A melancholy Dane still fascinates us

Literary criticism | Looking for Hamlet, by Marvin W. Hunt, Palgrave Macmillan, $27.95, 256 pages

In the decade following the premiere of Shakespeare's most famous play, there was, Marvin Hunt tells us in his engaging new book "Looking for Hamlet," a "remarkable increase of male babies named 'Hamlet.'" Enthusiasm for the Melancholy Dane never really went away.

Anecdotes abound. At one 18th-century performance, someone observed that the audience knew the famous "To be or not to be" speech as well as the Lord's Prayer. In 19th-century Russia, Dostoevsky's encounter with the play, Hunt writes, threatened to "tear his soul to pieces." The twin giants of modernist literature, Eliot and Joyce, both explicitly stepped out of Hamlet's long shadow. Artists in communist Europe interpreted the play as a kind of regime critique. Indeed, notes Hunt, who teaches at N.C. State, until recently almost every college graduate in America would have been assigned to read this pivotal work. Looking for Hamlet, in other words, we don't have far to seek. As fans of the old TV show "Happy Days" might recall, even the Fonz took him on.

But if the figure of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, is so familiar and enduring, it is not because the plot is riveting (Shakespeare borrowed most of it anyway), but because, Hunt argues, in the character of Hamlet something like modern consciousness is being born. This is close to Harold Bloom's bold claim that Shakespeare had invented what we moderns mean by being human. But if Hunt makes his case more modestly than Bloom, both writers claim something startling: this literary character, in the space of 1,500 spoken lines, somehow heralds who we are. As Hunt summarizes nicely, Hamlet "becomes a man working, as it were, from within, motivated as much by the dictates of his own inner reality as by his father's external, objective call for revenge. As we enter the fifth act, Hamlet is a man fulfilling his own rather than someone else's destiny."

How uncontroversial this seems to us now. Trust your instincts. Follow your heart. Be yourself. How distant the world seems in which honor and duty, hierarchy and order, have privilege over some private, inner sense of things. If Hunt is right, Hamlet strides over that gap, showing us what it would be to prioritize interiority, to wonder not what it is to be human, but what is to be this human, this I. From the very first scene, Hamlet rejects the mechanics of customary grief in favor of something, as his mother says, "particular" to him. The play is an unfolding of his oversized particularity.

But in a summary like the one I've offered here, Hamlet can seem more Emersonian than Shakespearean. Hunt's book complicates this portrait by exploring the mystery, the impenetrability of the character, as well as the vagaries of interpreting the text.

The difficulties of reading (or staging) "Hamlet" begin with manuscript issues. The plot itself -- a young prince avenging the murder of his father by his uncle -- is an old Danish tale. Two important revisions of the story were popular in Shakespeare's time, including one, probably by Thomas Kyd, that was the immediate ancestor of Shakespeare's own play. This so-called "Ur-Hamlet," however, doesn't exist in manuscript form. The lost "Hamlet" constitutes, Hunt notes, "perhaps the most painful absence in literature." His chapter on the texts of "Hamlet" also outlines the divergent early manuscripts of Shakespeare's play and shows how the "Hamlet" we all think of as "the play" is a composite of these early versions.

As complex as the textual issues, however, are the shifting traditions of interpreting "Hamlet." Hunt gives us a broad overview of the trends. We learn that Enlightenment commentators, for example, found the play indecorous and loose, "hugely flawed," that Romantics like Coleridge and Goethe sealed the image of the prince as indecisive and idealistic, almost frail with hesitation -- indeed, feminized -- and that modern psychological theories can find the symptoms of bipolar illness in this "unhinged" mind. Hunt also guides us through more recent postmodern studies of the play, and, via a personal account of an academic controversy that turned political, reminds us how central Shakespeare could be in the "culture wars" of the late 1980s. "Those heady days," he notes, "demanded that you take a side." To spoil the ending: "Hamlet" somehow survived.

"Looking for Hamlet" is at its best in a chapter on fathers and sons. Here, Hunt reminds us that Shakespeare's only son, Hamnet, died at the age of 11, a few years before the composition of the play. We are left to speculate on how his death affected the famously inscrutable father, but surely it's noteworthy that Shakespeare himself is said to have played the role of Hamlet's father on the stage. Rooted in a tradition of heroic literature, the play is nonetheless relentlessly intimate with death. If mortality is the ultimate mirror of our nature, as "Hamlet" seems to say, consciousness -- interiority -- is our unafraid gaze. In this vein, Hunt is drawn to meditate on the famous graveyard scene, in which the prince, fresh from exile, holds up the skull of "poor Yorick," a scene that seems, in a play with so much borrowed plot, to be Shakespeare's own. And though Voltaire, proving that even great minds are capable of colossal misjudgment, dismisses the whole business with Yorick as a "ridiculous incident," Hunt rightly finds it "the supreme thematic moment in the play."

What makes this new book so compelling in the end is that for Hunt "Hamlet" is not a problem to be solved but a force to be reckoned with. This is a broadly academic work, but to borrow Hamlet's own words, there is, thankfully, "blood" here -- passion, intensity, investment -- as well as abundant good judgment.