Hamlet Before Romanticism

Leithart | 4/17/2018 | Staff
elio25 (Posted by) Level 3
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Shakespeare’s Hamlet is indisputably one of the most important dramatic works in the history of Western literature. It has been staged countless times, filmed often, and commented upon too often to recount. Unlike many other dramatic works, Hamlet has not been the province of critics alone, but has been an important source for reflection and analysis among psychologists and philosophers as well.

Influence and influenced are difficult to disentangle here. As Margreta de Grazia points out, Coleridge coined the term “psycho-analytic” in the context of analyzing dramatic characters. Did Freud then interpret Hamlet psychoanalytically, or did Hamlet force psychoanalysis on Freud?

Play - Hero - Play - Fashion - Condition

Since 1800, the play, and perhaps even more the hero of the play, has, when interpreted in a particular fashion, become emblematic of the modern condition, whether that is interpreted in Romantic, Freudian, Nietzschean, Hegelian, or other fashion. The focal question in many of these analyses has been the question of Hamlet’s delay.

Hamlet has not always been so highly regarded as it is today. Abraham Wright, writing in the 1630s, called it “an indifferent play, the lines but mean.” And Hamlet has not always been interpreted as it has been since the Romantic turn – Schlegel and Goethe in Germany, Coleridge in England.

Hamlet - Character - Samuel - Johnson - Objections

Prior to 1800, it appears that Hamlet was not considered problematic character. Samuel Johnson’s objections to the play have little to do with Hamlet’s melancholy or his intellectualism. Rather, the objections have to do with plotting and probabilities and poetic justice.

“The action,” Johnson wrote, “is indeed for the most part in continual progression, but there are some scenes which neither forward nor retard it. Of the feigned madness of Hamlet there appears no adequate cause, for he does nothing which he might not have done with the reputation of sanity. He plays the madman most, when he treats Ophelia...
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