Monday, 17 November 2014

A Question About Writing

A very interesting question was proposed to me recently about the nature of literary criticism. Since it is of such high relevance to me as a student of English literature, and also a writer of creative fiction and poetry, I thought I would try to explore the question and its possible answers. The question is this: can creative writing make us better critics? My answer is yes, it can, and almost always does. I say almost because one might argue that it can get in the way of criticism, but that is uncommon. Now, when I refer to creative writing I mean anything from fun newspaper articles and travel writing, to poetry and novel writing – really, I am referring to anything that attempts to evoke an emotional response, which is surely what all creative writing attempts to do. By literary criticism I mean commenting upon any sort of literature; this involves anything from a passing comment to an in depth analysis. It is interesting to note that many of the most famous literary critics were also poets or authors, including Plato, Alexander Pope, John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and T.S. Eliot, amongst many others. Indeed, I highly doubt that there has ever been a critic who has not themselves attempted to write their own work, be it a short story they have written in school, or a published novel. It is not the creative writing produced that we are concerned with, it is their experience of the process of writing. I am not saying that their writing must be good, just that a critic who has attempted to write at some point will be better for it.

Creative writing helps literary criticism in a number of ways, but the most obvious argument is this: if we have never written creatively ourselves, we surely struggle to judge someone else’s ability to do so? If we have never written a poem, is it not much harder to know what it is like to write one? Without having experienced the process of writing creatively, it is very hard to imagine what it is like, and without this knowledge we might not be able to judge adequately a writer’s merit. We need to understand what writing actually is before we can make a criticism of it, and this knowledge surely requires some personal writing experience? For instance, a critic who has never tried to write a poem will be unaware of how hard it is to write a poem, and so they may think that a lot of poetry is terrible. On the other hand, someone who has written poetry will know how tough it is, and so will appreciate every good poem. Yeats observed that the more a critic knows, the better his criticism is likely to be, and this knowledge constitutes a knowledge of the creative writing process. Thus, an attempt to write creatively will give a critic a certain empathy that is necessary in writing about literature.

It is also worth noting that a lot of fiction is about the process of writing, and in order to understand this sort of fiction, one must surely have some experience in the process? For instance, someone who has never had writer’s block may find it harder to fully understand the meaning of Sir Philip Sidney’s Sonnet 1: “I sought fit words to paint the face of woe, / Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain…” Someone who has never felt bereft of inspiration may not fully relate to this poem, whereas someone who has struggled for words may understand it better. As the Ronald S. Costar notes in an article entitled “Literary Criticism and Creative Writing,” a good critic has “breadth, perceptiveness, and insightfulness,” and has an ability to respond to “not only what is in the work, but what lies around and behind it,” and this surely requires a knowledge of what it is like to write creatively. Thus, someone who has experience of creative writing may understand more fully the creative writing of others.

Someone who writes or has written creative writing of their own will also be more used to editing works, and so will be more accustomed to looking out for certain aspects of writing that significantly weaken it. For example, a critic who also writes poetry will recognise more easily in others’ poetry what they themselves try to avoid in their own poems. Of course this is subjective, and also readers, like writers, will also have their own preferences. Nonetheless, the editing process can improve one’s perception and analysis of literature, since it makes one more thorough.

However, some might argue that creative writing is very different from literary criticism, and that a commitment to both pursuits will lead to a weakened mixture of the two. Because literary criticism is analytical (and some might argue objective), and because creative writing is creative and subjective, it might lead to perhaps weakened criticism. However, completely objective criticism is surely impossible, because any critic will be unconsciously influenced by not only their own surroundings, but also their gender, their colour, their sexuality, their beliefs, and even their emotions at the time of criticism, and so this argument is defeated. It is, nonetheless, possible to argue that a writer of creative writing may be too influenced by their own preferences in terms of writing style, language, subject matter and purpose, and that this prejudice may influence and weaken a criticism. However, surely a literary preference is not something that is only found in authors and poets – normal readers are prejudiced too. Moreover, if an author-critic is so egocentric that he dislikes writing that is not like his own, this is due to his own arrogance, not because he has experience of creative writing. A relative judgement of creative writing (be it relative to one’s own or someone else’s) is always preferable. Therefore, although it is possible to argue that a literary critic who also writes creatively will be unable to see the wood for the trees, this is the fault of the critic alone. A good critic looks at the overall picture, and this can be seen better if one has experienced creative writing themselves.

To criticise literature without having tried to write any yourself is like travel writing about a place you have never been to, or being a food critic without ever trying to cook yourself. Yes, it can be done, but it may fail in its detail, understanding and, in particular, empathy. To understand the writing of literature, and indeed to understand literature itself, requires experience, and so creative writing can, and does, improve literary criticism. But if a creative writer has an advantage when criticising others, does the reverse thesis also hold some truth? Do literary critics make better writers? Arguably they do, on the basis that being a critic will make one more analytical and scathing of one’s own work, and so perhaps lead them to improve it. Moreover, a critic has a knowledge of other works (which every critic has), and this comes to good use in creative writing. As Eliot observed, a writer of fiction should write with a knowledge of tradition. Thus, some of the most famous critics also wrote their own literature, and all of the most famous authors, poets and playwrights must have also analysed and criticised literature, if not on paper, then in their mind. The two work together, the one helping and improving the other, and vice versa.

"To be, or not to be..." - An Analysis of Hamlet's Fifth Soliloquy


Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy is possibly the most famous and most quoted speech in all of English literature. In the soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates the disparities of the human world, the attraction of suicide, cowardice, revenge and the human conscience. The harrowing thoughts expressed by our young prince embody a large number of the play’s themes, and indeed they reveal a vast amount about the hero’s character. The language itself demonstrates Hamlet’s perceptive, intelligent but also (and perhaps consequently) melancholic character and hopeless attitude to life. These aspects of his personality are demonstrated throughout the play, particularly in his soliloquys, and the concerns he expresses about death and revenge are also recurring themes of Hamlet.

