Letter to a Mexican friend:

A note on Hamlet and Lear

My dear A:

I read your little book with excitement and pleasure. Seeing a dear friend in print, and knowing something of the effort it takes to express anything at all, my admiration ran before me at every line and at the turning of every page. So first of all, congratulations!

My comments concern only the first and last of your essays - those on Hamlet and Lear - because they seem to me most central to your thesis and they are certainly the greatest of the works you evoke in its defence.

No quarrel with your reading of the ancient laws on whose observance, as you point out, the stability of the world depends. That you reduce two of the seminal masterpieces of western literature into the mould of this single  insight seems to me, however, to empty them of  precisely the qualities that have given them so long a life. You have sacrificed the plays on the altar of a paradigm, of a  clever, neatly-sewn, well-packaged theory - in defiance, I think,  of the evidence of the plays themselves.

Let's begin with Hamlet.

The Dionysian man resembles Hamlet,” Nietzsche remarks. “Both have looked truly into the essence of things, they have gained knowledge, and with it the nausea that inhibits action; ....... Knowledge kills action; action requires the veils of illusion: that is the doctrine of Hamlet, not the cheap wisdom of Jack the Dreamer who reflects too much and, as it were, from an excess of possibilities, does not get round to action.” (Birth of Tragedy - 1873).

That seems to me about right. Hamlet the play is not about restoring an injured world, but about something  more taxing to the mind and spirit - how to find meaning in the face of certain death, how to find truth - if indeed such a thing exists - when nothing, neither words nor things mean or are what they appear. 

With Hamlet, Shakespeare set a precedent in western culture. Nothing like this exploration of human consciousness had ever been attempted before; and it set the pattern for much of what came after - Goethe, the Romanticism of Chateaubriand, Lamartine, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelly,  and Byron, the psychological commentaries of Freud, and Jung, the thread-sewn minutiae of Joyce (who was much influenced by Hamlet), right up to Beckett and beyond.

I won’t attempt yet another interpretation of the play (beyond what I have hinted at above). I will, however, try to show where your thesis palpably misses the play’s essence, purpose and impact.

Perhaps the first solid indication of Hamlet’s dilemma comes in his early exchange with his mother:

‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor the customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye
Nor the dejected haviour of the visage.
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief
That can denote me truly. These indeed seem
For they are actions that a man might play,
But I have within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Let's note, in parenthesis, that his initial anger is directed much more at her than at Claudius, of whose treachery he is as yet unaware:

A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she followed my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears - why, she even she
O God, a beast that wants discourse of reason
Would have mourned longer - married with my uncle...

He says - and we believe him - that he is not what he seems. Nor, with the exception of the stalwart Horatio and a few minor characters, is anyone else. Hamlet lives behind a mask, several different masks, each one an “antic disposition”. The other characters likewise dissemble: Claudius lives with murder, Gertrude with emotional betrayal; Polonius - as corrupt in his way as Claudius -  spies on his own son, and plots behind the arras:

Your bait of falsehood take this carp of truth,
And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,
with windlass and with assays of bias,
By indirections find directions out;....

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern mask betrayal with friendship, Laertes lends himself to murder. Ophelia - what of Ophelia? At her father’s bidding, she suppresses her love for Hamlet and pretends to be other than she is.

Dissembling carries serious consequences, of course,  both for ourselves and for others (remember the role of the mask in Octavio Paz’s Laberinto de la Soledad?). We lie and cheat to achieve our ends - a practice for which Hamlet and all the principals end up paying with their lives.

Hamlet alone penetrates the masks - but what he sees on the other side is not the authentic faces of those who surround him, not the truth (where is the truth after all?), but death; not “...the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals;” but Yorick, “this quintessence of dust..”

That is the challenge presented by the play: what do we signify (if, indeed, we signify anything)? What lies behind the mask?

Much of what our meaning might include, Hamlet rejects, for he sees that it can’t be separated from or cleansed of evil. Polonius promises to look after the actors according to their deserts, to which Hamlet snaps:

... use every man after his desert, and who shall ‘scape whipping?

