Sunday, December 13, 2009

'The Mystery of Hamlet: A Solution' by Myron Stagman.

In Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, a race of hyper-intelligent, pan dimensional beings create Deep Thought, a city-sized super computer, to find the ultimate answer to life, the universe and everything. After seven and a half million years, the massive computant presents the irrelevant answer “forty-two” on the basis that for all their hyper-intelligence, the pan dimensional beings didn’t really define what the question was going to be. Which is rather my approach to the question Myron Stagman considers in The Mystery of Hamlet: A Solution – why does Hamlet take up to four hours stage time and up to six months narrative duration to kill Claudius? Stagman suggests it’s the “single most famous and controversial issue in Literature”. I'm not so sure.

My prejudice against this line of literary criticism is that if you set aside the play’s literary merit and whatever secret codes Shakespeare (or "playful beguiler" as the cover has it) may have layered into the text and simply treat it as a piece of drama dealing with human emotion, there is no question. Hamlet, an aristocratic prince and scholar (and depending upon which text you're reading a teenager), has been tasked by the ghost of his father to murder his uncle, and though his immediate reaction might be to speak of revenge, a very human reaction, of course he dithers when faced with the reality of process. Instead he fains madness and does everything he can to get Claudius to expose himself and it’s only after, in a fit of oppressed anger, he kills Polonius, that he finds that he has that murderous ability within him.

In which case I’m probably not the best audience for Stagman’s book which spends its time seeking connections between symbols and words and treats the play as a puzzle book that Shakespeare has offered up to be solved like Kit Williams’s Masquerade. There’s no argument that Shakespeare uses metaphor and analogy, but just I’m not sure that the dramatist has deliberately obscured the meaning of his story as Stagman seems to be suggesting, that, for example, ”the time is out of joint” was his way of indicating Hamlet’s reluctance to ram a sword into Claudius’s heart. It would be wrong to spoil the solution. To paraphrase Stagman's analogy when considering the approach of other critics to his problem, it would be like giving away who the killer is in the review of an Agatha Christie mystery. Except to say that if it’s not exactly “forty-two”, I can't completely agree with him.

The book is also oddly structured, opening with forty pages of quotes from other plays to demonstrate the various aspects of “the greatness of Shakespeare” then continues with three shortened versions of the play in varying degrees of detail. Someone picking up this book should already have this material to hand and though Stagman’s enthusiasm infectious as he points out his favourite speeches and lines there’s an element of the Derren Brown magical tv event about the way he’s effectively teasing us with other treats before revealing the final illusion. The summary of his argument appears first in over eight pages then fifty, some of the text repeated with quotes and evidence. Just one quarter of the book really deals with Stagman’s analysis and then feels rushed as though he’s as desperate for us to come to the solution as quickly as he does.

Part of the author's solution is determined by his assumption that “the story takes place in Denmark during the Viking period, 8th to 11th century AD” in approximately 1000 because in the text England is paying tribute to Denmark and he spends most of the book describing him as a “Viking prince”. Shakespeare doesn’t specifically give a period in the work, and though the source legend is from that period, and I’m more persuaded by Steve Roth’s argument that Shakespeare meant for his audience to see the play as happening in contemporary Europe. The text is laced with such assumptions even when the textual evidence seems shaky or open to dramatic choice, such as the exact relationship between Claudius and Gertrude. It’s difficult to concur with a argument when you disagree with the interpretation of the individual data.

The Mystery of Hamlet: A Solution by Myron Stagman is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. £34.99 . ISBN: 978-1443814409.

A sample of the book is available here.