(Post in the Shaksper Forum, The Global Electronic Shakespeare Conference, on 22 Feb 2021: https://shaksper.net/archive/2021/861-february/33963-re-hamlet-to-avenge-or-not-to-avenge-9 )
It should be evident to everyone that there are multiple ways of interpreting Hamlet, or, in fact, of interpreting any text at all. Shakespeare, himself is well aware of that, and even has Feste say, in Twelfth Night, that “words are grown so false, I am loath to prove reason with them.” Nonetheless, it may be a worthwhile academic exercise to consider the possibility that Shakespeare did wish to convey deep meanings in his plays, and also whether evidence for this can be found. While it would be likely that a poet of Shakespeare’s calibre would write plays that do have a deep meaning, the evidence for authorial intention on Shakespeare’s part would have to be dramatic and extensive in order to be considered valid. Is there such evidence? I believe the answer to that question is definitely yes. Extensive evidence can be found for this authorial intention in practically every play Shakespeare wrote.
The evidence would also answer this question: Given that Shakespeare is aware that words can be interpreted in multiple ways, what would Shakespeare do then to make his point, if he really did have the authorial intention for each of his plays to convey a deep meaning? It can be shown that Shakespeare deliberately made use of three techniques to convey his intended meaning, and all these techniques can be clearly seen in Hamlet.
The first technique is to have all his plays deliver the intended meaning through a cohesive unity in the entire play. In other words, the meaning of the play is to be found in the play taken in its entirety, such that there is nothing in the play that contradicts the central meaning, or are even redundant. This means that every part of the play has to cohesively contribute to the meaning of the play. This can actually be demonstrated in Hamlet, which brings us to the second technique that Shakespeare employs.
This second technique that Shakespeare uses, to emphasize his authorial intent, is to have all the parts of his play, that do not contribute to the main action of the play, contribute to intensifying the meaning of the play. Let us call these scenes “focused allegorical scenes.” In other words, they are there because, if they do not advance the main action of the play, they contribute to its meaning. Hamlet is full of these kinds of focused allegorical scenes, and every one of them can be shown to contribute to the central meaning of the play. These include the following:
• The long swearing ritual at the end of Act 1.
• Polonius’s long dialogue with Reynaldo.
• The long dramatic recitation on Pyrrhus.
• Hamlet’s advice (on acting) to the players.
• The long graveyard scene.
• The prolonged dialogue with Osric.
Given that all these scenes can be omitted without affecting the main action of the play, Shakespeare makes them surprisingly long. There is a reason for this, and that is that all these scenes contribute to the meaning of the play. Perhaps it is time we seriously consider the likelihood that a poet of Shakespeare’s calibre would not add, to his already lengthy play, long scenes like this if they did not serve an artistic purpose.
The third technique that Shakespeare deploys to clarify his authorial intent is what may be called “thematic resonance.” Shakespeare repeats the central meaning he is trying to convey again and again, throughout the play, like an endless echo. And often, this thematic resonance builds in intensity to reach a thundering climax at the end. This technique is actually evident in practically all of Shakespeare’s plays.
In Hamlet, it can be shown that Shakespeare has deployed the three techniques mentioned above (cohesive unity, focused allegorical scenes, and thematic resonance) to convey these key points:
• The need to recognize the mystery world we are all in and the importance of accepting the inevitability of death and facing the profound.
• Our propensity, instead, to hide from the truth by indulging in distractions, and by artificially beautifying what is rotten inside.
• How, as a result of being false to ourselves in this way, we become false to others.
• The question we need to ask of whether we are not, in fact, mad in doing all this.
• Why revenge and condemnation of others is wrong, and how an acceptance of reality and the inevitability of death, coupled with this frame of mind, is a disaster.
A full presentation of how Shakespeare has delivered the above meaning can be found in my book “Quintessence of Dust: The Mystical Meaning of Hamlet”. I think it is perhaps time that we consider giving Shakespeare the credit of meticulously creating, in Hamlet, a play that is close to an artistic miracle in both its poetic brilliance and profound meaning.
(Post in the Shaksper Forum, The Global Electronic Shakespeare Conference, on 3 Mar 2021: https://shaksper.net/current-postings )
Gerald E. Downs, justifiably poes a question concerning Hamlet’s attitude (regarding the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern) when he writes: “Base natures or not, Hamlet’s ‘friends’ weren’t exactly caught in the crossfire. Nevertheless, Hamlet neither regrets their fate, nor fears his own on their account. Why is that?”
