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Home :: Archive :: 1998 :: June ::
Re: Various Hamlet Postings
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 9.0559  Tuesday, 16 June 1998.

[1]     From:   Terence Hawkes <
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        Date:   Monday, 15 Jun 1998 12:07:02 -0400
        Subj:   Hamlet

[2]     From:   Carol Barton <
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        Date:   Monday, 15 Jun 1998 13:32:02 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0550  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

[3]     From:   Geralyn Horton <
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        Date:   Monday, 15 Jun 1998 15:10:40 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0550  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

[4]     From:   Justin Bacon <
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        Date:   Monday, 15 Jun 1998 13:08:56 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0550  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

[5]     From:   Richard Nathan <
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        Date:   Monday, 15 Jun 1998 21:02:21 +0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0550  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

[6]     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Monday, 15 Jun 1998 18:27:46 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 9.0550  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

[7]     From:   Linda Hobbet <
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        Date:   Monday, 15 Jun 1998 22:56:26 -0700
        Subj:   Hamlet's foil


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terence Hawkes <
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Date:           Monday, 15 Jun 1998 12:07:02 -0400
Subject:        Hamlet

                Let four captains
Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the stage,
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have prov'd most royal; and for his passage,
The soldier's music and the rite of war
Speak loudly for him.
Take up the bodies . . .
(V, 2, 400-406, Arden edition)

Surely, where 'he' in line 402 refers to Hamlet, 'his' in line 403
refers to Claudius.

T. Hawkes

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Carol Barton <
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Date:           Monday, 15 Jun 1998 13:32:02 EDT
Subject: 9.0550  Re: Various Hamlet Postings
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0550  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 think this is an interesting observation, precisely along the lines
I've suggested earlier.  The western world is just at this eternal
moment coming out of the fog of Renaissance humanism into the world of
science and empiricism, the hegemony of the Royal Society supplanting
the hegemony of Queen Mab.  No longer believing categorically that the
fault lies in our stars (but not entirely disbelieving it, either),
Shakespearean humanity is at a psychic crossroads, where human
responsibility-nay, liberty-is coming into question, catalyzed by
Calvin, but fueled by the increasing literacy attendant on the
Industrial Revolution and the ramifications of being able to read and
evaluate for oneself.  In earlier revenge tragedy (_The Spanish
Tragedy_, _The Jew of Malta_, for example) the characters are largely
one dimensional, and evil's motivation is simply-evil.  Yet despite the
murder of Hamlet pere, there is no real villain (in the proportions of
an Edmund or an Iago) in _Hamlet_: Claudius is an unsympathetic
character, a schemer, a usurper, but not particularly malevolent,
despite all of his malfeasance; he is recognizably you and me in the way
the others are not (he is even capable of a desire to pray, if not of
its execution).  Mind and body are becoming one, but have not quite
melded yet: Hamlet fils' baser instincts are being overridden by his
intellect, his empirical observations and real world perceptions
overriding his "thirst for blood"-though as you point out (and as I have
addressed from a different perspective), he is perfectly capable of
cold-blooded murder on the spur of the moment when he believes he has
unambiguous provocation and the victims are politically expendable
(Polonius, R&G), and of killing Claudius for reasons appertaining to his
own murder rather than that of Hamlet pere.

>  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.

Exactly.  A good king must balance Fortinbras' impulsiveness with Hamlet
pere's equanimity (even if we only know of him what we see in the ghost:
this is not a banshee, but a calm, dignified, powerful presence made
even more compelling by its lack of hysteria).  If Fortinbras had had
the opportunity to meet and converse with Hamlet fils on equal footing,
he may have admired the latter's intellectual reserve and depth of
character as much as Hamlet envies him his ability to identify a cause
and rally to it.  It seems to me that Shakespeare is valorizing
contemplation over rash action-Fortinbras is pretty reserved and
level-headed himself in the final scene, all things considered-but also
showing the impracticality of either extreme.

>  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...

It's funny, but the more I consider this issue, the more I see Hamlet as
a precocious Shakespearean metaphor for government bureaucracy: on sure
footing (as at Ophelia's grave), he has no trouble taking action,
immediate, impetuous, even foolhardy: "'Swounds, show me what thou'lt
do: / Woo't weep?  woo't fight? woo't fast? woo't tear thyself? / Woo't
drink up eisel? eat a crocodile? / I'll do't! . . . ."  Given the shadow
of a reasonable doubt, he is paralyzed: one would expect him to leap up
at the end of the Mousetrap and pounce on Claudius with bodkin bared,
screaming, "I knew it!  You killed my father!", or to have a bucket of
poison rigged to fall on his uncle's head precisely at the moment of
recognition (a la Stephen King).  Instead, he philosophizes with
Horatio: "I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound," still
betting it spoke truly, but not entirely sure, still leaning on Mab
("the witching hour of night") for the ratsbane that will silence poor
meddling Polonius.

>  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.

Yes, certainly!

> 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.

I'm not sure I agree with this-Hamlet is, after all, in the final
analysis serving himself, and in neither exacting justice nor showing
mercy, pretty far removed from the dictates of the Judeo-Christian
God-but I like your two kings/ two fathers analogy.

I will have to think about this some more.

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

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Geralyn Horton <
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Date:           Monday, 15 Jun 1998 15:10:40 -0400
Subject: 9.0550  Re: Various Hamlet Postings
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0550  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

>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.

Uh-- Claudius says to Laertes: "with a little shuffling you may choose a
sword unbated"

And when Hamlet is bleeding, Laertes confesses the "treacherous
instrument"  is "unbated and emvenomed"

G.L.Horton <http://www.tiac.net/users/ghorton>

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Justin Bacon <
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Date:           Monday, 15 Jun 1998 13:08:56 -0700
Subject: 9.0550  Re: Various Hamlet Postings
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0550  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

Sean Lawrence wrote:

> > (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.