It is the elusiveness of meaning - and the terrible insight that there is no escape from the violence and corruption with which life is identified - that cause Hamlet to do precisely what you claim he doesn’t do,  namely to hesitate, to doubt. Doubt, hesitation are the trappings of the intelligent mind: certainty in an unstable world - a refuge of the blind and the foolish. Words are merely another form of disguise, a cloak in which to lose the name of action:

Why what a ass I am! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murthered
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words.....

Even the ghost is open to question:

......The spirit I have seen
May be a devil and the devil hath power
T’assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps,
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.....

“There is no real moment of doubt or indecision in Hamlet” you say. But doubt and indecision lie at the very core of the play and of Hamlet’s terrible penetration of the human dilemma. Hence why...

....conscience does make cowards of us all
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action.

Thought - the realization of the futility of human action - destroys enterprise:

Sure He that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unus’d. Now whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th’ event-
A thought which quarter’d hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward - I do not know.....

To act at all you must be deceived into thinking your actions will make a difference, and that they represent your intentions. But - as the Player King suggests in one of the most astonishing speeches in the play (a speech often ignored but which summarizes much of the thematic discourse and which we must assume was written by Hamlet himself ) :

Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown,
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.

A sentiment that Hamlet overtly approves when later he admits in Act V.:

Our indiscretion sometime serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends
Rough-hew them how we will.

Here he presages the end. He will not kill his uncle otherwise than casually,  at a moment when he ceases to think and instead acts in a fit of passion - or at the behest of fate. He could have performed the deed dispassionately in Act III, while Claudius is trying to pray. He refused the chance not - as you assert - because he had not yet unmasked the king’s treachery - but because he questioned the validity of the act itself:

And am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season’d for his passage?

This is a religious excuse (even though we can hardly conceive of Hamlet as religious given his questioning of the grounds of existence).  There is, of course, a Christian backcloth also to Hamlet’s father’s pain - for he  died without the benefit of absolution which is why he is condemned to purgatory. Hamlet would not be a party to murdering Claudius when the latter is in a state of grace, for his uncle would thereby triumph over his father in the afterlife.

Do we believe Hamlet’s excuse to be genuine? I don’t think so. Rather, we see his rejection of the opportunity to complete his mission as the triumph of thought over action - just as Nietsche suggested. We know that while Hamlet’s brain is working, he will never murder Claudius. He kills two people during the course of the play - three if we include Laertes -  all at moments when thought has given way to instinct, when the beast triumphs over the man.

Far from demonstrating a path to redemption of the universe - which is what you appear to suggest - I see the formal ending of the play as pure convention. By the time Claudius dies, we hardly care whether Hamlet has fulfilled his task or not. And we sense that Hamlet hardly cares either. According to your interpretation, he dies in triumph having solved the puzzle that has kept him and us attentive for five acts - how to unmask Claudius. But this play is not about solving that kind of puzzle or, indeed, about solving anything. It is about questioning, perhaps about the ultimate question - a double one: why are we on this earth?  what and who are we?

The rest is silence.

Turning to Lear, I believe that again you have been misled by the formalities of the play into imposing an interpretation in defiance of the text - an interpretation moreover that reduces one the greatest works of literature to the level of  a cipher and a meditation.

What Lear is about is easier to express than in the case of Hamlet because Lear himself tells us. Again it is a question:

Who is it that can tell me who I am?

Other questions sustain this primordial one: how do we account for and endure human suffering? What is the  meaning and purpose of evil? Are we the playthings of fate, or do we forge our own destiny?

The play is also about love, of course, as you rightly say; and about politics too, and justice and redemption, truth and lies.  In the end it is about what it means to be human.

Language belongs here, of course, as you point out. Without it the play would not exist. But no language is to be trusted: not that of the wicked because they misuse it, nor that of the good because they cannot command it. This is why Cordelia’s first reaction to Lear’s demand that she express her love is that she has nothing to say. And then:

Unhappy that I am, I cannot heave my heart into my mouth. Precisely.1

“Nothing” is a much used word in Lear as many have noted.2  Shortly after the famous ‘nothing’ exchange between Lear and Cordelia, we hear an echo from Gloucester and Edmund:

Glo: What paper were you reading?
Edm: Nothing my lord.
Glo: No? What needed then that terrible dispatch of it into your pocket?  The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself.

