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This article is taken from PN Review 212, Volume 39 Number 6, July - August 2013.

Hamlet in the Cold War: Zbigniew Herbert's 'Elegy of Fortinbras' Neil Corcoran
It’s almost certainly now a truism that Hamlet is an intensely political play, although it took the twentieth century fully to discover that; and it’s also a truism that, at least since 15 June 1827 when Coleridge discovered Hamlet in himself – ‘I have a smack of Hamlet myself, if I may say so’ – Hamlet the character, Hamlet the prince, has acted as a self-representation for poets. Hamlet, who not only speaks poetry but lets us know that he’s capable of penning an additional speech for the play of Gonzago, is, in Romantic and post-Romantic con­ceptions, an honorary or co-opted poet. T.S. Eliot’s famous figuration in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ in 1917, where the poem’s smartingly self-conscious persona says, ‘No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be’, may be read as both a knowing inheritance from, and a telling critique of, a tradition of poetic fascination and self-identification which had culminated in the nineteenth-century French poetry avidly read and, some of it, stolen by the young Eliot: such poems as Baudelaire’s ‘La Béatrice’, for instance, Rimbaud’s ‘Ophélie’, Mallarmé’s ‘Le Pitre Chatié’, and ‘Hamlet; ou les Suites de la Piété Filiale’ in Laforgue’s Moralités Légendaires.

I want to think here about the figuration of Hamlet in a poet reading himself and his contemporary culture into, through and out of the play and its hero, and now at a moment of wholly modern political stress. Zbigniew Herbert’s ‘Elegy of Fortinbras’ was written in 1958 ...


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