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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: June ::
Re: Various Hamlet Postings
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0550  Monday, 15 June 1998.

[1]     From:   Cora Lee Wolfe <
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        Date:   Friday, 12 Jun 1998 09:08:51 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0545  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

[2]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Friday, 12 Jun 1998 10:24:15 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0545  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

[3]     From:   Henry Griffy <
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        Date:   Saturday, 13 Jun 1998 01:48:23 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 9.0545  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

[4]     From:   Justin Bacon <
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        Date:   Sunday, 14 Jun 1998 00:52:22 -0700
        Subj:   Re: Various Hamlet Postings

[5]     From:   Laura Fargas <
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        Date:   Sunday, 14 Jun 1998 17:45:34 -0400 (EDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0545  Re: Various Hamlet Postings


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Cora Lee Wolfe <
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Date:           Friday, 12 Jun 1998 09:08:51 -0600
Subject: 9.0545  Re: Various Hamlet Postings
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0545  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

I have really enjoyed the Hamlet discussion.  So much so that I haven't
been inclined to jump into the fray. W. L. Godshalk says, "Laertes and
the king are killed, but, let's face it, they successful ambush Hamlet
in a rather simple trap.  What would Hamlet have done on the
battlefield.  Let speculation thrive!"

Hamlet is not ambushed.  He knows what's going on, but he also knows
that he must.  He marches into the breach, knowing full well what the
consequences will be for him, but accepting the fact that it must be
done.  I think that bodes well for his leadership abilities. Those guys
in Washington, D.C. could use a little of that determination.  Do the
right thing and let the chips fall where they may.

"But Hamlet really can't get it together to be like Fortinbras"

And the beauty of it is, he recognizes that truth and deals with it.
Although I believe in self determination for the most part, "there is a
divinity that shapes our ends."  Would that we all could all go so
knowingly into that good night.

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Friday, 12 Jun 1998 10:24:15 -0700
Subject: 9.0545  Re: Various Hamlet Postings
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0545  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

I hope, Bill, that I don't qualify as an "attacker" on you personally.
The idea you express seems far too common to be your personal fault, and
you have brought up some very interesting ideas in this thread.  But to
handle your seriatim criticisms seriatim:

> (1) bloodsport:  As I recall, Hamlet claims to fence every day. There's
> no indication that blood was daily drawn.

If anyone here is a fencing historian, I'll submit to their authority,
but I seem to recall, from the first chapter or so of a book my coach
lent me when I fenced in high school, that the blunted foil wasn't
invented until the 19th century.  In any case, the foils which Hamlet
and Laertes use certainly aren't blunted.

> (2) beloved by the people, says Claudius, but being beloved does not
> make a good military commander.

Not in itself, but it certainly helps.  Rommel and Montgomery were both
famously popular with their troops.

> (3) smoking corpses: Polonius, Laertes, and the king.  R&G are killed by
> England, suborned by Hamlet.  Not really very impressive for a Red
> Prince, and it takes him quite a while to get himself ready to drink hot
> blood.

On the contrary, the mere casualness with which he sends them to their
deaths is itself pretty bloody-minded.  He doesn't have to work himself
into a "drink hot blood" frenzy in order to do in two old school chums.

> Polonius is killed by mistake.

A mistake Hamlet doesn't regret as, in fact, I feel he ought.  Whether
he thinks Polonius is the king or not is besides the point.  The moment
that Hamlet hears someone behind the arras, he reduces the unknown
auditor to a "rat" and the value of his (as yet unknown) life to
virtually zilch-"dead for a ducat."  The events may show some error too
trivial to be tragedy, but they also show that Hamlet doesn't place much
of a premium on human life, or sit around trying to find his motivation
in this scene.

> (4) boarding the pirate ship:  one wonders.  Where are the Red Prince's
> troops during this military venture?

Behind him, one assumes.  By leading the attack, Hamlet is in front.
Hence his isolation is all the more reason to give credence to his
gusto.

