PROSPECTION: Shakespeare's Model of Prospection in Hamlet

13 of March 2021
The 11th World Shakespeare Congress will be held online from the National University of Singapore on July 18–24, 2021. The Congress theme of circuits draws attention to the passage of Shakespeare’s work between places and periods, agencies and institutions, positionalities and networks of production, languages and mediums. The theme is particularly suited to the online medium of the Congress, that gathers together such passages of Shakespeare’s work not by the movements of persons between places, but by creatively connecting and expanding our circuits in multimedia and live conversations.
Database "Russian Shakespeare"
Moscow University for the Humanities

Thesaurus analysis of world literature[1] presupposes the posing of and concept-level solution to a number of theoretical issues, among others including the peculiarities of fictitious chronology in various kinds of literature. It appears that a cultural thesaurus, individual or communal, defines the balance of lifelikeness and convention in literature and sets certain rules for various kinds of writing, regarding the representation of the world picture in fictitious chronology, thus putting time among other thesaurus-type concepts.

In prose fiction, the main type of time employed is the past time, shaping an artistic whole. It is the most widely spread narrative type in all known prose fiction: a story of what happened to a set of people, told in the past tense. Even when a story is laid in the future, the author frequently narrates the events as though they happened in the past.

Poetry is relatively unbound by chronology. Among verse compositions, we will easily find narratives about times gone by (epics, ballads, etc.), the present, and future, and the grammar forms used will respectively be past, present, or future in their choices of verb tenses. Generally, poetry strives for the timeless and eternal, since this corresponds to the nature of lyrical feelings.

In dramatic writing, the nature of time is quite different, and the present reigns sole. Originally, drama appeared so as to share information. Ancient Greeks used to tell their myths in past forms, in keeping with the nature of such. But things changed in the 5th c. B.C., when the theater appeared together with dramatic text; the Chorus in the proscenium, and the actors on the stage would work to act out the myth episode as if it were unfolding here and now, in the presence of the audience. In the 9 c. A.D., after five centuries of oblivion, medieval churches revived performances, and the impetus remained the same: to actualise the Liturgic text for contemporary audiences, since its Latin phrasing was becoming less accessible to the emerging European nations. The drama discusses the past through present-tense forms. Even if the hero reminisces, the spectators witness the very process of recollecting now. Even when drama has flashback scenes, they see, to run parallel to the present, and living people appear and act, however well we knew that they are dead or have changed by the time of the main action. The same principle of time correlation goes for dramatic stories which are set in the future.

One can safely say that the only way to bring the past onto the stage is retrospection (Latin retro: back, spectare: to look; i.e., turning to the past, revival of it as a way to represent that past) as a technique and, later, method in drama (having little in common with retrospective narration and lyric); this can only be achieved through spoken speech (in dramatic theater, and not all theater performances); since any stage representation attains the semblance of the present. In this present, the past may only exist as a cause, prototype, or motif.

Similarly, drama does not contain retrospections (flashbacks) only, it possesses prospection (Latin pro: forward)[2] — a system of dramatic devices that enable the spectator to address the future from the standpoint of the present moment.

Further, we look into the principal cases of prospection in Shakespeare’s Hamlet:

Act 1, sc. 1: [1] Bernardo, Marcellus, and Horatio are waiting for the Ghost to appear. [2] Horatio foretells sorrow to the state:

Hor. In what particular thought to work I know not;
But in the gross and scope of my opinion,
This bodes some strange eruption to our state[3].

[3] Some time later, he inquires the Ghost about the same: “If thou art privy to thy country’s fate, Which happily foreknowing may avoid, O speak!”, and then puts forward a plan of action (“Let us impart what we have seen tonight Unto young Hamlet”).

Act 1, sc. 2: [5] The King mourns his deceased brother, yet proposes to “think on him Together with remembrance of ourselves.” He also [6] plans a negotiation with the uncle of Fortinbras, and dispatches Voltimand and Cornelius with [7] a letter suggesting that the nephew’s military designs be “suppressed”. Laertes [8] asks the King’s permission to return to France, where his “thoughts and [9] wishes bend”. The Queen says to Hamlet [10] what can be seen as the philosophical ground for prospection:

Queen. Thou know’st ‘tis common; all that live must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.

