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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: February ::
Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0108.  Tuesday, 13 February 1996.

(1)     From:   Richard W Bovard <
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        Date:   Monday, 12 Feb 1996 10:20:10 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0101 Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?

(2)     From:   Joseph M Green <
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        Date:   Monday, 12 Feb 1996 11:15:38 -0600 (CST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0101  Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?

(3)     From:   Heather Stephenson <
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        Date:   Monday, 12 Feb 1996 17:10:50 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: Real, Fictive or What?

(4)     From:   Shirley Kagan <
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        Date:   Monday, 12 Feb 1996 12:52:25 -1000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0104 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters (Part I)

(5)     From:   Joseph Nathan <
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        Date:   Monday, 12 Feb 1996 22:10:25 -0500
        Subj:   Hamlet-Ophelia

(6)     From:   Richard Regan <
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        Date:   Monday, 12 Feb 1996 23:45:52 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0105 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters (Part II)

(7)     From:   Susan Mather <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 01:17:20 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0105  Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters (Part II)

(8)     From:   Surajit A. Bose <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 08:47:43 -0500
        Subj:   Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters

(9)     From:   Surajit A. Bose <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 09:08:05 -0500
        Subj:   Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Richard W Bovard <
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Date:           Monday, 12 Feb 1996 10:20:10 -0600 (CST)
Subject: 7.0101 Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0101 Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?

We seem to have three levels of response here.  At one level, in the classroom,
the question seems important.  Undergraduate students who are just learning to
read, interpret, and criticize "Hamlet" frequently ask this question.  Fine
distinctions between "character" and "person" may not stimulate such students.

At a second level, the level of theatre practice, the question seems to be
asked often.  Indeed, judging from some of the lighter responses, actors and
actresses do not seem to make such a fine distinction between what "characters"
do in fictive time and what "persons" do in real time.

It is at the third level, the level of critical discourse, that such fine
distinctions matter.  But how much they matter varies from time to time and
from place to place.  Perhaps the discourse itself is the thing?  Or is the
discourse merely "character"?  Perhaps the play is the thing.

Thanks again.  Now, it's back to meetings, regular mail, next year's budget,
and next year's cuts.

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Joseph M Green <
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Date:           Monday, 12 Feb 1996 11:15:38 -0600 (CST)
Subject: 7.0101  Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0101  Re: Hamlet & Ophelia: Sexual Relations?

A better question to ask instead of "what was it in Bradley and the Romantics
and very many other persons that made them imagine an autonomous consciousness
for some of Shakespeare's characters?" might be "how does Shakespeare create
this marvelous effect?"

(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Heather Stephenson <
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Date:           Monday, 12 Feb 1996 17:10:50 -0500 (EST)
Subject:        Re: Real, Fictive or What?

Replying to the Hamlet/Ophelia can-we-treat-these-characters-as-real debate,
Michael Saenger writes: "This is certainly a point which makes a chasm between
academics and actors/non-academics."

Well, as one who might be "read" as straddling the worlds of the academy and
the non-academy (which is interestly aligned with the stage here), I don't buy
such an easy separation.  I don't believe that there is a universal actor
engaging in one type of reading, and I am quite certain that no such harmony in
point of view exists amongst those in the academic community.  Whatever the
point of view -- whether a certain reader/actor/audience member approaches the
text with "Shakespeare the man" in mind or chooses to ignore a notion of an
author (which I would argue is an impossibility for a Western reader of
Shakespeare), these varied readings are _choices_.  We need to recognize that
finding allusions to Ophelia's sexuality, and choosing to translate those
allusions into some type of fictive "reality" (whether on stage or in a
personal understanding of the text) is one in many possible choices... just as
completely ignoring Renaissance playstyles is a choice.

What most interests me about Saenger's discussion of Renaissance acting is his
emphasis on the play's "shadows" (a wonderful phrase), and their linkage to
authorial intent.  He writes: "This [the allusions to Ophelia's loss of
virginity] is a shadow cast by the play, a shadow that was originally intended
to pass fleetingly as the tragedy picks up force."  I am fascinated by that
"original intention."  How many layers of choices -- how many intepretations of
many different kinds of texts -- played into this reading of original
intention?  If what we read in Hamlet is a choice, then what can we make of the
choices which enter into any discussion (however well researched) of authorial
or theatrical or original intention for plays performed over 400 years ago?

