Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet
by Stephen Ratcliffe


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Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet is about the presence and significance of offstage action in Hamlet, things we hear about in words but do not see performed physically onstage—things like King Hamlet’s murder “while [he] was sleeping in [his] orchard,” Ophelia’s death in “the glassy stream,” Hamlet’s visit to Ophelia’s “closet . . . with his doublet all unbraced,” Gertrude and Claudius having sex “in the rank sweat of an enseamed bed.”  In a series of brilliantly original “close readings,” Ratcliffe examines how it is that passages such as these make physically absent things verbally “present,” how they “show” us things we do not actually see, how they bring us face to face with the “Words, words, words” that are what Hamlet is, he argues, most of all about.

Stephen Ratcliffe is a poet and critic whose most recent book is REAL, a 474-page book of poems written in 474 consecutive days (Avenue B, 2007).  Previous books include Portraits & Repetition (The Post-Apollo Press, 2002) and SOUND/(system) (Green Integer, 2002). Listening to Reading, a collection of essays on contemporary experimental poetry, was published by SUNY Press in 2000.  He is also the author of Campion: On Song (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981). He lives in Bolinas, California, and teaches at Mills College in Oakland.

from Marjorie Perloff: “Stephen Ratcliffe’s new study of Hamlet is nothing short of a small miracle. A poet’s ‘language book,’ it addresses what is clearly a central issue—but an issue often neglected: how the language of the play conveys those critical episodes of unseen action that haunt the tragedy, from the Ghost’s speech in Act I detailing his poisoning by Claudius to Ophelia’s account in Act II of Hamlet’s strange and unaccoutable visit to her closet. Beautifully written and consistently perceptive, Reading the Unseen details the brilliant execution of these passages in Hamlet, making us rush to our bookshelves to reread the play—or to see its next performance! A book for all seasons and all readers.”

from Charles Bernstein: “What’s unseen but said’s as consequent as what’s apparent but unspoken, as Stephen Ratcliffe shows in this beguilingly original study. Shakespeare’s words perform for an inner eye we overlook at pleasure’s peril.”

from Ron Silliman: “In Reading the Unseen, Stephen Ratcliffe means to do precisely what he says: close read the invisible in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, that which occurs offstage, events we know only by the report of them from the mouths of characters. This is language at its most referential, but also Shakespearean drama at its richest. You will never again fail to be astonished at just how much of the world he crams into these entertainments beyond that which you see before you. In this process two other parties come into view: the man who wrote these plays even as he dissolves before our eyes; and those others who read, watch & enact them. This book does the best job I have seen yet at showing just how Shakespeare gave shape to what we now know as the modern imagination. Written by a poet, and a very powerful one, it will benefit anyone who has ever looked at the Prince of Denmark and wondered Who’s there?

from Robert Grenier: “. . . Stephen Ratcliffe’s eminently readable, original, thought-provoking, ‘grounded’ (for scholars, as well as the general reader, in the very considerable mass of relevant Shakespeare criticism), and ‘demonstrative’ text about “offstage action” in Hamlet (& by extension, about the significance of “offstage action” in Shakespeare’s plays generally) . . . ‘performs’—in J.L. Austin’s sense of the speech (or writing) act as bringing about (and encouraging the reader to bring about) an actualization of what words in Hamlet may be understood to ‘really say’.” Ratcliffe’s book advances a ‘living interpretation’ that instructs and encourages a reader to undertake an energetic ‘reading experience’ of Hamlet. . . . Reading the Unseen provides a highly valuable ‘primer’, which teaches and encourages development of an active, participatory reading capacity necessary not only to one’s ‘understanding of Shakespeare’ but to a realization of the worlds of “surplus meaning” waiting to be discovered and ‘activated’ in any multiply charged literary text.”

from Judith Anderson: “Stephen Ratcliffe’s ‘Offstage Hamlet’ is a subtle and illuminating discussion of presences and absences in the staged and scripted words of this most popular, most often taught of Shakespeare’s plays. Ratcliffe uses the tool box of close reading meticulously, imaginatively, and persuasively to examine issues in language, representation reading, philosophy, and identity as well as in drama and specifically this drama.  These issue are not only significant in themselves but also enormously suggestive of additional extensions that he rightly does not exhaust, thorough as is his examination of particular passages. His touch is at once light and fertile, despite its burrowing into subtle, subterranean detail:  paradigmatic patterns of words, chains of sound, oblique or glancing signification, cumulative ideations. The book is beautifully planned and written, lucid, graceful, evocative. It is well-informed about the scholarship on Hamlet and on Shakespearean drama more generally. But Ratcliffe does not brandish his learning distractingly in the text, instead mentioning relevant critical conversations economically in his argument, he then extends and supports them with generous annotation in endnotes. Many interpreters of Hamlet might be said to speak in this highly original book.

from Stephen Orgel, Stanford University: “Stephen Ratcliffe’s beautiful meditation on what does not happen in Hamlet offers a fascinating view of the play, focusing on the unperformable but nevertheless essential action, recounted events, the actions that words create and that remain words, but that also enable and explain the business of the drama. This book will be compulsive reading for anyone who cares about Shakespeare.”

Michael Cross on Stephen Ratcliffe’s Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet in Jacket2

Reading the Unseen: (Offstage) Hamlet
Stephen Ratcliffe
$20; 200 pages
ISBN 978-1933996-14-1

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