Brilliant stage craftsman though he was, there is evidence in the Sonnets to suggest that, paradoxically, Shakespeare disliked, even despised, his profession as actor and playwright. If we do not discount the presence of biographical elements in the Sonnets, then corroborative evidence--especially from Hamlet--might help to explain why the three tragedies written after Hamlet are so different from Hamlet. Evidence from the Sonnets of Shakespeare's distaste for his profession has, of course, been noted in Shakespearean criticism but, as far as I am aware, the presence of such an attitude in Hamlet has never been suggested. I propose to argue that while Hamlet itself is unquestionably an outstanding theatrical success, the play nevertheless encapsulates the conflict within the author that I have outlined above, and marks the turning point from whence the subsequent tragedies take a different direction from that toward which Hamlet had pointed.
It is ironic that despite Hamlet's advice to the players to exercise restraint, his role through the ages has been rendered with an excess of emotion, which his speeches would seem to demand--"Angels and ministers of grace defend us!"; "O all you host of heaven!" ;"For Hecuba! What's Hecuba to him, or he to her?"; "Look here upon this picture and on this"--giving rise to the derogatory term "hamming." It is almost as though Shakespeare created a paradox here, investing his most thoughtful and intellectual creation with the potential to afford the ham actor an unlimited scope for histrionics, more so than with any other character in the canon. I shall argue that this intriguing contradiction is a vignette of the larger contradiction that this paper seeks to put forward and develop. (1)
Though well known, Sonnets 110 and 111, being central to my argument, require a fresh look. In the former, Shakespeare laments his putting on of various stage identities as actor:
Alas, 'tis tree, I have gone here and there, And made myself a morley to the view,
Gor'd mine own thoughts, sold cheap what is most dear ... (1-3) resulting in the obliteration of his own identity, and in the latter sonnet he enlarges on the subject, deploring his creation as playwright of the many masks that have concealed his real self in the eyes of the public:
Oh, for my sake do you with Fortune chide The guilty goddess of my harmful deeds, That did not better for my life provide Than public means which public rammers breeds. And almost thence my nature is subdued To what it works in, like the dyer's hand. (1-6)
As will be recalled, in Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, when Sybil who acts Juliet realises that Dorian has fallen in love with her, the quality of her acting becomes abyssmally bad to the chagrin of Dorian and the exasperation of Lord Henry. Backstage, after the play is over, when Dorian remonstrates with her, this is her explanation:
Dorian, Dorian, she cried, before I knew you, acting was the one reality of my life. It was only in the theatre that I lived, I thought that it was all true. I was Rosalind one night, and Portia the other. The joy of Beatrice was my joy, and the sorrows of Cordelia were mine also.... I knew nothing but shadows, and I thought them real. You came--oh, my beautiful love!-and you freed my soul from prison. You taught me what reality really is. To-night, for the first time I saw through the hollowness, the sham, the silliness of the empty pageant in which I had always played.... (2)
I have quoted from Dorian Gray at some length because I think Sybil's experience is somewhat similar to what Shakespeare expressed in the sonnets whose writing almost, if not entirely, coincided with the period during which he was writing Hamlet. The Prince, disgusted by the curtailing of a decent mourning period for his dead father, appears in court clad in black, an alien amidst the gaiety of Claudius's first public appearance as king. Hamlet is onstage, as it were, the cynosure of all eyes, yet to his mother he repudiates his actor-like stance and stresses an inner identity that the mask only poorly represents:
Seems, Madam! Nay, it is. I know not "seems." 'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good Mother, Nor customary suits of solemn black, Nor windy suspiration of forced breath-- No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, Nor the dejected havior of the visage, Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief-- That can denote me truly. These indeed seem, For they are actions that a man might play. But I have that within which passeth show, These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (1.2.76-86)
Rejecting "the suits of woe" which he has nevertheless himself donned, Hamlet is in the conflicting position of both endorsing and dismissing "play" simultaneously, a contradiction that I see in Shakespeare's own objectively professional life, on the one hand, and his subjectively inner life, on the other hand, paralleling Hamlet's own ambivalent situation. (3) As has been astutely noted, Shakespeare's "new theatre ... tends always to deconstruct itself." (4)
At this point I'd like to state that I make a distinction between Shakespeare's "inner life" as pertaining to his personal emotions and feelings, and his "inner life" as pertaining to his attitude toward his public profession as man of the theatre. Not long ago the former was sensitively explored by Richard P. Wheeler, who detects in the death of the dramatist's eleven-year- old son Hamnet, the twin brother of Judith, an echo of this loss and its imaginative recovery through his art in the magical re-onion of Viola and Sebastian, her 'dead' twin brother, toward the close of Twelfth Night (5.1.230-33, 242-48). (5) And yet more recently Stephen Greenblatt has suggested that the truncated funeral rites accompanying Ophelia's burial (5.1.215-31) could be a reflection of what Shakespeare himself saw, standing by the grave of his son in 1596, by which time the Reformation had long since suppressed the old Catholic practices "of candies burning night and day, crosses everywhere, bells tolling constantly ... neighbors visiting the corpse and saying over it a Pater Noster or a De Profundis." (6) The latter "inner life," however, insofar as the dramatist's attitude to his profession is concerned, as far as I know, has not been examined, especially with reference to Hamlet's detailed instructions to the players on their acting styles, and to Shakespeare having written, after Hamlet, three great tragedies that are markedly different in tone from Hamlet.
All of the succession of great tragic figures who come after Hamlet-Othello, Macbeth, Antony, Cleopatra, Lear, Timon, Coriolanus--are, compared to him, simple-minded, non-intellectnal, non-complex characters. Shakespeare never repeats a Hamlet. It would be superfluous, nay, tedious, to labor the point by citing similar opinions from the vast body of critical writing on this theme; hence I will offer only one example expressed recently by a medico-legal expert who is not a professional Shakespearean critic, Dr. Alan Stone, Professor of Law and Psychiatry at Harvard Law School and Harvard Medical School and former President of the American Psychiatric Association who, as a prosecution witness at "The Trial of Hamlet," while refuting the plea of insanity at the time of the killing of Polonius, said this in reply to a question from the defence: "I can tell you, in all my experience, I have never seen a more brilliant, more profound mind than Prince Hamlet's in any person I have had the experience of talking to or evaluating." (7)
That the character of Hamlet comes closest to Shakespeare's own personality has, of course, been a truism of Shakespearean biographical criticism over the past three hundred years. Speculative though such a view is, the circumstantial evidence seems overwhelming. Hamlet is the longest of all of Shakespeare's plays, obviously far exceeding the acting time of plays during his age and, as numerous critics have pointed out, it must have been intended by Shakespeare to be read, not seen, in its entirety. (8) As GIL Hibbard has perceptively observed, "The very length of the tragedy [Q2], even in the Folio version, almost invites one to speculate that Shakespeare composed it at the compulsive urging of his daimon, for his own satisfaction.... It is almost as though the creative impulse refuses, for once, to heed the practical limitations and demands of the theatre." (9) And Y.S. Bains points out that "there are bits and pieces of evidence to confirm that Shakespeare had worked on Hamlet for more than ten years from the late 1580s to about 1603. Even after the appearance of the Second Quarto, he altered the text slightly for the Folio." (10)
The first acting version of the play, Q1 (1603), which Gabriel Harvey may have seen in 1598, is less than half the length of Q2 (1604-05) which was, according to the …