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Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness.

Lewis, Rhodri, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 2017; hardback; pp. 392; 11 b/w illustrations; R.R.P. US$39.95, [pounds sterling]32.95; ISBN 9780691166841.

In this monograph on Hamlet, we are treated to a new and startling perspective on a familiar subject. Rhodri Lewis begins with a nod to Maria de Grazia's insistence that in the field of Hamlet studies it is necessary that we start again and rethink the approaches that have shaped so much of the critical body to date. Lewis supports his ground-breaking theories with a critical approach that is both thorough and systematic. His conclusions are provocative but there is a considerable weight of research behind each statement, which gives his readers food for thought and an opportunity for fruitful counter-argument. In this spirit, Lewis advocates exploring the 'formal, cultural, intellectual, and historical' (p. 6) aspects surrounding the play in order to do it justice.

The first two chapters on humanism and hunting set up an argument based on the premise that Shakespeare 'came to find humanist philosophy deficient in the face of human experience as he observed it' (p. 26). Lewis deftly demonstrates the importance of the hunt in Hamlet, arguing that it serves as a tool for Shakespeare to demonstrate the shortcomings of humankind. Cicero exemplified the negativity associated with astutia and calliditas by means of hunting metaphors, which Shakespeare utilized and expanded to suggest that cunning and self-interest are the stock-in-trade of human affairs. By discussing these ideas, Lewis is able to demonstrate that Hamlet is, therefore, a character who is alienated not only from the world around him but also from himself.

The next three chapters focus on Hamlet as historian, as poet, and as philosopher. In Chapter 3 Lewis harnesses the recent critical turn to memory and its importance to illustrate how remembering can be linked to the discourse of reason. As the latter is synonymous with the morally responsible human agent, Lewis shows how we can reconsider Hamlet's thoughts on the memory of his father. Lewis concludes that Hamlet is not impeded by excess of remembrance when it comes to enacting revenge, but rather he does not remember his father as he and the Ghost think he should. The memory of his father does not ever have enough force to motivate revenge, explaining his hesitation. In this paradigm, Hamlet, Fortinbras, and Laertes, while supposedly honouring memories of their dead fathers, are in reality remembering themselves and their own interests. Turning to poetry, Lewis asserts that Shakespeare uses Hamlet as a vehicle to illustrate the inadequacies of neoclassical poetics current in the early modern period. He demonstrates that Hamlet's discussions on The Mousetrap serve to underscore the character's lack of emotional investment in Old Hamlet's demise. Within this chapter Lewis is at pains to demonstrate that Hamlet is not concerned with creating an illusion of reality; rather, through the inset of The Murder of Gonzago, we are shown a world that is used to understanding its experience through different sorts of fiction.

In Chapter 5, Lewis argues that Hamlet is not the philosopher and critical thinker that many academic writers believe him to be. Instead Lewis posits that Hamlet is a 'thinker of unrelenting superficiality, confusion, and pious self-deceit' (p. 238). With regard to that most iconic Shakespearean soliloquy, 'to be or not to be', Lewis asserts that the diversity of interpretations is predicated on its jumbled confusion of superficial humanism. Lewis points out that this soliloquy is, in fact, a quaestio, a subject of contention in a rhetorical debate that in philosophical terms should be connected to a real-world problem. Lewis effectively argues that, although Hamlet regards himself as a philosopher, his thoughts are 'the ill-arranged and ill-digested harvest of his bookish education' (p. 277). The question of providence comes under scrutiny as Lewis adroitly reveals it as a tool for Hamlet to hide his lack of concern over the murder of Polonius. Lewis concludes that, '[f]or Shakespeare, fortune and fate are different manifestations of the same phenomenon: the human need to believe that the apparent randomness of things and events is shaped by some kind of pattern or meaning, and, concomitantly, the tendency to diminish or deny the function of human agency in making things the way they are' (p. 303).

Any disquiet felt by a reader of this work may be not because the statements are provocative and outrageous, but more because of an outrage felt in response to a perceived undermining of dearly held notions of Shakespeare's humanist leanings. Lewis closes his work by defending himself against those critics who might think he is indeed describing Hamlet as a work of nihilism, asserting that he is rather demonstrating 'the extraordinary pains that Shakespeare took to represent the cultural world of humanism as fundamentally indifferent to things as they really are' (p. 309). His argument certainly convinced this reader.

BRID PHILLIPS, The University of Western Australia
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Author:Phillips, Brid
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2018
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