They must have been because this is a plot device in the play.

[Oxford University Press Edition]

4.7, line 110-114.
"[...] He, being remiss,
Most generous, and free from all contriving,
Will not peruse the foils; so that with ease,
Or with a little shuffling, you may choose
A sword unbated, and, in a pass of practice,
Requite him for your father."

That's why the swords aren't blunted, because Claudius and Laertes are a
couple of devious snots.

I do agree, however, with your general point that for someone who
supposedly (in many interpretations) feels abhorrent about taking human
life justified or not he certainly kills a lot of people without a
seeming second thought.

Laura Fargas wrote:

> 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.

Bah.

To me Hamlet's desire to prove that Claudius is actually guilty (even
if, as a character in a play, he decides to go about it in an
excessively dramatic form) is not a bad thing at all-it is the *logical*
thing to do in these circumstances.

Indeed, I do not see in this play a single instance of Hamlet delaying
the action of killing Claudius except when he is *completely* justified
in doing so.

Justin Bacon

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[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Richard Nathan <
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Date:           Monday, 15 Jun 1998 21:02:21 +0000
Subject: 9.0550  Re: Various Hamlet Postings
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0550  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

I'm sure there will be many others posting to correct Sean Lawrence's
error.  He stated that the foils which Hamlet and Laertes used certainly
weren't blunted.

Hamlet's certainly was blunted, and Laertes was supposed to be.
However, Laertes and Claudius plotted to arrange that Laertes would use
an unbated foil.  Unbated means unblunted.

With respect to other aspects of Hamlet, I know that the generally
accepted view is that Hamlet returns to Demark a more mature and wiser
individual, and that we are supposed to accept his "we defy augury"
speech as TRUTH.  I have never been a fatalist, and I can't agree.
Furthermore, Hamlet's accepting the proposed duel doesn't make a lot of
sense.  He knows that Claudius has already tried to kill him once, by
sending execution orders to the King of England.  He knows Laertes has
reason to hate him, for killing Polonius and for Hamlet's actions at
Ophelia's funeral.  Yet Hamlet shows no sign of suspecting the duel
might be dangerous.   How smart do you have to be to figure out that
Claudius and Laertes might be up to something????

Does Hamlet's new "if it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come,
it will be now" philosophy mean that all instincts of self-preservation
have to go out the window?

[6]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Monday, 15 Jun 1998 18:27:46 -0400
Subject: 9.0550  Re: Various Hamlet Postings
Comment:        Re: SHK 9.0550  Re: Various Hamlet Postings

Cora Lee Wolfe writes, regarding my comment:

>Hamlet is not ambushed.  He knows what's going on . . . .

Well, actually, he doesn't know precisely what Claudius and Laertes are
up to in the last scene, and, by the time he gets the picture, his
mother is dead, and he's been poisoned.  I use "ambush" to mean "a
sudden attack without warning from a place of concealment" (AHD). You
can ride into an ambush, knowing full well that you may be ambushed.
Custer did. I assume.

In answer to Sean Lawrence, all I can say is that I feel Hamlet pulls
back from actively seeking revenge in the last scene of the play.  After
his stroll through the graveyard, he waits for Claudius to act, saying
that the readiness is all.  You may not wish to call that quietism, but
Hamlet's inaction seems to have a religious tinge. God will provide.

Regarding 16th century fencing, the article on fencing in 1947 edition
of <italic>Encyclopaedia Britannica</italic> claims, "Until the end of
the 17th century, fencers always practised with real weapons although
these were blunted."  If this is true, it may account for Horatio's
apparent surprise: "They bleed on both sides" (5.2.304 Riverside).

Justin Bacon says that I'm

>attempting to use modern character analysis techniques on a
>Shakespearean text and, naturally, you are ending up with a skewed
>result.

Well, I'm not sure that my techniques are all that modern, but my
assumption is that any auditor at any time may and can ask questions
about a play he or she has seen or read.  As Richard Powers emphasizes,
one of the interesting ideas of our century is that the spectator
influences what he or she watches.  Spectators are part of the system
they inspect.  If this is indeed the  case, we all end up skewing what
we watch, even those who adopt or adapt the correct Renaissance way of
seeing things.

>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.

Yes, but I think there are things wrong with Hamlet. It seems to me that
he continues to screw up throughout the play. All his detective work
proves nothing; he doesn't kill Claudius when he has a good shot at it;
he kills Polonius by mistake; he sends R&G to death without compunction,
and the wonder is that he is able finally to kill Claudius at play's
end.  He may be in good physical shape, but I'd never let him be the
quarterback on my team.

Yours, Bill Godshalk

[7]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Linda Hobbet <
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Date:           Monday, 15 Jun 1998 22:56:26 -0700
Subject:        Hamlet's foil

Sean wrote:
>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.

Yet this is not consistent with the way Shakespeare uses the word.  His
discussion with Laertes implies that blunted foils are normally used in
a friendly bout and that it will require trickery to give Laertes a
sharp foil.

He, being remiss,
Most generous and free from all contriving,
Will not peruse the foils, so that with ease,
Or with a little shuffling, you may choose
A sword unbated, and in a pass of practise
Requite him for your father.

My old copy of the OED gives "to beat back or blunt the edge of.
(literally and figuratively)" as one meaning of bate, with the earliest
usage being 1535.  Unbated is defined as "to bate or blunt" with the
first identified usage in 1602 by Shakespeare in Hamlet.  Hence Laertes
declaration "the treacherous instrument is in thy hand, unbated and
envenomed" when he reveals deadly plot.

Linda Hobbet
 

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