Hamlet

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Overview

In Shakespeare's powerful drama of destiny and revenge, Hamlet, the troubled prince of Denmark, must overcome his own self-doubt and avenge the murder of his father. This invaluable new study guide to one of Shakespeare's greatest plays contains a selection of the finest criticism through the centuries on Hamlet, including commentaries by such important critics as Ben Jonson, Voltaire, Ivan Turgenev, Friedrich Nietzche, T. S. Eliot, Harold C. Goddard, Stephen Booth, and many others. Students will also benefit from the additional features in this volume, including an introduction by Harold Bloom, an accessible summary of the plot, an analysis of several key passages, a comprehensive list of characters, a biography of Shakespeare, essays discussing the main currents of criticism in each century since Shakespeare's time, and more.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780791095928
  • Publisher: Chelsea House Publishers
  • Publication date: 3/28/2008
  • Series: Bloom's Shakespeare through the Ages Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 1,115,145
  • Age range: 13 - 17 Years
  • Product dimensions: 6.30 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.30 (d)

Meet the Author

Harold Bloom
Harold Bloom
One of our most popular, respected, and controversial literary critics, Yale University professor Harold Bloom’s books – about, variously, Shakespeare, the Bible, and the classic literature – are as erudite as they are accessible.

Biography

"Authentic literature doesn't divide us," the scholar and literary critic Harold Bloom once said. "It addresses itself to the solitary individual or consciousness." Revered and sometimes reviled as a champion of the Western canon, Bloom insists on the importance of reading authors such as Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer -- not because they transmit certain approved cultural values, but because they transcend the limits of culture, and thus enlarge rather than constrict our sense of what it means to be human. As Bloom explained in an interview, "Shakespeare is the true multicultural author. He exists in all languages. He is put on the stage everywhere. Everyone feels that they are represented by him on the stage."

Bloom began his career by tackling the formidable legacy of T.S. Eliot, who had dismissed the English Romantic poets as undisciplined nature-worshippers. Bloom construed the Romantic poets' visions of immortality as rebellions against nature, and argued that an essentially Romantic imagination was still at work in the best modernist poets.

Having restored the Romantics to critical respectability, Bloom advanced a more general theory of poetry. His now-famous The Anxiety of Influence argued that any strong poem is a creative "misreading" of the poet's predecessor. The book raised, as the poet John Hollander wrote, "profound questions about... how the prior visions of other poems are, for a true poet, as powerful as his own dreams and as formative as his domestic childhood." In addition to developing this theory, Bloom wrote several books on sacred texts. In The Book of J, he suggested that some of the oldest parts of the Bible were written by a woman.

The Book of J was a bestseller, but it was the 1994 publication of The Western Canon that made the critic-scholar a household name. In it, Bloom decried what he called the "School of Resentment" and the use of political correctness as a basis for judging works of literature. His defense of the threatened canon formed, according to The New York Times, a "passionate demonstration of why some writers have triumphantly escaped the oblivion in which time buries almost all human effort."

Bloom placed Shakespeare along with Dante at the center of the Western canon, and he made another defense of Shakespeare's centrality with Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, an illuminating study of Shakespeare's plays. How to Read and Why (2000) revisited Shakespeare and other writers in the Bloom pantheon, and described the act of reading as both a spiritual exercise and an aesthetic pleasure.

Recently, Bloom took up another controversial stance when he attacked Harry Potter in an essay for The Wall Street Journal. His 2001 book Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages advanced an alternative to contemporary children's lit, with a collection of classic works of literature "worthy of rereading" by people of all ages.

The poet and editor David Lehman said that "while there are some critics who are known for a certain subtlety and a certain judiciousness, there are other critics... who radiate ferocious passion." Harold Bloom is a ferociously passionate reader for whom literary criticism is, as he puts it, "the art of making what is implicit in the text as finely explicit as possible."

Good To Know

Bloom earned his Ph.D. from Yale University in 1955 and was hired as a Yale faculty member that same year. In 1965, at the age of 35, he became one of the youngest scholars in Yale history to be appointed full professor in the department of English. He is now Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale and Berg Visiting Professor of English at New York University.

Though some conservative commentators embraced Bloom's canon as a return to traditional moral values, Bloom, who once styled himself "a Truman Democrat," dismisses attempts by both left- and right-wingers to politicize literature. "To read in the service of any ideology is not, in my judgment, to read at all," he told a New York Times interviewer.

