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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: April ::
The Murder of Gonzago
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0928  Thursday, 22 April 2004

From:           Edmund Taft <
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Date:           Wednesday, 21 Apr 2004 12:33:42 -0400
Subject:        The Murder of Gonzago

Thomas Larque certainly has learned the art of Renaissance copiousness,
but most of his post is directed against other ghosts than the one in
*Hamlet* -- chimeras, really, of his own imagination that make him sound
like an old fuddy-duddy or a curmudgeon before his time. I won't take on
all of Thom's charges against "modern criticism" or even his
unquestioned assumption that somehow I represent it; instead, I want to
make just a few central points.

First, Thom writes,

"It would be fairly typical of modern literary criticism for somebody to
argue that Shakespeare intended us to know that Sebastian was a ghost,
and for them to put together a firm and complex - and possibly even
convincing - argument on this score from tiny segments of the text held
up against a welter of background information about the beliefs of the
time.  To anybody who just watches the play, however, it is fairly
obvious that Sebastian is alive, and such splitting of hairs as would
prove that he was not is impossible in the limited analytical time that
we have to watch the play (unless the performance is slanted in
directions not indicated by the script)."

Whoever would make such an argument is an idiot, and I know of no one
(including me) who has done so. This is not a fair description of recent
criticism or of any criticism. It's a very bad attempt at reduction ad
absurdum that reveals the prejudices of the author, not the shortcomings
of any known (or unknown) method.  Thom's contempt for recent criticism
(the last, what, 350 years or so?) is not balanced. He stresses that new
scholars are under great pressure to publish; that's true. But he
doesn't acknowledge that standards in publishing now are much higher
than they used to be. His contempt, therefore, is uninformed, and his
scorn returns to him, unnoted.

Thom thinks that some variant on "common sense" is pretty much all we
need to understand Shakespeare, but he does not point out that common
sense itself changes over time. It was obvious around 1790 that the most
important question about Falstaff was whether or not he is a coward. Who
thinks that now? In 1950, it was clearly common sense to observe that
Shakespeare's great fear of disorder was the key to the history plays.
Who thinks that now? Until the 1950's, nearly everybody agreed that
*Hamlet* was a play about an ineffectual intellectual who can't make up
his mind about things easily ascertainable. Maybe Thom still thinks
that, but there's been a paradigm shift since then that renders such a
view simplistic and almost certainly wrong. The shift, interestingly,
involves the Ghost and what to make of it.

So let's turn to that Ghost and Thom's "common sense" interpretation of
its second appearance:

"[T]he final abiding memory of the Ghost after Hamlet's declaration of
belief, for anybody watching a production based entirely on the script,
is of its very human seeming concern for Hamlet's mother - its former
wife." Not exactly. Here are the lines from the play that lead up to the
Ghost's entrance:

Queen             O Hamlet, speak no more!
                   Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul,
                   And there I see such black and grained spots
                   As will not leave their tinct.
Hamlet                              Nay, but to live
                   In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
                   Stewed in corruption, honeying and making love
                   Over the nasty sty!
Queen             O, speak to me no more!
                   These words like daggers enter my ears.
                   No more, sweet Hamlet!
Hamlet                              A murderer and a villain,
                   A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
                   Of your precedent lord, a vice of kings,
                   A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
                   That from a shelf the precious diadem stole
                   And put it in his pocket!
Queen             No more!
                   Enter Ghost [in his nightgown]
                                                 (3.4.90-105)

Why does the Ghost enter at this point? Thom seems to assume that it
appears because Hamlet is about to get violent with Gertrude. That's
quite possible, but it is not the only interpretation. The other,
equally plausible view, is that the Ghost enters at this point precisely
because Gertrude is about to confess and admit the extent of her guilt.
That's Hamlet's real purpose, after all. One interpretation makes the
Ghost genuinely concerned about Gertrude and thus, a "good" Ghost. But
the other interpretation means that the Ghost stops her confession and
thus, her possible absolution and repentance. From this perspective, the
Ghost is NOT good but at best an agent of the devil, and perhaps the
devil himself. Thom accuses me (and all of modern criticism) of
over-reading.

I think he is guilty of purposefully under-reading. He sacrifices too
much for a simplistic, specious clarity.

It's true that the Ghost goes away after 3.4, but the question it raises
does NOT. The central issue is one of God's Will. Is it God's Will that
Hamlet effect revenge on Claudius? All of Act 5, in my view, is designed
to explore this question, the religious ramifications of which are
profound and unsettling, to say the least.

But such a discussion is for another time. For the next few days, I have
to run a Shakespeare conference where, doubtless, Thom thinks useless,
overcomplicated papers will be presented by those whose only real
concern is tenure. That's a cartoon version of modern critics and modern
criticism, but it's the one that is apparently comforting to Thomas
Larque. Actually, I'm looking forward to the West Virginia Shakespeare
Conference. It's full of bright, young scholars who present interesting
and insightful views. Thom should join us. He might learn something.

Ed Taft

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