he greatest poem of the millennium? It is no betrayal of the lyric if I name "Hamlet," a work as lyric as it is dramatic. Its "carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,/. . . accidental judgements, casual slaughters" -- I quote from the play -- make up the linear plot, but its lyric structure gives us "the book and volume" of Hamlet's high consciousness, tragic and mocking, arching like a glittering spider web over the dramatic action. Though the dramatic Hamlet is provoked by a murder, the lyric Hamlet is moved by all deaths: death walking like a ghost, disinterred in a skull, slumping behind an arras, floating on a brook, hanging on a baited sword, waiting in a poisoned chalice.
Hamlet believes only in death -- not in the Christian afterlife that was part of the ideology of his century. For him, the single question is, To be or not to be. Mortality is one uneasiness in him, murder the other, and it scarcely matters in the end whether mortality comes by murder, since what vexes Hamlet is mortality itself. Even the flesh of a king "may go a progress through the guts of a beggar"; ultimately everything human comes to death, to the sun-kissing carrion and the omnivorous worm.
Helen Vendler is a professor of English at Harvard and author, most recently, of "Seamus Heaney."
Czeslaw Milosz, with distaste and irony, identifies the European cultural moment to which Hamlet belongs as a time when there arises "a fringe of the aristocracy cultivating literature and art, elegant, freed from the coarser superstitions." Those "coarser superstitions" still clothe the ghost of Hamlet's father, working on Hamlet from the outside, and Shakespeare is tender toward the guards' medieval wonder at the peace of the Christmas season when no ghosts appear, "so hallowed and so gracious is the time." But for his own part, Hamlet -- even after seeing the ghost -- speaks merely of bad dreams that may come in the sleep of death. The remnants of belief have been scotched by his mordant university learning. In its repudiation of Christian consolation, "Hamlet" marks the philosophical turning point of our Western millennium: the moment in which that reflective skepticism so repellent to Milosz (who nonetheless shares it) becomes intellectually dominant. In the wake of the collapse of religious authority comes social revolution: "The toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier he galls his kibe."
Only "Hamlet," of Shakespeare's greatest plays, is ruled by a single lyric consciousness. The Macbeths are two; Hal and Falstaff are two; Antony and Cleopatra are two; Desdemona, Othello and Iago are a triad; and "Lear" is full of doubles and triads. Hamlet has no sibling, wife or lieutenant jointly pursuing revenge with him: his reflective loneliness and his lyric status elicit his soliloquies. Hamlet is always at the center: all the other figures in the play are there to provoke, to repudiate, to interrupt his brilliant cascades of language. Directors reflect this lyric shape in their closing tableau of the characters on stage: Hamlet falls at the center (with Horatio at his side), and disposed about him we see the bodies of Claudius, Gertrude and Laertes. In the wings lurk all the other dead of the play: old Fortinbras (murdered by old Hamlet); old Hamlet (murdered by Claudius); Polonius, Rosencranz and Guildenstern (murdered -- the last two at one remove -- by Hamlet); and Ophelia, dead by suicide.
"Hamlet" is, then, our pre-eminent post-Christian poem, refusing both the redemptive linear plot of Christianity -- by which God brings good out of evil -- and the stable political hierarchy implicit in the Christian belief that regal authority is derived from God. Like most lyric poems, "Hamlet" exhibits a recursive structure: the deathblow repeats itself in the fortune of each main character; the morbid dumb show and the "mousetrap" play replicate the main murder plot; and the open graves of the innocent Yorick and Ophelia serve as gaping symbols of the tragedy's continual undersong of grief. Emily Dickinson once wrote, "He has found his Future who has found Shakespeare." It is our own future predicament that we find in this great dramatic poem, as we hear Hamlet's lyric obbligato musing over the gravediggers' stage.
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