The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0422 Thursday, 14 February 2002
From: Andy White <
Date: Tuesday, 12 Feb 2002 09:13:16 -0500
Subject: 13.0406 Re: Hamlet (Once More)
Comment: Re: SHK 13.0406 Re: Hamlet (Once More)
Edmund Taft enumerates a series of actions, and ascribes one single
motivation to all of them, in order to demonstrate that Hamlet is
deliberately testing fate. But we have Hamlet himself telling us that
he is just as likely to act out of impulse, "rashness," and he marvels
at how an _un_ considered act can seem so appropriate after the fact.
He doesn't choose to go into harm's way all the time; his rash murder of
Polonius makes it necessary for him to at least appear to do Claudius'
bidding, but we already know he's suspicious and will be looking for a
way out. (BTW, the pirates would be just as likely to take Hamlet for
ransom-money, he being worth more alive than dead given their
I also question Taft's interpretation of Hamlet's several acts. Hamlet
himself tells us he taunts Laertes because he really loved Ophelia, is
just as appalled at her death as Laertes, and is angered at what he sees
as Laertes' hypocritical ravings over her body (see "tis not alone my
inky cloak" for this one). It is _not_ clear, moreover, whether Laertes
is really the better fencer; Hamlet accepts the duel, and the odds,
because he believes he will _win_, not because he'll lose. And as the
duel amply illustrates, Hamlet is the better fencer; he's about to win
at the odds when he's wounded, and it can be argued that Laertes wounds
him because he knows the bout is nearly over.
As for the perusal of the blades, again, the context is one that calls
for civility and trust; if it's a sporting match, with a sporting wager,
you don't check the blades; Claudius and Laertes know this, and use this
common courtesy against Hamlet. This is not a deliberate death-wish on
Hamlet's part, it's part of a plot that only the audience is in on.
The problem here seems to lie in our confusion between what the audience
knows, versus what Hamlet knows and what Hamlet knows about himself more
importantly. It's not a good idea, IMHO, to reject Hamlet's own account
of events and cook up something with our own ingredients; let the text
speak first, then let's deal with whatever intentions are revealed by
that text. And let's also admit that Hamlet's motivations may be
complex, not simple, that there may not be a Stanislavskian
"through-line" (a pathetic fictional construct if ever there was one) in
the play. It's the variety of motivations, contexts and driving forces
that makes this play so alive for me, not any alleged singularity of
purpose, which to my mind is from the purpose of Shakespeare's craft.
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