His great affinity for Shakespeare has put Bloom in the unlikely position of stage actor on occasion; he has played his "literary hero," port-loving raconteur Sir John Falstaff, in three productions.

Bloom is married to Jeanne, a retired school psychologist whom he met while a junior faculty member at Yale in the 1950s. They have two sons.

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    1. Also Known As:
      Harold Irving Bloom (full name)
    2. Hometown:
      New York, New York and New Haven, Connecticut
    1. Date of Birth:
      July 11, 1930
    2. Place of Birth:
      New York, New York
    1. Education:
      B.A., Cornell University, 1951; Ph.D., Yale University, 1955

Read an Excerpt

Hamlet


By Harold Bloom

Chelsea House Publications

Copyright © 2004 Harold Bloom
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0791079813

Chapter One

INFERRING HAMLET

Hamlet is part of Shakespeare's revenge upon revenge tragedy, and is of no genre. Of all poems, it is the most unlimited. As a meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death, it competes only with the world's scriptures.

Contrary, doubtless, to Shakespeare's intention, Hamlet has become the center of a secular scripture. It is scarcely conceivable that Shakespeare could have anticipated how universal the play has proved to be. Ringed round it are summits of Western literature: the Iliad, the Aeneid, The Divine Comedy, The Canterbury Tales, King Lear, Macbeth, Don Quixote, Paradise Lost, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, Leaves of Grass, Moby-Dick, In Search of Lost Time, among others. Except for Shakespeare's, no dramas are included. Aeschylus and Sophocles, Caldersn and Racine are not secular, while I suggest the paradox that Dante, Milton, and Dostoevsky are secular, despite their professions of piety.

Hamlet's obsessions are not necessarily Shakespeare's, though playwright and prince share an intense theatricality and a distrust of motives. Shakespeare is in the play not as Hamlet, but as the Ghost and as the First Player (Player King), roles he evidently acted. Of the Ghost, we are certain from the start that he indeed is King Hamlet's spirit, escaped from the afterlife to enlist his son to revenge:

If thou didst ever thy dear father love-

[I.v.23]

The spirit does not speak of any love for his son, who would appear to have been rather a neglected child. When not bashing enemies, the late warrior-king kept his hands upon Queen Gertrude, a sexual magnet. The graveyard scene (V.i) allows us to infer that the prince found father and mother in Yorick, the royal jester:

He hath bore me on his back a thousand times, and now-how abhorred in my imagination it is-my gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft.

[V.i.185-89]

Hamlet is his own Falstaff (as Harold Goddard remarked) because Yorick, "a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy," raised him until the prince was seven. The Grave-digger, the only personage in the play witty enough to hold his own with Hamlet, tells us that Yorick's skull has been in the earth twenty-three years, and that it is thirty years since Hamlet's birth. Yet who would take the prince of the first four acts, a student at the University of Wittenberg (a German Protestant institution, famous for Martin Luther), as having reached thirty? Like his college chums, the unfortunate Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet can be no older than about twenty at the start, and the lapsed time represented in the tragedy cannot be more than eight weeks, at the most. Shakespeare, wonderfully careless on matters of time and space, wanted a preternaturally matured Hamlet for Act V.

Though we speak of act and scene divisions, and later in this little book I will center upon the final act, these are not Shakespeare's divisions, since all his plays were performed straight through, without intermissions, at the Globe Theatre. The uncut Hamlet, in our modern editions, which brings together all verified texts, runs to nearly four thousand lines, twice the length of Macbeth. Hamlet is Shakespeare's longest play, and the prince's role (at about fifteen hundred lines) is similarly unique. Only if you run the two parts of Henry IV together (as we should) can you find a Shakespearean equivalent, with Falstaff's role as massive, though unlike Hamlet my sublime prototype speaks prose only-the best prose in the language, except perhaps for Hamlet's.

The Tragical Historie of Hamlet, Prince of Denmarke stands apart among Shakespeare's thirty-eight plays, quite aside from its universal fame. Its length and variety are matched by its experimentalism. After four centuries, Hamlet remains our world's most advanced drama, imitated but scarcely transcended by Ibsen, Chekhov, Pirandello, and Beckett. You cannot get beyond Hamlet, which establishes the limits of theatricality, just as Hamlet himself is a frontier of consciousness yet to be passed. I think it wise to confront both the play and the prince with awe and wonder, because they know more than we do. I have been willing to call such a stance Bardolatry, which seems to me only another name for authentic response to Shakespeare.

