Dmitry's Reviews > Hamlet

Hamlet by William Shakespeare
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Oct 11, 2007

it was amazing
Recommended for: you
Read in January, 1985

Just taking a stab here. Feel free to comment or dismiss.

I'd like to suggest that "Hamlet" was the first work of "high" or "serious" literature, by which I mean the first publically disseminated text written in a common language that was difficult for its contemporary audience (as opposed to, for example, texts like DaVinci's notebooks, written in code, Thomas Acquinas's "Summa Theologica," written in Church Latin, and texts like "The Bible," or "The Iliad" that became difficult over time.)

I think "Hamlet" was difficult the first time it was performed. To show why, I'd like to propose a definition of "literature" as opposed to "genre."

Let me define "genre" first. A genre work is a work that openly and unproblematically acknowledges its influences. Itis easy to read and to market. For example, there are now hundreds of books in the genre of "The DaVinci Code." They do not hide that fact, but put it on the cover. Doing that, they pay back both to the reader, and to Dan Brown: the reader gets the joy of recognition, and the "original" grows in stature.

This open acknowledgement of influence is the defining feature of "genre." A work is "science fiction" if it openly acknowledges the influence of other works of "science fiction"; the same goes for "mystery," "western," and so on. The influence can be lateral, as well as longitudinal. Michael Connelly and Robert Crais are contemporary authors of mysteries; their detectives, Harry Bosch and Elvis Cole live in the same canyon, and nod to each other from their balconies.

Genre is old. Storytellers have always, without any anxiety, used tropes and structures from earlier works. Virgil took ideas from Homer. The author of "The Pearl Manuscript" took imagery from "The Book of Revelation." It's possible that before the invention of printing, the act of copying was so labor intensive, that the notion of plagiarism as transgression did not exist.

In a work of "literature," the author feels anxiety about using other people's stuff, aka "generic conventions." I'm riffing here on Harold Bloom's "Anxiety of Influence." Bloom posits that new works of literature are created when authors willfully, yet subconsciously, misread the works of their predecessors. They don't "feel free" to take, and so what they take becomes transformed by their anxiety.

That anxiety (I may be willfully misreading Bloom) causes the literary work to become alienated from the very "conventions" that instantiate it. And that's precisely why it's difficult to read. As the tropes that should be familiar turn foreign, the anxiety transfers to the reader, and if it's felt acutely enough, the merely alien becomes wholly Other and completely new.

This is what happened with "Hamlet," a revenge play in which Hamlet's anxiety over avenging his father's death mirrors Shakespeare's anxiety over writing a "revenge play." Shakespeare's princ(e)ipal innovation, which created literature, was to focus his energies on the anxiety. The play cracked open, and stuff poured in--philosophy, cosmology, insanity, the human condition, the craft of acting, the fear of death, and so forth--alienating "Hamlet" from the very generic conventions that caused it to be. That alienation was also felt by the audience, and made their experience of "Hamlet" difficult. Even after four hundred years people argue over what "Hamlet" is about, and the one thing everyone agrees on is that it's NOT about what it seems to be about, which is whether Hamlet will kill Claudius.

The difficulty of literature has nothing to do with abstruse language or complicated ideas (which can be present in genre.) The difference is literature alienates the familiar, and genre familiarizes the alien. Literature takes a generically handsome prince, his college buddies, a love interest, a villainous murderer, a castle, and a spooky ghost--familiar generic elements all--and anxiously misreads it all into a hopeless muddle.
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message 1: by brian (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:03PM) (new)

brian   marshall's makes this point:

"under your definition any single trope or convention makes a work derivative or anxiously reactive to genre. when a definition is not precise enough it becomes useless - except if it fits the argument you are putting forward."

yeah. that resonates with me. it seems that you, dmitry, craft an argument/label/category and find ways to fit all within it. as if you have a worldview and struggle to make all fit rather than to take all that you know and see and read and feel and try and craft something out of that.

it seems that in your world, literary essence precedes existence; i tend to see it the other way around.


message 2: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:03PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry What makes something "genre" is not the act of borrowing, (that can't be helped) but the attitude towards it. In a genre work, the borrowing is openly acknowledged, and the reader is invited to take pleasure in recognizing what is being borrowed. For example, almost every science fiction novel that deals with robots assumes Asimov's Three Laws of Robotics. The Author of "The Pearl Manuscript" relies on the reader/listener recognizing imagery from "The Book of Revelation." For me, what defines genre is not the "one thing" or "many things" being borrowed, but the lack of anxiety in both the genre author and the genre reader about the fact.