Hamlet begins his soliloquy with the famous aphorism, “To be, or not to be, that is the question…” This rather extreme simplification of an almost impossible question immediately conveys Hamlet’s perturbed state of mind: suicide is a genuine option at this point. It has come down to a simple choice that needs to be made: life or death, and the audience mourns to witness Hamlet’s appearing to sway towards the option of suicide, which is described as warring against and so ending “a sea of troubles”. This natural metaphor intimates not only the enormity of his troubles, but also their potency and uncontrollability. He presents death as alluring and attractive, metaphorically comparing it to sleep, certainly more appealing and natural than death. Hamlet also refers to “The sling and arrows of outrageous fortune,” depicting life as a cruel battle and immediately recalling his earlier exclamation in Act I, Scene 5: “O cursèd spite, | That ever I was born to set it right.” He goes on to describe “the whips and scorns of time, | Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely…” giving an extensive list of all the world’s disparities and problems.

Hamlet’s first soliloquy, in Act I, also relates the harsh cruelties of our lives. Again, he seems to be swaying towards the notion of suicide when he exclaims: “O that this too too solid flesh would melt, | … | Or that the Everlasting had not fixed | His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” The threat of damnation is thus presented by Hamlet as the only reason for not killing oneself, and his hyperbolic repetition of ‘too’ shows his desperation. He describes the uses of the world as “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.” It is worth noting that “weary” is a word he repeats in the fifth soliloquy. Hamlet’s depiction of the world as rotten and stale (a motif that recurs throughout the play, particularly in describing Denmark) accompanied by his exclamations (“Fie on’t, ah fie,”), emphasises his melancholic state of mind. He later describes Denmark as a prison (page 141) with “many confines, wards, and dungeons…” This, too, demonstrates his despair and his consequent desire for escape, and perhaps suicide. Thus, the language employed by Hamlet in his fifth soliloquy reflects the ideas expressed regarding death and suicide in various other parts of the play.

Hamlet’s fascination with death and its uncertainty is another motif that recurs throughout the play. In his fifth soliloquy, Hamlet, although seemingly attracted towards death (“To die, to sleep – | No more…”), realises:


“To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.”

There is a suggestion here of risk and the idea that the dream of death could in fact be a nightmare. Moreover, Hamlet’s use of the word “us” rather than “me” universalises Shakespeare’s explorations of Hamlet’s mind into explorations of the human condition, implying that these ideas are felt by all at some point or other. Hamlet goes on to question why people would bear life’s problems if “he himself might his quietus make | With a bare bodkin?” It is this “dread of something after death” that helps to make the question of “To be, or not to be” much more complex than Hamlet at first believes. He would rather bear the ills that he currently experiences “Than fly to others that we know not of…” Life is here presented as the lesser of two evils, since the unknown may be even worse. These gloomy ideas of death are perhaps inspired by the Ghost’s descriptions of his own purgatorial afterlife: he is “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, | And for the day confined to fast in fires…” It is somewhat ironic that Hamlet should describe death as “The undiscovered country from whose bourn | No traveller returns,” since he has only just seen his own father returned from the dead. Shakespeare could be suggesting that the Ghost that Hamlet saw was not really a “traveller”, but in fact the devil himself, a concern raised in Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy.

Hamlet’s fascination with death is demonstrated again in Act 5 Scene 1, the famous grave scene. Hamlet questions how the Clown could possibly be singing while digging graves, which he sees as harsh and unfeeling. He is angered by the way the Clown treats the skulls, asking: “Did these bones cost no more the breeding but to play at loggets with ‘em? Mine ache to think on’t.” Hamlet is amazed (emphasised by his repeated questioning) that such important people as politicians, Lords and lawyers should be treated with such disrespect by a “rude knave”. Perhaps he himself feels threatened by the great irony of death: that everyone, even Princes, are reduced and equalised by the great powers of nature. These ideas are expressed again when Hamlet, after seeing Yorick’s skull, reflects upon the cruelty of death: “To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till a find it stopping a bunghole?” The suggestion is that Hamlet is thinking of his own death and afterlife and how his body will be treated. These reflections show Hamlet’s fascination and fear of death, also demonstrated through the language of his fifth soliloquy.

Hamlet’s fear of death and its uncertainty is what causes him to delay. He is an intelligent and sharp young man unlikely to act without due consideration: it is this discernment in his character, demonstrated in his fifth soliloquy, that prevents him from committing suicide. He takes care to question a number of aspects of suicide: whether God would approve (his first soliloquy), and whether it would be considered “nobler” to “suffer | The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or to kill himself, and here we see his feeling of duty as a Prince and as the son of his virtuous father. He explains:


“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…”

It is the scholar’s predicament that “enterprises of great pitch and moment | … turn awry” once contemplated and considered at length. This intelligence, shown throughout the play, also leads to Hamlet’s delaying in his resolution to avenge his father’s death.

In Act 2 Scene 2, Hamlet, comparing himself to the passionate player, accuses himself of having no resolve and for being “unpregnant” of his cause. He casts aspersions on his own manliness by exclaiming: “Am I a coward?” and asking who “Plucks of my beard and blows it in my face, | Tweaks me by th’nose…” Then, in an effort to emulate the powerful emotions of the First Player, he pours out a splurge of anger: “Bloody, bawdy villain! | Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” He soon realises, however, that his outburst of words is futile without action: “Fie upon’t, foh! About, my brains.” His discernment leads him to delay and question the nature and intentions of the Ghost, which “May be a devil” and may be trying to damn him. Thus he decides upon the play, in which he might “catch the conscience of the king.” The audience can see that he is not delaying simply due to cowardice. Rather, it is because of his intelligence and his consequent uncertainty about the Ghost. Intelligence is also seen as the cause of delay in various other parts of the play. Even once he has seen Claudius’s reaction to the play, which surely serves as a proof of his guilt, he ensures that Horatio too agrees and asks: “Didst perceive?” As an intelligent man, Hamlet wants absolute evidence of Claudius’s guilt before he makes any rash decisions, for he knows that if he was to wrongly commit murder then he would be eternally damned. Henry Mackenzie describes Hamlet as a man of exquisite sensibility and virtue “placed in a situation in which even the amiable qualities of his mind serve but to aggravate his distress and to perplex his conduct.” It is his discernment and forward thinking, the “amiable qualities of his mind,” not cowardice, that makes him “lose the name of action”, and these characteristics are skilfully portrayed in the fifth soliloquy.

