A Raid on the Articulate: G. Wilson Knight and the Battle of Elsinore

by David P. Gontar (October 2014)

“And so each venture / Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate / With shabby equipment always deteriorating / In the general mess of imprecision of feeling, / Undisciplined squads of emotion.”
                     — T.S. Eliot 



What Eliot says so well about the fashioning of poetry applies also to its reception by readers and audiences. Where the richest tropes are concerned, rarely are we equal to the task. Outnumbered by words, we leap from book-strewn trenches when exegetical duty calls to try to gain a few hundred yards of insight before we are tossed aside by winds of doctrine. Indeed, the bones of many a once-renowned littérateur lie bleaching in the sun. Among those forgotten heroes is G. Wilson Knight (1897-1985), in his day the prolific doyen of belles-lettres and Shakespearean exposition. Knight rests now, buried in footnotes and interminable bibliography. It will be argued here that what led to his discomfiture was not inadequacy of principle, but rather a seeming inability to cleave to the very concepts and distinctions which made him a unique and powerful voice in twentieth century commentary. For Knight and his critical heirs, the “raid” was not upon elusive moods and sentiments but on poetical and dramatic texts, each possessing at their core a ‘hard gem-like flame’ making of disparate elements a living unity. Regrettably in his treatment of particular plays he seemed to descend into precisely the sort of carping criticism he discommended in more general discussions. Yet, despite departures from his own protocols, Knight’s legacy is significant. His idea of a literary work as an aesthetic gestalt or organic mystery which naturally resolves seeming difficulties has had a salutary influence on the art of reading and deserves reconsideration today.

The Critique of Criticism

In the first chapter of The Wheel of Fire (1930), “On the Principles of Shakespearean Interpretation,” Wilson Knight defends his key distinction between popular criticism, which aims at the detection of narrative imperfections, and interpretation, which seeks the ‘root metaphor’ (see, Stephen C. Pepper, World Hypotheses) out of which the work arises and whose apprehension tends to put everything in proper order. As the title (drawn from King Lear) implies, each Shakespearean drama may be conceived as a wheel from whose hub the disparate elements of the play emerge. There burns that “right Promethean fire” in and through which all is vital and integrated. As the generative moment is essentially insusceptible of reproduction, we can never sound a Shakespearean play to its very depths, for it “hath no bottom.” (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, IV, i, 214)Nevertheless, we are naturally capable of achieving a resonant Verstehen of each work, if only we can preserve “something of that child-like faith which we possess, or should possess, in the theatre.” (Knight, 3) Our readings and viewings thus remain fresh and engaging, undiminished by ivory tower niggling. That, at least, is the hope. 

For instance, Shakespeare’s early comedy The Two Gentlemen of Verona lacks top marks for some scholars in large part because of Valentine’s inopportune surrender to the cad Sir Proteus of his rights in Silvia (V, iv, 83), a gesture hard to square with his betrayal of Valentine and attempted ravishment of his lady at the play’s close. (V, iv, 83) After ‘much throwing about of brains’ amongst contemporary analysts, this minor wrinkle is still presented as a text-marring blunder. But though a minor issue might ruin the play as far as conventional literary experts are concerned, Knight would observe that such caviling needn’t spoil the fun for audiences. The paradoxical theme of youth’s coupling of fickleness and fidelity, from which the action emerges, provides sufficient context in which Valentine’s blunder is rendered aesthetically harmless, as is cross-dressed Julia’s incongruous willingness to woo Silvia on behalf of Proteus. In All’s Well That Ends Well, Helen continues her dogged pursuit of Bertram even after she learns of his plan to seduce Diana of Florence. (III, v, 65-75) As this brand of devotion is inconsistent with actual life and sentiment, modern criticism would tend to set such a ‘flawed’ play down as unrealistic and thereby substandard. Wilson Knight dissents. Though “criticism” might hold its nose, an interpretation which hearkens back to the original vision underlying the play would affirm the comedy’s symbolic integrity: Helen is not a weakling who would be Bertram’s absurd “spaniel,” (See, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, II, i, 203); she is rather an icon of devotion who “looks on tempests and is never shaken.” (See, Sonnet 116) This view tends to reinforce the dictum of Harold Bloom and others that the plays of Shakespeare are not “stories” so much as poetry, the complete consort of images dancing together.

