University of Northern Iowa Dept. of English Language and Literature student writing award of distinction for critical essay, 2008
Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616--Criticism and interpretation; Shakespeare, William, 1564-1616. Hamlet; Objectivity;
Critical interpretations of Hamlet are largely dependent upon the cultural zeitgeist that provides the cognitive paradigm through which critics formulate their ideas. The zeitgeist also influences which text of Hamlet to consider, since no single authoritative manuscript of the play exists. Critics must also consider Hamlet beyond a simple textual reading, since the competing documents of Q1, Q2 and F1—among later additions—only serve as the basis for theatrical representations. The inherent fluidity of performance is apparent to anyone who has ever been to the theater, even a modern one. Actors embodying characters on stage in front of an audience make decisions about how to deliver their lines and are both coached and critiqued by other actors and by various third parties, often directors. This interpretative license eliminates the possibility of any static, ahistorical, "accurate" representation of Hamlet. Such a performance would need to occur outside of time and space, with archetypal actors possessing the attributes of the characters only Shakespeare himself would have declared the most suitable for his players. That Shakespeare recognized the fluid aspects of drama is apparent by the opening line of Hamlet, which is a question proposed by the sentinel Barnardo: "Who’s there?" (I.i.1). Francisco, instead of simply responding with his name and rank, instead seeks in turn: "Nay. Answer me. Stand and unfold yourself" (I.i.2). Indeed, the most actively pursued criticisms of Hamlet stem from attempts to unfold, to discover the true nature of the play and its enigmatic Prince. Such quixotic tasks are, however, exercises in futility. Analyses of Hamlet, either of specific documents or of theatrical performance, are inherently subjective and therefore no such criticism can ever be definitively correct.
Department of English Language and Literature
©2008 Josh Mahoney
Mahoney, Josh, ""Stand and unfold yourself": The subjectivity of interpretation in Hamlet" (2008). Student Writing Awards. 2.