Off stage remarks

February 1, 2018

Peter J. Smith tells us that he has seen Hamlet 40 times and that he does not like my book Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness (“More twists than a pretzel”, Books, 25 January). This is his right. Likewise, he is free to muster all the arguments he can in defence of the reflexive pieties through which the play is generally performed and read. The fact remains that his systematic misrepresentation of my book is a disgrace.

One example will have to suffice. Smith asserts that my Hamlet regards the theatre with “disdain”, before concluding that “it is neither Hamlet nor Shakespeare who is uninterested in theatre; it is Lewis”. Pass over in silence Smith’s elision of “disdain” and “uninterest”. What I actually write is that Hamlet’s dramatic vision is “a version of pastoral”; that he is an enthusiastic amateur who “allows his self-absorption and social status to insulate himself from, and ultimately to distort his view of, the theatrical world he purports to admire”. From here, I propose that Hamlet strikes a blow at the classically minded parochialism of the university “wits” who questioned Shakespeare’s dramatic credentials; more fundamentally, I suggest that Shakespeare uses Hamlet to elaborate a powerfully new model of tragedy able to comprehend a world in which versions of theatricality were the only way to get along.

I suppose we can be grateful that, in the years around 1600, the book-reviewing racket had not yet begun.

Rhodri Lewis
St Hugh’s College

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