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Passions in Poetry

Boris Pasternak's "Hamlet"-- Critical Analysis

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0 posted 01-16-2000 03:48 PM       View Profile for Master   Email Master   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems   Click to Submit your Poem to Passions   Click to visit Master's Home Page   View IP for Master

Hamlet (My translation)

The clamor ceased. I walked onto the stage.
While leaning on a jamb, through cheers,
I’m grasping in the echo’s distant range
What will occur during my years.
The twilight of the night has gathered
Like thousands of binoculars on me.
If so you’re willing, Father,
I beg you, take this cup from me.
I love your plan, so firm and stubborn
And I agree to play this role.
But as of now, there’s another drama.
This time, expel me, I implore.
But, the predestined plot proceeds.
I cannot alter the direction of my path.
I am alone, all sinks in phariseeism.
To live a life—is not an easy task.

The poem, Hamlet, is written by Boris Pasternak from a point of view of his fictitious character, Yuri  Zhivago. In Pasternak’s novel, Dr. Zhivago, Yuri Zhivago is a poet living in Russia during the Russian Revolution. He is closely watched by the communists and is considered a threat to the government. The character of Yuri Zhivago is very similar in personality to Hamlet. Throughout the poem, Pasternak makes many references to William Shakespeare’s, The Tragedy of Hamlet as well as his own book, Dr. Zhivago. He makes numerous comparisons between Hamlet, an actor who plays Hamlet, Zhivago and even Jesus.

The poem opens up as a description of an actor walking onto the stage to perform, (it is assumed that the actor is playing Hamlet.) The audience quiets down, waiting for the show to begin. The actor leans on a doorjamb and tries to detect, by listening to a distant echo, what will occur during his lifetime. This description can be a comparison to Hamlet listening closely to the ghost of his father for the advice on what should be done to avenge his father’s murder. “The twilight of the night” was the time when Hamlet talked with the ghost and once it began getting brighter the ghost disappeared. Hamlet is left pondering what the future may hold. This scene could also relate to the events in Dr. Zhivago. During the time of the revolution in Russia, Yuri Zhivago impatiently waited to see how everything would turn out.

In lines 5-6, Pasternak describes the audience looking at the actor through their binoculars. It appears a simple image of the audience observing a play, in contrast it has a lot of meaning behind it. It is similar to the way Hamlet was closely watched by Polonius, Claudus and even his own friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Nothing in Claudus’s Denmark is allowed to go unwatched and every person is closely guarded as if in a prison. It was the same in Russia as described in Dr. Zhivago, the communists closely monitored everyone who could pose a threat to their power. In Hamlet, the King insists that, “madness in great ones must not unwatched go.” Yet, Hamlet remains “the observer of all observers” and so is the feeling in this poem. It is as if the actor watches the spectators even more closely than they watch him.

In lines 7-8, Pasternak uses the exact lines from Agony in the Garden, from the Bible. As stated in Luke 22:39-44, Jesus prays to God and says "Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from me. Nevertheless, let your will be done, not mine." Like Jesus, Hamlet is aware that a tragedy will happen in the near future and likewise, he is ready to face it. In the poem, Hamlet prays not only to God, but also to his father asking him if it is possible to somehow avoid the tragedy he is about to experience.

In the next few lines, Pasternak reinstates how Hamlet is aware of his future and makes it seem as if Hamlet knows exactly what will happen to him. Ever since the apparition of the ghost, Hamlet gives up his own will to do what the ghost of his father asks of him. The phrase, “But, the predestined plot proceeds...,” paints a picture of an actor who no longer wants to play his role, but has only one script to follow. In line 13, Boris Pasternak uses the word “plot” to compare life to a staged play. It can also be viewed as a comparison to Act 3 Scene 2 of Hamlet, when Hamlet puts on a play as a “mousetrap” for King Claudus. Once Hamlet sees the reaction of King Claudus, it is too late to turn back and he “cannot alter the direction of his path.” The word “phariseeism” again, brings the religious theme into this poem. Just as Jesus was disgusted with the Pharisees, so was Hamlet with the deceitfulness of King Claudus and so was Yuri Zhivago with the propaganda of the communists.

And finally, Hamlet’s famous soliloquy, “To be or not to be...,” comes to mind when Pasternak states, “To live a life is not an easy task.” For the last line, Pasternak chose a Russian saying (which literally means “to live a life is not to cross a field”) to give a simple ending to an otherwise very complex poem. In this phrase, Pasternak sums up the whole meaning of the poem. In both, the poem and the play, life is portrayed as a task with many obstacles along the way. Hamlet, Yuri Zhivago and Jesus, all have greatly suffered in their lifetime while trying to remain true to themselves. In the end of the play, Hamlet welcomes a challenge from Laertes, even though he senses that something is foul. Hamlet meets his death with courage and integrity. As an answer to his own question, “To be or not to be...,” in Act 5 Scene 3 Hamlet says “Let be,” and welcomes his destiny, no matter what it may bring!

Boris Pasternak, a Noble Prize winner, has been recognized as distinguished writer all around the world for his novel, Dr. Zhivago. However, his poetry is not very well known outside of Russia, where it remains a major part of the Russian culture. It is also very interesting that during the time when Pasternak was oppressed by the communists for publishing Dr. Zhivago in the west, he continued to translate poetry from English to Russian. His translation of Hamlet is acclaimed as the best translation in Russian.

One of the finest actors to play Hamlet was a great Russian poet and a songwriter, Vladimir Vysotky, in the distinguished Taganka Theatre of Drama and Comedy. Vladimir Vysotsky, who is mostly famous for his own poetry and songs, wrote music for Pasternak’s poem Hamlet and sung it. Furthermore, Vysotsky wrote his own poem entitled, My Hamlet.

Jesus against the dishonesty of the Pharisees, Hamlet against the deception of King Claudus, Yuri Zhivago, Boris Pasternak and Vladimir Vysotsky against the rotten communist system,-- poets against injustice, all of it is captured in a short, 16-line poem.

-- Enjoying Hamlet, scene by scene.
-- Hamlet, by Boris Pasternak, from the autobiography, I Remember.

© Copyright 2000 Andrey Kneller - All Rights Reserved
Member Seraphic
since 08-22-99
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1 posted 01-16-2000 03:52 PM       View Profile for Denise   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems  View IP for Denise

Only one word will do, Master - Excellent!!  


And slight is the sting of his trouble
Whose winnings are less than his worth;
For he who is honest is noble,
Whatever his fortunes or birth.~~~Alice Cary, ~Nobility~

Senior Member
since 08-18-99
Posts 1880
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2 posted 01-16-2000 04:25 PM       View Profile for Master   Email Master   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems   Click to visit Master's Home Page   View IP for Master

Thank you Denise!
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3 posted 01-16-2000 08:33 PM       View Profile for Master   Email Master   Edit/Delete Message      Find Poems   Click to visit Master's Home Page   View IP for Master

I found this very interesting to do, anyone willing to try to analyze some other poem, perhaps your own?
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4 posted 04-30-2013 07:35 AM       View Profile for robjim   Email robjim   Edit/Delete Message     View IP for robjim

Another theme I think runs through the poem is fate, that is to say inevitability.

The character Hamlet in a play is subject to the inevitability of the script. Jesus was subject to the inevitability of his father's plan. And Yuri Zhivago is subject to the "inevitability" of Marxism. History follows an unavoidable path.

Yet even Jesus asked to be exempted from inevitability. So does Zhivago want to be exempt from the inevitability of Marxism? I think he's asking the question.
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