My readers will, no doubt, be surprised to see my re-emergence on this page, but I assure them that my absence was not because of a tantrum. Last November, I became the victim of a preposterous accident in which my right shoulder got fractured and the middle finger of my right hand badly damaged. My right hand, which I use to write, became dysfunctional. Physiotherapy has at last enabled me to move my right elbow from left to write in a space of 12 to 14 inches, enough of me to write without pain.
What have I been doing all this while, apart from licking my wounds? Well, I got back to Shakespeare again. As I have written earlier, he cuts across the bluster that emanates from the pulpit and the vacuity and pomposity of our sociopolitical analysts on television.
The history of Shakespearian drama can be told largely through the life of just one man: Harley Granville-Barker. He was a director, a playwright and an actor. He, along with Bernard Shaw, possessed a passionate certainty about the importance of the theatre and the need to revive its form. Both of them dreamed and planned the birth of a National Theatre (Some esteemed theatricians regard him to be the real founder of the National Theatre in England).
Granville-Barker ran his own company at the Royal Court Theatre in London where he produced and acted in many of Shaw’s plays, apart from writing, directing and acting in his own plays. After doing exemplary work at the ‘Court’, he withdrew from the theatre and for 20 years lost all contact with the rest of the world. Out of his self-exile came one major work, slowly assembled over many years: “Prefaces to Shakespeare.” As a student of Shakespeare, I have gone through quite a few critical studies on him, but I must confess that “Prefaces” is the only critical work that has made a real impact on me.
In the later half of the 20th century, I had the good fortune of seeing many productions of Hamlet in Stratford and London. Richard Burton’s Hamlet was the first I saw and it set me on the path to learn Shakespeare. I read worthies like Bradley Quiller-Qouch, Leavis, Mooney, Wilson Knight etc. and I developed a feeling that, notwithstanding the archaic references and the usage of early English, I knew the play fairly well. However, going through Harley Granville-Barker’s ‘Preface’ to Hamlet, has made me look at the play with a new pair of eyes.
Drama is the presentation of character in action. The concentration of a play’s interest upon a man’s inaction must give rise to difficulties. In a five-act play something must continually be happening and the chief actor must have a chief interest in it. What’s more, he must pertain to the play’s theme, otherwise we lose interest in the play.
The valid question that arises in anyone’s mind reading the play (or seeing it for the first time) is: why does Hamlet delay? Granville-Barker’s answer is delightfully simple: “…Because if we did not, there would be no play. It is true but an empty answer. First it blinds us to the achievement involved in making the very delay dramatic. To picture inaction in terms of action and make it as interesting, asks skilful stagecraft.”
In his first highly emotional soliloquy “O that this too too solid flesh would melt/Thaw and resolve itself into a dew…”, Hamlet reveals himself as a distraught, suicidal young man whose ideals have been shattered by his mother’s “incestuous” and “o’erhasty” marriage and who views the world as an “unweeded” garden. Here he embodies true grief. His sense of revulsion at human frailty leads to a death wish. Although he must hold his tongue about these matters when he is before the court, he takes the audience into his confidence, sharing his feelings with them. In his soliloquies Hamlet establishes proximity to the spectators speaking to them without expressly acknowledging their presence and revealing the depth of his embodied self.
Earlier, after the ghost departs, his already shaken composure is permanently affected. He makes Horatio and Marcellus swear they will not reveal that he has put on an “antic disposition”. In the exit which follows he renews audience contact and reinforces the sense that the “time is out of joint” and that “cursed spite” he must be the one to set it right. After he assumes the persona of a mad man this contact depends on the secret knowledge he shares with the spectators who know that he only acts like a mad person.
Hamlet puts on an ‘antic disposition’ to hide his true feelings and to protect his vulnerable, shaken self, much as it protects Edgar when he turns into mad Tom in King Lear. Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ is primarily verbal. It is one of the mimetic forms used in his characterisation. He moralises multiple meanings in his antic guise. At the same time, he punctures rhetorical pomposity with double-edge plainness of common speech.
The presence of puns and proverbs in Hamlet’s idiom suggests an important distinction between the play’s use of aphorisms and epigrammatic constructions on the one hand, and of wordplay, proverbs and saws, on the other. (Incidentally, Hamlet contains more proverbs than any other Shakespeare play).
There are two occasions when he loses control by raving and by vehemence. The first is in the scene with Ophelia when he savagely berates her and the second is in the closet scene with his mother. Mostly his ‘antic disposition’ is humorous. Such is the case in his first appearance in an antic guise when he calls Polonius a fishmonger implying a procurer (who will lose his daughter to Hamlet and accuse him of dishonesty). Hamlet is at once an image of the quintessential humanist “courtier, the glass of fashion and the mould of form” and a Prince.
Barker drew my attention to a point which made me re-think the whole structure of the play. I refer to the famous closet scene between Hamlet and the lady whom he addresses as “You are the Queen, your husband’ brother’s wife But would you are not so – you are my mother.” I have nearly always seen this scene acted as a moral lecture delivered to a matron. It is not meant to be anything of the sort. Barker writes: “Shakespeare would never bring his most passionate theme to a crisis which is prone to pomposity.” And he reminds us that Shakespeare habitually treats age in his characters as freely as he treats time in a play’s action, conventionally, or within the bounds of likelihood, for dramatic effect alone.
