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Home :: Archive :: 2002 :: January ::
Re: Hamlet (Once More)
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 13.0283  Thursday, 31 January 2002

[1]     From:   Mike Jensen <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 30 Jan 2002 09:33:26 -0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0254 Re: Hamlet (Once More)

[2]     From:   Martin Steward <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 30 Jan 2002 18:43:38 -0000
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0254 Re: Hamlet (Once More)

[3]     From:   Andrew Walker White <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 30 Jan 2002 16:06:09 -0500 (EST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0254 Re: Hamlet (Once More)

[4]     From:   Brian Willis <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 30 Jan 2002 17:22:31 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0254 Re: Hamlet (Once More)

[5]     From:   Andy White <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 29 Jan 2002 19:52:31 -0500
        Subj:   Hamlet (Once More)

[6]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 30 Jan 2002 20:48:54 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 13.0254 Re: Hamlet (Once More)


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Mike Jensen <
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Date:           Wednesday, 30 Jan 2002 09:33:26 -0800
Subject: 13.0254 Re: Hamlet (Once More)
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0254 Re: Hamlet (Once More)

Bill, thank you for your interesting reply.  I have a confession and a
couple of comments.  When I doubted you and Graham in your suggestions
that Hamlet hoped Claudius would admit the murder at the performance, I
quite forgot the following lines, until I thought about them yesterday
in reference to a rather evil person,

                             I have heard
   That guilty creatures sitting at a play
   Have by the very cunning of the scene
   Been strook so to the soul, that presently
   They have proclaim'd their malefactions:
   For murther, though it have no tongue, will speak
   With most miraculous organ.  (2.2.588b-594a)

I now understand why you and Graham suggest Claudius must blurt out his
guilt before all for Hamlet's plan to be realized.

OK, having said that, what does Hamlet mean by *proclaim'd*?  The only
answers, I believe, are historical, lexical, and contextual.  I don't
know the history, if there is any, so I shall not attempt to comment.

My handy dandy *OED2* on CD-ROM tells me that *proclaimed,* and all
variant listings active in Shakespeare's time, are understood as
official and public pronouncements, at least until much later when
*official* is no longer required to be part of the meaning.  This is
problematic since Hamlet may have hoped for a public announcement, but
he certainly could not expect an official decree.

Context suggests that Claudius gave Hamlet exactly what he wanted in
that he behaved in a way that confirmed his guilt, thus confirming the
Ghost's story.

Is that what Shakespeare intended?  Was he playing loose with the
lexical meaning of *proclaim'd* as he often did with words?  I don't
know.  I believe Ed Taft is right in focusing on Hamlet's satisfaction
with the result.

Anyway, if one believes that Hamlet wanted Claudius to make a public
proclamation of guilt, yes, *The Mousetrap* is a failure.  If that was
not Hamlet's intention, then it seems to have been a success.  Hamlet's
comments to Horatio indicate it's success.  The lexical evidence goes
one way, the contextual another.  In this case I'm inclined to go with
the contextual until there is a good reason not to do so.  It may also
be another of those darn logical inconsistencies that riddle this play.

>Why wouldn't Claudius take these assertions as a threat?

No reason.  He may.  Certainly he begins to act as if Hamlet is a
threat.
Nothing in my view discounts this, and much supports it.

>This is the Oedipal Hamlet in his most blatant form.

On the other hand, I am thoroughly unconvinced about the Oedipal
Hamlet.  I don't think it is necessary.

>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.

Thank you for the reference.  It is on my list of things to look up when
I have the time.  He will have to do a good job to explain the stage
direction *pours poison in the sleeper's ears.*  Actors have no trouble
making sense of Claudius's silence.

>This is part of Hamlet's code as a detective as later defined by
>Raymond Chandler.

