Saturday, 21 March 2009

Hamlet, Hazlitt, Hancock.

I know, I know, nothing for weeks but rants and prose poetry, apologies. In my defence, it's been pretty manic.

More to come soon, but a few curios for the time being:

A few years ago I wrote an essay on the way that Hamlet, as a character, has been interpreted. Part of the brilliance of the play is its flexibility. Hamlet is a prince and an everyman. It wasn't a successful essay but great fun to research as it meant I could avoid the drama side of things altogether. I was intrigued to discover that the Russians--who have a fascinating and complex relationship with the Dane--consider him to have been a fat man. Not altogether obese, but flabby, corpulent.* In reading Hazlitt's Spirit of the Age I discovered this was a prejudice the Romantics held too. Hazlitt described Coleridge as Hamlet-like in appearance as well as manner because he is on the chubby side.

It's a presumption partially based in the original text. Gertrude claims Hamlet is out of breath because he is fat, which could mean flabby or simply unfit, out of shape. But for the Romantics and the Russians he's a portly figure. It's interesting that Hamlet goes on to describe his age as 'the fatness of these pursey times', because this added to the previous conception makes him a reflection, an embodiment of, his age. Hazlitt is a figure who writes portraits of individuals not to identify them specifically but to capture and distill the zeitgeist, so it's significant that he sees Coleridge as a Hamlet. That is Hazlitt sees Coleridge as an indecisive but brilliant figure, and as such the spirit of his age. Appearances meant everything, yet they were manipulated to suit.

Anyway, in case we should be in danger of taking ourselves too seriously I am recommending all my Romantic colleagues listen to the episode of Hancock's Half Hour called 'Lord Byron Lived Here'.

*My fallible memory suggests there's a phrase by the narrator of Turgenev's 'Hamlet of the Shchigrovskii District' where he claims that the subject even looks like him, tending to fatness. In the political climate of doubt, indecision and looking both ways, Hamlet seemed to embody a certain Russian hero. There's some great essays on this somewhere. The lineage of the Russian Hamlet is a complex one, as they originally receive the play through a French 'adaptation'.

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