Ayers, P. K. “Reading, Writing, and Hamlet.Shakespeare Quarterly 44 (1995): 423-39.


This article analyzes “the literal and metaphorical texts involved in Hamlet and the various reading practices they generate” (423). Hamlet reflects the Renaissance’s transition from scribal culture to print culture. For example, Hamlet’s manipulation of a text, to taunt Polonius indirectly (II, ii), demonstrates that the signifier/signified relationship has shifted from a solid association to an opportunity for creative invention and linguistic crisis; Hamlet’s silent reading, in the same scene, suggests that reading has progressed from the audible and social interaction of limited scribal texts to the private experience allowed by plentiful print texts. Historical perception also alters: past and present were once bonded by scribal texts, and then were divided by print texts; Fortinbras’ disregard for the land compact written by his father and Hamlet, Sr. demonstrates a concern for the present and a disassociation from the past. Another loss brought by the transition is the commonplaces of the scribal culture, which Polonius seems so fond of reciting; in actuality, he possesses a superficial reading of the “ethical rhetoric” (430), and his faulty reading practices suggest a problem associated with the increasing availability of books (431). Reading Hamlet becomes a problem because Hamlet, by asking Horatio to tell his story, has authored a compromised text that is self-generated within a closed system (436). The dramatic text suffers by the processes of print, performance, etc., resulting in a deeply corrupt record of scribal original(s) (436). Hamlet reflects “the shifting cultural landscape from the perspective of the no-man’s land situated between the lines of the great textual boundary disputes of the early seventeenth century” (438-39).

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Deans, Thomas. “Writing, Revision, and Agency in Hamlet.” Exemplaria 15.1 (Spring 2003): 223-43.


This article argues “that acts of writing and rewriting in Hamlet not only reveal key dimensions of Hamlet’s character but also showcase humanistic literacy practices associated with the Renaissance commonplace book” (223). Hamlet initially responds “to the commandment of his father in act 1 by fearfully copying words verbatim into his commonplace notebook” (228). But the words only represent “a stray fragment, recorded in his notebook but not recruited for use in a larger purpose” because Hamlet “has not yet learned how to translate this commandment into conduct” (236). His 16-line addition to the original Mousetrap script is “the first time in the play Hamlet demonstrates a creative facility with reading and writing, and as a direct consequence of his crafty revision he exposes Claudius and discovers a means to act in the world as both an avenging son and an assertive prince”; “here, as elsewhere in the play, we observe Hamlet’s personal agency emerge in direct relationship to a material act of writing—through revising a text and observing its effect on an audience” (238). When Hamlet rewrites Claudius’s execution order to England, he “creatively revises a text and by means of that revision finds a way to act effectively in the world”; “using writing (or rather, rewriting) to both subvert and assume Claudius’s regal power,” the Prince “takes control of his life only as he takes control of written discourse” (239). “He re-envisions his own agency by means of revising written text” (241), reflecting his development “into a writer of humanistic sensibilities for whom creatively appropriating existing texts is more important than inventing wholly original texts” (240). “Even though he ultimately develops the capacity to revise and reframe his father’s commandment, he is still compelled by conscience and paternal authority to obey its central imperative” (242). Hamlet also “does not have absolute power to script the ending of his choice” due to the play’s “conventions of tragedy” and its “interactive arena where characters act and react in relation to one another” (242). “Hamlet’s capacity to read and revise text, as it emerges in the course of the play, confirms at least a measure of personal agency made possible by writing and suggests the pivotal role that writing can play not only in developing character [. . .] but also in setting right a world out of joint” (242-43). 

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Habib, Imtiaz. “‘Never doubt I love’: Misreading Hamlet.” College Literature 21.2 (1994): 19-32.


Using Hamlet’s love poem to Ophelia as a launching pad, this essay proposes that the “declaration of love affirms subversion as the chief ideology of Elsinore and misreading as its principle text, and announces his [Hamlet’s] mastery over both” (22). Hamlet’s poem (similar to his rewrite of Claudius’s execution order and his letter of return from the voyage) demonstrates an impenetrability suggestive of the Prince’s wish “to be misread” rather than “to be understood satisfactorily” (21). Efforts to be an enigma are spurred by chaos: the world has “become unreadable to Hamlet, and with that Hamlet has become unreadable to others and to himself” (23). But “misreading is the principal Elsinorean activity, and a phenomenon that precedes the Ghost’s disturbing revelation”; for example, Claudius and Gertrude attempt (and fail) to read Hamlet in the coronation scene: “In this tense verbal thrust and parry, readability, i.e., knowability, is established as the besieged site of fierce Elsinorean tactical struggle for dominance” (24). Given the importance of revealing nothing but discovering all, Hamlet “will not let his feelings for Ophelia become Elsinore’s vehicle of legibility into him”; he allows others “only the misreading of incoherence. The more anyone tries to read Hamlet the more he will be misread” (25). Hamlet is “trying to destroy the text of the self and of the world”—simultaneously disallowing “the very idea of a text itself” (26). Hamlet’s Mousetrap “begins the disintegration of Elsinore and the Hamlet play, both of which become sites of defiance of form and meaning” (27). The loss of text/textuality “can only be a prelude to the world’s slide into the random incoherence of death” (27); hence, the deaths of Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencratz, Guildenstern, Gertrude, and Laertes. While Elsinore’s “texts disintegrate and characters collapse, its center, and its chief reader and author, Claudius, begins to deconstruct, losing his authority over both language and action” (28). In the final scene, Claudius the murderer is murdered. The bodies littering the stage at the close of Hamlet are “uniquely a function of this play’s compulsion to consume itself” (29).

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Contact the author at h.blankenship@hamlethaven.com