Looking for Hamlet
By Marvin W. Hunt
Palgrave MacMillan, 230 pp.

Near the remote part of the northern neck of Virginia from where I’m writing, a sign on the main highway indicates a turnoff for a place called Ophelia. The route is called, appropriately, Folly Road. I followed Folly Road but never found Ophelia. Eventually the route led toward the water, of course.

Was there a literary trickster on the county planning board? Or was this confluence of Hamlet allusions fortuitous? Either way, the author of Looking for Hamlet, N. C. State professor Marvin W. Hunt, would probably appreciate the play’s infrastructural reach far into maritime Virginia. The pretext of Hunt’s book, originally published a year ago by St. Martins and now out on Palgrave MacMillan, is that Hamlet “has shaped every generation of Western life.” At once ambitious but compact, scholarly but accessible, opinionated yet broadminded, Hunt’s book is a loving, sometimes idiosyncratic chronicle of “the single most important work in constructing who we are.”

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is, like most of his plays, borrowed from earlier sources, and Hunt begins with the 12th-century Danish legend of Ambleth. He then describes a later French revision before reaching the “ur-Hamlet,” a lost 1580s drama that some commentators (most notably Harold Bloom) suggest was written by Shakespeare himself. (Hunt agrees with the prevailing theory that the author was Thomas Kyd, best known for The Spanish Tragedy, a play with which Hamlet has much in common.)

Hunt’s history then considers “The Three Hamlets“: the distinctly different versions of the play published between 1603-23Hamlet was already receiving interpretations before its text had even settled. Hunt then presents his two main arguments. First, Hamlet‘s (and Hamlet’s) revolutionary achievement is in its “interiority,” its theatrical relocation of reality within the confines of the mind (“Nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so,” as Hamlet says)a relocation emblematized by the Yorick’s Skull scene, which, unlike most of Hamlet, was probably Shakespeare’s whole-cloth invention.

Hunt’s second argument is that Hamlet is the world’s iconic “dead son.” This surprising notion turns the lens away from the lost-father theme that dominates Hamlet studies, but Hunt supports it by reminding us that Shakespeare’s only son died at age 11. His name? Hamnet. (“The names,” Hunt writes, “were virtually interchangeable for Elizabethans.”) The dead-son theory has vast interpretive ramifications, and Hunt follows them all the way back to the “remarkable increase of male babies named ‘Hamlet’ [occurring] in the decade following” the play’s premiere. That we wouldn’t dream of naming a child Hamlet today exposes the dark, brooding psychic space our collective dead son now inhabits.

The remaining bulk of Looking for Hamlet is an exemplary chronicle of four centuries’ changing response to the play and the character. Hunt visits the scolding rationalists of the Enlightenment (Voltaire was a vehement detractor); melancholic Romantics like Goethe and Coleridge (“I have a smack of Hamlet myself,” the latter remarked); the starchy, priggish Victorians, who tried in vain to tidy up the unruly epic; and war-battered Modernists like T. S. Eliot, who infamously complained that Hamlet “is almost certainly an artistic failure.”

Freud then takes over, followed by a long chapter called “Postmodern Hamlet.” Semiotic abstruseness, and its post-Freudian obsessions with the phallus and bodily functions, with leftist ideology and factitious wordplay, are difficult to digest; Hunt’s generally evenhanded if perhaps overlong account (its length owes to his personal involvement in the field) subtly smirks at some postmodern criticism. Discussing Jacques Lacan, Hunt “beg[s] the reader’s indulgence while I attempt to summarize his argument.” And when Hunt narrates his entanglement, as a young professor in the 1980s, in an academic skirmish over Hamlet with some of his more radical contemporaries (they essentially booted him out of their club), he does more than settle a score; the story reveals that postmodernist theory is simply anathema to Hunt’s approach. Although he is a fluent academician, his book reads like a personal essay, designed to appeal to casual audiences. He goes out of his way to present his ideas simply, and frequently recaps them for the reader’s comfort. He even includes a synopsis of Hamlet in his introduction as a refresher, plus two picture galleries.

Hunt’s deeply personal investment in Hamlet leads him to a late digression about his interest in Duke football player Micah Harris, who died young in a tragic car accident in 2004. This quirky side trip, which aims to yoke the dead-son motif to Hunt’s own Hamletic concerns, feels like a bit of a reach; but its unshakable humanism firmly opposes him to the bloodless postmodernist position that the “individual” is merely a socio-cultural construction.

But if that’s all we are, Hunt might argue, then for 400 years that construction has had Hamlet as its foundation. And if, as Joan Didion famously observed, we tell ourselves stories in order to live, then perhaps the most important one we tell is Hamlet’s, the cardinal tale of a soulful individual resisting a soulless world.

And we keep telling it. Shakespeare’s Dane casts his spell on dramatists to this dayas I can attest. My very first playthe first one I’d admit I wrote, anywaywas a resetting of Hamlet in a truck stop. I wrote Land of Trucks in my senior year of college, after a long gestation that began freshman year when I saw a metatheatrical version of Hamlet featuring a skeptical narrator who, like Hamlet himself, refuses to be drawn into the action. That Hamlet was conceived and directed by Scott Shepherd, then a senior.

About a year ago, I saw Shepherd give a superb performance as Hamlet in The Wooster Group’s bracing, technology-driven production at the Public Theatera staging sourced from Richard Burton’s 1964 “theatrofilm” version. I found myself hoping that Shepherd, playing the role that had obsessed him for two decades, on a hallowed New York stage, had finally found the sweet prince.

But as Hunt’s title Looking for Hamlet implies, no one finds Hamlet. Whether we study 400 years of him, return to him 20 years after our first visitation, or rewrite him in our own plays, Hamletthe dead son, the missing person, the great fugitiveescapes our grasp and absconds with the key to our mortality, in flight toward the next generation.