Hamlet Is Shakespeare

In another thread, JM wrote “I’d have to “somewhat” disagree, Charlene, since I believe Hamlet to BE Shakespeare. But that’s another topic altogether. 🙂 “
Continue. 🙂

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19 thoughts on “Hamlet Is Shakespeare

  1. In brief: Actor, playwright, genius, existential philosopher before his time, wordsmith. Shakespeare's longest treatise on life, choice, human nature. Arguably, by some accounts, the play he spent the most time writing. Nowhere else do the depths of thought and inquisition reflect so brilliantly on the surface, personally, directly, and vice-versa. Shakespeare is searching for himself here in a special way. Hamlet is a man telling us exactly what's on his mind, our minds, Shakespeare's mind.

  2. Ha ha Duane! You are preventing me from getting anything done today!

    I would argue that trying to align Shakespeare with any of his characters or what a character says is dangerous and inaccurate. Writers in the Early Modern era did not write autobiographically. And autobiographical readings are the only thing that anti-Stratfordians have. But it's just not how writers of the time thought. Literature as self-exploration is a modern notion of authorship.

    I'll steal from Shapiro and quote Licia, a poem from 1593:

    "A man may write of love, and not be in love, as well as of husbandry, and not go to plough, or of witches and be none."

  3. Although it is very tempting to read Hamlet and hear Shakespeare's voice in that of his protagonist, it is a temptation that is worth resisting.
    Of course, one cannot help but think that a playwright giving a speech to his protagonist about the proper way to act may be voicing his very own opinions in that speech, but beyond that one must be very careful reading autobiographical reflection in the play.

    JM, you simply must read James Shapiro's new book, "Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?" I had no intention of buying it myself, but I received it as a gift. It turns out to be a quick, enjoyable read. It goes well beyond arguing the pros and cons of the authorship controversy and raises the entire question of the autobiographical nature of writing in Shakespeare's day–to Shapiro, the root of the misunderstanding behind those who insist Shakespeare could not have written what he did. To say that Shakespeare is pouring out his own thoughts in Hamlet is to open up a can of worms that may be inappropriate given the way people wrote at the time. We must shake off our modern notions of authorship and what it means to be a writer and remember that Shakespeare was an early modern man, not a modern one.

  4. catkins– perhaps you mean "to say Shakespeare is pouring out his own thoughts into Hamlet is to open up a convocation of worms."

    Sorry. Couldn't resist.

    I love Shapiro's 1599, and I want to read Contested Will soon. I have some sympathy however, with the idea (I think from Harold Bloom?) that a few of Shakespeare's greatest characters–Hamlet, Iago, Falstaff, Rosalind, Cleopatra, Prospero — somewhat embody various attributes of their creator. Falstaff has Shakespeare's love of life, for example, and Rosalind his wryly charming wit. Could be wishful thinking. Of interest is that all these characters are literal or metaphorical "playwrights" within their own play–either staging plays within a play or creating "plays" with the lives of their fellow characters.

  5. Alexi–yes, I think it is wishful thinking. That is exactly Shapiro's point. "Contested Will" is MUCH better written than "1599."

    I have nothing good to say about Harold Bloom.

  6. Bloom is indeed a curmudgeonly fruitcake. I prefer Marjorie Garber, who spends less time reading in things that aren't there and more time actually analyzing what's going on in and among the plays. "Shakespeare After All" is a great read.

    Be that as it may…I want to clarify, I'm not saying Hamlet, Falstaff et al. ARE Shakespeare. I'm not saying they're particularly drawn from his autobiography or that they are his mouthpieces. I'm saying, based partly on my own experience as a writer, that they embody traits and attributes Shakespeare possessed. That's why they feel so REAL. Shakespeare didn't perform creatio ex nihilo. For his greatest creations, he tapped into something within himself, perhaps within all of us. Doesn't Iago's dark charisma strike a chord because we recognize something scary in ourselves reflected back in that tortured, treacherous man? Is Cleopatra's infinite variety charming because we'd kind of like to have so much power we would be able to make light of it?

