Hamlet: Novel or Drama?
“…many dramas are but novels, which proceed by dialogue; and it would not be impossible to write a drama in the shape of letters.” (Goethe 43)
In Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Goethe approaches the discussion of the differences between a play and novel through his protagonist’s exploration of the role of Hamlet. He hypothesizes that both genres depict human nature and action. In drama, dialogue predominates and in the other, narration. However, as seen in the quotation above, he complicates his argument by stating that it is possible that plays are novels in dialogue and can be seen as such. A novel proceeds slowly, held back by the protagonist’s sentiment; in a drama, the main character compels the action toward resolution. The hero of a novel is passive, while a dramatic hero who is both active and effective. In drama, the hero creates nothing of his own, rather accelerates the play forward by reacting to circumstances put forward by his destiny, coincidence, or fate. While this definition is definitely limited in its scope, it provides a direction through which we can illuminate an aspect of Shakespeare’s play that makes it perhaps unlike most other tragedies. Looking solely at the scope of Hamlet’s character as the protagonist of the play, informed by Meister’s reading of the character, it becomes apparent that any textual reading of Hamlet provides a novel-like experience for the reader, through the very definition that Goethe provides of what a novel is. Evidence of Shakespeare’s creativity lies in the fact that even through the limited physical scope of a play, something which needs to be performed on stage, he is still able to create a work of literature which not only “slowly [goes] forward” but also “[presses] forward toward the end” (Goethe 43).
Goethe allows the protagonist to engage with Shakespeare’s Hamlet in an extremely intimate way, through the relationship of actor and muse. Meister’s reading of Hamlet as a...