I recently re-read Hamlet and also T.S. Eliot's essay on Shakespeare's play.
A choice quotation from that essay: "So far from being Shakespeare's masterpiece, the play is most certainly an artistic failure."
I cannot agree with that. Also, where the play rests within the hierarchy of Shakespeare's works doesn't interest me.
I was drawn to Hamlet, the character, because of the recent death of my wife. She died in May. I found myself ruminating on the Danish Prince and dug the play off my bookshelf. Only then did I realize why. The man is grieving.
Thus the artistic "problem" of the play. Called repeated to avenge the murder of his father, the King, Hamlet instead ruminates and delays.
Eliot: "We must simply admit that here Shakespeare tackled a problem which proved too much for him. Why he attempted it at all is an insoluble puzzle; under compulsion of what experience he attempted to express the inexpressibly horrible, we cannot ever know."
This is fine and true enough. However, Hamlet's deep plunges into his existential angst appear to tickle Eliot not at all.
Hamlet makes is directly clear what the problem is, "To be or not to be." This is often paraphrased, "On what grounds do I have to act?"
But Hamlet has no fear of action. He is decisive in escaping the pirates and re-writing the King's command, to cite one example. He is also well trained in swordsmanship and a well admired heir to the throne.
So why does he pause? What prevents him from taking his father's revenge?
I offer a small, personal reflection, based on the fact that I am about the same distance from my wife's death and Hamlet was from his father's, and that is this: the world is torn asunder and all one desires is a calm port.
Grief takes you away from yourself, and you need to constitute a new identity. A subconscious recognition of this is what drew me to re-read the play, I believe.
Hamlet could claim his rightful thrown and banish his confusion by killing his uncle, that is true, but the play, then, would not be a tragedy. If he acted quickly, it wouldn't even get us through the first act.
What we have instead is a meditation on existence that is of the first rank. Eliot, methinks, is mistaken.
Hamlet is too lost to constitute a new identity in the time available to him. He is overwhelmed and only too aware of the fragility of his own state.
Perhaps it's true that he enjoyed his walk on the dark side too much. Perhaps the sirens call him too strongly, and he cannot pull away. Because part of grief is a process of reflection and insight. Or it can be, if one lets it, and it can be overwhelming if one doesn't assert some control over it.
But grief overwhelms. It's what it does. And then one seeks again the surface.
Eliot cannot fathom Hamlet's dis-ease. From where I stand, Hamlet's problem is common.