Hamlet and New Criticism

New Criticism: a Monolithic Movements with a lot of Variety.

Despite New Criticism’s emphasis upon the text and only the text, there is not one way in which to read Hamlet as a new (or formal) critic. There are many different aspects of “the text itself” that a new critic looks at. The following are a few examples of New Critics and their approaches to Hamlet.

Caroline Spurgeon is interested in specific symbols and images in the play. Her book, Imagery in Shakespeare, focuses on symbols and images that appear in Shakespeare’s plays, and how they contribute to meaning or themes in it. For Hamlet, she focuses on the motif of cancer and decay that shows up in many places, like Hamlet’s first soliloquy in which he claims the world is like a sick and dying garden, or Hamlet’s reference to evil being like a mole on the body that spreads like a cancer in his “dram of evil” speech toward the end of Act 1. Like an ardent New Critic, Spurgeon isolates places within the text of Hamlet, and conducts what is called a “close reading” of the text. This means that she examines closely the way in which many different elements contribute to both the meaning of the text, and how the text works.

In his essay from the early 1950s, Harold Goddard looks at both the Ghost in Hamlet, and the action by which Claudius murders King Hamlet by poisoning his ear as metaphors. Like many New Critics, he does a “close reading” of various places in the text to show how the metaphor of the Ghost and poisoning in the ears develops through the play in a way that makes the play a cohesive, complete and meaningful whole. The Ghost is a metaphor of the “law” of paternity that haunts Hamlet, and which he fails to shake. Poisoning through the ear becomes metaphorical of the toxic words characters use to hurt and destroy each other. In the end, Goddard argues, the Ghost has poisoned Hamlet by filling him with words of revenge and misplaced duty and honor.

A New Critic like Frank Kermode has interpreted Shakespeare’s plays in the past by examining subtle nuances in Shakespeare’s use of words. With Hamlet, he is particularly interested in how certain words (I can’t remember them at the moment) reflect how Hamlet is an inventor of language, and how this invention serves as a metaphor for his ability to invent his sense of Self and his own existence.

Dover Wilson’s The Meaning of Hamlet probably most epitomizes a New Critical approach to the play. A few hundred page study, the book basically interprets Hamlet line by line, attempting to convey how all the metaphors, symbols, images, etc. contributes to the cohesive whole of the play. In one chapter, he examines all of the different things that the Ghost could represent.

Hamlet Reveals a Drawback to New Criticism.

Dover Wilson’s book also reveals a drawback to New Criticism. Because it emphasizes close reading, a scrutiny of words, phrases and figurative language (and all the details that contribute to an entire meaning), the method is much more amicable to short lyrical poetry. In fact, the New Critics began the movement by looking at poems almost exclusively. It is very difficult, of course, to do a complete New Critical close-reading of something as long as a novel, or a five thousand line play. This is why a New Critic will usually abstract one or a few places in Hamlet in which to conduct a close reading, and then put it back into the context of the play as a whole.

New Criticism and the Emphasis upon a Literary Work as a Complete and Cohesive Whole.

More than anything else, the New Critic tends to begin with the assumption that a play or poem by Shakespeare is a complete, cohesive and meaningful whole, and then sets out to examine elements that contribute to it. Therefore, a New Critic like Maynard Mack writes an essay about Hamlet in which he shows how certain paradoxical and contradictory elements in the play actually become resolved by the entire cohesive structure of the play.

To read Hamlet in a New Critical manner, you would probably focus on some specific aspect concerning poetic language in the play–metaphor, imagery, symbol, irony, etc–and find some particular places within the text in which you could examine it through a close reading. And then you would argue how these particular places in the text and the issue you examined contributes to the cohesive and meaningful whole of the play.

New Criticism and the Traditional High School Theme Paper.

In many ways, the traditional “theme” paper in high school English, and the traditional essay about Shakespeare in college resembles New Criticism the most. High Schools in general are still guided by the principles of New Criticism that revolutionized English classes in public schools in the 1930s. One of the greatest books written on the theories of New Criticism was Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren’s Understanding Poetry. In the book, Brooks and Warren cover all of the essentials of figurative language and terms concerning the structure of a poem, and then they examine dozens of single poems closely, and follow their examination with a series of questions that invite the student to examine the poem and write about it. This sounds pretty commonplace today — the traditional English textbook — but in the 1930s it was brand new and revolutionary. For the first time, secondary school students started reading, analyzing and writing about literature.


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