Interesting point which bears more thought.  Off the top of my head
there is an important difference on another matter: Ghosts.  To
paraphrase Chandler: *What did it matter where you lay once you were
dead?  In a dirty sump or in a marble tower on top of a high hill.  Old
Hamlet was dead, he was sleeping the big sleep, he was not bothered by
things like that.  Oil and water were the same as wind and air to him.
He just slept the big sleep, not caring about the nastiness of how he
died or where he fell.*

I guess Old Hamlet would have disagreed with Philip Marlowe.  Old Hamlet
was bothered by things like that.

All the best,
Mike Jensen

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Martin Steward <
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Date:           Wednesday, 30 Jan 2002 18:43:38 -0000
Subject: 13.0254 Re: Hamlet (Once More)
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0254 Re: Hamlet (Once More)

In response to Don Bloom's post on the subject of "To be or not to
be...", more than any of the others:

Doesn't the mixed metaphor suggest that Hamlet (and by extension we) has
no power to control his fate? (I tried to get a thread going on this
before but no one was interested, so I'll do it myself)

If one were to "take arms against a sea of troubles", one would get
drowned by those troubles just the same. Take a boat to them, however,
and now we're talking. Except in accidental circumstances (unconscious
peter grimes allusion noted retrospectively) no one has ever killed
themselves with a boat. Lot's of people have jumped out of boats to kill
themselves, but no one has actually used the boat to do it (they just
drowned). "Arms", however, like "bare bodkins", for example, can easily
be used to kill oneself; and so we are justified in taking the
metaphorical "arms" to refer to the real "bodkin" with which Hamlet
threatens his own life.

ergo - the bare bodkin won't end his sea of troubles.

Just what the Reverend Dean John Donne would have assured Hamlet in his
more orthodox moments; Jack Donne is another matter.

Don is right; there is plenty of irony, even in the straightforward
reading (which is obviously the right one). But it is much more orthodox
than he (playfully) suggests.

"Against self-slaughter / There is a prohibition so divine", as Imogen
puts it (Cymbeline III.iv.64-77)

m (theologically disinterested)

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Andrew Walker White <
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Date:           Wednesday, 30 Jan 2002 16:06:09 -0500 (EST)
Subject: 13.0254 Re: Hamlet (Once More)
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0254 Re: Hamlet (Once More)

Brian Willis offers the traditional, suicidal interpretation of Hamlet's
speech.  But because he has avoided discussing two key passages, I'm
curious if he can fit them into this "suicidal" framework:

Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrow of outrageous fortune
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And, by opposing, end them;

This, of course, is read as a contemplation of suicide by some, but if
this is taken as an _explanation_ of the first line, not merely a
continuation of it, then he seems to be contemplating action.  As far as
authorities go, I can cite Harley Granville Barker on that one.

The second passage:

. . . And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard, their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Now, I can think of a number of euphemisms for suicide, but "enterprises
of great pith and moment" is not one of them.  Unless Willis, or others,
can show that suicide was regarded by Elizabethans as an endeavor
bordering on the discovery of America, I can only conclude that, taken
as a whole, Hamlet is talking about taking real action against others,
not pseudo-action, i.e., action against himself, which would be
pointless given his situation.

As for Dr. Godshalk:  Frankly, I don't follow this "intentionality"
stuff; we're not talking about Chekhov, this is Shakespeare, whose
dramaturgy was quite different and (pace Fish) was quite
straightforward.  If there were reason for Horatio to doubt the Ghost's
witness, Shakespeare would have provided enough information for us to
ensure that we in the audience understand his doubts -- he gives us
enough information in other plays so that we know when characters are
lying, uncertain, etc.  I'm simply saying that I don't find evidence in
Horatio's lines, or in the situation, that he doubts the Ghost.

Thanks to all for a good discussion!

Andy

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Brian Willis <
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Date:           Wednesday, 30 Jan 2002 17:22:31 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 13.0254 Re: Hamlet (Once More)
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0254 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."

and etc. I agree. My point wasn't to say that it isn't about suicide. My
point is that it is too EASY to define it as ONLY about suicide. Perhaps
I wasn't clear enough. OF course it would be folly to assert that
suicide (or the equivalent of committing an act that leads to one's own
death) is not a part of the speech. The reason it is so famous and so
good is partly to do with the fact that it bases itself in
existentialism.

