We Are All to Some Degree Hamlet-Shaped, Whether We Know It or Not

He is “the fullest representation of human possibility. . Whether we are male or female, old or young he “speaks most urgently for us and to us. . . He can be transcendent or ironic. . . When we are wholly human and know ourselves, we be come most like. . .”

Like whom? Jesus? Wrong! Like Hamlet. So Harold Bloom argues in his marvelous, rambling (750-page), idiosyncratic, over-the-top magnum opus Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human. “The phenomenon of Hamlet,” he argues, “the prince without the play, is unsurpassed in the West’s imaginative literature”. Hamlet “vies with. . . the Jesus of Mark as a charismatic of charismatics”. He has “a mind so powerful that the most contrary attitudes, values and judgments can co-exist within it coherently. . . Hamlet incarnates the value of personality”. The result is that not one of us within western culture is quite the same as he or she would be had there been no Hamlet. We are all to some degree Hamlet-shaped, whether we know it not — even whether or not we’ve seen or read the play.

These remarks are made, of course, about the real Hamlet — who else? But who was the real Hamlet? A melodrama about Hamlet was performed in London in the 1580s, when Shakespeare was still an apprentice. It is generally attributed to a second-rate playwright named Thomas Kyd. Kyd’s work seems to have been derived from a book called Histoire Tragiques by François de Belleforest, published in French a few years earlier, and in English as The Hystorie of Hamblet in 1608. Belleforest’s book in turn was derived from a twelfth century chronicler called Saxo Grammaticus, whose history of Denmark tells of Amleth, son of the heroic Horwendil and the beautiful princess Gerutha.

Amleth’s father is murdered by his jealous brother Fengon, who incestuously marries Gerutha. Amleth plots revenge, feigns madness and stabs a friend of Fengon (lurking behind an arras — how’s that for Shakespearean authenticity?) before killing Fengon with the usurper’s own sword. But there is an unShakespearean happy ending. Amleth flees to England, where the king sends him to meet the queen of the Scots, the sexy-but-deadly Hermuthruda. She falls in love with him. They marry, defeat the king of England in battle, and return to Denmark where Amleth is proclaimed king, ruling with Gerutha and Hermuthruda as his two queens. This Hamlet gets it all: a ripping adventure, a crown, and two beautiful women to boot.

Sleuths on the quest for the historical Hamlet have, however, probed further back than Saxo. They have found hints of an Amlet in references to the lost Icelandic sagas of the 10th-century poet Snaebjorn, and one school of thought links our hero with the Swedish king Onela mentioned in Beowulf. Another claims that the historical Hamlet was the Irish king Amhlaidhe, slayer of king Niall Glundubh. Another locates him in ancient Persia. Then there was Shakespeare’s own baby son who died in infancy. He too was named Hamlet.

So will the real Hamlet please stand up!

Historical Hamlet scholarship is quite absorbing. It tells us a lot about the context of the Hamlet stories, and about how stories were made, adapted, transmitted. It reminds us that the distinctions we tend to make between “objective” historical reporting of “fact” and the stuff of myth and legend — between documentary and poetic “truth” — are modern, and would have meant nothing to pre-moderns. But it tells us nothing whatever about the “real” Hamlet. When we speak, write, think of Hamlet, when we acknowledge that in an important sense he has shaped the western world and helped create our modern sense of what it is to be human, it is the Hamlet of Shakespeare’s story not any Amleth or Amhlaidhe or Hamblet of history we are discussing.

What would we make of some earnest scholar who told us, on the basis of his textual analysis of the Celtic, Icelandic and Danish sagas, that Shakespeare had got Hamlet wrong? That there is no evidence for his having met his father’s ghost, nor for his having known Yorrick, nor for his sexually harassing Ophelia with provocative talk of “country matters”, nor for his ever having given a passing thought to the existential claims of action and self-knowledge? What kind of reception would we give our textual detective if he presumed to rewrite Shakespeare’s Hamlet, giving us footnote-attested Persian warlords, Irish feuds, a Danish princess-wife and a Scottish queen on the side, all in the interests of “the truth”and “the real”?

The real Hamlet, the only real Hamlet, is the Hamlet of the greatest play in western culture, the protagonist of a story fashioned by the genius of the English language at its zenith in Elizabethan times, and the unfathomable genius of Shakespeare himself. It is this Hamlet who is “the fullest representation of human possibility”, this Hamlet who will live as long as human culture survives.

Which says what about other historical quests? The quest for the historical Jesus, for example. . .

That quest too is utterly absorbing. It is, after all, an investigation into the origins of a religious culture which, whether for good or ill or both, profoundly influenced human behaviour, consciousness, sense of identity and of destiny, for two millennia and countless million people. In that sense it is an inquiry into how we came to be what we are (regardless of whether or not we count ourselves as “believers”).

And it can tell us, has indeed told us, a great deal about context: about who writes what, and for what purpose, about the power of story-telling itself, to win, hold and validate power. It can inform and enrich our understanding of “what happened”. It may help us glimpse another Jesus, an Amleth-Jesus or an Amhlaidhe-Jesus. But what it cannot do is conjure up a “real” Jesus, a footnote-attested Jesus who is somehow “more real” than the Jesus of the Jesus stories.

I don’t care a hoot if an historical holy man named Jesus “really” taught that the poor were privileged over the rich, the despised and wretched over the powerful and pompous. I’m sure that a number of impassioned and inspired agitators have proclaimed as much. I honestly couldn’t care less whether or not a bare-footed magician or wonder-worker “really” stood on the Mount of Olives and said those amazing, revolutionary (and baffling) words. But someone said them: or at least someone or several someones collected them, strung them together, edited them, and fashioned them into a text. And they ring true, convicting and convincing us, regardless of whether they were or were not spoken in peasant-Aramaic by a single historical person named Jesus on one of his better days.

The Jesus of the Jesus Story is much bigger than any Jesus of history. The “storical” Jesus remains more influential than any historical Jesus. Who inspired some of the greatest pictorial art in both the western and eastern worlds, the deepest poetry, the most magical music? Who gave us a glimpse of what we might be, and fired millions to make their heroic if largely doomed attempts to live in the life of the republic of heaven, and even try to model human society after such a vision? Not an obscure Galilean peasant of whose “real” historical life we can know little or nothing, but the Jesus created in the biblical literature, the Jesus who was born in a stable and died and rose again, as surely as Hamlet heard and saw his father’s ghost and drove Ophelia to her watery grave.

Thank God for the scholars whose painstaking work enriches our knowledge of what lies behind the story. But, rather, thank God for the story. For all the cheap sentiment, oppressive moralism, ugly patriarchy, and sloppy superstition that has so often been allowed to overlay it, it is one of humanity’s best, brightest and most enduring stories. For some it will always be “the greatest story ever told”, a story that can be enriched and illuminated by historical and textual scholarship but will always stand on its merits as literature and poetic saga, regardless of how we are advised by the scholars to locate it in our documented histories.

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