On Not Being Able to Write About Hamlet

by Harvey Greenberg

January 1, 2000


This psychoanalyst and film scholar has long fantasied making an innovative contribution to Hamlet studies. Recently, I theorized that what "cured" Hamlet's delaying might have been his sojourn with pirates. Neither critics nor text have suggested this. I had planned to use their silence as a blank screen on which I'd project scenarios of Elizabethan pirate captivity, each matching a major explanation of Hamlet's procrastination. I began drafting but blocked, fearing my theory would be "scooped"--"pirated." Why? A fascination with pirates since childhood; intimidation about inventing scenes that the great Shakespeare omitted; oedipal competitiveness with the critics whose theories--"pirated"--were to anchor the scenarios; paranoid projection of disavowed competitiveness; the grandiosity in offering a "myth of origin" for the sea change, or indeed any of Hamlet/Hamlet's complexities. This "prequel" works through the block and publishes my arguments, forestalling potential pirates.


    In my twin careers as adolescent therapist and film scholar, I have long since relinquished hopes of discovering the cure for pubescent angst, or of formulating some sweeping psychoanalytic theory of cinema. My post-adolescent dreams of glory hover over a different rainbow: winning an event in the annual Las Vegas World Series of Poker, and making a contribution to Hamlet studies.

    The golden bracelet of a World Series poker championship far exceeds my reach. But, several months ago, I stumbled upon a nook of Hamlet that seems to have been scanted by previous scholarship. Now that I am finally in the trenches, I've found my Shakespearean venture is provoking surprising trepidation, hallmarked by the well-rationalized procrastination which inveterately signals the onset of a writing block for me. (Of the attendant fears that I may have already been scooped, more presently.) Whatever other purposes this prequel may serve, it comprises the first step to a true cure--writing the study entire.

     My "find," if indeed such it be, involves Hamlet's sojourn with the pirates who abduct him from the ship that is transporting him from Elsinore to England, after he slays Polonius. Two days into the voyage, Hamlet has winkled out Claudius' letter to the English sovereign ordering his summary execution, and turned it against its bearers--hapless, clueless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Shortly afterwards, a pirate vessel "of very war-like appearance" gives chase to Hamlet's ship. "In the grapple" he boards it; instantly, the pirates swerve away--"so I alone became their prisoner".

     Hamlet describes his capture in a terse letter written to Horatio after the prince has returned to Danish soil. It is not specified that the pair who convey it to Horatio are pirates themselves. They are called "sailors" and given a few perfunctory lines. Hamlet writes that his captors are "thieves of mercy" who "knew what they did": now, "I am to do a good turn for them" (4.6.13-31; my references are to the Signet Edition). Shakespeare discloses nothing more about these merciful thieves. They appear in absentia, occupying only a corner of the action. Yet the play's conclusion certainly turns upon their prisoner's release and safe dispatch back to Denmark, presumably so he can accomplish some undesignated "good turn."

    Shakespeare also does not indicate whether, or in what fashion Hamlet's pirate stay may have worked upon the prince's psyche. His confinement comprises the blankest of screens upon which a host of questions, minor or most profound, may be projected. An initial survey indicates these have gone mysteriously unasked, or are treated slimly in the vast body of Hamlet investigations. To cite just a few:

    Who were Hamlet's anonymous corsairs? Did they snatch him away accidentally or deliberately?

    What were the pirates' intentions? Ransom is not mentioned. Was the "good turn" a pardon for earlier misdeeds, to be granted by Claudius or one of his fellow rulers as a reward for preying upon enemies of Denmark or other Scandinavian states? (Such pardons have existed throughout piratical history).

    How long did Hamlet dwell with his captors? Was he held onboard, or was he sent ashore to a pirate haven in the Baltic or North Sea?

    How was he received by the pirates? How did he perceive and behave towards them? What wracks of chance did he witness, what actions barbarous, chivalrous, or brave was he privy to?

