The Aging Of Hamlet Essay

1140 words - 5 pages

The Aging of Hamlet

"Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are"  Milton   I Read Hamlet the other day.  It had changed considerably since I last read it.  Hamlet himself was somewhat thinner, I thought; but he had also mellowed considerably; he was rather less cynical and a little more tolerant than he had been.  Polonius was definitely more senile than before. Ophelia was less silly, and more of a pathetic figure than ever.  Laertes was exactly the same: that sort of young man does not change; but Osrichad distinctly grown up.  The Queen was a little fatter; and the King's teeth seemed to me to be needing attention.  These were the principal changes I noticed in the play....

Some people will say that this is fantastic nonsense, and that it was I that had changed, not the play.  Most imagine that when a work of art leaves the hand of the master, it remains in changeless beauty forever, though succeeding generations may feel differently about it, seeing it from different angles.  It is to point out the fallacy of this common opinion that I am writing this essay.

The fallacy springs from regarding a great work of art as a dead thing; whereas the distinctive fact about whatever has been created by genius is that it is alive and not dead.  When Milton says that "books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are," his statement is both too wide and too narrow: too wide, because it is not true of all books, but only of a very select minority, the majority being as dead as mutton; too narrow because it is true not of books only but of all genuine works of art.  They are alive; and to be alive means to be capable of changing in response to the changes of one's environment. Hamlet is not the same thing for us as it was for Shakespeare's contemporaries.  I hold, strongly, that this does not merely mean that we are different from the Elizabethans; it means that Hamlet, too, is different from what it was; being alive, it has exercised the prerogative of living things, and has changed with changing circumstance.

Before you dismiss this as an airy fancy, consider whether you are not making the mistake of thinking of a work of art as something material - a statue as a piece of marble shaped in a certain way, a picture as a number of brushfuls of pigment arranged in a certain way on a flat expanse of canvas, a sonata as a number of sounds arranged in a certain relation with one another, a poem as a number of black marks on white paper, and soon.  The work of art is alive because it is not matter but spirit.  When Michelangelo has taken a block of white marble and so shaped it as to body forth his conception of David - and the high, heroic meaning that David has for him - the result is not a block of...

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