Brian, in response to your last point: I think literary existence precedes existence. No literary work is crafted ex nihilo. Every literary work has influences. I suggest that the author's and reader's attitude towards those influences makes a real difference in how the work is both created and perceived.

A literary example for Marshall: how about "The New York Trilogy," which is alienated from the tropes and structures of detective stories present within it, "Tristam Shandy" which is alienated from the tropes and structures of the bildungsroman, or "Huck Finn," which is alienated from the tropes and stuctures of "Tom Sawyer"?


message 3: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:04PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry Marshall, I agree with everything you said. Every little bit. But it's not enough for me.

I think a definition of genre, or of literature, that excludes authorial intention or the reader's response is reductionist. I find it impossible to read anything without thinking of the intentions of the writer. Most writers, and I would argue all genre writers, would find a reader who does not care about their intentions quixotic. Shakespeare's intentions are the subject of Shakespeare's sonnets, for example.

There is another problem with your argument: you say that the detective genre can be defined by the presence of detective genre tropes, like, well, "detectives," "guns," "crime," and so on. But that definition presupposes the existence of such a thing as "genre." It can't be the presence of "generic" tropes, because that begs the question. Here's another way of putting my objection: you say that Asimov and Chandler are both genre writers. I agree. But since they write in different genres, and their works therefore do not share any generic conventions, what is it that makes them a category in your mind? That is the question I tried to answer, by defining genre as an attitude of a writer, and the reader, towards the writer's influences. Asimov and Chandler are both genre writers because they have an unproblematic, openly acknowledged relationship to the conventions and tropes that make their work possible.

Also, my definition avoids the dangers of saying things like "there are genre books that can rise to the level of literature," which exhibits "beauty. . .diversity and multileveled pleasures" (which by implication genre works lack.) In my formulation, literature is not "higher" than genre, nor is genre "lower" than literature. I think I have found an answer to what makes literature "difficult" that does not dependent on its being "higher," or "risen." My goal in categorizing literature and genre is to make a distinction without prejudice.

Finally, "Can a writer be alienated from and openly acknowledge his influences at the same time?" No, not at the same time. From one instance to the next, certainly, and that vacillation is what gives rise to the anxiety of influence. It's what makes literature difficult. Look at what happens to "Huck Finn" when Mark Twain tries to steer it back to genre by bringing in Tom Sawyer at the end. (It ruins everything.)


message 4: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:04PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry Calling the literary experience "deeper, more meaningful" is precisely the kind of qualitative distinction I aim to avoid. For me, categorizing literature vs. genre is too important to leave to aesthetic judgements, publishers, or even the "contents" of any individual work or group of works.

I'm happy to disagree with you about the validity or applicability of my proposition. Yet in previous postings, you said much more: that you found it immoral and distasteful. I still don't understand why. Presumption, I think, is an imposition on someone's privacy. By definition, it cannot apply to something that was published. Publication is an invitation by the author, no?

"Tom Sawyer" may not be a genre work. But "Huck Finn," being its sequel, (and marketed as such) is by definition in the "Tom Sawyer" genre, unless someone (the author) tries very, very hard, and ultimately fails, to make it otherwise.

Finally, of course "Hamlet" has been read or seen by a billion different people. Yet if there are no commonalities in our experience, then this whole exercise (this thing we're doing now--"good reads", threads, discussing any books with anyone else) is pointless. You don't think so, do you? And if there is something common to people's experience of "Hamlet" it is this: something is seriously wrong, not only in Denmark, but with the play itself. It is problematic, undefinable and difficult in a way no play with a handsome prince, his girl, his college buddies, a wicked villain and a climactic sword fight can be expected to be. That anxious realization has been pointed to and discussed by literally thousands of commentators for the last four hundred years. Why can't I use it as part of my analysis?

(By the way, I brought up the Sonnets merely as an example of a text that makes no sense whatsoever unless the reader formulates a presumptuous idea of its author.)


message 5: by brian (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:05PM) (new)

brian   great great points marshall. been tempted to jump in but you make all the points i wish to make... only better.

and thanks for clarifying what i meant when i said that to dmitry 'literary essence precedes existence" - his response proved that he misinterpreted what i wrote (that's my fault, dmitry, not yours; my statement was vague) -- what i meant was what marshall wrote in part 2 of the above response. it seems you enter into a narrative, text, work of art etc. with a deliberately preconceived set of ideas. we all do, of course, it's a fact of living in a world surrounded by the stuff... but it seems your obsession with labelling and categorizing and naming might not allow you to discover something from the work itself. rather, it seems to me, you swoop in from above and with an all knowing and penetrating eye make judgment calls that i find very hard to find valid...


message 6: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:05PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry Brian, actually the reverse is true. I don't enter into a narative text having already decided what it is: I need to read the book FIRST, and then decide whether it is genre or literature. Reading the book is the only way to ascertain whether or why it is difficult, and what the author's attitude towards its tropes and structures is. My method demands reading first, then deciding.

