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Review: Who is Hamlet?

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Book: Hamlet Fold on Fold, Prof. Gabriel Josipovici, 2016, Yale University Press
Available: Amazon.co.uk, hardback £20 / ~$30; Kindle £15:19
Amazon.com hardback $30.38; Kindle $21:63



Our Review:

If you want to discover more about Hamlet the play, and Hamlet the character, a good place to start is with the literary artist and scholar Gabriel Josipovici’s book Hamlet Fold on Fold. Josipovici’s project is to guide the reader through the play, its textual history, the mass of literature surrounding it, as meticulously, as carefully as if he was unfolding a fan to see how it is made, and how each fold connects to the next and to the themes of the overall design.

This book does not offer us a theory of Hamlet. But looking at the play from different angles and drawing on a wide range of critics, historians, and writers Josipovici seeks to expand the way we see this nightmarish and impenetrable play. I was surprised to learn that Shakespearean audiences would have understood the ghost quite differently from the way we do now. An Early Modern audience, he says, would have seen the first appearance of the ghost on stage as above board, as it were, but its disembodied voice below stage urging Hamlet to ‘swear’ would have reminded them of the Devil in a theological play. This makes Hamlet’s maddening suspicion over whether or not the ghost is a manifestation of the Devil more powerful.


Josipovici is interested in how audiences see and interpret Hamlet’s character. ‘Romantic views of Hamlet as being essentially about Hamlet’s interiority are as misguided as modern views of it as not being about interiority at all.’ he argues. It is rather the ‘relation between emotion and its external manifestation’ that we should examine. The relation between – how to bridge the gap between inner and outer, between feeling and acting is a recurring theme of the play. We may imagine what we feel is who we are. But in a play as in life, a person can only be known by ‘the sum of his words and his way of moving and of speaking’.

The image on the front cover of this book is of a Fool. There is no Fool in Hamlet, but Hamlet may be seen as a new type of Fool. Hamlet is a master Hoimlet Fold on Fold - coverat word-play – turning words to nonsense, he adopts an ironic stance, is adept at exposing complicity in the shared lie of reality (Polonius and the camel-shaped cloud). Hamlet may act in a way that resembles a Fool, but he also has a quite different side. He is intent on finding a bridge between fact and fiction, a way to join words and thoughts, art and life. That is why he is hopeful when the Players come. A play is a ritual that can never ‘tell all’, but it can act on us.  It is, however nightmarish, a form of togetherness.

Throughout this book the themes of Hamlet’s struggle are related to a well chosen range of writers and artists: Kierkegaard, Proust, Beckett, Sterne and others, as well as Shakespeare scholars and Theatre Historians.

I was gripped by this book with its clear, engaging, almost conversational style in which Hamlet is connected up to a wider world of art, and I am pretty certain that next time I see or read Hamlet, it will be a deeper, richer, stranger experience.


Fiona Forsyth


To see more reviews, including our review of the BBC Shakespeare Collection version of Love’s Labour’s Lost, also published today, visit our Reviews page, and ‘Clic on a pic’ of a review that interests you.

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