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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: January ::
Re: Hamartia; Keanu's Hamlet
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 031. Wednesday, 18 January, 1995.
 
(1)     From:   Piers Lewis <
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        Date:   Monday, 16 Jan 1995 15:16:09 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   Hamartia
 
(2)     From:   Christine Mack Gordon <
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        Date:   Monday, 16 Jan 95 15:43:23 -0500
        Subj:   SHAKSPER 0024: Keanu's Hamlet
 
 
(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Piers Lewis <
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Date:           Monday, 16 Jan 1995 15:16:09 -0600 (CST)
Subject:        Hamartia
 
I want to thank Thomas Clayton and Michael Hancher for the work they have done
in clarifying for the rest of us the relevant history of the term 'hamartia.'
What interests me in this story is the way this term has been used to serve the
interests of a reductive moralism-- most notably Christian as Michael Hancher
remarks.  As we have seen, however, moralism can take many forms and serve many
interests. The phrase 'tragic flaw' is only the most obvious instance of the
way this ancient and somewhat mysterious idea has been simplified and put to
moralistic uses.
 
I was struck by Michael Hancher's remark that even Aristotle could not entirely
avoid the temptation to give 'hamartia' a moral spin.  That fact should humble
us all.
 
It is a great temptation to blame the victim for her fate--to say, smugly, well
you must have deserved it--and of course we see the political consequences that
that leads to all the time.  My students are always falling into this trap:
when disaster overtakes a character in a story, they want to see it as a
comeuppance.  I want to say, no one deserves his fate, good OR bad but I'm not
sure how far one should push that; the problem of responsibility puzzles the
will, so to speak. Terms like 'praise' and 'blame' do have a use in human
languages.
 
It is clear that we are responsible for our actions--but what is an action?
When does a series of actions add up to a life?  A fate?  When it's over?
(Call no man happy until he's dead . . .)  The action of a tragedy consists of
a series of smaller actions each of which is understood to have been (in some
sense) chosen.  Each choice could have gone the other way.  Yet, when the final
disaster has occurred and the action of play is complete, we walk out feeling
it couldn't and shouldn't have ended in any other way.
 
Macbeth and his wife are not evil at the beginning; just a couple of worldlings
and opportunists such as any society can readily supply, with an extraordinary
itch for sovereign sway and masterdom.  When it's all over we realize that
something horrifying has been brought to light in the character of Macbeth.
Was it lying there, coiled, right from the beginning or has he, somehow, been
creating his character, step by step, inventing it as he goes along?  Does
Macbeth deserve his fate? It is his fate, it seems, to become a monster; is
that what he deserves?
 
Heraclitus said, "A man's character is his fate."  A frightening thought. A
tragic thought.  It says, we are not in control of our lives; no one deserves
his character or his fate, good or bad.  Isn't that the great discovery of
Greek tragedy--and of tragic drama ever since? Sophocles seems to have been
working out the logic of Heraclitus' equation in _Oedipus_ and thereby
succeeded in turning it into a riddle that defies rational analysis.  Oedipus'
character is certainly instrumental in bringing on his fate but there is no
rational connection between the one and the other.  No rational ethics explains
or justifies the action of this play--or of any other tragedy.  Tragedy is a
perpetual affront to rationalists, moralists and theologians.  And it seems to
have been a problem for Aristotle as well:  is it possible that his theory of
'hamartia' is an attempt to loosen the fatalistic grip of Heraclitus'
formulation?
 
(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Christine Mack Gordon <
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Date:           Monday, 16 Jan 95 15:43:23 -0500
Subject:        SHAKSPER 0024: Keanu's Hamlet
 
Hello, fellow Shakespeareans! Thanks to Tom Loughlin for his summary of Keanu
Reeves's *Hamlet.* I have copies of two reviews, one from the Ottawa Citizen
and one from the Toronto (?) Globe and Mail if anyone would like to see them.
I'll be going to the performance with a busload of students, colleagues, and
friends the weekend of Jan 26-29, and will give my personal impressions after I
return.
 
Chris Gordon
University of Minnesota
 

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