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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Shadow Story of _Hamlet_

Some of you are aware that my research on the shadow story of Jane Austen's novels has led me to discover the same sort of double story structure in Shakespeare's _Hamlet_, a play which I think was crucial as an inspiration for Jane Austen in creating her own novelistic shadow stories.

The following is a message I just sent in a Shakespeare-related forum. If you substitute the word "Emma" for "Hamlet" wherever it appears, and substitute for the mystery of the Ghost in _Hamlet_ the mystery of Jane Fairfax's condition in _Emma_, you will find that the same argument applies. And I am also convinced that Jane Austen and Shakespeare were not the only great authors to use shadow story structures in their fiction. They just happen to be the "streetlights" under which I have been searching the past 7 years. ;)

Anyway, here, then, is my post in that other forum:

That statement is in accord with my own view of _Hamlet_, but, to use a poker analogy, I call you and raise you one crucial argument further. ;)

I believe that 90% of the furor that goes on so endlessly and so fruitlessly about _Hamlet_ , and has indeed been going on for centuries, arises out of what I assert is the fatally incorrect belief that there is one definitive interpretation of the play.

The ghost is real, says A. The ghost is a devil in disguise, says B. The ghost is a hallucination, says C. The ghost is really a representation of _______ (you fill in the blank with your favorite historical personage) from Shakespeare's contemporary world, or from the history of the world prior to his time. Or, as Stephen Dedalus famously opined, Hamlet’s grandson is Shakespeare’s grandfather and that he himself is the ghost of his own father. Etc etc. Indeed, some of these possible interpretations are explicitly suggested in the text itself!

It seems as though interpreters all feel that they somehow bolster their own interpretations by showing that the other interpretations are wrong. But......what if Shakespeare took particular pains to make SEVERAL interpretations plausible? What if he deliberately constructed the play so that it would be plausibly interpretable by a variety of viewers/readers in a variety of ways? What if that deliberate raising of mystery, and then delivering of multiple plausible meanings, was Shakespeare's way of showing (as opposed to telling) that the world is a mysterious place which can be plausibly interpreted in a variety of ways, and that these many alternative explanations and interpretations ARE NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE! They are fictional parallel universes.

That is what I am reasonably confident Shakespeare attempted to do, and brilliantly succeeded in doing, in _Hamlet_, and that is precisely why it is _Hamlet_ that continues to be the touchstone of Western literature, more present in the minds of lovers of literature around the world than any other single work! This is not a freak of literary critical history, it is a response to a play that demanded such a response!

And so, what that means for that 90% of the arguing about _Hamlet_ is that if Shakespeare intended his text to support a number of alternative interpretations, stop fighting over which one is the "true interpretation". That's a complete waste of time, and distracts from what really matters. Instead, let's spend our collective energy in answering "the question" we really should be looking at, i.e., in the case of each such interpretation, put aside for the moment the other plausible interpretations, and look at the one focused on on its own merits. See how consistent it is in its approach to all elements in the text, see how many of the many cruxes of _Hamlet_ it sheds fresh light on, see whether it provides a coherent interpretation that covers the entire play, and not just particular characters or plot elements. Can anyone suggest any other criteria for a good interpretation of _Hamlet_ besides these?

This does not mean, of course, that each proposed interpretation should be accepted uncritically, in a kind of relativistic "all interpretations are valid" manner--that would be absurd. In a nutshell, a claim that the Ghost is an alien from outer space should be defeated not by claiming that the Ghost is really a Ghost, but by showing that even if you assume the Ghost to be an alien, there are no hints or clues in the actual text which correspond to this interpretation. That is a crucial difference in critical analysis.

In such a way, one by one, it would eventually be possible to generate a series of such evaluations, and then to comparatively evaluate different interpretations of _Hamlet_ in terms of these criteria. I believe that a few of them would emerge, over time, as the consensus "best interpretations", but without any single interpretation ever holding the field exclusively.

Illustratively, to return to the mystery of the ghost as what I believe is one of the fulcrums of interpretation of the play---the one thing I am certain of is that Shakespeare wrote _Hamlet_ so that it would be plausibly interpretable as EITHER (i) the Ghost being a real Ghost (which is essentially the Dover Wilson version), OR (ii) as a Devil in disguise (I am not aware of whether any interpreter has actually made that case, does anybody know about one?), OR (iii) as Hamlet's hallucination (the argument most famously made by Professor Greg, although he did not make the argument plausibly enough to garner many supporters). Wilson missed that crucial point entirely! He didn't need to prove Greg wrong in order to prove his interpretation right.

My own book about _Hamlet_ will be about my own radical interpretation of the Ghost as Hamlet's hallucination, which then leads to a half dozen other complementary interpretations of certain characters and events in the play, and I will make the case for each of them based on evidence in the text of the play. But I will take pains to emphasize that such interpretation does NOT invalidate the other classes of interpretations. They are parallel fictional universes. My version of the shadow story of _Hamlet_ will stand or fall based on the quality of the evidence I will adduce, which, in my eyes, makes it clear that Shakespeare intended it to be one of the valid interpretations of his play. There should be a certain beauty in a really good interpretation, especially in regard to casting fresh light on apparent cruxes and anomalies which are not powerfully explained by other interpretations. My interpretation meets that test, and it will be my job to prove it.

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