In this lecture, Cynthia Chung discusses whether there is a purpose to tragedy beyond merely being tragic and whether this was the intention of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Along with a study of the play, two performances are compared and juxtaposed to determine what Shakespeare intended for his audience.
Featured Cover Image: “Hamlet’s Vision” by Pedro Americo
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Hamlet is Shakespeare’s study of the roots of human spirituality, when man is faced with the inaction, powerlessness or futility of life. Worldly failure is the point, the melancholy of monasticism. The obligations of forbearance, redemptive suffering and forgiveness cast long shadows over this play, though religion is never explicitly mentioned. That is why this seemingly simple play is such a watershed for all others.
As for other forms of tragedy, such as the “doomed lovers” type, like Romeo and Juliet, we could look to the books of Jungian psychologist Robert Johnson. In “He”, the legend of Parsifal is told, of the lonely Quest for the Grail, as metaphor for the pursuit of individuation (becoming a fully realized individual). In “She”, the story of Psyche is told, where she must connect impossible threads, or separate mounds of grain from rice, as the feminine form of individuation. In “We”, the story of “Tristan and Isolde” reveals the secret human desire for death hidden in romantic love, as metaphor for the spiritual.
Romantic love seeks completion in the other, through projection of our Self, or wholeness, on the other. But in this way, natural romantic love can be a distraction from ourselves, and an avoidance of the solitary work of each person for their self-realization.
This was also the point of the cult of “courtly love” of the middle ages. The noble “gentle-man” who loved purely from afar, but never approached his lady directly. Like romantic love, monasticism and asceticism, virginity and inviolability, are also natural instincts. These methods and myths were the necessary steps of a culture who sought insight and excellence in the spiritual realm as well as the natural.
There is a meta-analysis of the language of Hamlet (the reference to which I have forgotten), which reveals the most spiritual language used of any of WS’s plays. “prayer, kneeling, confession, suffering, expiation, nunnery, monastic, etc), further revealing that spirituality itself, exploring the root of the human spiritual impulse, the “cold fire” or “ineffectual fire”, is the deepest theme of this play.
The terms of “tragedy” and “comedy” are too broad to be of much use to tell us what literary works are about. “Tragedy” as such simply expands the consciousness of the human mind, ultimately to the infinite and the spiritual and moral. In that sense, all worthwhile writing is “tragic”, because life is tragic. Comedy is relaxation and entertainment, but the root of laughter is the pain of life, or what Helen Luke called the “incongruity” of life in her work “Laughter at the Heart of Things”.
Medieval philosophers divided human character into two basic camps: the irascible and the concupiscible. The concupiscible lives for today, reaching for easily obtainable pleasures, never thinking or preparing for tomorrow. The irascible lives against adversity, always anticipating and preparing for the worst. You can look those words up maybe for better definitions. These have a broad correlation to comic and tragic, or liberal and conservative.
Also maybe look into Northrop Frye’s redefinition of the library system. He divided literature into four categories, which he called Novels, Romances, Autobiographies, and Anatomies, and his thought on the subject is somewhat profound. Frye was also one of the first to suggest that the Bible was greatly neglected to be looked at as an object of literary analysis, rather than just religious or historical. The Bible in fact, is our most fundamental and influential literary work in all of Western culture. Only a few have started to take him up on this.
KPTMWP thank you for your rich comments to this post and the post “On Optimism,” I agree that today’s use of the words comedy and tragedy are too broad. For myself, I look at the two from the standpoint of Ancient Greece and their theatre/drama. From this standpoint, comedy is viewed as a mirror to the present, but it is done in such a way that the audience cannot help laugh at its own folly (when done well), it is not overly direct but will take examples of present day for its subjects of mockery. Tragedy on the other hand, is something that is often portrayed in the distant past, for if the present is foolish it will also be tragic, however they will not be able to see their tragedy before they can feel the burn of being the subject of laughter. Tragedy thus uses examples from the past (or fiction) in hopes of revealing the ongoing tragedy that prevails in the present and threatens to shape the future, tragedy is more free with this approach and is less in danger of being guilty of “direct moralising” which is the death of art. The discovery of one’s tragedy or the tragedy of a situation must be regarded as freely done and not under duress. Shakespeare was a master at entwining both tragedy and comedy, as we see within his play Hamlet, where you have the scene with the two clowns (gravediggers), Hamlet pondering over the skull of the old court jester, and Hamlet himself who purposefully plays the fool throughout numerous scenes.
Friedrich Schiller wrote some very good essays on why an audience will be drawn to tragic subjects, his essay “On Tragic Art” is particularly insightful:
“Art fulfils its purpose by imitating nature, by fulfilling conditions under which pleasure becomes possible in reality, and unifies the disparate functions of nature to this purpose according to a plan of reason, in order to obtain that, which nature makes merely into its secondary aim, into its final purpose. Tragic art, therefore, will imitate nature in those actions which are preeminently capable of awakening the emotion of compassion…We return, therefore constantly to the first question, why it is just the degree of suffering which determines the degree of sympathetic pleasure in an emotion, and it can be answered in no other way than that the very assault upon our sensuality must be the condition for exciting the power of emotion, the activity of which produces that pleasure in sympathetic anguish.
This power, now is nothing else than reason, and to that degree that the free efficacy of the same, as absolute self-activity, truly deserves to be called activity, to that degree emotion feels perfectly free and independent only in its moral actions, from which our pleasure in sad affects has its origin. It is thus, however, not the number, nor the intensity of prefigurations, not the efficacy of the capability of desiring at all, but rather a certain species of the first, and a certain efficacy of the latter, produced by reason, which is the foundation of this pleasure.
The communicated affect, therefore, has something pleasurable for us, because it satisfies the drive to activity; the sad emotion provides this effect to a higher degree, because it satisfies this drive to a greater degree. Only in the condition of its complete freedom, only in consciousness of its moral nature, does emotion express its highest activity, because it there alone employs a power which is superior to any resistance.”
To add a few words to the list of spiritual terms in Hamlet above, “devout” and “renounce/renunciate”, and we could probably find many others in the text.
And while I’m dropping names on studies about the roots of spirituality, we could see “Leisure the Basis of Culture”, by Josef Peiper, a classic from 1948.
I also like the studies by Rene Girard on Mimesis as an important basis of culture. Romance, or human development in general, doesn’t happen in just two’s, but often in three’s, as one often wants what another has, but does not want it until he sees another having it. A great literary example of the romantic triad is found in the dynamic of Arthur, Guenevere and Lancelot. In his book on Shakespeare, “A Theater of Envy”, Girard argues that Shakespeare’s Sonnets, before he wrote further plays, are an exploration of this dynamic of “three”, or mimesis/envy, in relationship.
Girard has another branch to his thesis tying into mimesis in which “foundational murder”, or sacrifice is an important basis of culture, and our literature and history is chock full of “sacrificial texts” or examples of sacrificial figures who suffered and/or died, willingly or unwillingly, so that new life might be brought forth. People found his theory too raw and barbaric, so he ended up subsuming it into a Christian envelope, but I find his original writings more compelling.
Allen Bloom in his “The Western Canon” develops these theories as “the anxiety of influence”, showing how new generations only find a voice of their own by demolishing and reworking, phoenix-like, the ideas of their parent generation.