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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: July ::
Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1786  Wednesday, 18 July 2001

[1]     From:   Steve Roth <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 17 Jul 2001 09:08:28 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1771 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[2]     From:   Edmund Taft <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 17 Jul 2001 12:44:40 -0400
        Subj:   Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[3]     From:   Terence Hawkes <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 17 Jul 2001 13:01:27 -0400
        Subj:   SHK 12.1771 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[4]     From:   Graham Bradshaw <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 18 Jul 2001 05:32:33 +0900
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1771 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[5]     From:   Paul E. Doniger <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 17 Jul 2001 18:12:40 -0400
        Subj:   SHK 12.1771 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Steve Roth <
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Date:           Tuesday, 17 Jul 2001 09:08:28 -0700
Subject: 12.1771 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1771 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

Perhaps I'm really missing something, but it seems to me that the
following passage (this from the Enfolded Hamlet) is quite easily
parsed:

But {howsomeuer} <howsoeuer> thou {pursues} <pursuest> this act,
Tain't not thy minde, nor let thy soule contriue
Against thy mother ought, leaue her to heauen,
And to those thornes that in her bosome lodge
To prick and sting her

To paraphrase: "taint not they mind against thy mother, nor let thy soul
contrive against thy mother."

The tainting wouldn't result from the proposed revenge, and has nothing
to do with Claudius.

Am I misunderstanding the discussion?

Steve
http://princehamlet.com

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edmund Taft <
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Date:           Tuesday, 17 Jul 2001 12:44:40 -0400
Subject:        Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

David Bishop writes:

"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."

Just so. Why doesn't Hamlet bring Claudius to trial in Act 5?  It
happens eight years earlier in _Richard II_. Is it because there is no
"clear and objective evidence"? (It's hard to get a ghost to testify!)
On the other hand, if Claudius confided in Gertrude, then we have
testimony, and Claudius is toast.

--Ed Taft

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Terence Hawkes <
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Date:           Tuesday, 17 Jul 2001 13:01:27 -0400
Subject: Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        SHK 12.1771 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

Andy White comments,

'We want Hamlet to see Claudius' guilt, and like Horatio we as audience
members are tuned onto every nuance in Claudius' face' .

Yes, but the point is that The Mousetrap --and particularly the
dumb-show that precedes it-- doesn't work.  Having led us to expect that
audiences may respond in a specific mode, that guilty creatures sitting
at a play will sometimes proclaim their malefactions, 'Hamlet' suddenly
and sensationally presents us with a very important member of an
audience who doesn't. It's a stark message about the limitations of art
in a corrupt and corrupting world.

T. Hawkes

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Graham Bradshaw <
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Date:           Wednesday, 18 Jul 2001 05:32:33 +0900
Subject: 12.1771 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1771 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

According to Andy White (we've crossed bodkins before) "the audience is
given to know" (strange phrase) that "by the time Claudius sits down for
'The Mousetrap,' he has revealed his crime to us." As early as that?

Andy continues: "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."

Yet not one of these sentences can be supported from the text of
Shakespeare's play.

When Claudius "sits down" to the 'Mousetrap' he has not "revealed his
crime to us". Neither has he revealed his guilt to Hamlet, whose whole
purpose is to try to make Claudius show whether he is guilty (cf. the
end of Act 2, and the dialogue with Horatio before the 'Mousetrap').

Hamlet cannot know whether Claudius is guilty without discovering
whether the Ghost is telling the truth. Just when the OFFSTAGE audience
knows that Claudius is guilty is a historically, as well as textually,
vexed issue.  It's also a quite different question.

Certainly, "we" (the offstage audience) know that Claudius is guilty
when we hear him at prayer. But that is AFTER the 'Mousetrap', and
Hamlet does not hear what Claudius says.

Perhaps (although I don't think so) "we" know earlier, from the way
Claudius responds to the 'Mousetrap'. But we should be very careful
about this. Not least because what is in question is what Hamlet knows,
or thinks he knows, and why.

In effect, critics like Bradley, Dover Wilson and even (in the Norton
Shakespeare) Greenblatt all write in their own stage directions, when
they suppose that Claudius "reels" or "totters" or "rages" off. They all
assume, firstly, that Claudius loses control when he calls for "Lights"
and stops the performance. They also assume that Claudius has now
betrayed his guilt in some unequivocal way.

The first assumption is in itself very questionable. Given Hamlet's
behaviour to Ophelia, Gertrude and finally Claudius himself, any king
might stop that performance, even if he were as innocent as a lamb.
Stopping the performance proves nothing, despite Hamlet's accusatory
"frighted by false fire?" Hamlet's increasingly hysterical behaviour
ruins his test. If Claudius has nonetheless betrayed his guilt in some
unequivocal way the question is, "How? and to whom?"