    Surely, the cardinal unaddressed issue raised by the pirate captivity is its possible relationship to the remarkable alteration in Hamlet's character, evident when he reappears on Danish soil at the beginning of Act V. Critics have been struck by, and wrestled with this mysterious "sea change" since the play's first performance. Except for the violent struggle with Laertes at Ophelia's funeral, a lambent tranquility appears to have descended upon the prince's troubled soul. His rage against the impenetrable powers that shape our ends now has given way to a stoic acceptance of whatever destiny awaits him. His "thinking too precisely thinking on th' event" (4.4.41) has dissipated. He is finally prepared to revenge his father's murder, to act, even as he poignantly comprehends that action will very likely cause his end.

    How could Hamlet mature so impressively in so short a time, let alone let alone stabilize his extravagant psychological disequilibrium subsequent to the Ghost's revelations? It has been suggested that an audience of Shakespeare's day, accustomed to temporal discontinuinities and compressions, would have no difficulty accepting that a mellowing of personality ordinarily requiring decades had transpired over the weeks or months Hamlet has been gone from Elsinore--wherever he has been sojourning.

    Mere absence from the court's byzantine intrigue has also been invoked as the chief cause of Hamlet's striking transformation, but that seems insufficient grounds to me. According to another line of scholarship, Hamlet's newly won equanimity develops only after he returns from the aborted voyage to England. It has, for instance, been argued that his serenity attends the acceptance of mortality that develops during the graveyard scene, emerging from a trajectory which includes Hamlet's mordant observations to Horatio about the gravedigger's macabre employment; his banter with the ribald gravedigger; and the trenchant soliloquy over Yorick's skull.

    My investigation proposes to seek out the origins of Hamlet's sea change in that briny element itself, notably in the buccaneering milieu and its impact upon the abducted prince's perturbed spirit. I intend to touch upon Galenic/Elizabethan notions on the salutory effect of sea and sea-air, and describe the piratical practice of Shakespeare's day. I plan then to construct various scenarios of a typical Elizabethan pirate captivity, during which Hamlet's gloom and paralysis of will might be remedied. Each "cure" will correspond, be reponsive to, a theory about Hamlet's afflictions advanced by a prominent Hamlet scholar, past or present.

     To cite one example: Samuel Coleridge famously speculates that Hamlet's elemental pathology consists in a wretched excess of brain over brawn, in "enormous intellectual activity and a consequent proportionate aversion to real action . . . " (p. 37). Immediately before departing from Denmark, Hamlet encounters a troop of Fortinbras' soldiers marching to battle. In the subsequent "rogue and peasant slave" soliloquy, he contrasts Fortinbras' boldness with his own perceived fecklessness. Might the captive Hamlet, consummate role-player, introject the pirates' robust pugnacity, under the added sway of that curious compulsion to identify with the agressor frequently noted in the sufferers of Stockholm syndrome? Could Hamlet then reinvent himself as a bucaneering Fortinbras, perhaps even lead his erstwhile captors--now colleagues--in piratical "enterprises of great pitch and moment," and thus liberate himself from the "sickly cast of thought" (3.1.85-86)?


    Simply writing this precis has succeeded in jump-starting my project--as so often happens when one finally brings oneself to confront a mild phobia head on. A noted psychoanalytic literary/Shakespeare scholar and mentor to whom I've confided my notions also wrought more than he knew by deeming my interest Hamlet's pirates worthwhile. Nevertheless, my disquiet lingers.

    Not surprisingly, the anxiety--like its subject--is overdetermined. I've been an avid pirate enthusiast since reading Treasure Island and viewing swashbucklers like Captain Blood (1935) in childhood. Like many of my friends, I was immensely drawn to the exotic locales of pirate tales; to the dash and swagger, the pure aggressive energy of buccaneering exploits. But most enticing to an obsessive, dutiful thirteen year old being raised by doting, demanding parents in a cloistered suburban milieu, was the pirates' boisterous bold defiance of society's rules; the glory they took in living--and dying--by their own smash-and-grab code.

    As an adult, I've continued to savor the idiosyncratic anarchic elan vital of pirates as purveyed in sagas of the Napoleonic era's "iron men and wooden ships" by authors like C.S. Forester, Alexander Knox, and Dudley Pope. I've become an addict of the undeniable best of class, the late Patrick O'Brian: in the extraordinary cycle of twenty Aubrey-Maturin novels, O'Brian frequently pens vivid descriptions--based on contemporary chronicles--of bloody encounters between Nelson's navy and corsairs of every stripe, from South Seas marauders to the pirates who preyed in northern waters, upon ships like the one in which Hamlet voyaged.

