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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: August ::
Re: The Tragedy of Claudius
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1933  Thursday, 2 August 2001

[1]     From:   John Drakakis <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 1 Aug 2001 16:40:07 +0100
        Subj:   RE: SHK 12.1921 Re: The Tragedy of Claudius

[2]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 01 Aug 2001 09:57:06 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1921 Re: The Tragedy of Claudius


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Drakakis <
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Date:           Wednesday, 1 Aug 2001 16:40:07 +0100
Subject: 12.1921 Re: The Tragedy of Claudius
Comment:        RE: SHK 12.1921 Re: The Tragedy of Claudius

The question that Brian Heylett raises about context is a tricky one.

I can imagine a performance in which Horatio makes his distaste for Old
Hamlet's behaviour manifest.  I suppose we could read Horatio's
description as a critique of kingly chivalry but, surely, Brian, Horatio
seems to go out of his way to justify Old Hamlet's personal involvement
in the conflict with Old Fortinbras. I think your reading of the
parenthetical line: 'For so this side of our known world esteemed him'
is unduly negative.  Isn't Horatio simply making a statement about Old
Hamlet's public reputation?  Also look at what he says about Old
Fortinbras.  The agreement or 'sealed compact' that the two kings enter
into is 'Well ratified by law and heraldry'.

Are you not in danger of beginning from the assumption that what Hamlet
resists is violence itself?  If so then this is a romantic reading that
attributes Hamlet's hesitation to a distaste for action.  I see nothing
in the play to suggest this.  In fact, quite the opposite as the events
of Act 3 demonstrate. The issue is, surely, the secretive behaviour of
Claudius. He does not act publicly and therefore it is difficult to
verify the Ghost's allegations against him.  In other words, Hamlet can
only act when the meaning of action can be shown to be clear. It's not
for nothing that he thinks of Claudius as a 'mighty opposite'. I wonder
if Claudius's private confessions, that you seem to read as some kind of
inner turmoil (and hence worthy of your sympathy) is anything more than
the 'confession' of guilt that Hamlet is not given explicit access to,
but that the audience is. To read Claudius's silent 'prayer' in this way
is to sharpen the irony of much that follows, as well as raising a doubt
about Hamlet's motive for not killing him at that point. I believe it
was the late Nicholas Brooke who in Shakespeare's Early Tragedies took
the view that Hamlet's refusal to kill Claudius whom he assumed to be at
prayer was morally reprehensible. This did not mean, of course, that
Claudius is to be exonerated.  This is perhaps another way of saying
that when the villain is kept at a distance then we have to engage in a
lot of projection in order to make his/her plight tragic.  Only when we
are given a special and protracted insight into the mind of the
wrongdoer in terms of pressures and motives (as we are in Macbeth, whom,
you remember, starts as the 'plant' nurtured by Duncan - as was Cawdor
before him- and whose violence is initially applauded and rewarded) can
the internal divisions be made to appear tragic.  In other words they
become real dilemmas.

One other point about Hamlet that has a bearing on this discussion is
that it is difficult for us to gauge the extent to which the play is
engaged in some sort of parody of the established 'revenge' genre.
Empson, I think, raises this point.  Again a difficult one since the
question of TONE is the most difficult element to try to recover.

Another point:  Horatio is wrong in his surmise about the appearance of
the Ghost. The business with Old Fortinbras is not the reason why it
appears.  This makes his speculation all the more interesting in that it
recuperates an image of Old Hamlet that his son later corroborates.
What then is this description doing here? Why do we need to know this
about the way in which 2 kings behave?  We will see the way a third
(illegitimate) king behaves at the beginning of 1.2.

Finally, I'm a little puzzled too by the handing over of power to Young
Fortinbras at the end.  It's very often played as though Denmark is
being handed over to a dictator who will grind it under his jackboot.
Fortinbras, you will recall, claims that he has 'some rights of memory
in this kingdom'.  We don't know what they are, but Hamlet seems to
concur.  Surely, the point is that Fortinbras behaves like Hamlet's
father.  He fights for bits of land (in Q2) and seems to do so for
honour's sake. He risks himself and is successful. Our criteria of
success may, historically, be different, but I think we should take
Hamlet's dying wish seriously.

I've gone on for long enough.

Cheers,
John D

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Wednesday, 01 Aug 2001 09:57:06 -0700
Subject: 12.1921 Re: The Tragedy of Claudius
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1921 Re: The Tragedy of Claudius

I was rather touched by the restraint of Professor Drakakis's response
to my most recent posting, though I'm still quite certain that we
disagree on important points.

>If he argues that ethics is NOT uncontaminated then I think he needs to
>tell us in what the contamination consists, or is this simply a mystery
>beyond human comprehension?

In that which is not ethics.  In other words, ethics has a profound
importance, but one not exhausted by moralities, politics, or any of the
various other concerns which come into play inevitably, but which
nevertheless do not affect its profound independence.

>As I understand him, he seems to be
>arguing in favour of a blanket humanism that is entirely indiscriminate:
>we can let Claudius off the hook because he's 'human'. This is precisely
>the kind of liberal position that gets itself in serious difficulties
>when confronted with real choices (as opposed to those that literary
>and/or theatrical texts offer us).

For one thing, this is a situation where we're confronted with literary
and theatrical texts, not (as you seem to think that I think) real
people.  It therefore offers the possibility to treat them as exemplary.

Obviously I wasn't clear enough, since I don't think that I was letting
Claudius off the hook, not because he's human or for any other reason.
If he recognizes the arbitrariness of the ideology on which he calls,
but uses it anyway (as you suggested, hypothetically), then he would
just be more contemptible.  In any case, his political awareness would
not amount to authenticity, much less ethics.  Moreover, even if he were
both aware and authentic, if he recognized the arbitrariness of the
ideology by which power is constructed in Elsinore and then ruled using
naked violence instead, we still should not approve of him.

