April 25, 2003

1. Hamlet

When our book discussion group finished reading The Grail Legend, we turned to more popular fare: Hamlet. This was one of our most popular selections. As is our wont, we chose the Norton Critical Edition, which contains numerous critical essays. Now we’re reading a 40-page book called As A Man Thinketh, by James Allen, which was recommended by Jim Fedor, a Phlit subscriber in Utah.1 James Allen is considered the father of inspirational literature, literature about the power of positive thinking to improve your life. There’s an interesting contrast between Hamlet’s negative thinking and James Allen’s positive thinking, which I’d like to explore later in this issue.

As I read Hamlet, I noticed many passages that dealt with psychic phenomena. For example, when the ghost is talking to Hamlet and his companions, Horatio says, “this is wondrous strange!” and Hamlet responds, “And therefore as a stranger give it welcome./ There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/ Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Hamlet’s words might be interpreted as a plea to be receptive toward psychic phenomena (including ghosts), or at least open-minded toward psychic phenomena.

Last Halloween, a small Rhode Island public television station aired a show consisting of local ghost stories. I heard the following story on that program: In the late 1600s, in Portsmouth, Rhode Island, an elderly woman named Rebecca Cornell died in a fire. Shortly after her death, she appeared to her brother, John Briggs, and exposed a wound in her chest, indicating that she had been murdered. Briggs went to the authorities, his sister’s body was exhumed, and the wound was found. Suspicion focused on Rebecca’s son, Thomas, who lived with her and who had a tendency toward drunkenness. It was discovered that Rebecca had told Thomas that she wanted to sell the house and move away, and her son had opposed the plan. Some people say that Rebecca feared for her life, perhaps suspecting that Thomas might murder her. Thomas was ultimately convicted of murder and executed.

This story bears a striking resemblance to Hamlet. A skeptic might say that it was modeled after Hamlet, but those of us who are receptive to psychic phenomena will be inclined to think that it’s a true story, that Hamlet is also based on a true story, and that many crimes, in all times and places, have been solved by ghosts, visions, dreams, etc.

2. Hamlet: D. H. Lawrence’s Interpretation

Until I read Lawrence’s Hamlet essay, I was a stranger to Lawrence, having read virtually nothing that he wrote.2 His essay on Hamlet convinced me that Lawrence was a deep thinker, a novelist with a philosophical bent. Lawrence argues that the Greeks and Romans had a strong ego, a firm sense of self, and their world-view was centered on their sense of self; Lawrence speaks of, “the old pagan Infinite, wherein the self like a root threw out branches and radicles which embraced the whole universe, became the Whole.” One might say that the Greeks and Romans were fond of looking in the mirror. Lawrence says, “the pagans based their life on pride”. Their ethics was the ethics of glory, as I argued in the last issue of Phlit.

Then along came Christianity, and everything changed. “There is only one Infinite, the world now cried, there is the great Christian Infinite of renunciation and consummation in the not-self. The other, that old pride, is damnation. The sin of sins is Pride.... The Christian Infinite, reached by a process of abnegation, a process of being absorbed, dissolved, diffused into the great Not-Self, supplanted the old pagan Infinite.” Lawrence’s remarks on Christianity remind me of Zen, which also speaks of merging the ego with the world. But Lawrence makes no mention of Eastern thought.

Lawrence’s argument has a political dimension: “The world began gradually to form a new State, a new body politic, in which the Self should be removed. There should be no king, no lords, no aristocrats.... The governing factor in the State was the idea of the good of others; that is, the Common Good.”

What does all this have to do with Hamlet? “Hamlet suffered the extremity of physical self-loathing, loathing of his own flesh.... The whole drama is the tragedy of the convulsed reaction of the mind from the flesh, of the spirit from the self, the reaction from the great aristocratic to the great democratic principle.” In my view, Lawrence’s theory throws little light on Hamlet, but I’m intrigued by Lawrence’s ideas.

Having described what he calls the “Christian Infinite”, discussed its political dimension, and applied it to Hamlet, Lawrence proceeds to reject it: “Now this has failed. Now we say that the Christian Infinite is not infinite. We are tempted, like Nietzsche, to return back to the old pagan Infinite, to say that is supreme.... In private life there is a swing back to paltry selfishness as a creed.”