The initial distinction between criticism and interpretation is stated this way:

Criticism to me suggests a certain process of deliberately objectifying the work under consideration; the comparison of it with other similar works in order especially to show in what respects it surpasses, or falls short of, those works; the dividing its ‘good’ from its ‘bad’; and, finally, a formal judgement as to its lasting validity. ‘Interpretation’, on the contrary, tends to merge into the work it analyses; it attempts, as far as possible, to understand its subject in the light of its own nature, employing external reference, if at all, only as a preliminary to understanding; it avoids discussion of merits, and, since its existence depends entirely on its original acceptance of the validity of the poetic unit which it claims, in some measure, to translate into discursive reasoning, it can recognize no division of ‘good’ from ‘bad’. Thus criticism is active and looks ahead, often treating past work as material on which to base future standards and canons of art; interpretation is passive, and looks back, regarding only the imperative challenge of a poetic vision. Criticism is a judgement of vision; interpretation a reconstruction of vision. In practice, it is probable that that neither can exist . . . quite divorced from the other. The greater part of poetic commentary pursues a middle course between criticism and interpretation. But sometimes work is created of so resplendent a quality, so massive a solidity of imagination, that adverse criticism beats against it idly as the wind that flings its ineffectual force against a mountain-rock. Any profitable commentary on such a work must necessarily tend towards a pure interpretation. The work of Shakespeare is of this transcendent order. (Knight, 1-2)

There follows a rich and evocative discussion of the critical/interpretive duality, attempting its elucidation on the basis of a number of interrelated tropes. An abstract of these categories is provided below.

Criticism focuses on temporal sequence, interpretation on ‘spatial’ configuration.

“To receive this whole Shakespearean vision within the intellectual consciousness demands a certain and very definite act of mind. One must be prepared to see the whole play in space as well as in time.” (Knight, 3)

This presentation of poetic drama in spatial terms runs throughout Knight’s exposition, and gives the impression that each Shakespearean drama may be regarded as a kind of symbolic tableau in which deeds are generated as a display of more primal meaning. That meaning is best quarried not by making of chronicity the play’s substance, but by looking to the creative fount out of which its atmosphere arises and in which its sequencing is situated. (Knight, 3) Taking Hamlet as an illustration, Knight urges that while criticism dithers fruitlessly over the puzzle of why the hero cannot dispatch his homicidal uncle (Knight, 2), a recognition of the underlying “death-theme” in that play draws us closer to its molten center, resolving a number of apparent aporia with a single insight or feeling tone. (Knight, 3) “The spatial, that is, the spiritual, quality uses the temporal, that is, the story, lending it dominance in order to express itself more clearly.” (Knight, 4)

Knight’s theory of “interpretation” will naturally remind some of F.S.C. Northrop’s later principle of the “undifferentiated aesthetic continuum” which he opposed to the western “theoretical component” (science, causality, and technology) in his classic study of culture, The Meeting of East and West. Northrop utilized the spatial dimension in Chinese landscapes to represent what is most singular in eastern civilization. Corresponding to Northrop’s “theoretical component” is Knight’s concept of “criticism” which tends to focus on such secondary factors as intentions and sources, rather than submit ourselves to “the original poetic experience.” (Knight, 6-7) We might also bear in mind that Hesiod’s initial cosmological category was not a logos but rather “Chaos,” a pre-rational feminine substratum which gives birth to the differentiated cosmos. And it is worth noting the role that “feeling” plays as a metaphysical foundation in F.H. Bradley’s Appearance and Reality. That impression of the primacy of feeling probably descends to Knight via the influence of A.C. Bradley, the philosopher’s brother. The reader will note in T.S. Eliot’s Introduction to The Wheel of Fire his mention of F.H. Bradley’s comment on “instinct.” (Knight, xix, xxii) It is well known that Eliot did his doctoral dissertation at Harvard on F.H. Bradley’s theory of knowledge. And instinct itself receives interesting comment in King Henry IV, Part One, II, v, 275, where we learn from an unimpeachable authority that “instinct is a great matter.” The entire complex of interpretation, feeling, poetic experience, and instinct stands at odds with the spirit of criticism as understood by Knight.

Interpretation Entails Mystery

This suggests that more is involved here than methodology. The reversionary exercise of interpretation may be seen for G. Wilson Knight as return to the sense of mystery. (Knight, 6, 8, 10, 13, 15, 32, 44, 45, 53, et al.) This is unsurprising, as we can no more fathom the nature of poetic creation than we can know the nature of things generally. As Montaigne says, “Que sais-je?” That is why the ancients turned to divine muses and inspiration to account for poetry. The conflagration at the center of the “wheel of fire” may be tended by the human spirit but surely is not kindled by it. That is plainly the view of Shakespeare, who credits heaven for his art. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream, V, i, 1-17) Poetry is ultimately a gift of the gods. And that means each great poem bears within a spark of the primal mystery. Again, we find that sense of mystery expressly acknowledged by Shakespeare himself in various contexts. (Measure for Measure,  IV, ii, 26-45; The Tragedy of King Lear, V, iii, 16; Hamlet, III, ii, 364; Timon of Athens, IV, iii, 455; and see Knight, 7-8) Thus it is that Wilson Knight encourages a due respect for the art of reading, of which interpretation is the main component. Viewed in terms of literature, each play, says Knight, is “an expanded metaphor.” (Knight, 14) In spiritual terms, the same works can be understood “as mystical representations of a mystic vision.” (Knight, 15) By contrast, the critic starts from “a point on the circumference,” and “instead of working into the heart of the play, pursues a tangential course, riding, as it were, on his own life experiences farther and farther from his proper goal.” (Knight, 11)

