Here is a previously unpublished review by Paula Gallagher of a book which interweaves autobiography with arguably Shakespeare's finest play.
Hamlet of Morningside Heights
by Kenneth Craven
Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2011
98 pp., $52.99
Reviewed by Paula L. Gallagher
In his intellectual autobiography, Hamlet of Morningside Heights, Kenneth Craven describes the decades-long development of his academic scholarship and presents the fruit of that scholarship: a Pauline interpretation of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Craven’s short book intertwines his life’s story with his four major discoveries in Hamlet, showing how his experiences and his studies have caused his deep understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age.
Craven’s autobiography focuses on his relationship with Shakespeare, Hamlet the character, and Hamlet the play. He claims his profound understanding of Shakespeare and the Elizabethan age results from having experiences, values, and perspectives similar to Shakespeare himself. Craven – and Shakespeare – has “crossed all ‘the Division Avenues’ of rich and poor culture.” Likewise, both Craven and Shakespeare were deeply involved in the artistic, literary world and in the business world. In addition to his Shakespeare studies, Craven was instrumental in developing the first graduate program for information sciences and was also a consultant for corporate infrastructure. Craven groups himself with Shakespeare and Hamlet as a fellow humanist, holding values opposite to the culture of the time. In the beginning of the seventeenth century, European culture was becoming more engrossed with the wealth to be gleaned from the New World; modern American culture emphasized self-serving, gainful motives. Craven says that each culture “ . . . discounted virtues at an ethical price. . . .” but that, like Shakespeare, “Fortune never motivated me … human balance motivated me.”
The fruit of decades of study, Craven’s literary analysis of Hamlet in light of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans, chapters 12-13, reveals four significant discoveries. His first discovery is that “(T)he revered wise saws of the old fool Polonius … were … a witty parody of St. Paul’s ethical principles” in Romans 12-13. Craven specifically details how Polonius has inverted St. Paul’s words, preaching instead a “ … to-thine-ownself-be-true everyday ethics.” St. Paul commands “love thy neighbor”; Polonius, “exploit thy neighbor.” The second discovery is in Act 2, scene 1, when Polonius directs Reynaldo to “ascribe vicious behavior” to his son Laertes. The evils Polonius lists are the same evils which St. Paul instructs the Romans to avoid (Rom. -14). Craven’s third discovery is that Shakespeare uses Hamlet’s soliloquies “ … as Paul’s key recommendation as the means for a dedicated leader to discover divine providence.” Craven claims that Shakespeare’s contemporary audience would be very familiar with Romans and would therefore clearly understand Polonius’s reversals. Craven’s final discovery shows how Hamlet is a Christian revenge tragedy, supported by Pauline teachings. When Hamlet murders Polonius, he “ … suddenly realizes … that God’s providence has been central to this event and has given him a sign that he is the true prince of Denmark.” In Romans 13:4, St. Paul writes that the prince is the minister of God’s justice and wrath; only the evil need fear him. Hamlet realizes that he was the “ … the foreordained minister of God” through whom “ … divine authority superintended Polonius’ death.” St. Paul’s description of the prince as accomplisher of God’s punishment justifies Hamlet’s role as Christian prince and punisher.
In addition to providing a literary analysis of Hamlet, Craven’s memoir chronologically depicts the lengthy and accumulative process of academic scholarship. It is not only what one studies and whom one studies under, but also one’s personal background, experiences, and interests that affect one’s scholarly fruits and successes. Craven studied psychology, theatre, Shakespeare, the literary convention of the old fool, Russia, and humanism. He studied under great academic leaders of Shakespeare scholarship, such as Oscar James Campbell at Columbia University in the early 1950s. Craven attributes much of his own success in academia to his studies and his mentors, but he also recognizes that his unhappy relationship with his strictly Puritan father, his experiences in the corporate world and with different social ranks, along with his strong love for theatre and entertainment, have all significantly shaped him and contributed to his understanding of Shakespeare
Craven concludes his book with an analysis of Hamlet’s metaphor of man as “quintessence of dust.” He discusses Paracelsus’s new concept of quintessence as the fifth element, in addition to the classical four: earth, water, air, and fire. Quintessence, the most sublime element, links the microcosmic individual’s soul with the macrocosmic, unifying world soul. Craven also delves into the chemical and the religious meanings of dust. In Genesis, man is created from the dust of the earth. Dust, in classical chemistry, is the element earth. In this metaphor “quintessence of dust,” Shakespeare has “poetically linked the unlinkable”:
Juxtaposing Paracelsus’ own concept of quintessence as the human zenith with his concept of dust in Genesis as the human nadir is a contradiction in chemical terms marking the vast difference between the untapped capacity of our spiritual natures and our fatal irredeemable tendencies.
Hamlet is conscious of man’s ability to ascend to the sublime and of his ability to descend into “primordial chaos.”
Kenneth Craven’s Hamlet of Morningside Heights is a brief, but engaging and understandable autobiography of intellectual development and literary discovery. Craven reflects on the similarities between himself and Shakespeare, and himself and Hamlet, as humanist and as soul-searcher. He traces the history of his academic scholarship, the influence of his professors’ mentorship, and the impact of his personal interest in theatre. Woven throughout the book, Craven analyzes the influence of St. Paul’s epistle to the Romans on Hamlet. This autobiography is a fascinating window into the relationship between person, knowledge, and art, and demonstrates how reflection reveals the threads tying them together.
Paula L. Gallagher lives in Boynton Beach, FL with her husband and two cats. She enjoys reading, quilting and cooking.