Belknap R. Shakespeare and the Possessed
Most generations and most critical communities have singled out four of Shakespeare's and four of Dostoevsky's works as the greatest among the dozens they wrote. All eight explore the psychological, political, and religious implications of murder, but in four very different ways. Macbeth and Crime and Punishment treat murders in gloomy rooms linked with the great ambitions of men of high promise, preceded by agonizing hesitation and followed by hallucinatory tortures of conscience. Othello and The Idiot present the murder of a beauty who has imprudently married a powerful fascinating dark outsider who combines unexpected innocence with enigmatic passion. King Lear and The Brothers Karamazov explore the metamorphoses of parricide among groups of loving and hostile motherless siblings, legitimate and illegitimate. Hamlet and The Possessed describe young people who have been schooled in the West bursting into their fathers' little capital, laying it waste, and destroying their own lives.
The first three of these pairs have received considerable critical attention as pairs. Dostoevsky's notebooks for The Idiot make the connection with Othello particularly clear, with one of the starting points for the saintly Myshkin being the diabolical Iago. Scholars have tended, however, to reject the parallel between Hamlet and The Possessed, although Varvara Petrovna Stavrogina devotes a page of text to it in section six of the last chapter of the first book of the novel:
"You are mistaken in calling this 'eccentricity'" (chudachestvo), "Oh, if only... " "No, no, no, wait a moment, " Varvara Petrovna interrupted, obviously readying herself for ample and ecstatic speech. Peter Stepanovich, as soon as he noticed this, became all ears. "No, this is something more sublime (vysshe) than eccentricity, and I assure you, something even holy! A man of pride, with early injuries, reduced to that "mockery" (nasmeshlivost') you noted so precisely, - in a word, Prince Harry, in Stepan Trofimovich's magnificent comparison, which would have been altogether true had he not resembled Hamlet more, at least to my eye. " "Et vous avez raison, " Stepan Trofimovich responded gravely and feelingly. "I thank you, Stepan Trofimovich; I thank you especially just for your unceasing faith in Nicolas, in the sublimity of his heart and calling. Even in me you reinforced this faith when I was losing heart. " "Chère, Chère..., " Stepan Trofimovich was about to take a step forward, but stopped himself, judging it dangerous to interrupt. "And if at Nicolas's side (Varvara Petrovna was almost chanting) there were a quiet Horatio in the grandeur of his humbleness (smireniie) - another of your lovely phrases, Stepan Trofimovich - then he might long since have been saved from that 'Sudden demon of irony' which has tormented him all his life. (That phrase about the demon of irony is also yours, Stepan Trofimovich). But Nicolas never had either a Horatio or an Ophelia. He only had just his mother, and what on earth can a mother do alone in such a situation?"
The rapprochement between Shakespeare's and Dostoevsky's subject matter in their great studies of murder has led me to devote this paper to these remarks by Varvara Petrovna. In this passage, a minor character in the novel discusses a leading character, her fatherless son, with the other two chief characters, Stepan Trofimovich and his motherless son. She discusses two plays, one about the motherless son of a usurper, and one about the fatherless stepson of a usurper. Usurpation plays no part in the sequence of events among the younger generation in The Possessed, and no part at all in the older generation, unless Varvara Petrovna's reputation as the power behind the governship should be considered in that light. But when Dostoevsky has a body of materials in mind, he tends to find uses outside the plot for those plot elements which do not suit his purposes in a novel. Thus, he preserves the vision of a royal usurper in the plans Peter Verkhovensky proposes to Stavrogin and in the terms Maria Timofeevna uses when she abuses Stavrogin with a reminiscence of Russian folklore and of Pushkin's most Shakespearian play: "Grishka Otrepev, avount!"
This suggestion that Varvara Petrovna's remark might lead to useful insights has rarely been followed in the critical literature.
In M. P. Alekseev's Shekspir i russkaja kultura, (Moscow, 1965), for example, K. I. Rovda says,
Stavrogin does not sustain the role of Harry to the end, does not reform. But Hamlet's features also are little apparent in him. In him there is a tragic ambivalence, an ironic relation to his surroundings, great mental power, and external attractiveness, linking him to the Danish prince, but that inward emptiness, self-indulgence, and cruelty that knows no measure are so great in him that they overwhelm these attractive traits.
