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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: April ::
The Murder of Gonzago
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0937  Friday, 23 April 2004

[1]     From:   Thomas Larque <
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        Date:   Thursday, 22 Apr 2004 15:30:02 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0928 The Murder of Gonzago

[2]     From:   D Bloom <
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        Date:   Thursday, 22 Apr 2004 15:00:28 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 15.0928 The Murder of Gonzago

From:           Thomas Larque <
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Date:           Thursday, 22 Apr 2004 15:30:02 +0100
Subject: 15.0928 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0928 The Murder of Gonzago

 >Thomas Larque certainly has learned the art of Renaissance copiousness

Ed Taft's most recent post is about 965 words, mine was about 1200.
Considering that I covered rather more ground, that doesn't seem to
suggest any particular wordiness on my part.  It may suggest that I have
more spare time to devote to lists, which is probably true.  Anyway, I
am sure Ed will be horrified to realise that this reply will be longer.

 >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

On the contrary, as Ed Taft must have seen if he has read even a small
selection of my posts on SHAKSPER, I applaud and encourage criticism and
performance of Shakespeare that covers every possible permutation of the
imagination.  I am a particular fan of imaginative criticism and
adaptation that offers us vastly different (and often determinedly
modernistic) ways of looking at the plays.  I don't think there is a
"wrong" way to read Shakespeare's plays, and the only fault is bad
writing or bad performance (the things which leave an audience unsatisfied).

I am, however, an opponent of people who try to prop up rather obviously
modern theories based on modern ideas as the unquestionable historical
truth, and the only accurate way to read Shakespeare as he intended to
be read.  The fault here is one towards truthfulness.  This does not
mean that we should freeze our ideas of Shakespeare in a fogeyish
18th/19th century past - especially since 18th/19th century critics and
performers were routinely guilty of the same kind of modern-thinking
projected backwards that afflicts Ed Taft's arguments about the nature
of Hamlet and his Ghost - but it does mean that we should be very wary
of making arguments simply to be "discoverers" of previously unknown
truths about Shakespeare's original intentions.  Shakespeare's plays
have been on the market for a long time, there are only a limited number
of undiscovered truths left to be turned out of them.  Unfortunately
there are rather a lot more academics with a reputation to make, who
cannot make that reputation by being mere modern adapters and
interpreters and who must therefore (usually delude themselves into
thinking that they have) discover[ed] "truths" that were previously
unknown about the plays and their correct interpretation.  Most of these
people are obviously wrong about the importance of their "discoveries".

 >First, Thom writes,

*Sighs*.  Why is it that every time somebody starts trying to get
academically vindictive on SHAKSPER (usually because I've injured their
precious theory) they start gratuitously abbreviating my name - often in
bizarre ways - in an apparent attempt to patronise and talk down to me.

I'm Thomas.  Ed Taft apparently answers to Ed in real life, so perhaps I
should start calling him "Und" instead.
 >>>> "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 ..."

 >> 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.

Well, I agree about the idiocy (but only if they claim that their theory
is evidence of the true intentions of Shakespeare.  As an adaptation or
critical interpretation it would be fine), but I can only presume that
you haven't actually read much recent criticism.  If you don't like
hypothetical examples based on the techniques of real critics, then how
about some real examples?  An evil Hamlet and an evil Ghost is certainly
not the most extreme example of modern literary critical readings that
claim to be restoring the "true" reading of the play (the one that
Shakespeare originally held), but are actually far more modernistic than
Renaissance oriented.

Let's focus on one single example, then.  Ophelia in Shakespeare's
"Hamlet" is, in the play-text itself, fairly obviously a stereotypical
Renaissance maiden character.  She is accused of a tendency towards
sexual misdemeanours by Hamlet, but there is no evidence of any such
thing in the text of the play, and he is apparently berating her as a
representative of her sex rather than as her individual self.  When she
goes mad she sings lewd mad-songs, as does the Jailer's daughter in "Two
Noble Kinsmen", but we are given no reason to think that this is because
she has been sexually experienced (and we know that her parallel, the
Jailer's daughter, is not).  The predominant reading of Ophelia for
about a quarter of a millennium was that she was innocent, virginal, and
"unspoilt" (to use a period euphemism).  Some 19th century critics began
to suspect that she might have slept with Hamlet.  This is not directly
supported by any individual line within the play, but to Victorian
literary critics - who were very concerned with giving characters
detailed back-stories - it was a plausible interpretation of Ophelia's
possible relationship with Hamlet offstage, which they wished that they
knew more about.  I would argue that this was already starting to step
away from the sort of reading that would be possible in the theatre - on
the basis of the script itself, without additional interpretative
business designed to add things that were not obvious within the text -
but it is not too outrageous.  It still doesn't seem likely to be what
Shakespeare had in mind (the role that Ophelia plays within the play is
that routinely filled by a virtuous maiden in Renaissance drama, and if
Shakespeare intended Ophelia not to be, then he would have had to tell
his audience so more obviously).

