Monday, July 27, 2009

Hamlet, our crime-fiction contemporary


I've written more than once about Hamlet as a crime story, about its noirish patterns of guilt and doom, and about its hero as both killer and sleuth.

An essay from 1951 helps explain why Hamlet comes across like a crime-fiction protagonist. It's called "The Imagery of Hamlet," and its author, W.H. Clemen, tried to debunk the popular conception of Hamet as an irresolute waffler:

"Hamlet does not translate the general thought into an image paraphrasing it; on the contrary, he uses the opposite method: he refers the generalizations to the events and objects of the reality underlying the thought. ... In contrast to Othello and Lear, for example, who awaken heaven and the elements in their imagery and who lend expression to their might passions in images of soaring magnificence, Hamlet prefers to keep his language within the scope of reality, indeed, within the everyday world."
Clemen cites a string of the harsh insults by which Hamlet lays bare to his mother Claudius' true nature ("A cutpurse of the empire and the rule ... a king of shreds and patches"). "Hamlet sees through men and things," Clemen writes. "He perceives what is false, visualizing his recognition through imagery"

Hamlet shuns elevated speech; he's earthy, and he speaks the truth, harshly when necessary. Sounds a bit like Sam Spade. Or Jack Taylor. Or Mike Hammer. Or— Who in crime fiction does Clemen's assessment of Hamlet remind you of?

© Peter Rozovsky 2009

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9 Comments:

Blogger Barbara said...

Also, he gets off some great wisecracks. Hamlet's a funny guy.

His occasional bouts of philosophy - taking a specific and extrapolating it to larger issues - remind me of Travis McGee. I can just imagine McGee likening some silly battleground to fighting over "an eggshell" as Hamlet does.

As for ghosts giving the heads-up ... hmmm, Dave Robicheaux might dig it.

July 27, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

There is something coincidental about your posting since students in my literature course are about to take on Hamlet, which can always be a daunting challenge since many college freshmen have been previously exposed to the play and therefore think they know it, understand it, and do not need to have another go at it. Well, putting my teacher's challenges aside for the moment, I guess I would tend to agree with the view that Hamlet is something like crime fiction. Rarely though in crime fiction do you so quickly know the murderer (i.e., the ghost clears that up rather soon), rarely is the sleuth so slow in sorting things out when everything is so obvious (i.e., Hamlet famously delays the revenge, but--of course--the delay is the essence of the character), and rarely does the crime-fiction sleuth wind up dead with virtually everyone else in the neighborhood (i.e., Hamlet may have solved the crime but the endgame is a bit over the top). Well, with those random musings thrown out there for whatever they might be worth, I would say this as a way of wrapping everything up here: Hamlet is a complicated tragic hero worthy of dozens of re-readings (or more), and there are only a handful of writers whose crime novels stand up to such frequent rereading, though one writer certainly comes to mind: Raymond Chandler. And now, with that being said, I need to take time and carefully consider what I've just done: I've put Chandler and Shakespeare in something like the same league. Now that deserves some more analysis.

July 27, 2009  
Blogger Loren Eaton said...

Hamlet certainly is, ahem, forthright in his speech. A guy I know who is a Ph.D. student at UT Austin has argued that the prince is making an obsene pun in Act 3, Scene 2 when he says to Ophelia, after asking to lay his head on her lap, "Do you think I meant country matters?" Emphasize the first syllable of "country."

July 27, 2009  
Blogger R. T. said...

It has long been acknowledged among Shakespeare scholars that Hamlet's interractions with Ophelia in the court scene (as they await the performance of the play within the play) and his comments elsewhere in the play are loaded with sexual innuendo; in fact, "country matters," is simply one example of Shakespeare's many sly wordgames within the play. Understand that the Elizabethans were less prudish than people of the 20th and 21st centuries, they were more attuned to the nuances of language when it was spoken on the stage, and they enjoyed bawdy humor, so they rather enjoyed Hamlet's thinly disguised R-rated assault upon Ophelia's sensibilities. If one were to look at all of Shakespeare's plays--especially the romantic comedies--one could find quite a catalogue of similar puns and wordgames. All of this, however, is an interesting digression but probably has very little to do with Peter's initial posting and query in which Hamlet is offered up for comparisons to modern crime fiction.

July 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Some great, barbed wisecracks, Barbara, along with the biting wordplay. The essay also notes that Hamlet is an educated, worldly sort, but one whose educated references are always ways of grasping the real world -- as a detective would, I suppose

If Dave Robicheaux is open to ghosts, does Burke also populate his books with skeptics? I ask because I've always love the line "Tush, 'twill not appear."

July 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

R.T., yes, Hamlet is no whodunnit. That's why I'm always careful to talk about Hamlet and crime fiction, rather than detective fiction. He's more like another kind of crime fiction protagonist, like a driven amateur sleuth or even like a cool killer.

I attended a talk on Shakespeare on film this weekend, where the presenter made the interesting point that Shakespeare was, early in the era of silent movies, still a popular artist. It was only later, he said, that academics erected a forbidding barrier around him. So we got to talking (he's an old friend of mine from crime-fiction events) about ways to break down that barrier. One would be to emphasize the features he shares with popular fiction -- his more human, quotidian aspects. Another would be to present Shakespeare as acted by performers with a naturalistic style, such as Olivier in Richard III. A third, suitable for school-age children, would be to emphasize rather than expurgate the bawdiness and the insults. Anything that gets 'em interested at a young age could well create a lasting bond.

July 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Loren and R.T.: Digression is the soul of wit, and brevity the limbs and outward flourishes. Digression is allowed here.

I brought up "country matters" in discussion after this weekend's presentation on Shakespeare and film. I don't remember if I studied Hamlet in high school, but I can well imagine teachers dancing around that line.

The folks who organized the event had prepared a list of words from Shakespeare's catalogue of invective, inviting us thus to build our own Shakespeare-style insults. That's another great idea for getting children interested in Shakespeare. If you're a parent, wouldn't you want your kids running around calling each other "Scurvy lord, beef-witted lord" rather than "asshole!"?

I am reminded of the time I mentioned that I'd studied Julius Caesar in high school. I'd assumed that play was chosen for its brevity, but someone suggested that it may been chosen because it has no sex in it. Of course, we also studied Macbeth in high school, and that has a line or two that a roomful of adolescent boys might have tittered at.

July 27, 2009  
Blogger Linkmeister said...

Adolescent boys have been known to snigger at Emily Dickinson, fer cryin' out loud. They are notably undiscerning (I speak from experience, since I once was one).

There is no Frigate like a Book, et. seq.

July 27, 2009  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

As was I. Come to think of it, though, there's not much sniggerworthy material in Macbeth, nothing much beyond "Unsex me here" and certainly nothing as good as "Frig It Like a Book."

July 27, 2009  

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