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).
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)
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)
From Shakespeare Bulletin: A Journal of Performance Criticism and Scholarship (14.3, Summer 1996).
return to bradberens.com "More Writing" page.