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KRONOS Vol III, No. 4
"HEAVEN AND EARTH": Catastrophism in Hamlet
Copyright (C) 1978 by Irving Wolfe
Hamlet is a play that has been approached from so many angles that, if one wished to construct a physical model to represent this phenomenon, it would look like an overcrowded pincushion. So many people have had their say on the issue of this drama's meaning, nature, structure, and components that the result is bewildering to the nonspecialist and a jangle of "schools" to the specialist. Nevertheless, I wish to add one more analysis. I do not say it will unlock all of the play's tantalizing mysteries, for no single approach can ever expect to achieve this, but it may provide a rather important clue to determining at least one important reason for the play's enduring, universal, and profound appeal, for Hamlet is demonstrably able to weave its charm over all nations and cultures.
That reason is man's cumulative experience of certain rare but repeated natural catastrophes of enormous magnitude. It is my belief that ancestral unconscious memories of these events underlie both the construction of Hamlet and our response to it, and evidence in support will be offered through a comparative study of the play's sources. There appear to be strong lines of connection between Hamlet, its literary and historical antecedents, and certain myths and religious stories, some appearing in cultures widely separated from Shakespeare in place and time. The nature of these connections is the topic of this chapter, for only in certain cases was the apparent source available to Shakespeare's age directly or indirectly. In other cases, it appears that we must look for a less conscious and less tangible continuity, one that implies some sort of innate, universal, and unconscious connection.
My purpose in calling attention to Hamlet's sources is to demonstrate and then draw conclusions upon the play's powerful mythical dimension. We shall see that Hamlet is born of myth and that its breeding determines its character. In particular, it will be argued that this dimension gives the play a powerful subliminal appeal. From there, it is not too large a step to Suggest a specific compelling cause for the existence and power of this dimension, particularly when the suggestion appears to be supported by certain persistent details of action and structure in the myths and the play that are singular, unexpected, or unnecessary. The point being made is that a certain common master pattern seems to exist in Hamlet's sources. It will be shown that certain larger meanings of this master pattern are similar in the different cultures in which it arises, some separated by half the terrestrial globe, and that in each case the pattern seems to have arisen or at least to have come into special prominence at about the same time. It will be argued that this pattern strongly suggests a catastrophic origin, which means that, as Hamlet shares innately in the pattern, it too must possess an appeal that may derive at least in part from the events which Dr. Velikovsky reconstructs.
Now, I am not the first to suggest that Hamlet's essential appeal does not lie strictly or even mainly in its plot, characterization, verisimilitude, pace, poetry, aptness of dialogue, images, overt themes, or surface action, brilliant as they may be. These are admittedly dramatic, but they do not constitute the entirety of Hamlet, or even its essence, for critic after critic has sensed the existence of something deeper, something extradramatic, at work in the play. Many of those who have studied its effect have been impelled to declare that certain forces lurk beneath its surface, forces that are cultural, ancient, and basically non-rational.(1) The feeling is evinced that
This is typical of the archetypal and anthropological approaches to drama. In this article I shall extend such insights in a particular direction.
At the beginning, however, several propositions must be set forth, the first of which concerns myth. Because this article will rely heavily upon correspondences between Hamlet and different bodies of folk narrative, a general statement of purpose is in order. Briefly, this article is predicated upon the concept that myth is truth; not simply private psychological truth, after Freud, or symbolic, archetypal truth, after Jung, or seasonal, vegetative truth, after Frazer, but also literal historical truth, after Velikovsky. It is this principle upon which Worlds in Collision itself is based.(3)
Myth is a communal language, perhaps a universal one. It is collective expression and speaks exclusively of collective issues.
At present, general public usage of the word myth usually connotes illusion, error, or even deliberate falsification, but the true nature of myth may be perceived in these definitions:
Myth is communal, the property of an entire folk. It is
It is also universal, for
When certain images or actions are discovered universally in myth and literature and are considered to elicit similar strong responses wherever they occur, they are called universal symbols or, more commonly, archetypes. The archetype is able to
The critic who seeks to discover the meaning and influence of the archetypes in a given work must proceed deductively, perhaps even intuitively, for the archetype does not possess a clear overt meaning. Rather, it is an unconsciously-understood mask or surrogate for things we do not seem willing or able to express directly. This paper will concern itself with certain archetypes and archetypal actions to be found in Hamlet, for
The last part of this sentence may be an overenthusiastic exaggeration, for certain mythical motifs and our responses to them may have come into existence only as a result of ancient worldwide catastrophes. Nonetheless, we are affected deeply and collectively by Hamlet because its general action corresponds to a universal pattern of archetype and myth which
Critical attitudes toward myth have varied widely in the last hundred years, sometimes reflecting received classical opinion, at other times incorporating modern iconoclastic approaches, but as a rule it has been much more difficult to say what myth is than what it is not.
