Some Necessary Questions of the Play: A Stage-Centered Analysis of Shakespeare's Hamlet. By Robert E. Wood. Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 1994. (sold by Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1994.) Pp. 171. $32.50 (cloth).

By Bradley S. Berens

The subtitle of Robert Wood's book provokes a necessary question of its own: what does it mean to be stage-centered? There are several possible stage-centered approaches to Hamlet: a partial reconstruction of the original audience's experience, a stage history of the play from the Restoration to the present, a pragmatic guide to performing the play on a modern stage, or an abstract, ahistorical orientation that engages more with an idea of the stage than the practical realities of a specific performance. This last is Wood's approach, and it is the most serious flaw in a book filled with provocative but undigested insights about Shakespeare.

Wood seems aware of potential objections to his approach: "Why then this abstract context rather than one specifically Elizabethan, to reflect the play's originating culture, or specifically contemporary to reflect our own? I believe this abstraction is natural to the play" (17). But he never fully explains why Hamlet is naturally abstract. Throughout, Wood's reluctance to engage with theatrical specifics blunts the edge of his analysis. While claiming to be focused on performance as a text that can be semiotically interpreted, Wood nonetheless repeatedly privileges the written text over performance. For example, he accepts Hamlet's description of Fortinbras as a "delicate and tender prince" as necessarily accurate rather than as a projection by Hamlet (55). Nothing Fortinbras does on stage or by report is particularly delicate or tender: in recent performances he has often been a thug, perhaps most famously in Ingmar Bergman's 1987 production. In performance, Fortinbras can indeed conform to Hamlet's perceptions of him, but he does not have to do so. Wood's bias towards the text is less than ideally sensitive to the ambiguities of performance. None of this would be a problem except that Wood makes concrete claims about audience response in the theater: "The emotional indeterminacy of the play strongly inclines an audience to contemplate the indeterminacy of language. . . the audience shares [Hamlet's] ironic perception of how the gap between seeming and being in the state of Denmark deracinates language itself" (76). As I read, I was consistently skeptical about any theater audience's ability or inclination to notice what Wood wants them to notice.

Wood's idea of stage-centered analysis is therefore methodologically most similar to Harry Berger's polemically anti-theatrical Imaginary Audition (1989), although Wood might quarrel with the comparison. His overall goal is to discuss "those properties of the play Hamlet that have made it a territory for cultural renegotiation" (13-14) and "the structural considerations that make possible the multiplicity of contemporary approaches" (21). However, Wood never explicitly represents either that process of cultural renegotiation or the range of contemporary approaches, and this renders the stakes of his contentions hard to understand.

In the first chapter, "Space and Scrutiny in Hamlet," Wood observes that "acts of physical observation in Hamlet are characterized by the limitations of the senses" (33). In a city rife with eavesdropping, argues Wood, the residents of Elsinore are not very good spies: hearing without seeing results in the death of Polonius, while seeing without hearing robs Hamlet of an opportunity to kill Claudius. Wood is at his best in moments like this one, when he engages closely with the play. His sense of Elsinore as not much of a place when compared to other settings in Renaissance drama is refreshing, as is his observation that "The Mousetrap" is of a piece with a series of other plays-within-the-play set up as diagnostic tools by hidden or obvious spectators, like the conversation Polonius and Claudius arrange between Hamlet and Ophelia, or the closet scene between Hamlet and Gertrude that Polonius partially overhears until Hamlet kills him. This sort of illuminating close reading is valuable, but rare in the book; Wood's more theoretical attempts tend not to work as well.

Later in the chapter, he uses the phenomenologist Merleau-Ponty's observations about nighttime perception as a disruption of ordinary spatial perception to explain Hamlet's increased agency in the dark. Hamlet, Wood argues, has inverted

the normal relationship to darkness: his investment of daytime with the quality of nightmare and night with some measure of freedom to act. The normal constraints that darkness places on behavior and that would be incorporated in the representation of darkness on the stage would not seem to apply to Hamlet himself (43).

