Hamlet seems to us to be a modern play. Modern, in the sense of its existential quality. The characters are all trapped in a reality that has obvious flaws. They cannot escape the fate that being a part of the story imposes on them. And in this sense, it seems absurdist. A denial of free will. A theme that the existentialists delighted in playing with. This comes out brilliantly in Stoppard’s 1966 play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead”.
But as much as we would like to claim Hamlet as a modern play, it is not. It was written for Elizabethan audiences of the late 16th and early 17th centuries. And that raises interesting questions. How did Shakespeare intend those audiences to see the play? And how did they see the play?
I am reading a book by Arthur McGee that tackles this subject.
And it starts with a provocative premise. The premise is that for Elizabethan audiences there was no doubt whatsoever that revenge was a terrible sin — under any circumstances. Thus a ghost who commands a son to commit revenge on his behalf must have been an agent of the devil. That is not in question for the Elizabethan audience.
In other words, the moral ambiguity that we love about the play — perhaps Hamlet was right to kill his uncle — would not have occurred to the Elizabethans. They would have seen Hamlet as lured into sin and ultimately receiving his just punishment. And of course, that adds a sort of titillating quality to the action. The audience gets to watch sin upon sin. upon sin.
There is one more aspect of this analysis that is of interest to us. The play might have revealed to Elizabethans the awesome power of evil. That evil can be so powerful adds tremendously to the tragic drama.
Which brings me to wonder. If real evil (as opposed to cartoon character villainy) is less the driver of tragic drama for us as modern audiences, what drives our tragic storylines? Or do we no longer believe in tragedy as an art form? And will that be seen as a defining characteristic of our era – that we are blind to our own tragedy?
Hmmm … I don’t feel blind. but perhaps I am.