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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: July ::
Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1908  Tuesday, 31 July 2001

[1]     From:   Tony Burton <
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        Date:   Monday, 30 Jul 2001 11:10:04 -0400
        Subj:   SHK 12.1894 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[2]     From:   Edmund Taft <
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        Date:   Monday, 30 Jul 2001 11:37:01 -0400
        Subj:   RE: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[3]     From:   Steve Roth <
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        Date:   Monday, 30 Jul 2001 09:13:54 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1894 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[4]     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Monday, 30 Jul 2001 09:58:21 -0700
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1894 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

[5]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 31 Jul 2001 02:47:44 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 12.1894 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tony Burton <
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Date:           Monday, 30 Jul 2001 11:10:04 -0400
Subject: Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        SHK 12.1894 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

The reversal of conventional order in the matter of the exchange between
sentries, to which Weiss has referred, conforms also with other
indications to the same effect, such as the enforced nonobservance of
the sabbath for the sake of military readiness, and also the ghost's
command "Taint not they mind, nor let they soul contrive/ Against they
mother aught", in the sense that it is usually the mind that contrives
and the soul that becomes tainted with sin.  (compare Gertrude's
grained, spotted and tincted soul in the chamber scene).  This is a
rhetorical device known as hypallage, found also with Ophelia's
"courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword in which the
expected connections of appropriate words to others is jumbled, and of
which the most well known Shakespearean example is in MND: "The eye of
man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able
to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report . . ."  The
usage imports mental or physical disorder of one sort or another, and
causes the audience to share the confusion and uncertainty that are
associated with it.  For students like Weiss and White, with whom I most
wholeheartedly agree, and It is clear to me that the depiction of
disorder and uncertainty are an essential element of "Hamlet" and its
mystery, of Hamlet's character, and of the audience's experience.  The
Great Debate has really always been among critics-as-audience, who urge
the world first to believe that their own respective resolutions of the
author's brilliant uncertainty-by-design are legitimate, and then
(illegitimately) go on to argue that such private views of the matter
are inevitable necessary and exclusive.  Which is very close to a
perfect demonstration of the difference between great and universalizing
minds and petty and individualizing ones.

Indeed, there are good reasons why such uncertainty spoke loudly to the
spiritual and intellectual climate of Shakespeare's time, and a book's
worth of evidence in the play that it was carefully and intentionally
worked into the form and imagery at several independent levels of
meaning.

On another note, Claudius's guilty, ambiguous, or dignified reaction to
The Mousetrap, I'd like once again to refer to my recent two-part
article in the Shakespeare Newsletter (Winter and Spring), where I show
the strength of the theme of stolen inheritance and attempts to recover
it, throughout the play.  As it may be (if one accepts my arguments)
that Claudius killed the king in order to marry Gertrude in haste before
she moved to her dower estate, and did that in order to acquire King
Hamlet's property, it is easy to image that Claudius's sudden departure
resulted from Hamlet's hardly innocent explanation that The Mousetrap
murder was by a nephew to gain his uncle's estate, a plan which then
requires him to gain the love of the uncle's widow.  The departure would
then certainly not be unambiguous evidence of guilt for murder, nor even
of guilt for marrying for money (although that is surely what happened),
but only of anger at Hamlet's presumption in implying he might employ
those tactics against him.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edmund Taft <
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Date:           Monday, 30 Jul 2001 11:37:01 -0400
Subject:        RE: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

Larry Weiss writes:

"I don't think "Who's there?" prefigures a theme of uncertainty so much
as disjointedness.  Consider:  A sentry is on stage "at his post" and
another person enters and demands of the sentry "Who's there?"  This
reverses the proper order of things, which Francisco correctly restores
in the next line -- "Nay, answer me ...." But the suggestion has already
been planted in the audience's mind that something completely out of the
ordinary is happening.  And who was Bernardo expecting to be there, or
was afraid might be there?  Perhaps this is the most brilliant opening
line ever written."

I agree with Larry that the opening of _Hamlet_ is absolutely brilliant.
As I see it, the first five lines lay out the basic themes of the play.
Each guard is "testing" the other: Barnardo asks Francisco to identify
himself to see if the latter responds properly, which is NOT to give
away his identity but to turn the question back on the questioner --
"Stand and unfold yourself." Then Barnardo gives the "password": "Long
live the king."

Francisco accepts the password because (1) it is correct and (2) he
recognizes the sound of Barnardo's voice. Even so, neither bit of
information is foolproof; passwords can be intercepted, and voices can
be mimicked.  Still, it's good enough for Francisco, and the watch
proceeds to change.

It's easy to see the applications of these lines to the play as a
whole.  The ghost is testing Hamlet, and Hamlet is testing the ghost.
Moreover, no test can be conclusive. We have to have faith that they
will work. Passwords are not foolproof, and the play-within-the play
isn't either. So the play seems to be about knowledge, uncertainty, and
faith -- all in the quest for revenge.