Interpretation and Criticism Remain Complementary Terms

It is quite apparent, then, that Knight’s initial sympathies lie wholly with the interpretive approach to the text. Indeed, he goes so far as to urge that “we should not . . . think critically at all,” an extraordinary injunction. (Knight, 3) We should saturate ourselves rather with the “atmosphere” of each work, allowing that “omnipresent and mysterious reality brooding motionless over and within the play’s movement” (Knight, 5) to leaven our diagnostic impulses with heavy doses of the play’s symbolic vision. So far as possible we should refrain from problematizing the text at the expense of its integrity, always remembering “the quality of the original poetic experience, and . . . translating this into whatever concepts appear suitable . . . .” (Knight, 7) Indeed, to the extent we criticize we “falsify [our] own experience.” (Knight, 12) There is something idealistic and yet natural in this outlook. After all, who has not noticed that each of Shakespeare’s plays possesses its own unique style? Could a stanza from Twelfth Night ever occupy a place in The Merry Wives? It would never mesh with its surroundings. In terms of Knight’s thesis, a molecule of one would generally import the wrong ‘atmosphere’ into the other.

Yet at just this point, we are bought up short by Knight’s realism: interpretation and criticism turn out to be two aspects of reading which are indispensable and mutually implicative.

[I] would emphasize that I here lay down certain principles and make certain objections for my immediate purpose only. I would not be thought to level complaint against the value of ‘criticism’ in general. My private and personal distinction between ‘criticism’ and ‘interpretation’ aims at no universal validity. It can hardly be absolute. No doubt I have narrowed the term ‘criticism’ unjustly. Much of the critical work of to-day is, according to my distinction, work of a high interpretive order. Nor do I suggest that true ‘criticism’ in the narrow sense I apply to it is of any lesser order than true interpretation: it may well be a higher pursuit, since it is, in a sense, the more creative and endures a greater burden of responsibility. The relative value of the two modes must vary in exact proportion to the greatness of the literature they analyse: that is why I believe the most profitable approach to Shakespeare to be interpretation rather than criticism. (Knight, 15-16, emphasis added)

Perhaps what is meant here is that in the early twentieth century such philosophies as positivism pushed literary thought in the direction of criticism (as was the case with T.S. Eliot himself), and that under the circumstances the only legitimate corrective was a strengthening of the importance of interpretation. Unfortunately, that is not what Knight writes. What he bestows in one moment on interpretation he seems to snatch away with the next. Nevertheless, this much may be granted: Wilson Knight’s critique of criticism is a brilliant and revealing illustration of the non-rationalistic foundations of literature, and remains a permanent contribution to the theory and art of reading. It is congruent with a sense of the openness of the human mind, and our conviction that in absorbing the best of poetry we transcend the banausic forces of life that conduce to our diminution. As F.H. Bradley once wrote:

All of us, I presume, more or less, are led beyond the region of ordinary facts. Some in one way and some in others, we seem to touch and have communion with what is beyond the visible world. In various manners we find something higher, which both supports and humbles, both chastens and transports us. (Bradley, 5)

Knight’s principal contribution to literary theory may well be the finding of that “something higher” in Shakespeare’s poetry. Of course, he was not the first to do so, but he did it at a time when it was becoming badly needed, and that remains his merit as a thinker. 

The Stumbling Block of Hamlet

Curiously, in his very first words Knight gives us a candid disclaimer:

My remarks are . . . to be read as a counsel of perfection. Yet, though I cannot claim to follow them throughout in practice, this preliminary discussion, in showing what I have been at pains to do and to avoid, will serve to indicate the direction of my attempt. (Knight, 1)

The simplified order of discourse in “On the Principles of Shakespeare Interpretation” is therefore as follows:

  1. I am going to present in this essay my key principles of reading;

  2. However, these principles are not consistently heeded, even by myself

  3. There are two approaches to exegesis: criticism and interpretation;

  4. Criticism is an impoverished mode of coming to terms with the text that focuses on abstraction, and fault finding.  It should be avoided;

  5. Interpretation, our sense of poetic vision, is by far superior;

  6. However, in the final analysis both methods are valid aspects of reading.

It is respectfully submitted that, as revealing and influential as Knight’s argument is, it is so qualified and conditioned as to border on incoherence. While interpretation is shown to be the only respectable route to the mysterious middle of the wheel of fire which is the Shakespearean text, Knight confesses that he cannot always take that route “in practice,” and there may be good reasons to remain at the level of shallow or tangential exegesis. And when we turn to the first case, we are astonished to find that instead of approaching Hamlet via interpretation, Wilson Knight unleashes a barrage of criticism of the very variety he condemned in his opening chapter. In particular, though he rejects at the outset an “unduly ethical criticism,” we will see that this is exactly what he gives us in his exposition of Shakespeare’s most renowned play. (Knight 8) In the notorious The Embassy of Death: An Essay on Hamlet, Knight offers a sustained ad hominem assault on the character of its protagonist.