While it is true that Hamlet's relationship towards darkness is an inversion of Merleau-Ponty, it is a common relationship in Shakespeare: Henry the Fifth walks disguised and freed by the night before the battle of Agincourt; Romeo could not woo Juliet by day, and Iago gets the teetotaler Cassio drunk at night. I bring up these examples because Wood's narrow focus on Hamlet works against him throughout the book: he regards attitudes and events that occur throughout Shakespeare as unique to Hamlet.

Wood's arguments might have been nicely refined by a broader engagement with other Shakespearean plays, as well as by a closer engagement with recent criticism. His account of Hamlet's questionable ability "to 'take up' the past and to 'project' a future" (59) has, for example, some interesting affinities with an argument made by Stanley Cavell in Disowning Knowledge In Six Plays of Shakespeare (1987), and I would like to have learned how Wood differs from Cavell. Similarly, some of the recent New Historicist work on the history plays might have problematized his peculiar contention that they are not about politics (29 and 150). A more rigorous placement of Wood's phenomenological methodology within its somewhat embattled philosophical context would also have been welcome.

It is difficult to give an account of each chapter's argument because often the argument that Wood presents in the beginning of a chapter has little to do with the discussion he eventually undertakes. He frames his discussion of the soliloquies in Chapter Four with the stimulating contention that the audience must synthesize a Hamlet out of his different styles of discourse in soliloquy and dialogue:
In order to perform this synthesis, we judge (at least implicitly) the relationship of the use of soliloquy in a particular play to the play's other ways of presenting. . . . In Shakespeare, the relationship of soliloquy to dialogue is complex and variable, but it characteristically creates a tension between a character and his behavior or provides an audience with new codes to interpret that behavior. (91-92)

Unfortunately, in the pages that follow Wood never follows up on this valuable idea of synthesis.

In chapter after chapter, Wood sets up theoretical frameworks that he then abandons. Within these chapters, however, are observations about Hamlet that can be invaluable:
If Hamlet returned from Wittenberg when his father died, then the earnest wooing of Ophelia that alarmed Polonius and Laertes would be assumed to have occurred in the immediate aftermath of the funeral. It would be difficult to envision how he could have wooed her during this hypothetical period of time. . . . (53)

Or, "a large part of the hesitation for which Hamlet criticizes himself is not time we experience as an audience but time between the scenes which is brought to our attention by Hamlet's self-reproach and by the stage devices which indicate that time has passed" (56). These insights testify to Wood's long and sensitive engagement with the play, but they are only tenuously linked to the arguments that surround them and they are buried in Wood's difficult prose.

When I describe Wood's prose as difficult I am not employing the standard academic cliché that means "challenging but rewarding." I mean difficult: while reading I frequently found myself frustrated to the point of crankiness. He prefers negative to positive statements: "If I claimed one virtue for my approach, it would not be that it dominates a debate but that it refuses to disengage itself from other approaches" (21). Once the reader untangles all the negatives in this sentence-near the end of an unhelpful introduction-it doesn't say much. Wood's habitual use of the passive voice frequently renders the agents of his actions invisible, while his jarringly absent transitions cast his reader adrift between paragraphs or sentences: "The modernity of the play derives in part from our perceptions that the use of space in the play is a restriction of the uses of space normal to Elizabethan theater. Violent passions dominate Hamlet, but straightforwardly violent actions are excluded from the stage" (30). A distant link exists between the two sentences in that, Wood contends, there is less violence represented onstage in Hamlet than in other revenge tragedies, which relates to the restriction of normal Elizabethan stage space. However, the connection between the two sentences is far from obvious; the reader has to fill in such blanks too often. Finally, Wood can allow his syntax to run away with his argument. In a parallel construction to a sentence in which Joseph Chaikin describes performance as "a way of making oneself visible, recognizable and comprehensible to another" Wood claims that Hamlet "desires to be invisible, unrecognizable, and incomprehensible" (119). Wood may be correct about Hamlet's desire to be incomprehensible, but invisible and unrecognizable? If this is true, then Wood needs to (but does not) explain it thoroughly.

Some Necessary Questions of the Play does indeed have a lot to say about Hamlet, much of which has not been said before, but the presentation and organization of the book does a disservice to the intelligence behind Wood's ideas.

From Shakespeare Bulletin: A Journal of Performance Criticism and Scholarship (14.3, Summer 1996).

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