    As a film scholar, I have always endeavored to ground hypotheses about so called pro-filmic events on a solid textual foundation, analogous to the well-reasoned scholarly speculation about events in the Danish court prior to Hamlet. For instance, Shakespeare provides ample clues from which one may easily surmise that Gertrude's affair with Claudius commenced while her husband was alive, that Hamlet has already grasped, however dimly, the incestuous, adulterate rottenness prevailing in the state of Denmark before the curtain rises.

    No such clues, however, are tendered about Hamlet's pirate captivity, so that conjectures on this score essentially must be fabricated out of purest air. Extra-textual sources such as contemporary accounts of Elizabethan piracy are useful in filling in the blanks, but ultimately are no substitute for firm textual evidence.

     Confabulating Hamlet/Hamlet's past seems nervier than constructing a past for Rambo or James Bond, because of my intense admiration/intimidation about Shakespeare which began at the same age I was growing enamored of pirates and piracy. Probing the fiction of Henry James inter alia hasn't been problematic for me (Greenberg 1993). I've always hesitated, though, over writing on Shakespeare, except for a passing analogy drawn in a study of The Maltese Falcon (1943) between Hamlet's disavowed death wishes towards his father, and Sam Spade's unconscious murderous intentions towards his partner Miles Archer, whose wife Spade has been bedding (Greenberg 1975, 73).

     I am hardly the first to assert that Shakespeare's grasp of character and conflict in every sphere of human activity, his consummate facility to create worlds vivid as the reality I inhabit, seem nothing short of godlike. Even in a spirit of respectful inquiry, intrusion upon the ineffable wholeness of Hamlet's domain by inventing action its author never depicted registers at least as presumptuous--and even a bit dangerous in some obscure Promethean fashion.

    My youthful reverence for Shakespeare came to encompass the famous critics, past and present, whose diverse interpretations of Hamlet's irresolute melancholy are to ground my imaginary piratical "solutions" to the sea change. Contemplating august figures like Samuel Coleridge and Samuel Johnson, A. C. Bradley and Harold Bloom, one feels like a pygmy amongst giants (and let us not forget our founding father Freud, either). As a result, I've become preoccupied with accurately reprising their judgements--and have waxed ever more dilatory lest I fail.

    My rumination over scrupulous redaction of the celebrated critical sources has led in turn to an obsessive pursuit of less well known (and less well regarded) opinions. With an almost oneiric inevitablility, I've been drawn into a Shakespearean scholarship dauntingly talmudic in scope; from thence, into related subjects whose highways and byways seem to bifurcate endlessly: the wind and weather of the North or Baltic sea lanes Hamlet's vessel may have navigated; Elizabethan beliefs about spirits and hauntings; the exploits of Sir Frances Drake, so forth. One must cry a halt at some point, but as one agonizes over the potential assailablity of one's research that point threatens to recede into infinity. (The problem is further compounded by that hint of Attention Deficit Disorder I've always suspected in myself.) One experiences at first hand how the courses of even an unpretentious critical venture can turn awry, "and lose the name of action" (3.1.88).

     I must now own up to a conflicting shadow side to these professions of modesty before Shakespeare's genius, and the accomplishments of his critics--regarding which my redactive frenzy takes on the stamp of a reaction-formation. I will not cite chapter and verse of relevant intimate dreams and associations. Suffice to say that these have revealed that a genuine diffidence masks a conflicted competitiveness which I had thought to have worked through years ago, here, competition with scholarly predecessors both quick and dead. The consuming ambition my project has kicked up, with its implicit oedipal overtones, has contributed to its stall--under the rubric that no son really wants to win the battle for supremacy with his father, only to go down fighting. Harold Bloom has written persuasively about the oedipally inflected "anxiety of influence" which dictates a young poet's disavowal of an older poet's vigorous work, and the consequent "swerve" of his own radical innovations. In time, these fruits of youthful rebellion often become canonical themselves, and then rather poignantly constitute the spur for the next generations's anxiety of influence.

