19th century critic William Hazlitt praised Hamlet by saying that, "The whole play is an exact transcript of what might be supposed to have taken pace at the court of Denmark, at the remote period of the time fixed upon." (Hazlitt 164-169) Though it is clearly a testament to the realism of Shakespeare's tragedy, there is something strange and confusing in Hazlitt's analysis.
To put it plainly, Hamlet is most definitely not a realistic play. Not only are the events conveyed in the drama fantastic, the dialogue that brings it to the reader is overdramatic and often metatheatrical. The stirring monologues delivered throughout the play are theatrical speeches rather than genuine dialogue. Frequent references to acting and theater, especially surrounding the presence of the players, serve to make the audience aware of the play instead of drawing them into it. The tragedy's villain oozes evil, murdering the king and marrying his queen in just two months. Even more unrealistic is the presence of the king's ghost, surely there weren't really any apparitions floating around the court at Denmark. Then why does Hazlitt make this statement? Though it is tempting to simply write him off as a bad critic, similar statements made by other critics of the 19th century suggest that this view of Hamlet as a realist drama was commonly held in the Victorian Era.
It seems clear that the ideals of the Victorian era caused a significant change in the way Hamlet was interpreted. Victorian society's high esteem for rationality and utility shifted the focus of Hamlet from the tragedy's fantastic nature to its realistic insights. The values of the age imply that a 19th century audience would not appreciate Hamlet as a fanciful tale, choosing instead to view the play as an accurate depiction of one man's difficult situation and internal struggle.To understand this shift we must first look at the philosophies and ideologies that shaped the Victorian age. Two popular schools of thought effectively symbolize the move toward empirical observations and objective analysis that has become synonymous with the era. Comte's positivism and short-lived Utilitarianism characterize the move away from emotion and intuition in the Victorian Era. Positivism is the notion that over time an understanding of physical laws, rather that faith in religious or social doctrine, will enlighten humanity to the reality of its world.
This idea was extended into personal states, where some believed that an understanding of the rules that governed human behavior would allow science to end evil and promote virtuousness. (Landow) This belief in the remarkable power of empirical observation shaped the consciousness of an era. After all, with such an incredible respect for factual knowledge, emotion and fiction stood little chance of getting any attention. It is for this reason that Hamlet needed a new spin for the 19th century; the classic interpretation of the play as an emotional, ideological struggle would not have appealed to the audience of the day. Utilitarianism is a more striking example of the same ideas highlighted by Positivism. This extreme school of thought reached beyond philosophy to impact government and even economic thought. (Landow) By applying some of the principals of Positivism, Utilitarianism offered the most effective solutions to problems, without any regard to their moral and ethical implications.
Once again, we see why an unrealistic Hamlet focused on an individual's struggle would not hold the interest of a 19th century audience.Serving as illustrations of the Victorian era's obsession with reason and practicality, these two examples clearly convey the need for a 19th century shift in the standard interpretation of Hamlet. Here we are faced with another dilemma; how can the interpretation of a play change without altering the characters or the text? Close examination of some popular criticism from the 1800s reveals how emphasizing some scenes and dialogues, while virtually ignoring others, can exact change in the meaning of the play as a whole. Coleridge uses this technique with expert skill to address the presence of the apparition discussed earlier. In his discussion of the Act I scene I, wherein the audience first sees the apparition, Coleridge focuses on the realistic doubt and fear conveyed by Marcellus, Bernardo, and Horatio.
He praises the convincing dialogue, sighting line 3 in Act I scene I, " What, has this thing appeared again to-night." Coleridge applauds the lines realism, noting that, "even the word Œagain' has a credibilizing effect." (Hazlitt 164-169) His critique is so focused on the dialogue's realism; he manages to completely ignore the fact that in this scene Hamlet's dead father has risen from the grave to appear before these soldiers.Bradley and Hazlitt are contemporaries.