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Home :: Archive :: 1999 :: November ::
Re: Gertrude
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 10.1982  Monday, 15 November 1999.

[1]     From:   Fran Teague <
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        Date:   Friday, 12 Nov 1999 11:41:20 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.1962 Re: Gertrude

[2]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Friday, 12 Nov 1999 11:53:27 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.1962 Re: Gertrude

[3]     From:   David Lindley <
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        Date:   Friday, 12 Nov 1999 17:40:23 GMT
        Subj:   'Truth' and 'Lies'

[4]     From:   Alan Pierpoint <
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        Date:   Sun, 14 Nov 1999 22:39:34 EST
        Subj:   Re: SHK 10.1962 Re: Gertrude

[5]     From:   William Taylor <
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        Date:   14 Nov 99 20:51:09 PST
        Subj:   Re: [SHK 10.1962 Re: Gertrude]


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Fran Teague <
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Date:           Friday, 12 Nov 1999 11:41:20 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 10.1962 Re: Gertrude
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.1962 Re: Gertrude

Some of the recent comments on HAMLET recall the late, great comic,
Jeremy Collier. In his ground-breaking analysis of THE IMMORALITY AND
PROFANENESS OF THE ENGLISH STAGE (1698), Collier wrote, "Had Shakespear
secur'd the point [of modest behaviour] for his young Virgin Ophelia,
the Play had been better contriv'd. Since he was resolv'd to drown the
Lady like a Kitten, he should have set her swimming a little sooner. To
keep her alive only to sully her Reputation, and discover the Rankness
of her Breath, was very cruel." She should, in short, have gone into the
brook before her mad scene, according to Collier.

Fran Teague http://www.arches.uga.edu/~fteague

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Friday, 12 Nov 1999 11:53:27 -0500
Subject: 10.1962 Re: Gertrude
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.1962 Re: Gertrude

Roy Flanagan makes a good point when he says

>Could it be that this is just one of those Shakespearean arias, during
>which the audience is supposed to suspend disbelief, forget action,
>while an actor describes something beautifully.  Examples include
>Desdemona's willow story and song, the Nurse on Juliet's youth, the
>murderer's description of the two little princes, Clarence's description
>of his dream, even the various apostrophes to the dawn in Hamlet or in
>Romeo and Juliet.  Action stops in wonder as something beautiful comes
>out of the mouth of an actor.

But these are all events which the describer knew from personal
knowledge. Ophelia's death is different, unless:

1.  The court employed an excellent forensic pathologist who
reconstructed the event;

2.  Gertrude was there but was too drunk (or overdressed, as Carol
Barton surmises) to do anything about it.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Lindley <
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Date:           Friday, 12 Nov 1999 17:40:23 GMT
Subject:        'Truth' and 'Lies'

The discussion of whether Gertrude is, or is not, telling 'lies' in
describing the drowning Ophelia raises, as some respondents have pointed
out, questions about the nature of dramatic, as opposed to novelistic
veracity.

There are a comparable set of questions in The Tempest.  When Ariel
sings 'Full fathom five' he is telling a lie - though representing the
situation as Ferdinand believes it to be.  The same is almost true of
Ariel's speech as a harpy to Alonso etc., when he says 'thee of thy son
... The have bereft'  - though I suppose one might argue that there is a
quibble here, in that it is Alonso, not Ariel, who takes that to mean
that his son is dead.  These 'untruths' make, however, sense within
Prospero's larger strategies (however one views them).

But Prospero also describes clearly the appearance of Sycorax (though
never having seen her) - is this a 'lie' of the same sort?  The matter
is of some moment in that 1.2 is largely constructed as a series of
rememberings and histories which Prospero generates.  The
trustworthiness of memory - and of his memory in particular - can become
a critical issue in the reading of the play.  So, one might argue,
having 'caught him out' in something that must be a fiction, the rest of
his narratives of the past become less trustworthy.

I personally think that this is to engage in some very inappropriate
strategies of reading, involving a set of novelistic assumptions that
simply do not function as one is watching the play on stage.  I think
the same is true of Gertrude's speech on Ophelia, which is bracketed off
as a formal rhetorical set-piece.  I am sure others on the list can come
up with many more examples - and can pursue further the central question
of appropriate criteria or tests of truth and falsehood in dramatic
statements of this kind.