He begins with this young man’s condition before encountering the Ghost of Hamlet, Sr. He is the picture of frantic misery, and busies himself with self-destructive ideation.  

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self slaughter! O God! O God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ‘tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely.
(I, ii,  129-137)

Knight’s explanation?  

He suffers from misery at his father’s death and agony at his mother’s quick forgetfulness: Such callousness is infidelity, and so impurity, and, since Claudius is the brother of the dead king, incest. It is reasonable to suppose that Hamlet’s state of mind, if not wholly caused by these events, is at least definitely related to them. Of his two loved parents, one has been taken for ever by death, the other dishonoured for ever by her act of marriage. To Hamlet the world is now an ‘unweeded garden’. (Knight, 18-19)

Though this issue was treated extensively in Hamlet Made Simple, let’s have one more look.

Is there a single scrap of evidence in The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, that its protagonist and the late King enjoyed a close emotional bond? Not a single anecdote or recollection from any source connects the Prince with his supposed father by anything more than their names. The life expectancy in those days was what?  — forty or fifty years? And so the old man dies. Must his brilliant son now exhibit self-destruction urges? Recall that: “Moderate lamentation is the right of the dead; excessive grief the enemy of the living.” (All’s Well that Ends Well, I, i, 52) There is nothing in the text to suggest that Hamlet was this way before. He wooed and courted Ophelia, studied philosophy and enjoyed the life of an accomplished courtier. What has happened?  His father has expired of apparently natural or accidental causes, lamentable to be sure, but, as Claudius would observe, no cause for hysteria.    

What about Gertrude? True, she loses no time in wedding and bedding Claudius, but in those days it was customary for the man to propose marriage to the lady, an honorable gesture. It implies, “You were Denmark’s magnificent Queen. Now, I am its new monarch, and as I love you, you shall be my wife and continue as our esteemed Queen.” Gertrude presumably does nothing more than accept the King’s proposal (though many, including the present writer, see her as a passive accomplice in regicide). One might think it tacky not to wait a longer interval, but Claudius, as the new sovereign, is in a celebratory mood and wants to enjoy his good fortune to the hilt, so to speak. You might not like it, but there it is. Now what’s all this about misery and suicide? What indeed.

Let’s back up.

Hamlet has no siblings. All his life has been spent as heir apparent to the Danish throne. This is his destiny and his identity. While at school in Wittenberg he receives word his father has passed away, and hastens back to Elsinore, fully expecting to receive the crown, only to be jolted by the discovery that his uncle reigns already. Claudius, not Prince Hamlet, is King. Then he is forced to sit through the smarmy wedding ceremony. Could it possibly be that Prince Hamlet is a bit put off to learn that Uncle Claudius has made a peremptory strike and stolen his birthright as Denmark’s rightful successor and king? It is, to say the least, embarrassing that so few make any connection between Hamlet’s loss of a kingdom and his unquiet mood. Since when are kingdoms pushpins? Recall how upset was Prince Edward when he found himself disinherited by his timorous father, King Henry VI: “Father, you cannot disinherit me. If you be king, why should not I succeed?” (King Henry VI, Part Three, I, I, 227-228) Such actions lead to war. That such a personal catastrophe should not even be mentioned by those seeking to account for the Prince’s malaise is shocking. When Rosenkrantz questions him about his melancholia, Hamlet gives the straightforward answer: “Sir, I lack advancement.” (III, ii, 327) That is, when my father died, I wasn’t promoted. Hamlet tells us point blank the cause of his distemper. (III, ii, 324-327) Even if that were not in itself sufficient, it should at least be mentioned.

The problem grows. For if the assembled nobles pass over Prince Hamlet in their “election,” there must be a very good reason: a legal impediment. The Prince has every qualification and is beloved of the people. That points in only one direction: ineligibility. “Hamlet Junior” doesn’t inherit the kingdom from Hamlet the Dane because, as nearly everyone knows, he isn’t the King’s son.

And there we have the worm gnawing at Hamlet’s cerebrum when he arrives at Elsinore for the funeral and marriage ceremonies. His failure to accede to the throne implies his bastardy. That is the whispered insinuation which, of course, cannot be openly acknowledged. The subject of Hamlet’s personhood, his being, has been taboo all his life, and now is certainly not the moment to broadcast it. So he is just left to drift.  

It gets worse. For suppose he is a bastard. Who is his biological father? The field of paternal candidates is limited.

