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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: July ::
Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1886  Friday, 27 July 2001

[1]     From:   Steve Roth <
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        Date:   Thursday, 26 Jul 2001 10:29:30 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1872 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[2]     From:   Edmund Taft <
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        Date:   Thursday, 26 Jul 2001 15:03:59 -0400
        Subj:   RE: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[3]     From:   Don Bloom <
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        Date:   Thursday, 26 Jul 2001 14:12:22 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1872 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Steve Roth <
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Date:           Thursday, 26 Jul 2001 10:29:30 -0700
Subject: 12.1872 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1872 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

>From:           Andrew W. White <
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>Steve Roth makes so many good points, but undermines them with his
>assertion that Claudius' reaction to the play is solely because of
>Hamlet's use of the word "nephew."

Thank you sir. To clarify:

I didn't mean to suggest that his reaction is solely because he's seen
his own death figured at his nephew's hand. It's quite possible his
reaction is because he saw his own vile crime. (Both, I'd say.) The
reenactment certainly might bother him in itself, and I'm sure he's not
happy to know that Hamlet knows all the details.

My point was that everyone else would interpret his call for lights as
being in response to the nephew-murdering-uncle scenario. No signal of
guilt of any kind. Hamlet would understand both explanations for his
action, but would be unsure whether A, B, or both of the above was the
trigger. So he gains no knowledge. Amazingly intricate cat-and-mouse
stuff going on.

This lack-of-certain-knowledge bit is certainly a central theme of the
play ("Who's there?"), and the multiple interwoven layers of dramatic,
ironic, and literary framing--which serve to represent and exemplify
that uncertainty--are for me perhaps the key to the play's brilliance.

I'm very interested in your comments on the dumb show, as J. D. Wilson's
explanation (Claudius is discussing stuff with Polonius and Gertrude and
not watching) has never satisfied me. Nor have prior explanations held
much water (which is why Wilson offered his). I haven't found more
recent explanations, but I have quite possibly missed them.

>There has been a dumb show beforehand, in which "the circumstance" has
>been acted out fully.  <snip>   Had [Claudius] spoken out or called for "lights"
>then, he would have caused enormous suspicion.

Agreed. The courtiers would have been pretty mystified as to why it
upset him, but Hamlet would have gotten his confirmation. (Claudius
doesn't know what knowledge/evidence Hamlet has, so he doesn't want to
give him a confession, even implicit.)

This is the best explanation I've heard for why he doesn't react to the
dumb show.

>Hamlet, doing his part to cover the plot, chats up
>Ophelia.

I don't understand; what plot is Hamlet covering (up?) here, and why?

>Hamlet's announcement
>that the play is titled "the Mousetrap" tightens the screws on Claudius
>considerably -- the tension in the scene is now palpable; Claudius can't
>afford to let out that he's guilty,

Again, agree. Getting upset at this point would confirm his guilt to
Hamlet.

>Hamlet can't let on that he's spying
>on him, let alone that he's already got the goods on him (antic
>disposition and all that, you know).

Disagree. It's quite clear to Claudius at this point that Hamlet knows
all. Hamlet knows provisionally what's in Claudius' mind: if the murder
did happen, then Claudius knows he knows. So no reason to pretend he
doesn't. (Except perhaps thinking that through continued pretence he can
maintain his freedom, and exact revenge. Delusory, but in Hamlet's case,
plausible, thinking.)

>Yes, the "nephew" bit does give Claudius a pretext to get up and leave
>in a huff,

This is the key explanation of the dumb show, I think. Before the nephew
business, he couldn't react without mystifying the courtiers and giving
Hamlet confirmation.

>but there's more than enough room beforehand to react, note
>his reactions, and draw the necessary conclusions.

But Claudius is a brilliant actor. <g> Which is what makes him such a
consumate diplomat and politician. If he shows no or ambiguous or veiled
reaction until this nephew excuse, it maintains the taught web of
uncertainty about who knows what that, in my opinion, makes the scene so
incredibly tense. It's like one of those unpleasant family dinner
conversations where the unspoken subtexts and tensions predominate.

>This is not a play about not knowing,

Per the above, I disagree on this one. It's about many, many things, one
being the uncertainty of knowledge.

>any more than it's a play about a
>prince who cannot make up his mind.

To some extent, though it's certainly been overplayed over the
centuries. Damn that Coleridge.

> It's about revenge of a most
>demanding and intricate kind,

It's certainly a play about revenge, but I don't understand what
demanding and intricate revenge is.

>and about a prince who, as John Masefield
>once said, lives in two worlds, not just one.

Don't know Masefield's stuff. What are his two worlds? (I'm thinking he
should probably add several, intersecting and overlapping in multiple
dimensions. <g>)

>And the plot is
>constructed so tightly that the slightest mistake makes nonsense of the
>thing.

Agreed. The simultaneous complexity and coherence is truly staggering.
Like Bach's canons, seemingly beyond human ability.

>I know, I've played the role and have made more nonsense of it
>than I ever could on this list.

I have not, but have little doubt that I would make utter nonsense of it
myself. (Besides, I'm too old.)

Thanks,
Steve
http://princehamlet.com

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edmund Taft <
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Date:           Thursday, 26 Jul 2001 15:03:59 -0400
Subject:        RE: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

Andy White writes,

"This is not a play about not knowing, any more than it's a play about a
prince who cannot make up his mind.  It's about revenge of a most
demanding and intricate kind."

Hamlet's revenge is intricate and demanding precisely because he lacks
all of the knowledge he needs.  Even if we grant that the mousetrap
exposes Claudius's guilt to Hamlet (and, clearly, some do not see it
that way), there's another question that is absolutely necessary to
answer, and yet seems incapable of resolution: Is the ghost a good ghost
or a bad ghost?

Put differently, the devil (or a damned Hamlet, Sr.) can use the truth
for evil purposes.  The ghost may be telling young Hamlet the truth to
damn him (and perhaps to get unsanctioned revenge on Claudius).

So I have to disagree with Andy: this is very much a play about not
knowing, as its opening line makes clear: "Who's there?"

--Ed Taft

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Don Bloom <
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Date:           Thursday, 26 Jul 2001 14:12:22 -0500
Subject: 12.1872 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1872 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

Excuse me for introducing a side issue in this discussion of "The
Mousetrap," but the thing that has bothered me for many years is why the
players agree to do it at all. Even leaving out the possible parallel of
the nephew to the brother, the play on the surface is a gross insult to
the queen. Much is made of "Basptista'" false devotion to her husband
(which Hamlet comments on) even before we get to her rapid seduction by
"Luciano" (which, of course, we never see).

Surely the players could expect immediate imprisonment, followed by
whipping, branding, mutilation -- if they were lucky, that is, and
escaped REAL torture.

I suppose that Shakespeare realized that in the hurtling on-rush of the
play at this point no one in the audience would care, and by the time
things calmed down (Hamlet at the shore with R & G), no one would
remember.  But following my habit of imagining what it would like to be
X or Y, I found myself staring at the total unlikelihood of it.

"Er, no, thanks, Hamlet old boy. We'll just do a couple of farces and
retire back home, if it's all the same to you."

don

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