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Shakespeare's Hamlet and the Controversies of Self. .

John Lee. Shakespeare's Hamlet and the Controversies of Self. New York and Oxford: Clarendon Press/Oxford, 2000. xii + 266 pp. index. bibi. $70. ISBN: 0-19-818504-9.

For John Lee the question "Who's there?," with which Shakespeare's Hamlet begins announces the play's concern with identity. In his shakespeare's Hamlet and the Controversies of Self Lee poses the critical issue which the question raises: "Does Prince Hamlet have a self-constituting sense of self?" (1). Affirming that the Prince is indeed endowed with such a self, Lee demonstrates that in Hamlet interiority "is both an issue and at issue" (2).

Examining the work of Hamlet's critics, Lee restages the controversies of self which the play enacts, charting debates over character, identity, and interiority, a chief focus of the play's criticism. The early critical history of Hamlet is often a paean to Shakespeare as a writer who invests his characters with a life-like self. Lee shows that while the commentaries of eighteenth-century critics like Pope, Guthrie, and Johnson discuss external notions of "character," nineteenth-century critics, like Coleridge, often praise the evocation of Hamlet's inner self as the chief excellence of the play. Lee's observation that these admiring critics provide little concrete evidence to support their enthusiasm implicitly argues the need to reinvestigate the assumptions about character on which Hamlet's reputation still rests.

Lee claims that postmodern critics, in contrast, answer the question "Who's there?" with a resounding "nothing." Lee engages in a witty and often scathing attack on New Historicists and Cultural Materialists, challenging their denials of interiority to the early modern "subject." He maintains that for New Historicists, Hamlet is a subject, a social product, and a stage on which contemporary ideologies are enacted. For the Cultural Materialists, Hamlet embodies the myth of the "individual," a post-Renaissance concept, and a tool of political oppression. The Prince's interiority is only a fiction; critics have filled the gap--the absence of interiority--with their own notions of a transcendent essentialist self.

Contesting these positions, Lee undertakes a rigorous analysis of what constitutes interiority in the Renaissance. He cautions that words which now describe "innerness"--individual, identity, self, and so on--either did not exist in the Renaissance or had not acquired their modern denotations. Thus, Shakespeare, Lee maintains, often uses metaphor to represent interiority. Moreover, Lee counters expectations of an essentialist, unchanging self. Instead, the constructive theory of identity postulated by twentieth-century cognitive psychologist George A. Kelly and the moral theory of Alasdair MacIntyre provide Lee with a model of the "processional" interiority which, he believes, captures Shakespeare's representation of the Prince. Such a notion of interioriry has its Renaissance precedent in Montaigne's portrait of the fluidity of the self. This sense of self is enacted, Lee contends, in the verbal reformulation of personal constructs with which Hamlet responds to the commands of the Ghost and the new world in which he finds himself. Moral theory helps us see Hamlet forging a perspective by orienting himself in relationship to his moral "goods." For Lee, Hamlet's interiority, then, is represented by "the intersection" of Hamlet's "constructs" and his "goods" (192). Endowed with agency, the Hamlet we witness in soliloquy is in the process of renegotiating his conception of reality and aligning himself with his goods in accordance with his own moral compass. Placing great value on "innerness," the Prince, Lee argues, self-consciously wages his own battle against residual and dominant notions of interiority--the source of his disaffection.

Lee's challenge to postmodern rejections of interiority is informative, astute and provocative. He deftly uses the question "Who's there?" to clarify the often confusing theories of subjectivity espoused by postmodern critics. Refuting their claims, Lee is, nevertheless, attentive to their criticism of a transcendent "essentialist self" His purpose is to recover a Renaissance sense of interioriry. Lee's book provides a valuable explanation and assessment of postmodern conceptions of interioriry which will be of use to scholars and teachers of Renaissance texts. Moreover, his work should be of compelling interest to those who, having taken Hamlet at his word--"But I have that within which passes show" (1.2.85)--would like to reevaluate the evidence for the Prince's famous reputation as a dramatic model of self-hood and a paragon of human self-consciousness.
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Author:Robinson, Marsha S.
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 2003
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