Sunday, April 17, 2011

The dumbshow Hamlet - pay no attention to that author behind the curtain

How has it come to this? Hamlet, perhaps the single most celebrated literary work in the English language, is still today widely read as so much dumbshows and noise when it comes to its biographical layers of meaning. 

The editor of the new definitive edition of Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray inadvertently highlights this strange point in a recent interview

In the Harvard University Press promotional podcast on its new Gray, editor Nicholas Frankel says

"[Wilde] did say ... that the book 'contains much of me in it.' I think those were his words. '[The characters] Basil Hallward is who I think I am; Lord Henry [Wotton], who the world thinks me; and Dorian Gray, who I would be in other ages perhaps.' I think that's pretty clear evidence that Wilde saw himself all over this novel in all three of those central characters. Although to give him credit, he also said that art generally conceals the artist more completely than it reveals the artist.... So I think he would have been displeased with us wholly reading the novel in terms of himself and his biography. And of course we wouldn't do that with many works of art. We wouldn't do that with Hamlet, for instance. We wouldn't read Hamlet as an expression of Shakespeare necessarily."
Hear the lady protesting too much for yourself below, starting at the 12:20 mark.

(On a side note, the podcast is also an interesting interview about Wilde's life and times -- especially the final decade of his life -- and the controversies that erupted surrounding the anti-homosexuality ("gross indecency") trials that had the author sentenced to two years' hard labor.)

The straw-man argument within Frankel's quote is remarkable in itself. Who would ever suggest that one must read Dorian Gray -- or Hamlet for that matter -- exclusively as a work of autobiographical fiction? (In the editor's words, "Wholly reading the novel in terms of himself and his biography.")

No one -- really in all my years in this debate and through all the assorted characters I've met, no one -- argues that Hamlet exists solely and exclusively as a work of autobiography. The reflective quality of the author inserting his own life story is just one new vantage point on this immortal play that withstands all manner of non-biographical critical perspectives -- new-historical, post-colonial, deconstructionist, new historical-post-colonial-deconstructionist, etc. 

I don't want to pick too much on this one remark or this one editor. It's just the latest expression of a kind of age of decadence that orthodox Shakespeare studies seems to be caught up in these days. They refuse to substantively address the heretics at the gate and, in turn, refuse to substantively address any of even the most fundamental and self-evident points the heretics make.

For instance, every author draws from his or her own life to create his or her own work. Really, what alternative does an author have? For some authors this simple truth is more apparent and plainly represented than it is with others. It just so happens that "Shakespeare" was particularly -- and sometimes quite conspicuously -- guilty of this crime.

Some day in the far distant future, perhaps, we might see Hamlet entered within the register of expressly acknowledged "autobiographical works" that even the strictest defenders of the orthodoxy recognize.

As a friend of mine likes to say, though, just don't wait underwater.

Creative commons image of "chimp Hamlet" by Riley and Amos

1 comment:

Sonja Foxe said...

I did the (untimed) horoscopes of deVere & Will ... there are many essential similarities: offhand, both of them are taurus, and have venus in same sign, among other elements.

One suspects deVere was attended theater obsessively and well may have found the younger actor sympathetic by nature, and well suited to be an effective 'beard' for the author ... good enough an actor to take the role of auteur. Patron, I suggest, similar to the Thomas Walsingham's relationship w/Marlowe.