Hamlet’s fifth soliloquy also returns to the play’s central theme: revenge and its justification. Unlike Vindice, who only seems to realise the sinful nature of his murderous vengeance at the end of the play, Hamlet questions throughout whether revenge is justified. Therefore, his use of the word “conscience” (“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…”) can in fact be seen as a reference to his moral uncertainty about whether revenge is good or evil. Indeed, less than ten lines before Hamlet’s speech begins, after Polonius’s speech about sugaring over the devil, Claudius himself exclaims: “Oh, ‘tis too true. | How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!” and he goes onto cry: “O heavy burden!” And so, Hamlet’s own use of the word “conscience” immediately encourages a comparison between Claudius and Hamlet, both polarised in the extent to which they allow their consciences to determine their action. While, as Hamlet explains, conscience may lead to cowardice, it also sets us apart from evil. Claudius, although saying: “My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,” refuses to give up what he has gained from his fraternal murder: “May one be pardoned and retain th’offence?” Despite claiming that he does have a conscience, he never acts upon it, even to the extent that, when Gertrude proposes to drink from the poisonous cup, all he can bring himself to say is: “Gertrude, do not drink!” He is heartless and cruel, and it is this that separates him from Hamlet.

However, Hamlet is not completely devoid of flaws: although questioning the morality of vengeance (as when he asks the ghost: “Do you not come your tardy son to chide…” and describes revenge as his “dread command”), he does not seem to realise that by killing Claudius he effectively, some would argue, sinks to his level. Herman Ulrici points out that it would be a sin to put Claudius to death without a trial and without justice. However, is this necessarily true? Claudius has killed Hamlet’s father, and has also attempted to kill Hamlet himself, and so one could argue that Hamlet, by killing Claudius, is simply preventing further deaths, and thus that revenge is somewhat justified. Nonetheless, Hamlet’s occasional lack of conscience is undeniable: his cruelty to the women of the play is a good example of this. Despite his father’s beseeching him: “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive | against thy mother aught…” he still grows angry at her for marrying Claudius. This cruelty to his mother is particularly evident when he unremittingly questions her about her actions, asking, amongst other things: “O shame, where is thy blush? Rebellious hell…” We begin to pity her as she begs him repeatedly to “speak no more” and tells him:


“Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grainèd spots
As will not leave their tinct.”

Even when the ghost begs Hamlet to “step between her and her fighting soul,” he continues to attack her for her actions. However, he does tell her later that he “must be cruel only to be kind,” and so we begin to understand the teleology of his attacks – he simply wishes to metaphorically heal his mother of her sins. In the case of Ophelia, on the other hand, there is little justification for his cruelty: he simply uses her as a pawn for his plans. Ophelia believes and is “so affrighted” by everything that Hamlet says to her in his “antic disposition”. Hamlet’s least admirable side is seen in Act 3 Scene 3 when he refuses to kill the praying Claudius, fearing that, if he does, Claudius will be sent to heaven. Instead, he resolves to kill him “When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, | Or in th’incestuous pleasure of his bed…” He wants Claudius to be “about some act | That has no relish of salvation in’t…” Murder is not enough for Hamlet – he wants to ensure that Claudius experiences the true horrors of Hell that he feels he deserves. Dr Johnson (1765) spoke of the “useless and wanton cruelty” of Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia, and he says that Hamlet’s speech in the prayer scene is “too horrible to be read or to be uttered”. It is, indeed, an awful thought, but there is some sense of justice in the idea: surely it is not true revenge if Hamlet’s father goes to Hell and Claudius goes to Heaven, when it should surely be the other way around? Thus, the debate comes down to the morality of revenge, a debate impossible to conclude. However, the critic Maynard Mack (‘The World of Hamlet’) seems to present a fair argument: “The act required of him, though retributive justice, is one that necessarily involves the doer in the general guilt.” Although the inner play reveals to Hamlet Claudius’s guilt, the question of revenge and its morality still remains: how does one revenge a murder without becoming a murderer oneself?

The language of Hamlet’s fifth soliloquy thus serves to expand and elucidate many of his traits already displayed in the play, and it prepares the audience for his actions later on. It reveals Hamlet’s fear of and fascination with death, his discernment and intelligence, as well as inviting a comparison between himself and Claudius (through the word “conscience”). It is obvious from the outset that Hamlet is the more admirable of the two, but Hamlet is certainly not perfect. Indeed, as Aristotle says, every tragic hero must have a ‘hamartia’ (error of judgement or tragic flaw), otherwise the audience will be left with a sense of total injustice and outrage. Shakespeare places Hamlet in a situation almost impossible to navigate safely: perhaps we are too harsh in our judgements of Hamlet? Is it not part of the human condition to desire some form of retribution? Whatever the answer, it is clear from Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be…” speech that he is an intelligent young man with an active, although occasionally failing, conscience – surely he is admirable for this?

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Explain the views on Falsification of Flew, Hare, and Mitchell


The Verification Principle, presented by A.J. Ayer in his book Language, Truth & Logic, holds that a statement only has meaning if a) you know how it could be empirically verified, or b) it can be verified through logic (e.g. tautology or mathematical truths). This Principle was the central thesis of a group known as the Vienna Circle. The group, including Ayer, Schlick, Carnap and others, developed in the 1920s a theory called Logical Positivism. The Logical Positivists aimed to cut the rubbish out of academia and to act as the ‘hand-maid’ to science and other academic pursuits, as they thought all philosophy ought to do. They rejected all religious, moral and emotional language as meaningless. Ayer, however, soon noticed the flaws in the Verification Principle: he points out that, according to the principle, any statement with the word “all” is meaningless, since it would be an endless and impossible task to prove it empirically. This, he says, is a flaw, since statements in which “all” is used are in fact meaningful. He also criticises the Verification Principle since it would imply that every statement about the past is meaningless, as the past cannot be empirically verified – he argues that statements about the past are, in fact, meaningful. He therefore renders a distinction between strong and weak verification, advocating weak verification over strong. However, weak verification (a statement has meaning “if it is possible for experience to render it probable”) is also flawed, since it is not actually empirical proof.

It is because of these weaknesses that Flew developed his own principle, the Falsification Principle. Flew explains that statements only have meaning if a) you know how they could be proven false, and b) if you would be prepared to accept that evidence. This idea was originally proposed by Karl Popper, who claimed that scientific language is more to do with falsification than verification. He suggests that an assertion is true until proven false. Thus, the Falsification Principle, unlike the Verification Principle, would say that the claim “All ravens are black” does have meaning, because if somebody were to find a red raven, it would be falsified. Flew comes to this conclusion in a University debate, ‘Theology and Falsification’. He begins by relating John Wisdom’s Parable of the Gardener, taken from Wisdom’s article ‘Gods’: two explorers come across a garden that seems tended in parts, and untended in others. One explorer argues that there is a gardener, the other argues that there is not. They camp in the garden in order to find out, but no gardener appears: the believing explorer then qualifies his original assertion: ‘But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.’ So they set up an electric barbed-wire fence and patrol with bloodhounds, but no gardener is caught and no screams are heard; the believer is still not convinced: ‘But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.’