Marshall's method doesn't. Marshall, you base your determination on the presence of predefined tropes and conventions. The book's cover and maybe the publisher's blurb is enough for you to decide whether the book is genre. Once you read it, you'll call it "literature" if it's "good" and "rich" enough.

Your aesthetic judgment is good enough for you. Hell, it's good enough for me. If you say something is good, I'll read it. Your aesthetic judgment may even be better than mine.

My aesthetic judgment is not good enough for me. Which is why I'm trying to base my categories on something else.

Thanks for reading and responding.


message 7: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:05PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry Literature is anything that's not about what it's about.

It's beautiful. But is it useful in distinguishing it from genre? People have argued that all science fiction is about the present, as is the Western. Finally, "what it's about" begs the question of the author's intentions, and brings you back to what you're trying to avoid.

In no way did I mean to disparage you personally. Of course you read a book before you judge it. But your method does not require it.

I removed my postings from your "Don DeLillo" thread for two reasons. First, you wrote they were terrible (and the only terrible thing in that thread.) Second, I finally figured out what I was thinking, and found a way to state it more clearly. For that I have you and Tosh and Brian, and others to thank.


message 8: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:05PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry I think we've reached the point of agreement.

What you call "the story. the plot. observable." I call the tropes and trusses, the borrowed conventions that make a literary work possible. They are "observable" because they are recognizable, and they are recognizable because they are familiar--they've been taken from previous works (the works that are influencing this one.)

What you call "what it's REALLY about. . .a judgement based on the text, but not found within it" I call alienation, the sense that the real meaning of something has been alienated from the observable tropes on which the work is built.

I think we define literature the same way, just using different words.

We disagree on why. If I read you correctly, you assert it is the byproduct of a literary author's playfullness, the use and transformation of a myriad tropes and conventions. The resulting work is too complex for a simple correlation between its tropes and meaning.

I assert that the author's anxiety at being influenced causes the alienation, and the playfullness and complexity are attempts to deal with that anxiety.

This seems presumptuous to you, because I claim knowledge of the author's state of mind that I (or Harold Bloom) cannot possibly have.

In my defense, I'd like to suggest that the difficulty and anxiety experienced by the reader in having to form "a judgement based on the text, but not found within it" mirrors the difficulty and anxiety experienced by the author in taking tropes and conventions within the text from outside the text.


message 9: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:05PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry Marshall, I wasn't trying to put words in your mouth; I was trying to find correspondences between your words and mine.

Ultimately, we may have two disparate experiences of literature. For me, reading literature is difficult. For you it's not. And that may be the end of that.

Let me point out a difficulty I have with your argument. In your first paragraph, you say that "recognition" is not necessary, only "observation," and that "familiarity. . .has nothing to do with [it.]" Then later, you say that "signals of. . .intent are observable WITHIN THE TEXT. the literary devices are signifiers."

May I assume that the "literary devices" are what is being "observed" when the text is read?

If I may, then here's my question. If you "observe" a "signifier" without "recognizing" it, how do you know what it's signifiying?

My answer is you can't know. And since any text is made out of signifiers, I don't think you can divorce "observation" from "recognition" (and the "familiarity" recognition implies), and still have some kind of meaningful reading experience.

You have anticipated my objection, and deal with it in your final paragraph, where you say that the process of "recognition", which you have divorced from "observation" takes place unconsciously. If I may unpack your argument, "observation" is "a purely pleasurable and seamless experience," and the "recognition" of what you call "the higher meaning of the text" happens later, when it "blossoms unbidden in my unconscious, only becoming hardened into something I can verbalize upon reflection or in conversation."

Let me put your own word in your mouth: "hardened." Its root "hard" is a synonym not just for "concrete" but also for "difficult."

When I read literature, my experience is not seamless, but is constantly interrupted by that "hardening." In my mind's rocky soil, "various literary devices [do not] blossom unbidden" but have to be effortfully watered and cultivated. For me that process is partly unconscious, and partly conscious. In fact, one of the pleasures AND pains of reading is how it can make me suddenly aware of unconscious processes.

All this happens when I read, as I'm reading, not afterwards "upon reflection or in conversation."

