Hamlet and the philosophy of literary criticism

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hamlet and the philosophy of literary criticism

Hamlet & the Philosophy of Literary Criticism by Morris Weitz

Because of the enormous amount of critical writing about Hamlet, author Morris Weitz suggests that it is a sufficient focal point for his examination of the methods and claims of literary criticism, through which he can survey a broad range of critical responses, and evaluate their effectiveness--not as critical assessors of Hamlet, per se, but as critics in general. Though Weitz does not claim it, Hamlet criticism in this book stands in for all criticism, Hamlet just being a convenient touchstone for comparison.

I think it should be obvious that if you are not interested in literary criticism, then this is probably not the book for you, and also that familiarity with Hamlet will make the book more comprehensible.

The first half of the book is a survey of different critical approaches--I had in mind that he was going to summarize different schools and how they would typically critique Hamlet, something from the Freudians, the Marxists, New Critics, etc. Instead, he selects different critics (none of whom I was familiar with), and makes no mention of overarching movements. As one might expect, there is a multitude of different takes on Hamlet, and Weitz tries to give a representational sampling. From this first half, he derives a series of questions that one might ask, given the critical responses, and then, in Part II, examines whether critics are able to give definitive answers to these questions. By implication, these questions apply to all material that is examined critically, and the larger, unasked question is, What exactly can criticism do? He isolates four aspects of what it tries to do, and then investigates which, if any, are actually possible.

The first is description--what actually happens in a work of art such as Hamlet. This is generally followed quickly by explanation--this is what X event means. Next is evaluation, ...and thats why Hamlet is a great play, and last is a formulation of poetics, ...because only great plays have X. For example: one could say Hamlet delays in killing Claudius, which represents a profound psychological quandary, which makes Hamlet a great play, because this kind of quandary is part of the human condition, and you have to have an effective representation of the human condition in order to make great drama. Or something to that effect--its not easy to sum up the conclusions in a single paragraph after 300 pages of proof, but thats the gist of it.

Literary criticism can get very ethereal very quickly, because its easy for critics to keep searching for the ultimate meaning of things until they come out sounding like Bill Clinton--it depends on what the meaning of the world is is. Language itself can come under the gun until up sounds like down and I wouldnt want to be working at heights when I read some of this stuff. Weitz mostly avoids this kind of thing, I think, though there were some sections that got a little hairy.

To probably no ones surprise, Weitzs ultimate evaluation is that critics are limited in what they can make true or false statements about. They can describe what happens in the play (and do so in a manner that brings aspects of it out the reader may not have considered before), but explanation, evaluation and a theory of poetics will always be challengeable and disputable. That doesnt mean critics cant enlighten--only that there is no ultimate true interpretation or evaluation of the work or art, nor any true definition of what a work of art is.

As I say--not a surprise, but I enjoyed Weitzs trip through this thesis (and this does sound like a dissertation written for a graduate level course). I thought it was thought-provoking and written on a level that I could take in (I recently read Northrop Fryes Anatomy of Criticism and found that to be a real challenge). In the end, I started to think of the definition of works of art analogous to what it takes to create Life. We can identify a lot of things that are necessary for Life, but we cant create it. When it comes to Art, we can identify a lot of things that Art does and contains (some of it even contradictory), but we still cant define it. Its almost as if theres an unknown (and perhaps unknowable) element that binds Art together, so that it emerges full-blown, rather than a sum of its parts.
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Tradition and the Great Tradition: T. S. Eliot, F. R. Leavis (ENG)

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Morris Weitz

Hamlet and the philosophy of literary criticism

The play was also often portrayed more violently than in later times. Other aspects of the play were also remembered. Criticism of the play in the first decades of the 18th century continued to be dominated by the neoclassical conception of plot and character. Even the many critics who defended Hamlet took for granted the necessity of the classical canon in principle. The ghost scenes, indeed, were particular favourites of an age on the verge of the Gothic revival.

An unauthorized quarto, Q1, was published in , so corrupt and abbrieviated that it prompted the publication in of a quarto Q2 that was, according to its title page, "Newly imprinted and enlarged to almost as much again as it was, according to the true and perfect copy. The classical scholar Gabriel Harvey lauded the play as having the capacity "to please the wisest sort.
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Hamlet and the Philosophy of Literary Criticism Summary

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1 COMMENTS

  1. Shanda V. says:

    Hamlet Literary Criticism – A Useful Fiction

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