And perhaps more importantly, why do those theatrical choices matter? (Just
opening a discussion -- not meant to be combative).

Cheers,
Heather Stephenson
Georgetown University

(4)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Shirley Kagan <
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Date:           Monday, 12 Feb 1996 12:52:25 -1000
Subject: 7.0104 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters (Part I)
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0104 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters (Part I)

Florence Amit has written:

>Hamlet testifies to her virginity by sending her to wed with
>a fool, Yorick, in a nunnery where none live "be thou as chaste as ice , as
>pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny". (Nor does she, by our fellow
>shaksperians here). Later, during the mouse trap scene, Ophelia refuses
>to have Hamlet "lie in [her] lap" where-upon he says "That's a fair thought to
>lie between MAID's legs." A detail, but one that would not have been said
>had they been lovers. The innocence of Ophelia is necessary from the point of
>view of a Luthern transfiguration and allegory.

Some thoughts:

If I'm not mistaken, a nunnery has the double meaning of brothel, certainly a
place where Ophelia might go having lost her virginity and being unwed.  Also,
Hamlet refers to "nothing" being a fair thought to lie between a maid's legs.
Again, a pun, since "nothing" may refer to the female genetalia, thus making
the little conversation between Hamlet and Ophelia one that could only be
shared by lovers.  Finally, although the innocence of Ophelia may be necessary
from a Lutheran point of view, Shakespeare was not writing Hamlet for a
Lutheran audience.

Shirley Kagan

(5)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Joseph Nathan <
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Date:           Monday, 12 Feb 1996 22:10:25 -0500
Subject:        Hamlet-Ophelia

Did Hamlet have sex with Ophelia?  This has always been an intriguing subject.
In one of the biographies on Errol Flynn, the author quotes a conversation
between Flynn and John Barrymore.  "Tell me, John, I've always wanted to know"
Flynn asked, "did Hamlet have an affair with Ophelia?"  And Barrymore replied
---  "Only in Cleveland". Perhaps this anecdote sheds no new light on the
subject, but it might serve to lighten your class discussion.

(6)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Richard Regan <
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Date:           Monday, 12 Feb 1996 23:45:52 -0500
Subject: 7.0105 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters (Part II)
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0105 Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters (Part II)

On the topic of the textual adultery of Gertrude and Claudius, I think it does
matter how one reads "adulterate" because the meaning informs the mind of the
Ghost, who then infects Hamlet with the misogyny and sexual nausea which he in
turn projects onto Ophelia.  The OED gives the meaning "spurious or
counterfeit" from the 1590's, besides the reference to adultery.  The real
story is perhaps the Ghost's:  Does he accuse Gertrude falsely of adultery?  Is
he fixated on her sexual behavior after his death?  How much does it matter to
Hamlet whether Gertrude betrayed his father before the murder, which I think
she is ignorant of.

(7)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Susan Mather <
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Date:           Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 01:17:20 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 7.0105  Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters (Part II)
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0105  Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters (Part II)

I can't take it anymore!!!!  I can't stand that line from Mr. D. that Ophelia
is not considered by him to be a "real person."  Where is that noble woman that
has such a way with words?  She wrote so eloquently on cross-dressing and the
Elizabethan stage, afterall.

(8)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Surajit A. Bose <
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Date:           Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 08:47:43 -0500
Subject:        Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters

With regard to the hoary question about the extent of carnal knowledge shared
by Hamlet and Ophelia, a question SHAKSPERians have been pursuing with
voyeuristic interest of late, Hardy Cook writes:

>But let me be naive for a moment.  As much as I would like to think of myself
>as a shin-kicking, post-structuralist, I still value close reading.  I surely
>know I am opening myself up here to being interrogated from both the left and
>the right in Shakespeare studies with a statement such as this, yet I do wonder
>if there still is some value, if not to actors preparing for roles (thus the
>Granville-Barker reference above), to reading closely for possible clues to
>character in the text even though such speculation is outside the text.

Now the last thing I want to do is kick Professor Cook or anybody else in the
shin (for one thing, they'd probably kick right back, and that would hurt). But
purely for the sake of furthering academic discussion, I do want to point out
that to oppose poststructuralism to close reading is to set up a false
dichotomy.   Look at "Of Grammatology"--about half the book is a painstaking,
one might even say nit-picking, close reading of an essay by Rousseau.