And then another echo from the Fool - mocking what we have heard before:

Fool:........Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?
Lear: Why , no, boy, nothing can be made out of nothing.
Fool: [to Kent] Prithee tell him, so much the rent of his land comes to.

Language is a disguise, a trick: nothing is a word like any other, with many meanings.

So it is with our identity and, therefore,  with how we identify ourselves. “...he hath ever but slenderly known himself,” Regan says of her father. Like everyone, he receives his identity from those who surround him: his nation, his district, his city, his neighbourhood, those whom he loves and who claim to love him. As a king, he is much flattered. He commands, is obeyed and feared, and his self-image reflects this. “Come not between the dragon and his wrath...” he tells Kent.

But the Fool is not fooled:

Lear: Dost thou call me fool, boy?
Fool: All thy other titles thou hast given away, that thou wast born with.

The Fool relentlessly reminds Lear that he has been living an illusion. And the message becomes more cruel as Lear’s distress increases:

Cry to it nuncle, as the cockney did to the eels when she put ‘em i’ th’ paste alive; she knapp’d ‘em o’ th’ coxcombs with a stick, and cried, “Down, wantons, down!” ’Twas her brother that, in pure kindness to his horse, butter’d his hay.

As Lear’s suffering continues, so he travels through pain to understanding. The threats he issues early on, which we already know to be mere bombast:

......you unnatural hags,
I will have such revenges on you both
That all the world shall - I will do such things -
What they are yet I know not, but they shall be
The terrors of the earth!

...transform into an understanding of what all of us have in common: our humanity. Inevitably we come to issues of social and political justice, for if we are all the same, then  in the sense that most matters - we are also equal.

Lear: Is man no more than this? Consider him well. Thou ow’st the worm no silk, the beast no hide, the sheep no wool, the cat no perfume. .............unaccommodated man is no more but such a poor,bare, fork’d animal.....

And so the political conclusion - revolutionary not only in its time but for the centuries to come:3

Take physic, pomp,
Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,
That thou mayst shake the superflux to them
And show the heavens more just.

The trappings of authority are just that:  a disguise no less powerful than the disguise of language: “A dog’s obeyed in office..........Robes and furr’d gowns hide all......

Gloucester’s physical blinding parallels Lear’s spiritual blindness. In one of the most heartrending exchanges of the play, Gloucester tells us what this means:

Old Man: You cannot see your way.
Glo: I have no way and therefore want no eyes; I stumbled when I saw.

Self-knowledge likewise comes to Lear:

Lear: They flatter’d me like a dog, and told me I had the white hairs in my beard ere the black ones were there.....When the rain came to wet me once, and the wind to make me chatter, when the thunder would not peace at my bidding, there I found ’em, there I smelt ’em out. ....they told me I was everything. ’Tis a lie....

But the price of knowledge may be life itself, for Lear, Cordelia, Gloucester and the Fool are all lost to it.

If we are to retrieve anything positive from this outcome, then we must remember that we are not the play (this was what Brecht was trying to get at with his insistence on ‘alienation’). We will not cast out Lear, nor hang Cordelia nor take out Gloucester’s eyes; not at any rate if we can grasp something of who and what we are and where we belong on the planet.

The heart and meaning of this - the greatest of all plays - is not in the denouement, not in the re-establishment of a transgressed order, still less in a reflection on language. It lies in the extraordinary encounter - an interlude of transcendent pain and strange beauty - between Edgar,  Lear and Gloucester in Act IV.vi.

Glo: Oh let me kiss that hand.
Lear: Let me wipe it first, it smells of mortality.

No paraphrase possible.

I can’t disagree with most of what you say about Lear. But the picture you offer is a skeleton with no flesh.

1 Four hundred years later, Eliot's Prufrock found it... “ impossible to say exactly what I mean...”
2 De nihilo nihilum - Lucretius, De rerum natura I
3 “Superfluous wealth can buy superfluities only. Money is not required to buy one necessary for the soul.” wrote Thoreau, three centuries later.