> Why is he captured rather than
> killed in battle?  Are the pirates actually there to rescue Hamlet?

They might be providential, but more on that later.  Hamlet is captured
because he's isolated after the ships are parted by one of those
accidents of wind-powered navigation.  Montaigne has a nice essay on the
fact that one ought to surrender if faced with hopeless odds, and that
this doesn't impugn one's military honour.  Hamlet, as I think you
pointed out, reads Montaigne.  In any case, his apparent presence of
mind in negotiating his return isn't that of someone off in a
hyper-intellectual neverland.

> I agree with Ed Taft that Hamlet pere would approve of Fortinbras, and I
> think that's one of the ironies of the play.  Hamlet fils, I think,
> should not really be drawn to Fortinbras; puzzlingly he is. But Hamlet
> really can't get it together to be like Fortinbras, and he ends up a
> kind of quietist: there's a divinity that shapes our ends; so all ya
> have to do is wait. Watch the sparrows.

This is an unnecessary corollary of his providentialism.  Thousands of
missionaries, social activists, counter-revolutionaries, inquisitors and
martyrs have combined a strong sense of providence with frenetic
activity in the world.  It may seem like a contradiction to us, but it
wasn't to Loyola.  Finding out why not would, in my humble opinion,
solve the riddle of the early modern mind.  We could study Hamlet as an
example, albeit a fictional one.  His use of the words "naked" and
"alone" to describe himself in his letter to Claudius recall Luther, who
promulgated a strong doctrine of the gratuity of grace, and rocked the
western world.

Cheers,
Sean.

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Henry Griffy <
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Date:           Saturday, 13 Jun 1998 01:48:23 -0500
Subject: 9.0545  Re: Various Hamlet Postings
Comment:        RE: SHK 9.0545  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

I've been wanting to add two cents to this thread for awhile, but
haven't found quite the right point to enter in.  Mr. Taft's words seem
as good a place as any:

> the problem is in the way we read the play, I think.
> It seems to me that we spend too much time on the soliloquies
> and not enough time on the plot. The former showcase Hamlet as a man of
> thought, while the latter shows that he is also a man of action.
> Moreover, the soliloquies tend to stress Hamlet's doubts and fears and
> his ruminations about theological/metaphysical questions. All of that is
> OK, but the balance is lost if we don't notice that the plot shows us
> that Hamlet can act and that he goes right after Claudius, but as a
> thinking man would, establishing that he is guilty and then figuring out
> a way to cooperate with providence to bring about revenge.

I'd like to make three comments:

1. We should ask if "the problem in the way we read the play" might be
the binary between thought & action itself.  Though modernity did not
invent mind(or soul, etc)/body dualism, maybe we conceptualize it
differently through the filters we've inherited from Descartes, Kant, et
al.  I can't speak about renaissance philosophy with any authoritative
precision.  Others might want to deal with this point.

I do think the basic opposition makes sense, though, since other
characters in the play provide what seem to be systematic foils for
these qualities in Hamlet:  Laertes & Fortinbras, as has been observed,
tend to act without much thought (or sense, sometimes); while the
advisors (Polonius, Horatio) provide lots of wise words, but don't _do_
much.  Of course, rather than insisting that Hamlet should choose one or
another of these ways of living, maybe we should ask how he does/doesn't
achieve harmony-"balance"- between them.

2. Last semester, I wrote about Hamlet's dilemma as a function of
father-son
& king-subject relationships.  The basic idea is that a man can only
have one father in the same way a monarchy can only have one monarch.
(This is the ideal, anyway, & though it doesn't always work that way in
practice, it seems like any deviation from this norm in Sh's plays
inevitably results in problems, if not downright chaos.)