I think you are gifted with an ability to surrender yourself to a text more fully than I. You trust your unconscious processes, (and how they interact with literary devices) and are willing to "harden" the meanings later.

Let me ask you, when you have found a good book difficult for reasons other than unfamiliar language, or other lack of some specific knowledge, (I assume you've had that experience), how was it difficult and why?


message 10: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:06PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry Even if you use the term "congeal" you are still talking talking about a process that takes place in the reader's mind. And since that is a major part of your argument, how can you then turn around and claim that your argument is based on things found exclusively within the text? Especially when you also profess that the process is always at least partly, and often wholly, unconscious?


message 11: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:06PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry Defining something without analysis is what I would consider presumptuous. It presumes that the nature of that something is self-evident.

I may be misreading you again, but it seems you define literature by the presence of literary devices and genre by the presence of genre devices. To me that begs the question.

But of course you mean more than that. In your earlier posts, you further define literature as something "that's not about what it's about," and you say that a hallmark of genre is writers being "playful and inventive" with the signifiers "in a million different ways."

Again, I may be misreading you, but for me, the non-tautological part of your argument relies on the very things you wish to avoid: reader response (because finding what something is "about" implies recognition, not just observation of of signifiers) and writer's intention ("playful", "inventive", etc.)


message 12: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:06PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry Then here's where we disagree:

For you: first you determine whether something is literature or genre by observation, then you analyze it as literature or genre. corollary: "literature" and "genre" are essential categories that exist prior to the reader analyzing the text.

For me: only analysis of a text can categorize it as literature or genre. corollary: "literature" and "genre" are constructed categories that can only be understood after analysis.

If that's what it is, I'm okay with that. We disagree on principle, rather than on reasoning.

Only two things bother me: in your last paragraph, your implication that I should not be "allow[ed]. . .to define Dostoevsky (and several others [I] mentioned) as genre writers," betrays a bias on your part that "literature" is morally or aeshtetically better than "genre."

I disagree with that value judgment.

I also disagree that my theory is "complicated" or "pseudo-intellectual." It's simply this: "Genre works are works that openly acknowledge their borrowings; literary works are works that are alienated from their borrowings."

Do you think my arguments are "pseudo-intellectual?"


message 13: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:06PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry "Subjectivity" and "solipsism" are not the same thing. In fact, one could argue they are opposites. A "solipsist," as someone who denies "the theory of mind", denies other people's subjectivity.

You argument depends on equating "observation" and "objectivity" with "the conscious mind", in opposition to "recognition" and "subjectivity" and "the unconscious." This distinction allows you to categorically reject any normative arguments that appear tainted with the latter.

It is a useful distinction to have. It makes both arguing and reading easier.


message 14: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:06PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry You do so when you assert that there are intrinsically literary devices objectively present in a work of literature for you to observe, and classify it on that basis.

You oppose that to the subjective experience that happens after you read, when the work's meaning "blossoms" in your unconscious.

That distinction allows you to argue that your definition of "literary" is more valid than mine, (because it does not involve your subjective or unconscious experience.)

It is an argument I cannot make for myself.


message 15: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:06PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry "Objectivity bears no relationship to consciousness."

Well, there's my difficulty. When you used "objectivity" before, I assumed you were talking about a state of mind, as in "I'm trying to be objective here."

(Feel free to accuse me of solipsism, but "objectivity" normally means an attribute of the observer, not of objects.)

You say you "draw a distinction between consciousness and external reality." Congratulations. You have intuitively solved a very, very big problem. Traditionally, philosophers have dealt with this issue by posing a third category--"phenomena"--by which they mean our conscious experience of external objects. In essence, they've blurred the boundary that you draw. More recently, other philosophers and cognitive scientists, have questioned the existence of phenomena, but via the radical step of proposing that consciousness itself doesn't exist. Popular and controversial philosopher David Chalmers, proposes a third way: that consciousness has an existence in-and-of-itself apart from reality--it's made out of radically different "stuff. Of all these approaches, his may be closest to your first claim.

Please don't infer from this any rejection on my part of your belief that "objective reality exists without reference to consciousness." I agree.

I'm just not as certain where to draw the line. I therefore include my subjective experience, and other people's subjective experience, when it has been documented.

(Almost nothing in literature is documented better than the "difficulty" of Shakespeare's "Hamlet.")

one last question--to you.

Is writing subjective or objective? How about reading?

If writing is at least in part subjective, how can the resulting text bear no relationship to the subjectivity of the author?

If reading is at least in part subjective, how can I avoid my subjectivity when responding to a text?

