Monday, April 22, 2013

Hamlet, Onset Personality Attributes and the Literary Threshold

When a literary character arrives on the threshold of chapter one I am oft reminded of a house analogy; the residence itself comprising the entirety that is the novel, with the front door opening into the literary preliminaries, the prologue, the initial chapter if you will. The fictional individuals themselves are itinerant drifters, nomadic adventurers, wayfarers of the fictional world, and this house, this narrative, is one stop upon their own literary journey; they arrive on the doorstep bedraggled and travel-worn, burdened down by the various accoutrements which they tow along with them.

Some are singularly somber, scarred by a darkly particular past, others are freshly-unlined and exuberant, naive and idealistic; all, however, spring into the narrative fully-formed like Minerva from the brow of Jupiter, encased in their acquired armor made necessary from the slings and arrows of an outrageous fortune to which we, the reader, have yet to become acquainted. While these whips and scorns of time might belong to an obscurely undefined past, that fictional character has, in some way, been shaped by them: the weight of past experience etched within their physiognomy, formed in furrows between the brows or in the whitened whiskers of a balding mane. Each character emerges from the literary darkness in the full-timbered resonance of complicated three-dimensionality, and perhaps there is just as much to be designated, decided and mulled over in the precursor: in the preceding narrative of this particular character's life prior to their arrival on the doorstep of one's novel. Or perhaps I am plagued by procrastination and will ponder and pontificate on all that precedes the palpable process of putting pen to paper! Say it is not so!

In the meaningful formulation of a fictional individual, one must not only ruminate upon the manner in which they develop throughout the written narrative, but the complicated matrix of their personality at the onset. This process comprises extricating the elements that have unduly influenced them, the encumbrances that weigh them down; postulating some notion of childhood, of the geographical, political and social milieu that comprised this early time of youth, the instilled parental perspective and predispositions; the hiccups of young adulthood and the obdurate opinions of the old - until the character is fixed, like an insect in amber, pinioned in a literary freeze-frame, formulated at a specific chronological age. Just as the players within Hamlet cover a gamut of lifespan, from the doddering Polonius to the youthful Laertes, each comes to the game with a complex set of assumptions and life experiences that quintessentially define their particular personality, proclivities and the manner in which they interact with others. This is where the preliminary authorial work lies: in the back-narrative, the initial formulation that establishes character credibility.

Hamlet is, from the onset, much troubled: afflicted with his father's demise and his mother's precipitous marriage he finds the world a 'weary, stale, flat and unprofitable' place. Having 'lost all [his] mirth, forgone all custom of exercises,' and clad 'in nighted color' Hamlet is but a shadow of his former self; his attire a deliberate criticism of the colorful court who assume 'the trappings and suits of woe.' Ophelia refers to this lighter past of courtier, soldier, scholar and lover: a prince with a tendency to deep rumination and intensity of thought, but one traversing his designated path of seeming complacent happiness - before the smiling villain succumbed to his own ambitions for Crown and Queen. Very early into the play, as Hamlet barely crosses the literary threshold, we become aware of the particular transformation that has immediately preceded his arrival: this melancholic disposition, (prior to ghostly revelations of murder and mayhem) this agitated reflection upon his father's death and his mother's 'o'erhasty marriage.'

As the play proceeds Hamlet's tension heightens and spirals, his despondency transmuted into the agonized rage of a son denied both father and throne with all matter bent to revenge: 'I'll wipe away all trivial, fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, that youth and observation copied there, and thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain, unmixed with baser matter.'  These trivialities, this baser matter, that hitherto occupied Hamlet's mind might be fairly construed to be the quotidian occupations of any particular Danish princeling, the engagements of mirth and exercise from which he now abstains. The distance traversed from the 'expectancy and rose of the fair state, the glass of fashion and the mold of form, th' observed of all observers' is all the more dramatic to those unaware of Hamlet's deliberate intent, of his assumed 'antic disposition' which evades and perplexes the scrutiny of the capricious court. The quintessential dramatic tension contained within the fictional frame of Hamlet is born in the inevitable juxtaposition between what he is now (an admixture of dark melancholy and tortured fury inflicted on self as well as others) and what he was before (mirthfully engaged in princely pursuits sheltered by the cheerful triumvirate of an intact nuclear family.)

Before they even traverse the literary landscape the characters are multifaceted complications; only after the formulation of which can one then propel them through the action with a clear understanding of how these back-narratives will predispose them to certain responses, how the intricacies of interactions with others will color their forward action. Little of this might be revealed to the reader; there is, after all, a certain amount of uneasy ambiguity that encompasses Gertrude's marriage of unseemly haste. What prompted this alliance? Can she be subsequently implicated in the death of Hamlet's father? Is she much maligned by Hamlet's hostility or is she receiving her just deserts?

Perhaps Shakespeare had, within the confines of his creative cranium, the answers to these questions. He is, after all, the omnipotent deity of this fictional world: the 'divinity' that Hamlet declares 'shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.' Whether the Bard chooses to reveal these literary undercurrents is another thing. Just as we, the writer, must hold all the cards, shuffling and jostling within our grasp, only a select few are displayed on the table, the rest remain shrouded within the mists of the authorial mind. But I think it critical that these character attributes are formulated (whether or not they are demonstrated or utilized within the subsequent narrative they still comprise the quintessential particulars of that fictional individual) - and it is this precursor construct, this pre-formulated familiarity that breathes vitality into the character that navigates their way through the subsequent pages of one's novel.