Lawrence doesn’t explain why he rejects the “Christian Infinite”. But whatever his reasons may be, he doesn’t join Nietzsche in embracing the “pagan Infinite”, he tries to find a mid-point between the Christian and the pagan, just as Phlit has often sought a synthesis of West and East, a synthesis of Nietzsche and Zen. “What is really Absolute,” Lawrence writes, “is the mystic Reason which connects both Infinites.” Using the language of Hamlet, Lawrence says, “it is a question of knowing how to be, and how not to be, for we must fulfill both.”

3. James Allen and the Power of Thought

In several past issues of Phlit, I’ve discussed Jung’s concept of the shadow. The shadow resembles what was once called the devil. The Grail Legend defines the shadow as “the inferior and for the most part, darker or poorer character traits of a person which, though not much noticed by the conscious ego, coexist with it. Most often it is made up of traits of an emotional nature which possess a certain autonomy and which occasionally overrun consciousness.”3 The shadow seems to dwell in the borderland between conscious and unconscious. As I wrote in an earlier issue, “Jung used the term ‘shadow’ to refer to man’s dark side, and Jung said that the shadow arranged things so as to bring about a crisis, an explosion, that would force one to see, to acknowledge, to come to terms with, the shadow.”

When I discussed Ibsen’s play, Wild Duck, I said that Gregers’ shadow seemed to “arrange” the play’s tragic climax. When I discussed Proust, I said that Proust’s shadow seemed to “arrange” his chauffeur’s death and his mother’s death, hence Proust felt guilty, felt that he had committed a double murder. Airplane accidents and other external events can be caused by thought, by the mind; thus, the concept of the shadow is part of the larger field of psychic phenomena. A Phlit subscriber in India, Amrit Hallan, sent me a message about how his own negative thoughts seemed to cause the death of his cat: “I still believe she died because she had discerned my feelings for her. The thought haunted me for months and many times I cried too. I’m still horrified when I begin to have some bad thoughts for people I know. I immediately divert my thoughts to something else.”

The power of thought is the subject of James Allen’s As A Man Thinketh. Allen understands that negative thoughts can “arrange” disasters and problems of all sorts, and Allen argues that positive thoughts are just as powerful at arranging positive outcomes. Allen tries to inspire the reader to “think positive” in order to improve his inner state and his outer conditions. “Man is the cause (though nearly always unconsciously) of circumstances.... Circumstance does not make the man; it reveals him to himself.”4

If your spirit is positive, your circumstances will be positive, too. You get what you deserve, says Allen; the universe is just. “Justice, not injustice, is the soul and substance of life.... Man has but to right himself to find that the universe is right; and during the process of putting himself right, he will find that as he alters his thoughts towards things and other people, things and other people will alter towards him.”5

Perhaps you’re saying to yourself, “positive thinking may have a positive effect on my life, but how do I do it? How can I control the thoughts that flit through my head? Negative thoughts arise spontaneously, don’t they?” Allen says we should focus our mind on a goal: “A man should conceive of a legitimate purpose in his heart, and set out to accomplish it. He should make this purpose the centralizing point of his thoughts. It may take the form of a spiritual ideal, or it may be a worldly object according to his nature at the time being; but whatever it is, he should steadily focus his thought forces upon the object which he has set before him.”6

Don’t let doubts and fears undermine your goal, says Allen: “Having conceived of his purpose, a man should mentally mark out a straight pathway to its achievement, looking neither to the right nor the left. Doubts and fears should be rigorously excluded. They are disintegrating elements which break up the straight line of effort, rendering it crooked, ineffectual, useless.”7

Perhaps you’re thinking, “inspirational literature is popular with salesmen and other businessmen, it’s not for people with a literary bent, it’s for practical people.” But Allen applies his ideas to intellectual and spiritual endeavors, as well as to practical endeavors. “Intellectual achievements,” Allen writes, “are the result of thought consecrated to the search for knowledge, or for the beautiful and true in life and nature. Such achievements may be sometimes connected with vanity and ambition, but they are not the outcome of those characteristics; they are the natural outgrowth of long and arduous effort, and pure and unselfish thoughts.”8