>As for the comments on politics versus ethics and my alleged naivete..
>surely, philosophy is little more than politics conducted at the level
>of theory isn't it?

Not at all, and that's my point.  Politics is, perhaps, war pursued by
other means (to reverse Clauswitz's famous axiom), but philosophy is not
so limited or so inherently committed.  It can look at issues which have
no political fall-out, or at least none which is predictable or fixed.

This is not, of course, to say that philosophy cannot be effected by the
political commitments and situations of the philosophers, and it often
is.  Heidegger comes painfully to mind.  Nevertheless, we still read
Heidegger, and not just as a neo-Nazi apologist; in fact, thinkers with
vastly different political commitments and interests draw upon
Heidegger.  That 'Heideggerianism', or at least some of its conceptual
framework, can be removed from its original political context shows that
it is not reliant on this context.  Politics and philosophy interact,
certainly, but there is no fixed rule on whether the economy of power
will win out over responsibility to truth, or vice-versa, or whether
they might even meet as equals, each with its distinct and independent
claim.

>I've read as much Cavell as I want to, but Cavell
>is interested among other things in the extent to which a text subverts
>itself.  Such a formulation would, of course, be pertinent in relation
>to the discussion of Claudius.  The question is: to what extent is
>Claudius aware of his potentially subversive powers, or is he, like
>other figures in the play, caught in a series of contradictions that no
>ideology can occlude?

My point is that _even if_ he were aware of his potentially subversive
powers, this _still_ would not make his gestures ethical.

Cavell's distinction between knowledge and acknowledgement is central
here.  Claudius can be perfectly well aware that he's potentially
subversive, without acknowledging his responsibility to other people.
Let's say that he recognizes the series of contradictions which you find
inherent in the politics of Elsinore and which, as you say "no ideology
can occlude".  So what?  He might just be giving himself a scope for
wider violence, violence which has cast off the last vestiges of control
in demystification.  If, on the other hand, he's capable of
'acknowledging' (I'm using Cavell's phrase here, and also fully aware
that what I'm constructed is a hypothetical situation) then he might
move beyond the structures of violence to something like peace, not
merely to a fully demystified politics, pursued by all means available.

This strikes me as a question that goes to the heart of the project of
demystification:  having torn away all the mystifications that hide the
operations of violence, do we still have any reason to think it wrong?
Derrida comments, in "Eating Well", that Heidegger succeeded in
destroying everything that stood in the way of national socialism.  I am
not for a moment suggesting that you would sympathize in any way with
the goals of the Nazis, much less that Claudius is some sort of
strangely prescient Danish Quisling:  what I am suggesting is that a
full recognition of the operations of power might merely serve to fully
authorize violence.

>Also, we surely ought not to think of these particular
>examples outside the notion of 'politics' broadly conceived as involving
>the variable distribution of forces within particular fields of
>activity.  Here Sean's claim that 'politics' is a discreet discourse is
>worse than naive...it's plain wrong.

Not only is it not wrong, but finer minds than yours or mine have been
willing to consider politics without extending it to include everything
everywhere (i.e., making it 'a discreet discourse').  The alternative
perspective, ruthlessly viewing all questions through the lens of
politics, is necessarily narrowing.  It comes to rely on certain
presumptions which aren't simply ordained by God and probably aren't
true.

>If he is asking whether there can be any politics without a 'morality'
>(and this I take it is the import of his comment about violence) then
>that IS a complex question and can't be answered simply.

This is a major question, but there's a second and I think more
fundamental question to link on to it:  can there be a politics without
ethics?  Can we even produce a morality without first responding, as
Levinas puts it, to the face of the other?  Is there not something more
fundamental than the moralities produced by societies?  If there are,
and Levinas most certainly thinks that there are and is followed in this
by a large number of recent thinkers, then demystification might not
merely provide a wider scope for violence.  Our hypothetical Claudius
might be able to not only recognize the structures of violence and
ideology around him, but also reject them.

>I much admire Levinas's work but I have serious reservations about the way
>it gets
>wheeled out to justify an uncritical 'ethics' as the mystified origin of
>vague humanisms. I don't propose to ask Sean if there are any
>circumstances in which his liberalism would permit the use of violence.

Perhaps it would, and perhaps it wouldn't, but that would be, as you
seem to intuit, besides the point.  The question here isn't the more or
less casuistical question about whether there are situations in which
violence can be justified (or not), but whether there are any grounds on
which to think it wrong at all.  Why is there something and not nothing?

>I'll rather stick to Hamlet and point out to him that the play extols
>violence as an effective means of sustaining power.

I'm afraid that in your earlier comments on how everything is politics
you've already strayed far beyond a discussion of the play to consider
philosophical issues.

I shan't get into an argument as to whether "the play extols violence as
an effective means of sustaining power" since, I suppose, we could find
arguments sic et non for a very long time.  I just want to shift the
debate slightly:  does the play allow us to question the criteria of
"effectiveness"?  Even if violence 'works' as a tool of politics, does
this make it good?  My question for both Bryan and you is whether, had
Claudius been more effective, had he not made the mistake of failing to
do away with his nephew, would we praise him?  Perhaps we would.  But
should we?  On what criteria should we not?

Thank you for your Brecht references.  I have read these plays, but some
time ago, and I'll really have to revisit them.  I'd be interested in
hearing how Hamlet is not successful "in producing ideology", but
perhaps this thread isn't the right venue.

Cheers,
Se

 

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