Ed Taft is presumably sneering and waving his hands in contempt at such
an example, but of course we haven't got to 20th and 21st century
critics, who took the Victorian habit of inventing backstory and
projecting it into the text and magnified it thousands of times.
Ignoring adaptations and deliberately speculative theories about how
Ophelia *could* be portrayed in our own period (if we wanted to do it),
modern literary critics have suggested with straight faces that the
likely true meaning of Shakespeare's play (as intended by Shakespeare
himself) was that Ophelia:

1)  ... had been having sex with Hamlet and was pregnant.
2) ... had been having sex with Claudius, against her will, and was
3) ... had been having sex with Laertes.
4) ... had been having sex with Polonius (and one particular groups of
nutters claims that this is evidence that William Cecil was the model
for Polonius, and that in real life he impregnated his own daughter,
Anne Cecil, with the resulting bastard child fobbed off as the offspring
of her husband the Earl of Oxford).
5) ... was vastly promiscuous, and had been having sex with just about
every male character in the entire play.

Some variations on this theme add that Ophelia did not commit suicide,
nor drown accidentally, but was murdered by Claudius, Gertrude, Osric,
or some similar party, or a combination of them, or that she killed
herself as a way of performing a joint suicide/abortion.

Now I am sure that of the many essays that I am referring to, some have
slipped past me that are intended as tongue-in-cheek and amusing, but
the vast majority are not.  To give a detailed citation for just one of
the apparently serious articles on these subjects, see Arthur John
Harris's article "Ophelia's 'Nothing': 'It is the false steward that
stole his master's daughter' " in Hamlet Studies 19.1-2: pp.20-46.

Does any of this sound less ridiculous than the idea that Sebastian is a
ghost in "Twelfth Night"?  It doesn't to me.  In case Ed Taft is nodding
sagely and accepting all of these as likely Shakespearean plot-devices
(originating with the master himself), then we might add that this is
just one corner of a huge field of such criticism.  Other examples
include the claim that just about every pair of female characters with a
friendly relationship in Shakespeare's plays is actively having lesbian
sex.  Although it might have been very pleasing to we moderns if they
were, I somehow doubt that Shakespeare would have expected such an
interpretation to be put on every single one of his plays.  He may well
not have expected it to be projected upon any of them (in my mind the
only instance in which a potentially convincing argument can be made for
such a reading is Emilia in "Two Noble Kinsmen", and even there the
argument is very dubious).

 >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.

Are you seriously suggesting that because of high publishing standards,
21st century critics are unable to present a dubious argument based on
modernistic speculation rather than firm evidence and likely historical
viewpoints?  That doesn't seem, to me, to have any relation with the
real world of scholarly publishing - in Literary topics at least - in
the 21st century.  Certainly the best journals demand a certain level of
academic depth and accuracy (no obviously false statements, no obvious
lies or inventions, preferably a very detailed set of references), but
as long as this is fulfilled then pieces very often seem to become more
attractive the more speculative and controversial they are, hence the
appearance of the various essays and chapters that I have just referred to.

Although Ed Taft may disagree with me about which particular articles
and chapters in modern criticism break the limits of credulity, I cannot
believe that he doesn't think any of them do this.  If he does, then it
might be worth starting a compendium of all the bizarre and
contradictory things that Ed Taft must be willing to believe.  To quote
Ed himself, we can therefore conclude that Ed's "contempt" for the idea
that modern theory encourages speculation and modernistic readings which
pose as "discoveries" of Shakespeare's true intentions "is uninformed,
and his scorn returns to him, unnoted".  If he wishes to hold up his
argument against the existence of such readings in modern criticism,
then he needs to start by explaining how Ophelia got turned from a
virginal innocent into a rampant harlot or serial-sex-abuse victim.
That would just be a start - I can produce a mountain of similar
criticism if he insists upon me doing so.

 >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.

Well, of course, it does.  If trying to interpret Renaissance plays,
however, we should do so according to the "common sense" displayed by
other Renaissance plays and writings rather than that we hold to
ourselves.  All that it would take to demolish a major pillar of Taft's
argument would be to show a genuine ghost in a Renaissance drama that
was not a devil in disguise.  You can find those in "Spanish Tragedy"
and "Locrine", just for a start.  They are a commonplace in many other
Renaissance plays as well.

