand, compared to which the tragedy acquires an obvious sense and significance, and outright fictitiousness on the other; this is the second convention, next to which the actions occurring on the first plane appear real. It is as if another picture were superimposed on the first. In addition to this contradiction, there is another one in the tragedy which is of equal importance for the artistic effect of the play. The dramatis personae chosen by Shakespeare somehow do not quite fit the action; moreover, Shakespeare convincingly disproves the widespread belief that the individual characters of the dramatis personae must determine their own actions. It would appear, however, that if Shakespeare wanted to represent a killing that is somehow never carried out, he must either follow Werder’s recommendation—to surround the execution of the task with as many complicated obstacles as possible in order to block the protagonist’s way, or he must follow Goethe’s prescription—show that the task assigned the hero exceeds his strength and requires of him a titanic performance, irreconcilable with human nature. But Shakespeare had a third way out. He could have followed Berné’s formula and made Hamlet a coward. However, not only did he choose none of the three possibilities above, but he operated in the exactly opposite direction. He thoroughly removed all objective obstacles from the hero’s path that there is no indication in the tragedy of what prevents Hamlet from killing the king immediately after the ghost’s revelations. Furthermore, he gave Hamlet a fully feasible objective (since in the course of the play, incidental unimportant scenes, Hamlet kills three times). Finally, he portrayed Hamlet as a man of exceptional energy and tremendous strength, making him into a character opposite to the one actually required by the plot.
To save the situation, the critics had to introduce the corrections mentioned earlier, and either adapt the plot to the hero or adapt the hero to the plot, for they proceeded from the incorrect assumption of a direct relation between the hero and the plot—that the plot must grow out of the characters of the play, just as these must be understood from the plot.
All this is refuted by Shakespeare. He proceeds from the opposite point of view, from the incompatibility between protagonist and plot, the fundamental contradiction between character and events. Being familiar with the fact that the subject was treated in contradiction to the story, we can readily find the significance of the contradiction that constantly arises in the play. There arises another unity from the structure of the play, that of the dramatis personae, or the protagonist. We shall show how the idea of the protagonist’s character develops. At this point, however, we can assume that a poet who always plays with the intimate contradiction between the subject and story can very easily exploit this second contradiction between the character of his protagonist and the unfolding action. Psychoanalysts are right in asserting that the substance of the psychological effect of a tragedy consists in our identification with the hero. It is quite correct that the author forces us to view all the other characters, actions, and events from the protagonist’s viewpoint. The hero becomes the point upon which our attention is focused, and simultaneously serves as a support for our feelings which would otherwise be lost in endless digressions as we evaluate, empathize, and suffer with every character. Were we to evaluate the king’s and Hamlet’s emotions or Polonius’ and Hamlet’s hopes in the same way, our feelings would suffer constant changes and oscillations in which one and the same event would appear to us to have completely contradictory meanings. The tragedy, however, proceeds in a different way. It shapes our feelings into a unity and forces them to follow the protagonist alone and to perceive everything through his eyes. It suffices to examine any tragedy, Hamlet in particular, to realize that all its characters are portrayed as the protagonist sees them. All the events are refracted by the lens of his soul. The author actually builds his tragedy on two planes: on the one hand, he sees everything with Hamlet’s eyes; but then he also views Hamlet with his own – Shakespeare’s – eyes, so that the spectator becomes at the same time Hamlet and his contemplator. This insight explains the important roles played by the characters of the tragedy, in particular Hamlet. We are dealing here with a completely new psychological level. In the fable we discovered two meanings within one and the same action. In the short story we discovered one level for the story (subject) and one for the plot (material). In the tragedy we uncover yet another level, the psyche and the emotions of the hero. Since all three levels refer in the last analysis to the same facts taken in three different contexts, it is obvious that they must contradict one another, be it only to show that they mutually diverge. We can understand how a tragic character is constructed if we use the analogies devised by Christiansen in his psychological theory of portraits. According to him, the problem of a portrait is primarily how the painter portrays life in his painting, how he animates the face, and how he obtains the effect characteristic only of portraits—the representation of living persons. We will never find a difference between a portraiture and non-portrait painting if we examine the formal and material aspects only. (A non-portrait painting may of course include faces just as a portrait may include a landscape or still life.) Only if we base our search on the characteristic that distinguishes the portrait, that is, the representation of a living person, will we be able to determine the difference between the two. Christiansen proceeds from the premise that “lifelessness and size are interdependent. As the size of the portrait grows, its life becomes fuller and more definite in its manifestations; motion becomes calmer and steadier. Portrait painters know from experience that a larger head talks better.”
Thus, our eyes detach themselves from one specific point in the portrait upon which they have been focused (and which therefore loses its immobile compositional center), and begin to wander about, “from the eyes to the mouth, from one eye to the other, and observe all those details which make up the expression of the face.”
