Review: Hamlet: Fold on Fold

More questions than whether or not to be


By Gabriel Josipovici
Yale University Press, £20

For more than 40 years, Gabriel Josipovici has been one of Britain's most interesting literary critics. He writes clearly and accessibly, free of jargon and he has a formidable range of interests, from the Hebrew Bible to Modernism, from Kafka to Borges.

Josipovici once wrote a brilliant essay on Othello and one of his best short stories is on Malvolio from Twelfth Night but this is his first book on Shakespeare and it is typically original.

He starts with some obvious features of the play. It is full of famous quotations, which gives it an oddly familiar feel even for audience members seeing it for the first time. At the same time, no other Shakespeare play is so "confused and confusing". Has Claudius been legally elected or has he usurped the throne? Is Hamlet the only one who thinks Gertrude should not have married her husband's brother?

Even its textual basis is uncertain: there are three primary texts, which often disagree about crucial words. Is it: "O that this too too solid flesh would melt" or should it be "sullied", which means something very different?

Josipovici's Hamlet is full of rich insights. He goes through the play scene by scene, analysing every twist and turn. He is at his best when looking closely at the language and at Hamlet's place in theatrical history. How does it relate to medieval drama with its ghosts and jesters? On the other hand, how does it manage to feel so modern?

Josipovici's theory is that everyone at court wants to know what's going on with Hamlet. Is he really mad or just playing at madness? Is he depressed or a clown? How can you find out? Interrogate him, get others to spy on him, hide behind the arras and observe him?

"But," writes Josipovici, what if this image of human character is misleading?" Claudius and his court speak as if everything can be measured and costed. "But what if they are wrong?"

Hamlet, for one, thinks they are. His famous long soliloquies present a very different way of thinking about the self, a confusing mass of contradictory impulses that are very difficult to understand.

This is what makes Hamlet such a modern and important play. It asks what kind of world we live in. Does the language of Purgatory, spirits and ghosts make any sense to people in the Renaissance? Deep down, can we know each other? How do we find out what other people are thinking? One foot in the Middle Ages, and one foot in the modern world, Hamlet still fascinates.

Josipovici is such a great critic because he has a nose for the big questions and for what doesn't work as an answer. Best of all, he reads carefully and asks the right questions.

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