The grave difficulty about this is both textual (there is no helpful
stage direction) and theatrical. The latter difficulty seems to me more
grave: how could Claudius betray his guilt to the offstage audience, or
indeed to Hamlet, without also betraying it to the onstage audience?

Answer: he couldn't, and doesn't. Although Hamlet isn't interested in
what other characters think and feel, the play very obviously is, so
that  we ought to be. Yet consider:

(i) After the 'Mousetrap' various members of the onstage audience,
including Gertrude, Polonius, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, all
speak about what they have seen in ways that do not suggest that they
now know, or even suspect,  that Claudius has killed King Hamlet. They
speak as though they have watched a dreadful performance, during which
nephew Hamlet threatens to murder his royal uncle.

(ii) In the prayer scene, where Claudius does reveal his guilt, though
only to us and not to Hamlet, he takes for granted that his guilt is not
known to anyone other than God. He never speaks as though his crime is
now known to Hamlet, or to anybody else in the Danish court.

(iii) Polonius speaks about how Hamlet's "pranks" are becoming dangerous
(boy, is he going to get a surprise); Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
prattle about the divinity etc that doth hedge a king. Would they speak
like this if they thought that Claudius had killed King Hamlet?  They
all think that Hamlet may kill the King.

(iv) Gertrude tells Hamlet that he has his "father much offended". If
she now knows, or even suspects, that her second husband had killed her
first husband, she would need to be as brazen as Lady Macbeth to accuse
Hamlet of offending his father. Similarly, she is either consummately
evil or genuinely amazed when she exclaims, "As kill a king?"

(v) Horatio has been instructed by Hamlet to watch what happens. Hamlet
also promises that after the 'Mousetrap' he and Horatio will discuss and
compare their responses to whatever happens.  But when Hamlet tells
Horatio that the whole thing has been so successful that Hamlet deserves
a "share" in a theatrical company, Horatio sounds unconvinced: "Half a
share".  By then Hamlet isn't interested in whatever makes Horatio more
uncertain, just as he isn't interested when his mother exclaims, "As
kill a king?"

Which brings us back to the question about staging the self-betrayal:
HOW could Claudius betray his guilt to Hamlet without betraying it to
other members of the onstage audience? Answer, once again: he couldn't,
and he doesn't. Yet Andy's talk of how Claudius "blanches" is par for
this course.

The traditional assumption is that Claudius must have betrayed himself.
So why must he have betrayed himself?  Answer: The 'Mousetrap' must have
been a success, because Hamlet thinks it was a success.
.
Uh-huh. So forget why. HOW did he betray himself?

Forget the films: Olivier's close-ups, and Branagh's breathtakingly
stupid flashback (which Hamlet could not see). Think of the stage... Is
there any way in which Claudius could betray his guilt to Hamlet, that
we as well as Hamlet could see, but that the other characters could
not--did not-- see?

In the nineteenth century this issue was disregarded because nobody took
seriously Hamlet's fear that the Ghost may be a devil or "goblin
damn'ed". And in nineteenth century England critical thinking about
various Shakespeare plays, including Measure for Measure and Othello and
Hamlet, was greatly retarded by Coleridge, especially in his Anglican
Tory phase. Germans and Russians thought harder, and better.

Dover Wilson showed why Hamlet's fear about the Ghost's provenance
should be taken seriously. Later, Roland Mushat Frye, who is even more
knowledgeable about theological matters, agreed. But neither Wilson nor
Frye supposed (like Eleanor Prosser and later dogmatists) that this
issue is ever resolved: what they emphasise (rightly, I think) is the
continuing uncertainty about the Ghost's provenance.

And yet, when they both maintain that the questions about the Ghost have
still not been answered when the play finishes, neither Dover Wilson nor
Frye asks what might seem to be the next, extremely pressing, question:
if these doubts about the Ghost are never (as these critics say)
resolved, why does Hamlet himself stop worrying about the Ghost after
the 'Mousetrap' scene?

Answer: Because Hamlet is convinced that the 'Mousetrap' was a complete
success. Well yes, but how could it have been?Ah, here we go again, in a
parody of what might be called teleological argument.

Historically, the English critic and editor W.W.Greg and (a few years
earlier, not a lot of people know that) the Japanese novelist Shiga
Naoya were the first to suggest that the Mousetrap cannot be the success
Hamlet takes it to be. They both suppose that Hamlet's behaviour while
the play-within-a-play is being performed ruins the success of the test.
Yet their arguments were dismissed, not least because of the
stranglehold of the daft stage tradition that had Claudius reeling
around (often with his goblet).