This is the key to the solution, and it is the practice this chapter will follow. We shall examine the varying but interrelated forms into which the prototypical Hamlet narrative has emerged in many different societies to discover what it is they have to say in common. Joseph Campbell has taught us that we can expect
In this article, I intend to bring together the major mythical sources of Hamlet and apply Dr. Velikovsky's theories to them as a grammar that will enable us to read again their symbolic language, thereby letting the ancient meaning become apparent of itself. The congruency between these myths from different parts of the world will soon make it clear that there is a vast and amazingly constant statement in all of Hamlet's mythical and religious forebears, and that this statement may be the product of the basic truths by which man has lived since his experience and survival of the catastrophes that have occurred to our planet within the period of human memory.
Secondly, a word about the mythical reference of Shakespeare's stage. It is generally accepted that the London outdoor public playhouse of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries was conventional and representative in both form and content. The theatre symbolized the universe and the action on its stage symbolized man's place in that universe. This may apply somewhat less to the indoor productions of the early Stuart period, but, as far as the conception and creation of Hamlet are concerned, we may say with some confidence that the Elizabethan outdoor theatre for which it was most probably originally intended was founded upon an unwritten but unquestioned convention of universality, symbolism, and metaphysical reference. It was
As such, it spoke to the people as a whole and in terms understandable to the community.
The audiences, therefore, were accustomed to perceiving the plays as symbols expressing a universal reality.
Lastly, the point must be made that the type of dramatic criticism that seeks to unearth the myths or archetypes that lie behind a particular play performs an act of communal healing, for
Many of these words could have been written of, and perhaps even by, Dr. Velikovsky, for his theories unavoidably indicate that we are not ever completely rational. This occurs because we carry within us a knowledge of horrible cataclysmic disorder which "does not compute" with what our reason is told the world is like. Consequently, by revealing to us certain truths that we have collectively tried to suppress, he seeks to show us a way back to a true understanding of ourselves, our full, more-than-rational, and very ancient selves, which is what the quotation insists we must do. To achieve this, we shall have to reconcile not only our conscious and unconscious knowledge, as the quotation argues, but also a more fundamental warfare between our right-brain and left-brain approaches to exterior reality, as I will discuss elsewhere. The type of analysis that I conduct is therefore designed to find in drama evidence of our primordial and eternal brotherhood. That may really be what this discourse is all about.
Let us now proceed to Hamlet, keeping in mind what we have just established – that myth may be communal and universal truth, that Hamlet is deeply mythical, that the Elizabethan stage was ritualistic and symbolic, ideally suited for the presentation of myth, and that the criticism that attempts to reveal and explain this dimension of drama returns us to the roots of our origins as thinking beings.
1. Hamlet and Greek Myth
The first body of legend we shall apply to our play is perhaps the best known in Western culture. There are a great number of parallels to be found between Shakespeare's play and events in Attic folklore, many set forth in Worlds in Collision. In this section, I shall compare Hamlet with two of the greatest Greek tragic heroes, Orestes and Oedipus, to demonstrate Hamlet's kinship to them and then their kinship to catastrophe.
Gilbert Murray's 'Hamlet and Orestes' of 1913 was perhaps the first direct and sustained effort to apply anthropology to Shakespeare.(20) Certain parts of it have not weathered the intervening years as well as others, but most of his general conclusions are sound and bear scrutiny. Murray tells us that Orestes was an established character in religion and epic long before he was introduced into poetry and tragedy, while the fundamental story of Hamlet was native to Scandinavian folklore long before being used by Shakespeare. This means that both characters are mythical in origin and form. Murray then traces twenty-one points of comparison between Shakespeare's Hamlet and the composite Orestes of Greek drama.