The sceptic then asks: ‘But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even no gardener at all?’ Due to the believers rejection of falsification and his repeated qualification of the original assertion, the statement actually has no meaning at all. Thus, Flew concludes that a statement, to be meaningful, must be able to be falsified, and, if proved wrong, it must be accepted as wrong by the maker of the statement. Flew, then, implies that all religious statements are fideistic and therefore meaningless, since he views the Problem of Evil (and other evidence) as an argument against God, and sees religious qualification (i.e. God is loving, but he allows evil) as rendering statements meaningless. He questions: ‘What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of God?’ 

R.M. Hare, in the same debate, responds to Flew and presents his concept of the ‘blik’ (German for ‘view’). Hare uses another parable to explain his point: there is a lunatic who believes that all the dons at his university are out to kill him. Even though he meets very kind and respectable dons, he puts their kindliness down to their ‘diabolical cunning’. Hare explains: ‘However many kindly dons are produced, the reaction is still the same.’ A ‘blik’, then, is an ingrained belief that cannot be changed. Flew would say that the statement ‘every don wants to kill me’ is meaningless, because he refuses to accept any falsification. However, if his statement was meaningless, then he would be asserting nothing, and thus there would be no difference in the lunatic’s beliefs and our own beliefs. This would therefore mean that the lunatic is sane, but this is not true: his actions show that the statement has meaning to him. Thus Hare questions Flew’s claim that religious people are making statements about the natural world, and he questions whether religious language can be compared to scientific language. He explains that religious statements are based on a perception of the natural world that has personal meaning. He also uses the example of the car: we assume when we drive a car that it will remain solid and not break (this is a blik), but there is no real reason to assume this – we can neither prove nor disprove that it will stay solid. But the statement ‘my car will not break’ is not meaningless, as it has a profound effect on the way we live our lives. He is, therefore, implying that falsification is fine for scientific language, but cannot apply to religious language, which requires more evidence to count against it. Finally, Hare explains a major difference between his own parable and Flew’s: the explorers in the parable of the gardener discuss the garden with slight curiosity, whereas the lunatic is incredibly concerned about the dons. In the same way, religious people care much more about their statements than scientific people, and so the student is not able to take up the explorers’ detachment.

Basil Mitchell also replies to Flew, and he too presents a parable. He describes a wartime conversation between a member of the resistance and a deeply impressive stranger, who is in fact the commander of the existence, or so he claims. The partisan believes him completely, and when he sees the stranger helping members of the resistance he says ‘He is on our side’. Even when he sees him in police uniform and handing over patriots, he still trusts the stranger and tells his friends, ‘The stranger knows best’. He refuses to put the stranger to the test because of his trust in him. However, he does not ignore the questions of his friends or the telling evidence that suggests he is not a member of the resistance. Rather, he recognises that the stranger’s ambiguous behaviour counts against what he thinks about him. It is, in a way, a trial of faith. Mitchell writes: ‘No, he will only be regarded as sane and reasonable in his belief, if he experiences in himself the full force of the conflict.’ The difference between Hare and Mitchell’s theories is that a ‘blik’ does not accept contrary evidence and let it count against belief; rather, the lunatic just continues blindly with his belief. In the same way, theologians consider the Problem of Evil, but do not necessarily give up their faith because of it – faith, for Mitchell, is stronger and more important than that. Faith means that religious statements cannot simply be falsified, but it also means that the statements are not simply vacuous formulae, since they are also explanations (Mitchell says that the partisan’s belief about the stranger ‘explains and makes sense of the Stranger’s behaviour.’) Thus, Mitchell holds that, because religion is the most important thing in many people’s lives, it cannot be condescended to a ‘meaningless’ belief, nor can it simply be put down to a ‘blik’. Religious belief is hard to give up, but Mitchell does point out that some people do give up their faith. Overall, then, he argues that religious faith cannot be falsified by rules that apply only to scientific statements – faith is far more important than that.

Flew responds to both of these ideas in his conclusion to the debate. He points out that there are many plausible explanations as to why the stranger in Mitchell’s parable seems not to be on their side: he is a man, and not an omnipotent, omniscient creator. He also argues against Mitchell when he says that, ‘if relentlessly pursued, he [the theologian] will have to resort to the avoiding action of qualifications.’ He responds to Hare by saying that, if religious utterances are affirmations of a ‘blik’ rather than assertions about the cosmos, then they are not religious statements at all. He also adds that, if they were not intended to be assertions, then many religious activities would be fraudulent and phrases like ‘You ought because it is God’s will’ assert no more than ‘You ought’. It is simply a fraudulent substitute for a reason. Controversially, he ends the debate with a proposition: when religious intellectuals retain their faith in a loving God in face of the reality of a heartless and indifferent world, they are using ‘doublethink’ – a method of holding two contradictory beliefs, while accepting both to be true.

Immortality in Shakespeare's 'Fair Youth' Sonnets

The first sonnets are said to have been written by Giacomo da Lentino, a Sicilian lawyer, in about 1230 or 1240. The Italian (often called the ‘legitimate’) sonnet form, made famous by Dante and Petrarch in the following century, proved popular and rapidly became one of the more widely recognised poetic forms in continental Europe. However, it was not until Tottel’s publication of Songs and Sonnets (now commonly known as Tottel’s Miscellany) in 1557 that the sonnet came to prominence in England. Although Wyatt and Surrey drew heavily on the Petrarchan model, and followed its fundamental premise of desire for the unobtainable, they manipulated and changed the legitimate Italian form in order to accommodate what John Fuller refers to as the “English need for encapsulation” in the couplet. Wyatt and Surrey’s introduction of the form to the Tudor court soon led to amatory sonnet sequences being written by the likes of Sidney, Daniel, Drayton, Spenser, Wroth and, of course, Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s sequence appeared about 15 years after the height of the popularity of the sonnet, and indeed it is likely that these sonnets were composed over a period of some 20 years. During this period, Shakespeare was able to master the assertive wit of the English sonnet’s final couplet in such a way that, despite its brevity, it often appears to defy the three quatrains that come before it. Thus, it is important to remember that Shakespeare’s sonnets are often simply explorations and exercises in paradox rather than expressions of a fixed belief.

