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Treason in My Breast: Wormwood and Hamlet's Petrarchism


T.S. Eliot viewed Hamlet as a dramatic failure, because “like the sonnets, it is full of some stuff that the writer could not drag to light.” C.S. Lewis, Harold Bloom, and Alexander Shurbanov agree that the play contains a lyric essence, but they do not trace that essence to its source. “Treason in My Breast” argues that Hamlet is a Petrarchan poem, a more fully realized expression of the Italian poet’s influence than Shakespeare’s Sonnets or Romeo and Juliet. Out of this argument emerges a poetic anthropology of the early modern Human: beginning in Petrarch’s poetry, reaching its apex in Hamlet, terminating in the poems of Jonathan Swift.

After explicating in the Introduction the most explicitly Petrarchan document in Hamlet—the II.ii letter-poem from the Prince to Ophelia—Chapter One explores the letter-poem’s philologically vexed “etcetera” moment, represented in the Second Quarto of the play as an ampersand, a ligatory symbol invented by Cicero’s slave and secretary Tiro. Chapter Two connects the inscrutability of the god Janus to the goddess Diana, the latter of which is significant in Petrarch’s Canzoniere, the former of which makes explicit the “double move” of the Renaissance and of Hamlet—compelled toward oblivion while obsessed with the past. Chapter Three looks past the Roman Diana to the tradition of her precursor Artemis, from whom the taxonomical name for wormwood—Artemisia—is derived. This mythological etymology, and wormwood’s attendant botanico-medical history of use as weaning agent, abortifacient, and vermifuge, is important for appreciating Hamlet’s other explicitly Petrarchan moment—“Wormwood, wormwood”—which the Prince utters while watching The Mousetrap, and which Chapter Four explores in detail. Wormwood haunts the Canzoniere’s bitter-sweetness, especially in one clutch of the book’s anachronistically Hamletian poems (206-215). These poems represent autonomous life as a miserable delay, spanning “from the day when I left the breast until my soul is uprooted from me.” Chapter Five finds in Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” and Graveyard scenes a satiric bridge from Petrarch to Swift, in whose poetry Chapter Six finds the terminus of the Petrarchan mode and, hence, the early modern Human.

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