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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: April ::
The Murder of Gonzago
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0873  Wednesday, 14 April 2004

[1]     From:   Peter Bridgman <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 13 Apr 2004 20:53:23 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0862 The Murder of Gonzago

[2]     From:   Alan Horn <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Apr 2004 03:27:57 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0862 The Murder of Gonzago

[3]     From:   Peter Bridgman <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 14 Apr 2004 12:23:01 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0862 The Murder of Gonzago


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Peter Bridgman <
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Date:           Tuesday, 13 Apr 2004 20:53:23 +0100
Subject: 15.0862 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0862 The Murder of Gonzago

Jack Hettinger described Hamlet as "a play that plainly mocked that
preposterous untenable Catholic doctrine of Purgatory".

The only references to purgatory are made by the Ghost in 1.5.  Perhaps
Jack would point out what is mocking in these lines.  I only find them
chilling.....

GHOST:  I am thy father's spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes like stars start from their spheres,
Thy knotty and combined locks to part,
And each particular hair to stand on end
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine....

....Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
Unhouseled, dis-appointed, unaneled,
No reck'ning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
O horrible, O horrible, most horrible!

Peter Bridgman

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Alan Horn <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Apr 2004 03:27:57 EDT
Subject: 15.0862 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0862 The Murder of Gonzago

Peter Bridgman's remark that "the audience, along with
Wittenberg-educated Hamlet, is made to accept the existence of
Purgatory," made me think, along with Jack Hettinger, that the play's
original audience might have associated that Catholic belief with other
officially rejected traditions like belief in ghosts and in the justice
of revenge.

But where Jack Hettinger supposes the audience (or at least the
Protestants in it-as though it were so easy to tell exactly who those
were) could only have been dogmatically hostile to these motifs, I think
it would have been to varying degrees ambivalent. Religious identities
were still in flux in England at the turn of the seventeenth century.
And the theater was a place where, within limits, social and ideological
conflicts could be safely represented.  Hamlet's plan to test the ghost,
the ambiguous outcome of that test (the ghost might be right and still
be an evil spirit), and the use of the tragic form which typically
witholds moral approval of its hero may all exploit the original
audience's uneasiness about the premise of the drama.

The view supported by Peter Bridgman that Prince Hamlet was in fact a
figure of ridicule is a reductio ad absurdum of his assumptions that
official doctrines in early modern England were monolithically accepted
by a distinct majority of the population and that Elizabethan theater
was simply a vehicle to propagate those doctrines.

I'd like to know what others think about all this, and would appreciate
suggestions for background readings related to this discussion.

Alan H

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Peter Bridgman <
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Date:           Wednesday, 14 Apr 2004 12:23:01 +0100
Subject: 15.0862 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0862 The Murder of Gonzago

Bill Godshalk asks "what if we are not persuaded to accept the Ghost's
story of his murder - as some scholars aren't?"

A good question.  In 1549 the Edwardian Prayerbook announced a major
change in Christian cosmology.  It announced that purgatory no longer
existed, and that Christians should no longer pray for their dead.
Since the dead were now either in heaven or hell, praying for their
souls was a waste of breath.  In England before 1549 it was commonly
assumed that ghosts were the spirits of dead relatives, visiting from
purgatory.  After 1549, ghosts were officially evil spirits sent by the
devil.  This is the religious background to Shakespeare's meditation on
death.

If Shakespeare sympathised with the Protestant theologians, surely he
would have shown us that the Ghost's account was unreliable by revealing
the king's innocence.  Instead Shakespeare makes Claudius a murderer.
Even if the jury is still out on Old Hamlet's murder, we see the king
planning the death of young Hamlet.  By the end of the play there is
nothing to contradict Old Hamlet's account of his own murder.  And by
implication, there is nothing to contradict Old Hamlet's account that he
is doing time in purgatory.  Again, we see Shakespeare going as far as
he dared to go in his Catholic sympathies without getting his play banned.

Peter Bridgman

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