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What the reviewers are saying

Times Literary Supplement, Jean Ann McCormick, Ben Witherington III

 

Jean Ann McCormick's Review

2012

A Masterpiece


          Although I have never had the privilege of meeting the author, this autobiography bestowed that honor on me in its unique fashion. As a former English major, I have carried throughout my lifetime a deep appreciation of Shakespeare’'s sonnets and plays. Thus it should come as no surprise that Dr. Craven’'s book captured my attention from the outset.

          In this captivating, deeply moving book, Dr. Kenneth Craven draws aside the curtains of time to reveal an entirely new literary genre. In crafting it, he lays out a major, critical discovery in Shakespeare's Hamlet, simultaneously situating it within the framework of a memoir. To accomplish this, Dr. Craven has tilled a vast, fertile field of acquired knowledge, skills, and experience as a gifted author, professor, Shakespearean authority, humanist, intellectual historian, corporate planner in infrastructure, psychotherapist, and Kremlinologist. The fruits of all these endeavors have coalesced over the years, and have yielded a rich harvest of original thought manifested in Hamlet of Morningside Heights.

          It is on two levels that the book appeals to me. Foremost, long after reading it, I continue to be fascinated by Dr. Craven's discovery of the Apostle Paul's ethical principles as integrated throughout Hamlet and still resonating in our culture today. Dr. Craven's monumental discovery and well-developed body of evidence supporting it clearly illustrate his scholarship, creative genius, and unique vision as a writer.

          Secondly, and on a lighter note, I enjoyed the autobiographical elements of this masterpiece. I found the selection of critical life experiences charming in some instances, wryly humorous in others, and consistently insightful. In several cases, the author's experiences evoke that smile of recognition that comes from recollection of a universally experienced emotion which, while only endured at the outset, assumes a smooth patina with the passage of time.

          All in all, in Hamlet of Morningside Heights, Dr. Craven has seamlessly interwoven all the historical, cultural, ethical, and autobiographical elements of his narrative, and that is a remarkable achievement of style and substance!

          More than four centuries ago, William Shakespeare graced the world with Hamlet, a true prince of the Renaissance. Now, Dr. Kenneth Craven, another Renaissance man, appears in our midst, and graces us with this artistically rendered narrative of his remarkable life, informed and sustained by Shakespeare's Hamlet. Hamlet of Morningside Heights is a unique reading experience that should be welcomed and savored for its richness of language, ethical depth, and fascinating originality of thought.

Times Literary Supplement

June 22, 2012

This is a very slim memoir which ranges across a wide gulf of time and context. Through Hamlet, New Yorker Kenneth Craven surveys his career as “humanist, intellectual historian, corporate planner on infrastructure, psychotherapist, and Kremlinologist”. The book’'s two poles make almost every line a sentence of (at least) two halves: "“The rabid Catholic Queen Mary Tudor sent the Puritans, the ones she didn'’t kill, packing to Switzerland where they picked up revolutionary ideas, missions cherished by both my father and Woodrow Wilson, in hastening the Second Coming and instituting parliamentary civil government”"; “"As a merchandiser and classicist who has also spent an entire lifetime crossing each and every Division Avenue I could find, I relate to the marketing and classical Shakespeare in a far more unique way than his and my contemporaries, whom he and I often vex”."

          On reading that Craven’'s identification of the relationship between Hamlet and Saint Paul is the “"long-sought-after mother lode of Hamlet studies”", Shakespeareans will turn immediately to the chapter "“Pauline Hamlet"” and may be left wanting more than just five pages. Building on work by scholars including Fedson Bowers, Roland Mushat Fry and James Shapiro, Craven sees four passages in Paul’'s Romans 12 and 13 as creating a "“mysterious core”" in the play. Polonius corrupts Paul’'s compassionate injunction to love thy neighbour in his own exploitative advice to use thy neighbour.

          In the most compelling conjunction of Hamlet and Morningside Heights, Craven discusses the establishment of Polonius’'s advice to Laertes as a touchstone of American education. The speech has been learnt by high-school students for decades, with its famous command “"to thine own self be true”" set down as a rule for life. Craven explores the ironies by which the self-righteous words of a partly duplicitous and bumbling figure have become a motto of the Establishment.

          This is a curiously swerving book, revealing hints of an extraordinary and fascinating career. It seems a failure of imagination to want this to have been two separate books – a memoir of a career in Cold War telecommunication and a book about the centrality of Paul’'s epistles to Hamlet – but some readers might wish it so.

          ELIZABETH SCOTT-BAUMANN

Ben Witherington III's Review

2012

It is the thesis of Kenneth Craven in his interesting book, Hamlet of Morningside Heights which is one part autobiography and one part analysis of Hamlet, that Paul’'s Letter to the Romans stands behind a good deal of what is happening in Hamlet, perhaps most particularly Romans 12-13 stands behind the soliloquys of Polonius and Hamlet.

   The essence of the argument is that Hamlet on the one hand represents the traditional Christian ethic, love thy neighbor, whereas Polonius represents the cynical and self-serving reply ‘'exploit thy neighbor’.' Hamlet represents feed my sheep, Polonius '‘fleece my sheep’.' Here’'s the rub however. The speech of Polonius about ‘'neither a borrower nor a lender be'’ and '‘to thine own self be true’' has ironically become the credo of self-seeking America, where as the actual virtues Shakespeare was touting were those of Hamlet, and he was critiquing the credo of wealth-seeking, it'’s all about money folk. As Craven so aptly puts it— “"Until now, modern audiences have viewed Hamlet without knowing that Shakespeare has embedded within the play one set of ethics for soul seekers, and a more insensitive credo for bargain hunters."” (p. 54). On this showing Polonius is the grandfather of Ayn Rand’'s infamous treatise '‘On the Virtues of Selfishness’.' Even more tellingly, Polonius'’ heritage bears bad fruit in his own son, whose bad conduct is aptly described as fulfilling Rom. 13.13-14. Talk about the sins of the fathers being visited on the sons.

   It is a surprise to me that nowhere does Craven pursue the angle that Hamlet’'s speeches are deeply indebted to a text like Romans 7.7-25, but they definitely are. The introspective voice of Romans 7 can be heard echoing in Hamlet’'s introspective musings, without question.

   There is no doubt in mind that Biblical literacy is one of the keys to understanding and properly reading the Bard’'s classic plays, and his sonnets as well. Alas, in our day Shakespeare scholarship and Bible scholarship hardly ever cross paths and are not on nodding acquaintance. When I was at UNC I wrote a paper for Father Devereaux on the Biblical allusions in Shakespeare’'s sonnets. He was very pleased with it, and there were some allusions I showed which had not occurred to him. But he reminded me that probably Shakespeare’'s own Biblical literacy came to him by way of the Anglican prayerbook with its lectionary texts. I suspect this is correct.

   In Shakespeare'’s day, and before the KJV of 1611 fame, most people only heard the Bible when it was recited in church in its lectionary readings. In any case, whether directly or indirectly there is no doubt at all that the Bard was deeply influenced by the Bible in the writing of his plays, not least because that first Queen Elizabeth, the defender of the faith, was an admirer of Shakespeare’'s plays, and Shakespeare was wise enough to know his audience. His acting troupe was called, among other things, ‘'the King’'s Men’.'