Now let your imaginary forces fix for one moment upon a nuptial ceremony. We are in the royal chapel. The cold stone walls are draped with faded tapestries. Standing just behind his mother is a glum Prince clad in black. A psalter is clutched in his sweaty hands. As he listens absently to the droning priest and unctuous exchange of vows, a sickening idea flickers at the margins of his mind. The celerity of this union suggests its stars may not be exactly strangers to one another. In fact, it looks as though they have been an item for some while, perhaps a long time, and that it has always been understood that if the king were, say, slain in battle, Claudius would rouse himself, assume the helm, and take Gertrude as his trophy bride. It is therefore just as likely – if not more likely – that the “Prince of Denmark” is the actual offspring of King Claudius. 

That is the reason why Hamlet is so upset by the “hasty” marriage, not because it might be viewed as untimely by a Danish Emily Post, but because, coupled with his failure to take the throne, it signals his bastardy. Yet no sooner does this specter of an idea arise than it is smothered. It remains in his mental cellarage, haunting him. This is the real ghost in the play, not the bellowing shadow of his putative “father.”

One more thing. In the closet scene we see with a noonday clarity that Prince Hamlet loathes and detests his supposed Uncle. To acknowledge that this complacent mediocrity, this bale of corpulence, could be his own father is a conclusion so repugnant that it cannot be consciously admitted. The result is catastrophic depression and possible madness. 

Return to the first soliloquy, the one which takes place before Hamlet meets “the Ghost.” Wringing his hands in despair, he cries out in anguish that his “too too solid flesh” keeps him like a prisoner in life’s unweeded garden. Better to be dead than lose the crown to such a miscreant, a varlet who turns out to be one’s own progenitor! What could be more supremely disgusting? Imagine then his feelings when he learns that this human canker, this Claudius, has slain the universally admired King Hamlet the Dane. Yet taking vengeance upon one’s own biological sire may not be as easy as it sounds. Might there not be a moment of hesitation?

It is with all of this in mind that we repair to our critic, G. Wilson Knight. Naturally he has no trouble putting his finger on the causes of Hamlet’s dysthymic mood: his “father’s” death and his mother’s insouciant “forgetfulness.” Claudius and Gertrude have much to forget, apparently. But Knight’s failure to reflect on the implicit dynamics of the play leads him badly astray. Instead of making sense of the action, Knight, along with just about everyone else, contents himself with a hero for whom paternal expiration is a howling nightmare and a widow’s impulse to drown her sorrow in the arms of a second husband is the end of the universe. And as this makes no sense, there is no alternative but to pin the blame on Hamlet. He is the “ambassador of death.” His father’s passing away and his mother’s remarriage trigger the implosion of Hamlet’s very soul, turning him from man to Hollywood vampire in the blink of an “I.” And all this transpires well before he even hears of a Ghost stalking the crenelated towers of Elsinore. Is this a reasonable rendering of the play?   

It should be mentioned in all candor that Knight’s essay is notorious in academic circles, and at least one critic (David Auerbach) has gone so far as to suggest that Knight was well aware of its hyperbolical manner and outrageous claims, e.g., that Hamlet is a rogue on a par with Iago. (Knight, 29) Perhaps, as Auerbach proposes, he was merely being provocative. But the deeper problem is theoretical. Having advanced the distinction between (1) criticism which seizes on and magnifies dramatic flaws (bad) and (2) interpretation which sets dramatic action in the context of an underlying metaphor (good), to then immediately trash that important polarity and excoriate the leading character in western literature as a menace to society risks being perceived as a reader grossly confused or (rather like Hamlet) conflicted. On page 3 of The Wheel of Fire, for example, we learn that Hamlet, like the other “final plays” of Shakespeare’s career, is best conceived as based on a “death theme” which lends it “atmosphere.” (Knight, 3) It is that pervasive “atmosphere” which allows us to digest the turbulent conduct and many faceted moods of its tormented Prince. But by the time we reach page 47, we learn that Hamlet “has no dominating atmosphere, no clear purposive technique to focus our vision.” (Knight, 47, emphasis added) Well, is there or is there not a dramatic atmosphere in Hamlet? If there is, all may be well. If not, what alternative will we have but to set Hamlet down as malicious and perverse? Sadly, the latter end of Knight’s argument forgets its beginning, and he opts to contradict himself and deny atmosphere in Hamlet. He thus condemns our finest example of early modern literature as the celebration of an inexplicable rogue and psychopath. In so doing he follows in the footsteps of T.S. Eliot, who, as mentioned above, contributed the Introduction to Knight’s book. Eliot’s 1919 screed Hamlet and His Problems, composed under the baleful influence of logical positivism, contended that, as there was no “objective correlative” to warrant Hamlet’s shameful treatment of his mother in the closet scene, this character’s entire story is little better than nonsense. The Tragedy of Hamlet, Eliot famously concluded, is an “artistic failure.” Wielding his profound distinction between criticism and interpretation in the first chapter of The Wheel of Fire, Wilson Knight might have responded so as to rescue the Prince and his play from such sophomoric criticism. Knight was in an ideal position to show the significance of the play’s atmosphere and perhaps even read it closely enough to exhume Hamlet’s real problem discussed above: illegitimacy. Alas, such was not to be. Instead of correcting Eliot, Knight evidently sought to outdo him in derogation, engaging in one of literature’s most flagrant hatchet jobs. So egregious was Knight’s performance that he later sought to modify or retract it, enlisting the intellectual services of Friedrich Nietzsche (Knight, 338-366), all to no avail.  

