A prince not yet the king

New Essays on Hamlet
August 18, 1995

Sometime during the 1950s King Lear replaced Hamlet in critical esteem and is now generally acknowledged as "Shakespeare's greatest play", as R. A. Foakes demonstrated two years ago in Hamlet Versus Lear. Nevertheless, we still have the Delhi-based Hamlet Studies (so far as I know the only journal devoted to publishing studies of a single play) and we now have "The Hamlet Collection". Introducing itself as the first in the series, this volume contains 17 essays grouped under six headings: "Sources and Symbiologies", "Politics and Performance", "Psychoanalysis and Language", "Renaissance Feminisms", "Histories and Appropriations" and "Nation and Culture".

The authors are mainly based at British and North American universities, but three are from Geneva, Heidelberg and Nicosia. The essays are all newly commissioned for this volume, though later books in the series are scheduled to contain reprints of "seminal studies and sources". Other titles announced as being in preparation include Hamlet in Japan, Hamlet and Film, Hamlet and the Visual Arts, and Critical Responses to Hamlet.

Unlike many recent collections of essays, this one has no particular or consistent stance; indeed, as the editors put it, the assembled essays "employ a variety of critical methodologies and take up sometimes opposing ideological positions, (as they) engage with the vexed status of Hamlet in an intersecting fashion". What they have in common is "an urge to contextualise Hamlet in terms of the plurality of discourses characteristic of the English Renaissance, and contemporary changes in critical practice that have overtaken literary and cultural studies . . . . The overriding concern of this collection is to return to perennial questions about Hamlet rather than attempting to provide comprehensive answers".

"Perennial questions" range from sources and verbal allusions (scholarly notes from Alastair Fowler and John Manning) to more substantial rereadings in the light of contemporary feminist/cultural materialist/new historicist/psychoanalytic theory. If the contributors share anything it is a self-consciousness about the cultural status of Hamlet as a text which has been endlessly reproduced, restaged, reinterpreted and rewritten. I found the essays on the "appropriation" of the play by later writers and national traditions among the most valuable; these include Martin Wiggins on 18th-century commentators, Christina Britzolakis on T. S. Eliot and James Joyce, Kate Chedgzoy on Angela Carter, and Michal Kobialka and Heiner O. Zimmermann on Hamlet in Poland and Germany respectively. Chedgzoy discusses the feminisation of Hamlet in the 19th century, and Kay Stanton and Alison Findlay also manage to find new things to say about gender issues, the former exploring the notion of the whore, and the latter the notion of madness, drawing on the extraordinary first-hand account of a mental breakdown written by Dionys Fitzherbet in the early 17th century which was recently rediscovered by Katharine Hodgkin.

"The Hamlet Collection" is, for those of us working on the play, both a daunting and an exhilarating prospect. Is Hamlet fighting back and will the current critical dominance of King Lear prove to be short-lived? This volume offers proof that the melancholy Dane still has considerable mileage in him.

Ann Thompson, professor of English, Roehampton Institute, London, is co-editing Hamlet with Neil Taylor for the Arden Shakespeare (third series), of which she is also a general editor.

New Essays on Hamlet

Editor - Mark Thornton Burnett and John Manning
ISBN - 0 404 62311 5
Publisher - AMS Press
Price - $52.00
Pages - 328

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