The widespread rejection of Varvara Petrovna's observation I rests not so much on what she says as on the way she says I it. Her two interlocutors hardly inspire confidence. Peter I Verkhovensky is already established as a manipulative villain, and his father Stepan has as yet displayed no significant departure from his initial characterization as a posturing hanger-on. Varvara Petrovna's presentation of Hamlet's scorn, holiness, loneliness, sublimity of heart and calling, and possession with a demon of irony due to early injury sound more like Pechorin's or Manfred's accounts of themselves than like Hamlet as sophisticated readers have understood him since the period of high romanticism. Varvara Petrovna's vision of Shakespeare resembles that of such eccentric provincial tyrants as Maria Aleksandrovna who assails Shakespeare in Uncle's Dream as a romantic rebel, or Foma Opiskin, in the Friend of the Family, who associates himself in the penultimate chapter with a romantic Hamlet: "If you want to know how I suffered, ask Shakespeare: in his Hamlet he will tell you about the state of my heart; I have grown gloomy and fearsome. " If Varvara Petrovna is known by her interlocutors in this passage, by the company she keeps in the history of European thought, or by the earlier versions of her socio-cultural type in Dostoevsky's career, her sponsorship of Hamlet as a parallel for Stavrogin does not provoke further exploration.
The picture is not simple, however. Stepan Trofimovich becomes a more and more serious and sympathetic character as the novel develops, even though his son does not. Hamlet's scorn, loneliness, and irony emerge from almost any reading of the text, even though his holiness and childhood insult do not. And even though she is an eccentric provincial tyrant, Varvara Petrovna is not stupid or ignorant, as Foma Fomich and Maria Aleksandrovna are; she has read Hamlet. The strongest reason for rejecting Hamlet as a parallel for The Possessed has often been the richness of that other Shakespearian intertext for the novel, Henry IV. The whole second chapter is called "Prince Harry, " and Stepan Trofimovich comforts Varvara Petrovna with Prince Hal's example of dissipation redeemed. Independently, Captain Lebjadkin works to establish himself as Stavrogin's Falstaff, and the vision of Stavrogin as a prince dominates the thinking of Peter Verkhovensky, Maria Timofeevna, and the chronicler of the novel himself. I will not enter into this side of the novel, but for the purposes of this paper it is worth mentioning that all those, including the chronicler, who associate Stavrogin with Prince Hal are hangers-on about the Stavrogin family.
The vital importance of associations with Prince Hal in characterizing Stavrogin and his entourage really does nothing to diminish the usefulness of Hamlet in illuminating the shape of the action. The density of Dostoevsky's creative work comes in part from overdetermination, and the mere fact that an element or relationship in the novel parallels Henry IV does not mean that it cannot parallel Hamlet, too. In practice, Dostoevskian over-determination often reveals unsuspected reverberations between rival sources or parallels for something in a text. Both Hamlet and Henry IV center on the conflict between the old usurper and the prince in the young generation who refuses to conform. Both Princes reflect with irony and envy upon models of unthinking valor, Fortinbras and Hotspur, and both place the prince at the center of a group of friends whose respect for him takes the form of joshing, insult, and banter; but this intimacy never reflects true trust and openness. Laertes, Rosenkrantz, and Gildenstern all hesitate to confide in Hamlet, and he does not confide in them. Hal draws the same line between himself and his Cheapside friends, including Falstaff, whom he says he will reject and finally does, with splendid priggishness, while Falstaff with all his charm and wit is constantly trying to manipulate Hal.
The elements and relationships in Hamlet that reverberate with Henry IV tend to reverberate with The Possessed too, and those which do not, do not. The battle of the generations underlies all three, with Lebjadkin and Stepan Trofimovich playing the roles of Falstaff and Polonius, the aged vanities, one a reprobate and one a posturer, who struggle and fail to assimilate enough of youth to maintain their status as mentor to the prince. Ophelia has no counterpart in the Henry IV plays, and, as Varvara Petrovna notes, none in The Possessed, although her madness and her woe at the prince's failed promise recur in Maria Lebjadkin, her gentle upbringing in Dasha, her beauty in Lizaveta, and her suicide in Matrjosha, the pathetic child at the center of the suppressed chapter. In the same way, Hamlet's mother, father and stepfather have no real counterparts in The Possessed, although certain elements may be redistributed. The single combat in Hamlet, leads to the death of the protagonist and antagonist; in Henry IV, Part I, of the antagonist only, and in The Possessed, of neither.
