Shakespeare’s Hamlet is indisputably one of the most important dramatic works in the history of Western literature. It has been staged countless times, filmed often, and commented upon too often to recount. Unlike many other dramatic works, Hamlet has not been the province of critics alone, but has been an important source for reflection and analysis among psychologists and philosophers as well.
Influence and influenced are difficult to disentangle here. As Margreta de Grazia points out, Coleridge coined the term “psycho-analytic” in the context of analyzing dramatic characters. Did Freud then interpret Hamlet psychoanalytically, or did Hamlet force psychoanalysis on Freud?
Since 1800, the play, and perhaps even more the hero of the play, has, when interpreted in a particular fashion, become emblematic of the modern condition, whether that is interpreted in Romantic, Freudian, Nietzschean, Hegelian, or other fashion. The focal question in many of these analyses has been the question of Hamlet’s delay.
Hamlet has not always been so highly regarded as it is today. Abraham Wright, writing in the 1630s, called it “an indifferent play, the lines but mean.” And Hamlet has not always been interpreted as it has been since the Romantic turn – Schlegel and Goethe in Germany, Coleridge in England.
Prior to 1800, it appears that Hamlet was not considered problematic character. Samuel Johnson’s objections to the play have little to do with Hamlet’s melancholy or his intellectualism. Rather, the objections have to do with plotting and probabilities and poetic justice.
“The action,” Johnson wrote, “is indeed for the most part in continual progression, but there are some scenes which neither forward nor retard it. Of the feigned madness of Hamlet there appears no adequate cause, for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity. He plays the madman most, when he treats Ophelia with so much rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton cruelty.”
He saw problems with the hero, but they were not due to some character flaw in Hamlet: “Hamlet is, through the whole play, rather an instrument than an agent. After he has, by the stratagem of the play, convicted the King, he makes no attempt to punish him, and his death is at last effected by an incident which Hamlet has no part in producing.”
Johnson did not like the ending for several reasons. First, “the catastrophe is not very happily produced; the exchange of weapons is rather an expedient of necessity, than a stroke of art. A scheme might easily have been formed, to kill Hamlet with the dagger, and Laertes with the bowl.”
Perhaps more importantly, “The poet is accused of having shewn little regard to poetical justice, and may be charged with equal neglect of poetical probability. The apparition left the regions of the dead to little purpose; the revenge which he demands is not obtained but by the death of him that was required to take it; and the gratification which would arise from the destruction of an usurper and a murderer, is abated by the untimely death of Ophelia, the young, the beautiful, the harmless, and the pious.”
In focusing on problems of plot, Johnson was following a traditional line of criticism that goes back to what appears to be the first criticism of Hamlet, George Stubbes’ Hamlet, Some Remarks on the Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark (1736). As summarized in an article by Margreta de Grazia (“Hamlet’s Thoughts and Antics,” Early Modern Culture 2 ), Stubbes recognized the delay of revenge as a problem, but saw it as a problem of plot not of character:
Nor was Hamlet seen as primarily an intellectual weighed down with a burden of action that he cannot bear. Rather, Hamlet seems to have been known more for the comic excess of his madness than for his brooding melancholy. Stubbes criticized the antic disposition both on grounds of implausibility and because it mangled the generic distinction of comedy and tragedy.
Again in de Grazia’s summary: “Stubbes points out that while the ‘antic disposition’ takes care of the gap in the plot, it introduces an absurd implausibility: the madness Hamlet feigns to ward off suspicion ends up only attracting it. More important, as Stubbes notes throughout his Remarks, the ‘antic disposition’ repeatedly degrades the tragedy by introducing levity proper only to comedy. In terms of the generic considerations at the heart of his criticism, the device is a terrible ‘injudicious’ mistake: ‘The whole Conduct of Hamlet’s Madness, is, in my Opinion, too ludicrous.’ Throughout his evaluation of the play’s ‘Beauties and Faults,’ he censures the prince’s ‘Levity of Behaviour,’ beginning with ‘his light and even ludicrous Expressions’ to his companions after his solemn encounter with the ghost, expressions which he finds poorly ‘correspondent to the Dignity and Majesty of the preceding scene.’ He attributes Hamlet’s ‘satirical Reflections on Women’ to the same cause and complains ‘that it wants Dignity,’ just as Hamlet’s exchanges with Ophelia ‘want Decency.’ Hamlet’s jokey puns are particularly censured for their indecorum: his pun on ‘pipe’ (the badge, along with the tabor, of the clown) ‘is a great Fault, for it is too low and mean for a Tragedy’; so, too, his pun on Brutus’s ‘brute part’ is ‘intolerable,’ conjoining noble Roman republican with wild beast. Hamlet’s ‘pleasantry’ upon establishing the guilt of his uncle ‘is not a-propos,’ nor is his reflection on his killing of Polonius, nor ‘his tugging him away into another Room.’ Finally, while admitting its popularity on stage, he finds the jocularity of the grave-digger’s scene ‘unbecoming’ to tragedy. By censuring all manifestations of Hamlet’s antics, Stubbes ‘refines’ his character from the ‘barbarisms’ of the prior age, purging away the coarse, low, base, and mean. Having stigmatized all eruptions of Hamlet’s ‘idleness,’ Stubbes leaves the reader with a Hamlet worthy of a tragedy — princely, dignified, heroic and virtuous.”
Shakespeare, in Stubbes view, is left with two Hamlets – the clownish Hamlet of the antic disposition and the dignified prince: It is “as if we were to dress a Monarch in all his Robes, and then put a Fool’s Cap upon him.” Hamlet is a problem character and a problem play; but it is because of the dramatic and plotting issues not because Shakespeare was attempting to depict a new kind of sensibility.