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Hal and Hamlet

Reflections on intertextual links between Hal and Hamlet

Hal and Hamlet: literary intertextuality

The parallels between the novel and Hamlet are numerous (for example Poor Yorick is the name of Hal’s father’s film company; Hal has a dead father who appears to various people in the novel as a ghost; Hal’s name deriving from Hamlet’s; a dead person’s skull is dug up in both). What is perhaps more interesting when considering the self, are the links between Hal and the ‘Hamletish’ generation of the America he was writing in.

The play begins with the lines “Who’s there?”, intended both as words to be taken on a pragmatic level, but also as an existential question, one which Wallace alludes to in the first chapter of the novel. Hal, in a line that seems to respond to Shakespeare’s question, says in the first chapter: “I am in here”. Who exactly is this “I”? How do we choose a self if we’re bound by a dead father’s wishes (Hamlet’s father’s ghost’s exhortation for revenge, which the former’s filial duty means he has to fulfil; Hal’s father’s attempts to constrain Hal to communicating with him in various ways). How do we choose a self when society has created one for us? The society we live in is constraining through family or ideology, but we are also constrained by our physicality.

Hamlet feels constrained by his body: “O that this too solid flesh would melt,/Thaw and resolve itself into a dew” (1.2.129-30), perceiving identity as something more inner and less tangible than a material thing. Hamlet’s physicality is a constraint, perhaps like Hal, who is trained to hone his body and make his mind subservient to it in the quest to become a professional tennis player. He is told: “Son, you’re a body, son” and “you’re a machine”.

Hamlet also resists the predetermined nature of his life, and his socially constructed role in it: “his will is not his own, / For he himself is subject to his birth” (1.3.16-27). Hal, throughout the course of the novel, moves away from a self that is determined by his trainers in the tennis academy and his numbness of feeling. By the chronological end – actually the first chapter – Hal experiences a rich inner life, albeit one that he can’t communicate to the outside world. The self has become an internal construct that has escaped the social constraints of the self imposed from outside and therefore can’t function in the world he inhabits – perhaps Wallace’s indictment of a society that through its rootedness in irony finds it hard to embrace genuine feeling. Like Hamlet, it is the drive to be more authentic that ironically paralyses him. In Hamlet, it is the tension between knowing yourself and having to live up to expectations that are not reflective of inner choices that lead to his inability to act and his apathy.

Hamlet seems to solve the conundrum of the self by choosing to play his pre-determined societal role of the future king when he says: “This is I, Hamlet the Dane” (5.1. 247-248) and playing it with imaginative enthusiasm. There is much focus on performance in Hamlet (Hamlet often plays a role for others and puts on a play within a play). This both highlights the constructed nature of the self but also a sense of playfulness that we should perhaps adopt. Wallace’s novel and its moments of humour even in the darkest episodes perhaps introduce a level of playfulness that goes beyond alleviating the brutality and tragedy of life. Playfulness is a way of accepting constraining truths but shaping them in new ways. We imagine ourselves and become who we imagine ourselves to be. Hal reimagines himself away from his predetermined roles to an extent, even if it means he can’t then interact with others, trapped in his mind.

Another response to how to construct a self is in subsuming the self to a higher power. Hamlet gains faith by the end of the play, saying “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends” (5.2. 10). In this sense, Hamlet is more aligned to Don Gately in the novel, who chooses to relinquish the self to faith in the AA and its powers. Just as Hamlet considers the self as playing a part in an external objective reality therefore freeing himself to act for the first time, without anxiety, so Don Gately allows himself to cure himself of his addiction and act on behalf of others, freed by his decision to subsume his self to the higher power of the AA, as we saw in the previous module.

Hal subjectively creates a self in a world where religion holds less sway; he creates a rich inner world of authentic feeling, but cannot cross the boundary of his mind and communicate this to the other selves that inhabit his world since they are constructed differently; Don Gately chooses to subsume the self to a higher power, thereby freeing himself from inaction and from isolation from others. He surrenders to a role – the role of janitor, cleaning other people’s muck – thereby gaining freedom.

Discussion questions

  1. If you know Hamlet, what other links can you spot between Infinite Jest and Hamlet, or indeed between other parts of Wallace’s oeuvre and Hamlet?
  2. How would you characterise ‘the self’? What themes from the above resonate with your sense of the modern self?

Irony and authenticity

Hal and Gately represent different stages on the movement from irony to authenticity, a movement Wallace attempted in his novel and prose. Though this is too simple if interpreted as leaving irony behind, which Wallace thought impossible. Hal and Gately have to find a way to live authentically with irony.

Discussion question

  1. Is it possible to live authentically with irony?
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David Foster Wallace: Literature and Philosophy

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