These and other somewhat isolated points of contact and contrast between The Possessed and Hamlet suggest the question of whether the passage at hand is calling our attention to something central or incidental in the novel. We expect Dostoevsky to write Dickensian novels like Crime and Punishment which are as rich with the stuff of low city life as Falstaff's Cheapside, or novels like The Idiot which center on the Russian equivalents of the grand bourgeoisie and the demi-monde which Balzac immortalized, and whose precursors populate The Merry Wives of Windsor. He also set novels in the provinces, as Gogol had, but he never wrote a novel in the rich literary tradition of life around a royal court, as Flaubert and Stendhal had done. And yet, a broad range of human experiences appear in their purest form in royal courts, and I submit that Dostoevsky was using The Possessed, among its other purposes, to explore some of those parts of the human experience, authority, hypocrisy, fawning, and betrayal. Dostoevsky's earlier provincial novels explore authority and hypocrisy, but The Possessed explores fawning and betrayal, and Varvara Petrovna was telling us so when she deplored the absence of a Horatio or an Ophelia in Stavrogin's life.
Fawning is the fulsome display of admiration or affection, whether sincere or feigned. The passage at hand shows Stepan Trofimovich's calculated fawning upon Varvara Petrovna, his son's exaggerated attention to what she is about to say, and equally important, her fawning upon both from above, as the governor fawns on Stavrogin and the king on Hamlet, "Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son. " But this fawning on a minor character casts the light of Hamlet upon the fawning that goes on around Stavrogin. In both cases, the fawning rests not on recognition of accomplishment or power but on expectation and some mysterious personal quality. Ophelia calls Hamlet, "The expectancy and rose of our fair state, " and in the early chapters, of The Possessed this expectancy hovers over all the town. When Stavrogin and Hamlet not only fail to meet these expectations but begin to behave in strange ways, the rumor of madness sweeps the town, and the question of their sanity remains ambiguous. Shatov and Marja Timofeevna assault Stavrogin for his failure to meet their expectations; Horatio sadly asks Hamlet, "So Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern go to it?" and Ophelia goes mad. But most of the community behaves like Peter Verkhovensky, Varvara Petrovna, and Osric, continuing to fawn upon the prince.
The other great activity of courts to which the Hamlet allusion draws attention is betrayal. If the passage at hand exemplifies fawning, it deals directly with betrayal. Hamlet in his loneliness looks about him for someone to confide in. The two women who love him, his mother and Ophelia, both let Polonius eavesdrop on Hamlet's confidences. His age-mate Laertes agrees to poison him. His stepfather orders him to be executed, Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern agree to carry out Hamlet's betrayal, and Hamlet has no way of knowing that even the ghost is not a trick of some sort.
All of these characters die in Hamlet, and here, perhaps is the key relationship between Hamlet and Stavrogin. Hamlet kills Claudius intentionally, Polonius and Laertes by mistake, Ophelia indirectly, and Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern by betrayal. All, though some incommensurately, have betrayed him. Stavrogin has the knowledge and the power to prevent the deaths of Shatov, Kirillov, Marja Timofeevna, her father, and little Matrjosha; he betrays them all, and not one of them has betrayed him, though Lebjadkin has threatened to. All had fawned on him and stopped doing so when he failed their expectations. This contrast between the betrayed betrayer, Hamlet, and the gratuitous betrayer, Stavrogin, explains the other great difference between the two; Hamlet reflects at length upon suicide beginning early in the play; but dies in single combat; Stavrogin's duel takes place early in the novel; he listens to Kirillov's discussion of suicide, but his plans for it are practical, not meditative. Stavrogin, then, is a degraded Hamlet, much as Lebjadkin has all of Falstaff's vices, but none of his wit, his charm, or his capacity for friendship. We are dealing with the literary mode that Victor Terras found central in some of the young Dostoevsky's best works, travesty. The town is the travesty of a capital; the governor and his entourage are the travesty of a court, with its favorites and its festivals. There is no Horatio, no Ophelia, and not even a Fortinbras to restore the state.
In Dostoevsky's three other great murder novels, the Shakespearian analogies enrich our vision of the murderer, but in The Possessed Varvara Petrovna's mention of Hamlet demystifies the romantic strangeness of Stavrogin and shows his poverty of spirit. The other murderous characters, Raskolnikov, Svidrigajlov, Rogozhin, Mitja, Ivan, have appealing profundities, and the unredeemed villains are minor characters like Luzhin or Rakitin. Varvara Petrovna's mention of Hamlet in the passage draws our attention to all that Stavrogin is not.