While I would not advocate a literary criticism that based itself
entirely upon Restoration readings of Shakespearean plays, it is also
important to note that while some subtleties of Shakespeare's original
readings may have been lost during the closure of the theatres, there
was no sudden amnesia that could wipe out all knowledge of the original
attitudes and expectations of the plays.  People were alive whose
fathers had watched the original plays, and if somebody accidentally
performed the villainous Hamlet as a noble youth, and the evil devil as
the spirit of his father, and this was such a major breach of the
"correct" intentions of the play, as given in performance by Burbage et
al at Shakespeare's direction, then it is almost impossible that nobody
would have said anything.

Of course the Restoration morality and thinking was very different to
those held in Shakespeare's days, but in many important respects the
Restoration mindset was closer to Shakespeare's day (in attitudes
towards things like virginity, and ghosts) than we are today.  Many
branches of modern criticism would throw out every aspect of these
traditions as "fuddy-duddy", as Taft wants to.  The truth, however,
certainly contains some aspect of fuddy-duddyness, since Shakespeare's
generation were our distant ancestors, and we have rebelled against many
of their beliefs.  We need to try to discover where Restoration and even
Victorian fuddy-duddiness confused their readings of Renaissance drama,
and where it reproduced accurately assumptions that we now reject or
have lost.  Taft's theory completely fails to do this.

 >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:

Well, you seem to have missed the word "final" here, and have jumped
back towards the beginning of the scene.  That's fine in your study,
because you can flip those pages backwards and forwards as much as you
like.  In the theatre, and especially if you are only seeing this play
once - as most people do - you have no such opportunity, and your final
impression of the ghost are its final words before it retires from the
stage.  These are:

"But look, amazement on thy mother sits.
O step between her and her fighting soul.
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works.
Speak to her, Hamlet."

I have seen many attempts by the advocates of the evil Ghost theory to
explain why telling Hamlet to look after Gertrude is an action of pure
malice, but not one of them - to my mind - could possibly be placed in
the mind of a collective theatre audience in performance.  They usually
involve dark musings about exactly what the ghost gains by provoking
Hamlet psychologically into attacking his mother (while pretending to be
making him help her) or suggest that the Ghost is lying through its
teeth (and how exactly is the audience supposed to know this?).

Ed himself continues:

 >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.
 >... the Ghost stops her confession and thus, her possible absolution and

Hang on a second here.  What's this about confession?  Correct me if I'm
wrong, Ed, but wasn't formal confession a Catholic belief?  The
Protestants didn't do formal confessions, and you've been saying that
the Ghost must be evil because the censor would not have allowed
Catholic beliefs in the theatre.

As for her private repentance (and Protestantism recognised repentance
as an ultimately private thing between the sinner and his God), she says
things like "Thou turn'st my eyes into my very soul, / And there I see
such black and grained spots / As will not leave their tinct" and "O,
Hamlet thou hast cleft my heart in twain", and after he has been
lecturing her moralistically for ages, she asks him directly "What shall
I do?" and he replies (paraphrased) "Don't sleep with the King or tell
him my secrets".  She does not pray openly for forgiveness to God, as
Claudius does later in the play, but then there is no possible dramatic
reason for her to do so.  It is almost impossible to play this scene
convincingly with a Queen who has not had her conscience turned and her
eyes opened to her filthy self.  All it takes for my interpretation to
be established in an audience's mind is for the Queen to nod once as
Hamlet tells her not to sleep with her "incestuous" husband.  For Ed's
theory to stick we need everybody to have exactly the same views of
ghosts and devils, and possibly some evil mimings of satisfaction from
the Ghost itself.  My interpretation is easily possible in theatres - in
fact it is played out almost every time the play is performed - Ed's
makes no sense, in our times, or in the context of Renaissance audiences
(who held many different religious and philosophical viewpoints about
ghosts) or Renaissance drama (which contains many ghosts that clearly do
not fit the pattern Taft claims is operating here).

 >Thom accuses me (and all of modern criticism) of

Too right.  All modern criticism of this kind (that projects modern
desires and assumptions backwards and labels them as authentically
Shakespearean) do exactly this.  The modern assumption in this case is
the one that tells us that all of Shakespeare's apparent villains are
really heroes, and all of his apparent heroes really villains.
Something which seems far more closely related to modern attitudes
towards morality and its ambiguity than to Renaissance readings of the
same things.  There is some ambiguity in Shakespeare's heroes and
villains - enough to make them more realistically human -  but not so
much that - say - Cordelia can be seen as wholly spoilt, malignant, and
destructive, and her sisters as poor unhappy victims who deserve nothing
but out pity (as some of the more extreme modern readings suggest).
Again, such modern readings are fine if you admit to their modernity.
If you claim that all those who held the opposite reading are wrong, and
that Shakespeare meant them to hold yours, then such arguments are corrupt.

