Hamlet – And The Vision Of Darkness


Hamlet –
And The Vision Of Darkness
By Rhodri Lewis
Princeton University Press – £30.00

Literature is invention. Fiction is fiction. To call a story a true story is an insult to both art and truth. Every great writer is a great deceiver, but so is that arch-cheat Nature. Nature always deceives. From the simple deception of propagation to the prodigiously sophisticated illusion of protective colour in butterflies or birds, there is in Nature a marvelous system of spells and wiles. The writer of fiction only follows Nature’s lead.

     Vladimir Nabokov (Good Readers and Good Writers)
     ‘Hamlet as Poet’

Surely the writer of fiction – or the writer of whatever for that matter – follows his or her instinct? Closely followed by the persuasive urge of the heart? Either way, it ought to be somewhat accepted that Vladimir Nabokov does have a point; even if only to suggest that the quintessential instinct of ones’ heart, could well be steeped within the gravitational sphere of nature.
Or should that be Nature with a capital N?
After all, Niccolo Machiavelli, to whom William Shakespeare is oft associated within these pages, was always one to rely and readily assert himself within the rather fraught parameters of human nature: ”Shakespesre is again closer to writers like Tacitus and Machiavelli, for whom it is vital to acknowledge that cunning, delusion, and self-interest are simply the currency of human affairs” (‘Hunting and the Nature of Things’).

One might also deduce that cunning, (definitely) delusion and (relative) self-interest are also the erstwhile currency of one of Shakespeare’s most complex characters, Hamlet.

Throughout these 324 pages (excluding Preface and Acknowledgements, Note on Text, Bibliography and Index), Hamlet – And The Vision Of Darkness, is a dense, explanetry dissertation of as much. So if one has come to this book expecting a mere skim of the surface with regards the relationship betwixt Hamlet and all that of which they deem darkness to scholastically represent, then perhaps think again.

Rhodri Lewis – a professor of English literature and a fellow of St. Hugh’s College at the University of Oxford – has herein written a revisionary account of not only Hamlet himself, but also the deeply troubled character, the ever widening trajectory of play’s philosophy, not to mention the actual setting of the play within both its time and its place: ”Hamlet thus offers a representation of the cultural dynamics shaping human existence that is rich, sustained, compelling, and completely at odds with early modern convention. Its moral universe is an unyielding night. One that self-exploration, inwardness, honour, loyalty, love, poetry, philosophy, politics, moral scruple, military force, and religious belief are powerless to illuminate.”

To be sure, all of the above and then some, are meticulously addressed amid this book’s five most comprehensive chapters. As Lynn Enterline of Vanderbilt University has since been noted as saying, the book makes for ”a significant contribution to recent reassessments of humanism’s unintended consequences.”

That’s not to say Hamlet – And The Vision Of Darkness reeks of nothing other than academia – far from it.

In the final chapter, ‘Hamlet As Philosopher,’ Lewis cuts to the philosophical chase, by inserting perhaps his own irreducible quest for discovery, when he writes: ”Shakespeare uses Hamlet and Hamlet to explore the notion that humanist philosophy is a confidence trick; that, like humanist historiography and poetics, it is bullshit. Something expounded by actors who, despite their commitment to maintaining the illusions of their craft, are constrained to perform scripts that misrepresent both themselves and the worlds – moral and natural – around them.”

The notion of ‘humanist philosophy’ being something of ‘a confidence trick,’ really does bequeath those whom subscribe to the (in)famous six words of ‘to be or not to be,’ something (else) to think about. Talk about. Turn about.

There’s no deliberating upon the fact that Hamlet – And The Vision Of Darkness goes way beyond any actual vision of actual darkness. It soars to such an intrinsic height of thorough investigation, it’ll be really hard to read another book on Hamlet without referring back to this one. The bar has indeed been raised.

David Marx


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