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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: June ::
Re: Various Hamlet Postings
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0530  Saturday, 6 June 1998.

[1]     From:   Ed Taft <
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        Date:   Friday, 05 Jun 1998 11:15:06 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Hamlet 4.4

[2]     From:   Andrew Walker White <
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        Date:   Friday, 5 Jun 1998 11:16:25 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Happy Ending, Nice and Tidy

[3]     From:   Liana Markley <
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        Date:   Friday, 05 Jun 1998 12:11:20 -0400
        Subj:   Soliloquies in Hamlet

[4]     From:   Carol Barton <
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        Date:   Friday, 5 Jun 1998 13:11:26 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0528  Various Hamlet Postings

[5]     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Friday, 05 Jun 1998 17:03:35 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0528  Various Hamlet Postings


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Friday, 05 Jun 1998 11:15:06 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Hamlet 4.4

I agree with Justin Bacon that modern critics have often made Fortinbras
into a bad guy when, in reality, he acts much like Hamlet, who is
basically a good guy. So there's a (very controversial) point of
agreement between us. But that having been said, I think that Justin
needs to rethink his attitude towards revenge. It is clearly not
necessarily a good thing to take it upon ourselves to kill someone we
know is guilty of murder. Imagine how order would be affected if we all
believed this!  Look, two central ideas are implicit in the text of
Hamlet: "Revenge recoils against the revenger" and "Vengence is mine,
sayeth the Lord." These two Renaissance commonplaces are part of the
mental furniture of the audience, and of the play *Hamlet.* The devil
can abuse of by assuming a pleasing shape or by tempting us to do
something wrong, and revenge might be wrong if it is not heaven's will.
Revenge can be wrong even if Claudius is guilty because this kind of
extreme act may belong to God alone. This is, I think, the subtext of
4.4, though I agree with Larry that it does not seem to come to the
surface; in fact, Hamlet seems not to know consciously what is stopping
him. But it does not follow that the audience cannot figure it out-I
think they can, as I (and Carol) have argued.

That this particular scruple is Hamlet's problem seems to be supported
by what happens in Act 5. there, in effect, Hamlet says, "OK, if revenge
is really God's will then, heaven will supply the motive, the means, and
the opportunity without me having to lift a finger." and that's exactly
what happens, isn't it? So Hamlet thinks he is cooperating with
providence when he kills Claudius. Whether he actually is or not is,
however, an open question that Shakespeare apparently wants to keep
open.

That's how I see it, Justin.

--Ed Taft

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Andrew Walker White <
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Date:           Friday, 5 Jun 1998 11:16:25 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Happy Ending, Nice and Tidy

The above is from the closing tune to Brecht's Threepenny Opera, which I
think is appropriate here.

Justin Bacon sees Fortinbras' arrival as an unqualifiedly good thing.
It is an open question for me, however.  With Elizabeth's advancing
years, and the ever-more-likely prospect that a Scottish nephew of
dubious reputation was about to take the throne, I'm not sure whether
the ending would have been as happy as some make it out to be.

Granted, there's a need for closure in popular entertainment.  But from
the time of Euripides on (remember those farcical Dei ex machinae?), the
need for a happy, tidy ending has been mocked as often as it has been
honored.

Rarely has a foreign monarch's ascendance been regarded as a happy
outcome to a story-William's move from Holland to England some years
later notwithstanding...

So I remain unconvinced of Mr. Bacon's argument.  But open, all the
same, to other opinions on the subject.

Andy White
Arlington, VA

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Liana Markley <
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Date:           Friday, 05 Jun 1998 12:11:20 -0400
Subject:        Soliloquies in Hamlet

>  Larry Weiss wrote:
>
>  >Thank you, Ed.  The conventions of the soliloquy require us to accept
>  >the speaker's words as accurately describing his state of mind.  He
>  >might be in error, but he is not lying, and Ed is correct on that score.

Reading over the last group of posts on the subject, the following
thought occurred to me:  Throughout the play characters spy on each
other, and this "tweaks" the soliloquies in Hamlet in a way (or to an
extent) that isn't true of soliloquies in other renaissance dramas.  The
extent to which anyone in the play is free to talk honestly to himself
aloud is thus put in doubt.  What Hamlet or Claudius say in soliloquy
could be honest thought, or it could be a part of a strategy for
"psyching out" their opponent(s).