To make a long essay short, Hamlet's paradox results from the fact that
he has two male figures demanding to be his father & his king.  His
first major speech in the play is a revulsed reaction to Claudius'
request that he "think on [him] like a father."  According to custom &
the consensus of all the other characters, Hamlet should accept
Claudius' legitimacy.  He hesitates, not wanting to let go of his
idealized father, but has no justifiable reason not to-until the Ghost
appears.  But even then, he can't fully commit to the Ghost either:  as
others have pointed out, the Ghost might be a demon.  Why does he
hesitate even after Claudius' reaction to the Mousetrap confirms what
the Ghost told him (though this doesn't necessarily indicate that the
Ghost is to be trusted in everything)?  I've not come up with a
satisfactory answer to that question yet, but...

3.  I think one detail in Act 5 provides a significant clue which can
potentially change the meaning of his hesitation.  Mr. Taft writes that
Hamlet "goes right after Claudius."  This is arguably true during the
whole play, but becomes undeniably true only after Laertes reveals the
plot to Hamlet & tells him he is "slain" & that "there is not one half
hour of life" in him.  After he finds out that he's going to die from
Claudius' treachery, Hamlet kills him within 3 lines.

What makes this significant, I think, is that we can easily argue from
it that Hamlet does not, finally, avenge Hamlet pere's murder but his
own.  In terms of the two fathers/two kings paradox I described above,
this would mean that Hamlet doesn't ever choose, but rejects them both &
begins to make decisions on his own terms-or at least begins to
negotiate directly with providence.  I'll resist the impulse to argue
that _Hamlet_ anticipates existentialism or democracy, but this would
help explain Fortinbras' belief that Hamlet would've been a good king,
since the King is supposed to be the one who obeys no one but God.

Also reluctant to choose authority figures to obey,

henry griffy
University of Oklahoma

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Justin Bacon <
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Date:           Sunday, 14 Jun 1998 00:52:22 -0700
Subject:        Re: Various Hamlet Postings

Bill Godshalk wrote:

> I gather that he refers to Fortinbras's final comments on Prince Hamlet,
> not on all the instances he lists.  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."  Had young Hamlet ascended the throne
> and had had to deal with Fortinbras militant, I have little doubt who
> would have been victorious.  And so I find Fortinbras's eulogy puzzling,
> and being myself cynical about the motives of political leaders, I think
> perhaps he speaks from political expediency.  Never speak ill of the
> dead, when you may want to use their dying words to support your own
> position in the kingdom.  Remember Clough's decalogue.

You're attempting to use modern character analysis techniques on a
Shakespearean text and, naturally, you are ending up with a skewed
result. It is not an issue of whether or not Fortinbras actually would
or would not have know the piece of information in question, it is an
issue of why Shakespeare decided the last thing that would ever be said
of Hamlet had nothing to do with revenge, or indecision, or love of his
mother, or loss of father-but of what a magnificent person he was an
what a great king he would have made.

If you accept, just for a moment, that perhaps Shakespeare didn't want
us to find anything wrong in Hamlet, but rather to find him admirable
you have to change your entire interpretation of this play. You can no
longer apply a classical model of tragedy to the play, but must instead
look more towards plays such as Romeo and Juliet or even hints of theme
in Julius Caesar and Othello-where a character is not destroyed by his
own tragic flaw (or at least not *wholly* by his tragic flaw), but
rather through the flaws of those around him.

From this perspective you suddenly see that every other character in the
play (with a few significant exceptions) is tragically flawed-Claudius
(standard Oedipal/Macbethian power motif), Polonius (he's a busy-body),
Ophelia (unlike the admirable characters of Cordelia in Lear, Desdemona
in Othello, and Hermia in MND she decides to obey her father rather than
the person who is or who she believes will be her husband), R&G (betray
a friend for power), Laertes (impetuous).

Each of these character then dies as a direct result of these
flaws-Claudius in a standard Macbeth downfall, Polonius dies while
eavesdropping, Ophelia goes mad as a result of her decision and dies as
a result, R&G die in the act of betraying their friend, Laertes dies as
a direct result of his impetuous actions upon returning to Denmark.

Hamlet ends up dead as a result of the interplay between all these
flawed characters.

What of the other characters? Well, the clowns are minor. Hamlet, Sr.
dies (like his son) as a result of the flaws of others. Fortinbras
serves as a device for a stable/bright future at the ending of the play,
and as a dramatic spur for Hamlet.

