Saturday 10 June 2023

Hamlet, A. C. Bradley, and Kevin Kline

1/ In Shakespearean Tragedy, A. C. Bradley makes an interesting point that Julius Caesar and Hamlet (two early plays in Shakespeare’s Tragic period) may be called tragedies of thought, whereas Othello, King Lear, Anthony and Cleopatra, and Coriolanus may be called tragedies of passion—the main characters have passionate natures and “we may attribute the tragic failure in each of these cases to passion” (Lecture III, 1).

Perhaps that’s why I’ve always been more obsessed with King Lear, Macbeth, and Othello than with Hamlet

But Hamlet is undoubtedly a great play and, on this revisit, I found myself relating a lot more to Hamlet.

“O that this too too solid flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!

Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd

His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on't! ah, fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature 

Possess it merely…” 

(Act 1 scene 2) 

People often say Hamlet is a play in which you find something new, something different each time you reread it—and it certainly feels very different when you yourself are weary of everything. I have lost all my mirth. Man delights not me.

After reading the play the third time, I also read A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy: Lectures on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth, a classic of Shakespearean criticism. If only I had the time and energy to write at length about his analysis of each play! One thing I’d say is that I find myself more in agreement with A. C. Bradley than with G. Wilson Knight regarding the characters: Knight is right for pointing out, in The Wheel of Fire, the coldness and cruelty of Hamlet, which Bradley to some extent downplays, but I think Bradley gets it right for understanding the shock and disillusionment, the pain and weariness in Hamlet. 

“… his habitual feeling is one of disgust at life and everything in it, himself included,—a disgust which varies in intensity, rising at times into a longing for death, sinking often into weary apathy, but is never dispelled for more than brief intervals. Such a state of feeling is inevitably adverse to any kind of decided action; the body is inert, the mind indifferent or worse; its response is, 'it does not matter,' 'it is not worth while,' 'it is no good.' And the action required of Hamlet is very exceptional. It is violent, dangerous, difficult to accomplish perfectly, on one side repulsive to a man of honour and sensitive feeling, on another side involved in a certain mystery (here come in thus, in their subordinate place, various causes of inaction assigned by various theories). These obstacles would not suffice to prevent Hamlet from acting, if his state were normal; and against them there operate, even in his morbid state, healthy and positive feelings, love of his father, loathing of his uncle, desire of revenge, desire to do duty. But the retarding motives acquire an unnatural strength because they have an ally in something far stronger than themselves, the melancholic disgust and apathy; while the healthy motives, emerging with difficulty from the central mass of diseased feeling, rapidly sink back into it and 'lose the name of action.'” (Lecture III, 4) 

I think Bradley has more sympathy for, and therefore more understanding of, Hamlet.

I also think Knight exaggerates the good qualities of Claudius and the warmth of Elsinore. He’s right that Claudius appears to be a good king, and he and Gertrude love each other, but it’s a cold, vile world—a world without warmth, without loyalty, without honour, without trust—a world in which a widow remarries at most wicked speed and others don’t wonder at it, a world in which a father spies on and smears his own son and uses his own daughter as bait, a world in which a courtier spies on his Queen and Prince… Elsinore just appears sunny and happy because others don’t have the sensitivity of Hamlet. 

“The Queen was not a bad-hearted woman, not at all the woman to think little of murder. But she had a soft animal nature, and was very dull and very shallow. She loved to be happy, like a sheep in the sun; and, to do her justice, it pleased her to see others happy, like more sheep in the sun. She never saw that drunkenness is disgusting till Hamlet told her so; and, though she knew that he considered her marriage 'o'er-hasty' (ii. ii. 57), she was untroubled by any shame at the feelings which had led to it. It was pleasant to sit upon her throne and see smiling faces round her, and foolish and unkind in Hamlet to persist in grieving for his father instead of marrying Ophelia and making everything comfortable. She was fond of Ophelia and genuinely attached to her son (though willing to see her lover exclude him from the throne); and, no doubt, she considered equality of rank a mere trifle compared with the claims of love. The belief at the bottom of her heart was that the world is a place constructed simply that people may be happy in it in a good-humoured sensual fashion.” (Lecture IV, 5) 

This passage made me laugh. 

2/ A. C. Bradley makes an interesting point here, about Cordelia and Hamlet:  

“An expressiveness almost inexhaustible gained through paucity of expression; the suggestion of infinite wealth and beauty conveyed by the very refusal to reveal this beauty in expansive speech—this is at once the nature of Cordelia herself and the chief characteristic of Shakespeare's art in representing it. Perhaps it is not fanciful to find a parallel in his drawing of a person very different, Hamlet. It was natural to Hamlet to examine himself minutely, to discuss himself at large, and yet to remain a mystery to himself; and Shakespeare's method of drawing the character answers to it; it is extremely detailed and searching, and yet its effect is to enhance the sense of mystery. The results in the two cases differ correspondingly. No one hesitates to enlarge upon Hamlet, who speaks of himself so much; but to use many words about Cordelia seems to be a kind of impiety.” (Lecture VIII, 5) 

I’ve never thought of it that way. He has a point. 