At the various points at which the eye stops while examining the portrait, it takes in a different expression of the face, a different mood, a different feeling, and discovers the liveliness, the motion, the succession of unequal and disparate states which are the distinguishing mark of a portrait. Non-portrait paintings remain as they have been originally painted, while portraits change constantly, whence their liveliness. Christianson devised the following formula for the psychological life of a portrait: “It is the physiognomic incongruity of the various factors that makes up the expression of a face. Of course it is possible, and, speaking in abstract terms, also more natural to have the corners of the mouth, the eyes, and other parts of the face express the same feeling or emotion or mood. ... Then the entire portrait would resonate with the same tune. ... But then, like any tune, it would be devoid of life. This danger of consistency is why the painter makes the expression in one eye slightly different from that in the other, and makes the effect of the corners of the mouth different again, and so forth. However, it is not enough to paint different moods, expressions, and feelings; they must also harmonize with one another. ... The principal theme is given by the relationship between the eyes and mouth: the mouth talks and the eyes answer. Excitement, will, and tension are concentrated around the corners of the mouth, while the relaxed calm of the intellect prevails in the eyes... . The mouth reveals the instincts and the driving forces of a man. The eye shows what he has become in his victory, defeat, or tired resignation. ...”
Christiansen interprets portraits as if they were dramas. A portrait conveys not simply a face and an intimate feeling frozen into it, but far more. It tells us of the changing emotions of a soul; it tells us its history and its present life. A spectator approaches the problem of a tragic character in a similar fashion. Character, strictly speaking, can be expressed only in an epic, just as spiritual life can be expressed only in a portrait. In order to be really alive, the tragic character must be composed of contradictory traits and must carry us from one emotion to another. The physiognomic incongruency among the various details of the facial expression in a portrait is the basis for our emotional reaction; and the psychological non-coincidence of the various factors expressing the character in a tragedy is the basis for our tragic sympathy. By forcing our feelings to alternate continuously to the opposite extremes of the emotional range, by deceiving them, splitting them and piling obstacles in their way, the tragedy can obtain powerful emotional effect. When we see Hamlet, we feel as if we have lived the lives of thousands of persons in one night; indeed, we have experienced more than we would have in years of common, everyday life. And at the point when, together with the hero, we begin to feel that he no longer belongs to himself and no longer does the things he should do, the tragedy acquires its strength. Hamlet expresses this impuissance remarkably well in his love letter to Ophelia, “Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him.” Russian translators usually translate the word machine as body because they fail to understand that the essence of the tragedy lies in this one word. (Boris Pasternak, incidentally, translates this correctly.) Goncharov was quite right in saying that Hamlet’s tragedy is to be a man, not a machine. Indeed, we begin to feel together with the hero like a “machine of feelings,” directed and controlled by the tragedy itself.
We now come to the results of our study. We can formulate our findings as a threefold contradiction on which the tragedy is based: the contradiction involving the story, the plot, and the dramatis personae. Each of these three factors develops in its own way, and it is perfectly clear that a new element is introduced into the tragic genre. We already dealt with split planes in the short story, when we experienced events from two opposite directions, one given by the subject and the other acquired in the plot. These two conflicting levels reappear in the tragedy—we have mentioned several times that Hamlet causes our emotions to move on two different levels. On the one hand we perceive the goal toward which the tragedy moves, and on the other we perceive its digressions as well. The new contribution of the protagonist is that at any moment, he unifies both contradictory planes and is the supreme and ever present embodiment of the contradiction inherent in the tragedy. We have said that the tragedy is constructed from the viewpoint of the protagonist, which means that the tragedy is the force uniting the two opposing currents and combining in the protagonist, two opposing emotions. Thus the two opposite levels of the tragedy are perceived as a single unit, for they merge in the tragic hero with whom we identify. The simple duality which we discovered in the story is replaced in the tragedy by a much deeper and more serious one, because of the fact that not only do we view the entire tragedy through the protagonist’s eyes, but we in turn look at the protagonist himself through our own eyes. This is as it should be; our analysis of the tragedy proves it. We showed that it is at this point of convergence that the two levels of the tragedy, which we had thought were leading in diametrically opposed directions, meet. Their unexpected convergence gives the tragedy its special character and shows its events in an entirely different light. The spectator is deceived. What he thought were deviations from the main thread of the tragedy have led him to its final goal, but when he finally reaches it he does not realize that it is the last stop on his trip. Now the contradictions have changed roles; they are united, in the final analysis, in the experiences of the protagonist which the spectator perceives as in a dream. He is not relieved by the killing of the king, he experiences no relaxation. Immediately after the killing of the king the audience’s attention is attracted by another death, that of the protagonist, Hamlet. This death makes the spectator at last aware of all the conflicts and contradictions that besieged his conscious and unconscious self during the play.
And when in Hamlet’s last words and Horatio’s narrative the tragedy again describes its circle, the spectator is keenly aware of the duality upon which it is built. Horatio’s narration returns him to the tragedy’s external plane, to the “words, words, words.” The rest, to speak with Hamlet, “is silence.”