137. (William Shakespeare)

The recent National Theatre production of Hamlet, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, opens  in Hamlet’s bedroom, where the prince sits, playing old records to ease his mourning. The night-watch on the ramparts has been displaced to a later scene.

The decision is bold to say the least (recall T.S. Eliot praising the opening lines, finding in their simplicity a flowering of Shakespeare’s full maturity); it is not, however, unfounded. What it is founded upon is an awareness that Hamlet the play is, as much as any of the characters in it, of two minds; what’s more, it may be that the characters in it, Hamlet certainly, shares the play’s ambivalence.

That ambivalence is over the center of the play: the household, or the “oikos.” The Greek word is helpful because it recalls Greek tragedy, which, John Jones long ago and Simon Goldhill more recently have reminded us, is mis-read if the individual character is isolated as the essential unit of plot and action. Here is Goldhill on the Greek:

Oikos is a term, like polis, that defies translation. It implies both the physical house, the idea of home, the household members (both alive and dead, slave and free)…

And here is John Jones:

Life is fostered and transmitted by the oikos (the oikos contains the individual because it sustains him–not because of any social doctrine to that effect), so there can be no thought of sealing oneself off from whatever flows suspended in life’s stream.

Granted, the household of Hamlet, the house of the royal family of Denmark, is not the oikos of Greek tragedy; but it is not entirely dissimilar when we continue that Hamlet (like Hamlet) is tormented by a range of problems that cut through those Greek tragedies that are most focused on the integrity and fate of households: the revenge of a father by a son (Oresteia), the regulation of proper sexual relations and incest (Oedipus Rex), and even, after Ophelia kills herself, the rules for proper burial (Antigone); all of these are, in Shakespeare’s play, matters essential to the state of the household, which is in turn, like the households of Greek tragedy, set at odds with political duties. The fate of the nation lingers in the background of the play, with the recurrent suggestion that the sins of the household will fall on the Danish nation (standing in for the polis)–like the Oresteia, the play opens along the watchtower.

I am suggesting that Greek Tragedy be used to make better sense of one of the horns of Hamlet’s dilemma: his allegiance to his house, and his sense of his house as an entity.  He is in a similar position to Orestes; so much so that Jones deploy’s Shakespeare’s text as an occasional foil: No murdered father’s ghost appears in the Libation-Bearers, to speak and be seen, to cry Revenge, lie old Hamlet. But Agamemnon’s spirit is believed to haunt his tomb, and Orestes and Electra both pray to it, asking for help and intensifying the “common hared” which is as yet their only weapon.

Shakespeare would not have known Aeschylus or any Greek tragedians in the original–though he may have read Euripides in Latin translation, Colin Burrow speculates. More powerfully, Burrow makes the case that Shakespeare may have found much of the power of Greek tragedy through North’s Plutarch, which we know he read carefully:

Shakespeare almost certainly never read Sophocles or Euripides (let alone the much more difficult Aeschylus) in Greek, and yet he managed to write tragedies which invite comparison with those authors. He did so despite the limitations of his classical knowledge, and perhaps in part because of them. He read Plutarch in North’s translation rather than reading Sophocles in Greek. This meant that he read (as the last chapter showed) a direct, clear statement about he relationship between divine promptings and human actions rather than plays in which complex thoughts about the interrelationship between human and divine agency were buried implicitly within a drama.  

Burrow may not grant enough to Shakespeare’s acuity as a reader–but granting that he would have been working through the foreign Greek, it is plausible that North provided readier access to the bones and muscles of the tragedies. I not, consequently, take it as too much of a reach to think of Hamlet’s dilemma, and Hamlet’s dilemma, as a dilemma of the Oikos.

Ironically, John Jones, righting a wrong grasp on Greek tragedy and on Aristotle’s theories of tragedy, sets some of the blame at the feet of the Danish prince (and the Romantic Germans who read him as a modern):

The truth is, they [Aristotle’s interpreters] are unable to to ask themselves whether Aristotle means what he says; they are prevented by an almost invulnerable habit of mind which discredits the situation autonomy of his “change of fortune”, forces a kind of solitary who is supposed to stand at the centre of the stage and of attention, like Hamlet.

The problem is not only on the level of theory: for Jones, critics fail to take hold of Orestes:

…the modern critical sensibility grasping at a Hamletish indecision finds itself empty-handed. We have to direct outward and institutionalize the horror and disgust and contempt of Shakespeare’s “Almost as bad, good mother, As kill a king and marry with his brother” in order to understand where Aeschylus is laying his finger in “What! Kill my father and then share my house?”

And yet, Jones himself, in granting the centrality of Hamlet’s “omnipresent consciousness” to his drama, may be ignoring the extent to which that consciousness is severed from realizing itself in clear action in part because the sphere of that action, both the play and the society in which Hamlet lives, is colored by an ethos of the oikos to which that consciousness is foreign.

But if it is foreign to that sphere, is it enough to distinguish it by the divide of modern individualism v. old Greek collectivity?

Here is where I think it is helpful to consider the other horn of Hamlet’s dilemma–his inner life’s misalignment with the possibilities of action–not in terms of Hamlet as an individual, but in terms of Hamlet as a different social product. Greek tragedies do not lack individuals; the individuals, though, cannot be understood apart from their households; individuals can never be understood apart from a social context; it does not do to think of Hamlet as a man alone, when that “solitude” and depth of consciousness is itself a feature of a particular social life. Hamlet’s dilemma is not of the individual v. the household; it is of one conception of the household against another conception of the household. The entire play is propelled, and strained, by the same conflict.

That other sort household, moreover, is the one that the Cumberbatch production at the National Theater emphasizes, from that opening scene of Hamlet sitting alone in his bedroom; it too is present in the play, and it would be more accurate to describe Hamlet’s inward conflicts as an internalization of the two social orders that the play accommodates. It is the house of Ibsen, the house of the bourgeois (coincidentally Scandinavian) family, the son of which returns from studies for a funeral, to discover his mother has remarried; his own relationship with a daughter he breaks off; the climax is a melodramatic loss of life. It is hardly the stuff Ibsen exactly, but the beautiful neurotic jabberings, the intensely private emotional squabbles, the obsession with sexual purity and even family propriety…nowhere else does Shakespeare include so much that would go into Ibsen. And despite its being a royal household, one half of the play is also curiously eager to separates itself from the history that its other half invokes: the bourgeois private world cannot make historical waves (this smug sense of its own stability does in that world in Hamlet, and may have been a disaster in European history of the 20th century too). It cannot help, like Hamlet, looking obsessively inward.

Among Shakespeare’s other “major” tragedies, the centers of gravity are distinct and distinctly familial: a husband and wife (Othello), a childless King (Macbeth), a father and daughter (King Lear). Hamlet has been read as being about a father and son, or a son and father; but it is, as MacbethOthello, and even Lear, for all of the angst over the quality of the king’s “household,” are not, also, and most fundamentally about the house; it’s conflict is not only within that house, but between conceptions of it–which can be magnified when we consider their purer extremes, in the Greek tragedy on the one hand and in the modern bourgeois tragedy of Ibsen on the other.

Watching the play in any production I’ve seen, it is impossible to escape the sense that the play does not know quite how it ought to hold together; but what it does not know is what the characters do not know–what it means to be a house.




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