3/ Last night I watched the 1990 New York Festival production, with Kevin Kline playing Hamlet and directing the play. 

For years, I thought it’s better not to watch Hamlet, not because it wouldn’t work onstage but because the character’s so complex and the play’s so rich in meaning that it would be so hard to get it right—but my friends Himadri and Michael both recommended the Kevin Kline version—and he’s got it right. It’s an excellent production, everyone in it is good, especially Kevin Kline. 

I will be brief. There are two main things I have to say about his performance.

First of all, I think he captures extremely well Hamlet in different moods: weariness, disgust, excitement, rage, hatred, fatalistic acceptance, and so on. His joy, his energy when he meets the players gives us a glimpse of what Hamlet once was, before the death of his father and the disillusionment about his mother.

Secondly, his performance makes me think that perhaps the key thing is the comic touch. Hamlet is volatile, often sardonic and cruel, but he is witty and funny. An unfunny Hamlet wouldn’t work—I had a look at the “Words, words, words” scene in the Laurence Olivier film and it’s so serious, so devoid of humour—Kevin Kline, in contrast, is very funny. Even when he’s being cruel to Ophelia, or mocking and provocative towards Claudius after the death of Polonius, there’s a comic touch in his performance—that’s the way Hamlet is. But his Hamlet can also be terrifying: in the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene, or the “Do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe?” scene, he is terrifying.

I will have to watch other versions, but Kevin Kline comes very close to the Hamlet in my head. 

See: my blog post about G. Wilson Knight on Hamlet


  1. I've always loved Bradley. F.R. Leavis was extremely, nastily personal in his criticism of Bradley, which has always made me dislike Leavis, even when I think he's more right than Bradley (as in his reading of Othello).

    And to be fair to Olivier (whom I revere, perhaps irrationally) he didn't want to play Hamlet in his film - he just wanted to direct. He always said that he wasn't right for the part.

    1. I haven't read Leavis, though I will have to read his essay on Othello.
      Hahaaha so you revere Laurence Olivier? I'm more of a Vivien Leigh fan. I wish I could see her do Shakespeare though.

    2. Have you seen That Hamilton Woman, where Olivier plays Nelson and Leigh plays his mistress, Emma Hamilton? It's as good as old movie get.

    3. I have. They're great together.
      Vivien Leigh's especially good in it.

  2. One observation I've heard made in music is that a jazz performer can play classical, but classical performers cannot necessarily play jazz. A jazz artist is, by necessity, a virtuoso on his or her instrument -- but the player must also have the gift of improvisation, and a deep knowledge of music theory, and able to put all that to use at high speed. By contrast, classical musicians are relatively unversed in improvisation, and they don't necessarily know the harmonic language of jazz, and they're not necessarily accustomed to (or able to) come up with new ideas in real time.

    I think a similar observation can be made about comedians and tragedians. A great comedian can often play great tragedy, but the reverse is not necessarily true. Maybe comedy, like jazz, requires a certain lightness of touch, or a broader skill set. Maybe comedy already includes tragedy. I don't know. Robin Williams comes to mind as a great comedian who could also be very touching. But Kevin Kline is another fantastic comedian who plays perfect tragedy. In his comedy, he is hilarious -- and he's also a very funny Hamlet. But this makes his pathos all the more powerful.

    I also find it interesting that he so often gives Hamlet tears. Hamlet is so often intellectualized, actors can sometimes make you forget what terrible mental pain he is in throughout.

    1. Yeah. Also I think it's a lot easier to create something that makes people cry, than something that makes them laugh.
      I don't understand why you and Himadri are the only people knowing and talking about the Kevin Kline production. It is excellent. I was talking to Himadri the other day about the Andrew Scott production, which he also hadn't seen, and he said:
      "I went through a phase in my teenage years of imagining Hamlet a thug. He certainly behaves deplorably - especially to Ophelia, where his behaviour is unforgivable - but presenting him as such irons out too many complexities. And we don’t feel any sense of loss by the end, which I think we should. But at the same time, presenting him as the “sweet prince” can appear a bit sentimental.

      I think, ideally, we should be reminded of the “sweet prince” that he once had been, and elements if which can still show through. But poisoning is one of the major images of the play. There should be a sense, I think, of Hamlet’s character also being poisoned - partly by circumstances, partly by features inherent in him."
      The sense of loss is important. I think Kevin Kline shows those glimpses, and makes me feel a sense of loss by the end. Andrew Scott's Hamlet is too violent, too dangerous, too bitter, and I don't feel much of a sense of loss when he dies.


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