Wole Soyinka's "Hamlet": (Nigeria's a Prison)

Abra Reid, '91.5, English 32 (Spring 1990)

Hamlet: I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of
infinite space-were it not that I have bad dreams. (2.2.254-6)

Wole Soyinka's "Hamlet," shows the poet's empathy with Shakespeare's most famous character. "Hamlet" contains many references to the play itself, yet many of the images and lines could be applied to Soyinka's own life in prison. The poem is written in sonnet form, with a tight rhyme scheme, which focuses the reader's attention on the emphasis which Soyinka places on the link between himself and the Dane.

The first stanza focuses on Hamlet's reluctance to act on the ghost's revelation. The discovery of his father's murder provokes "passion's flame", yet Hamlet's habit of thinking and anaylzing every action "douses" his intent to "sweep to [his] revenge" (Hamlet 1.5.31). His fear that the ghost's accusations may be untrue allows the usurping ruler Claudius to "indulge" himself in his incestous lust for the queen and continue wearing his borrowed Kingly robes. The "state's disease" belongs to the Elizabethan idea of the King being a sustaining, life-giving power at the heart of all things in the state. Thus, as Claudius' actions are evil, he poisons the whole of Denmark with his sickness. At the time of Soyinka's imprisonment, Nigeria's officials were notoriously corrupt, thus leading to an analogy between Nigeria and Denmark. Violence and political strife wracked the country, mirroring the unnatural state of affairs in Denmark where brother plots against brother, son against father, and father against mother.

The second stanza describes Hamlet's world, but it would equally hold true as a description of Soyinka's imprisonment. In "Chimes of Silence" Soyinka details the inner working's of his mind: "Slowly, remorselessly, reality dissolves and certitude betrays the mind" (A Shuttle in the Crypt, 31). Soyinka's world, like Hamlet's, exists in a state of limbo where "Ghosts embowell(ed) his earth"; everything becomes less tangible and less real. The last sentence refers to The Murder of Gonzago, a play which Hamlet sets before King Claudius in order to prove his guilt. The stanza presents a juxtaposition between the confusion of the supernatural world, and the reality of discovering the King's guilt. In addition, the stanza creates a tension between the machinations of Hamlet's mind and the rationale behind his actions. Soyinka's poem, written under extremely harsh conditions, demonstrates the ability of the human mind to detatch from anger, or passion, sufficiently to act or write something in a desirable way.

The last stanza focuses on the dichotomy between Hamlet's wish to revenge and his constant stalling. As the play's "scourge and minister" he must revenge to fufill filial "duty" but fate consistently works against him. It is only in the final scene in the play when the King, and another revenging son, Laertes, organize a sword fight between them, that Hamlet finally acts. Hamlet's trust and sense of honor causes him not to look at Laertes' sword which is "unbated and envenom'd" (Hamlet, 5.2.323), and the wound he recieves is fatal. Yet, this knowledge spurs Hamlet on to commit the only act that the play has required of him: he murders the King. Thus, Soyinka comments on the paradox of Hamlet's courage arrving at the time when he is physically, at his weakest. Perhaps, Soyinka's emphasis of this point, could relate to his own courage which managed to rally his spirits during the lowest emotional points of his solitary confinement.

Hamlet reflects Nigeria's sickness and its infection, which permeates through to Soyinka himself. The confusion and horrors of Denmark have their modern-day counterpart in Nigeria, and, more specifically, in the literal and mental imprisonment of Soyinka.

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