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The Hamlet Question

By Ace G. Pilkington and Olga A. Pilkington


In 1780, Ulrich Braker, a Swiss peasant, completed his reading of a German translation of Shakespeare's plays. Of Hamlet, he said, "You king of all plays, you flower of all works of this kind that ever a poet could make . . . you paragon of beauty, ornament of all stages, diamond of all libraries, heart's core—I couldn't possibly find words to express how much you're my favorite" (A Few Words about William Shakespeare's Plays by a Poor Ignorant Citizen of the World Who Had the Good Fortune to Read Him [New York: Frederick Ungar Publishing Co., 1979],99, 100). There are many more famous writers who have said it less well. A great part of the pleasure in this play comes from the prince himself and the dilemma he faces. Hamlet expounds his problem in what is perhaps the most famous of Shakespeare's soliloquies, beginning with the words "to be or not to be." If there is one place that holds the heart of Hamlet's mystery, the music in his soul that he tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern they can never sound or even hear, it is in these words that still trouble the dreams, arguments, and doctoral dissertations of critics. Is the speech about suicide as it seems to be or about a larger and equally dangerous issue? Has Hamlet's despair pushed him to the verge of self slaughter or is he about to face that most formidable of tasks, a dangerous action that leads on—if all goes well—to a desired transformation of the world?

In Russia, "the Hamlet question" has had long-standing national significance. James H. Billington says, "The principal reason for the sustained interest of the aristocracy lay in the romantic fascination with the character of Hamlet himself. Russian aristocrats felt a strange kinship with this privileged court figure torn between the mission he was called on to perform and his own private world." And as Billington goes on to point out, "Radischev was perhaps the first to turn special attention to Hamlet's monologue in his own last work: On Man, His Mortality and Immortality, and resolved the question by taking his own life thereafter, in 1802. . . . By the late years of the reign of Alexander I the high incidence of aristocratic suicide was causing the state grave concern" (The Icon and the Axe: An Interpretive History of Russian Culture [New York: Vintage Books, 1970], 354, 355).

While these Russian examples make it seem as though Hamlet's dilemma is whether or not to kill himself, the issue in the play, in Russia, and indeed in the minds of the play's readers and watchers is much more complex. Roland Mushat Frye calls this "the greatest aporia (in the sense of a debate about an issue and weighing of its sides) in Shakespeare" (The Renaissance Hamlet: Issues and Responses in 1600 [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984], 189). As Frye clearly argues, Hamlet's "to be or not to be" was a scholarly construction that could be used to set up an argument regarding the truth or falsehood of any proposition. Hamlet is, in fact, debating with himself about whether it was better to take action against oppression or to suffer passively. "Suicide would release one from having to decide whether and how to act" (189). More than this, suicide could release one from having to act or passively participate in a world ineradicably sullied at its heart. So, for some German and Russian thinkers, suicide became a glorious adventure, not as an end to life but as a rejection of corruption. Of course, in Shakespeare's time and in many other times and places during the following centuries, even the suggestion of changing the world by violence had its dangers. Queen Elizabeth and, after her, James I did not approve of such philosophies. To quote Frye once more, "Shakespeare has managed it in a generalized context which the authorities would not find seditious, but which intelligent theatergoers would find exciting" (189).

In examining earlier and later versions of the text of Hamlet, James Shapiro comes to the conclusion that, "Shakespeare had created his greatest protagonist, but the trajectory of Hamlet's soliloquies had left the resolution of the play incoherent and broken too radically from the conventions of the revenge plot that had to sweep both protagonist and play to a satisfying conclusion. Shakespeare now had to choose between the integrity of his character and his plot, and he chose plot" (A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 [New York: Harper Collins Publishers,2005], 312). However, Shapiro is not taking all the factors into consideration here. Shakespeare is choosing, but he is also balancing. He must preserve the integrity of Hamlet's question, or the play loses its point. He must plunge Hamlet into action or there is no plot. And behind everything there is the ghost of political power, of bloody coercion, and a countervailing whisper of assassination and rebellion.

Despite Shakespeare's careful balancing, his fictional prince has often sent shivers of unease down the spines of real rulers. In Russia under the Tsars and later under the Comissars, Shakespeare was wildly popular. There are many reasons for this popularity, not the least of which is, in the words of Eleanor Rowe, that "political and social comment was usually made, because of censorship, in the guise of literature or literary criticism. The writer functioned as seer and prophet" (Hamlet: A Window on Russia [New York: New York University Press, 1976], 56). It was an environment very much like the one in which Shakespeare's Hamlet was created. In World War II Leningrad, "Thousands of spectators wrapped in furs, blankets, and mufflers jammed the unheated halls and applauded . . . Othello" (Marc Slonim, Russian Theater from the Empire to the Soviets [New York: The World Publishing Company, 1961], 331). On the radio were Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet (331). "Over the years 1945 to 1957 alone, the Soviet stage saw more than 300 productions of Shakespeare's plays" (Roman Samarin, ed., Shakespeare in the Soviet Union [Moscow, Russia: Progress Publishers, 1966], 7). But beginning during World War II and continuing until 1953, productions of Hamlet were forbidden in the Soviet Union, not officially but effectively because Stalin made it clear that he did not approve of the play. The ban had begun with the cancellation of a production of Boris Pasternak's translation of Hamlet by the Moscow Art Theatre. "There was," as Pasternak biographer Ronald Hingley says, "no point in putting ideas into people's heads" (A Biography: Pasternak [London: Unwin Paperbacks, 1985], 150). The play was not performed again until after Stalin's death, giving the peoples of the Soviet Union one more cause for celebration in 1953.

Who then is Hamlet and what does he finally decide? Perhaps even Shakespeare did not know the answer to the huge scholarly, political, and personal question he had formulated. Perhaps ultimately such questions are about process, about living and understanding rather than about concluding (even in a drama that concludes with death). In far too many places in his plays for it to be accidental, Shakespeare raises questions he does not answer. In Peter Ackroyd's words, "His plays were never fixed or finished; he was continually remaking them and, to the horror of editors who would prefer a definitive text, we may fairly assume that each play was slightly different at every performance" (Shakespeare: The Biography [New York: Nan A. Talese, Doubleday, 2005], 278, 279). In other words, each play remained alive, and the questions went on echoing in the minds of the audience and the author. But for those who would like a conclusion—to this essay at least—here are two. One of the most interesting answers to the Hamlet question was Boris Pasternak's in the poems he appended to Doctor Zhivago. In Pasternak's words, "Hamlet is not the drama of a weak-willed character, but of duty and self abnegation. . . . Hamlet is chosen as the judge of his own time and the servant of a more distant time" (cited in Billington, 562).

And maybe the best concluding judgment on Hamlet (and Hamlet criticism) may be found in words spoken by the great Soviet Shakespearean scholar Alexander Anikst at an international conference in London, "Don't ask for simple answers from Shakespeare! Just believe in Shakespeare, in his greatness, in his wide outlook, in his ability to put into one play a whole world with all its contradictions, contrasts and problems" (John Elsom, ed., Is Shakespeare Still Our Contemporary [New York: Routledge,1989], 180).

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