Having established that the similarities exist, a contention with which no one argues, Murray then tells us that some of them are found neither in the medieval sources of Hamlet nor in the epic and folkloric material which preceded the Orestes plays. Furthermore, these parallels are rather odd details, idiosyncratic rather than generic and therefore seemingly unessential, such as the hero's gross language and penchant for riddling, or the new king's drunkenness or the hero's dangerous adventure by ship. Murray contends they are neither necessary nor derivative. They seem to have been invented independently by the Greek dramatists and then later by Shakespeare. Now, says Murray, if these details do not come from each work's immediate sources, how are we to explain their appearance and similarity? The most obvious solution would be to say that Shakespeare had access to all the necessary Greek stage versions of the Orestes tale, or to all its mythical sources. Murray denies that there can have been any important direct connection between Shakespeare and Greek drama, an assertion open to serious challenge, and he also rules out a knowledge of Greek myth on Shakespeare's part as being sufficient to account for the similarities. He then suggests that what might in fact explain the situation would be a transcultural collective connection. He suggests that a common master-myth, to which both Shakespeare and the Greek dramatists somehow had access, might underlie the similar heroes.
To discover if such a master myth or prototype indeed exists, Murray attempts to discern the essential patterns underlying both stories. He finds a parallel in the tale of Agamemnon and Clytemnaestra and another in that of Laius and Jocasta. Going further back, he realizes that these two tales are similar to, and thus may be derived from, the Greek creation myths and particularly the story of Ouranos and Gaia. Here, he feels, may lie the ultimate source not only for Hamlet, but also for Orestes and Oedipus. They are variants upon Kronos, Zeus, and generic winter gods, a conclusion reached later by many other critics, notably Northrop Frye, and it is this connection that explains the otherwise puzzling similarities. For instance, the mothers - Jocasta, Gaia, Gertrude, Clytemnaestra – are tainted by adultery, incest and murder, yet all except Clytemnaestra are presented sympathetically for the most part. Murray believes this occurs because they represent Mother Earth. They are symbols of fertility, a necessity that takes precedence over morality, and that is why they must always exist in a married state. This explains the contradiction between their great faults on the one hand and their motherly tenderness and the love they receive from their children on the other – as Mother Earth, who must teem annually for life to continue, they must marry the Spring-god when the old Winter-god is killed.
I feel that Murray's contention is still useful, for we do not need to posit a total lack of knowledge on Shakespeare's part of the relevant Greek myths and plays about Orestes, or even a major lack, to accept that other causes and even other sorts of causes may exist to account for the similarities Murray cites. We must look at the situation globally and try to explain not merely how it is, but also why it is, that certain details found in the composite dramatic Orestes should reappear, after a lapse of some 2000 years, in Hamlet. We might then also try to explain why the particular fusion of narrative elements associated with the Greek dramatic Orestes, the special cluster of events and characters, should prove so mysteriously intriguing and magnetic wherever it is experienced in other forms in other cultures, as in Hamlet. To put the issue in even larger scope, we must try to explain why, lying at the heart of the Greek and Elizabethan cultures, there are virtually similar stories that have come in the passage of time to represent the very souls or essences of those cultures in the popular imagination.
Murray valiantly attempts to answer why. Having suggested the nature of the connection, he proceeds to speculate upon the functioning of the process. Delicately, almost poetically, he gropes toward an understanding of the phenomenon he has come upon.
These vibrations, he feels, are old and primitive and magnetic.
These things, these primordial elements in certain stories and rites, work their power upon us because they are
Perhaps slightly aghast at the scope of such an assertion, he hastens to add that
Jung has demonstrated the kinship of all religions, as has Freud. Velikovsky has taught us that the kinship is astral and of catastrophic origin. If we accept Murray's argument here, which associates religion with drama, the suggestion arises that the persistent elements that infuse an Agamemnon or a Hamlet with a powerful substructural dimension may also derive from an astral-catastrophic source.
Murray is then led to certain conclusions about the nature of the artist and of artistic creativity that were quite radical for his time and are still radical in ours, but that are to be found in most previous cultures East or West.
