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Reviewed by:
  • Hamlet’s Perfection
  • John D. Cox
Hamlet’s Perfection, by William Kerrigan; xviii & 179pp. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994, $29.95.

While acknowledging that his reading of Hamlet is “idiosyncratic and unfashionable” (p. x), Kerrigan offers no apologies for it, asserting, instead, that tradition is worth vindicating, because “those who have been trained in a tradition may discard it, but those who come after, students of the discarders, will be simply oblivious” (pp. 2–3). Putting all his cards on the table, Kerrigan acknowledges four influences in the tradition he defends: literary formalism, historical scholarship, intellectual history, and psychoanalysis (pp. xii–xiii).

Hamlet criticism thus “begins with the Romantic Germans” (p. 1), and they eventually give rise to Freud, who “influences most of the criticism of our century” (p. 14), even when critics (like Eliot) disagree with him. Kerrigan’s reading of the tradition is illuminating, subtle, informed, and informative, and he uses it to establish his reading of the play, working within the tradition but extending it in hitherto unseen and insightful ways. Of course Hamlet delays for Kerrigan, but no one has ever explained his delay so carefully or with so many other factors taken into account. “This seems to me much the best reading yet of the delay,” Kerrigan asserts (p. 76), and one is inclined to assent, given the assumptions.

But why make these assumptions? Kerrigan dismisses postmodern criticism: it is a symptom of “our current decadence” (p. 31) and has contributed “little to the elucidation of Hamlet” (p. xi). Since the elucidation of texts and characters is not the aim of postmodern critics, they unsurprisingly fail at what they do not attempt. Yet they follow a tradition established, for the most part, by Marx and Nietzsche, and Kerrigan does not explain why he venerates one of Paul Ricoeur’s “masters of suspicion,” namely Freud, and not the other two.

In fact, many readers may feel that Kerrigan fails to avoid decadence himself. He relates his Oedipal explanation of Hamlet’s delay to the observation that Shakespeare never has anything good to say about cosmetics, even though he was a man of the theater. Kerrigan relates this “split,” in turn, to early traumas in Shakespeare’s life. The fact that Mary Shakespeare had lost two daughters before William’s birth means that she must have been overattentive to him as an infant, yet she must have weaned him nine months before birth of younger brother Gilbert, thus splitting William’s attitude toward her between resentment of her overattention and resentment of being displaced at the breast. Kerrigan finds evidence of the latter in Timon 4.3.114–20, where Timon inveighs against “milk-paps” as “horrible traitors” (p. 78). Never mind that these are virgin’s paps and that Timon’s emphasis is sexual, not maternal: breasts are traitors to Timon as sex objects, not as sources of nutrition. The critic’s confusion between virgin and maternal breasts perhaps explains why Kerrigan places Thaisa in a brothel in Pericles, rather than Marina (p. 80), but I am not sure what psychological explanation to offer for this particular split. [End Page 381]

Kerrigan would do well to heed the postmodern insight that we all speak out of a specific tradition, with the attendant lesson that tolerance and mutual respect across traditions is imperative, since “ridiculous” and “mockable” are relative to context, as Corin points out to Touchstone.

In privileging Freud, Kerrigan not only dismisses the heritage of Marx and Nietzsche but underestimates the importance of what lies behind all three. For the Romantic/Freudian tradition cannot claim to have originated either character analysis or individuality, which Kerrigan purports to value. “A man’s character is his fate,” Heraclitus says, perhaps generalizing from Homer, but the insight would eventually inform Aristotle’s notion of an ethics based on virtuous character, which in turn was Christianized by Thomas (where it complements the moral sense of individual worth that Hamlet acknowledges in the providential oversight of sparrows), and came to influence the Reformers in various ways. Kerrigan has good things to say about Stoicism in Hamlet, but to assert that “It all begins with the Romantic Germans...

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