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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: June ::
Re: Various Hamlet Postings
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0541  Thursday, 11 June 1998.

[1]     From:   Ed Taft <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 10 Jun 1998 10:25:44 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Various Hamlet Postings

[2]     From:   Ed Taft <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 10 Jun 1998 10:50:43 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Hamlet Postscript

[3]     From:   Sean Lawrence  <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 10 Jun 1998 12:41:02 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0539  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

[4]     From:   David Evett <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 10 Jun 1998 15:46:45 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0539 Re: Various Hamlet Postings


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Wednesday, 10 Jun 1998 10:25:44 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Various Hamlet Postings

Though I tend to view both Fortinbras and the ending of *Hamlet*
positively (Fortinbras will make a good king; Hamlet did his job well,
and against insuperable odds, and is thus a real hero), the different
views of Dave Evett and Bill Godshalk on Fortinbras simply reinforce the
duality that *cannot be erased* at the end of the play. Dave is right to
argue that Fortinbras's comments can be seen as generous and as
reflecting well on the speaker; but Bill is right that he may well be
speaking "from political expediency." I guess my question is: does
Bill's view cancel out Dave's? Isn't it true that sometimes we do things
(or say things) because (1) they are right, and (2) they further our own
self interest?  To be honest, though no politician, I have often found
that these motives, one moral and the other personal, sometimes converge
in my own life.  I suspect that in politics self interest and the common
good are not always at odds and that Shakespeare knew that.

--Ed Taft

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ed Taft <
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Date:           Wednesday, 10 Jun 1998 10:50:43 -0400 (EDT)
Subject:        Hamlet Postscript

One more quick comment about Bill Godshalk's view about the ending of
*Hamlet.* I concede that Hamlet's father might not be pleased to see
Fortinbras take over, but if Bill is right that Fortinbras represents
"the medieval king," then he also is the same kind of king that old
Hamlet was, using Bill's theory. Isn't that what Hamlet himself wanted?
That is, he wanted to replace Claudius with someone like his father, for
whom he has/had great respect?  If Fortinbras's qualities are much like
those of old Hamlet, then we may be very well off indeed at the end of
the play. Of course, some want to argue that young Hamlet idolizes his
father, which in some sense is true, but that does not mean that what he
remembers about his dad is basically wrong, just exaggerated a bit. As
far as I can see, old Hamlet's only flaw is that he likes to take naps
in the afternoon. Lots of us do the same, especially if we are rather
deep into middle age (!).

--Ed Taft

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence  <
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Date:           Wednesday, 10 Jun 1998 12:41:02 -0400
Subject: 9.0539  Re: Various Hamlet Postings
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0539  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

> Had young Hamlet ascended the throne
> and had had to deal with Fortinbras militant, I have little doubt who
> would have been victorious.

Why?  Hamlet, after all, exercises daily by bloodsport, is beloved by
the people of Denmark, and leaves a trail of smoking corpses everywhere
he goes.  He was the only one to attack the pirate ship, keep in mind,
which would seem to indicate that he's first into the breach.  The man
is nature's blitzkrieg commander.

Wherefore this image of a wimpy Hamlet, mooning pointlessly around his
parent's place?  I think A. C. Bradley warned us long ago not to confuse
him with some figure equipped with the sorrows of Young Werther and the
soul of Young Coleridge.  His reading Montaigne is hardly proof against
activity.  Montaigne himself praised some antique military commander
(whose name, in Montaignian fashion, I do not recall) who paused during
an assault on a besieged town to read Plutarch.  Montaigne himself was a
brilliant politician, keeping his city out of the most terrible
suffering inflicted on the gallic race before Verdun, and a writer of
soul-searching monographs in his leisure.  A level of cultivation
complements martial skill (or vice-versa, depending on how you look at
it) in Castiglione, who bases the dialogue of his Courtier, after all,
in the demesne of a mercenary.

I need hardly add that if we're dealing with the quarto Hamlet, any
observations of his activity and bloody-mindedness are all the more
true.

Cheers,
Sean.

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Evett <
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Date:           Wednesday, 10 Jun 1998 15:46:45 -0400
Subject: 9.0539 Re: Various Hamlet Postings
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0539 Re: Various Hamlet Postings

> I enjoyed reading Dave Evett's list of final comments, each of which (no
> doubt?) should be read uniquely as part of a unique play.

I do indeed doubt that the generous moments to be found at the end of
almost all the tragedies and histories should each "be read uniquely as
part of a unique play" (I want to phrase this more strongly than does
Bill Godshalk's own question mark): when similar figures occur at
similar places in a great many formally similar works by one (or many)
artists we have grounds for suspecting a generic or canonic pattern,
which, like patterns in nature, may have predictive or analytical force,
so that, for instance, if the name "Nina" did not appear somewhere in
the next NYT cartoon by Al Hershfeld people who know his work would be
surprised, even shocked.  I am arguing that such a pattern appears in
the Shakespearean tragedies and histories, and that it challenges Bill's
assurance ("of course," "always"), that "the praiser's motivation is in
doubt, as, of course, it always is," and beyond that the customary glum
cynicism of most post-modern academic criticism.

With particular respect to *Ham* let me carry this a little further.

> Since Fortinbras has had no
> opportunity in the play to judge the qualities of young Hamlet, I think
> it strange that Fortinbras is so sure that Hamlet "had he been put on"
> would have "prov'd most royal."

We could of course speculate about this; Fortinbras is in the country
for a second time, and as likely to hear about Hamlet as Hamlet is to
have heard about him, and even if he had stayed in Norway a real-world
prince would presumably have an intelligencer at an important
neighboring court whose reports would surely include information about
the heir apparent.  The only explicit onstage auditors of F's remarks
are the foreigner Horatio and the nit-wit Osric, neither likely to carry
a lot of political clout; in any case Fortinbras is on the scene, with
an army at his back, and no alternative anywhere to be seen or heard.

But that treats F. as a person, not a dramatic image.  There are several
places in these plays where characters express knowledge already in
possession of the audience that they have had no obvious chance to
acquire, not being present in the scenes where it was first divulged.
We tend not to notice these in performance, whereas we do notice those
places where the character does not know all the audience knows (those
moments generate dramatic irony).  But they remind us that while most
plays mostly sustain the fiction that the words of the play are directed
at the onstage audience, the only audience that matters is the one
sitting in the seats.  Especially at the end of plays, as that audience
is about to be returned fully to the world outside the play, I think the
onstage audience largely ceases to matter even as a fiction.  Liviu
Ciulei made this point brilliantly and beautifully at the end of his
production of *Hamlet* at the Public (with Kevin Klein as the Prince),
by staging the final scene with the on-stage spectators of the duel
seated across the back of the stage in a delightfully polyglot
assortment of side-chairs.  At the end the survivors followed the
soldiers off, leaving the emptied chairs silhouetted against the scrim,
with an abandoned umbrella hung over the back of one, a purse on
another, a pair of heels under a third.

In other words, then, I believe that F's words, like words of similar
tone in the same spot of a dozen other plays, are aimed even more
directly than usual at the theater audience, and that unless subverted
by elements of performance (the egregious violence of the Branagh *Ham*,
for instance) or, in reader response terms, by a habitual politicization
that is in its own way essentialist, they work primarily (I'm trying to
avoid intentionality here) to confirm that audience's sense of something
of value lost, not to remind it at this stage of the play that
politicians are conniving bastards primarily motivated by self-interest

> Remember Clough's decalogue.

I've always thought that pretty sophomoric, and forget it as often as I
can.

Dave Evett
 

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