Research Spotlight: Hannibal Hamlin
Each month, the Communications Team reaches out to members of the Department of English faculty and graduate program and asks them to elaborate on a current research or creative project they are working on or have recently completed. For this month, we asked Professor Hannibal Hamlin about his research on Paul Griffiths’ novel let me tell you.
In your own words, as the expert that you are, can you explain (as though to a colleague) the overview of your project?
Paul Griffiths’s let me tell you (2008) is a brilliant novel in which Ophelia tells her own story, or really her backstory, since she begins in her early childhood and ends just as the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet is beginning. Griffiths uses only words that Ophelia says in Shakespeare’s play, which gives him a working vocabulary of just 483 words. Part of the art or game of the novel is seeing how much can be said under this constraint, and Griffiths is remarkably inventive, verbing nouns and nouning verbs, playing with spelling and puns, including slightly altered versions of nursery rhymes and Christmas carols, and even managing to create snippets of songs in pseudo-French and -German.
I’m interested in allusion, the way in which writers establish relationships between their work and prior works by quoting them, referring to them, or importing their language and ideas in more subtle ways. Adaptations are rich in allusion, since they make sense largely in tandem with the works they adapt. The main intertextual relationship in let me tell you is with Hamlet, and the better you know the play, the more you realize how much of it Griffiths plays with. The most sophisticated and fascinating allusion is adaptive, parodic or bent, so that the reader recognizes the echo of the earlier work, but then notices how changed it is in its new context. The challenge is to consider the complexity of the dialogue between the two works, the two writers. Griffiths also works into his novel allusions to a vast array of other works, many of which themselves adapt Hamlet, like Dickens’ Great Expectations, Tom Stoppard’s Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters In Search of an Author. There are also complex allusions to Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest and The Picture of Dorian Gray, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, other Shakespeare plays and Franz Schubert’s song-cycle Die Winterreise. All of these interweave to reveal deep insights into Hamlet, drama and acting, art more generally, and words and language.
Now, could you shorten this description into one sentence that uses accessible language?
I explore the dependence of Paul Griffiths’s let me tell you on a complex web of allusions to other literary and cultural works that enrich his adaptation’s interpretation of Hamlet but also his thinking about the nature of adaptation, writing, art, language, acting and identity.
In what ways is your research significant?
First, this is the most intensive study of Griffiths’s let me tell you that’s yet been done. Anyone interested in the novel will find it valuable. But it may also gain the novel more readers, which would be wonderful. It should be better known. I do think it also reveals much (through Griffiths’s own practice) about the nature of adaptation and allusion. And my article adds to the growing bibliography on the massive literary and cultural influence of Hamlet.
Are you working with any colleagues or collaborators?
Collaboration in literary criticism is less common than in some other fields, like rhetoric and composition, since it mostly involves reading. It isn’t exactly a collaboration, but I was delighted to be contacted out of the blue by Griffiths, who wanted to get a copy of my article. We’ve corresponded since, especially about allusion, and this is a rare treat for me. When you work on authors who died hundreds of years ago, they rarely get in touch.
Where do you see this project going in the future?
Griffiths is a music scholar and librettist as well as a novelist, and let me tell you was adapted into a song-cycle for soprano and orchestra by the Danish composer Hans Abrahamsen. This is especially interesting given all the musical allusions in Griffiths’s novel (medieval songs, Schubert’s Winterreise, Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde, even the Beatles); the song-cycle focuses on and complicates many of these, and I’d love to explore all this in another article. I was a singer for many years, so an interdisciplinary study of literature and music, words and notes, is really appealing.
What's next for you? What would you like to work on once this project is completed?
The major project I’m working towards is an extensive study of allusion, broad in chronological scope and even crossing disciplines, looking at how allusion works within and across poetry and prose fiction, songs and musical drama, artworks and films. Allusion is not only fundamental to all the creative arts but to all human communication. The closer we are to colleagues, friends, family and partners, the more we share our cultural frames of reference and can make allusions knowing that they will be recognized and understood. So my study of literature and culture will have implications for thinking about human communication of all kinds.