    I guess I've strayed a bit from discussing Hamlet, haven't I? 😉

  7. I got that point, Alexi, but it is still wishful thinking. It is a modern writer's view of an early modern writer.
    Shakespeare's characters feel real because he understood people, not because he wrote about himself.
    Shapiro has a great section about an acclaimed writer being interviewed about his book on China. The interviewer was flabbergasted to find out he had never been there. He researched his book from the library.
    Writing does not have to be about personal experience. It just overwhelmingly is so today. It was NOT so in Shakespeare's day.
    Read "Contested Will." It may give you a new way of looking at Shakespeare's works.

  8. Let's not forget that our "modern notion" of what an Elizabethan writer was NOT thinking, is also a modern notion, also highly in question. E'en in face of the redoubtable scholars–what they have is what's written on the page, same as any of us.

    ONLY Hamlet had Hamlet's thoughts?
    Shakespeare in an indisputable, ironclad editorial bubble, eh? Which could mean that every social statement, every stroke of genius, every grand sentiment, et al. these same redoubtables have so much fun with, meant something only to the characters he chose to speak them–and nothing at all to Shakespeare? Why bother? Sorry, don't buy it.

  9. I've not yet read Shapiro's book, but I think I'm with JM on this one. On the one hand we talk about Shakespeare "inventing the human" (whether we like Bloom or not), but we certainly all agree on the timelessness and universality of Shakespeare's words … and, what, we're expected to believe that that's all coincidence? That he was only ever writing to make a buck, never going beyond whatever plot, political zinger and dirty jokes he thought he current audience would like?

    Is it safe to say that, among playwrights, Shakespeare did things that were never before done? Or at the very least, set a new standard for how to do them? If that is the case with the occasional literary technique here and there, can't we buy then that perhaps he was also one of the first to write himself into his characters?

  10. I am not suggesting that what Shakespeare wrote for his characters meant nothing for Shakespeare, only that it is a leap to intuit Shakespeare's own ideas from those espoused by his characters. And it is certainly a leap to intuit his emotional state from them.

    What makes Shakesepeare so brilliant is the universality and generality of his plays. What makes him so endearing is that his basic assumptions are so few. Reading through his plays, I would feel comfortable only saying that Shakespeare would agree with the following tenets:
    1.Someone must be granted legitimacy to rule (anarchy is bad).
    2.Power must be controlled (tyranny is bad).
    3.Sex must be controlled (licentiousness is bad).
    4.Honesty is the best policy (deception is bad).
    There are a couple of more complicated ones, like:
    1. Courage is good (cowardice is bad). Courage is something we aspire to but sometimes cannot attain, and cowardice is sometimes relative. Is it cowardice or prudence that makes someone turn away from overwhelming odds?
    2. Loyalty is good (treason is bad). Sometimes loyalties can be divided and it can be impossible to be loyal to one without being disloyal (or, in some cases, treasonous) to another.

    But when we get to what specific characters say, are they speaking for Shakespeare? Most of the characters are so human, they have so many facets, that it is hard for me to accept that they speak in the author's person. For me, they speak as people, and as object lessons, lessons that we must learn by observation.

    I don't think Shakespeare put himself on the page. I think he put us there.

  11. "I don't think Shakespeare put himself on the page. I think he put us there."

    A nice quote, Carl, but I don't understand it. What is it that we have, that Shakespeare did not? Are we not all human? How can we look at the "Grief walks up and down the halls with me" speech from King John, know how that makes us feel, and not also think that Shakespeare felt that when his own son died? I'm not sure I get the difference.

    I suppose the difference if I understand it is between "Here, I am writing this because I feel grief for my lost child and this is how I'm expressing it", rather than "Here is an example of grief that all humans, myself included, will feel sometime in their existence."

  12. There are so few answers about Shakespeare, and we, as curious human beings, want to find them where ever we can. So we desperately want to link him to his works in order to understand how they could have been created. But why do we find it so difficult to believe that Shakespeare could invent people and feelings different from himself? Why do we want to deny him his genius?

    Perhaps a modern example will serve — consider Stephen Sondheim. That man writes some of the most true, moving lyrics about love, about children, about marriage, that I have ever heard. The man has never been married and has no children.

