Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness by Rhodri Lewis

Reviewed by Ian Lipke

One of the major innovative thinkers of the current century Rhodri Lewis has taken one of the most studied plays of this and earlier centuries, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and turned on their head many of the grand notions we have all had about Shakespeare. Lewis’s ideas are breathtakingly original. Written in a style befitting the importance of the ideas they usher in, Lewis’s prose is academic, precise and requires close attention. But it is all worth it.

The character of Hamlet has received close scrutiny since the Romantics took him to their bosom in the later eighteenth century. He became a persona in which Shakespeare appeared to dramatize the struggles of a lone individual searching for a path through the suffocating thickets of moral, personal, and political existence. But what we must remember is that Shakespeare wrote a play. Lewis took up Margreta de Grazia’s recommendation that we reorder our thinking to focus on the play, not the man. We are reminded that (a) Hamlet has developed out of an earlier revenge play, the Ur-Hamlet, (b) nothing is known of the ways in which Hamlet was initially regarded, and (c) that the later seventeenth century has nothing positive to say about the play until about 1736. It follows that much of our knowledge does not derive directly from Shakespeare at all.

Hamlet, read as a profound meditation on the nature of human individuality, does not rely on the conceptual frameworks of any particular century. “Shakespeare’s characters have a rich and compelling moral life, but that moral life is not autonomous. Instead, it is in each case intimately bound up with the particular and distinct community in which the character participates” (Greenblatt, Shakespeare and the Ethics of Authority).

Lewis maintains that, for Shakespeare and the culture of which he was a part, the personal or moral could no more remain private than the political could remain the province of public life alone. To understand why and how Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as he did we must return to reconstructing aspects of sixteenth century life as the playwright is likely to have encountered them. Lewis’s most critical point is this: rather than spell out how, where, when or why the action is unfolding Shakespeare gives his audience the circumstantial data required for them to infer or deduce its consequences for themselves, and often to question the processes through which their inferences or deductions have been reached. This is a really big leap.

An unashamed summary of Lewis’s ideas as they appear in the introductory chapter goes like this. Shakespeare confronts his audiences with the realization that they have no fixed points of reference with which to help them make up their minds. For example, Hamlet’s dramatic presence is framed by his interactions with his fellows. What sets Hamlet apart from the remainder of the dramatis personae is the degree to which Shakespeare explores through him the insight that the insufficiency of received ethical and political wisdom does not just have public consequences. Transposed on to the person of Hamlet, it calls into question the fundamentals of who and what a human individual might be said to be (my emphasis).

By revealing that a discontented Hamlet is bound by cultural circumstance to use his intelligence as his accomplice rather than a guide, Shakespeare discloses something of the plight faced by every inhabitant of his Danish play world. The actions of those at the top of the social and political hierarchy are a symptom of whatever it is that’s wrong, not its cause. There is no discernible framework of right and wrong, no epilogue affirming that all will be well if only princes conduct themselves virtuously. “Humanist orthodoxy…is instead a set of doctrines that distorts reality and constrains all human beings to obscure their true natures – from themselves as much as from others” (9-10). It forces us to play at being ourselves, preventing us from playing truly meaningful roles. The crux of the matter is this:

Hamlet thus offers a representation of the cultural dynamics shaping human existence that is rich, sustained, compelling, and completely at odds with early modern convention. Its moral universe is an unyielding night. One that self-exploration, inwardness, honour, loyalty, love, poetry, philosophy, politics, moral scruple, military force, and religious belief are powerless to illuminate” (10).

And that is why our early modern interpretations of Shakespeare need to be reexamined.

The remaining chapters open a number of avenues for discussion. Beginning with a reference to the humanist debate on the suitability of hunting for the virtuous man (Erasmus and More thought the practice bestial), Lewis likens the Danish court to the Elizabethan hunt. Just as the hunt governs the way in which its participants interact, so in demonstrating how the cast of Hamlet interact with one another does Shakespeare expose the dangerously illusory foundations on which humanist moral philosophy was constructed.

While Gascoigne might have written of the nobility of the hunt, Shakespeare’s glance is less forgiving. He crafts a play in which hunter and prey are interchangeable. The members of the Danish court may be unexceptional in their preoccupation with hunting, falconry, fowling and fishing, but in Shakespeare’s vision these everyday activities become the analogues of dishonour, dishonesty, and moral debasement (Lewis 81).

Lewis’s chapter three begins a series of considerations of Hamlet in various guises. Hence we have essays on Hamlet as historian, poet, and philosopher. Each is a gem in its own right. A look into chapter three provides us with a taste of what this and subsequent chapters present, with the same level of original thought.

“I want to explore the notion that Hamlet is concerned less with the claims of the past on the present than with exposing the perspectives from which the shifting present apprehends, appropriates, and frequently reshapes that which has gone before it” (Lewis 113). Lewis goes on to claim that the past can assert no identity of its own. It can only exist through modes of representation that are as subject to partiality as they are to distortion. “Although Hamlet and many others in the play invest considerable amounts of energy in pretending otherwise, the pasts to which they respond are a product of the imperatives and desires with which they, in the present, are inescapably absorbed; the past is revealed as another screen on which they can project the personae and pretence of their disconnected moral vision” (113).

From this comes the judgment that Hamlet’s need to play the part of a dutiful and loving son leads him to confect a memory of his father that is grounded in neither emotional nor historical reality. “The young prince’s deliberations on his mnemonic capacities, like his reification of the Ghost’s injunction to “remember me” are an elaborate attempt to evade the consciousness of this painful truth, and of his feelings for his father that underlie it” (113).

Fresh ideas are the backbone of the book. It is this originality of vision that is behind the instruction to early modern students in the USA that Lewis’s book should be compulsory reading. Truthfully, this is “an innovative, coherent, and exhilaratingly bleak tragedy in which the governing ideologies of Shakespeare’s age are scrupulously upended”.

Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness

(2017)

By Rhodri Lewis

Princeton UP

ISBN: 9780691166841

$39.95; 392pp

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