Friday, June 25, 2010

David Shields on Hamlet, Hamlet on everything else

One piece from David Shields’s Reality Hunger that I wasn’t able to find a place to address in Wednesday's post was this take on Hamlet:
Hamlet, dying, says, "If I had the time, I would tell you all." The entire play is the Hamlet show, functioning as a vehicle for Hamlet to give his opinion on everything and anything, as Nietzsche does in Thus Spoke Zarathustra. The play could easily be broken up into little sections like "Hamlet on Friendship," "Hamlet on Sexual Fidelity," "Hamlet on Suicide," "Hamlet on Grave Diggers," "Hamlet on the Afterlife." Hamlet is, more than anything else, Hamlet taking on a multitude of different topics. (Melville's marginal comment on one of the soliloquies in the play: "Here is forcibly shown the great Montaigneism of Hamlet.") I find myself wanting to ditch the tired old plot altogether and just harness the voice, which is a processing machine, taking input and spitting out perspective--a lens, a distortion effect. Hamlet's very nearly final words: "Had I but the time . . . O, I could tell you." He would keep riffing forever if it weren't for the fact that the plot needs to kill him.
This seems like a perfect demonstration of what Shields doesn't seem to get about fiction: he’s right about what would happen if you were to take the plot out of Hamlet—but he doesn’t realize that the result would be terrible. A Hamlet who riffs forever? Could anyone really want that?

The reason we care to listen to Hamlet isn’t because he’s so brilliant. It’s that his manic flow of thought can’t obscure—in fact, reveals—the pain and confusion he’s grappling with and trying to drown in words. Without the plot, Hamlet would be nothing but an adolescent blowhard. Without the ghost of his father looming over him, he would be merely another, more articulate version of that guy you knew in high school who discovered Nietzsche and Ayn Rand and couldn’t stop raving about them.

It’s the anguish of his loss and his dilemma—reflected in the anguish of Gertrude and Ophelia as they watch him disintegrate—that make us care enough to listen to Hamlet in the first place. It’s because we have such aching sympathy for him that we are interested in what he has to say; only our sympathy allows us to put up with him, and that sympathy is rooted in the events Shields derides.

In a sense, Shields is right about one thing: the plot does need to kill Hamlet. But he's ignoring the fact that here plot--as it so often is--is actually character, and vice versa. The plot needs to kill Hamlet not as a mere device or as a way to shock or surprise; it needs to kill him because that is where the very mania that Shields celebrates is inexorably tending. The plot needs to kill Hamlet because you can’t go on that way—life simply can’t be lived at that pitch and be sustainable. Disaster will come, and we know it in our bones as we watch. That’s why it’s a tragedy, and why it is more powerful and affecting than any “Hamlet on . . . ” could ever hope to be.


  1. I am pleased to say that nobody I was at school with (to my knowledge) discovered Nietzsche or Ayn Rand, but I know what you mean.

  2. Thanks for pointing this out. I have nightmares of a world in which literature is replaced by Shieldesque bullet-pointed lists and short essays. He seems to miss the point that humanity uses story to explain ourself to ourself, and that fiction is as "real" as his proposed "reality."

  3. And as Bloom wrote (I can't possibly paraphrase him correctly), the very tangle of language/mind is how Shakespeare taught people a new way of connecting interior experience to words.

  4. A coworker today talked along not dissimilar lines to your comment, Shelley: he stressed the way that fictional representations allow us to understand statements, be they by Hamlet or anyone else, on multiple, even conflicting levels, which is something that nonfiction has a much harder time doing. Now, to be fair to Shields, the nonfiction he's most interested in does that to some extent--but it does it largely be playing with the question of truth, whereas I'm more interested--and, I think fiction is more interested--in the ways that multivalent readings of statements can bring out questions of intention and knowledge of self and others.