David Lindley
School of English
University of Leeds

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Alan Pierpoint <
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Date:           Sun, 14 Nov 1999 22:39:34 EST
Subject: 10.1962 Re: Gertrude
Comment:        Re: SHK 10.1962 Re: Gertrude

Hamlet's real father?  Who else but Fortinbras Senior?  "Pricked on by a
most emulate pride . . . [Hamlet Sr.] did slay this Fortinbras . . ."
Horatio, lovable dummox, may believe the official line, that two
monarchs dueled to the death over some land, but we know better.
Clearly, HamSr came upon Gertrude and Fort in medias res and offed him
with his sword (like a lot of impotent guys, HamSr practiced a lot with
weapons).  The rumor got back to Norway, though, probably via those
know-it-all servants.  FortJr. knows the truth:  "I have some rights of
memory in this kingdom."   Sure.  He's the only living relative of the
newly dead prince.

Obvious, isn't it?    -Alan Pierpoint / Southwestern Academy

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           William Taylor <
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Date:           14 Nov 99 20:51:09 PST
Subject: 10.1962 Re: Gertrude]
Comment:        Re: [SHK 10.1962 Re: Gertrude]

Despite the unanimity of opinion against me, so far, I am not dissuaded
from my reading of Gertrude's description of Ophelia's death.  Roy
Flannagan says:

"Could it be that this is just one of those Shakespearean arias, during
which the audience is supposed to suspend disbelief, forget action,
while an actor describes something beautifully. Examples include
Desdemona's willow story and song, the Nurse on Juliet's youth, the
murderer's description of the two little princes, Clarence's description
of his dream, even the various apostrophes to the dawn in Hamlet or in
Romeo and Juliet. Action stops in wonder as something beautiful comes
out of the mouth of an actor."

But in none of those "arias," does the something beautiful coming out of
the mouth of the actor contradict either common sense or evidence to be
found elsewhere in the play on a crucial issue of plot, character, or
theme.

Gertrude's speech is not an irrelevant purple passage.  The details of
her description are all directed to establishing that Ophelia was "one
incapable of her own distress," and that her death, therefore, was a sad
accident, not suicide.  This is a matter of consequence, as we learn in
the next scene, which opens with an extended conversation on the
difference between accidental drowning and deliberate suicide, a
distinction which the Gravediggers understand very well.  And they are
firmly of the opinion that this young woman deliberately committed
suicide, and would not be buried in sanctified ground were she not a
gentlewoman.  The priest is of the same mind, and Laertes' response to
his opinion suggests that Gertrude was wise in painting the scene as
prettily as she did and relieving Ophelia of responsibility for her own
death.

I do not understand an interpretation which gives a speech a meaning
which is inconsistent with the character or situation, and then
dismisses the problem by asserting that it isn't really the character
speaking, but Shakespeare informing the audience of something he
couldn't figure out how to inform them of otherwise, or entertaining
them with a bit of poetic irrelevance.  I'd like to make the speech
work, if I can, without making excuses for it.  Why not assume a more
complex Gertrude, rather than an inept or self-indulgent Shakespeare?
(Thank you, Anthony Burton, for that turn of phrase.)

Yes, Carol, I grant you the petticoats.  But what were Gertrude and the
mad Ophelia doing together, alone, on the bank of a river, out of
earshot of anyone in the precincts of the castle?  Or maybe Gertrude
couldn't swim, though the petticoat gambit makes that a moot point.  Or
maybe she had climbed up a very tall tree, got those petticoats caught
on an envious sliver, and couldn't free herself in time to come to the
girl's aid.  It may be.  Or maybe Ophelia, mind deranged, but not
insensible of her grief and despair, slipped out of the castle, threw
herself into the stream and died.  At least three characters in the play
think that is exactly what happened.  And if they're right, Ophelia left
Claudius and Gertrude with a big problem: a very inflammable and very
dangerous Laertes.  Does that reading have no grounds in the text?  In
4.5, hasn't Gertrude shown that she fears Laertes might attack Claudius,
and didn't she attempt, actively and repeatedly, to calm and restrain
him?  If Ophelia deliberately killed herself, as several characters in
the play aver, would it be inconsistent in Gertrude's character to try
once again to divert Laertes' fury?  And I need hardly point out, she
succeeds.
 

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