The phenomenon he refers to, of course, is the reappearance of similar primitive themes, events, and incidents in all great narrative. It is his belief that, in the process of being handed down through the generations
The basic unit of attraction, he feels, is the general story line, whose primordial origin gives it a timeless and universal power, for
In seeking a cause for this phenomenon, Murray is inexorably led to the conclusion that art is greater than man, that the production and consumption of it is innate and universal.
Murray speaks as if the traditional constituent in art is almost organic, almost possessing a life force of its own independent of the artists who respond to it.
His resolution of the seeming conflict between the conscious artist and the unconscious currents of archetypal action that appear in his art is to praise and accept both as equal constituents of great narrative.
Here, Murray has found at last an intimation of the deeper answer to his largest questions. He perceptively suggests that the great artist does not simply stir our primordial memories with his creations, but that he moves with them in the act of creation. This implies what will be suggested in the last chapter of my book, and what has been suggested by many critics already, literary and otherwise – that the great narrative artist is the voice of forces much larger than himself, forces that must find release through expression in such typical collective human artifacts as art, myth, legend, and religion. The anthropological approach to literature is based upon the contention that creative art contains a significant collective component. What Murray says, in effect, is that Hamlet was created as an organic and dynamic response to eternal universal currents of human belief and expression.
Murray locates the collective source in the Greek creation myths, but also seems to suggest that behind these myths themselves lies something larger and older. If we remember that Dr. Velikovsky has analyzed the Greek creation myths in Worlds in Collision as symbolic descriptions of actual disorders in the solar system and resultant world ages,(31) we can carry Murray's line of thought back to what may be the ultimate source of Hamlet and Orestes. We can say that the two sets of narratives we have looked at – and a great many others in Western culture, as we shall see later in this article* – may be symbolic retellings of collectively traumatic celestial disorders. When we perceive the intrinsic connection between Elizabethan drama, Greek drama, Greek creation myth and historical catastrophe, then those universal impulses which Murray describes as strange, unanalyzed vibration, long slumbering yet eternally familiar, things belonging to the old stories and the old magic rites, impulses which still have an appeal to certain very deep-rooted human instincts, which are deeply implanted in the memory of the race, stamped, as it were, upon our physical organism and reach far into past ages, are seen to be memories of immense natural catastrophe repressed out of consciousness but lying always beneath the surface, to emerge in legend, religion, myth, and art, as Dr. Velikovsky says.
(A large number of the similarities which have been established between Hamlet and Orestes, and which will be established with Oedipus and Norse, Roman, Mayan and Egyptian myth, may derive from a set of catastrophes earlier than the Venusian and Martian interactions of the fifteenth and eighth to seventh centuries B.C.E. reconstructed in Worlds in Collision. These earlier catastrophes involve the much larger planets Saturn and Jupiter. They occurred much earlier and over a longer period of time and are reflected predominantly in Egyptian myth. Several people in addition to Dr. Velikovsky are at work on this earlier period, but very little has been published to date. I have therefore omitted reference at this point to the Saturnian set of catastrophes as prototypes for the Hamlet-Orestes narrative pattern, but wish to advise the reader that, when such material becomes available, certain revisions and extensions will become necessary to this article and perhaps elsewhere in my book.)
Hamlet also bears comparison with Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, to which we shall now turn. In both plays, the heroes-are given the unpleasant task of bringing to light a dark deed that has cursed their respective states. In both cases, the hero's father is murdered, while the mother, party to it or not, becomes the wife of the murderer, and these together constitute the evil deed. The country ruled by the murderer and his harlot-consort consequently becomes blighted and sick. One sign of its sickness is a corruption of normal relationships. Father spies on child, friend on friend, and no one wants to tell the truth, not even to the monarch to whom allegiance is owed and who is searching for the cause of the state's unease. Each hero is enlightened by a supernatural message about the unsuspected crime, and each must then set about to verify its truth. When the cause of the national disease is at last found, each is destroyed by the process of disclosure, but the hero's death is a cleansing action that removes the state's infection and leaves it healthier than before. The event is thus a fortunate tragedy, being disastrous for a particular person but prosperous for his society. Each protagonist might therefore be described as an example of the Quest Hero, searching for the unknown magical national cure, who becomes the Hero as Scapegoat, the one who gives his life so that the spreading effects of a past evil deed can be obliterated. As a result, both participate in versions of a fertility myth. Both take part in an action cyclical and seasonal in nature, beginning in autumn when danger threatens and ending in spring when danger is removed. Their deeds, and in particular their deaths, precipitate a universal social cleansing. Hamlet therefore unquestionably forms part of a sequence of such plays in western culture that is ancient, mythical, ritualistic, and religious.
