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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: July ::
Re: Stoic Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0618  Friday, 3 July 1998.

From:           Carol Barton <
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Date:           Thursday, 2 Jul 1998 08:52:48 EDT
Subject: 9.0612  Stoic Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0612  Stoic Hamlet


In a message dated 7/2/98 7:19:59 AM Eastern Daylight Time, Ben
Schneider
writes:

> Possibly Shakespeare is protesting that the Stoic approach is too
>  crude-Fortinbras making a fuss about the ninth part of a hair and all
>  that-but there are so many references to the Stoic emphasis on the
>  active life all through the play, that I'm sure Shakespeare has the
>  issue uppermost in his mind.

As I suggested earlier, Ben, I think you're right that Shakespeare is
mulling the via contempliva over the via activa, just as Milton will do
in Samson Agonistes half a century or so larer, but I'm not sure that
it's necessarily the influence of the Stoics that is urging him on.  As
Steadman, et al. have shown in great detail, this period of history also
necessitated a redefinition of heroism that rejected the pagan ideals
established by Homer and Virgil in favor of a Christian heroism that no
one had quite defined.  The thinking warrior was an oddity in Ulysses
(and we never do get a glimpse into the internal workings of his
intellect), but by Shakespeare's time, all of the existing epistemology
is subject to doubt, from the configuration of the universe (Ptolemy vs.
Copernicus and Kepler) to the supralunary perfection of the cosmos
(Cnidus vs. Galileo and Kepler) to the sanctity of the Bible as
"translated" by the clerisy (Luther, Tyndale, et al.) to the divinity of
divine right monarchy (Elizabeth vs. MQ of Scots) to the very core of
salvation itself (single and double predestination vs. the doctrine of
good works).  The general population had established a tentative
literacy; each man was exhorted by the Protestants to think for himself,
to let God and the Paraclete write directly on the fleshy tables of his
heart; and for the first time, things weren't circumscribed by an
infallible Church and a predeterminate Great Chain of Being.  An Orestes
would not have hesitated to lop off Claudius' head, any more than an
Akhilleus or a Herakles would have- or indeed, a Fortinbras or a
Hotspur; but Hamlet is a thinker, not a berserker, and for him,
"enterprises of great pitch and moment" are not governed by intestinal
fortitude, but by thorough anaylsis, careful planning, and conscious
battle management.  Elizabeth was notorious for her indecision: perhaps
Shakespeare is gently reminding his monarch (or her subjects) that a
good king is both Hamlet and Fortinbras, i.e. Beowulf.

Cheers,
Carol Barton
Department of English
Averett College - Northern Virginia Campus
Vienna, Virginia
 

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