To continue with the history, which is (with one very significant
exception) well described by Anthony Dawson, two early twentieth-century
attempts to present Claudius as a "mighty opposite" (not as the drunken
satyr of Hamlet's fantasy) failed because reviewers and (if one trusts
the reviews) audiences couldn't or wouldn't see Claudius as impressive
in any way.

The landmark reversal came with Peter Hall's production (1965? I can't
check the date now.) Hall told his assembled cast before rehearsals that
the crucial point in this production was to be the failure of the
Mousetrap.

So I was told by the distinguished actor and director John Bell, who was
in Hall's momentous RSC production. Mr Bell also told me of a
significant bit of staging that isn't mentioned by Dawson: Gertrude
finally lost patience and slapped Hamlet hard on the face. That made it
easy for Claudius to get up ("The King rises": how could he not?) and
stop the show, without losing control, tottering, raging, etc.

Dawson, who didn't see the production, still states very misleadingly
that some look in Claudius's face betrayed his guilt. Hm. How?? Who saw
this look, and who didn't? What did the actor DO, since Claudius doesn't
SAY anything that demonstrates unequival guilt? Oops--there we go again!
Forget it: it's a fabrication.

Going on with the history: the next stage was Patrick Stewart's
mesmerising (and morally impressive) Claudius in the BBC/Time-Life
production: far and away the best Claudius I have ever seen or expect to
see. When I met Patrick Stewart some years later, by chance, I blurted
out how much I admired that performance.  His unforgettable reply (which
is my only reason for mentioning this flook encounter) was, "I think an
actor should be faithful to his part, and let the play do the judging."

Since then the idea that the 'Mousetrap' fails is not so unusual, at
least in Britain. Michael Pennington takes its failure for granted, in
his very lively "User's Guide" to Hamlet.

Pennington doesn't argue the point. In a way he doesn't need to. The
people who have a lot of explaining to do are the people who still
suppose, according to an inert and indefensible tradition, that the
'Mousetrap' must be a success--because Hamlet says it is. So how could
it succeed?  Oyoy, there we go again....

In more general terms, the distinction between what Hamlet knows and
what we know may be far more important than is usually allowed. For
example, Hamlet is convinced that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deserve
to die because they were party to Claudius's plot to have Hamlet killed
in England; but the play never confirms that, and, if anything, suggests
that it isn't true.We don't know whether it's true; Hamlet cannot know
that it's true, but sends them to their deaths.

To take just one other example: when Laertes nicks Hamlet with the
poisoned sword, Hamlet doesn't know he is dying. We do, but he doesn't.
So what does he do to Laertes?

Some imperious Hamlets simply execute Laertes (like Branagh or the
sublime Smoktunovsky); others don't. Olivier slices Laertes's wrist,
sadistically but not murderously--since he doesn't know he is killing
Laertes when he cuts him. Either interpretation could be defended, but
only by taking recalcitrantly different views of Hamlet. What cannot be
defended is the laziness of supposing that Hamlet knows whatever we
know. Taint not thy mind, indeed.

The play also plays on the difference between what we know and what
other characters don't know. Does Gertrude realise, when she learns that
Claudius is trying to poison Hamlet, that Claudius also poisoned her
first husband? Does Ophelia ever know or guess who killed daddy? Enough!

Well, even I know that was a bit long, but I did enjoy writing it. Isn't
Hamlet enthralling? (The play, I mean.) To bed, to bed, to bed.

Best wishes, Graham Bradshaw

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Paul E. Doniger <
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Date:           Tuesday, 17 Jul 2001 18:12:40 -0400
Subject: Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        SHK 12.1771 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

David Bishop wrote:

> 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....

I cannot speak for Tony Burton, but I certainly do not say, as myself,
that Shakespeare had written the above punctuation. What the Bard wrote
was one sentence composed of two independent clauses connected by a
coordinating conjunction -- actually an elliptical one, which could be
paraphrased thus: "Whatever you do to accomplish this task, neither lose
your mind, nor do any harm to your mother," with the word 'neither'
omitted. This is how I have interpreted this line throughout my previous
postings.

> 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?

This is exactly my point. The Ghost is undermining his call for revenge
from the start, a device that Shakespeare has cleverly used to delay the
denouement of the play! This explains Hamlet's hesitation, his need to
expose Claudius's guilt to the world through the agency of "The
Mousetrap," and his inability to kill him while in prayer. As I have
said a number of times, Hamlet is one of the few avengers who tries not
to descend into evil.

> 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.

I don't understand how this conclusion about Claudius has been reached.
There's not a single injunction from the Ghost to Hamlet NOT to contrive
against Claudius. Claudius isn't even mentioned here! Also, the
grammatical construction IS parallel -- no matter the punctuation
(although, the comma is more traditional) -- and so is the meaning:
Neither do this, nor that.  What could be a more parallel construction
than "I.C., coord. conj. I.C."?

Paul E. Doniger

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