In the end, Barnardo takes Francisco's place. So, at the very end of the
play, Hamlet, once poisoned,  becomes a walking, talking dead man, like
his father at the play's opening. Barnardo becomes a guard, but what of
young Hamlet?  What becomes of him? And what place does he go to?

Cheers,
--Ed

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Steve Roth <
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Date:           Monday, 30 Jul 2001 09:13:54 -0700
Subject: 12.1894 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1894 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

>From:           Larry Weiss <
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>I don't think "Who's there?" prefigures a theme of uncertainty so much
>as disjointedness.  But the suggestion has already
>been planted in the audience's mind that something completely out of the
>ordinary is happening.

Certainly both are achieved in this line. I think we've encountered
difficulties in this thread in trying to assign single meanings to
various lines. In Hamlet, perhaps more than any other of Will's plays,
it's generally reductive and ill-advised to cling to single meanings.

>Perhaps this is the most brilliant opening
>line ever written.

Agreed, for the reason above. I find it interesting that two of us
immediately turned to that line as signaling the beginning of an
uncertain knowledge theme, one that runs throughout the play. It's silly
to suggest that that theme isn't there, or isn't important, just as it
would be silly to suggest that it's the only thing going on.

>From:           Graham Hall <
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>
>Life's prequel could be said to have occurred on  7 Feb 1601, I suppose.

>From:           Rainbow Saari <
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>similarities between
>'the Mousetrap' performance by  these fictional Players and  the actual
>performance by the Lord Chamberlain's Men of Richard II just prior to
>the Essex Rebellion.

Essex's fiasco, it seems to me, would have been prevalent in the minds
of the playwright and the playgoers in 1601. Shakespeare is, as usual,
too savvy politically to point at it directly (unlike Jonson's
foolishness in Isle of Dogs, the Apologetical Dialogue to Poetaster,
etc.), but Will draws on its penumbra brilliantly in accentuating the
dangerous intrigue and court politics of Elsinore.

>From:           Andrew W. White <
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>First, Steve Roth:  I see a contradiction here -- <snip> Hamlet has seen Claudius react _both_ as a guilty party, and as
>someone who now knows his days are numbered.  That doesn't constitute
>proof?
><snip>
> I believe the scene
>is set up so that he _does_ lose his cool, albeit silently, and reveal
>his guilt in a very discreet, eye-centered manner.
><snip>
>Hamlet's
>certainty should be taken at face value, IMHO.

Agreed, Andy--good thread!

Claudius' acting/pretense skills would certainly be strained by the dumb
show! Quite possibly he displays some reaction. Could be played either
way. But I don't think that creates a contradiction.

Even a "discreet" reaction would be fairly weak proof for Hamlet (though
he might choose to interpret it as greater proof, hence he could indeed
be taken at face value in his "thousand pound" line, but only face value
in the sense that he truly chooses to believe it, at least on a
superficial level).

But Hamlet can't *really* be certain that the ghost tells truth just
because Claudius rears back and raises his eyebrows significantly (or
some such) during the dumb show. And Hamlet knows there's a much better,
alternative explanation for Claudius' call for lights.

If we accept that Hamlet is uncertain about the murder having occurred
(which seems pretty inescapable given the ghost's questionable
provenance/reliability [emphasized repeatedly]), there's no way we can
say that he gains certain knowledge in the mousetrap--or anywhere else
in the play, for that matter.

This hall of mirrors (viz, Brannagh's choice for the "to be" staging) is
for me a big part of the play's intricacy, import, and power.

Thanks,
Steve
http://princehamlet.com

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Monday, 30 Jul 2001 09:58:21 -0700
Subject: 12.1894 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1894 Re: Hamlet's Clashing Ideals

Andy White argues that

>He [Claudius] has to suffer in the afterlife, just as he made his brother
>suffer Purgatory needlessly.  It's a concept that is alien to us, but
>would be taken for granted back then.  And this involves Hamlet's unique
>awareness of the two worlds, that of nature and that of the 'life to
>come.'  It is because he has to juggle the demands of _spiritual_
>revenge, not merely physical, that he needs to play it so carefully and
>make sure he does the job at the right time, under the right
>circumstances.

I'm not sure how "taken for granted" it would have been.  Leaving
vengeance up to the almighty was a tenet of Christianity, was it not?
It is a generic expectation of revenge tragedy that the revenge has to
be carried out ruthlessly, of course, but it's excessiveness was clearly
part of its appeal.

Both Andy and Rainbow have pointed out a parallel between the risk to
the players of performing the Mousetrap and the actual performance of
Richard II by the Lord Admiral's Men.  One might note that in the
wonderful Smoktunovsky Hamlet, which I just saw on the big screen, the
players literally flee Elsinore after the king has something like a fit.

Cheers,
Se

 

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