Gertrude is a bit tricky. There are two possibilities -- (1) that she is
tragically flawed in not honoring/obeying her husbands (note she dies as
a direct result of disobeying Claudius when he asks her not to drink);
(2) she is not tragically flawed but becomes trapped in a situation
beyond her control (which means the entire living dynasty/family of
Hamlet is brought low and destroyed by the flaws of others in the
court).

This interpretation also has the interesting result of explaining the
presence of Act II, Scene 1 -- it demonstrates Polonius' tragic flaw in
an undeniable fashion which would otherwise not be possible (as it is
easy to see his curiosity and concern surrounding Hamlet's madness as
justified without the context of this scene).

Another interesting theme in this play is that of Honesty-something
which Hamlet looks for in everyone in the court and finds only in
Horatio and then the Ghost. (The double-meaning of the Elizabethan
"honesty" is particularly interesting in this context.) He doesn't find
it in Claudius (duh), Polonius, Gertrude (if she loved my father and was
honest when she said that, how could she marry Claudius so quickly?), or
Ophelia (she said she loved me, then dropped me like a cold fish for no
reason at all as far as I can tell). It is the central issue of the
play, in fact, as the entire central action is driven around proving the
Ghost's word to be true so that he might be empowered to act.

Justin Bacon

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[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Laura Fargas <
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Date:           Sunday, 14 Jun 1998 17:45:34 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 9.0545  Re: Various Hamlet Postings
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0545  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

        Sean Lawrence wrote:

> >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.

W. L. Godshalk raised quibbles or qualifications on these points that
seemed well founded to me.  Still, even if all of them are accepted as
unreservedly true, these qualities are all enacted offstage. The play is
set up to force us to watch Hamlet voice his misgivings at great, great
length.  Ed Taft's remark, "It seems to me that we spend too much time
on the soliloquies and not enough time on the plot," might as well be
aimed at Shakespeare himself, who soaks us, overwhelms us even, in these
vast, seductive waves of spoken thought.  What we see in front of us is
a prince thinking, scheming, and using puppets or proxies.

Ed Taft also remarks that "the plot shows us that Hamlet can act and
that he goes right after Claudius, but as a thinking man would,
establishing that he is guilty and then figuring out a way to cooperate
with providence to bring about revenge."  What this puts me in mind of,
whether intentionally or not, is an analogy to our present-day police
and trial process:  just the facts, ma'am.  That's not quite what Hamlet
does, though.  To follow through the analogy-and without saying at all
that this is what Mr. Taft meant-Hamlet behaves like a TV cop rather
than an actual police investigator.  He does not go to witnesses, he
does not query Polonius or track down the purveyor of the poison; he
does not exhume his father's corpse to seek traces of death poisoning.
Instead, like Columbo or Andy Sipowicz, he tries to provoke a
confession.  Maybe he does it for the same reason they do:  he is, as
they are, fictional, a character, at the mercy of an author with drama
in mind.  Real life police investigations are not subject to the desire
for shapeliness, for narrative development, except insofar as they are
aimed at a reaching demonstrable end-assembling probative evidence.  For
me, at least, measuring Hamlet's actions against those of a "thinking
man," I still get a soliloquizer who never fully gets down to work.

That said, my all-time favorite Hamlet (so far) was also a very muscular
one-Michael Tolaydo, with the Folger Shakespeare Theater back in the
late '70's, I think. I grew up in the Freudian orthodoxy of a rather
flaccid Hamlet, and with an inner resistance to it based on some of what
Sean Lawrence pointed out.  Tolaydo made visible, and utterly plausible,
the prince who jumped at combat with the pirate ship and was easily
loved by friends and subjects-a strong, charismatic young man who was
becalmed in a metaphysical doldrum only in the presence of this one
killing.  But it is balking at that one killing that is at center stage
for most of Shakespeare's longest play, and most of Shakespeare's
longest part.

Laura Fargas
 

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