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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: April ::
The Murder of Gonzago
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0956  Tuesday, 27 April 2004

[1]     From:   Edmund Taft <
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        Date:   Monday, 26 Apr 2004 10:50:31 -0400
        Subj:   The Murder of Gonzago

[2]     From:   Tony Burton <
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        Date:   Monday, 26 Apr 2004 12:51:16 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0953 The Murder of Gonzago


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edmund Taft <
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Date:           Monday, 26 Apr 2004 10:50:31 -0400
Subject:        The Murder of Gonzago

Sean Lawrence asks:

"Why can't the ghost be as complex in his motivations as other
characters?  Why does he have to be, as Hamlet puts it, "a spirit of
health or goblin damn'd"?  For that matter, why can't the audience be
complex and ambivalent in their responses to him?"

These are good questions, and the answer to all three is that the
audience can - and I suppose does - think and respond in some or all of
the ways Sean enumerates. But in the end, you have to come to grips with
the fact that the bloody emotion of vengeance and the act of revenge are
usually - almost certainly - mortal sins UNLESS you know that God's Will
is being done in the process. So while Sean is right to point to the
heterogeneity of the audience and their freedom to look at these issues
from multiple points of view, most in the audience would, I think,
believe that determining God's Will is central if Hamlet is to act as
the Ghost wants AND save his own soul.

That's why I think ascertaining God's Will is the central intellectual
problem in the play - both for the audience and for Hamlet. And that's
what I think the play from 4.4 on is primarily about. I'd add that the
many references in the play to Martin Luther, direct and indirect,
reinforce this focus. He decided, famously, that the Catholic Church was
no longer the conduit for God's teaching. It was misleading the faithful
and putting their salvation in jeopardy. But to conclude that, he had to
ascertain the real teaching and the real Will of God. Hamlet and Luther,
in their separate ways, face the same problem.

Cheers,
Ed

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Tony Burton <
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Date:           Monday, 26 Apr 2004 12:51:16 -0400
Subject: 15.0953 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0953 The Murder of Gonzago

The nature of the ghost in "Hamlet" keeps coming up, especially in its
theological implications, and I suggest that the whole project is
largely a waste of time and a venting of personal prejudices.  Ghosts in
literature are only what the author offers us, not what out preachers,
pneumatologists, and scientists tell us.

So, when we meet the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future in
Dickens's A Christmas Carol, we never take them a agents of the devil
out to damn the soul of poor Ebenezer Scrooge, who seems to be doing
that job fairly well on his own.

When we meet the tormented Canterville Ghost on Oscar Wilde's story, we
accept the premise that, as "ghost," he is no more than a tormented soul
waiting to be saved (maybe like the Frog Prince) by some maiden's love.

Casper the friendly Ghost doesn't (yet) stimulate hot debate and
theological analysis at MLA meetings, but simply passes quite
entertainingly for the pre-PhD. crowd as the amusing creation of its
authors and animators.

When Patrick Swayze returns as a ghost in "Ghost" to protect Demi Moore
from the villainous colleague who murdered him, he is an entirely benign
and loving being, and we all know that Demi Moore must believe in him to
save her life.   Do we all ask, "Could this really be true?" or "How can
you expect me to believe that a ghost is anything but evil?" or stomp
out of the theater saying, "I refuse to  take a ghost story seriously?"
  No, we take it and all other such literary and dramatic
inventions-including spooks in haunted houses that howl and say
"Boo"-according to the tenor of the work they are in.

In the case of "Hamlet," the ghost is presumably "real," i.e., it can be
seen by others than Hamlet himself, but the exact meaning if its
instructions and the safety and rightness of following them, both remain
doubtful.  That uncertainty is what we are to chew on, and to resolve it
by introducing extra-textual preconceptions about ghosts in general,
that it MUST be good, or diabolic according to this or that religious
doctrine, simply begs the questions Shakespeare poses.  It is a gross
misuse of historical insight to put the play on the Procrustean bed of
information from extra-textual sources without showing the work under
examination the respect of determining FROM IT that such information is
indeed significant, and not merely relevant in a theoretical sort of
way, as a sort of imagined back-story.  It is also a wrong-headed attack
on imagination itself that distorts the special nature of dramatic and
literary experience and turns the tasty food for thought which
Shakespeare (and every other author) offers, into unnutritious mental
dust and hardtack.

Fie!

Tony

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