Far from being preoccupied with practical goals, Allen is fond of lofty dreams: “He who cherishes a beautiful vision, a lofty ideal in his heart, will one day realize it.... The greatest achievement was at first and for a time a dream. The oak sleeps in the acorn.... Dreams are the seedlings of realities.”9 Allen’s idealism and optimism reminds one of Emerson and Goethe. Didn’t Goethe say, “What one wishes for in youth, Age will supply it in abundance”?10

Some people don’t have a lofty dream. Allen has a message for them, too: “Those who are not prepared for the apprehension of a great purpose should fix their thoughts upon the faultless performance of their duty, no matter how insignificant their task may appear. Only in this way can the thoughts be gathered and focused.”11

Allen concludes As A Man Thinketh with a rousing call to self-improvement:

Tempest-tossed souls, wherever you may be, under whatsoever conditions you may live, know this — in the ocean of life the isles of Blessedness are smiling, and the sunny shore of your ideal awaits your coming. Keep your hand firmly upon the helm of thought. In the ship of your soul reclines the commanding Master; He does but sleep: wake Him. Self-control is strength; Right Thought is mastery; Calmness is power. Say unto your heart, “Peace, be still!”

As A Man Thinketh is brief, readable, and very popular. It deals with two subjects that are of great interest to philosophy: the vast field of psychic phenomena, and the quest for The Good Life. Perhaps the strongest proof in philosophy is the proof that’s drawn from our own experience. If you look back at your own life, can you confirm Allen’s argument that negative thoughts produce negative circumstances? Can you confirm Allen’s argument that positive thoughts (“steadfastly walking the highway of strong and high endeavor”12) produce positive circumstances?

Allen was born in England in 1864, and died in 1912. He left school at 15, and worked as a secretary for several businesses before retiring to the country in 1903. During his last nine years, he led a simple life, and wrote numerous short books. “A typical Allen day would be to rise very early in the morning and walk to a bluff overlooking the ocean, where he would remain in meditation for an hour or so.... Afterwards, he would return home and pen his insights on paper. Afternoons were committed to tending his garden; evenings to communion with townsfolk.”13 Trusting in the power of thought, Allen believed that, if he concentrated on his writings, somehow they would reach their intended audience — and they did. One might say, “When the book is ready, the reader will appear,” just as, according to an old saying, “When the student is ready, the master will appear.”14

Philosophy is closely related to intellectual history, and when I discovered James Allen, I wondered, where did these ideas come from? Allen’s mentor was Tolstoy — the elder Tolstoy, Tolstoy-the-prophet. Now I’m hoping to learn which of Tolstoy’s late works inspired Allen.

Perhaps the idea of positive thinking was “in the air” in the late 1800s, perhaps it was one of the “ideas of the time”. Darwin, who speculated on the origin of morality, believed that regulating one’s thoughts was a stage in the history of morality — the highest stage, higher than regulating only actions: “the highest possible stage in moral culture,” wrote Darwin, “is when we recognize that we ought to control our thoughts.”15

Buddhism was familiar with thought-based morality; the Buddha said, “All that we are is the result of what we have thought.” Zen Buddhism emphasizes meditation, which is concerned not with action but with thought, with stilling the mind. “But Zen isn’t concerned with positive thinking, it aims to stop thinking altogether, it aims to focus attention on one’s breathing.” But there is a type of meditation, sometimes called “loving-kindness” meditation, which aims to cultivate positive thoughts, loving thoughts, toward other people — specifically, toward people whom we are at odds with.

James Allen might be compared to the French writer, Emile Coue. Coue was a pharmacist who tried to cure people with optimism as well as drugs. Coue taught his disciples to repeat, “Every day, in every way, I am getting better and better.”

While Coue was Allen’s contemporary, and reached his conclusions independently of Allen, the American writer Norman Vincent Peale was born after Allen, and may have been influenced by Allen. Peale’s book, The Power of Positive Thinking (1952), was extremely popular. Peale was a minister, and he taught his disciples to repeat, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” Peale stressed the power of faith and prayer, and he also made use of psychiatry, hiring a psychiatrist to work with his parishioners.