  13. Carl, Another book you suggested, "Shakespeare's Philosophy" by Colin Firth. I read it. Love it. Thanks. Even though it now seems to have been a useless exercise. I mean, how can we possibly link Shakespeare's "true" musings to ANYTHING he was writing, what with the new mandates? 🙂

    Charlene, to me, conceptualizing a feeling is thinking that feeling and feeling that thinking. To be able to formulate it, and then translate it to a page in the heightened and beautiful form the way Shakespeare did it IS genius. –Never mind having thoughts such as he wrote occur in the first place. No matter whom he might have been "writing them for", the thoughts and feelings and the passion with which they were expressed originated with him. Oh, and he was an actor, too. What's the song?…"Walk a Mile in My Shoes" 🙂

  14. Duane, you wrote; "Here is an example of grief that all humans, myself included, will feel sometime in their existence." That is exactly what I mean.

    The idea is that we should not be looking for Shakespeare's musings about himself or ideas that he propounds (save that for Ben Jonson). Shakespeare shows us what people like us (and like himself) feel and think, but NOT just feelings and thoughts particular to himself.

    JM, I am glad you liked "Shakespeare's Philosophy," but what Colin Firth has to say is not inimical to what Shapiro has to say. Firth just laid the philosophical landscape of the times and related them to the philosophical thought represented in the plays. He does not really say that Shakespeare held any particular philosophy.


  15. I think there are specific, tangible examples of Shakespeare using the character, Hamlet, to espouse Shakespeare's own beliefs. The Act II, Scene ii exchange between Hamlet and R & G regarding the child acting companies that were the rage in London at that time. Shakespeare relays his disapproval for those who were writing exclusively for wee players, "Will they not say afterwards, if they
    should grow themselves to common players—as it is most
    like, if their means are no better—their writers do them
    wrong to make them exclaim against their own succession?" Naturally, with these youngsters' productions pulling profits that could have been going into his own coffers, it is no surprise he would take the opportunity to get in a dig at them.
    I do not think Hamlet is a character incarnation of Shakespeare's every thought or political belief, but to think that a writer's beliefs and values won't surface with certain characters when the opportunity presents itself is "forest for the trees" thinking.
    To properly interpret when that is occurring and when it is not is the question…yes..there is the rub.

  16. P.S. Carl: It's Colin McGinn, not Firth–my mistake.

    P.S. Folks: I guess in today's literal, "reality show" world, abstract statements have lost their place.

    "Hamlet is Shakespeare" isn't meant to indicate that I think that every nuance of the character, point for point, is a carbon copy of the author. Or that Shakespeare somehow transmogrified himself "into" Hamlet, or anything of the kind.

    Mystic says it well:"I do not think Hamlet is a character incarnation of Shakespeare's every thought or political belief, but to think that a writer's beliefs and values won't surface with certain characters when the opportunity presents itself is "forest for the trees" thinking.
    To properly interpret when that is occurring and when it is not is the question…yes..there is the rub."

    Above all, I think Shakespeare is a Philosopher of Life. The way he expounded that philosophy was through his characters. A man may think one thing in one phase of life and quite the opposite in another. He may be totally confused and yet be brilliantly articulate about that confusion. He may be "playing" with a philosophy in order to explore a phase of thought fully. This, I believe, was an ability that is an element of his genius.

    "I can adde Colours to the Camelion,
    Change shapes with Proteus, for advantages,
    And set the murtherous Machevill to Schoole." 3 Henry VI

    His name may be John Smith, Irving Lipschitz, or William Shakespeare. His "autobiography" per se means little if nothing to me. His thoughts DO mean something.
    The man we call "Shakespeare" surfaces everywhere in his writing. To be an author dictates this, to a certain extent, whether it be 1593, 1928, 2010, or anywhere in between.

    Although philosophy abounds elsewhere in his work, in "Hamlet" Shakespeare speaks philosophically on the surface, and incarnates a Philosopher proper; one who expounds directly on life AS a philosopher–IN NAME–would. Take as much–or little–of that as you will. The Question is not if, but how much, was Shakespeare's. In the end, it's all 'opinion'.

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