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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: January ::
Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0084  Tuesday, 13 January 2004

From:           David Bishop <
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Date:           Monday, 12 Jan 2004 16:42:44 -0500
Subject: 15.0075 Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0075 Hamlet

John Reed's emendation, "no man knows aught of when he leaves," gains
the advantage of linking the time reference in "when" to that in
"betimes." It's an interesting suggestion, but I still prefer Jenkins's
version.

First, Jenkins inserts only one word, and a word very recently
composited, about which the compositor's mind might plausibly tell him
"already did that." More importantly, it seems more in character for Hamlet.

Gerald Downs hears "aught" as unidiomatic, but it doesn't sound that way
to me. Besides its connection to "what," "aught" also has a connection
to "nothing." The doubling of the word intensifies the thought in what
sounds to me a characteristically Hamletian way. It suggests, "Since no
man knows even the tiniest bit about the tiniest bit he leaves behind
when he dies, what does it matter when he dies?"

The Folio tries to correct a nonsensical line with one that make some
immediate sense: "Since no man has ought of what he leaves, what is't to
leave betimes?" This means, "Since you can't take it with you, what does
it matter when you go?" This seems to lead toward what for Hamlet would
be a slightly vulgar materialism. He's not worried about his
possessions. You can of course interpret having more generally, but to
me it sounds wrong.

"When" produces a similar problem. It sounds more superficial, because
the question of when you die says nothing about the ultimate meaning of
life.  Whenever you die, you may face the same afterlife. Hamlet gains
depth and a vertiginous hint of nihilism by denying that after death you
know aught of aught. If you die early, or have no possessions after
death, you may still be alive in spirit. If you know nothing, it
suggests an absence of consciousness, a complete annihilation. You may
get around this with various theological theories that the spirit
continues with a cleansed consciousness, but I don't think that's the
impression the line conveys.  Hamlet touches on absolute skepticism, and
then touches on religion--back and forth. As in "To be, or not to be" he
suggests that there might be, but might not be, something after death.
Jenkins gets that breath of nihilism as the other emendations do not.

One might respond to Hamlet that even an ultimately finite and
meaningless life may, relatively speaking, have meaning and be worth
preserving. In fact Hamlet himself appears to have some feeling for
life's meaning and worth, when not in his most skeptical mood. But
that's another story.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

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