Hamlet is the father of modern consciousness. I know how grandiose that sounds. Nevertheless, I agree with Bloom when he asserts the same. I also agree with too many of the traditional notions of Shakespeare’s supremacy, which does have something to do with his existence preceeding any essence the resenters of the Canon try to assert. Social Energies did not write Hamlet. Detractors from the Canon still cannot explain why these social energies coalesced in Shakespeare and not a cobbler’s son or one of Elizabeth’s courtiers.
Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy represents a hallmark moment in the birth of the modern. It is in this soliloquy we are presented most starkly with the fact of a character overhearing himself think. Before Shakespeare, and even contemporaneously with Shakespeare, characters did not overhear themselves. Therefore, self-consciousness was born in Shakespeare’s dramas, and we are given a glorious model to imitate, yes imitatio de Shakespeare. There are literary Gods and that’s self-evident to me.
We are all Hamlet’s kin. Hamlet my brother is my father, I have said. The world is incestuous to start. Certainly we are lately less than kind to the father of Hamlet, not the Ghost King, if I can borrow from Cervantes for Shakespeare; the child of his brain. Cervantes alluded to Quioxte and Panza as the children of his brain. What about Shakespeare’s brain, his mind, his imagination–what Hamlet reveals to us who read the play, or those of us who see the drama performed, is mind. Perhaps this mind that Hamlet reveals was not as distinct from soul then as we might want to believe today–the French, however, use one word for both soul and mind. I’ve noted in other essays and/or poems that soul and mind are a duality for the French; they are a dichotomy for us. For Hamlet and thus for Shakespeare, perhaps, and maybe for most Elizabethans, soul and mind were also a duality as they seem to be for anyone who thinks in the French language. All of us are marching to the drum-beat of one secular dogma after another and another, each against the existence of soul. These dogmas we enforce intellectually and emotionally, through our most dominant surrogate parent, the media.
We step in time to the above drum beats; we reject the soul in favor of a mind that anatomists, biologists, medical doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists can no more locate than theologians could the soul, or can today. Neither one’s non-locatbleness astonishes me or causes me to lose faith in either one, and both the theologian and the psychologist must have faith for one of the targets of their inquiries. But then I quibble you might say. In Shakespeare’s time it was less likely that any notion of mind would be separate from soul, but I am not here to discuss the dichotomy of the two, or their duality. French has one word for both mind and soul; the French maintain duality where we insist on dichotomy.
Hamlet, though, in overhearing himself, for the first time in human literature, itself an in-scape of enormous dimension, verges on madness. What Joan of Lorraine could not discern was that the Arc-Angel Michael was within. Hamlet doesn’t have Joan’s facilities with Angels or with God, although he still believes, evidenced by not taking the opportunity to kill Claudius while the adulterous murderer kneels in confession or prayer. Shakespeare develops complexity by layering Hamlet’s interiority. One could read Hamlet the play intertextually with Sophocles’s Electra, but the kind of interiority Shakespeare develops along with his characters’ self-consciousness was handled by Sophocles exteriorly in two characters, Electra and Orestes. Hamlet is virtually both of them. But what of this madness. Self-consciousness is a kind of madness or can lead to it. Electra and Orestes do not suffer as Hamlet dies; each is self-contained, singularly so. Put Orestes and Electra in one mind, let live with one soul and see what happens. There is still something stunted though in this singularity of mind. We are supposed to understand Greek Tragedy differently than we do tragedy in our post Shakespearean world. The Greek stage is not yet as distant from its ritual beginnings in the dithyramb.
What I must understand is that both verisimilitude and ficti0nal truth and the validity of both in a wider assessment of truth and a deeper understanding of Truth, both functioning in literature as a branch of knowledge, therefore all things literary including criticism are forms of epistemology.