A Star is Born: Hamlet and Reader Response Theory
William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is widely regarded as one of the English language’s greatest plays. It captures the attention of audiences like few other plays can, and it has held their attention for over four-hundred years. It certainly helps that Hamlet can ride on the coattails of Shakespeare’s reputation, but there is undeniably something about the play that makes it stand out, even among Shakespeare’s other shows. Temma Berg’s 1987 essay “Psychologies of Reading” provides an excellent composite image of reader-response theory, and may help to shed some light on the success of Hamlet. As a play, and especially as a tragedy, Hamlet is constantly being filtered through a plethora of lenses, as audience members cannot help but to view the play through the lens of their own life experience. The audience is constantly responding to the action on stage. That being the case, the success of Hamlet may be partially attributed to reader-response theory. Because Hamlet is fraught with ambiguities and dialogue that is open to interpretation, it lends itself to reader response, and the audience has the power to interpret scenes and dialogue as they please.
During one scene in the show, Shakespeare openly pushes the audience in the direction of analyzing his show through reader-response. Hamlet is trying to get his uncle to oust himself as the King Hamlet’s murderer. Prince Hamlet’s plan entails putting on a play in which a murder occurs under similar circumstances, and then watching his uncle’s reaction. He outlines his plan in act two, scene two, to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, telling them “in a fiction, in a dream of passion, / Could force his soul so to his own conceit / That from her working all his visage wann’d, / Tears in his eyes, distraction in’s aspect, / A broken voice, and his whole function suiting / With forms to his conceit” (2.2.511-515). Through these lines, Hamlet describes several ways the play might have an impact on King Claudius. That being the case, these lines may also signify Shakespeare inviting his audience to react and respond to the show. Although reader response theory wasn’t developed until hundreds of years later, the idea of a work art or literature having an impact on the reader and changing them was also outlined by Rosenblatt, a reader response theorist who saw “the reading process as an interaction between text and reader. Though the reader will bring his psychological, social, and cultural environment to bear during any reading of a particular text, the text will exert its own force on the reader” (Berg 253). Rosenblatt’s idea of a work exerting force on the reader or an audience member is exactly what Hamlet is trying to employ in his plan. Perhaps the show became and remained so famous because it empowered its audience and gave them the freedom to respond to the work.
As the play continues, Shakespeare continues to invite the audience to respond to the play. Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be” speech in act 3 scene 1 is delivered as a soliloquy directly to the audience and as a question. Asking the audience to consider the merits of life and death is shocking in its own right, but the fact that the speech is a series of questions is significant because it prompts the audience for a response. Inviting the audience to let the play affect them again lines up with Rosenblatt’s writings, but the end of the speech aligns with Holland’s theories on reader response as well. Towards the end of his speech, Hamlet says “But that the dread of something after death, / The undiscover’d country from whose bourn / No traveller returns, puzzles the will / And makes us rather bear those ills we have / Than fly to others that we know not of?” (3.1.79-83), which prompts the audience to consider what exactly lies in wait after death. It also makes the audience think about the difference between existence and non-existence, and ergo the difference between real life as they experience it and the play. The audience is forced to consider just how different their world is from Hamlet’s. Reader response theorist Norman Holland wrote on that same subject, and said “final reality is neither ‘objective’ nor ‘subjective’ but the transaction between them, between the me and what I relate to as not-me” (Berg 268). Here, Holland is suggesting that reality is ultimately a blend of how everything really is and how we perceive it, which also plays into Hamlet’s point when he says that even though we don’t know what is in the afterlife, people perceive it as being bad, and so they are afraid of it. Even though this sort of thinking was certainly ahead of its time, it’s possible that the success of Hamlet can be attributed to its connections to reader response theory, and the way reader response liberates the reader and the audience member alike.
Furthermore, it’s important to note that Hamlet was a deeply personal play for Shakespeare. His son had just died, and much of the play includes material Shakespeare wrote in trying to cope with his son’s death, including the “To be, or not to be” speech. The trauma, fall-out, and ambiguities present in Hamlet may be a reflection of what Shakespeare himself was dealing with when he wrote Hamlet. Throughout the play, Hamlet deals with ambiguity surrounding his identity, his relationship with his mother and uncle, his friends, and morality. Life changes drastically for him, and so his choices do as well. This is another parallel with reader response theory, this time through Fishman, who wrote “The text changes for any particular reader as he moves from one interpretive community to another or as the communities themselves follow a process of growth and decline” (Berg 256). Just as text changes for people depending on what lens they are looking at the text through, life changes for Hamlet as his role and his self-image changes throughout the show. The audience can relate to the turbulence Hamlet experiences and the subsequent shifts in his character because they, like Hamlet, see their life differently depending on what is going on it. This allows the audience to connect to the work on another level through reader response, and it may contribute to the play’s longevity.
It is likely that one of the reasons The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark has endured is the connections it has to reader response theory. When watching the show or reading the script, the audience or reader is empowered. They are able to gain a deeper understanding of the work because they are not only able to relate to it, but they are told that they should both through Hamlet overtly asking them questions and Shakespeare showing the audience a reaction to a play. While Hamlet may have been able to survive for 400 years simply because it was written by Shakespeare, it has been able to stand out as one of his best because of how well people are able to connect to it. These connections are formed, no doubt, because Shakespeare lets people both connect and respond to it naturally.
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William Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is widely regarded as one of the English language’s greatest plays. It captures the attention of audiences like few other plays […]