A Spectator’s Role
Chapter Seven: Hamlet: The Spectator as Detective
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Hamlet: The Spectator as Detective
T.S. Eliot called Hamlet the Mona Lisa of drama (Selected Essays, 124), claiming that Shakespeare had overworked it without achieving a finished artifact, by which he seems to have meant one that neatly matched some formula that only a dogmatist such as a Freudian could rationalize. However, the resulting uncertainty about how any production of such an enigma should evolve might in itself provide an attraction to a spectator, by offering the satisfaction of achieving any interpretation compatible with the work’s fluctuating patterns. Through its challenging of us to share in the hero’s problems we can recognize that the play follows a pattern seen most often in the modern form of the detective story, as W. H. Auden has argued in his essay “The Guilty Vicarage” in The Dyer’s Hand. A crime has been committed and some more or less well-meaning figure feels obliged to identify the criminal, prove guilt, and secure punishment. The pattern is at least as old as the Oedipus of Sophocles, which already involved the ironic twist of the investigator of a regicide discovering that he himself is the murderer he is pursuing.
Hamlet has a similarly tortuous pattern: an intuition that the king, the hero’s father, was murdered by his usurping uncle encourages Hamlet to seek revenge; but he hesitates because the hallucinations reinforcing his intuition do not present sufficient proof of his uncle’s guilt: “I’ll have grounds/ More relative...
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