The King and the Queen [11] suggest that Hamlet should cancel [12] his plans of returning to Wittenberg. Hamlet agrees, and when left alone he [13] gives up his intention to commit suicide and resolves to “hold his tongue”. Horatio comes, accompanied by Marcellus and Bernardo, to speak about the Ghost’s appearances; and [15] they arrange to meet at night. “I'll speak to it though hell itself should gape // And bid me hold my peace”, decides Hamlet.

Act 1, sc. 3: Laertes and Polonius [17] teach Ophelia how to behave toward Hamlet, then Polonius [18] advises Laertes on his lifestyle in France.

Act 1, sc. 4: Hamlet rejects [19] the admonition of his friends [20] concerning his decision to follow the Ghost.

Act 1, sc. 5: The Ghost [21] bids Hamlet to revenge, and [22] advises how to behave to his mother. Hamlet makes his friends promise [23] to keep silent.

Act 2, sc. 1: Polonius [24] instructs Reynaldo [25] to serve Laertes. Hearing Ophelia’s account of Hamlet’s visit, Polonius [26] decides to inform the King.

Act 2, sc. 2: The King [27] instructs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern concerning Hamlet; receives the news [28] of Fortinbras’s future campaign in Poland; [29] agrees with Polonius about checking on Hamlet’s madness, whether it was prompted by his unlucky love for Ophelia. Hamlet, talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, extols man as “the beauty of the world”, and then [30] applies prospection: man is “but quintessence of dust”. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet that [31] a troupe of actors is coming. The actors arrive. Hamlet asks them [32] to stage a play tomorrow, and he says he [33] will contribute several lines to the text. In a soliloquy, Hamlet explains how he is going [34] to check on the Ghost’s information using the play.

Act 3, sc. 1: The King tells the Queen about the plan [35] to eavesdrop on Hamlet’s talk with Ophelia. Hamlet appears and [36] soliloquises: “To be or not to be, that is the question…” In this monolog, prospection achieves its ultimate expression: it is no longer a mere technique; it becomes the principle of composition for the whole tragedy and for the central character. The monolog is broken off, and this affirms: the problem is considered now and here, but its resolution is planned for future. Talking to Ophelia, Hamlet [37] advises her to go to a nunnery. The King [38] plans Hamlet’s voyage to England.

Act 3, sc. 2: Hamlet [39] instructs the actors before the performance, and [40] tells Horatio to observe the King’s behavior. During the play, Hamlet [41] forecasts the development of the drama, in their monologs, the performers [42] make vows and [43] explain what they are about to do next. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern tell Hamlet that his mother [44] wants to see him. Alone, Hamlet [45] decides on his behavior to his mother.

Act 3, sc. 3: The King [46] instructs Rosencrantz and Guildenstern concerning their voyage to England together with Hamlet. Polonius [47] explains to the king the idea of eavesdropping on Hamlet’s meeting with his mother. In a soliloquy, the King thinks about [48] Judgement Day. Hamlet has an opportunity to kill the King, but he [49] imagines what will happen if the King is killed at prayer, and [50] postpones his act of revenge.

Act 3, sc. 4: Hamlet and the Queen [51] discuss how she is to behave now that she knows how her first husband was killed and why Hamlet has pretended mad. Hamlet [52] plans punishment for the treachery of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Act 4, sc. 1: The King [53] plans to tell his friends about the recent events.

Act 4, sc. 2: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ask Hamlet to show them where Polonius’s body is hidden, as [54] they want to take it to the chapel.

Act 4, sc. 3: The King orders his people [55] to look for the corpse of Polonius, and [56] to send Hamlet to England.

Act 4, sc. 4: Fortinbras sends the Captain to say that he is ready [57] to bring his army to Denmark, if necessary. The Captain tells Hamlet about [58] the war with Poland.

Act 4, sc. 5: The King tells the Queen about [59] his fear of the future. Laertes [60] is going to revenge his father’s death and his sister’s madness, and the King [61] promises to name the true culprit.

Act 4, sc. 6: Hamlet writes to Horatio, [62] promising to tell him more news soon, and [63] instructing him on what to do next.

Act 4, sc. 7: The King and Laertes [64] arrange a fencing match between Laertes and Hamlet.