One of the major themes of sonnet sequences, particularly Shakespeare’s, is the transience and mutability of the human condition. Time’s constant attack is often what seems to inspire the poet to write, for it is time that steadily causes his beloved to age and lose his beauty. In Sonnet 2, Shakespeare describes Time’s callous and relentless destruction of beauty. He writes to the Fair Youth: “Thy youth’s proud livery, so gazed on now, / Will be a tottered weed of small worth held.” Here the poet is following sonnet tradition by lamenting the passing of time and its destructive effect on mortal entities. It is evident from this quotation that Shakespeare cherishes his beloved’s youth, but is distressed by its brevity, and in this way Shakespeare is flattering him. Indeed, his explorations of mortality are the means through which the poet declares his love: the passionate exhortation to “Make war upon this bloody Tyrant, Time” (Sonnet 16) is Shakespeare’s way of showing his unremitting love for the beloved. Shakespeare’s work, like that of other sonneteers, explores the idea that the transient beauty of and the love felt for the beloved may be preserved by reproduction, through the immortality of ideal love, and through the medium of art.

The first seventeen sonnets have come to be known as the ‘Procreation Sonnets’ because, throughout this mini-sequence, Shakespeare attempts to encourage the Fair Youth to beget children. Shakespeare gives a number of persuasive arguments in support of reproduction, the main argument being aesthetic. In fact, the first sonnet of the entire sequence begins: “From fairest creatures we desire increase, / That thereby beauty’s Rose might never die.” Shakespeare values the Fair Youth’s beauty to such an extent that he mourns to think it could be destroyed by time and death. Shakespeare goes further than simply exhorting the Youth to beget children: he suggests that it is his moral obligation, condemning him for committing what Philip Martin refers to as the sin of self-love. He complains that the Youth is hoarding what he ought to be sharing with the world; in Sonnet 1, he refers to the Fair Youth as “the world’s fresh ornament” and the “only herald to the gaudy spring”, begging him to “Pity the world”. His use of words like “fresh” and “spring” again emphasise his beloved’s youth. In Sonnet 9, one of the most persuasive sonnets, Shakespeare tells the Youth: “Ah! if thou issueless shalt hap to die, / The world will wail thee like a makeless wife…” His exclamation underlines his sadness at the idea that such a beauty will be lost from the world, emphasised by his use of alliteration in the next line. Moreover, his employment of the two words “issueless” and “makeless” suggest a certain emptiness and tragic waste that can only be avoided if the Youth has children. Here Shakespeare is demonstrating his skill in the art of dramatic persuasion. In fact, the couplet of the same sonnet, rather than turning the sonnet, reinforces the douzain that has come before it, and implies that the Youth’s selfish actions are equivalent to murdering himself and all his heirs: “No love towards other in that bosom sits / That on himself such murd’rous shame commits.” Again, Shakespeare’s rhetorical skills are evident here in his harsh accusation of “murd’rous shame” which suggests that the Youth would be murdering all of his future incarnations if he were not to procreate. Thus the poet begs his beloved to preserve his beauty through reproduction for both aesthetic and moral reasons. Finally, Shakespeare intimates that to reproduce is to invest in the future. In Sonnet 4, which explains the need to procreate and the reasons for not wasting “unused beauty”, he calls his beloved a “Profitless usurer” who abuses the “bounteous largess” (i.e. his good looks and youth) given to him by Nature. He continues: “Then how, when Nature calls thee to be gone, / What acceptable audit canst thou leave?” This use of economical diction presents reproduction as a sort of Neoplatonic investment or transaction. Although he is likely to be simply playing with this notion of immortality, Shakespeare nonetheless attempts to convince the Fair Youth to have a child so that traces of his beauty may be preserved and the destructive power of Time’s Tyranny can be defeated.

Shakespeare also explores the idea that love, as an ideal that is inviolable to time and impervious to time’s erosive effects, may be able to preserve the beloved, or at least survive independently. In this respect, Shakespeare’s Sonnets are hugely influenced by Plato and his belief in the Forms, the ideal and immutable versions of all things in our realm. This may explain why Shakespeare presents a particularly Platonic view of ideal love in several of the sonnets. In Sonnet 115, Shakespeare playfully explains that his earlier sonnets were overwhelmed by the fear of Time’s tyranny (“Alas, why, fearing of Time’s tyranny,”) and too little aware of the continually growing and counteracting power of love to outlive time, hence: love’s flame (a conventional metaphor for impassioned love) could “afterwards burn clearer” and continually flourish. In the couplet he writes: “Love is a babe; then might I not say so, / To give full growth to that which still doth grow?” Here he is exploring the idea that love, as an ideal, is not susceptible to time’s effects and that it will continue to grow notwithstanding the passage of time. In Sonnet 116, the next sonnet in the sequence, Shakespeare returns to the same theme, exploring the immutable power of ideal love and its tenacity in the face of Time. He explains that “Love is not love / Which alters when it alteration finds,” and he refers to it as “an ever-fixed mark”. He writes:

                “Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
                Within his bending sickle’s compass come;
                Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
                But bears it out even to the edge of doom.”

Here Shakespeare is suggesting that, while physical objects are destroyed by aging, love may have the ability to overcome death and survive “even to the edge of doom”. Shakespeare’s use of sibilance and alliteration in “sickle’s compass come” creates a cacophony and so emphasises Time’s callousness, thereby stressing the power of love as a means to overcome death. The poem is written in extremely simple language. Philip Martin quotes Tucker Brooke, who observes: “the poet has employed one hundred and ten of the simplest words in the language, and the two simplest rime-schemes, to produce a poem which has about it no strangeness whatever except the strangeness of perfection.” Shakespeare presents this quite complex metaphysical idea in a very straightforward way, making it seem almost common sense. Thus, even if the reader is not convinced by Shakespeare’s claims, the imaginative power of the sonnets enables us to delve into his thoughts and understand the ideas he is exploring. Although Shakespeare himself is unlikely to be a follower of Plato’s metaphysical theory, the idealisation of his love for the beloved is at the very least a form of flattery. This image of ideal love for the Fair Youth stands in direct contrast to the lustful love the poet feels towards the Dark Lady. Indeed, Philip Martin claims that, whereas the Dark Lady is almost the Dionysian mistress (although Shakespeare occasionally exhibits true love towards her, too), it is the Youth who is the conventional Petrarchan beloved or Apollonian youth. Lust is transient and inevitably passes with time, but the pure and ideal love that the poet feels towards the Fair Youth, as embodied in the sonnets themselves, is presented as being capable of evading Time’s tyranny and surviving for eternity.

