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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: July ::
Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1771  Tuesday, 17 July 2001

[1]     From:   H. R. Greenberg <
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        Date:   Friday, 13 Jul 2001 19:59:46 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1761 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[2]     From:   Andrew W. White <
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        Date:   Friday, 13 Jul 2001 21:27:57 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1761 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[3]     From:   Clifford Stetner <
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        Date:   Saturday, 14 Jul 2001 00:53:27 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1712 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[4]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Saturday, 14 Jul 2001 15:08:22 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1761 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[5]     From:   Paul E. Doniger <
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        Date:   Sunday, 15 Jul 2001 00:15:57 -0400
        Subj:   SHK 12.1735 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           H. R. Greenberg <
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Date:           Friday, 13 Jul 2001 19:59:46 EDT
Subject: 12.1761 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1761 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

I am coming in late, but if one assumes that vengeance as justice
belonged only to the King or God, by which one means a life King, not
the ghost of one, then that ghost can easily be construed as asking for
murder -- and, if one speculates a "bad" Hamlet, the request comes from
below, not above. Best. HR Greenberg MD ENDIT

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Andrew W. White <
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Date:           Friday, 13 Jul 2001 21:27:57 -0400
Subject: 12.1761 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1761 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

I agree with some of Tony Burton's remarks, but let's clarify:  exactly
what kind of revenge is the Ghost demanding of Hamlet?  Agreed, revenge
means more in this instance than just killing Claudius, but I can't
imagine why a presumably good King, sent to Purgatory for no good
reason, would want anything less than purgatory for his murderer.
Surely, he is not demanding that Hamlet secure Claudius' repentance and
forgiveness?

(For the record, my favorite definition of revenge, Elizabethan-style,
is G.B. Harrison's 'death of six thousand cuts'.)

If the Ghost wants to ensure Claudius has a miserable afterlife, just
like he's having, he of course would want to ensure that Hamlet's act of
revenge is not tainted by any evil thoughts -- about the murder, or his
mother's incestuous pre-nup affair with Claudius.  A good, clean killing
that ensures Claudius goes to Hell -- is that too much for a father to
ask beyond the grave?

On a less-related subject:  Burton also seems to think that the evidence
against Claudius is arbitrary or trumped-up.  Not from what the audience
is given to know:  by the time Claudius sits down for "The Mousetrap,"
he has revealed his crime to us.  Shakespeare's treatment of Claudius'
reaction to the play is all the more skillful, because _we_ know he's
guilty, but Hamlet doesn't.  We want Hamlet to see Claudius' guilt, and
like Horatio we as audience members are tuned onto every nuance in
Claudius' face; if Claudius _didn't_ blanch, the drama would fall to
pieces.  We are supposed to rejoice that Hamlet now knows what we know,
and in that context Horatio's remark is not ambivalent, it's
understatement.

Andy White

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Clifford Stetner <
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Date:           Saturday, 14 Jul 2001 00:53:27 -0400
Subject: 12.1712 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1712 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

The injunction against matricide makes sense if part of the mythological
tradition against which Shakespeare created his version of Hamlet
includes the Greek Orestes.  Although there is much resistance based
largely on Ben Jonson's elegy to the idea that Shakespeare could have
been familiar with Greek tragedy, his Hamlet breaks from almost all
other sources and analogues in providing the hero with a close friend
and confidante.  Hamlet characters are almost without exception,
remarkably solitary figures, except for Orestes who is provided with a
friend Pylades who aids him in the murder and later marries his sister
Electra: for instance in Aeschylus' Libation Bearers, but especially in
Euripides' Electra in which Orestes says:

Pylades, above all men I consider you my faithful friend and comrade.
Alone of my friends you have shown regard for Orestes, in the sorry
plight in which you see him wronged by Aegisthus.  He killed my
father--he and my accursed mother.  I have come to Argive soil straight
from the god's oracle.  No one knows I am here.  I shall requite my
father's murderer with murder. During this night I have gone to his
tomb, etc.

This speech seems to me highly reminiscent of Hamlet's heart to hearts
with Horatio, and again there are no other likely precedents for such a
partnership in this myth. It is, by the way, Aeschylus' Pylades who
finally convinces Orestes to include his mother in the revenge. And
there are other resonances in Euripides: for instance Orestes seeks out
Aegisthus when he is alone sacrificing to the gods=Claudius alone in the
chapel.

My point is that, if Shakespeare had at least Euripides in mind, he
would have a substantial reason to include an injunction against
matricide, as it is the murder of Clytemnestra that brings the Eumenides
down on Orestes' head.

