The fact is, Willaimson's initial assertion that the history or legend behind Shakespeare's Hamlet does not matter; neither does the earlier tragedy upon which Shakespeare's play was based. Shakespeare had almost no original story lines; it was the way his characters reacted to the plot, what thy thought, and how they expressed themselves that made -- and make -- the plays so watchable and such towering testaments of the possibilities and endless varieties of language. It is Shakespeare's use of the word, not the plot device, that placed him at the head of the English literary canon, and it is really only the text of his version of the Hamlet story tat needs to be examined in a critical analysis of the work.
Eventually, Williamson comes back to this point, which he made and lost sight of as quickly as he accused others of at the start of his essay. On the structure of the play as Shakespeare wrote it, Williamson notes, "it may indeed be called the tragedy of thought, for there is as much reflection as action in it; but the reflection itself is made dramatic" (Williamson, 89). Though, like Williamson, I do not believe a fully and solely psychological analysis of this play and its title character, I also agree with him tat it is the processes of Hamlet's mind that make the play so dramatic. In this way, if in no other, Shakespeare definitively makes Hamlet his own work; the depth to which he explores the inner workings of guilt, jealousy, and revenge go far beyond the stuff of legend. It is also far beyond what was expected and delivered in the way of tragedy by the average playwright of Shakespeare's day; though no known copies of the play are still extant, Williamson cites evidence that "the earlier Hamlet was almost certainly a crude and bloody drama of the primitive Elizabethan kind -- chiefly madness, murder, and ghost" (Williamson, 91). This does not put it too far a cry away from the Scandinavian legend, either, although the madness was feigned (Mackenzie, 233). Shakespeare's play, then, must be taken and interpreted on its own terms; on the terms by which it was written and delivered to posterity, inaccurate though the final product of this process may be.
Williamson is near to wrapping up his analysis of Shakespeare's Hamlet when sums up the difficulty of working with the text in this way: "Hamlet, like the sonnets, is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light, contemplate, or manipulate into art...we find Shakespeare's Hamlet not in the action, not in any quotations that we might select, so much as in an unmistakable tone" (Williamson, 96). In this, there cannot be anything but agreement. At times, the length of Hamlet's pondering and ponderous thinking seems almost unbearable, but it is also important to remember that this text was meant to be performed, and watching the machinations of the human mind while hearing them expressed so honestly and eloquently is an experience that must be had before this play can truly be appreciated.
Hamlet the character, as Williamson sees him, is "enigmatical...in this case the explanation may be tat he is not actual but ideal, a coinage of Shakespeare's brain" (Williamson, 99). This, taken as a restatement of Williamson's earlier statements regarding the originality of the play and character, is one of the simplest and most profound ways in which to begin an examination of Hamlet or any other text. We cannot ever know what lies beyond the page; the text provides the one and only road map that exists to itself. Just as Hamlet, pretending to be mad, begins to wonder if he really is, so the text winds up on itself answering and questioning at the same time in a constant circular flow of logic. Understanding this is key to understanding Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Williamson, Claude C.H. "Hamlet." The University of Chicago Press: International Journal of Ethics, Vol. 33, No. 1 (Oct., 1922), pp. 85-100. Retrieved via JSTOR 9 December 2008.
Mackenzie, David. Teutonic Myth and Legend. Chapter 22, "The Traditional Hamlet." Published online at…