4. G. Wilson Knight on Hamlet

We discussed the shadow (the dark side, the devil within), we discussed the power of negative thinking, we discussed James Allen and the power of positive thinking, and now I’d like to return to the shadow, and discuss G. Wilson Knight’s essay on Hamlet, “The Embassy of Death.” Knight is a well-known, well-respected literary critic, most of whose writings deal with Shakespeare. Knight argues that Hamlet is a shadow figure, a “negative thinker”, one who kills people with negative thoughts, an example of the power of negative thinking.16

Hamlet is usually regarded as a gentle spirit, an intellectual, a genius, a “sweet prince”, and a “noble heart”, hence Knight’s essay startles the reader at first. Some people angrily reject Knight’s interpretation; Arnold Kettle, in an essay in this Norton Critical Edition of Hamlet, says, “one must reject as hopelessly on the wrong track any interpretations of the play which offer us a ‘negative’ Hamlet skulking in the wings of a sanity represented by the Court of Denmark.”17 But for readers of Phlit, and for anyone who is familiar with the shadow in Jung, in Perceval, in Ibsen, in Proust, in Amrit’s e-mail, and in himself, Knight’s essay will seem provocative and profound.

If we accept Knight’s argument, must we abandon the view that Hamlet is an intellectual, a noble heart, etc.? No, Hamlet can be both an intellectual and a “negative thinker”, both a sweet prince and a shadow prince. In an earlier issue of Phlit, we said, “‘the brighter the light, the darker the shadow.’ For every Faust, a Mephistopheles.” For every intellectual, a devil within. Doubtless Shakespeare himself, who resembles Hamlet in so many ways, was both a genius and a “negative thinker”. The brighter the light, the darker the shadow.

Why does Knight call his essay, “The Embassy of Death”? Knight argues that death is the theme of Hamlet, it permeates Hamlet: “death as the primary fact of nature.... [is] suffused through the whole play.”18 But death isn’t on the minds of all the characters, it’s only on the mind of Hamlet, Hamlet is “the ambassador of death walking amid life.”19 Hamlet has become obsessed with death through his father’s death, through conversing with his father’s ghost, and through his mother’s apparent forgetting of his father and her hasty marriage. (I might mention in passing that Shakespeare himself became acquainted with death at an early age; his father died when he was 12, and his mother re-married soon afterwards. After his father’s death, Shakespeare became the ward of Lord Burghley, Elizabeth’s chief minister and the model for Polonius. Shakespeare married Burghley’s daughter, as Hamlet has a romantic relationship with Ophelia, Polonius’ daughter.) The other characters in the play aren’t obsessed with death; “except for the original murder of Hamlet’s father,” Knight writes, “the Hamlet universe is one of healthy and robust life, good-nature, humor, romantic strength, and welfare: against this background is the figure of Hamlet pale with the consciousness of death.”20

Hamlet is obsessed with death, and convinced of the nullity of life. During the course of the play, Hamlet’s nihilism seeps through the Danish court like a virus, leaving in its wake a pile of corpses. “The consciousness of death,” Knight writes, “and consequent bitterness, cruelty, and inaction, in Hamlet not only grows in his own mind disintegrating it as we watch, but also spreads its effects outward among the other persons like a blighting disease, and, as the play progresses, by its very passivity and negation of purpose, insidiously undermines the health of the state, and adds victim to victim until at the end the stage is filled with corpses. It is, as it were, a nihilistic birth in the consciousness of Hamlet that spreads its deadly venom around.”21