If we are to give Shakespeare the artistic credit for meticulously creating a play with a deep meaning, the answer to that question can be found in how Shakespeare consistently crafted the play in ways that inform us why Hamlet behaved this way. Shakespeare is very consistent here. He means to show that the call for revenge has transformed Hamlet into a terrifying angel of doom, a horrible person with practically no compassion left in him.
The most striking demonstration of this can be found in how Shakespeare has Hamlet respond to the accidental killing of Polonius. First, Shakespeare has Hamlet not spare a single word of compassion for Polonius. It would have been easy for Shakespeare to insert even just one line to show that Hamlet cares about Polonius. Shakespeare deliberately avoids that, and instead has Hamlet immediately abuse Polonius further by calling him a “wretched, rash, intruding fool”!
Next, Shakespeare has Hamlet immediately begin passionately appealing to his mother to realize the error of her hasty remarriage. All this is almost commendable, a measure of Hamlet’s intense mourning for his lost father, except for one glaring fact: the body of Polonius is lying on the stage in full view of the audience. Shakespeare makes it clear that Hamlet only removes the body at the end of this scene and not before.
Now the ghost of Hamlet’s father enters, and Hamlet expresses his guilt at having delayed the revenge he promised. Hamlet addresses the ghost: “Do you not come your tardy son to chide that, lapsed in time and passion, lets go by th’important acting of your dread command? Oh say.” Again, Hamlet’s expression of a deep filial bond with his late father is almost commendable—but the body of Polonius still lies in full view. This almost unbelievable scene reveals Shakespeare at his most sublime.
We witness an impassioned, almost moral, appeal by Hamlet to his mother to realize the error of her hasty remarriage while he blatantly contravenes all sense of compassion to a fellow being, newly slain by his own hand. We also witness his filial guilt for the delay in avenging his father while he totally neglects and even mocks the death of another. The whole episode is surreal, its dramatic impact nearly unbelievable. There is no doubt that Shakespeare deliberately set it up, for he neatly places the entire episode between two striking passages of Hamlet mocking the slain man. Shakespeare’s purpose is to show that Hamlet has been transformed into a man fixated with revenge and the condemnation of others, with almost no room left for compassion.
If we have any doubt that Shakespeare meant to show this, we only have to look at the next three scenes, where Shakespeare persistently impresses upon the audience that Hamlet had performed the bizarre and gruesome act of hiding Polonius’s body and refusing to allow it to be brought to the chapel. Why would Shakespeare do this? It is completely unnecessary for Shakespeare to have Hamlet behave in this horrible manner. In fact, not only does he deliberately have Hamlet behave this way, Shakespeare ensures that we do not miss the point by persistently bringing it to our attention at the beginning of both Scene 2 and Scene 3 in Act 4. This is a clear indication of authorial intent.
And Shakespeare does not let up. In the next scene, we find Hamlet again berating himself for his delay in taking revenge. But note that it is Fortinbras’s act of utter folly, in dispatching thousands of men to their death over a useless piece of land, that now serves as the basis for Hamlet to rebuke himself for delaying his revenge. If Shakespeare means to show that Hamlet has genuine cause to chastise himself, he would have given Fortinbras a more noble reason to attack Poland. This would have been so easy. Yet Shakespeare chooses an act of unbelievable foolishness as a foil for Hamlet’s last soliloquy. To doom twenty thousand men over a piece of useless land and inflict all the pain and sorrow of war merely to satisfy his own craving for self-glorification must be the very height of human stupidity.
Even in just this section of the play that we have looked at above, it is evident that Shakespeare has made use of the techniques of a cohesive unity and thematic resonance to convey his meaning. Scene after scene, Shakespeare’s authorial intent is evident. Already this part of the play should be enough to give us Shakespeare’s answer to why Hamlet shows no concern over the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Hamlet has been transformed into a terrifying avenger with almost no compassion left in him. That is why revenge is wrong. It completely nullifies any hope of progressing on the spiritual path.
