REVIEW


     Stephen Booth. "On the Value of Hamlet." Reinterpretations of Elizabethan Drama: Selected Papers from the English Institute. Ed. Norman Rabkin. New York: Columbia U P, 1969. 137-176.

Thesis: At the end of his essay, Booth sums up:
     In summary I would say that the thing about Hamlet that has put Western man into a panic to explain it is not that the play is incoherent, but that it is coherent. There are plenty of incoherent plays; nobody ever looks at them twice. This one, because it obviously makes sense and because it just as obviously cannot be made sense of, threatens our inevitable working assumption that there are no "more things in earth" than can be understood in one philosophy. People see Hamlet and tolerate inconsistencies that it does not seem they could bear. Students of the play have explained that such people do not, in fact, find the play bearable at all. They therefore whittle the play down for us to the size of one of its terms, and deny the others. Truth is bigger than any one system for knowing it, and Hamlet is bigger than any of the frames of reference it inhabits. Hamlet allows us to comprehend -- hold on to -- all the contradictions it contains. Hamlet refuses to cradle its audience's mind in a closed generic framework, or otherwise limit the ideological context of its actions. In Hamlet the mind is cradled in nothing more than the fabric of the play. The superior strength and value of that fabric is in the sense it gives that it is unlimited in its range, and that its audience is not only sufficient to comprehend but is in the act of achieving total comprehension of all the perceptions to which its mind can open. The source of the strength is in a rhetorical economy that allows the audience to perform both of the basic actions of the mind upon almost every conjunction of elements in the course of the play: it perceives strong likeness, and it perccives strong difference. Every intellectual conjunction is also a disjunction, and any two things that pull apart contain qualities that are simultaneously the means of uniting them.   (175-176)
The body of the essay discusses scenes, characters, and speeches in order to demonstrate that the play presents the audience with one irresolvable contradiction after another. Here's a sample from early in the essay:
    The action that the first scene of Hamlet takes upon the understanding of its audience is like the action of the whole, and most of the individual actions that make up the whole. The first scene is insistently incoherent and just as insistently coherent. It frustrates and fulfills expectations simultaneously. The challenge and response in the first lines are perfectly predictable sentry-talk, but -- as has been well and often observed -- the challenger is the wrong man, the relieving sentry and not the one on duty. A similarly faint intellectual uneasiness is provoked when the first personal note in the play sets up expectations that the play then ignores. Francisco says, "For this relief much thanks. 'Tis bitter cold, / And I am sick at heart" (i.i.8-9). We want to know why he is sick at heart. Several lines later Francisco leaves the stage and is forgotten. The scene continues smoothly as if the audience had never focused on Francisco's heartsickness. Twice in the space of less than a minute the audience has an opportunity to concern itself with a trouble that vanishes from consciousness almost before it is there. The wrong sentry challenges, and the other corrects the oddity instantly. Francisco is sick at heart, but neither he nor Bernardo gives any sign that further comment might be in order. The routine of sentry-go, its special diction, and its commonplaces continue across the audience's momentary tangential journey; the audience returns as if it and not the play had wandered. The audience's sensation of being unexpectedly and very slightly out of step is repeated regularly in Hamlet.    (139-140)
The "audience" which Booth talks about here (and in the rest of the essay) seems to be exclusively a reader (not a watcher) who is doing a slow-motion, microscopic examination of every line. On the other hand, the more you read Booth, the more oddities you see.

Bottom Line: Sometimes thought-provoking, sometimes tiresome.