The invitation came as a surprise but a very welcome surprise: an offer to contribute an essay to a publication of The Modern Language Association, the publishers of PMLA, arguably the premiere journal in literary studies.
I was invited to submit an essay for consideration in the MLA volume on Teaching Hamlet, which was somewhat curious since I hadn't inquired about the volume nor asked to be invited — and my dissertation covered what I called "Shakespeare's Mature Tragedies," which meant for me the fours major tragedies after Hamlet and not including Hamlet.
Still, I thought I had something to say about Hamlet
and a couple other Shakespeare tragedies and suggested an approach to
the plays out of Bertolt Brecht and the structure of an Elizabethan
playhouse like the Globe and borrowing from at least one more recent
critic (probably Francis Fergusson).
Short form: a public
playhouse was mostly a raised platform thrust into an audience,
surrounded on three sides and a bit, with the players both definitely
separated from, but near the audience. There was little scenery, and the
effect was far from "illusionist." So you would know you were watching a
play, and the usually pretty rhetorical style of acting — to say
nothing of dialog in verse — would reinforce that knowledge.
Still, the audience was physically close, and within the space of a few lines — in the opening Chorus to Henry V, for a defining example — audience members could be alienated from the characters and invited to identify with them. That is, you could watch them objectively as speaking objects moving around the stage, and you could get sucked into their stories and identify with them as if they were real people.
This complex point of view is highly significant in a Romantic tragedy like Romeo and Juliet and still more so in a Romantic/Satiric tragedy like Antony and Cleopatra.
At times we identify strongly with the lovers — or do with Romeo and
Juliet, unless you're soul-dead; and at other times, or at the same
time, we can look at them objectively and know that they're making
mistakes that will lead to the tragedy we paid money to see and can
never totally forget that we're seeing.
definitely presented from the point of view of Prince Hamlet, and we
will him well and hope he succeeds in getting revenge. On the other
hand, we know that Hamlet is in the star of a tragedy by Shakespeare,
so we know if he follows the course he wants to follow and we want him
to follow because we like him and see things from his point of view —
well, we know that if he proceeds as he wishes he'll end up featured
among the litter of bodies that will end the play.
viewed objectively — especially if you were a normal theatre-goer and
hadn't read the script — Hamlet viewed objectively as the play moves
along is a bit of a puritanical putz. He's also an intellectual who
isn't thinking well. "To be or not to be" is always the
question if Albert Camus is right, and Hamlet answers it every time he
gets out of bed in the morning rather than turning his face to the wall,
giving up, and dying. Or stabbing himself, or whatever. The Question,
Hamlet, is whether or not to kill the king, and ethically it is a damn
interesting question and should be on the minds of an audience in a
Kill the king, Hamlet, or don't. In either
event shut up about it; you're annoying people — except that the poetry
is really good. More important than annoying people, Hamlet is also
killing people one way or another, and in the case of two of his friends
he kills on the basis of partial evidence judged with prejudice. For a
30-year-old advanced student at the prestigious Wittenberg U, Hamlet
commits some major intellectual, and ethical, errors.
Well, and so forth. It was a pretty good essay on teaching the play: looking at Hamlet
in terms of theatre and ethics and the conditions of physical
production — and not as "a long poem with speaking parts," as often
done, and definitely not as an object of veneration. It was an approach
that could spark class discussion.
And the essay was accepted, and I awaited the volume to come out and get reviewed and pretty much guarantee I'd get promoted.
the volume didn't come out as scheduled, and I didn't hear from the
editors. And then it still didn't come out and still didn't, and I still
And then I was told very casually that the Teaching Hamlet
volume hadn't come out because it would not come out. The MLA radical
caucus had won the election at the last convention, and they cancelled
the volume of old-fart essays and commissioned a volume more up to date.
Could they publish two volumes, for an interesting debate on a really wide range of approaches to Hamlet
and literature more generally? Well, maybe, but it would be expensive,
and, more important, the old approaches were imperialist, Eurocentric,
sexist, (etc.), and wrong.
My Hamlet essay never did get
published, and I soon completed my exit from Shakespeare scholarship
and criticism into the brave new field of Science Fiction and Fantasy
(and horror and eutopia and dystopia) — with an increasing interest in
movies. And eventually I became a full professor, served out my
thirty-five years and retired to a decent climate and work "on spec" in
the movie industry.
Miami University in Oxford, OH, is fairly
conservative — it's in John Boehner's Congressional District — and I was
sufficiently unconservative to work with the group trying to organize a
union. I would get my due from Miami, and for the most part did get my
due, but with delays. That's how the game is played, and that was okay
with me. Having my Hamlet essay cancelled, though, was
annoying. I should not take it personally, but I do: as an unfriendly
gesture from my colleagues to my Left.