    "Don't be so modest, you're not so great," Golda Meier once gibed at a colleague. Even as I avow that my pirate study crucially depends upon the prominent forebears who have plumbed Hamlet's psychological depths, I must acknowlege my anxiety about their influence, articulated with an overweaning fantasy of surpassing their accomplishments--"pirating" these in a spirit of neurotic ruthlessness so that I may score my own critical triumph.

    I may not have unpacked yet another reason for Hamlet's despairing procrastination. But, surely--or so my cutthroat alter ego would like to believe--I've staked the authoritative claim on the site where Hamlet's healing commences--the pirate captivity, nowhere else. From the wider world's perspective, Hamlet scholarship constitutes a small pond. Yet one absurdly persists in yearning to be one of its big frogs.

     Further reflection yields a sobering insight: my vaulting ambition has also been spurred by a Grail-like "myth of origin" of the type David Carroll shrewdly discerns to be a significant underpinning of the psychoanalytic enterprise--in that case, the primal fount of neurotic suffering, whether it resides in oedipal or pre-oedipal conflict, in the sway of Jungian archetypes, and so forth. Such essentialist constructs pale before the convolutions of the psyche and the external world's complexity. At origin, Carroll asserts, there is no origin, only a seductive hope that one can be found.

    As in life, so in art. Act I, Scene I, of Hamlet begins upon the battlements of Elsinore where a sentry, Francisco, is braced by another soldier, Bernardo, as the latter emerges out of the darkness.

Bernardo:  Who's there?
Francisco: Nay, answer me; stand, and unfold yourself.

Ordinarily the sentry's challenge would be given by Francesco to Bernardo, issuing from watchman to intruder. Their reversed exchange contains the first question and paradox of a drama replete with inquiry, fraught with ambiguity, whose hero is arguably the most enigmatic character ever to appear on the stage. Shortly after the play-within-a-play exposes Claudius' guilty conscience, Hamlet defies Rosencranz and Guildenstern's clumsy attempts to probe his purposes:

You would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass . . . . Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me (3.2.365-72).

    Hamlet's provocation of his untrustworthy friends may be construed at another level--as a challenge this most open of Shakespearean texts throws down before the critic about the inherent limits of its interpretation. I submit there will never be a definitive explanation for the sources of Hamlet's melancholy; for the status of his affection for Ophelia; for the nature and causes of the sea-change; and--to the point of this discussion -- for the events of the pirate captivity, and their significance to the drama's tragic, strangely liberating denouement.

    With a bow to Carroll, there can be no original, "onlie begetting" of these major issues (and many minor ones, such as Hamlet's age). There is only the seductive illusion that the sundry paradoxes and obscurities within the drama will someday be tidily resolved, that answers will someday be yielded up, within Hamlet's time or our own, to the knotty questions Shakespeare and his princely stand-in propose about the human condition. Even the certainty of death itself seems to melt away before the undiscovered country from which the Ghost has travelled.

    The uncertainty, indeed the impossibility of conclusive interpretation pervades Hamlet, from particularities of plot to the general issues of being in the world, uncannily informing its construction and intentions as in no other Shakespearean drama. This central insurmountability of explanation, conflated with a tantalizing promise of elucidation which Hamlet/Hamlet holds forth on so many material and philosophical problems, resides at the heart of Shakespeare's high and mysterious art.

    I return to my apprehension that some blissfully unblocked investigator may be busily putting an end to his or her labors even as I am beginning mine. Like Poe's Purloined Letter, Hamlet's pirates have been lying about in plain sight for four centuries of critics to contemplate. My paranoia about being scooped is admittedly a product of the neurotic baggage anatomized above--my "piratical" competitiveness with scholars past and present, disavowed and projected; a grandiose overvaluation of my "myth of origin", all of which I hope to have relinquished.

    But beyond helping to resolve the block about "unfolding myself," these notes have also succeeded in placing the essence of my arguments about Hamlet's kidnappers in plain sight--and thus suitable for scholarly citation. Like the man said, even paranoids have enemies. I have forestalled those who would pirate my piratical idea.

To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Harvey Greenberg "On Not Being Able to Write About Hamlet". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/greenberg-on_not_being_able_to_write_about_hamlet. March 3, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: January 1, 2000, Published: January 1, 2000. Copyright © 2000 Harvey Greenberg