Act 5, sc. 1: The Clowns [65] make a grave for Ophelia. Hamlet [66] wonders how long a corpse will preserve in a coffin. The 1st clown answers in the 2nd person, so [67] the gloomy explanation turns to prophesy is re-addressed to Hamlet himself (“…and your water is a sore decayer of your whoreson dead body”). Laertes [68] wishes ill-fate to the priest who refuses to perform funeral ceremonies on Ophelia. The King hints at [69] the coming fencing match, [70] after which they will have a chance to breathe in peace.

Act 5, sc. 2: Hamlet and Ozric discuss [71] the terms of the coming match. He [72] has a bad presentiment and, addressing to Horatio, formulates the concept of prospection again: “If it be now, ‘tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be”. The King makes orders about the procedure of the match. Dying Hamlet wishes he [75] had the time to tell everything to the “mutes or audience to this act”. Horatio [76] wants to kill himself. Hamlet asks him [77] to tell everything to Fortinbras first, “with th' occurrents more and less”. He [78] foresees the election of Fortinbras and dies saying his final words about future, “The rest is silence”. Horatio [80] orders the funeral arrangements and [81] offers to “truly deliver” what has happened. Fortinbras [82] issues orders concerning the funeral.

Thus, we single out 82 meaningful units, through which prospection is implemented as both a technique and a principle. We see that prospection is present in each scene. We consider these to be the most meaningful philosophical statements: [10] all that lives must die; [30] man is quintessence of dust; [36] to be or not to be, that is the question; [73] if it be not now, yet it will come; [79] the rest is silence. Four of these cues belong to Hamlet. The first two (the Queen and Hamlet) treat the same subject, but differ in tone: the Queen is hopeful, and Hamlet is pessimistic). The third cue is a key phrase and it states the main problem concerning the future: the problem of choice. The fourth contradicts to this, denying all choice and being as finalising as the first two statements. In such an uncertain competition of ideas, it is the last word that matters, but the fifth statement does not enhance either of the two points, so the future remains vague.

Within the framework of these dive “prospection” cues, the remaining dozens of cases form a complex pattern. Content analysis of the other units[4] enables us to draw far-going conclusions. The uncertainty the characters face does not tell on their mode of life. Fears, presentiment, foresight, dreams, desires, vows and promises, thoughts of the Last Judgement, even mere curiosity about future (all things uncertain, indefinite, and vague) only feature in 18 of the units singled out, and 6 of them refer to Hamlet.

On the contrary, expecting nearest developments and making plans for the immediate future (deciding on the mode of behavior, issuing orders, giving recommendations or suggesting plans (even when this aims at postponing some action), — all these make the content of 59 units, which is three time as many. 20 units refer to Hamlet, and the ratio is similar to the former lot. The same proportion works for the King (5:3) and, quite unpredictably, for Laertes (3:2). The pragmatic ones are Fortinbras, Polonius (each with 4:0, which was to be expected), the Queen (3:0), and, surprisingly, the Ghost (here, though, we exclude the Queen’s philosophic statement about the future). Ophelia is not given any prospection at all. All these calculations serve as hints for character interpretation.

The study of prospection in Hamlet enables us to conclude that Shakespeare’s hero is man of action. Moreover, the tragedy and its hero are aimed at the future, not past.

Long ago, Lev Vygotsky wondered, in his Psychology of Art[5], whether Hamlet was indeed a character, and not a mere function of the plot. The great psychologist may have gone too far, but he must have been aware of a certain discrepancy, earlier intuitively marked by Goethe, Leo Tolstoy, and other great minds. Vygotsky treated the issues as a psychologist, and, failing to find logic in Hamlet’s character, suggested that Shakespeare was forcing the hero to behave at each point, as the plot required.

And in Hamlet it is exactly the plot development that defeats the whole tradition of drama: the climax comes close to the middle of the tragedy (the Mousetrap scene in Act 3, sc.2), as proved by Leonid Pinsky[6], who also showed that this disposition runs contrary to Shakespeare's other tragedies as well (in fact, each of them was built on a unique model of its own).

Thus, in search of a solution each expert addresses a field rather alien to himself: Vygotsky finds his explanation in the plot, and Pinsky — in characters.

We see each of the conclusions as earnest, but incomplete. Shakespeare makes Hamlet say this: “The time is out of joint; O cursed spite, // That ever I was born to set it right”[7]. The “disjointed” limb refers to the plot development, and to the hero himself; and this falls into the idea of the Universal chain of existence: from stone (void of spirit) to God (free of matter), and any link removed (e.g., a king murdered) causes the chain to wobble until the connection is restored. This was not Shakespeare’s personal concept[8], but his illustration is especially expressive.