Brian Willis

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Andy White <
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Date:           Tuesday, 29 Jan 2002 19:52:31 -0500
Subject:        Hamlet (Once More)

Dr. Heller:

Un touche, un touche, j' avoue. . .

Cheers,
Andy White

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Wednesday, 30 Jan 2002 20:48:54 -0500
Subject: 13.0254 Re: Hamlet (Once More)
Comment:        Re: SHK 13.0254 Re: Hamlet (Once More)

In the "To be, or not to be" soliloquy, Hamlet appears to link "being"
to "suffering"--and therefore continuing to live--and "not being" to
taking arms against a sea of troubles, and ending them by dying. Though
he does not refer directly to himself, in context it is hard to avoid
the impression that taking arms would, for him, mean taking revenge. To
kill the king would likely result in the death of the killer (on the
life expectancy of regicides see, for example, Camillo in WT 1.2). Then
in the course of speculating on death Hamlet wonders why anyone would
grunt and sweat under the whips and scorns of time when they could their
"quietus make With a bare bodkin." Here the apparent guiltlessness of
the grunters and sweaters suggests a fear of "something after death"
which is not necessarily punishment for their sins, unless it's
punishment for the sin of suicide.  That's possible, but I don't feel it
comes across in exactly that way, because the "quietus" is not
emphasized as a culpable, forbidden act of suicide. Its quietness in
this respect may, however, excuse the grunters and sweaters while still
echoing Hamlet's earlier thoughts on his own possible suicide. One could
argue that the act Hamlet himself is contemplating, implicitly, in this
speech fuses revenge and suicide. Taking arms, for him, would be to take
revenge by killing the king, an act for which he would almost certainly
end up being killed. Since he knows ahead of time that taking arms would
end his earthly troubles, by causing his death, revenge would amount to
a form of suicide.

Whether the act would be revenge, or suicide, or a combination of the
two, it would be damnable. This comes out in the play, as in Hamlet's
remark about the Everlasting having "fix'd his canon gainst
self-slaughter." Its damnability is also, even when unmentioned, part of
the common knowledge of the characters, and the presumably Christian
audience. If you think that Christianity is simply a religion of
imperialism, oppression and intolerance, and not a religion in which God
is believed to have prohibited personal revenge, you won't understand,
for example, what Laertes means when, rushing in, as he thinks, to take
revenge for his father's death by killing the king, he says "I dare
damnation." That phrase reverses, like a mirror image, Hamlet's "Thus
conscience does make cowards of us all."

Both "I dare damnation" and "Thus conscience does make cowards of us
all" function, in a way, like oxymorons. They suggest two opposite
meanings that fail to fuse. If your duty is to be virtuous, and dare to
take revenge, how could God be against that? And if God is against it,
how can it be your duty? If your conscience tells you something is
damnable, and puts the fear of God into you, does that make you a coward
if you then don't do it? And if following your conscience makes you a
coward, then doesn't your conscience in some way have to be telling you
something that's wrong? I would suggest that in these oxymoronic
phrases, as elsewhere in the play, two incompatible ethics, or ideals,
are grinding against each other. Or more accurately, three. A third
ethic enters the picture because the man to be killed is also the king.
Hamlet has to fear not only that he will be damned for killing the king
in revenge, but that his act will produce chaos in the state--the kind
of chaos described, for example, by Rosencrantz (3.3). The danger of
regicide producing chaos was also part of common knowledge. It doesn't
need much emphasis. It would obviously damage the reputation of Denmark,
which Hamlet cares about, and leave him, as the prince, with a severely
wounded name.

The clash of these three ethics--the duty to revenge, the duty not to
revenge, and the duty to preserve the order of the state--produces these
oxymoronic moments, these iceberg-tips of phrases we think we
understand, until we start to think about them precisely. If anyone's
interested, there's a more extended analysis of this soliloquy in
chapter 6 of my book, at clashingideals.com.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

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