Review of McGee

McGee, A., The Elizabethan Hamlet. Pp. ix + 211. New Haven and London. Yale University Press, 1987. £14.95. 

Notes and Queries, ccxxxiv, 1989



An introduction explains that the Elizabethans were Christians, for whom revenge and murder were sins against God. So the Senecan revenge-ghosts in Tudor drama are all demonic, as exemplified in Chapter 1. The king of them all, the majesty of buried Denmark, hints that he comes from Purgatory. So he must be not only evil but positively Catholic. Paradoxically, his faith saved him from the Protestant censorship well described in Chapter 2. Other ghosts from Purgatory were allowed to appear in print (e.g. in Tarleton's News, licensed by the Bishop of London in 1590) because that “madde merrye doctrine” was openly mocked. So the ghost in Hamlet must also have been a figure of fun. At the same time it was seriously Satanic. It is first mentioned by an ex-student of Faust's University, Wittenberg; its trap-door and cellarage are Hell; it disappears at cock-crow like an evil spirit; it returns to “sulphurous and tormenting flames”; and so forth. All this, if not entirely novel, is well documented and argued in Chapter 3. It turns Hamlet himself into Satan's willing accomplice, the black-clad Vice of the morality play (Ch. 4). He is thus a moral anti­hero, instantly recognizable as such to his Tudor audiences. Evil becomes his good. Fur­ther chapters expound other topics from the same standpoint; the play and prayer scenes, the last act, and the characters of Ophelia and Laertes. There are analogous appendixes on the flower allusions (Rosencrantz, virgin crants, etc.) and Ophelia's nunnery.

     All readers of Notes and Queries should relish this book, much of which reads like a miscellany of quotations, glosses, and aperçus apt for these pages, thus: “Ophelia may have derived her name from an Italian source, the Arcadia of Sanazzaro, for Montano, a name found in the same piece, is used in Q1 for the later Reynaldo”. This excerpt is also typical in its bland acceptance of unargued presuppositions (e.g. that Q1 was the earliest extant version to be written, and that it was the play licensed by Prebendary Pasfield in 1603) which have been vehemently rejected by modern editors. The most amazing assumption of all is that the so-called “Elizabethan” Hamlet, that is, either Q2 1604-5 or F 1623, ever existed in Elizabethan times, that is, 1558-1603. There is far too much reliance on rhetoric such as “would an Elizabethan audience fail to see” (namely in I.v.98-112), with its collocation of “table” and “commandment”) “a blasphemous parody of God giving the Tables of the Law to Moses?” Truly crucial questions, conversely, are culpably neglected, such as Shakespeare's own well-attested Catholic background, and the authorship of the Ur-Hamlet c. 1589. More might have been made of the supporting evidence, for example the comments of Nashe, Lodge, and Dekker, which all suggest that they in fact found the Hamlet ghost, or its author or actor, rather ridiculous. Much more attention should surely have been paid to the counter­claim, compellingly urged by C. S. Lewis, that the Hamlet ghost, so far from being simply and typically evil, is dramatically different from all the others because of its deliberate ambiguity.

     This book should nevertheless appeal to all those serious Shakespearians who are seeking messages, interpretations, and characters rather than delight, entertainment, and poetry. For the rest of us, in any century and of any persuasion, words and actions in plays cannot embody real people; and the proof that Hamlet essentially portrays evil Catholics and Satanists is just reductionism ad absurdum.