The 'Mona Lisa' of literature

400 years on, "Hamlet" still is the undiscovered country that puzzles our will



Nothing can please many and please long but just representations of human nature.
- Samuel Johnson

T.S. ELIOT declared in 1919, with a nonchalance uncharacteristic of a sober scholar-critic, that "Hamlet" "is most certainly an artistic failure... Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear". Failure or no, this play, the longest of Shakespeare's, has now attained the status of a classic worthy of inclusion in the Western canon for, what Harold Bloom calls, its "achieved anxiety". The year 2001 marks the quarter-centenary of the composition and performance of the play. Acted, seen, just read or studied with diligence and interpreted with gusto in myriads of ways, the play - performed more than any other ever written - has had an uninterrupted vogue in its 400-year history. As time rolls by, newer and newer insights into the play are gained, enriching it all the time. Each generation sees new things in the play. "It turns a new face to each century, even to each decade". And, with newer modes of epistemological inquiry developing, the multivalence of the play is bound to appear more and more to future generations. One can hardly reach the core of its mystery. Such is the enduring aesthetic value of the "Hamlet". The play is "of the age" as well as "of all time".
There exists a non-profit educational society conceived and operating in cyberspace, devoted to archiving, researching, discussions and commentary on "Hamlet" alone. This is an online home for admirers and enthusiasts of what most scholars regard as Shakespeare's greatest play. For sure, "Hamlet" is the undiscovered country that puzzles our will. No wonder there are countless critical works and discussions on this play.
There has been an unbroken line of "Hamlet" criticism down the ages. The many-sided and complex personality of Hamlet has agitated great minds. It used to be remarked on a lighter vein that if all "Hamlet" criticism were to be piled up one upon the other, it would touch the nearest planet. The play being what it is, its evaluation and criticism began even during Shakespeare's lifetime and has continued unabated with an ever-increasing pace, unmatched by any other work in the world. The relentless energy with which "Hamlet" criticism is carried on has resulted in a substantial body of critical writing on Hamlet, the prince and/or the play. Almost every great writer has some valuable remark or other about the play or the prince of Denmark. "Hamlet is not a character marked by strength of will or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment" (Hazlitt). "Hamlet is, throughout the play, rather an instrument than an agent... The poet is accused of having shown little regard to poetic justice and may be charged with equal neglect of poetic probability" (Johnson). Character criticism that dominated the latter half of the 18th Century found Hamlet a puzzling subject. "I have a smack of Hamlet myself... There is something inviolate in his character which is proof against analysis and labelling... It is we who are Hamlet" (Coleridge). "A beautiful, pure, noble, and most moral nature... Here is an oak tree planted in a costly vase, which should have received into its bosom only lovely flowers; the roots spread out, the vase is shivered to pieces" (Goethe). "It is often cast in the teeth of the great critics that each in painting Hamlet has drawn a portrait of himself. How if they were right? I would go a long way to meet Beatrice or Falstaff.... I would not cross the road to meet Hamlet. It would never be necessary. He is always where I'm" (C.S. Lewis). There are as many interpretations of "Hamlet" as there are schools of criticism - psychological, philosophical, Marxist, archetypal, imagist and New Historicist. This only proves that "Hamlet" lends itself to a variety of critical approaches.
"Hamlet" is a play in perpetual translation. Translated into almost every known language of the world, this play is the most widely published work in the world, ranking next only to the Bible. In the words of Emerson, "Great men are more distinguished by range and extent than by originality". Shakespeare's genius lies in his creative transformation of the already available material into an immortal classic. "'Hamlet' without the Prince of Denmark" has become a proverbial statement. Irrespective of scholarly interpretations, reading "Hamlet" is a rewarding experience.

(The Literary Review)

Lastupdate on : Sun, 4 Nov 2012 21:30:00 Makkah time
Lastupdate on : Sun, 4 Nov 2012 18:30:00 GMT
Lastupdate on : Mon, 5 Nov 2012 00:00:00 IST

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