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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: February ::
TLS: The odds against Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0366  Monday, 9 February 2004

[1]     From:   Tony Burton <
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        Date:   Friday, 6 Feb 2004 09:28:44 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0337 TLS: The odds against Hamlet

[2]     From:   Edmond Taft <
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        Date:   Friday, 06 Feb 2004 11:12:16 -0500
        Subj:   The Odds Against Hamlet


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tony Burton <
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Date:           Friday, 6 Feb 2004 09:28:44 -0500
Subject: 15.0337 TLS: The odds against Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0337 TLS: The odds against Hamlet

Back in 1984 I wrote an article in the Shakespeare Bulletin, vol 2. no.
10, (which was then not yet included in the various annual Shakespeare
bibliographies and had only a small circulation of its own), that
explained the inconsistency of the odds against Hamlet.  The question
and its solution was only a secondary conclusion following from the main
point of the article: "Hamlet, Osric, and the Duel."

As I analyzed it, Osric was sent to inflame Hamlet against Laertes so
intensely that Hamlet would agree to a fencing match that he should
logically have rejected as an obvious trap.  So, Osric tells a
convoluted story of a great wager in which Claudius offered a rich prize
of horses , in response to which Laertes promptly "impon'd" his own
stake of fancy  rapiers and fittings.  As I showed, (a) that act by
Laertes is likely to be a gross breach of courtly etiquette, the "wager"
being a royal prize, not a bet between peers; and (b) "impon'd" means
"heaped on," connoting excessiveness and impious disrespect to the
divine order of things: Laertes was matching the king's wager when he
should simply have accepted the offer gratefully.

Now to the odds.  Osric describes the odds proposed by the king, and
Laertes "laid on" different odds.  These two amendments by Laertes are
in exact parallel to the matter of the wager: "laid on," as in Celia's
"laid on with a trowel"  (ASYLI, 1.2.98) means free-wheeling
excessiveness, and Laertes has offended in this, too.  He has raised the
odds against himself in a gesture that is at once a second breach of
etiquette and also a show of culpable arrogance.

The point to be made here is that the odds are not equal (as some have
concluded, but without explaining why it makes sense).  As Claudius
proposed, Laertes had to exceed Hamlet by three hits in twelve passes:
he would win if the final score was 8-4 or better and lose if it were
7-5.  Laertes promised to defeat Hamlet more severely, at least 9-5,
before claiming the prize wagered.  Thus, Laertes's inappropriate
audacity is described by Osric twice, once in Latinate form, in
describing the prize (here too, the special reasons for the Latin are
explained in the article); and once in the colloquial idiom a
contemporary audience would understand, in describing the conditions.

The reasons for all this, the argument for my reading, and its
significance to the play and our understanding of what is going on, are
all treated in my article.  I would rewrite certain portions of it today
in various respects, but the central argument is as sound as ever.

Tony Burton

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edmond Taft <
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Date:           Friday, 06 Feb 2004 11:12:16 -0500
Subject:        The Odds Against Hamlet

I wonder if Nora and Tony might agree that "figuring the odds" is also a
major theme at the end of _Hamlet_? After all, what are the odds that
Claudius, in craftily plotting Hamlet's demise, should in fact be laying
the conditions for his own death? What are the odds that Hamlet and
Laertes would exchange swords in the duel, or that the poisoned cup
would be there, right where it is needed, to finish off Claudius? Or
that Fortinbras would just happen to appear in the nick of time to take
over?

There's lots more, but this is enough to argue that Shakespeare wants us
to wonder if Providence might not have a hand in all this. Or if the
action at the end of the play merely reflects chance events.

  Just a thought.

Ed Taft

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