This same evidence for Shakespeare’s authorial intent can actually be found in the entire play with a striking cohesive unity. Practically every part of the play contributes to its meaning, and this includes all the scenes that do not move along the main action. These focused allegorical scenes are there because they artistically intensify the meaning of the play. Furthermore, Shakespeare repeats his points like an endless echo throughout the play. I believe it is time that we give Shakespeare the artistic credit for meticulously crafting Hamlet to convey a profound meaning. The evidence for Shakespeare’s authorial intent is almost overwhelming, through his use of the three techniques: cohesive unity, focused allegorical scenes, and thematic resonance.
(Post in the Shaksper Forum, The Global Electronic Shakespeare Conference, on 5 Mar 2021: https://shaksper.net/current-postings )
I agree with Michele Marrapodi that there is great pliability in how we interpret Shakespeare’s texts, but this is something that is true also for practically any text. However, I have to disagree with the characterization that the interpretation I have discussed is “totally unShakespearean.” In fact, it is exactly the opposite, and is totally Shakespearean. Let me explain.
It is totally Shakespearean because it takes into consideration the three techniques that Shakespeare uses, in practically every one of his plays, to convey his meaning:
1. The cohesive unity of the entire play, so that every part of each play delivers Shakespeare’s meaning consistently, and without any contradiction.
2. The focused allegorical scenes that ensure that every scene, that does not contribute to the main action, is there to artistically intensify the meaning of the play.
3. The thematic resonance Shakespeare generates, in each play, by repeating, again and again, the same point, like an endless echo throughout the play.
What makes these three techniques totally Shakespearean is that they are found universally in practically all of Shakespeare’s plays, and are also virtually unique to Shakespeare. Surely nothing more is required to qualify these techniques as “totally Shakespearean.”
The interpretation of Hamlet, that I have discussed, stems from looking closely at what Shakespeare himself is trying to convey, by studying carefully these three techniques that he uses to impart his meaning. If we interpret any of his plays in the way Shakespeare himself intends, we will find that practically the entire play is crafted by Shakespeare to reflect his meaning. This is how we know whether or not we are interpreting Shakespeare in the way that he intends. If our interpretation fails to satisfactorily fit in with these three techniques that Shakespeare employs, we can probably conclude that our interpretation is not the one that Shakespeare himself intends.
Of course, we can interpret Shakespeare’s texts in many different ways, and this is something that Shakespeare himself is well aware of. Nonetheless, if we are to credit Shakespeare with the amazing poetic artistry that he clearly does possess, we need to also take serious note of the meaning of the play that Shakespeare himself intends. And Shakespeare conveys this meaning by his three unique techniques: cohesive unity, focused allegorical scenes, and thematic resonance. The evidence that Shakespeare does this can be found in all of his plays, and this is practically overwhelming evidence. It is also totally Shakespearean.
(Post in the Shaksper Forum, The Global Electronic Shakespeare Conference, on 9 Mar 2021: https://shaksper.net/current-postings )
In my previous post, I pointed out that my interpretation of Hamlet is totally Shakespearean because it is based on the three techniques that Shakespeare deploys in all of his plays to convey his intended meaning: cohesive unity, focused allegorical scenes, and thematic resonance. I realize, however, that most critics of the past were largely unaware of these methods that Shakespeare used to convey his meaning. That has unfortunately led to statements like that of Samuel Johnson who wrote, in the 18th century, that Shakespeare “sacrifices virtue to convenience and is so much more careful to please than to instruct that he seems to write without any moral purpose.” This is so wrong.
I also realize that there may be contemporary Shakespearean scholars who are still unaware of these techniques used by Shakespeare to convey his intended meaning. Therefore, it is reasonable that I should provide ample evidence that these techniques are indeed deployed by Shakespeare. For this purpose, I am making available my commentary on the first two acts of Much Ado About Nothing (which is actually part of a new book I am currently writing). These can be found here at: https://kenneth-chan.com/evidence-of-shakespeares-use-of-cohesive-unity-focussed-allegorical-scenes-and-thematic-resonance-in-much-ado-about-nothing/ This commentary will show, unequivocally, that Shakespeare, in a unique and artistic way, does employ the techniques of cohesive unity, focused allegorical scenes, and thematic resonance, to convey his intended meaning. In Much Ado About Nothing, Shakespeare literally deploys these techniques incessantly, in practically every part of every scene of every act, in a similar way to what he does for Hamlet. It is amazingly relentless. Therefore, the interpretation of Hamlet that is based on what Shakespeare imparts persistently, through these three techniques (cohesive unity, focused allegorical scenes, and thematic resonance) is not only totally Shakespearean but also uniquely Shakespearean.