Reader Response Criticism and Hamlet

Reader Response and Hamlet.


One very helpful issue that reader response critics examine, particularly with Shakespeare, is the notion of reader’s expectations. What this means is that every reader approaches a particular text with certain expectations, preconceived notions and learnt assumptions.


For instance, on the level of genre, Hamlet is a “tragedy.” We know this before we start to read or watch it. We have certain expectations concerning tragedy, such as a hero who comes to a fall, character flaws that instigate a fall, unhappy ending in exile and death, etc. A reader response critic is interested in how a literary work may play with or defy reader’s expectations.


Let’s take Hamlet again. It is not only a “tragedy,” but part of the sub-genre, “revenge tragedy,” which –particularly in Elizabethan theater—would have risen a great deal of reader / audience expectations. Some injustice would happen to someone close to the protagonist, and he will have to get his revenge to set things right. But revenge, nonetheless, only breeds tragedy.


How the Play Defies Reader Expectations


But the play, in many ways, seems to defy expectations, particularly because Hamlet seems to become engrossed in almost everything but revenge, and he always has to self-consciously knock himself back into his role. The ending is anti-climactic. In fact, the play, I would argue, builds us up from Acts 1 to 3 to make us wish for Hamlet to circumvent his revenging role. I have always felt that a big part of the tragedy is Hamlet’s eventual failure to overcome the revenging role, the code of the Father, blood and law. In fact, I would suggest that the tragedy in the play is that Hamlet “obeys.”


Reader Response and the Difficult Player King’s Speech


Reader response of Hamlet used with closer inspection would examine how a reader works his way through some pretty dense and difficult text. I’ll give an example. The most difficult and dense passage in the play must be the Player King’s speech during the play-within-a-play, Act III, scene ii, lines 189 beginning “Purpose is but the slave to memory,” and ending at line 213, “Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.”


How an audience could take in the dense psychological metaphysic of this passage through the ear alone confounds me. It is obviously the dozen or so lines that Hamlet has the players put into their play. A reader response critic would examine the complexity of the process of reading this dense passage; how he/she would stumble on certain words; misunderstand certain places; and how a reader would attempt to fill in the gaps to try to conceive of some meaning, even if the reader is nearly clueless as to what the passage actually means.


The Misconception about Reader Response 


There is a frequent misconception that reader – response means writing about how a text makes you feel, like, this poem makes me sad, and why. It is certainly not this. In fact, the Affective Fallacy was probably an argument against such romantic and gooshy criticism. Reader response, in fact, can become both philosophical and scientific, investigating how a mind conceives of text, how particular reader’s understand a text and form meaning, etc.


Does Reader Response Really Repudiate New Criticism?


Some scholars have criticized reader responses blatant repudiation of new criticism. Jane Tompkins, in her great book, Reader Response Criticism and Theory, concludes that Reader Response does not actually repudiate new criticism at all. In fact, it just shifts formalist readings to a new location: the reader’s mind. She argues that there is not a big difference between forming an interpretation of a text in front of you, and forming an interpretation of a the text as you examine it in your mind.


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Filed under HAMLET, Literary Criticism / Critical Methods, Shakespeare

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