The final device that Shakespeare explores is the proposition that his beloved and the love that Shakespeare feels for him may be preserved through the literary art of poetry. Simply by writing these poems, the poet is eternalising a memory of the beloved. In fact, the immortalising power of poetry has been a striking constant throughout literary history, spanning from Homer and Callimachus to the present day. This theme was particularly popular with the Elizabethans who, rather than suggesting the possibility of immortalising themselves through poetry, more often suggested that they might immortalise others through their art. The entirety of Shakespeare’s sequence is full of references to the supposedly immortalising aspects of poetry, and indeed the theme is much more prominent in his sequence than in those of Sidney or Spenser. For instance, Sonnet 19, which tells Time to “do whate’er thou wilt” to the wide world but to leave his beloved alone, ends: “Yet, do thy worst, old Time: despite thy wrong, / My love shall in my verse ever live young.” This poem is slightly unusual in the fact that, not only does it turn early (before the usual volta between line 8 and line 9), but it also turns again at the couplet. Although Shakespeare appears confident in the power of his poetry to immortalise its subject, this is an example of a couplet that simply asserts rather than explains. Indeed, one of the most amazing things about these sonnets is that the language has the power to push its associative and semantic value beyond the physical manuscript to the imaginative resonance of the words themselves. Thus, in Sonnet 63, the words have the ability to move from “black lines” to green and independent things, demonstrating their power to live and breathe beyond the page, and thus perhaps to preserve. Philip Martin notes: “The poet’s task is to halt the flux of time as far as he can, to commemorate the fleeting life of the beloved in monuments more lasting than bronze.” (144) This is undoubtedly true, but in Sonnet 18 Shakespeare hopes for far more than commemoration. In this famous poem Shakespeare describes how his beloved will ‘grow’ within his verse, and indeed in the couplet he suggests that his poetry will ‘give life’ to his beloved. This is a common motif in Renaissance sonnets; Spenser follows a similar line in his famous “One day I wrote her name upon the strand…” In the couplet Spenser says: “Where, when as Death shall all the world subdue, / Our love shall live, and later life renew.” Shakespeare develops these ideas in Sonnet 55, which famously begins: “Not marble, nor the gilded monuments / Of princes, shall outlive this powerful rhyme.” His references to masonry, which is completely inanimate, stand in direct contrast to his verse, which he describes as a “living memory”. He goes on to describe the power of his poetry to outlive statues and survive wars, finishing: “You live in this, and dwell in lovers’ eyes.” Here, not only is he exploring the idea that the beloved may possibly be immortal in his poem, but also that he may live in the eyes of later lovers when they read his poetry. The line could also suggest that the Fair Youth, through Shakespeare’s poems, may become the image of Love, the perfect archetype of a lover, and that all future lovers may see him when they look into one another’s eyes.

Despite his efforts, Shakespeare seems to accept that a poem can never fully capture or represent a person’s beauty. In Sonnet 83, one of the sonnets about the ‘rival poet’, Shakespeare explains why he has not been writing quite so much to the Fair Youth as he feels he ought to, and in the couplet he tells him: “There lives more life in one of your fair eyes / Than both your poets can in praise devise.” There is a certain irony to this quotation that is impossible to miss: if this is true, then it is strange that Shakespeare should be writing these poems at all, and this demonstrates the fact that one of the main aims of the sonnets is to flatter. Sonnet 16 points out the weakness of verse compared with procreation, which Shakespeare describes as “a mightier way” to counteract time in comparison to his “barren rhyme”. This too is ironic, since earlier in the sequence he has referred to his poetry as his “powerful rhyme”. Many have suggested that the last sonnet of the alleged Fair Youth sequence, Sonnet 126, demonstrates the inadequacy of Shakespeare’s rhyme and that the two missing lines represent time’s audit. These examples reveal Shakespeare’s lack of confidence in his own verse as a means to preserve. In Sonnet 17, Shakespeare explores, with perhaps more conviction than when exploring other methods of eternalisation, the idea that procreation and poetry might work together. The poet declares that, if he were to do justice to his beloved’s beauty in verse, nobody would believe him. People would begin to discard his poetry with disbelief, and the papers would be “yellow’d with their age.” He concludes in the couplet: “But were some child of yours alive that time / You should live twice,-- in it and in my rhyme.” Shakespeare suggests that he and the beloved make a collaborative effort, he through poetry, and the beloved through a child. Thus, the poetry would serve as a description of the beloved’s beauty, and the child would serve as proof that such immense beauty could be possible.

What remains unclear is whether Shakespeare intended for his proposed preservation to be eternal. Although he seems to have been influenced by Lucretian beliefs about the afterlife, in Sonnet 55 he says: “So, till the judgment that yourself arise.” This line suggests that, at least while he was writing a few of the Sonnets, he believed in the Christian concept of resurrection and life after death. Thus, it might be said that the preservation that Shakespeare is attempting to achieve is only temporary: the begetting of children, the immortality of ideal love, and the writing of poetry are only necessary until the beloved is resurrected to live as an immortal. The poet appears to recognise that it is only God who can create the miracle of eternal preservation hoped for in Sonnet 65. But that is not to say that the poet’s attempts at preservation are in vain. The fact that Shakespeare’s sonnets are still fervently read today, four centuries after they were first published, is testament to the ability of poetry to transcend time. Although he may have written the sonnets about immortalisation slightly with his tongue in his cheek, and although nobody has literally been immortalised by art, Shakespeare’s poetry still remains to recount the story of his love for the Youth. Moreover, the fact that many essays about the Fair Youth and his immortalisation have been written in the centuries since Shakespeare’s death demonstrates that the Youth’s legacy still survives. And so, Shakespeare has offered an effective solution to the problem of Time’s tyranny in that his poetry will, “So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,” (Sonnet 18) preserve the love that it is impossible not to feel when reading his sonnets. Once man no longer breathes and eyes can no longer see, the preservation of love is a matter for God. That seems to me, and I think Shakespeare would agree, to be fair enough.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Drama and Character in Acts I and II in Shakespeare's "Hamlet"


