Imagine a story which begins with death. A young man who has lost his father is being brought up by a close family member, but encounters an old man who orientates him to the villain of the tale. However, his advice on what to do is questionable and even twisted. A psychological journey begins: the young protagonist is scarred and almost overwhelmed. His companions are flawed: he meets both a figure like a shadow to him but loses many friends including a hollow female companion. A war is taking place as a backdrop to the story but the definitions of good and evil are so confused in it as to be opaque. Eventually, the protagonist degenerates and fails. Usually there is a close familial or psychological connection between himself and the antagonist, but at the end of the story he leaves the world in which he has lived, often in shame, leaving companions behind.
This is the template for an Ironic story. It is modelled on the even more basic template for an Epic, from which 90% of our tales are born - but Ironic stories are gloomier, darker, twisted and altogether grimmer affairs. They are not Tragedies - in a tragic story, the hero is doomed but the rest of society staggers on. An Irony shows us a world that is astray, where insanity reigns and there is little hope.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is usually categorised as a Tragedy - the flawed prince fighting against his inner weakness but failing and dying in a world in which he made the wrong choices. But it is more clearly seen as an Irony. A young prince who has lost his father is looked after at court by his uncle, who, to make matters more twisted, has married his mother, effectively robbing him of her too. The template’s ‘old man’ is his father’s ghost who certainly orientates him to the villain, Claudius, but compels revenge, which triggers Hamlet’s psychological journey. Hamlet’s madness, intended or not, suggests overwhelm. As for flawed companions, Hamlet has them in abundance - only Horatio remains aloof from the corruption. Laertes is Hamlet’s shadow; the war between Denmark and Norway the backdrop. Hamlet loses his lover Ophelia - a classic example of a constructed female figure, hollow and eventually insane. He degenerates and fails in his revenge until the last moment, purchasing it with his own life. In the end, he leaves the world, leaving Horatio behind.
Once this is understood, many more things about Hamlet as a work of fiction start to make sense, including why there has been so much written and spoken about the play. Like a mis-fitted shoe, nothing causes a literary critic more discomfort than a mis-categorised text.
The details which confirm this will be examined in later posts. For now, we have seen that it is the skeleton which reveals the shape of the play. Flesh will be added in due course.