ENGL 523-01: Hamlet
All it takes is the image of a man with a skull, and you know that you are in the world of “Hamlet.” This is perhaps the most famous literary text by the most famous author in the world. And yet, no matter how many times you read it or see it performed, there are always new questions to explore. Just what is “Hamlet”? We will consider the multiple textual versions in which it survives (First Quarto, Second Quarto, First Folio). Where did it come from? We will turn to its sources, including the old Scandinavian folktale “Amleth,” a French prose version of 1570, and the mythical “Ur-Hamlet”; we will also consider generic analogues, such as the “revenge plays” “The Spanish Tragedy” and Shakespeare’s own “Titus Andronicus.” What historical contexts does it emerge from? We will review relevant political theory, religious debate, and notions about kingship, gender relations, ghosts, and suicide. How do we read it? Moving forward from Ernest Jones’s Freudian “Hamlet and Oedipus,” we will find it susceptible of every theoretical approach. What can literary scholars learn from performance? With “Hamlet” as the core text for the MIT Global Shakespeares Video and Performance Archive, we will have access to a rich trove of scenes from stage, film, and small-scene productions. How has “Hamlet” inspired poets, novelists, composers, choreographers, and artists around the world? We will sample some manifestations of the play’s remarkable, multi-cultural afterlife. At all stages, members of the seminar will help determine the directions we take in exploring what T.S. Eliot called the “Mona Lisa” of literature.