One quality that is often attributed to great literature is that it stays relevant and therefore transcends time. Ezra Pound described literature as “news that stays news”. Shakespeare’s writing is certainly this. Despite the dramatic changes in time and context, Shakespeare’s observations on the human condition remain true and relevant today, more than four centuries later. Macbeth warns us, amongst other things, of the unremitting and sometimes uncontrollable nature of human ambition; King Lear demonstrates the dangers of a desire for flattery. Hamlet is another play that reveals various features of the human condition. Through his study of Hamlet’s particularly enigmatic and complex character, Shakespeare gives us various insights into human nature and the human mind. In fact, Shakespeare’s rapid and yet profound development of all the play’s characters demonstrates his interest in human character and conduct. His methods of development largely stem from his interest in dramatic situation and the dramatic effectiveness of his scenes. Every conversation in the play reveals something about his character’s idiosyncrasies or particulars, and thus, through this diversity of character, Shakespeare reveals aspects of emotion and thought that are difficult to capture otherwise.

Hamlet’s character is one of the most developed and most intricate in English literature. At the beginning of the play, he is presented as a very sensitive and delicate young man, mourning for his father. However, it is in his first soliloquy that his character is truly examined. He is so hurt and dejected by his father’s death, which he is already suspicious about, that he wishes “the Everlasting has not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” This would have been particularly shocking for an Elizabethan audience, since suicide was considered almost sinful in society. He then decries the “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable” world, describing it as “an unweeded garden” possessed by “things rank and gross”. This imagery of decay is repeated over and over again in the play (Marcellus says to Horatio in Act I Scene 4: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”) Shakespeare is emphasising Hamlet’s despair at the world’s disparities. The amount of time he spends in depicting Hamlet’s gloom implies his enjoyment in exploring an anguished and grief-striken mind. Hamlet goes on to describe how his father, who he compares to Hyperion (a great Titan of whom an Elizabethan audience would almost certainly be aware), was “But two months dead” when Gertrude married Claudius, “a satyr”. Again, an Elizabethan audience would have been shocked by Hamlet’s words, particularly the image of Gertrude wearing the same shoes to her wedding as she wore to King Hamlet’s funeral. His exclamations (“O God…”) and his phrase, “Oh most wicked speed…” suggest his outrage and upset. Again, Shakespeare is clearly interested in exploring the mind of one so desperately afflicted.

However, melancholy is not Hamlet’s only trait. He is also presented by Shakespeare as a very discerning young man, and this intelligence is, in many ways, what leads to his death. It is because Hamlet is intelligent enough to be suspicious of the ghost (it could very well be the devil tricking him, as he says: “The spirit that I have seen / May be the devil…”) that he does not act immediately. Indeed, he is often accused of indecision and cowardice; at one point he even questions his own resolve and asks: “Am I a coward?” and he describes himself as “unpregnant” of his cause. This could, in fact, be Hamlet’s ‘hamartia’ or ‘error of judgement’ – if he had trusted the ghost then perhaps the end of the play would not have been so murderous. Hamlet is also presented as discerning in his suspicion of not only Claudius and Polonius, but also Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he immediately suspects were sent by his uncle. Furthermore, Shakespeare is intrigued by the trait of indecision, explored in Hamlet’s soliloquy of Act II. He describes himself as

“A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing…"

He is condemning himself for being indecisive and lacking passion in the redemption of his father. This speech follows immediately on from the First Player’s passionate speech about Hecuba and the “burst of clamour that she made” as she watched her husband, King Priam, being killed. This, in itself, demonstrates Shakespeare’s interest in dramatic situation and effectiveness. Indeed, the power and of dramatic situation is demonstrated when the First Player changes colour and “has tears in’s eyes”. Shakespeare is implying that, in certain situations, the passion can be so strong that it should evoke real and intimate emotion in the audience, and in this way he is praising the power of the theatre. Hamlet then compares his own emotion to that of the First Player, who he describes as “in a dream of passion” and with “his whole function suiting / With forms to his conceit.” Hamlet questions how someone without any real reason could portray such emotion: “For Hecuba! / What’s Hecuba to him…?” His emotional exclamations here demonstrate his own anger and upset at his own lack of resolve. He then goes on:
                                                     “What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears…”

Not only is Shakespeare demonstrating the importance of dramatic effectiveness and passion in a speech, he is also exploring even further Hamlet’s indecisive character. Hamlet feels as if he is being childish and ‘unmasculine’ in his anxiety and uncertainty, and indeed he questions who “Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face, / Tweaks me by th’nose…” both things one might do to a disobedient child. He describes how he is “pigeon-livered” (lacking courage) and “lack[s] gall / To make oppression bitter.” He then attempts to emulate the unrestrained passion of the First Player (“Bloody, bawdy villain!”) as he feels he ought to, but then realises there is no use in it:

                                              “This is most brave,
That I,…
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
A scullion!”

The harshness of his words here clearly shows his anger at himself for attempting to replace action with speech. He then turns to more practical things (“About, my brains.”) and discusses his plan, but even then he is torn and confused. Shakespeare, through this soliloquy, demonstrates his interest in both dramatic effectiveness and the intricacies of human character.

Claudius is one of the other highly developed characters of the play, and his first speech adequately demonstrates his manipulative and uncaring nature. He scorns Hamlet for mourning so extremely for his father, and attempts to present a positive outlook despite the recent death of the King. Indeed, his speech is so rhetorically perfected and full of crafted oppositions (“a defeated joy, / With one auspicious and one dropping eye…”) that it appears incredibly insincere. Moreover, the swiftness with which he turns to political business (“… for all, our thanks. / Now follows that you know: young Fortinbras…” again suggests his insincerity. Through this very manipulative and effective speech Shakespeare is able to demonstrate Claudius’s untrustworthiness and insensitivity to Hamlet, whose father has just died. This insensitivity is then reiterated later in the scene when Claudius questions Hamlet: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” and blames Hamlet for “obsequious sorrow”, “impious stubbornness” and “unmanly grief”. Through Claudius’s use of repeated negative phrasing and his suggestion that Hamlet’s mourning is “most incorrect to heaven”, Shakespeare again indicates Claudius’s cruel character. Here, Shakespeare demonstrates his interest in deception; Claudius’s speech is actually, at points, very convincing, particularly in his use of claims like:

“And with no less nobility of love
Than that which dearest father bears his son,
Do I impart to you.”

