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Hamlet's Perfection.

Kerrigan identifies himself as "deeply connected to the culture of romanticism" (xi) and writes a bluff, brash, and at times slangy book defending Hamlet against all anti-romantic, post-modernist contenders. His first chapter is a polemical and selective guide to Hamlet criticism with heroes (G. Wilson Knight, A.C. Bradley, John Dover Wilson) and villains (Harry Levin, Roland Frye, Stephen Greenblatt). Harry Levin's The Question of Hamlet (1959) is particularly loathsome to Kerrigan, who finds it "wayward and inconsistent," its learning "wide but often superficial" (27). Kerrigan shows great respect for his mentors, Gordon Braden, with whom he collaborated several times, and Edward W. Tayler of Columbia. Hamlet's Perfection is refreshing in its candor and straightforwardness.

The heart of the book is contained in chapter three: "A Woman's a Two-Face." The "St. Louis Blues" yields a title that establishes Kerrigan's psychoanalytic interests. Splitting is at the heart of Hamlet, but the author goes beyond the virgin/whore paradox and the interesting mirroring of Gertrude and Ophelia, to bizarre speculations about the baby Will Shakespeare at the breast of Mary Arden. Kerrigan's wild Irish humor is most extravagant in the following passage:

My guess would be, to further tip my hand, that whoever breast-fed little Will (his mother, I'll wager) assumed that he would need much nourishment to survive infancy. As we know, two older sisters had not survived. About this hub a hundred plot turns, a thousand ways of putting things, eventually crystallize. (77)

This is followed by a further hypothesis, which also seems to stem from Melanie Klein:

There is also, in my view, a preoedipal foundation for the virgin/whore split in sibling rivalry, which for Shakespeare has its origins in being displaced at the breast by a new baby. It seems a good guess that Shakespeare was weaned at least nine months before his brother Gilbert arrived. (78)

How does Kerrigan know when Shakespeare was weaned? Perhaps he can also tell us how tall Shakespeare was and what he died of. Kerrigan's psychoanalysis is very different, for example, from the subtle and complex probing of Janet Adelman in her recent book, Suffocating Mothers (1992).

Kerrigan is an enthusiast who believes that the "one great inheritor of the German tradition" (13) of Hamlet interpretation was Sigmund Freud. Through Ernest Jones's book, Hamlet and Oedipus (1910), "Freud's view of Hamlet influences most of the criticism of our century" (14) But does it? Kerrigan is inclined throughout to such overstatement and exaggeration for the sake of effect. He imagines that most readers are naturally hostile to his commonsensical, romantic views. Thus the doubling of Claudius and Hamlet acquires a literal status that vitiates its suggestiveness. Moreover, I question whether "the language Hamlet uses to reproach Claudius tends to migrate into his self-reproaches" (75). For example, Kerrigan claims that "O what a rogue and a pleasant slave am I" becomes, 32 lines later "I should ha' fatted all the region kites/With this slave's offal" (75). Of course, "O what a rogue and a pleasant slave am I" is spoken only by Kerrigan's Hamlet - it is not exactly the line in Shakespeare's play. There is a similar casualness in Kerrigan's index, which is full of misspellings, mispaginations, omissions of names from the text and the notes (including Kerrigan's own name), and many other errors.

The best chapter is the last, which is an eloquent meditation on the graveyard scene. Kerrigan wittily sees Hamlet as perfecting himself and his revenge so that he can become at the end a patient, Christian revenger. "Hamlet is now beyond the dilemma of wishing to escape his fate. Rather than trying to outthink God, he works with God, his fellow counterplotter" (143). This is engaging and so are Kerrigan's thoughts in chapter two on "good night" as a tragic theme. Kerrigan brings to bear his learning in the literature of the seventeenth century, especially Donne and Milton, on what seems like a familiar topic. The writing is always crisp and energetic. There is something in the hyperbolical and polemical mood that ties readers to the book, even if only to enable them to disagree with equal vehemence. It is good, finally, to have such an old-fashioned defense of the romantic Hamlet, especially when such an approach was thought to have been definitely dead.

MAURICE CHARNEY Rutgers University
COPYRIGHT 1997 Renaissance Society of America
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Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Charney, Maurice
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1997
Words:720
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