Sunday, June 29, 2014

More Themes in Shakespeare and Carroll

Alice and Hamlet

What is Alice's problem?  I previously noted two thematic similarities between Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Hamlet.  Reflecting on part of my "Summer" reading that includes Hamlet and Carroll's masterpieces I have noted areas where the different works share themes in common.  Even though, one is a tragic drama and the others are flights of fancy.  So let's go underneath the veneer of comedy in one and tragedy in the other and we may, in fact we will, find some more shared themes.

Hamlet is famous for, among other things, the "play within the play".   A touring group of players arrives and Hamlet arranges for them to perform a play "The Murder of Gonzaga" and add a few lines that he will prepare.  Thus his plan is set and in the soliloquy that ends Act 2 Hamlet declaims:

"Out of my weakness and my melancholy, 
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me.  I'll have grounds
More relative than this.  The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King." (II, 2, 630-634)

The insertion of stories, plays, or tales is not uncommon in literary works so is it not surprising that we find the same thing happening in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.  In chapter three Alice becomes engaged in an argument over the meaning of it;  "'I know what "it" means well enough, when I find a thing,' said the Duck: 'it's generally a frog, or a worm."  This leads after a bit of a race to the Mouse recounting his sad tale in answer as to why "it is you hate C and D,".  This tale is not amended by Alice nor is it directed, but through her offensive remarks to the mouse (about C and D) she surely causes the tale.  And it is a tale that is delightfully displayed on the page in the shape of a tail!  Later in the story Alice's inquisitiveness once again leads to the relation of a story, this time from the Mock Turtle.  Thus we have yet another common area for these different works with the interpolation of literary works within them in furtherance of the plot. 

While different in scope than the particulars of plot,  a thematic similarity that is just as important for both of these works is the status of words.  We need only go as far as the Second Act of Hamlet in our search to find these famous words from Hamlet to Polonius:  "Words, words, words", (II, 2, 210).
This is an unnecessary reminder that Hamlet is filled with words, many of them new to the English language, from Hamlet's several soliloquies to the famous remarks from the verbose dissembler Polonius to the various discussions of the King and Queen with the court.  Hamlet's comments are the most famous whether it is his "rogue and peasant slave am I" comment or the more famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy.  We find Hamlet orating all the way to the grave where he intones to his friend, "Alas, poor Yorick!  I knew him, Horatio." (V, 1, 190-1)

Alice, while not as verbally adept as Hamlet, has many episodes where words play a significant role during her journeys both in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.  It is the latter that has a moment that has captured my fancy over the years when she meets Humpty Dumpty.  After unsuccessfully attempting  to engage Humpty in conversation, she is asked for "your name and your business".

"'My name is Alice, but----'
'It's a stupid name enough!' Humpty Dumpty interrupted impatiently.  'What does it mean?'
'Must a name mean something?' Alice asked doubtfully.
'Of course it must,' Humpty Dumpty said with a short laugh: 'my name means the shape I am--and a good handsome shape it is, too.  With a name like yours, you might be any shape, almost.'" (p 186)
This leads Alice and Humpty Dumpty into a lengthy discussion about words and age (Alice's) and birthdays, but leading back to words, whereupon we have this wonderful passage:
"'I don't know what you mean by "glory,"' Alice said.
Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously.  'Of course you don't--till I tell you.  I meant "there's a knock-down argument for you!"'
'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument,"' Alice objected.
'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less.'
'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'
'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be the master---that's all.'" (p 190)

Alice is puzzled by this and you may be as well, but Humpty Dumpty has a point that is worth considering, for just as names may be natural (like Humpty Dumpty's) or conventional (like Alice's) our words have meanings that sometimes seem to have a life of their own, unless we take control.

In conclusion I would suggest that both Hamlet and Carroll's classics take on a different appearance when considered in light of each other.  They both share differences and similarities and at the bottom raise questions that keep readers returning to ponder the delights of them as living works of literature that speak to us today and will still do so tomorrow.  

Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll. Oxford World Classics, 1971 (1866, 1872)
The Tragedy of Hamlet: Prince of Denmark by William Shakespeare. Folger Shakespeare Library, 1992 (1603).


Brian Joseph said...

Marvelous comparison.

I have often thought about Shakespeare's works ruminations upon words and language. I have not thought so much about Lewis Carroll's musings. I need to go back and read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

James said...

Lewis Carrol is worth rereading. Not only Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, but some of his other writings.
I'll be reading Romeo and Twelfth Night over the next few weeks and looking forward to comparing Shakespeare with Shakespeare, so to speak.

M. said...

See Joyce Carol Oates's heartfelt memoire (short) of her first reading of Alice and its importance for her life and work: "the most profound literary influence of my life." In AARP BULLETIIN, July 2014.

James said...

Thanks for sharing the reference to Joyce Carol Oates' memoire. The influence of Alice on her writing is fascinating. I was not aware of the connection before, but of Oates' novels I have read (only a few of the very many she has written) Wonderland is my favorite.