However, Professor Cook is right in asserting that poststructuralist approaches
call into question the notion of "character," at least insofar as "character"
is taken to mean an autonomous consciousness with a private history (I'm
borrowing from John Drakakis's bracing contribution here. Shin-braces,
perhaps?).  What they do emphasize instead is "subjectivity." The difference is
that "character" begs the questions "subjectivity" foregrounds: i.e., what are
the determinants of individual consciousness? How do our ideas of privacy,
identity, and autonomous selfhood come into being? Perhaps the notion of
individual character wasn't something sixteenth- and seventeenth-century
Englishmen and women took for granted. Or even if they did believe that every
individual had a distinct character, perhaps what counted as character or as
indications of character were different then.

These questions can't be answered except by close readings of sixteenth- and
seventeenth-century texts.  But that means our interest in reading "Hamlet" is
not to figure out what the play reveals about Hamlet's character, or Ophelia's,
or Gertrude's; rather, it's to figure out the strategies by which the play
PRODUCES those characters. This directs our attention to larger historical and
social issues about sixteenth-century understandings of the self; to related
texts such as Burton's "Anatomy of Melancholy"; to the conditions of stage
performance (e.g., cross-dressing, another hot topic with us SHAKSPERians these
days); and above all to the words on the pages of "Hamlet."

But sometimes even the words and pages aren't stable. Which brings us to the
last of the topics raised by Professor Cook, textual scholarship: how does one
know what the words on the page are? In Professor Cook's words:

>For example, I'm currently looking at the Q1 *Hamlet,* in which I find a less
>problematic Gertrude than the one in Q2 and F1. Am I mistaken even to make such
>an assertion?  The Q1 Gertrude has less to say and is seemly less involved and
>thus less problematic than she -- that is, the Gertrude character -- is in Q2
>and F1.  In the closet scene, she appears to capitulate to her son and in the
>following scene appears to cover up for him.  Q1's scene 15 -- between Gertrude
>and Horatio that is not in Q2 and F1 -- further supports these assumptions as
>do other omissions in Q1 related to Gertrude that do not appear in Q2 and F1.
>In making such assertions, am I *essentially* counting children?

Professor Cook is absolutely right in pointing out that interpretation cannot
be divorced from textual scholarship. We can't assume by default that the
complicated textual history has nothing to do with the way in which Gertrude
comes across. But I would shift his emphasis slightly. Rather than asking "How
is the character of Gertrude in Q1 different from that in Q2/F1?," I would ask,
"What produced these different versions of the text?"  It seems to me to be a
logically prior question. That question directs us to more history--of print
and publishing, of watermarks, performance records, etc. Stephanie Jed's
"Chaste Thinking" (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1989) invites us to shed our
philological readings for paleographic ones. Her definitions of those terms are
different from the usual, and my summary of her extremely engaging and subtle
argument is going to be very reductive, I'm afraid. But she says that we
shouldn't assume that our way of gaining knowledge about texts is universal and
transhistorically correct. We must ask about the material conditions under
which knowledge gets produced and transmitted; then alone can we be sure that
what we are producing is in fact knowledge.

But I see I've laid myself open to the usual charges against poststructuralist
work. I've used long, ugly sentences choked with jargon ("transhistorical,"
egad! "material conditions," forsooth!). I've trafficked in irrelevances and
obscured the obvious (what does the Stationers' Register have to do with the
kind of person Gertrude is?). I've ignored the problems of teaching (theory is
all very well for graduate students, but it doesn't work in the undergrad or
high school classroom!)

And above all, I've sidestepped the main issue through argumentative sophistry:
I've not produced a reading of the text, i.e., I've not put forward my own
carefully considered opinion about whether or not Ham and Ophie did the nasty.
Well, all I know about that is--I know nothing. Guilty as charged.

(9)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Surajit A. Bose <
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Date:           Tuesday, 13 Feb 1996 09:08:05 -0500
Subject:        Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Characters

Terence Hawkes writes:

>The theory shared by a number of MY colleagues is that Hamlet and Ophelia had
>textual relations.

Bravo! I vote we give him the last word on the subject.
 

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