Hamlet in this scene is “young”. It looks as if Shakespeare first thought of him as about twenty, as the student returning from Wittenburg. Late in the play, in the gravedigger’s scene, he takes the trouble to make him a definite 30, evidently to justify the developed maturity of his mind. If Hamlet is a conventionally “young” 20, Gertrude might then be approaching 50 and in real life have come to look matronly and middle aged enough. But played by a boy upon Shakespeare’s stage this is just what she could not be possibly made to look. Since she must be shown sensually in love with Claudius and seductive enough to make him commit murder for her sake, she clearly must be young. The force of Hamlet’s reproach that at her age:
“the heyday in the blood is tame,
is that while to an intolerant youth this should be so with her, it all too clearly is not. “It is from this, in fact, that tragedy springs. Gertrude’s flesh is not made tame. In this the story of the play is rooted and much of its meaning will be missed if the point is not kept clear.”
The scene has crucial bearings on the rest of the play. It is in this scene that Hamlet kills Polonius who had hidden himself to spy on him. And it is at the end of this scene that the villainous King, learning of Polonius’ fate, murmurs:
“It had been so with us had that we been there.”
Claudius’ treacherous mind is now convinced that he must have Hamlet killed.
Claudius, the king, is not an archetypal villain. He has a shrewd mind. In his court he talks and behaves like a suave diplomat. It doesn’t take him long to sense that Hamlet is suspicious of him and he makes sure that a strict watch is kept over him. Hamlet feels imprisoned and chooses to talk like a man with an insane mind, expressing his real feelings and thoughts only when he is sure that he is alone. He has gone through a process of dire conversion, another sort of self that his task needs. He finds no meaning in life. “To be or not to be” (a speech that is an utter curse for the actor distressed by the knowledge that the audience is repeating one’s lines) is what he reflects upon inwardly; outwardly he is a man whose talk makes no sense. His finer traits must be blunted. Generosity, gentleness, simplicity – of what use are they? He must learn to be callous:
“What a piece of work is a man…”
This speech is delivered when he is out of his antic disposition. In it he admits that he has lost all mirth.
The audience always wonders why he does not take action’. Midway through the play is one of the most impassioned soliloquies which begins with:
“Now I am alone…
O what a rogue and peasant slave am I?”
Here he reveals to the audience that he is deeply troubled by his lack of action. He knows he has not acted as he might have and accuses himself of cowardice, indecision and daydreaming. If the actors he so admires can show such emotion “For nothing/For Hecuba’ why hasn’t he taken action?” He explains towards the end of the speech that his delay is based upon his uncertainty about the ghost, his own weakness and melancholy. By asking the players to perform something like “the murder of my father,” he hopes to catch “the conscience of the king”. Not long after sharing his thoughts with the audience he has a perfect moment to kill his uncle, the usurper King, but cannot bring himself up to it because the king is at prayer and his conscience would not allow it.
Whenever we see Hamlet alone he is either lapsed in self-conscious grief or self-reproachful, or in suicidal despair. And every time he questions himself he has to admit that he knows nothing of himself at all. But he is not just a morbid young, man lost in self-delusion. He can be witty and quick on the uptake. In his ‘antic guise,’ he is a comedian who makes puns and talks in riddles, but in his unguarded moments with Horatio, or with the Players, we have traces of an untroubled Hamlet.
Horatio is the one human being whom he does not look on either with contempt or with disapproval and when he explains to Horatio:
“Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee..”
he shows a deep love for him
Granville-Barker makes you understand the true nature of Hamlet’s inner strife. He points out that we learn what qualities in other men he unaffectedly admirers. Hamlet is a continued tale of disillusion about others and about himself; Horatio is the one human being brought into close touch with him whom he regards with genuine admiration. Granville-Barker points out that:
“He is by the humble title of his love for him asking the aid and comfort of qualities in his friend which, past the need of protest or excuse, he knows himself to lack.”
Having escaped the death that awaited him upon arrival in England Hamlet returns to Denmark. He tells Horatio of his adventure at sea without any hysterical outburst. He is now well composed, almost fatalistic, and will respond nobly to what may happen. “There is a divinity that shapes our ends”. His speech now denies all those fears of the “undiscovered country from whose bourn/No traveller returns…”
It is with incredible insight that Granville-Barker shows (almost stanza by stanza) how “Hamlet’s adventure which seemed but to lead him to defeat is heroic too, and how Hamlet flings his whole being, mind and affections both, the best and the worst of him, weakness no less than strength, into the trial. And he widens the issues till he sees eternal life and death, his own and his enemies at stake”.
If you get a chance to read the “Preface” to Hamlet you will agree with me — and I say this unhesitatingly — that Hamlet is not only the greatest tragedy ever written but the greatest drama of all times. It is like Shakespeare explaining his own play to his actors. And it re-affirms my view that there is nothing more sublime than Shakespeare.
For nearly a quarter of a century I have been writing a column which appeared in this newspaper every fortnight. I am grateful to TNS which allowed my ramblings to be worthy enough to appear in a section called “Literati”. Enough is enough though, and my jottings on Hamlet should be considered as my swan song: Farewell!