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Home :: Archive :: 1996 :: February ::
Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0129.  Tuesday, 20 February 1996.

(1)     From:   Rick Kincaid <
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        Date:   Monday, 19 Feb 1996 10:44:41
        Subj:   Hamlet & Ophelia

(2)     From:   David Lucking <
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        Date:   Monday, 19 Feb 1996 19:27:11 +-100
        Subj:   To count or not to count?

(3)     From:   Porter Jamison <
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        Date:   Monday, 19 Feb 1996 18:34:18 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 7.0125  Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character


(1)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Rick Kincaid <
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Date:           Monday, 19 Feb 1996 10:44:41
Subject:        Hamlet & Ophelia

A friend of mine had this very same discusion with the British actress Rose
Marie Harris this summer while attending BADA (actually it was at a pub after
classes). Not only had they been having intercourse, Ms. Harris contends, but
Ophelia was pregnant by Hamlet. He knows this or figures it out during their
scene together while the King and Polonius are listening, which gives "get thee
to a nunnery" all the more meaning. AND, if Gertrude knows this, it makes her
"There is a willow grows aslant..." more than just a flowery speech (pun
intended), since the flowers mentioned were commonly used in Medieval speech
when refering to fertility.

(2)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Lucking <
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Date:           Monday, 19 Feb 1996 19:27:11 +-100
Subject:        To count or not to count?

To count or not to count?

In response to a recent thread in which speculation concerning Hamlet's sexual
activities has alternated with reminders that such conjectures belong to the
same category as counting Lady Macbeth's fictive children, I offer the
following observations for what they are worth.

In an even more obvious way than other literary forms, drama is a medium in
which the prescription that invisible children are not to be counted can only
be applied up to a certain point. Even if the academic critic can hypnotize
himself into thinking that one should never go outside the text in speaking
about character, no one who actually performs or directs a play can operate on
such a premise. The moment the actor playing a character dresses himself in a
particular way, the moment he grimaces here or smiles there, the moment he
leaves a significant pause in his delivery or lays the stress on this word
rather than that -- the moment he acts, in a word -- he is going outside the
text. Shakespeare does not tell us where significant pauses or word stresses or
grimaces or smiles should come. Actors or directors construct characters on the
basis of the textual information that is available to them, and act (or direct
action) in a manner consistent with those characters. We as spectators judge
that performance, among other things, on the basis of its consonance with the
text, but also on the basis of our knowledge of human conduct, which is
technically extrinsic to the text. We might talk about verisimiltude, or
plausibility, or something else, but it is character we are speaking about all
the same. Are we to say, then, that the actor's approach to the character,
because it goes outside the text, is wholly non-critical? The academic critic
might well say so, but perhaps by denying a continuity between his activity and
those other cultural activities which are some way affined to his own, he is
doing no more than sawing off the branch he is sitting on. Furthermore, even
the purist critic might experience a certain difficulty in separating the
textual character (that is, the sum total of speeches assigned to a given
personage) from the composite image of that character he forms in his mind as
he reads the work, an image which is necessarily going to be "more" than what
Shakespeare put into the play. This, of course, quite aside from the fact that
even the purest of purists has been exposed to non-textual influences
(theatrical performances, films, early conditioning by schoolteachers who read
Bradley in their spare time, etc.) which have doubtless conditioned his view of
the characters and hence his reading of the text. The problem is complicated by
the fact that the editors who establish the texts on which actors and critics
and general readers perform their respective operations also apply criteria
which may include their sense of the characters in the play and what is
consistent with those characters. There is a respect, in other words, in which
the text is a function of "character" and not vice versa.

What the actor does explicitly, the responsive spectator or reader does
implicitly. He is constantly adding to what the play explicitly supplies.
Criteria of psychological plausibility, and even of moral acceptability, are
criteria we apply instinctively, and they become critical judgements even if
they don't have their origin in formal critical positions or their immediate
sanction in the text. To cite an instance almost at random, how are we supposed
to respond to Valentine's willingness in "Two Gentlemen" to hand over the woman
he claims he loves to the man who has just attempted to rape her? The text is
absolutely deadpan, and leaves it to us to make what sense of it that we can.
And the only way we can make sense of the episode is to invoke something
"outside" the text, whether this be the Renaissance topos of friendship versus
love, the passive function assigned to women in in the cementing of homosocial
bonds, the question of elementary decency in dealing with another human being,
or whatever. And why not character? The moment we ask ourselves whether it is
"probable" that a normal red-blooded individual would act like Valentine, we
are implicitly invoking the issue of character. And the same issue is invoked
whenever we ask those questions which it is difficult not to ask in reading
Shakespeare's plays -- Why is Othello is so vulnerable to Iago's insinuations?
Is Katherina being ironical at the end of "The Taming of the Shrew"? Is
Coriolanus's rejection of praise sincere? Why does Lear fail to perceive the
devotion of Cordelia until it is too late? And so on.

The problem is, how far is it legitimate to go in looking beyond what is
strictly in the text for answers to questions that are raised within it? One
answer, possibly, is that one can go as far as one likes as long as it is the
text itself that remains the primary point of reference. It may seem absurd to
ask how many children Lady Macbeth had, but one can imagine circumstances in
which even this question might not seem quite so ridiculous as it is
represented as being: this is a play, after all, in which children are present,
and in which they are brutally murdered, and the question of how many children
Lady Macbeth had might have some connection (for instance) with the problem of
how many children Lady Macduff had. On the other hand, it should also be
mentioned that since Lady Macbeth explicitly mentions having given suck to a
child, there is textual warrant for saying that she has had at least one. The
same cannot be said about the theory that Hamlet and Ophelia have had sexual
relations. The only evidence supporting such a hypothesis is precisely those
elements in the text that the hypothesis is supposed to explain, the contents
of the songs that Ophelia sings in her distraction. Since those songs echo in
their own way Hamlet's own reductive vision of sexuality, it seems to me that
they are sufficiently accounted for in terms of Hamlet's destructive influence
on the girl he has once professed to love. I don't think it is necessary to
infer there have

(3)----------------------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Porter Jamison <
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Date:           Monday, 19 Feb 1996 18:34:18 -0800
Subject: 7.0125  Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character
Comment:        Re: SHK 7.0125  Re: Hamlet, Ophelia, and Character

>The many connotations for "nunnery" need or need not have
>been in Hamlet's mind, although they are obviously in the
>mind of this well-read scholar. I do not cancel out the
>possibility that Hamlet would be thinking brothel as well
>as convent. The logic of his rhetoric is for convent. His
>state of mind is for brothel . . . (snip)

Am I the only person who sees Hamlet using the word at first to mean "convent",
then after he assumes Ophelia's complicity in the plot to spy on him, he hurls
the slang meaning of "brothel" into her face as a parting shot?
 

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