Failing to read closely, neither Eliot nor Knight comes to terms with Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Neither had the perspicacity to return to the text with fresh eyes and consider that its patent aporia entail that critical premises could and should be revised. Wilson Knight praises Claudius and condemns Prince Hamlet, never noticing their similarities, similarities thoroughly discussed in Hamlet Made Simple. Neither of these eminent critics takes the measure of Hamlet’s psyche prior to the advent of the ghost, nor do they ever stop to consider the impact that Hamlet’s loss of the crown has on him. It is inexcusable. Generations of readers have paid a high price for the myopia of such blundering scholars. They could have done so much better. Eliot deserted the wisdom of the Bradley brothers (F.H. and A.C.) for the siren call of logical positivism and thus disqualified himself as an interpreter of Shakespeare, as did Wilson Knight by throwing in his lot with William James, whose Varieties of Religious Experience is used as a club to cudgel Prince Hamlet into deformity as “the sick soul.” (Knight, 20, 31)

Very well, but exactly how does Knight hate Hamlet? Let us count the ways.

1.  The sickness of Hamlet’s soul “only further infects the state – his disintegration spreads out, disintegrating.” (Knight, 21)

         2.  Hamlet suffers from “the abnormality of extreme melancholia and cynicism.” (Knight, 23)              

         3.  He “dwells on the thought of foulness as the basis of life.” (Knight, 24)

4.  “Hamlet’s soul is sick. The symptoms are, horror at the fact of death and equal detestation of life, a sense of uncleanness and evil in the things of nature; a disgust at the physical body of man; bitterness, cynicism, hate. It tends to insanity. All these elements are insistent in Hamlet.” (Knight, 24)

5.  “Hamlet looks inward and curses and hates himself for his lack of passion, and then again hates himself the more for his futile self-hatred.” (Knight, 25)

6.  He speaks with the “voice of cynicism.” (Knight, 26)

7.  He “denies the existence of romantic values.” (Knight, 27)

8.  He “denies the significance of humanity.” (Knight, 27)

9.  His “cynicism borders on madness.” (Knight, 28)

10.  He “tortures” Ophelia and Gertrude. (Knight, 28)

11.  He is “like Iago.” (Knight, 29)

12.  He “takes a devilish joy in cruelty.” (Knight, 29) This of course is the very pith of wickedness.

13.  He is guility of “callous cruelty.” (Knight, 29)

14.  He is “brutal” and “sarcastic.” (Knight, 30)

15.  His words are “horrible” and “disgusting.” (Knight, 30)

16.  “Hamlet’s disease is mental and spiritual death.” (Knight, 31)

17.  He speaks with “the grating voice of cynicism.” (Knight, 32)

18.  He is “morbid,” “cynical,” “disgusting,”“cruel” and “evil.” (Knight, 32)

19.  He exhibits the “cancer of cynicism in his mind.” (Knight, 33)

20.  “He is the ambassador of death walking amid life.” (Knight, 35)

21.  “ . . . the consciousness of death and consequent bitterness, cruelty, and inaction . . .  not only grows in his own mind but disintegrating it as we watch, but also spreads its effects outward among the other persons like a blighting disease, and, as the play progresses, by its very passivity and negation of purpose, insidiously undermines the health of the state, and adds victim to victim  until at the end the stage is filled with corpses. It is, as it were, a nihilistic birth in the consciousness of Hamlet that spreads its deadly venom around.” (Knight, 35)

22.  “Hamlet is inhuman.” (Knight, 37)

23.  Hamlet’s philosophy is the negation of life. (Knight, 37)

24.  He is a “danger to the state.” (Knight, 38)

25.  “Inhuman, cynical, not of flesh and blood.” (Knight, 41)

26.  “Hamlet is an element of evil in the state of Denmark.” (Knight, 42)

27.  “The poison of his mental existence spreads outwards among things of flesh and blood, like acid eating into metal.” (Knight, 43)

28.  “Hamlet is a living death in the midst of life.” (Knight, 45)

29.  “Pity enlists Hamlet not in the cause not of life but of death.” (Knight, 48)

30.  “We properly know Hamlet himself only when he is alone with death.” (Knight, 49)

In the midst of this bizarre defamation of one of literature’s most treasured characters, Wilson Knight turns his attention to Hamlet’s supposed “uncle” with equal errancy. Several pages are devoted to eulogizing an outright rogue, one of the “eminently likable people” who surround our hero. (Knight, 41) For you see, while Hamlet’s very breath infects the air at Elsinore, everyone else is agreeable and charming, including “considerate Claudius, the affectionate mother, Gertrude, the eminently lovable old Polonius, and the pathetic Ophelia.” (Knight, 47) Hamlet “is the only discordant element.” (Knight, 43, emphasis added) Why, even the Ghost fits right in with “the healthy bustle of the court”! (Knight, 42) When we see Claudius fall to his knees and confess to God his bloody crime of murdering his own brother and stealing his wife and crown, we must appreciate “this lovely prayer” (Knight, 39) in which any sense of grace or absolution eludes the penitent yet winsome homicide. 