Like Gregers in Ibsen’s Wild Duck, Hamlet criticizes the world around him, and his criticism is true but it’s incompatible with life, it negates life. Hamlet represents truth and justice, but he also represents nihilism and death. The King, on the other hand, represents falsehood and injustice, but he also represents life. Knight regards Claudius as a wise man and a good king. “Claudius can hardly be blamed for his later actions,” Knight writes, “they are forced on him. As King, he could scarcely be expected to do otherwise. Hamlet is a danger to the state, even apart from his knowledge of Claudius’ guilt. He is an inhuman — or superhuman — presence, whose consciousness — somewhat like Dostoyevsky’s Stavrogin — is centered on death. Like Stavrogin, he is feared by those around him.... Hamlet is so powerful. He is, as it were, the channel of a mysterious force, a force which derives largely from his having seen through them all.”22 The other characters “are strong with the strength of health — but the demon of Hamlet’s mind is a stronger thing than they.... Not till it has slain all, is the demon that grips Hamlet satisfied. And last it slays Hamlet himself.”23

Knight realizes that Hamlet isn’t motivated only by his shadow, his demon, he has other moods, positive moods, positive traits. “He may for a moment or two see with the eyes of humor, gentleness, love — then suddenly the whole universe is blackened, goes out, leaves utter vacancy.... Hamlet is a dualized personality, wavering, oscillating between grace and the hell of cynicism.”24 Hamlet’s genius enables him to see his own negativity, to observe himself from a distance: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties.... And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.”25

By discussing Hamlet’s dark side, Hamlet’s evil side, Knight raises some profound questions: What is good? What is evil? What is justice and injustice? Is Hamlet good or evil? Is Claudius good or evil? Knight is a deep thinker, a thinker capable of exploring these questions. Knight seems to be a Christian, and he’s also a Nietzsche scholar; he combined these interests in a book called Christ and Nietzsche, which focuses on Thus Spoke Zarathustra — the most literary, most poetic of Nietzsche’s books. Knight’s philosophical bent led him to write essays such as “Measure for Measure and the Gospels” and “The Philosophy of Troilus and Cressida” (both of which are included in The Wheel of Fire). The subtitle of The Wheel of Fire is “Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy”; Knight developed a style of literary criticism that is often referred to as “interpretation”. When you begin to enjoy a Shakespeare critic like Knight, your appetite for Shakespeare is whetted.

One wonders, “how would Knight’s interpretations have differed if he had known that ‘Shakespeare’ was the pen name of Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford? And how could a man of Knight’s intelligence and learning accept the Stratford theory, and fail to become aware of the Oxford theory?”

Knight extends his argument beyond Hamlet. In several other Shakespeare plays, Knight finds the two themes that are prominent in Hamlet: a cynical, scornful attitude toward love, and a preoccupation with death. Knight calls these two themes “Hate” and “Evil”. “Troilus and Cressida is concerned with love alone.... Measure for Measure is concerned with both death and love. In Macbeth, the death-consciousness, as in Hamlet, works chaos and destruction on earth.... In Timon of Athens [we] have the world of humanity in all its glitter and superficial delight: repelled thence the hero moves, as it were, with full purposive assurance, within the halls of death.”26

What is the origin of Knight’s theory? What led Knight to regard the “sweet prince” as a negative thinker? Knight was an Ibsen specialist as well as a Shakespeare specialist, and Ibsen may have taught him about the shadow, the dark side. “The Embassy of Death” is a valuable essay because it throws light on Hamlet and on the workings of the shadow.

5. Shakespeare’s Superman

In addition to “The Embassy of Death,” Knight wrote an essay called “Hamlet Reconsidered,” in which he discusses Shakespeare’s conception of the ideal man, and compares it to Nietzsche’s conception of the superman. Knight thinks that Hamlet’s comments on Horatio illustrate Shakespeare’s conception of the ideal man:

Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath seal’d thee for herself; for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.27

This, says Knight, is Shakespeare’s ideal man. “Horatio [is] defined as a man well on the way to integration.... Notice [that] Horatio does not control his passions: rather his ‘blood’ (i.e. virility, passion) and ‘judgment’ [are] ‘commingled’, a marriage of elements [being] indicated.”28

This “commingling” of “elements” is found in another Shakespeare character, Brutus:

His life was gentle, and the elements
So mixed in him that Nature might stand up
And say to all the world, “This was a man.”29

This description of Brutus reminds one of Hamlet’s description of his father:

He was a man; take him for all in all;
I shall not look upon his like again.30

“Hamlet [writes Knight] feels his father as, pretty nearly, a superman.”31 One suspects that Shakespeare himself revered his father; reverence for the father often evolves into reverence for the Great Man.32 Reverence for the father is likely to be intensified if the father dies early, as Shakespeare’s did; we recall that Nietzsche’s father died when Nietzsche was only four.

