The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0971 Friday, 5 May 2000.
Date: Thursday, 4 May 2000 14:27:51 -0400
Subject: 11.0961 Re: Fortinbras, Hamlet, Revenge
Comment: Re: SHK 11.0961 Re: Fortinbras, Hamlet, Revenge
While I agree with much of what Tony Burton says about revenge, I think
the end of Hamlet makes the question more complex in a couple of ways.
First, I'm trying to work out how the audience experiences this act.
Their experience involves the knowledge, which Hamlet does not directly
share, that Claudius didn't mean to kill Gertrude. Hamlet might share
that knowledge, in a sense, indirectly, or subliminally, because he
knows of no motive for Claudius to kill her, and because Claudius told
her not to drink. Hamlet's emotion at the end seems sparked by the
death of his mother, which supplies some of the missing energy of the
original revenge. It's missing because his father is hardly mentioned. I
think only the word "murd'rous" refers directly to that old murder-and
it could also refer to Gertrude's and Hamlet's deaths. But the audience
can't read the killing of Claudius simply as revenge for Gertrude, I
would say, because we know Gertrude's death is an accident. To the
degree that Hamlet kills Claudius in revenge for Gertrude, it would be a
mistaken revenge, though directed, overall, at the right man. It also
must involve Hamlet's-and our-knowledge that he himself has been
murdered. What this act isn't, it seems to me, is the original revenge
commanded by the ghost.
The legal matter is complicated as well, by the fact that Claudius is
the king. We think of presidents, ideally, as subject to the laws like
every other person, while in Shakespeare's time kings had a unique
relation to the law. It's reprehensible, for example, when Goneril says
"the laws are mine", but she also has a point. Up to and beyond
Shakespeare's time the law uncomfortably contained this tension between
the king's position and everyone else's, and we still see vestiges of
that tension today, even though explicitly it may have been wiped out.