Legend has it that the young William Shakespeare was caught poaching deer at Charlecote Park and was brought up and charged before Sir Thomas Lucy, the owner and local magistrate.
No Freudian obsession with Gertrude, no too-much-cerebration-leading-to-inaction, no Harold Bloom and “The Invention of the Human”, no Humanism, at all.
Hamlet, it turns out, is really all about hunting.
Shakespeare repudiates two fundamental tenets of humanist culture. First, the core belief that history is a repository of wisdom from which human societies can and should learnâ€¦. Second, the conviction that the true value of human life could best be understood by a return ad fontesâ€”to the origins of things, be they historical, textual, moral, poetic, philosophical, or religious (Protestant and Roman Catholic alike). For Shakespeare, this is a shamâ€¦. Like the past in general, origins are pliableâ€”whatever the competing or complementary urges of appetite, honour, virtue, and expediency need them to be.
The fruitless search for absolutes by which to act or judge is doomed to failure: â€œHamlet turns to moral philosophy, love, sexual desire, filial bonds, friendship, introversion, poetry, realpolitik, and religion in the search for meaning or fixity. In each case, it discovers nothing of significance.â€
The absence of any moral certainties means that itâ€™s a â€œkill or be killedâ€ world, and the most impressive chapter in Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness establishes how the language of predation saturates the play. Lewisâ€™s brilliant analysis here gives fresh meaning to long-familiar if half-understood phrases, including the â€œenseamedâ€ marital bed, â€œBait of falsehood,â€ â€œA cry of players,â€ â€œWe coted them on the way,â€ â€œStart not so wildly,â€ â€œI am tame, sir,â€ â€œWeâ€™ll eâ€™en to it like French falconers,â€ and â€œWhen the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.â€ Thirty years ago this analysis might have been the basis of an important, if localized, studyâ€”but that sort of book could never find a major publisher today. Here, it becomes a clever way of establishing what for Lewis is the playâ€™s bass line:
Whatever an individual might strive to believe, he always and only exists as a participant in a form of huntingâ€”one in which he, like everyone else, is both predator and prey.