What has gone wrong here? In traducing his own principle of interpretation, Wilson Knight loses his way, and falls into the tempting trap of painting Hamlet in lurid colors. There could be no more impressive illustration of the mistake of pseudo-empirical criticism than the one that Knight himself provides. A noble mind, “the glass of fashion and the mould of form,” (III, I, 156) is here o’erthrown personally by G. Wilson Knight. No consideration is given to what Hamlet was, as against what he has become, nor has this critic any way to account for this ugly transformation other than looking to his father’s death and his mother’s early remarriage.  

If we glance back at Knight’s first chapter on the principles of Shakespearian interpretation we recall that setting the apparent faults of Shakespearian personae in the context of the “original poetic experience” of the play was fairly guaranteed to resolve such faults automatically. And since all Mr. Knight can behold are faults piled one on top of the other in Prince Hamlet, he knows not what to do with that theory when applied to this tragedy. There must be a “burning central core” in Hamlet where seeming abrasive elements are reduced and absorbed, but since all we can see are Hamlet’s sins (and not those of eminently likable Claudius) we seem driven to conclude that there is no atmosphere in this our greatest tragedy. Or, if there is an atmosphere, it is the death theme compounded of the hostile thoughts and conduct of this hateful protagonist.

The fundamental problem is that when second-rate minds seek to sit in judgment on Shakespeare the result will rarely be commendable. 

Coleridge, repelled by the horrors in King Lear, admitted that the author’s judgement, being so consistently faultless, was probably superior to his own: and he was right. (Knight, 2)

Wilson Knight teaches the lesson but has much trouble learning it. It is not we who sit in judgment on Hamlet, but just the other way round: Hamlet takes the measure of us, its readers, viewers . . . and critics.

Let us follow Mr. Knight when his better angel is perched on his shoulder. What is the underlying theme of Hamlet? Is it death? No, for that is merely a symptom of the deeper issue. Every other moment in Romeo and Juliet touches death, but its theme is love. The redoubtable Thane of Cawdor wades in a river of blood, but it springs from sources in his soul of which he knows nothing. What then of Prince Hamlet? What makes him tick . . . and makes him sick? Don’t we know by now? Pace Horatio, it was Ophelia who knew him best. What does she say? Her beloved prince was “Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state.” (III, i, 155) That is, Hamlet lived in the expectation of the crown, as his people expected to see him crowned – or so he thought. Equally important is that this is how early modern English audiences would have seen him, understanding Prince Hamlet as a figure cut from the same cloth as, say, Prince Hal, heir to King Henry IV. For who should succeed the father if not the son? Hamlet was denied advancement. He tells us so.  

It is therefore difficult to overestimate the magnitude of the trauma he suffers when he returns to Elsinore to discover that he has been passed over for the diadem of Denmark in favor of Claudius. That’s bad enough, but his loss is quickly compounded when he half-realizes that the reason Claudius could so easily become king is because he, the “prince,” is ineligible. And the only ineligibility there could be is bastardy. This means that Hamlet discovers (if “conscience” will permit it) at the beginning of the play that he is not what he seems to be or, more strongly, that he is not what he is (a standard theme in Shakespeare). Consider what that would be like. You spend your entire youth as a royal prince, blessed with all the graces of a splendid courtier and look forward to reigning as Denmark’s King. You are admired, envied, and celebrated, and live at the pinnacle of noble society. And yet, there is something else, some subtle “atmosphere” in the court that sends a different message. There is a kind of strange condescension in the manner of the people, as patronizing smirks rise to their lips which they haven’t the craft to conceal. What could this portend? There IS an atmosphere, but what is it?

Then one day you wake up and realize you aren’t the Prince at all, but a mere court bastard, not the son of the Hyperion King but spawned by the repulsive Claudius with the cooperation of your own mother! This is news so profoundly unsettling that it cannot be quite swallowed down. And the oscillation of this thought in the brain is the very germ of madness.

Finally, as if in a dream, you discover in conversation with a ghost that your biological father is a ghoulish murderer who, with your mother’s apparent cooperation, has destroyed the great man you thought was your father! Might not these revelations send you headlong into the abyss? Might not your consciousness be darkened, and Denmark now appear to be the prison from which you cannot escape? Suppose you kill Claudius (your own father) in “revenge.” It is useless, unless you kill yourself too, for as his son, you too are Claudius

It is this unappetizing scenario which is the “objective correlative” for which Eliot (and Knight) searched in vain. And it is this scenario which explains as no other reading does why Hamlet falls into the madness that consumes him. His mind is henceforth wrapped in a nueé ardente which he can neither grasp nor escape.

