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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: August ::
Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1985  Monday, 13 August 2001

From:           Graham Bradshaw <
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Date:           Saturday, 11 Aug 2001 13:02:41 +0900
Subject: 12.1952 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1952 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

Paul Doniger writes: "I have to apologize for a typo; it's not 'Grey',
but 'Greg' -- W.W.Greg, that is, who disagreed with Dover Wilson's
imaginative idea that Claudius and Gertrude were too distracted to
notice the dumb show. I'm looking for the reference, which I remember I
had somewhere, but I haven't found it, yet. I shall pass it on as soon
as I locate it."

Steve Roth replied: "Thanks, I also have read Greg's (apt) dismissal of
Wilson's theory, and am also unable to cite the exact source from
memory.  But my point was exactly that--that Wilson's theory (on this
point) is pretty untenable, and a more satisfying explanation is
necessary."

Dover Wilson's "imaginative idea" was anything but new, and goes back to
Tieck in the early nineteenth century: I can't check this now, but I
think Tieck's theory is quoted in the New Variorum Hamlet. It seems
worth trying to focus on what is most interesting, and not yet resolved,
in the Greg/Dover Wilson dispute. The present discussion is becoming
alarmingly blurred.

The main argument in Greg's 1919 essay on "Hamlet's Hallucination" was
that the Ghost was just that, a hallucination. This main argument was
perverse: there are too many sightings of the Ghost by different people.
Since Wilson easily demolished this in his 1935 study, "What Happened in
Hamlet", many people rather lazily supposed that Greg had been dealt
with, or refuted.  Moreover, Wilson had many new and brilliant things to
say about the uncertainty of the Ghost's provenance, which Wilson
maintained (like Roland Mushat Frye, much later) was still uncertain at
the end of the play.

In that case, Hamlet is right to worry (in his intermittent, spasmodic
and finally insufficient way) about whether the Ghost might be an
instrument of damnation sent to take advantage of his melancholy.
Sometimes Hamlet accepts that the Ghost is his father's spirit;
sometimes he is doubtful; sometimes he denies that, for example when he
describes death as the bourn from which "no traveller returns". As
Wilson saw, the nineteenth-century critics who endlessly discussed
Hamlet's real or alleged "delay" ignored this very important, good
reason for delay. In the soliloquy that ends Act II, and then again when
he is telling Horatio what to watch for in the Mousetrap, Hamlet himself
emphasises that the Ghost may be a devil. (This doubt becomes all the
more gripping, and terrifying, because the Ghost apparently comes from
Purgatory, which Protestants rejected as a rather late, though
infinitely profitable, Papist invention. Greenblatt's generally
enthralling book on Hamlet and Purgatory doesn't press this as far as it
might or, in my view, should.)

I think Dover Wilson and, later Mushat Frye, were both right to insist
on the dramatic uncertainty about the Ghost. They don't assume, like
countless other critics, that the Ghost simply is Hamlet's father. But
neither do they assume, like Eleanor Prosser and some later critics,
that the Ghost simply is a devil.

However a danger light might have flashed at this point, since Hamlet
himself stops worrying about the Ghost's provenance after the Mousetrap,
which Hamlet himself takes to be an unqualified success. Neither Wilson
nor Frye addresses this issue.

Which brings us back to Greg. The most important part of his argument
was unrelated to, but very unfortunately harnessed to, his throughly
unconvincing argument that the Ghost was a "collective" hallucination.
Greg saw very clearly what was wrong with Hamlet's idea that the
Mousetrap was a success. Wilson never did.

Dover Wilson puts the crucial question in his 1935 preface or "epistle
dedicatory to Walter Wilson Greg": "Why did Claudius break up the
gathering in the play scene, if not because his conscience had been
caught?"  I suggest that for us, now, Wilson's own confidently
speculative or teleological answer is far less convincing than Greg's.

Greg's very original (heretical, but convincing) argument was that any
king would have terminated this performance, even if he were as innocent
as a lamb. Hamlet never allows for that possibility, and ruins his own
test by giving Claudius every reason to be "marvellous distempered".
Hamlet first insults poor Ophelia and then the Queen before the
assembled court, and then directly threatens Claudius himself with his
commentary on a play-within-a-play that shows a nephew murdering his
royal uncle, NOT a brother murdering his royal brother. Calling a halt
to this assault is no proof of guilt.

Greg writes better than anybody before or since of the scandalous way in
which Hamlet ruins the actors' performance, as well as the test. As
Dover Wilson puts it, Greg provides "a highly interesting exposition of
the whole scene, worked out in the greatest detail, to show that it was
Hamlet's insufferable conduct and not the play at all which left the
King so 'marvellous distempered', and could point to the attitude of the
whole court after the scene is over as evidence of this."

The last point is especially important. When Hamlet enlisted Horatio's
help he promised that they would compare notes, after the test. But
then, after his test, Hamlet is so hysterically convinced of its success
that he won't even hear Horatio's reasons for being less convinced
("Half a share"). As Greg so challengingly observes, what Gertrude and
Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern subsequently say shows that
the show they have seen is a nephew threatening to kill a King. They
have very clearly not witnessed some scene in which King Claudius
reveals his own guilt. Moreover (and Greg himself might have made more
of this) Claudius's words in the prayer scene show that Claudius himself
does not suppose that his guilt is known to anybody other than God.

Hamlet-centred productions regularly make nonsense of these other
characters' reponses, in their determination to believe that the
Mousetrap must have been as successful as Hamlet himself takes it to be.

Hence my stage-oriented question, some weeks ago. HOW COULD Claudius
reveal his guilt, unequivocally, to Hamlet, in a way that is nonetheless
invisible to everybody else in the onstage audience, including Horatio
(who has been told what to watch for), and Gertrude (who is sitting next
to Claudius), and Polonius (who refers to Hamlet's "pranks", and
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (who prattle about the divinity that hedges
a king, which they would never do if they thought Claudius had murdered
King Hamlet)? And HOW COULD Claudius himself, when is at prayer, be so
sure that nobody on earth knows or suspects his guilt, if he had just
behaved like Olivier's or Zeffirelli's and countless other Claudiuses?

Dover Wilson's response to this fundamental question or issue was to
invent stage directions, like countless other twentieth-century critics
from Bradley to Greenblatt (in his introduction to the Norton edition).
None of these accounts meet, or rise to, Greg's challenge. They don't
make sense of the text or texts, because they suppose that the Mousetrap
must be successful, because Hamlet thinks it is.

The staging tradition has a different history, since Peter Hall's 1965
production assumed that the Mousetrap was a failure. That view was
developed in the BBC/Time Life production, with Patrick Stewart's superb
Claudius.  British actors like Stewart, Jacobi, and Pennington (cf his
excellent book on Hamlet) assume that the Mousetrap fails, as I think it
does. But the critical issues are still not discussed, and are blithely
ignored in numerous other productions, like Zeffirelli's opulent
fast-food Hamlet.

As you see, I am wishing that this thread could really discuss and
debate what I take to be the fundamental issue, which it keeps skirting.
Despite the attempts of a few mavericks, like W.W.Robson or A.L.French
or me, twentieth century criticism never really addressed Greg's
challenge.

Best wishes, Graham Bradshaw

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