How should we begin reading Hamlet, or how attend it in performance, in the unlikely event of finding the play responsibly directed? I suggest that we try to infer just how the young man attired in black became so formidably unique an individual. Claudius addresses the prince as "my son," meaning he has adopted his nephew as royal heir, but also gallingly reminding Hamlet that he is a stepson by marriage. The first line spoken by Hamlet is, "A little more than kin, and less than kind," while the next concludes punningly, "I am too much in the sun." Is there an anxiety that Hamlet actually may be Claudius's son, since he cannot know for certain exactly when what he regards as adultery and incest began between Claudius and Gertrude? His notorious hesitations at hacking down Claudius stem partly from the sheer magnitude of his consciousness, but they may also indicate a realistic doubt as to his paternity.

We are left alone with Hamlet for the first of his seven soliloquies. Its opening lines carry us a long way into the labyrinths of his spirit:

O that this too too sullied flesh would melt, Thaw and resolve itself into a dew ...

[I.ii.129-30]

The First Folio gives us "solid flesh," while the Second Quarto reads "sallied flesh." While "sallied" could mean "assailed," it is probably a variant for "sullied." Hamlet's recoil from sullied flesh justifies D. H. Lawrence's dark observation that "a sense of corruption in the flesh makes Hamlet frenzied, for he will never admit that it is his own flesh." Lawrence's aversion remains very striking: "A creeping, unclean thing he seems.... His nasty poking and sniffling at his mother, his traps for the King, his conceited perversion with Ophelia make him always intolerable." Though Lawrence's perspective is disputable, we need not contest it, because Lawrence himself did: "For the soliloquies of Hamlet are as deep as the soul of man can go ... and as sincere as the Holy Spirit itself in their essence." We can sympathize with Lawrence's ambivalence: that "a creeping, unclean thing" should also be "as sincere as the Holy Spirit" is the essence of Hamlet's view of humankind, and of himself in particular.

The central question then becomes: How did Hamlet develop into so extraordinarily ambivalent a consciousness? I think we may discount any notion that the double shock of his father's sudden death and his mother's remarriage has brought about a radical change in him. Hamlet always has had nothing in common with his father, his mother, and his uncle. He is a kind of changeling, nurtured by Yorick, yet fathered by himself, an actor-playwright from the start, though it would not be helpful to identify him with his author. Shakespeare distances Hamlet from himself, partly by appearing on stage at his side, as paternal ghost and as Player King, but primarily by endowing the prince with an authorial consciousness of his own, as well as with an actor's proclivities. Hamlet, his own Falstaff, is also his own Shakescene, endlessly interested in theater. Indeed, his first speech that goes beyond a single line is also his first meditation upon acting:

These indeed seem, For they are actions that a man might play; But I have that within which passes show ...

[I.ii.83-85]

In some sense, Hamlet's instructions to the actors go on throughout the play, which is probably the best of all textbooks on the purposes of playing. Hamlet is neither a philosopher nor a theologian, but an enthusiastic and remarkably informed amateur of the theater. He certainly seems to have spent more time playing truant at the Globe in London than studying at Wittenberg. The Ghost exits, murmuring, "Remember me," and we hear Hamlet reminding the Globe audience that he is one of them:

Remember thee? Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat In this distracted globe.

[I.v.95-97]

Shakespeare might have subtitled Hamlet either The Rehearsal or Unpack My Heart with Words, for it is a play about playing, about acting out rather than revenging. We are self-conscious, but Hamlet is consciousness of something. For Hamlet, the play's the thing, and not just to mousetrap Claudius. At the very close, Hamlet fears a wounded name. I suggest that his anxiety pertains not to being a belated avenger, but to his obsessions as a dramatist.

Chapter Two

HORATIO

With Horatio and Marcellus as his initial audience, Hamlet starts playing the antic, and will not cease until he abandons the graveyard scene, to act instead the apotheosis of his dying. Marcellus fades quickly away, but Horatio abides to tell Hamlet's story. William Hazlitt, a great critic, observed, "It is we who are Hamlet," but actually we are Horatio, Hamlet's perpetual audience, which is why Horatio is in the play. Though without visible means of support, and without either status or function at the Court of Elsinore, Horatio is omnipresent.