If we now revert to the question of the original poetic experience, the “burning core” at the heart of the wheel of fire, we can see that it is not death. The idea of death is a mere side effect, an escape valve that could perhaps relieve the tormented mind of a heroic young man who has been cast down from clouds to clods. He languishes in the pit of despair until the very end when he encounters the laughter of Yorick, the companion and muse of his youthful innocence. There is a theme, then, in Hamlet, one which is fully capable of resolving his enigma and explaining why it is that 99.999 percent of viewers and readers do not come to the negative conclusions of G. Wilson Knight about this character. That theme is: ALIENATION. Hamlet is not only altogether alienated, his predicament is far worse. Edmond and Don John, for example, are bastards and know it. Their knowing resentments spill over into schemes, plots and devices borne of disaffection. And Wilson Knight has no trouble likening Prince Hamlet to such villains. The difference is Hamlet cannot thrust his illegitimacy into center stage in his mind. Edmond suffers simple alienation, and so chooses the path of vengeful self-advancement. But Hamlet is cursed with a genuine nobility of spirit with roots unwittingly embedded in ordure. He cannot view himself squarely and deliberately, any more that Brutus could. Though circumstances strongly suggest that he is not who he thinks he is, he flees in the opposite direction, and his noble mind falls into delirium.   

If we look at the roster of epithets used by Wilson Knight to castigate Hamlet, we notice that some of them are drawn from the vocabulary of ethics and morality, and others are medical terms. Hamlet is “evil” and “cynical” but he is also “diseased” and “poisoned.” These two sets of predicates clash with one another, and allow us to observe the confusion in the mind of the Prince of Denmark and also in his critic. There isn’t a scintilla of evidence that prior to learning that he was being rejected as heir to the Danish throne and witness to the union of Gertrude and Claudius that he suffered the harrowing self-doubts he exhibits as the curtain rises. His psyche has suffered a tremendous blow and is plainly traumatized. This is the root of his partial paralysis. But human beings are not usually condemned for the injuries they have suffered, unless they have through negligence or intentional misdeeds brought those injuries on themselves. We do not blame King Hamlet for having been poisoned by his malignant brother. How then shall we blame Lord Hamlet for the poisoning of his mind? Suppose for the sake of argument that Hamlet is the biological son of Claudius but has always been treated as the son of King Hamlet. On the basis of the impediment of illegitimacy he is suddenly rejected as a candidate for Kingship, though Claudius assures him he will accede to the throne after the death of the new king. Somewhere in the deeper regions of his mind he senses that he is not the son of the man he loved and admired but rather the offspring of the smiling villain he despises and is commanded to murder. These facts are too ugly and destructive of his identity to be consciously acknowledged. He collapses mentally, the victim of psychological trauma, and consequently loses his fiancée on whom he depended for emotional support. Will it then be appropriate to employ the language of judgment and condemn such a one as “evil,” “cruel” and “cynical”? Other than G. Wilson Knight, it is hard to think of any other serious reader of Shakespeare who treats Hamlet in this demeaning manner. His “child-like faith in the theatre” somehow deserted him when it was most needed. In fact, Knight himself was sufficiently troubled by his handling of “the embassy of death” that years later he penned another long piece in 1947 to modify his argument, assimilating Hamlet to Nietzsche, much as Jonathan Dollimore would do later. (Knight, 338-366) But he never recanted his arguments and remained firmly committed to his moral opposition to Prince Hamlet.


In so doing, this critic failed, and failed tragically. Having elaborated a method of literary interpretation which was available to put Hamlet’s antic disposition in proper context, Wilson Knight might have found his way out of his overreaction to Hamlet’s “unhappy consciousness” (to borrow a phrase from Hegel’s Phenomenology). He might have read the play closely enough to see that once Hamlet returns home and finds his legitimate expectations defeated, he is driven to the brink of acknowledging that it is his illegitimacy that is the impediment, and that it was Gertrude’s indiscretion which gave rise to her son’s existential dilemma. Knight betrays the very insight that could have conveyed him to the heart of the wheel of fire, where he would have encountered Hamlet’s burning soul. Instead, he stumbled, and his raid on Elsinore went down in flames. 



F.H. Bradley, Appearance and Reality, Oxford University Press, 1893, 1930.
G. Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, Routledge, 1989.
F.S.C. Northrop, The Meeting of East and West, Ox Bow Press, 1979.
Stephen C. Pepper, World Hypotheses, University of California Press, 1961.
William Shakespeare The Complete Works, 2d ed., G. Taylor and S. Wells, eds., Oxford, 2005.



David P. Gontar’s latest book is Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays, New English Review Press, 2013.



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