Liana Markley

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Carol Barton <
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Date:           Friday, 5 Jun 1998 13:11:26 EDT
Subject: 9.0528  Various Hamlet Postings
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0528  Various Hamlet Postings

>  I do not believe that anything separates Prof. Barton and me except a
>  semantic quibble.  She believes that Hamlet has a nagging doubt about
>  the rectitude of taking revenge, perhaps from "thinking too precisely on
>  th'event," and she considers this a question of cause.  I see little if
>  any textual support for such uncertainty,  However,  I am willing to
>  allow the possibility but regard it as a diminution of will. It seems to
>  me that once we agree, as Prof. Barton does, that Claudius murdered
>  Hamlet Sr. and that Hamlet Jr. has been exhorted to "revenge," we are
>  left not with an issue of cause or motivation, but a question of
>  strength of intention.
>
>   I do not pretend to know why Hamlet's will is blunted; although Ed Taft
>  and I agree that cowardice is a distinct possibility.  Religious
>  scruples, as suggested by Prof. Barton is also conceivable, albeit I
>  find a paucity of textual support.  Someone suggested to me off list
>  that we should remember that Hamlet is Claudius's nephew and there could
>  have been familial affection between them in the past.  Again, no text
>  support, but a possibility.  I am sure every member of the List can come
>  up with other plausible possibilities.  The only point I was making is
>  that the 26/27 monosyllabic word sentence is a guidepost that points to
>  a weakness of intention (from whatever cause) as the root of Hamlet's
>  vacillation.

The more I read of Mr. Weiss' assessment of Hamlet's motivation, the
more I concur with his observation that there is very little substantive
difference in what we are saying.  I too believe that Hamlet's "cause"
(justification, impetus to action) is an absolute that either does or
does not exist, irrespective of whether or not it induces Hamlet to
"do't"-and it certainly passes the "reasonable person" test, within the
context of the play (in that most people would agree that murder of
one's father and usurpation of one's throne-not to mention subsequent
plots against one's very life-would be sufficient reason for Hamlet to
take revenge unmolested under his specific sociopolitical
circumstances).  What intrigues me about his vacillation is what I
perceive to be the underlying cause: the sense that it is not so much
his "cowardice" as his confusion in the face of the confrontation of two
powerful epistemologies (that which was receding in Shakespeare's time,
and believed in ghosts, and sought an eye for an eye, etc., and that
which was gaining hegemony, and believed in the Royal Society, and
studied to leave vengeance to the Lord).  This is a dilemma that many of
Shakespeare's contemporaries would have faced in almost every aspect of
their collective existence: was the Bible corrupted, or was the church?
was Ptolemy right, or was Copernicus? did kings rule by divine right, or
did they govern by the consent of the governed?  was the universal
hierarchy of the Great Chain of Being a myth, or the organizing
principle of the cosmos? and so on.  "Thus conscience doth make cowards
of us all," Hamlet says-not implying that thinking overmuch makes us
literal cowards in the pejorative sense, but that studying the
ramifications of an issue too closely has the same force and effect,
which is to make us fearful of acting at all, and therefore of impeding
any action whatsoever.  L'allegro (to put in a gratuitous plug for
Milton) does not spend much time in contemplation; il penseroso does not
spend much time in action; and as Mr. Weiss has previously suggested,
the fact that Hamlet is of the latter persuasion does not bode well for
his putative kingship, no matter what Fortinbras says.  (Being unable to
make a decision would, however, qualify him eminently for any post in
government as we know it.)

Pace, Larry.  The defense rests.

Carol Barton
Department of English
Averett College - Northern Virginia Campus

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Friday, 05 Jun 1998 17:03:35 -0400
Subject: 9.0528  Various Hamlet Postings
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0528  Various Hamlet Postings

Justin Bacon writes:

>Hamlet is slightly muddied, of course, by the fact that Shakespeare
>wants us to believe that Hamlet would have made an excellent king
>(whether or not you accept that he would've based on what Shakespeare
>showed us, I think we have to accept convention and realize that the
>very last thing we hear about Hamlet is what a great king he would have
>made-from the lips of Fortinbras no less!). I still believe, however,
>that Fortinbras is supposed to be looked on as a positive light for the
>future.

I'm not sure that any auditor <italic>must</italic>, in any sense,
accept a convention.  If Shakespearean drama were a series of
unchallengable conventions, I would find it rather boring, I think.

Can we compare Fortinbras's final comments on Hamlet with Marc Antony's
final comments on Brutus?  In both cases, the praiser's motivation is in
doubt, as, of course, it always is. But one way to read both pieces of
praise is as political manipulation. Antony wants Brutus's veterans to
join his army rather than Caesar's.  Fortinbras wants Hamlet's
legitimacy to descend on him; therefore, the conqueror praises the
defunct prince.  We don't have to take his words as gospel.

Yours, Bill Godshalk
 

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