We quoted Pinsky’s idea on how this influenced the plot. What about the inner twist in Hamlet himself?

We believe that the break did not occur in the sphere of content, but rather in the unity of the thesaurus mechanisms.

Two of these mechanisms seem of greater importance: one to sustain an agent’s activity in contact with his environment, and the other provides protection from the very same contacts. This displays the basic property of a thesaurus: it is not only an apparatus for new data absorption, but also a protective mechanism for whatever information is marked as “alien” (in this case, it will reach the thesaurus periphery, though) or “contrary” (located at the very border of a thesaurus as an object of criticism).

Our analysis of prospections in Hamlet showed that the first mechanism is very obviously represented. The second needs to be considered.

In his two topics of the psychic apparatus, Sigmund Freud introduced the notion of censorship (authority of censorship in the first topic, as a forbidding function that banishes inconscient desires and their constructs[9]; the authority (Instanz) leads to, and basically, coincides with the super-ego of the second topic). Sketching the idea of censorship in a letter to Wilhelm Fliess on 12 December, 1897 (it was about the political censorship of foreign newspapers in Russia): “Words and phrases, even entire paragraphs are deleted, and then you cannot make sense of the whole [10]; in other words, the censors remove undesirable fragments of articulate speech. Later, Freud enlarged on that idea in The Interpretation of Dreams[11] and in The Unconscious (1915). There Freud discusses more than censorship of authority standing between the unconscious and the preconscious: he speaks about various censorships: “We believe that all transition from one system to another, higher in development, will have a new censorship”[12]. We see that Freud places censorship(s) inside the psychic apparatus. Indeed, he also spoke about “protection” (“Abwehr”) as early as in 1895, in A Sketch on Scientific Psychology (1895)[13], to denote a resistance mechanism, operating for outside impact too, but chiefly providing protection against inner processes inside the psychic apparatus; Freud did not use this notion in the characteristic of the “topic”. A thesaurus analysis shows that, while censorship inside a thesaurus is normally almost transparent, the border area between the thesaurus and the surrounding information field there is a powerful layer of outer censorship, which we choose to denote as “membrane”. The term comes from logic and denotes “thin borderline structures on the surface of cells and inside intercellular particles…, the biological function of the membrane is to enable metabolism and the penetration of various substances into the cell[14]. Naturally, this is a metaphor, but it fits because certain things are enabled to penetrate, and others are not, still others are modified or taken outside the thesaurus.

Actually, the membranes are several, and Shakespeare,with his insight into the human soul, has them all. In his great tragedies (Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth) he listed the types of man-community relationships; in the present case study it will mean the same as membranes.

Hamlet’s membrane is that of a thinker. The plot unravels in such a way as to always let Hamlet learn the truth. Now the problem that puzzled Goethe, Belinsky and Vygotsky (why did Hamlet hesitate?) shows at a different angle. Even when the information received is true, the thinker’s mind has to check on it. This takes up 3 acts of the tragedy. And even when convinced of its truth, Hamlet takes time (Acts III and IV) to decide on how to respond. The principal route for this type of a thesaurus membrane is trial against reality. It is not Hamlet’s hesitation, but his activities (murder of Polonius, agreement to fight with Laertes) that show his membrane has sustained breaches (data censorship). The traditional ways of acting are broken down, due to the very “something” that is “rotten in the state of Denmark”. Then the thinker’s membrane is activated. In other words, Hamlet is no philosopher, but he becomes one after going through a period of true madness.

This does not mean, though, that Hamlet as an eternal image can only be treated in the way he was represented in Shakespeare’s text. Just think how frequently the phrase “to be or not to be” is used and interpreted in isolation from the monolog proper. As a result, most people will choose “to be” without hesitating. But when introduced to such specifics of Hamlet’s being as: “to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”, while non-being is connected with “taking arms”, most will have second thoughts and consider changing their spontaneous answer.

Just like Hamlet himself, his eternal image has disassociated itself from the system of images and ideas in the tragedy proper, and lives a new life, gaining additional meanings in the thesauruses of world culture.

Vl. A. Lukov

Translation from Russian by Vl. Rogatin

See also: