Norman N. Holland
Department of English
University of Florida
P. O. Box 117310
Gainesville FL 32611-7310 U.S.A.
'HAMLET'--MY GREATEST CREATION
by Norman N. Holland
Written at: Center for the Psychological Study of the Arts, State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo, New York 14214
*Presented at the meeting of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, Beverly Hills, California, May 1975.
Published: Journal of the American Academy of Psychoanalysis, 3(4): 419-427. © 1975 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Lightly edited.
You must think, by my title, that I have gone beyond even chutzpah to downright blasphemy. Chutzpah, that would be like the sign I used to pass on the old Yiddish theatre in New York when I was a boy. In big letters, Hamlet. In smaller letters, By William Shakespeare. And in the biggest letters of all, Translated and Improved by Moishe Schwartz. But I'm going even farther than the great Moishe Schwartz. I'm claiming I don't just improve Hamlet, I create it. And I fully expect Shakespeare to hurl down, from whatever Elysium he now inhabits, a sonnet shattering me into fourteen pieces where I stand.
Before he does that, I would like to explain what I mean. We used to say purely and simply that Shakespeare created the tragedy Hamlet. That is, he wrote down certain words which contained certain ideas, characters, themes, and even unconscious fantasies and defense mechanisms. That is what we mean when we say a text has a certain "content"-the text is a container. This is Hamlet as cocktail shaker into which Shakespeare has poured a lovely, cool, exhilarating, and slightly befuddling content.
But if Shakespeare put a certain content into the play, what content did he put in? If he created Hamlet, which Hamlet did he create? In the three and three-quarters centuries since the play was first produced, we have seen at least three very different versions of the hero and therefore of the play. So far as we can tell, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, closest to Shakespeare himself, thought of Hamlet as a young man of great expectation,  promise, and vivacity, a Renaissance prince. The nineteenth century enjoyed Goethe's Hamlet, a willowy, delicate, poetic man incapable of committing the revenge his father demands. And, of course, in our own century we have had Hamlet with an Oedipus complex. It isn't just that each century has had its own Hamlet the Prince and Hamlet the play. If you look at the volumes upon volumes of commentary on this tragedy, you will realize that, finally, each person has his own Hamlet. I find, also, that the Hamlet I am talking about today is different from the Hamlet I wrote about in, say, 1964 or 1966 or 1961. The play changes even for the same person over his lifetime. If Hamlet is a container, it is a magician's cocktail shaker from which one can pour at will martinis, daiquiris, coca-cola, and vanilla milkshakes. The idea of that Hamlet as having a fixed content just won't do.
What then did Shakespeare create? When we use the word "create" in the sense of being creative, we mean at least two related, but different, things. We mean that the creator creates some physical thing: he makes a movie, embodying it in so many yards of film; he composes a quartet which can be recorded on a paper or disc; he writes a play which can be acted or written down. At the same time we imply that he is able to involve other people in what he has created. When other people are given a chance to see his movie, or hear his quartet, or watch his play, they don't turn their backs-they participate in the aesthetic experience made possible by the artist's creation. Think for a moment about the phrase "failure of creativity." We can mean by it that someone simply stops producing. We can mean equally well that he continues to produce, but that it just doesn't click anymore-people don't take to it. Somehow he's lost the knack. That knack is what Freud called the writer's "innermost secret." As he said, "The essential ars poetica lies in the technique of overcoming the feeling of repulsion in all of us which is undoubtedly connected with the barriers that rise between each single ego and the others."
At the Center where I work, we believe we have been able to get at that technique. We have built on Freud's writings on creativity, particularly jokes, on some of the concepts developed by the English object relations theorists, and on the identity theory of Heinz Lichtenstein. We have arrived at four quite detailed principles about the way people make experiences out of the raw materials presented to them by, for example, a writer like Shakespeare. The general principle is, in the most exact terms, identity replicates itself. Or one could use the older psychoanalytic term, character: character creates itself. We use the term identity, however, because we define it quite exactly-as the invariant one can abstract from all the ego choices that make up the life of an individual.
Perception is one of those ego choices. Each of us, as we experience not only plays and movies and novels but all of reality, uses the materials that reality gives us within our own personal style of experiencing. Thus each of us creates our own Hamlet from the words that Shakespeare gives us. We used to ask, "What in the text accounts for its success with readers?" Or, more precisely, "What in the text accounts for its reader's successful responses?" But we now know that that puts the question the wrong way round. What we really need to ask is, "What in the reader's responses accounts for the success of the text?" In other words, Hamlet is not just the words-on-the-page, but, rather, a combination of things in the play with our own ways of assimilating reality. To understand Hamlet, we need to begin by understanding our own reactions to the play.
Hamlet is a huge play, Shakespeare's longest. An uncut performance takes from five to six hours. To tell you my reactions to all of it would take weeks, but I can tell you about my five favorite lines from the thirty-nine hundred or so that make up the tragedy as a whole. They are:
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her?
How all occasions do inform against me
And spur my dull revenge!
What do these lines permit me to do which is so satisfying?
To answer that question, I have to talk not just about the lines, but about me. Let me tell you a few things about myself, things, by the way, that I said in print before I ever became involved with trying to explain my pleasure at these five lines from Hamlet. I have "a passionate desire to know about the insides of things with an equally strong feeling that one is, finally, safer on the outside." The core of my identity involves "preserving a sense of self and securing self-esteem by gaining power over relations between things, in particular, mastering them by knowing or seeing them from outside rather than being actually in the relationships." You can see how being a critic of films and drama has fitted my identity, particularly in the modern mode of formal, linguistic analysis. "I like examining the verbal surface of a text, looking particularly for an `organic unity' in the way the parts all come together."
Now, when I turn back to those five favorite lines, I am puzzled to notice that each of them lacks, rather than has, the tight kind of organic unity I prize. Each of them has a little something unnecessary in it, a kind of padding, if you will. "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" Why not, "O, what a rogue am I!" or, "O, what a peasant slave am I"? It could just as well be, "What's Hecuba to him that he should weep for her?" Or, "What's he to Hecuba that he should weep for her?" But Shakespeare does it both ways. When I read, "How all occasions do inform against me and spur my dull revenge!", the second phrase seems superfluous. It dangles at the end of the sentence which could just as well be simply, "How all occasions do inform against me." Or, "How all occasions spur my dull revenge!" But Shakespeare gives us both. Interestingly, it is just this quality in Shakespeare's writing which his friend, Ben Jonson, singled out as his principal fault.
I remember [said Jonson] the players have often mentioned it as an honor to Shakespeare, that in his writing, whatsoever he penned, he never blotted out line. My answer hath been, "Would he had blotted a thousand!" Which they thought a malevolent speech. I had not told posterity this, but for their ignorance, who choose that circumstance to commend their friend by, where in he most faulted . . . . He flowed with that facility, that sometime it was necessary he should be stopped . . . . Many times he fell into those things, could not escape laughter.
It's amusing that Jonson of all people should complain of this quality in Shakespeare's writing, for Jonson is perhaps the finest example in our literature of an obsessional writer, a man excessively careful about what he would let flow out onto the paper. Another identity creating his own Shakespeare.
Shakespeare was just the opposite of Jonson. Often, he seems to have in excess that quality the Renaissance called copia (copy), a fullness of expression. But he does not simply pad his lines. Rather, the extra words permit subtleties and complexities. Consider the single line, "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" "Rogue" could be a noun, but it could also be an adjective modifying "slave," as "peasant" seems to be. A rogue slave. A peasant slave. By the same token "peasant" could also be either an adjective modifying "slave" or a noun, thereby making "slave" the final noun in a series of three, the final and most terrible of the three: "O, what a rogue and peasant-slave!-am I" Because of the extra phrase, I find myself preconsciously following out alternative possibilities and structures within the line.
Thus, for example, first I imagine the player looking toward Hecuba. I see the queen through his eyes but then on the phrase, "or he to Hecuba," I find myself looking the other way from Hecuba to the player. And then the two possibilities are resolved in the final clause, "that he should weep for her."
The third line introduces two complicated and somewhat inconsistent images. At first it seems as though occasions inform against Hamlet like spies reporting to some superior-his father perhaps. Then the second clause suggests his revenge is like a dull horse that has to be spurred to get into action. One of the images has to do with words or information; the other treats a word, "revenge," as though it were something concrete.
I find that my favorite lines make it possible for me to create and explore several grammatical and semantic possibilities within a single thought. They are, in effect, the opposite of denial. They suggest and even ask me to follow out all kinds of complexities and alternate possibilities. So, even if Shakespeare's individual lines do not let me find the tight, organic unity I seek, they do let me master the insides, as it were, of the sentence by understanding verbal and imagistic complexities. I can stand outside the sentence, so to speak, and explore relations within it.
Further, these alternatives take a recurring form or shape. Consider the line "O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!" It begins with the long vowel O and ends with the long vowel I. The complexities are all in between, as the words "and peasant" bounce off grammatical structure against rhythmical pattern. The same thing happens in the second passage. The sentence begins with the regular foot, "What's Hec-" and then goes into the complexities both in grammar and in sound associated with Hecuba, coming out in the absolutely regular third clause, "That he should weep for her." Just like "And spur my dull revenge!" That sentence, too, begins with the open and regular, "How all" and then becomes involved in the complexities of rhythm and meaning in "occasions" and "inform against."
In short, these sentences begin with a simplicity, move into something full of alternatives and complexities, and come around to a simplicity again. This is, of course, the pattern of the tragedy as a whole. On seeing the ghost, Hamlet resolves purely and simply to set the times right. As you know, we then go into three long and involved acts in which he does anything but. He does not return to his task of revenge until the final scene of the play when he accepts his destiny. "If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all."
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.
Could I not say then that I find in each of these lines the combination of risking and security I enjoy in the tragedy as a whole? They make it possible for me to explore alternatives, but, finally, from their regularity and completion and endstops, I can make a mastery of those alternatives. There is, if not a divinity that shapes their ends, at least a sense for me of regularity and order.
My five favorite lines suggest still another source of my pleasure. All three of these sentences take an external event and make it reflect upon the speaker or, in the Hecuba line, the player whom Hamlet later in this soliloquy will in turn refer to himself. Each one of these sentences creates a situation in which events in the external world acquire their meaning by providing an occasion for an essentially separate and observing Hamlet to reflect upon himself. This is just what Shakespearean plays do for critics like me. But Hamlet does not simply ingest experience. He makes it refer to himself and then from it he creates words, the magnificent speeches that we all admire. Here, too these three sentences exemplify a pattern that runs all through the play. The very first time we see Hamlet, he appears at Claudius' court in his suits of inky black and watches the goings on, scarcely speaking to Claudius at all, replying to his mother only to point to "that within which passes show." Then, when the rest have left the stage, he lets it all out in the magnificent soliloquy, "O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt." Throughout the play he does the same: after the ghost speaks to him, after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to get information out of him, after lie watches the players, after he watches the play within the play, after he sees Fortinbras' army. An event outside him becomes focused on him, and then he turns it into words. Sometimes he gives these words in soliloquy; sometimes he speaks fully to Horatio or his mother. But in all cases the pattern is the same: the whole of external reality, love, statecraft, life and death, heaven and hell, all seemed focused upon Hamlet, and from them all he fashions not revenge, but words.
The greatness of Hamlet is not the plot alone, nor the character, but the way the thousands, or tens of thousands, of details make it possible for me to explore possibilities and yet master them, to escape reality and yet, in a way, master it, too, by turning it into words.
Notice, too, that all three of these favorite sentences are attacks on a person, two on Hamlet himself, one on his surrogate, the actor. They denigrate-I am a rogue and peasant slave. Or they dehumanize-my revenge is a horse; occasions are spies, Hecuba is something to him-what? Yet this killing anger of Hamlet's is turned inward from its real object-his parents. It feels to me as though Hamlet can tolerate his anger toward them better than their anger toward him. They angry at me? No, it is I who am angry at them. Have they left something undone? No, it is I who have left something undone. In effect, by what he does say, Hamlet tells me what he cannot say. My parents are angry at me. My parents are indifferent to me. They value me as a word or a dung.
Thus, Hamlet uses words to build up substitutes for a world of personal relations, particularly the relations among parents and children, and still more particularly between fathers and sons. It is as though, if there were that personal relation, if there were no words, parents. would be violent toward their children or would neglect them. Is this a glimpse at the source of Shakespeare's creativity-a young boy able to substitute words for what he could not tolerate in his relation toward his parents, their violence toward him or their indifference? Perhaps. Perhaps a violence and indifference he imagined as he heard them at night in that doorless bedroom.
At any rate, if words substitute for parental violence or indifference toward a child, then at those points in the play where words are suppressed, violence and parental self-preoccupation should come through. The Ghost's refusing to speak to Horatio and Marcellus, is an example of such an occasion. They "offer it the show of violence." The ghost refuses to tell Hamlet about its purgatory: "I could a tale unfold whose lightest word / Would thy soul, freeze thy young blood, / Make thy two eyes harrow up like stars start from their spheres . . ." (Act I, Scene V). And somehow the very silence is worse than what could be told. When Hamlet swears his comrades to silence, the ghost menaces them from beneath the stage. When Polonius forbids Ophelia to "give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet," he is using her for his own  advancement. Hamlet's breaking off his "To be or riot to be" soliloquy ("Soft you now, / The fair Ophelia") leads to his brutal rejection of her. Claudius's prayers lead only to an indifferent heaven. When Hamlet swears his mother to silence, she asks, "What shall I do?" and he replies in these words: