Thursday, June 19, 2014

Themes in Shakespeare and Carroll

Hamlet and Alice

Gertrude. Why seems it so particular with thee? 
Hamlet. "Seems," madam? Nay, it is; I know not "seems."
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black, 
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye, 
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief, 
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem, 
For they are actions that a man might play: 
But I have that within which passeth show; 

These but the trappings and the suits of woe. (75-90)

What is Hamlet's problem?  Almost fifty years since my first reading of Hamlet I am once again reading this tragedy that is nothing if not pregnant with questions worthy of my personal pondering and group discussions.  At the same time as part of my "Summer" reading I am rereading a personal favorite that I have known even longer than Hamlet--Lewis Carroll's twin delights: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass.  You may wonder what these apparently different works of literature have in common.  After all, one is a tragic drama and the others are flights of fancy.  Yet peering underneath the veneer of comedy in one and tragedy in the other we may, in fact we will, find some shared themes.

Let us consider a couple of possible common themes.  One that is important to these works is the question of knowledge.  What is the status of knowledge: who knows what and, more importantly, how do we know anything?  In the opening paragraph of Wonderland Alice thinks, "what is the use of a book without pictures or conversations?"  One possibility is the book as a source of knowledge and Alice almost immediately demonstrates her interest in knowledge and learning as she is described as "bursting with curiosity" as she runs after the White Rabbit.  As she follows him down the rabbit-hole she is reminded of knowledge and learning from the book-shelves and maps to her memory of school lessons and the thought that this might be an opportunity for her to practice "showing off her knowledge", even though she thinks to herself it is not the most opportune moment for doing so.  Thus knowledge is present as a motif at the beginning of Carroll's story;  at least knowledge of the book-learning sort, and its corollary  curiosity, without which humans might not gain much knowledge.  
Turning to Hamlet, and again focusing on the beginning of the play, we also are presented with questions of knowledge as the soldiers are determined to show Horatio that their knowledge of the presence of a ghost is not merely "our fantasy" but a very real apparition that he may "approve our eyes" with his own knowledge of it.  The reference to their eyes reminds me of the famous opening line of Aristotle's Metaphysics where he states:  "ALL men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses; for even apart from their usefulness they are loved for themselves; " (Metaphysics, I, 1).

Before we have exited the first chapter of Wonderland we find Alice thinking again (she does quite a lot of this early on because there is no one with whom to converse) about pretending to be two people:  "But it's no use no to pretend to be two people!  Why there's hardly enough left of me to make one respectable person."  I mention this moment (when she had shrunk to the size of a mouse) because it seems to presage the theme of identity that flourishes in the next chapter where we encounter a larger-than-life Alice who  is bemoaning that dilemma when she wonders herself into the ultimate question:  "Who in the world am I?"  This puzzle will continue to haunt her throughout Wonderland and into the Looking-Glass while she carries with her that pesky curiosity which led her down the rabbit-hole in the first place.
But is Hamlet so different from Alice? In scene two of the second act we have the first of Hamlet's great soliloquies where he bemoans his ability to act for he "can say nothing".  He wonders if he is a coward.  In his doubt  he begins to question who he is and will soon be seen by Claudius and Gertrude as confused and possibly mad and certainly unlike the Hamlet they know.  Questions of identity will arise again and again intertwined with self-doubt.  Perhaps in his intelligence Hamlet's identity questions will be much deeper and darker than those of poor Alice, but as humans adrift in worlds turned upside down they both are experiencing aspects of the same issue of identity.

Here we see two important themes begun that are shared by both Hamlet and Alice.  There will undoubtedly be others, but for now I will return to my reading and promise more commentary on these works in the near future.


Brian Joseph said...

I really like this post james. I tend to look and think about this sort of connections between works all the time.

On the question of identity, this theme seems to be all over Shakespeare's works. I often think of it in relationship to the Comedies, with all the disguises, mistaken persona's, love potions, etc. Hamlet approaches the issue from a grimly serious direction.

The quote from Alice about pretending to be two people is fantastic. I might have overlooked it myself.

James said...

Thanks for your enthusiastic response. I share your interest in connections and these works are fertile territory.
Your observation regarding identity as a theme in Shakespeare is well taken and I expect to find it in a few weeks when I read Twelfth Night, a less-familiar play, but one of his greatest comedies.