The book: Hamlet is far more than the tragedy of a young man who cannot make up his mind, says professor Rhodri Lewis in his new book, Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness (Princeton University Press). Lewis argues that Hamlet overturns the governing ideologies of the day through Shakespeare’s engagement with the humanist tradition in early modern Europe and England. Life in Elsinore is measured through the hunt— its dark brutality and its deceptions — which is most vividly shown in Hamlet, whose speech relies on this very deception, ensuring his alienation from the world around him.

The author: Rhodri Lewis is an English professor at Princeton University. Before coming to Princeton, he taught English literature at Oxford. He is the author of William Petty on the Order of Nature and Language, and Mind and Nature: Artificial Languages in England from Bacon to Locke.

Opening lines: “Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftesbury, was no fan of Shakespeare. Surveying the development of English drama from the vantage of the early 1700s, he lamented Shakespeare’s ‘natural Rudeness, his unolish’d Stile, his antiquated Phrase and Wit, his want of Method and Coherence, and his Deficiency in almost all the Graces and Ornaments of this kind of Writing.’ And yet Shakespeare was not to be dismissed out of hand: ‘the Justness of his Moral, the Aptness of many of his Descriptions, and the plain and natural Turn of several of his Characters’ meant that he could help to nurture the self-examination and self-discourse on which Shaftesbury believed moral knowledge must be based. … A disconcerting fact remains: Shaftesbury was the first, or one of the first, to delineate an approach to Hamlet that has held the field since the second half of the eighteenth century. Within this, the emphasis is placed squarely on Hamlet the morally and philosophically significant character at the expense of Hamlet, the ambiguous and frequently bewildering work of drama.”

Review: Seth Lerer of the University of California, San Diego, says “Rhodri Lewis provides us with a brilliantly revisionist account of Shakespeare’s Hamlet— the character, the play, and the place of both in modern culture… This is a book not just for Shakespearians but for anyone concerned with how literature teaches us both how to be and how not to be.”