If you can answer all those questions purely objectively, you are far ahead of me.


message 16: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:06PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry Subjectivity is a prison.

One of the biggest reasons I read is to experience someone else's subjectivity.

(More: I think books are the best evidence of subjectivities other than one's own.)

For me, your point #2 and point #3 contradict each other. If there is "an immense relationship between the text and the subjectivity of the author" (point #2), then how is it "impossible to know the author's mind"? (point #3). For both those to be true: a. the "relationship" must have left absolutely no discernible traces or effects on the text, or b. the author's "subjectivity" has no relationship to the author's "mind." I think "a" is unlikely and "b" is absurd.

Let me turn this around. What aspect of the text is NOT related to the author's subjectivity?

You claim the author's subjectivity is unknowable. There is an entire school of criticism that claims it doesn't exist. It's called (this word is not to be uttered in polite company, and I'm sorry to bring it up for you [as it probably has almost as many painful associations for you as for me]) deconstruction.

Deconstructionist critics deny not only the author, but any notion of genre. For them, all texts are cultural products: "Don Quixote," "Being and Nothingness," "Principia Mathematica," "The U. S. Constitution," "The SALT II Treaty" and should be read the same way.

I think one necessarily leads to the other. Think of it as a dial, that at one extreme says "the text is created by the author out of nothing," and on the other extreme says, "the text is product of the culture, and the author's subjectivity is negligible."

Now swing the dial all the way to the deconstructionist end: right before it hits their point, when the author's influence is almost, but not quite zero, and the cultural influence is almost but not quite complete, what is left of the author's subjectivity, but his or her attitude towards the culture influencing the text?

It is here that I situate my categorization.

Now as to: "what is so valuable about [my] subjective experience?"

That is something you have to decide for yourself.


message 17: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:07PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry For me, the only way to define "literature" as distinct from "genre" is through critical analysis, because the difference (to me) is neither immediately apparent or intuitive.


message 18: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:07PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry If the author's subjectivity is completely unknowable, how can you make a statement about its "having a relationship to the text?"

If the author's subjectivity is at least somewhat knowable, why can't you draw conclusions about it from a text that it has a relationship with?


message 19: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:07PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry Then THAT's where we disagree. For me, every definition is a conjecture.

(You know all those books and articles titled "Toward a theory of X?" I'm down with that. You probably find it idiotic.)

I agree with you that "you can try and parse out what [the author's attitude:] is, but you can never prove it. . .and reasonable people can disagree about it."

Of course. But that does not mean the author's attitude occupies a privileged position of untouchability. There are all sorts of aspects of the text that people can disagree on, (including the status and use of generic tropes, which you wish to invoke unproblematically) and the author's attitude is one of them.

"Unknowable," "quantifiable," "provable"--all terms that you group together--have distinct meanings. In knowable, for example, something can be "knowable" but not "provable" (Godel's Incompleteness Theorem), "knowable" but not "quantifiable" (pi), or "quantifiable" but not yet "provable" and possible not even "knowable" (the twin prime conjecture.) And if such things exist in math, surely they exist in literature.

Finally, you call an author's relationship to the text the "original" one. And yet, the text also betrays influences older than the author. One could argue that, for example, Raymond Chandler's relationship to Harry Bosch antecedes Michael Connelly's.


message 20: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:07PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry You say, "My definition only requires the presence of tropes and conventions; it does not discuss their status or use. Simply by being there, they determine the work is genre."

But generic tropes are also present in works of literature. Many mystery tropes are present in "The New York Trilogy." All the revenge play tropes are present in "Hamlet."

The presence of the tropes is not sufficient. Which is why you add that extra requirement that a work of literature "is not about what it's about."

(Actually, I said it, or some version of it, and you agreed.)

But you also claim that what a text is "about" is not an objective fact about the text, but something that "blossoms in [your] unconscious" after reading.

You argument that that process is "analysis", not "definition" doesn't persuade me. Certainly that "blossoming" happening unexpectedly might persuade you that a work is literature, just as the absence of "blossoming" might persuade you that it's not.

Maybe your sense of literature "being not about what it's about" is the expectation of "blossoming" occuring at some later date. But surely, the expectation of a subjective experience is not an objective fact about the text.

Which returns to me my problem. I think that just like me, you use the products of subjective experience to define a literary work. But you use "purely objective" criteria to define "genre."

And that's not very helpful, because it treats as apples and oranges texts which may not be objectively different.


message 21: by Dmitry (last edited Aug 25, 2016 01:08PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Dmitry Alright, Doctor. When I read I also hear voices in my head. Is that literary schitzophrenia?


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