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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: September ::
Re: What's It All About, Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1811  Tuesday, 26 September 2000.

[1]     From:   Robin Hamilton <
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        Date:   Monday, 25 Sep 2000 13:40:52 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 11.1797 Re: What's It All About, Hamlet

[2]     From:   Philip Tomposki <
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        Date:   Monday, 25 Sep 2000 13:41:59 EDT
        Subj:   RE: Now, what is Hamlet all about?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Robin Hamilton <
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Date:           Monday, 25 Sep 2000 13:40:52 +0100
Subject: 11.1797 Re: What's It All About, Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1797 Re: What's It All About, Hamlet

"Not my best play."

Shakespeare (W.)

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Philip Tomposki <
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Date:           Monday, 25 Sep 2000 13:41:59 EDT
Subject:        RE: Now, what is Hamlet all about?

Robert Peters asks "Goethe, when asked to explain what Hamlet was all
about said: "a deed too harsh laid upon a soul too weak" Now Listers,
two questions: a) Do you think the German giant is right? b) How would
you say in just a phrase or a sentence what Hamlet is all about?"

If we could explain what Hamlet is about in a sentence or two, why would
Shakespeare have written a four-hour play?  It is impossible, I think,
to distill the essence of so complex a work without diminishing and
misrepresenting its themes.

Goethe comments stand as an example of this point.  There is a certain
truth to it; Hamlet is the wrong man for the office fate has given him.
(IMHO)  But Goethe makes a common mistake in characterizing Hamlet as a
weakling.  Like many, he greatly underestimates the challenges facing
Hamlet.

Elizabethans would have appreciated the risks and magnitude of the act
of killing an anointed king.  (Shakespeare had, in fact, reminded them
of the consequences in his Histories written in the decade before
Hamlet.)  To undertake this on the word of an apparition, or for that
matter as a result of Claudius' reaction to a play (which clearly
accused him of both fratricide and regicide) would at a minimum put
Hamlet's own life at stake, and quite possible result in civil unrest,
possible even war.  It could even bring about an invasion by the
ambitious Fortibras, who had already planned an attack against the
Danes.

Fortibras, I think, represents the key to the play.  He is introduced to
us before Hamlet, and although he does not appear on stage until the end
of the last scene, his dynamism acts as a counterpoint to Hamlets
inactivity.  Fortibras, unlike Hamlet, is not one given to 'thinking too
precisely on th'event'.  Frustrated in his campaign against Denmark, he
immediately changes tack and pursues a dispute with Poland.  The fact
that this effort will win only 'a little patch of ground/that hath no
profit but the name is irrelevant.  Fortenbras maintains his reputation
as a dynamic and forceful leader (think Ronald Regan and Grenada).

Is Hamlet, then, too cerebral?  Is he too much the academic?  (He is,
after all, 30 years old, if I read the gravedigger scene correctly, and
still a student.)  Certainly his doubts are reasonable.  Nor can he act
precipitously without the potential for dire consequences.  (When he
does so, it results in the death of Polonius.  An interfering fool,
perhaps, but well-meaning and certainly not deserving of death.)

Which leads to the third in the trio of avenging sons.  Laertes does act
hastily, leading a mob against the palace.  His action is illogical (why
would Claudius, after all, want to kill Polonius?)   But it does promise
to rid Denmark of the true villain.  Laertes, however, is deterred by
Claudius and drawn into an ill-conceived plot against Hamlet.

So we have Hamlet, who tries mightily to do the right thing and ends up
bringing himself and five others to their doom.  Laertes, bold by too
easily mislead.  And Fortibras, dynamic and charismatic, but politically
astute, who achieves his ultimate goal with barely an effort.

I've given much more than the aphorism called for, but then that is my
point. I've also not given any clear answer, but that also is my point.
I disagree with most of the answers I've seen so far, and am sure many
on the list will disagree with me.  This is again my point.  Only the
most shallow, feeble play can be so pithily summarized.  The last words,
as always, belong to the Bard: The Play is the Thing.

Philip Tomposki
 

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