Shakespeare’s ideal man is distinguished not only by his character, but also by his appearance, and this is evident in Hamlet’s comments on his father:

See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion’s curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man.33

The same graceful bearing is found in Henry IV:

I saw young Harry, with his beaver on,
His cuisses on his thighs, gallantly arm’d
Rise from the ground like feather’d Mercury,
And vaulted with such ease into his seat,
As if an angel dropp’d down from the clouds,
To turn and wind a fiery Pegasus
And witch the world with noble horsemanship.34

One suspects that Shakespeare himself had this graceful bearing, that Shakespeare himself was (like Hamlet) “The glass of fashion and the mould of form,/The observed of all observers”, and that while he was part of Elizabeth’s court he was “shot at with fair eyes.”35 While traveling on the Continent, Shakespeare may have encountered the poet George Chapman; in one of his plays, Chapman has a character say that he encountered Shakespeare in Germany, and that he found him to be

         the most goodly fashion’d man
I ever saw: from head to foot in form
Rare and most absolute...
He was beside of spirit passing great
Valiant and learn’d, and liberal as the sun,
Spoke and writ sweetly, or of learned subjects,
Or of the discipline of public weals.36

© L. James Hammond 2017
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1. The actual title of the book is The Wisdom of James Allen: Five Books in One. An e-text of As A Man Thinketh can be found here. back
2. Lawrence’s essay can be found in the Norton Critical Edition of Hamlet (1992). The essay was originally published in D. H. Lawrence and Italy, by D. H. Lawrence. back
3. ch. 3 back
4. The Wisdom of James Allen: Five Books in One, p. 29 and p. 26 back
5. ibid, p. 33 back
6. ibid, p. 42 back
7. ibid, p. 44 back
8. ibid, p. 49 back
9. ibid, pp. 51, 52 back
10. couplet by Goethe; epigraph to Part 2 of Goethe’s autobiography, Poetry and Truth back
11. ibid, p. 43 back
12. ibid, p. 25 back
13. ibid, “About James Allen”, p. 6 back
14. Allen quotes this saying (ibid, p.54) back
15. The Descent of Man. This quote, and other information pertaining to James Allen, can be found here. back
16. “I had always felt an aversion from Hamlet,” wrote D. H. Lawrence, “a creeping, unclean thing he seems.... His nasty poking and sniffing at his mother, his setting traps for the King, his conceited perversion with Ophelia make him always intolerable. The character is repulsive in its conception, based on self-dislike and a spirit of disintegration.”(p. 176) back
17. p. 241 back
18. p. 184 back
19. p. 185 back
20. p. 185 back
21. p. 186 back
22. p. 188, p. 190 back
23. p. 189-190 back
24. p. 191 back
25. Hamlet, II, 2 back
26. The Wheel of Fire, paperback, 1961, “The Embassy of Death”, 3, p. 43 back
27. ibid, p. 313; the quote is from Hamlet, III, ii, 67 back
28. ibid, p. 313 back
29. ibid, “Hamlet Reconsidered”, p. 314; the quote is from Julius Caesar, V, v, 73 back
30. Hamlet, I, ii, 187 back
31. The Wheel of Fire, p. 314 back
32. As Freud said, “All the characteristics with which we equipped the great man are paternal characteristics.... Who but the father can have been the ‘great man’ in childhood?”(Moses and Monotheism, III, 2, B) back
33. ibid, p. 312; the quote is from Hamlet, III, iv, 55 back
34. ibid, p. 312; the quote is from I Henry IV, IV, i, 104 back
35. “...the sportive court, where thou/Wast shot at with fair eyes...”(All's Well That Ends Well, III, ii, 110) back
36. The Mysterious William Shakespeare: The Myth and the Reality, by Charlton Ogburn, 1984, Dodd, Mead & Co., ch. 19 back