Horatio is a fellow student of Hamlet's at Wittenberg, and his age is even more ambiguous than Hamlet's, since he tells Marcellus in the play's first scene that he saw King Hamlet battle against both Norway and Poland, at the time of what turns out to have been Prince Hamlet's birth. If Horatio is still at Wittenberg at forty-seven or so (at the least), he disturbs our credulity, but Shakespeare doesn't care, and would have been amused at our arithmetic. Hamlet, who shows little enough evidence of affection for either Ophelia or Gertrude, manifests astonishing esteem for the startled Horatio:

Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice, And could of men distinguish her election, Sh'ath seal'd thee for herself; for thou hast been As one, in suff'ring all, that suffers nothing, A man that Fortune's buffets and rewards Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those Whose blood and judgment are so well commeddled That they are not a pipe for Fortune's finger To sound what stop she please. Give me that man That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart, As I do thee.

[III.ii.64-74]

Only the audience, in suffering all, suffers nothing at a tragedy, and Horatio suffers so much when Hamlet is dying that he shocks us by attempting suicide. Hamlet's tribute is enigmatic, since the play permits Horatio only to be Hamlet's adoring straight man, and we simply are shown nothing of Horatio's supposed freedom from the slavery of passion. All that we know of Horatio is that Claudius does not even try to suborn him, which renders him unique at Elsinore. What matters is that Horatio loves Hamlet, and desires no existence apart from the prince. Though critics have asserted that Hamlet finds qualities in Horatio that are absent from himself, they plainly are mistaken. Hamlet is so various that he contains every quality, while Horatio, totally colorless, has none to speak of.

And yet there is no one else in all Shakespeare who resembles Horatio, whose gracious receptivity lingers on in our memories of the drama. Though many fight against idolatry of Hamlet, Shakespeare makes it difficult for us not to identify with Horatio, who is idolatrous. Horatio is Shakespeare's instrument for suborning the audience even as Claudius manipulates Elsinore: without Horatio, we are too distanced from the bewildering Hamlet for Shakespeare to work his guile upon us. Critics keep coming forward to protest that actually Hamlet is cold, brutal, a hero-villain at best. But such critics work against their own grain and ours, because they work against Shakespeare's subtle art. Horatio precisely is not Antony's freedman, Eros, who kills himself to "escape the sorrow / Of Antony's death." Eros is no more than a grace-note in Antony and Cleopatra; Horatio pragmatically is the most important figure in the tragedy except for Hamlet himself. Through Horatio we the audience contaminate the play.

That contamination is unique in Shakespeare, and is one of the elements that render Hamlet a class of one among Shakespeare's high tragedies. No other drama ever is so overtly audience-aware, or makes us so complicit in its procedures. In a curious sense, Shakespeare writes with Horatio and ourselves, rather as Iago composed with Othello, Desdemona, and Cassio, or Edmund with Edgar and Gloucester. Hamlet seems to write himself, and the other characters as well, except for Horatio. Lest this seem my own madness, consider Horatio's one mild protest against Hamlet's imaginative extravagances in the graveyard:

Hamlet To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why, may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander till a find it stopping a bung-hole?

Horatio 'Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.

[V.i.202-206]

"Curiously" means something like "oddly," over-ingenious and on the wrong scale. Undeterred, Hamlet rushes on to clinch his point:

No, faith, not a jot, but to follow him thither with modesty enough, and likelihood to lead it. Alexander died, Alexander was buried, Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam, and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a beer-barrel?

[V.i.206-212]

Highest and lowest are one in the Hamlet-world. But they aren't for us, and our representative in that world is Horatio. Where theatricalism governs all, and Hamlet is master of the revels, we hold fast to Horatio, who is too drab to be theatrical. We hope we are not drab, but we cannot keep up with Hamlet who is always out ahead of himself.

We may wonder, Where does Horatio find the eloquence that responds so beautifully to Hamlet's final "The rest is silence"? Horatio utters a hope-not a certainty-for an angelic chorus:

Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince, And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.

[V.II.3

Continues...


