Sunday, June 17, 2007

Tony Soprano and Hamlet: Separated at Birth (Except They Were Never Born)

Tony Soprano is exactly like Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, by which I mean neither one of them exists nor ever did.

Tony Soprano is a work of fiction, and what you see is all you get. The furious talk about just what happened to Tony after the screen went black last Sunday reminds me of the greatest of all literary mysteries, which also relates to whacking and being whacked:

Why does it take Hamlet so long to follow daddy’s instructions and kill his Uncle Claudius, who has killed Hamlet’s father and married Hamlet’s mother?

The Hamlet mystery connects to the Soprano mystery in that the Freudians solved the problem by treating Hamlet as if he had an existence independent of the text of the play, though – unlike the Soprano critics -- in the case of the Freudians they talked about what must have happened before the play began rather than after. (Hamlet is definitely dead. No doubt about that.)

The Freudians said that Hamlet failed to do what he said he was going to do because he was suffering from an Oedipus Complex. He couldn’t kill his uncle because he identified with his uncle – my Uncle, Myself – because his uncle had carried out Hamlet’s subconscious wish to kill his father and have sex with his mother.

But where’s the evidence for this state of mind? Hamlet says and keeps saying he has nothing but love and respect for his dead father and never does or says anything to suggest the existence of a latent parricidal wish. But that’s the evidence, the Freudians say. The deeper the denial the truer the truth of what’s denied. Hamlet is repressing his identification with his uncle. The fact there is absolutely no evidence of such a state of mind *is* the evidence such feelings rage beneath. So said the Freudians.

But, of course, this can be true only if you regard Hamlet as a real person. (Think all the misplaced concern about when Jack Bauer takes a dump, as if that were the only problem with verisimilitude in that particular alternate universe.)

It’s circular reasoning. All real men suffer from Oedipal urges. (We know that.) Hamlet suffers from Oedipal urges. (We know that.) How do we know? Well, real men suffer from Oedipal urges, which means Hamlet is ….

As one critic said, that isn’t literary criticism. It’s doctrine. Back when I was in graduate school taking my Shakespeare course, I came down on the side of the anti-Freudians, who said that all we know about Hamlet is what he says and does and what others in the play say and do. Hamlet stops at the edge of the play. Same thing for Tony Soprano. He is like an insect encased in amber, an image that works particularly well in Tony’s case in that he is encased in the open-ended multi-faceted ambiguity David Chase built into the last scene of the series. (It’s not as if Tony jumped out of a building and the series ended with him halfway to the ground.)

So Tony is caught in stasis, his eyes forever raised, looking at …?

He’s dead all right. He was never alive, people.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

so I have lived in a world of the Soprano's that doesn't exist? How can that be? I think therefore I am...or maybe I don't exist and therefore I can be in a world that doesn't exist but if that is so then I exist so if I exist - Tony does. Phew! It all makes sense now.