He also asks Hamlet to remain “Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye, / Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.” This seems a somewhat kind-hearted request at first, but it soon becomes clear that Claudius hopes to control young Hamlet. The alliteration of the ‘c’ sound in the above quotation serves to present Claudius’s claim as rather scathing and perhaps deceptive. Shakespeare was keen to confuse our sympathies and make us feel uncertain; however, our overall impression of Claudius from this speech is certainly one of insensitivity and manipulation. This is seen again in his request of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (also presented as cruel and easily persuaded for aligning themselves with Claudius and deceiving the tragic hero), Hamlet’s closest friends, to spy on Hamlet and trick him. He says to them, calculatingly: “The need we have to use you did provoke our hasty sending.” By comparing Claudius’s intentions with those of Gertrude (she innocently wants to know what has happened to her “too much changed son”), Shakespeare effectively elaborates on Claudius’s cruel personality. Thus, Shakespeare demonstrates his interest in the human character.

Shakespeare is clearly also interested in silly and foolish characters, and this interest is shown by his detailed creation of Polonius’s character. Polonius is, from the outset, aligned with Claudius in that he is cruel, unfeeling and dangerous; however, Polonius is also incredibly silly and aggravating. Indeed, his speeches throughout the play are characterised by stupidity, confusion and empty rhetoric. He also seems arrogant and pleased with himself. Although he appears briefly in Scene 2, we first get to know his character in Scene 3. The platitudinous, proverbial advice that Polonius gives to his son, Laertes, immediately reveals his silliness and enjoyment of his own voice: “Neither a borrower or a lender be,” and “to thine own self be true.” He is also seen as rather controlling and cruel in his speech to his daughter, in which he tells her: “Affection? Puh! You speak like a green girl…” and his scornful repetition of her use of the word “tender” shows his cruelty. He gives her a number of orders (“Do not believe his vows,” and “I charge you”), and yet he gives little reason for these orders, taking full advantage of his patriarchal authority. Indeed, the explanations he does give are so convoluted and filled with imagery that they are almost incomprehensible; for example: “These blazes daughter, / Giving more light than heat…” This is seen again when he harshly tells Ophelia that his rejection of Hamlet “hath made him mad”. It is as if he is blaming her for following his advice, rather than consoling her. Through this scene, Ophelia’s character is also revealed as rather submissive, and thus we pity her and dislike Polonius all the more. This father-to-child cruelty (part of the overall theme of spying) is a reflection of Claudius’s cruelty to Hamlet, as is Polonius’s attempt to spy on Laertes. Polonius, without any fear of blackening Laertes’s character (Reynaldo even says “My lord, that would dishonour him”), unfeelingly tells Reynaldo to “breathe his faults” in order to find out if he is acting poorly in Paris. Again, his silliness is effectively made clear when he asks, midway through his speech, “what was I about to say?” Through Polonius’s request of Reynaldo, Shakespeare is able to show not only his silliness, but also his dangerous cruelty and meddling nature. Finally, Polonius’s silliness is seen in his conversation with Claudius and Gertrude about Hamlet’s madness. The majority of Polonius’s speech is superfluous and rhetorical rubbish (“Why day is day, night night, and time is time…”), and indeed he takes a very long time to arrive at the reason of Hamlet’s madness. His speech is so dramatized and rhetorical that Gertrude tells him: “More matter with less art.” He even dramatizes the conversation that he had with Ophelia, making it clear that he enjoys holding the centre of attention. He is seen as arrogant in his seemingly bemused questioning: “What do you think of me?” and his saying “she took the fruits of my advice.” Ironically, he says his story is “a short tale to make”. It is no wonder, then, and indeed the audience is rather pleased that Hamlet ridicules him, calling him a “fishmonger” (the basest profession) and mocking him for his age and silliness. Thus, Shakespeare presents Polonius’s complex character through not only his own convoluted and silly speech, but also through Hamlet and Gertrude’s attitudes towards him. This skilled use of speech to reveal personality shows Shakespeare’s interest in dramatic situation.

The play’s other characters also demonstrate Shakespeare’s interest in both dramatic situation and character. The two scenes that are particularly effective are Scenes 1, 4 and 5, which all feature the ghost. The play’s opening scene is especially fearful in its sense of uncertainty. Indeed, it begins with the question: “Who’s there?” and is characterised by a tense and anxious atmosphere, exaggerated by the appearance of the ghost and Horatio’s exclamations: “Stay! Speak, speak, I charge thee speak!” This scene is particularly effective because, unlike the characters in the play, the audience can see all that is happening on stage. The play also begins in medias res, and thus it is the speech’s job to set the scene of a winter’s night (since the play would have been performed in daylight), as well as give the context of the play itself (i.e. that the king has just died). The ghost himself is presented as particularly ominous, saying nothing and simply continuing his “martial stalk”. Indeed, his ghostliness and fearfulness is emphasised when Barnardo and Horatio both say: “’Tis here,” suggesting that the ghost is supernaturally vanishing and appearing in various places. Moreover Horatio’s comment ominously prophesises the later happenings of the play: “This bodes some strange eruption to our state.” Horatio is presented as an intelligent and discerning character, and indeed his desire to speak to the ghost (he repeats “Speak to me”) implies his desire to help Denmark and thus avoid the predicted omen. Marcellus’s asking Horatio to speak to the ghost because he is a scholar is Shakespeare’s way of subtly yet effectively showing his personality.

Shakespeare’s interest in the human character is evident from his imaginative creation of such enigmatic and not always straightforward figures. Hamlet is the play’s hero, but he is also indecisive and therefore flawed. Claudius is seemingly kind and loving, but is actually manipulative and cruel. Polonius, although similarly cruel and dangerous, is a really rather funny character. The play’s other characters, particularly Ophelia, Gertrude and Laertes, are also intriguing in their traits and personalities, and again Shakespeare’s fascination with the human condition is evident. However, without his skilled use of speech and dramatic situation, these enigmatic and interesting characters would not have been effectively depicted. It is only through his lexical choice, his use of passionate soliloquys, speeches, asides, and subtle remarks that he can adequately present these characters. Thus, not only is Shakespeare’s interest in character evident, his interest in dramatic situation is also undeniably clear. It is this combination of a skilled use of language and a fascination with the human mind that has made Shakespeare’s plays so permanent. It is for these reasons that he is still relevant today.