Excerpted from Hamlet by Harold Bloom Copyright © 2004 by Harold Bloom. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Series Introduction     ix
Volume Introduction   Harold Bloom     xi
Biography of William Shakespeare     1
Summary of Hamlet     5
Key Passages in Hamlet     19
List of Characters in Hamlet     35
Criticism Through the Ages     39
Hamlet in the Seventeenth Century     41
1605-George Chapman, and John Marston. From Eastward Ho   Ben Jonson     45
1608-Chapters 2-5 from The Hystorie of Hamblet   Francois de Belleforest     48
1619-From A Funeral Elegy on the Death of Richard Burbage$dAnonymous     66
1661-1668-From The Diary of Samuel Pepys   Samuel Pepys     67
1679-From "The Preface to the Play," in Troilus and Cressida   John Dryden     67
1698-From A Short View of the Immorality and Profaneness of the English Stage   Jeremy Collier     75
1699-From The Antient and Modern Stages Survey'd   James Drake     76
Hamlet in the Eighteenth Century     81
1709-From Some Account of the Life of Mr. William Shakespear   Nicholas Rowe     86
1734-"On Tragedy," from Letters Concerning the English Nation   Voltaire     88
1735-From The Prompter   WilliamPopple     92
1736-From Some Remarks on the Tragedy of Hamlet Prince of Denmark   Thomas Hanmer     98
1748-From "Discourse on Ancient and Modern Tragedy"   Voltaire     105
1749-From Tom Jones   Henry Fielding     106
1765-From "The Preface to Shakespeare" and "Notes on the Plays," in The Plays of William Shakespeare   Samuel Johnson     110
1768-From A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy   Laurence Sterne     117
1776-From "A Letter from M. Voltaire to the French Academie Containing an Appeal to That Society on the Merits of Shakespeare, Translated from the Original"   Voltaire     121
1780-From The Mirror   Henry Mackenzie     124
1795-From Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship   Johann Wolfgang von Goethe     131
Hamlet in the Nineteenth Century     137
1809-From Lectures on Dramatic Art and Literature   August Wilhelm von Schlegel     141
1811-"On the Tragedies of Shakespeare"   Charles Lamb     144
1814-"Mr. Kean's Hamlet," from Morning Chronicle   William Hazlitt     146
1817-"Hamlet," from Characters of Shakespear's Plays   William Hazlitt     150
1818-From Lectures and Notes on Shakspere and Other English Poets    Samuel Taylor Coleridge     156
1845-From "William Hazlitt"   Edgar Allan Poe     161
1860-"Hamlet and Don Quixote: The Two Eternal Human Types"   Ivan Turgenev     162
1864-From William Shakespeare   Victor Hugo     175
1868-"Shakespeare Once More"   James Russell Lowell     181
1871-From The Birth of Tragedy   Friedrich Nietzsche     192
1875-"The Elder Hamlet"   George Macdonald     200
1880-From "Hamlet," in A Study of Shakespeare   Algernon Charles Swinburne     206
1884-"Hamlet Once More"   Matthew Arnold     210
1884-From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn   Mark Twain     211
1886-"Hamlet at the Comedie-Francaise"   Anatole France     215
1897-"Letter to Lord Alfred Douglas"   Oscar Wilde     218
Hamlet in the Twentieth Century     221
1901-"The True Hamlet"   G. K. Chesterton     226
1902-"Polonius," "Ophelia," and "Hamlet"   Walter de la Mare     228
1904-From Shakespearean Tragedy   A. C. Bradley     230
1909-"Reading Hamlet"   Anna Akhmatova     247
1919-"Hamlet and His Problems"    T. S. Eliot     248
1922-From Ulysses   James Joyce     252
1930-"The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet"   G. Wilson Knight     264
1951-"Hamlet When New," from The Sewanee Review   William Empson     277
1951-From The Meaning of Shakespeare   Harold C. Goddard     307
1957-"The Character of Hamlet's Mother," from Shakespeare Quarterly   Carolyn Heilbrun     318
1958-"Hamlet," from Doctor Zhivago   Boris Pasternak     326
1969-"On the Value of Hamlet"   Stephen Booth     327
1985-"Hamlet: Letters and Spirits," from Shakespeare and the Question of Theory   Margaret Ferguson     349
1986-"Introduction," from Hamlet (Bloom's Modern Critical Interpretations)   Harold Bloom     366
1987-"Hamlet and the Art of Grafting," from Shakespeare's Scepticism   Graham Bradshaw     375
1990-"Introduction," from Hamlet (Major Literary Characters)   Harold Bloom     398
1995-"Introduction," from Hamlet (Bloom's Notes)   Harold Bloom     404
Hamlet in the Twenty-first Century     407
2005-From A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, 1599   James Shapiro     410
Bibliography      413
Key Editions     413
Modern Hamlet Editions     414
Hamlet Through the Ages: An Essential Bibliography     415
General Bibliography     419
Acknowledgments     427
Index     429
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