Yet as I wade and mire through drier treatises of American intellectualism (engaged as I am in research for my next novel), through the whys and wherefores of western expansionism, and the knotted entanglements of slavery and cotton, I increasingly find that my characters have already experienced much that is interesting before they even deign to grace my narrative: a  Parisian physician devastated by the 1848 Revolution and circumscribed by the conservative medical establishment seeks a new start in the Land of Opportunity; a young Chinese girl lured to the New World under false pretenses and forced into prostitution; a garrulous miner bemoaning hard times and hard prices, hankering after the heady egalitarianism of gold-rush days; a fiery female journalist seeking to forge a literary path for herself in what is still yet a male-dominated frontier.

These characters are shadowy remnants still, partially-formed ideas of themselves, skeletal and shallow, awaiting the literary brush that will define the flesh and provide the thrum and quiver of life-bestowed. But as brilliantly evidenced by Shakespeare's Hamlet, I am intrigued by the juxtaposition of what went before and, fashioned within the literary maelstrom of plot and heated forward-action, what comes after; how this piece of work which is man is contorted and shaped by the subsequent narrative, by the house that is one's novel, and how he emerges at the end of it as something else entirely. For myself, however, the humble architect of this particular abode, I merely hold open the door, beckon the weary travelers across the threshold, echoing as I do so Hamlet's greeting to the actors: 'You are welcome. masters; welcome all!'


  1. Dear PJ,

    I believe that the characters who grace your threshold are to be rewarded with a litany of literary attributes inspired by your prolific pen. It never ceases to amaze me how an author can concoct a combination of historicity and fictionality into a semblance of narrative credibility that keeps the pages turning. I have every confidence that your architectural wonder will take on a life of its own as a standard to be met for its time, and beyond.

    Insofar as Hamlet is concerned, perhaps I can add some ideas about Hamlet's underlying passion by applying one of the modernist theories of literary criticism, specifically Freudian psychoanalysis of the play. Everest Jones (Sigmund Freud's biographer), wrote a study based on Freud's comments of the play:

    "In Freud's wake, Jones explains Hamlet's mysterious procrastination as a consequence of the Oedipus Complex: the son continually postpones the act of revenge because of the impossibly complicated psychodynamic situation in which he finds himself. Though he hates his fratricidal uncle, he nevertheless unconsciously identifies with him—for, having killed Hamlet's father and married his mother, Claudius has carried out what are Hamlet's own unconscious wishes. In addition, marriage to Hamlet's mother gives the uncle the unconscious status of the father—destructive impulses towards whom provoke great anxiety and meet with repression."

    Jones' investigation was first published as "The Oedipus-Complex as An Explanation of Hamlet's Mystery: A Study in Motive" (in The American Journal of Psychology, January 1910); it was later expanded in a 1923 publication; before finally appearing as a book-length study (Hamlet and Oedipus) in 1949.


    There are other details about Hamlet and Gertrude having incestuous feelings for each other that are evident in the closet scene (Act III, Scene IV) when Hamlet chastises his mother for her sexual (incestuous) relationship with Claudius (for which Hamlet is genuinely jealous).

    Hamlet's relationship with Ophelia is not normal; he uses her to make Gertrude jealous (he sits at her feet at the play and Gertrude refuses to speak to Ophelia).

    It is only when Gertrude dies, freeing Hamlet of his Oedipal complex, that he is able to kill Claudius to fulfill his father's ghost's wishes.

    When we look at Gertrude's motivations, there are speculations of foul play:

    1. She was having an affair with Claudius prior to her husband's death;
    2. She was a co-conspirator in her husband's death;
    3. She married Claudius to keep the money and kingdom in the family so as not to pass it on the Hamlet immediately. There is even speculation that she would attempt to bear a child with Claudius.

    All in all, Gertrude does not appear to be a victim of circumstances, rather a choreographer of opportunity.

    It is no wonder that Hamlet was mad in every sense of the word.

    1. Fascinating commentary Shari - thank you!!! I so enjoyed reading it all! I adore Hamlet and am always impressed with the infinite multitude of interpretations that seem to hover around his persona as well as the play of which he is a part. I do not know that I incline to such Oedipus-driven interpretation myself....but the speculation and postulation itself is such a fascinating exercise - amazing really that Shakespeare could be so precise with his verbiage and still encompass so much room for varied thought and interpretation. But if one does not ascribe to the Oedpius-version - there is still the problematic of why Hamlet procrastinates to the extend he did - and why he (in a fairly docile manner after the heated exchange with Gertrude) obediently trots off to England in the company of Rosencrantz and Gildenstern? Obviously the encounter with Fortinbras' army changes his mind...but why acquiesce initially? Well in short it is a fascinating play with much to ponder indeed! Thank you dear Shari for your fascinating insights (as per usual) !

  2. P J Royal

    i have been through the blog and it helped me to understand Odepius complex ..i really like our narration and i got high regard to your writing be honest you sounds like D H LAWRANCE IN WRITING.

    1. Thank you Manzar, I am so gratified that you enjoyed it, and your generous comparison to DH Lawrence is the highest of compliments indeed - one that I shall indeed treasure!