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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: July ::
Re: Incest
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0667  Friday, 17 July 1998.

[1]     From:   Bruce Young <
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        Date:   Thursday, 16 Jul 1998 13:08:00 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0663  Re:  Incest

[2]     From:   Chris Gordon <
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        Date:   Thursday, 16 Jul 1998 18:06:14 -0500
        Subj:   SHK 9.0663  Re: Incest

[3]     From:   Terence Hawkes <
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        Date:   Friday, 17 Jul 1998 06:23:34 -0400
        Subj:   SHK 9.0663  Re: Incest


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bruce Young <
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Date:           Thursday, 16 Jul 1998 13:08:00 +0000
Subject: 9.0663  Re:  Incest
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0663  Re:  Incest

In response to Satia Testman's suggestion that there might be incest
within Polonius's family, I don't think the fact that Gertrude (and
perhaps others) hope Hamlet and Ophelia will be married "tears apart the
argument that Laertes and Polonius were protecting her from Hamlet's
machinations."  It seems likely there were differences of opinion in and
around the court about the likelihood or appropriateness of a
Hamlet-Ophelia match.

Polonius and Laertes think such a match unlikely or inappropriate,
saying, in effect, "Hamlet may think he loves you, but his love may not
last; he may even be toying with you.  Furthermore, his will is not his
own; given his royal station, the court and country have to sanction his
marriage.  And you may not be considered high enough in station to marry
him.  He is 'a prince out of thy star.'"  (See 1.3.5-28, 101-36;
2.2.131-42.)  Both counsel with Ophelia in private, are speaking (I
think) sincerely, and would be understood by Ophelia as meaning what
they say.

Another bit of evidence that Polonius means what he says is that he
later apologizes to Ophelia-again in private-for having counseled her
too harshly.  Deciding Hamlet has gone mad from spurned love, Polonius
softens his earlier view and says: "I am sorry that with better heed and
judgment / I had not coted him.  I fear'd he did but trifle / And meant
to wrack thee, but beshrow my jealousy [i.e., suspiciousness & maybe
possessiveness]!" (2.1.108-10).

Polonius is possessive and overprotective, but incestuous?  I think
not.  And I think it's unlikely Laertes is either.  If they were, would
it make sense for them, in private, to tell Ophelia, "Be careful not to
be overcome by desire; the young and innocent-particularly 'maids'-may
be badly damaged if they are not careful; don't lose your 'honor'
[virginity] by opening 'your chaste treasure' to Hamlet's insistence; be
'scanter of your maiden [virginal] presence' with him"?  Or would it
make sense for Ophelia to answer Laertes that he should practice the
same doctrine of sexual self-restraint he is preaching to her?  (See
1.3.29-51, 121.)

Their reasons for cautioning her seem to be (1) a concern about her
"honor" or "honesty"; (2) a concern that she'll be involved with someone
she can't marry; and (3) probably along with both of these, concern
about the distress, emotional and otherwise, she might experience if she
were emotionally or physically involved with Hamlet and then dropped.

The fact that Henry VIII provided well for his mistresses doesn't seem
to me compelling evidence that Polonius and Laertes, or anyone else in
the play, is supposed to think Ophelia would come off unscathed from an
affair with Hamlet.

Bruce Young

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[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Chris Gordon <
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Date:           Thursday, 16 Jul 1998 18:06:14 -0500
Subject: Re: Incest
Comment:        SHK 9.0663  Re: Incest

Satia Testman wondered about the possibility of incest in the
Polonius-Laertes-Ophelia family. I think this would be an interesting
issue to explore in production, although finding textual evidence (of
any obvious sort) is unlikely. It is nonetheless clear that both
Polonius and Laertes have a very intense interest in Ophelia's
relationship with Hamlet, and while they assert that they are concerned
only because of discrepancies in rank, and their suspicions about
Hamlet's potential abuse of the situation, their interest could stem
from a more personal emotional/sexual interest.  Perhaps some
productions have already considered this option, though none I've seen
have done so.

Chris Gordon

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terence Hawkes <
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Date:           Friday, 17 Jul 1998 06:23:34 -0400
Subject: Re: Incest
Comment:        SHK 9.0663  Re: Incest

Dear Satia Testman: I think you're definitely on to something.  What we
need is the evidence of Laertes's social worker.

Terence Hawkes
 

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