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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: January ::
Re: Hamlet (Once More)
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0254  Wednesday, 30 January 2002

[1]     From:   Don Bloom <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 29 Jan 2002 09:44:13 -0600
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0220 Re: Hamlet (Once More)

[2]     From:   W. L. Godshalk <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 29 Jan 2002 14:40:26 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0220 Re: Hamlet (Once More)


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Don Bloom <
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Date:           Tuesday, 29 Jan 2002 09:44:13 -0600
Subject: 13.0220 Re: Hamlet (Once More)
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0220 Re: Hamlet (Once More)

Brian Willis writes,

 > I too think it is too easy to define "to be or not to be" as a speech
> about suicide.

We went over all this not long ago, but since someone else brought it
up, I'll repeat what I said before (in a new and more attractive
package).

Hamlet is talking about death all through the soliloquy. He begins --
famously -- talking about being and not-being. If we had any doubt that
he was talking about non-being as death, he quickly thereafter says, "To
die, to sleep." If we weren't talking careful notes the first time, he
repeats himself so we won't miss it the second: "To die, to sleep --
perchance to dream." Right after that he closes the image with "in that
sleep of death." Are we all agreed that he's talking about death?

Now Hamlet has not been diagnosed with an incurable illness. He is not a
soldier on the verge of battle. Thus, like all the rest of us, he has no
idea when his death is going to occur.  However, he uses imagery of
action -- "take arms," "opposing" -- suggesting that death is something
that can be controlled. And so it can, but only if he kills himself.
There is no reason for Hamlet to assume that he can be unburdened of all
those fardels (delectable word) except by suicide, and thus many of us
assume suicide is what he's talking about since it makes such perfect
sense.

Of course, we're helped in this conclusion by the fact that he's already
mentioned suicide longingly, is observed to be in a condition of serious
depression, and repeatedly blames himself for failure. We're further
helped by knowing that justifiable suicide was a common topic in the
Renaissance.  (Donne wrote a whole book on it; Spenser reviews - and
rejects -- it in Canto 9, Book I, of TFQ; to mention only the two I'm
most familiar with.)

Assuming that Hamlet is contemplating ending his life (with " a bare
bodkin," perhaps, which the actor often carries), we can follow the
train of his thought without too much trouble. He begins with a
philosophical point that neatly reverses the normal Christian view of
suicide by suggesting that it is noble (courageous, soldierly) to kill
oneself, rather than patiently enduring a "sea of troubles." But he is
too imbued with the Christian condemnation of suicide to go ahead.

He is, he admits, afraid of what comes after death. Continuing his image
of the noble suicide, he imagines those without courage as being
servile, peasant like, debased (and anyone with experience of the Third
World will have a clear idea of what Shakespeare, Hamlet and the
original audience are thinking of here). They endure, they suffer, they
grunt and sweat, they carry heavy burdens - why? Because they are afraid
of death and what follows.

He concludes by blaming conscience for undermining his courage, making
him weak and sickly, too passively thoughtful rather than actively
resolute.

This interpretation is, I know, hopelessly traditional and lacking in
originality. But sometimes what very brilliant and learned people of the
past have concluded about a work is true, and we are wiser to accept it.

Moreover, the passage - even interpreted in this tediously standard way
- in wonderfully ironic. Not only does he reverse the general Christian
attitude toward suicide, but he doesn't even allow us to feel certain
that his reversal is not meant ironically. As several people have
pointed out, when he says that no traveler has ever returned from the
country of the dead, he forgets that he recently spoke to one who
claimed to be doing just that -- but has he forgotten? To what extent is
Hamlet seriously considering cutting his throat right there, and to what
extent just indulging in some Renaissance wit on that same disgust with
the world that he brought up earlier in his first mention of suicide?

I don't think we can tell precisely. But all the major aspects of the
piece - ironic wit, disgust, death - are bound up together through the
vehicle of contemplated suicide, the answer to one problem but the poser
of a still more difficult one.

Cheers,
don

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           W. L. Godshalk <
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Date:           Tuesday, 29 Jan 2002 14:40:26 -0500
Subject: 13.0220 Re: Hamlet (Once More)
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0220 Re: Hamlet (Once More)

Andy White writes,

>In my experience, Shakespeare tends to have his characters say what they
>mean, and mean what they say.

This may be true, if we assume that Shakespeare's characters are real
people with brains and intentionality. Let's pretend that they are. As
Stanley Fish points out, all texts must be interpreted, and the
difficulty is in determining what Shakespeare's characters "mean." If we
all agreed on the meaning, we would not be having this discussion, and I
would not be teaching Shakespeare's plays to students.

Andy goes on:
>Horatio _confirms_ Hamlet's witness by
>agreeing that yes, he too kept an eye on Claudius the whole time.

Okay, this is one way to read Horatio's lines. And we should acknowledge
the various meanings of "note" in early modern English. One meaning --
stigmatizing someone's character -- may be applicable here.

Even so, I feel -- and this is a feeling -- that Horatio's reticence
implies a doubt.

Mike Jensen writes:

>I am dismayed that good Bill Godshalk repeats something I questioned
>last July without rising to my challenge.

And I want to thank Mike for believing that I can remember what happened
in July of last year.

Mike comments and then quotes the relevant passages from the three
texts:

>The exit happens at a particular point in The Mousetrap, and Hamlet's
>commentary on it.  Lucianus has just described the poisoning of the king
>in the play, the events being very like Claudius poisoning of Old
>Hamlet, and Hamlet gives a commentary:
>
>Q1: He poysons him for his estate.
>
>Q2: A poysons him i'th Garden for his estate, his names Gonzago, the
>story is extant, and written in very choice Italian, you shall see anon,
>how the murtherer gets the loue of Gonzagoes wife.
>
>F: He poysons him i'th' Garden for's estate: His name's Gonzago: the
>Story is extant and writ in choyce Italian.  You shall see anon how the
>Murtherer gets the loue of Gonzago's wife.

Why wouldn't Claudius take these assertions as a threat?  Hamlet wants
the throne and he wants the love of his mother. This is the Oedipal
Hamlet in his most blatant form.

Stanley Cavell's chapter "Hamlet's Burden of Proof" deals with some of
these problems. Cavell's style is not clarity itself, but he seems to
doubt if the Mousetrap is, in any way, an enactment of the murder of
King Hamlet. He is attempting to account for Claudius's apparent lack of
reaction to the dumb show.

And Peter Alexander in Hamlet Father and Son (as I recall) suggests that
the Mousetrap is Hamlet's way of informing Claudius that he knows the
truth. This is part of Hamlet's code as a detective as later defined by
Raymond Chandler.

Let meaning thrive.

Yours, Bill Godshalk

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