Clifford

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Saturday, 14 Jul 2001 15:08:22 -0400
Subject: 12.1761 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1761 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

Tony Burton, like Paul Doniger, speaks as if Shakespeare had written
these lines:

But howsomever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind. Nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven....

If he had written them, this would be a major crux, because no one would
know what the ghost meant by "Taint not thy mind." Revenge for a killing
demands killing. How would Hamlet then kill Claudius without tainting
his mind? The ghost makes no bones about telling Hamlet to "revenge."
Laertes intends a dramatically parallel revenge, and knows that it
involves casting conscience and grace into the pit and "daring"
damnation. But the ghost does not elaborate, because he's not referring
to Hamlet's revenge on Claudius.  Readers who think he is must therefore
fill in this very large blank on their own.

With a period in place of the comma, it would even sound as if the
tainting and the contriving were parallel: as if the ghost were saying,
don't let your soul contrive anything against Claudius, nor against your
mother.

Fortunately, in the lines as Shakespeare wrote them, the clause that
follows "Taint not thy mind" explains what it means. The ghost wants
Hamlet to kill Claudius, but not to kill Gertrude. There is a certain
contradiction here, since if they're both guilty, why not kill both?
That contradiction is resolved, from the Ghost's point of view, by the
fact that Gertrude is Hamlet's mother, which is why killing her would
taint his mind.

Though I think it would be a little superfluous, one could argue that
"Taint not thy mind" echoes in Hamlet's mind in another connection,
helping to make him aware of the danger, and the contradiction, in
leaving one guilty person to heaven while killing the other. But the
ghost doesn't mean it that way, otherwise Shakespeare would not leave
its meaning to the ghost so unexplained, and the dramatic structure of
the play would be seriously altered.

On the question of revenge and justice, Tony Burton and I may not be
quite as far apart as we appear. I too think Hamlet wants to take
revenge on Claudius, and at the same time achieve justice, and at the
same time avoid tainting his mind, or being damned. The difference is
that I see these complex and contradictory desires coming from Hamlet
and not from the ghost.  The ghost, as I read it, represents one pole of
Hamlet's mind: he simply wants Hamlet to take revenge by killing
Claudius. The ghost stands for revenge (on Claudius), while Hamlet
discovers, when he calms down, that revenge will taint his mind--among
other bad effects.

One reason it will taint his mind is the difference between revenge and
justice. Though they overlap, and particular people, or characters, may
at times confuse them, Shakespeare was clearly aware of a distinction
between these concepts, as we are. Revenge is generally an act
undertaken by a party directly aggrieved. Justice involves a moderation
of the impulse to revenge, and a shift, in responding to a crime, from
the private to the public realm.  Justice demands a punishment that fits
the crime, administered, ideally, by an objective officer of the law,
after a public trial which has, with clear and objective evidence,
determined the guilt of the accused.

Hamlet, who could not doubt the ghost at first any more than the
audience could, must feel some kind of guilt for acting as if the
ghost's story needs any confirmation at all. Yet he tries to confirm it,
and finally ends up with clear and objective evidence of a crime: the
crime of murdering Hamlet himself. One might even argue (as I do in my
book, at clashingideals.com) that Hamlet symbolically transforms himself
from a mere private revenger into a king, "Hamlet the Dane", when he
uses his father's signet to seal the fate of Rosencrantz and
Guildenstern. His killing of Claudius then fulfills, in a way, the
requirement of justice that it be carried out by an officer of the law.

One way Claudius, on the other hand, proves himself a bad king is with
the line "Revenge should have no bounds." Kings are not supposed to
support private, and secret, revenge. They are supposed to put bounds on
revenge, and transform it into justice.

I have never noticed "Prospero's famous argument for patience as the
best kind of vengeance." Perhaps Tony will point it out to me.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Paul E. Doniger <
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Date:           Sunday, 15 Jul 2001 00:15:57 -0400
Subject: Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        SHK 12.1735 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

Larry Weiss wrote:
>From Paul Doniger:
>
> > ALSO -- Larry Weiss wrote:
> >
> > >I have always thought that the opposing ideas are the nouns ("mind" and
> > >"soul") not the verbs ("taint" and "contrive"),
> >
> > Yes, that is true, too. As an actor, however, I was always trained to
> > focus on verbs. Could the Ghost mean both?
>
> Possibly, but the accents are more heavily on the nouns.

I must disagree regarding the stress. The final stress of the line is on
the last syllable of 'contrive', which is also the final word of the
line, often a position of importance in Shakespeare.

Paul E. Doniger

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