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

Theatre demands simplicity and clarity, or your audience will be
confused and annoyed (and absurdist literary works that deliberately
created this confusion did not appear in the mainstream until centuries
after Shakespeare's day).  Literary criticism often demands the exact
opposite, complexity and vast subtlety, because it is based on readings
- and not just readings, but readings and rereadings, and rereadings of
rereadings.  The two therefore often have very different goals.  Any
literary critic of drama who forgets - or cannot imagine - what it would
be like to see the play for the first time on stage without ever having
read it, or read about it, is likely to produce readings (like Ed's)
that no theatre company could ever stage without effectively rewriting
the script through stage business.

 >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.

Really?  That seems rather to be forcing your own reading, once again,
onto a mass audience.  The main thing for me when I watch "Hamlet", and
certainly when I first watched "Hamlet", was nothing of the kind.  I
took the Ghost for granted - I had seen enough ghosts in literature to
be completely used to the conventions - and I took the revenge motifs
for granted, having seen films and read books based on revenge
traditions endlessly before I got into the theatre.  What I was
interested in was what Hamlet was going to do to his mother, to
Claudius, and what would happen to him.  A Renaissance audience would
have gone in with very different intellectual baggage, but they would
have known all about ghosts - which appear in Renaissance drama
repeatedly, and in the common stories and folktales of the times - and
about revenge drama.  They would have already known what conventions the
play was likely to follow, and would only have become interested if the
play confronted or stepped away from those conventions.  I see no signs
that it does.  This being the case, what they would have been interested
in, is the same that any theatre audience is interested in - the
unravelling of the plot, the play of the emotions, the experience of
sitting and watching.  Very few of them will have been thinking deep
thoughts about theology and philosophy of a kind not openly stated in
the play itself - at least not until afterwards.  In the theatre, you
simply don't have time.

 >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.

On the contrary, I would almost certainly love Ed's conference.  I
vastly enjoyed many of the essays that I listed above as examples of
bizarre modernist (mis-)readings of Shakespeare.  And as I've said
before, as long as the papers that Ed accepted do not claim to be
telling the unvarnished "truth" of how Shakespeare
"probably"/"possibly"/"certainly" wrote his plays - while actually
telling the stories of modern times as prepared to suit modern beliefs -
then as long as their readings are entertaining and convincing in the
theatrical sense (that is, they do not leave the audience feeling that
they have been short-changed by being given poorly justified, badly
thought-through thinking that lacks in film-style continuity and
contradicts itself) then they will add to the collection of valuable
tellings and retellings of Shakespeare's stories, which keeps these
stories alive and fresh in the modern world, and have done for the
modern worlds of the past four hundred years.

As a theatre reviewer I would love to see a well-thought out production
of the play that followed the reading that Ed suggests.  Of course such
a reading would have to be effectively an adaptation through performance
of Shakespeare's play, full of new business and miming to explain the
backstory that Ed wants to thrust into the play, but it could be a
wonderful evening at the theatre for modern audiences.

As long as Ed stops pretending to be a purveyor of new historical
truths, then we will very easily see eye to eye.

Thomas Larque.

From:           D Bloom <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
Date:           Thursday, 22 Apr 2004 15:00:28 -0500
Subject: 15.0928 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        RE: SHK 15.0928 The Murder of Gonzago

Edmund Taft complains about Thomas Larque's fictional example of bad
criticism (whereby Sebastian in 12N is concluded to be a ghost because
he was earlier thought to be dead):

"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."

I am not sure why Ed took the example so seriously and personally. His
comment that it is a reductio ad absurdum is inarguable, since I'm
confident that's precisely why it was included. I disagree, however,
with the assumption that no one ever argues so idiotically as that
satirized by TL. I have no examples ready to hand, but if I wanted to
spend the tedious hours finding them I am certain I could.

I don't think that having a jaundiced view of contemporary criticism
means holding a worshipful view of the criticism of some other era. As
with literature itself, the junk is soon forgotten and only the really
worthwhile items read beyond their time. While there is no greater merit
to age as such than to contemporaneity as such, the older works do have
the advantage of having passed through a process of winnowing.
Nevertheless, they are prisoners of the era in which they arose no less
than those written today.

I confess that I find a lot of contemporary criticism made turgid with
jargon, and annoying with hidden or ill-considered political
philosophies. For what it's worth, I don't find those faults
characteristic of Ed's work. His prose is readable and his ideas neither
forced nor political (merely wrong). But the other kind of contemporary
criticism, of which there is a fair quantity, does have those qualities
and I steadfastly refuse to admire it.

My favorite is the article, apparently quite influential, purporting to
show that Dryden's Killigrew Ode was actually a scathing satire on the
young woman and her ridiculous pretensions to literary art. But the
author never seemed to take into account that his theory made Dryden
into the sort of contemptible (even nauseating) boor who would seize the
occasion of the death of a dear friend's beloved daughter and humiliate
her for the delectation of other callous boors. Not the Dryden I'm
familiar with.


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