It is one thing to note the similarities between Hamlet and Oedipus, but it is quite another to try to explain them. Shall we simply say that Shakespeare had read his Sophocles? Would this account for the similarities in structure, form, pace, mood? The problem here is rather similar to that which faced Murray with regard to Hamlet and Orestes. Or, if the concept of deliberate borrowing is repugnant, one might alternatively contend that Shakespeare unconsciously incorporated certain events into Hamlet that he had previously consciously acquired and then forgotten. The Freudian might add that Shakespeare did this because they represent certain perennial socially-dangerous urges against which we must be warned. When a character representing all of us does these things and is destroyed for it, his acting out of these impulses on our behalf is a form of release through surrogate, and his being punished instead of us is a safe form of warning. The Jungian would rejoin that man repeatedly embodies these patterns of action in art because they represent universally-similar battles within the psyche of each individual. They are not cultural borrowings, conscious or unconscious, but arise naturally from the psyche as responses to the tensions of maturation or individuation. In the subsequent discussion, I will illustrate two other possible solutions, one anthropological, one historical. Together, they will make the point that there is indeed a common source for Hamlet and Oedipus – a racial memory of horrible collective experiences.
... to be continued.
REFERENCES1. See, for example, Norman Holland, The Shakespearean Imagination, Macmillan, New York, 1964- C. L. Barber, Shakespeare's Festive Comedy, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1959; John Holloway, The Story of the Night, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London, 1961; and Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1957.
2. Paul Gottschalk, The Meaning of Hamlet: Modes of Literary Interpretation Since Bradley, University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 1972, p. 136.
3. Immanuel Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, Laurel edn., Dell, New York, 1967. See specifically pp. 302-315.
4. A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature, W. L. Guerin et al, eds., Harper &, Row, New York, 1966, pp. 116-117.
5. C. Hugh Holman, A Handbook to Literature 3rd edn., paperback, The Odyssey Press, Bobbs-Merrill, New York, 1972, p. 334.
6. Alan W. Watts, Myth and Ritual in Christianity, Vanguard Press, New York, 1954, p. 7. Quoted in Guerin, op. cit, p. 117.
7. George Walley, Poetic Process, Routledge and Kegan Paul, London, 1957. Quoted in Guerin, op. cit., p. 117.
8. Phillip Wheelwright, "Poetry, Myth and Reality," in The Language of Poetry, ed. Allen Tab, Princeton University Press, 1942.
9. Guerin, op. cit., pp. 117-118.
10. Dictionary of World Literature ed. Joseph T. Shipley, paperback edn., Littlefield, Adam & Co., Totowa, New Jersey, 1966, pp. 275-276.
11. Holman, op. cit., p. 41.
12. Guerin, op. cit., p. 132.
13. The Complete Works of Shakespeare, Revised edn., ed. Hardin Craig and David Bevington, Scott, Foresman & Co., Illinois, 1973, p. 49.
14. Shipley, op. cit., p. 277.
15. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII, paperback edn., Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1968. Revised edn., Introduction, vii-viii
16. Francis Fergusson, The Idea of a Theatre, paperback edn., Doubleday Anchor, Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1953, p. 14.
17. Ibid., p. 129.
18. Guerin, op. cit., pp. 127-128.
19. Five Approaches of Literary Criticism, ed. Wilbur S. Scott, paperback, Collier Books, Collier-Macmillan Ltd., New York, 1962, p. 251.
20. Gilbert Murray, "Hamlet and Orestes," reprinted in Scott, Five Approaches of Literary Criticism, op. cit., pp. 253-281.
21. Ibid., p. 281.
22. Ibid., p. 279.
23. Ibid., p. 281.
24. Ibid., p. 280.
25. Ibid., p. 279.
26. Ibid., pp. 279-280.
27. Ibid., p. 280.
28. Ibid., p. 279.
29. Ibid., p. 280.
30. Ibid., p. 281.
31. Velikovsky, Worlds in Collision, pp. 177-183.