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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: July ::
Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1857  Wednesday, 25 July 2001

[1]     From:   Steve Roth <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 24 Jul 2001 11:11:45 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1807 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[2]     From:   S Herbert <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 24 Jul 2001 11:55:28 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Hamlet's Clashing Ideals


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Steve Roth <
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Date:           Tuesday, 24 Jul 2001 11:11:45 -0700
Subject: 12.1807 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1807 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

An Ontology of Hamlet.
or, Who Knows Who's Guilty? And When?

Rather than copying and pasting and responding, here are my responses to
all of you interested and interesting observers and commentators (you
know who you are):

Claudius knows he's guilty throughout.

Hamlet *believes* Claudius is guilty after his contretemps with the
ghost (the strength of his belief ebbs and flows). But he doesn't *know*
it; Horatio's "and do in part believe it" in 1.1 begins the
uncertain-knowledge-about-ghosts theme that repeats and echoes
throughout, particularly in Hamlet's "The spirit that I have seen/May be
the devil."

*We* first get true knowledge of Claudius' guilt from his admission just
before the nunnery scene.

Horatio hears from Hamlet of the murder, sometime prior to the mousetrap
(when Hamlet speaks of "the circumstance/Which I have told thee of my
father's death"). But he's hearing secondhand evidence of damned
uncertain provenance, transmitted through an interlocutor of
more-than-questionable reliability. Our secondhand report of this report
emphasizes its tenuous nature.

What seems to be missing in this discussion is an understanding that the
mousetrap gives knowledge to Claudius (that Hamlet knows of the murder,
in detail), but nobody else. Hamlet gets more uncertainty, and the
courtiers get a different understanding entirely.

Going back to J.D. Wilson's crucial (though incomplete) explanation in
What Happens in Hamlet, here's why:

What all the courtiers see is not a reenactment of Old Hamlet's murder.
They see the nephew to the king poisoning the king and stealing his
crown! This in a play put on by the nephew of the current king, who
about three months back preempted the nephew's succession.

It looks to the courtiers like a not terribly well-veiled threat against
the king's life. No wonder everyone's in such a tizzy. R&G, Osric,
Voltemand, Cornelius, et. al. must be feeling pretty damned
uncomfortable sitting in on this increasingly nasty family squabble.
Mighty opposites and all that.

What Wilson doesn't point out is that Hamlet knows that this threat is a
perfectly adequate explanation for Claudius getting his knickers in a
knot and calling for light. He's not necessarily upset because his crime
was reenacted.

So the mousetrap doesn't prove anything for Hamlet. (It just lets him
get nasty digs in at uncle/father/aunt/mother/whatever.) Claudius knows
that Hamlet knows. But Hamlet doesn't know for sure if Claudius knows,
or even if there's anything *to* know, for sure. But Claudius doesn't
know that Hamlet doesn't know. *footnote below*

And the mousetrap certainly doesn't break the central dramatic device
that drives the action of the play (or lack of same)--Hamlet's sole
"knowledge" (besides Claudius) of the murder having occurred.

Gertrude learns of the murder, sort of, sort of obtusely and glancingly,
from Hamlet in the closet scene. And he's immediately undermined by the
ghost refusing to appear to Gertrude. So her belief has gotta be more
than a little shaky.

In fact, nobody in the play ever learns for sure that a murder even
*occurred,* much less who did it or proof of same. Laertes' "the king's
to blame" doesn't say anything about Old Hamlet's murder. So the
courtiers cry treason.

It's left to Horatio to tell everyone, and it's unclear whether they'll
believe the ghost either, especially quoted third-hand, even if the
guards attest to the visitation. Horatio has no other evidence to
present.

* Footnote: I can't help but be reminded here of the great line (one of
dozens) from Lion in Winter, Prince Geoffrey to his mother Eleanor of
Acquitaine: "I know. You know I know. I know you know I know. We know
Henry knows, and Henry knows we know it. [smiles] We're a knowledgeable
family." If you haven't seen this movie in the last decade or so, well
worth renting again. Spectacular script. This family Makes Who's Afraid
of Virginia Wolfe look The Barney Show.

FWIW....

Steve
http://princehamlet.com

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           S Herbert <
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Date:           Tuesday, 24 Jul 2001 11:55:28 -0700 (PDT)
Subject:        Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

Terence Hawkes writes:

>My concern is with 'The Mousetrap'. It doesn't work.
>In Elsinore, only violence does.  That's part of what
>'Hamlet' says: plays make nothing happen.

So ... why are we there in the theater, watching Hamlet watch Claudius
watch the Mousetrap?  I don't think this is an easy question, but it
seems that any answer would apply at least partly to Elsinore.

On a more direct level, could you argue that the Mousetrap is part of
what triggers Claudius's attempt to have Hamlet killed, rather than
merely exiled?  Provoking your enemy to violence can be almost as good
as a confession; it might even have worked, if Hamlet hadn't felt
obligated to fight Laertes.

-- Sarah Herbert

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