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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: May ::
The Murder of Gonzago
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1147  Friday, 28 May 2004

[1]     From:   Pamela Richards <
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        Date:   Thursday, 27 May 2004 05:18:01 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago

[2]     From:   David Cohen <
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        Date:   Thursday, 27 May 2004 07:39:06 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago

[3]     From:   David Cohen <
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        Date:   Thursday, 27 May 2004 08:07:41 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago

[4]     From:   Edmund Taft <
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        Date:   Thursday, 27 May 2004 11:42:22 -0400
        Subj:   The Murder of Gonzago

[5]     From:   Pamela Richards <
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        Date:   Thursday, 27 May 2004 05:18:01 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago

[6]     From:   David Cohen <
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        Date:   Thursday, 27 May 2004 15:56:59 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago

[7]     From:   John Ramsay <
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        Date:   Friday, 28 May 2004 01:14:50 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago

[8]     From:   David Bishop <
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        Date:   Friday, 28 May 2004 02:11:46 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago

[9]     From:   Patrick Dolan <
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        Date:   Friday, 28 May 2004 07:14:29 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHAKSPER Digest - 26 May 2004 to 27 May 2004 (#2004-102)


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Pamela Richards <
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Date:           Thursday, 27 May 2004 05:18:01 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago

Jack asked what the significance was of Hamlet asking whether the King
appeared red, or pale.  Hamlet seems to have revealed his knowledge of
the lore of evil spirits.  From the very beginning, he attempts to
determine whether the Ghost is the shade of his father, or an evil
spirit--which might be truthful, or lie at will, leaving those who
encountered it with little way to prove the veracity of its statements.

Agrippa's Fourth book of Magic, one of the works cited by King James in
his book, _Daemonologie_, tells us that Ghosts were held to be pale; on
the other hand, the appearance of an evil spirit could come in many
forms, one of which was that of "a king crowned."

The King with a crown was thought to be one of the familiar spirits of
the Sunday, said to have a "sanguine"--bloody, or red--complexion.  Note
that Hamlet also asks about how the Spirit is dressed, perhaps in an
attempt to distinguish it from this evil spirit familiar to the Sun.

A quotation from Agrippa's book follows:

"Shapes familiar to the Spirits of the Sun.

The Spirits of the Sun do for the most part appear in a large, full and
great body sanguine and gross, in a gold colour, with the tincture of
blood. Their motion is as the Lightning of Heaven; their signe is to
move the person to sweat that calls them. But their particular forms are,

A King having a Scepter riding on a Lion.
A King crowned.
A Queen with a Scepter.
A Bird.
A Lion.
A Cock.
A yellow or golden Garment.
A Scepter.
Caudatus."

In his fourth book, Agrippa tells us of four types of
apparitions--elementals (apparently odd looking creatures who were
associated with air, earth, fire and water); Good spirits, for example
angels, who could not masquerade as evil spirits due to their very
nature, and always told the truth; Evil spirits, who could masquerade as
a great variety of things, and who were not bound to tell the truth; and
unhappy ghosts of the departed dead.  Hamlet's ghost could fit into only
the last two of these categories.  Hamlet struggled to determine which
one the Ghost fell into, until the close of the second act, when he
decided the matter was a red herring and decided to go for more
objective evidence of Claudius' guilt.

Although in our day and age, fundamentalist Protestants may
automatically suspect that ghosts are evil spirits, there would be no
problem getting such references to evil spirits or ghosts past the
censors.  Evil spirits were widely held to be factual beings, and
royalty would have no problems with a character who encountered a ghost
being cautious about its nature in order to avoid making pacts with an
evil spirit.

Regards,
Pamela Richards

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Cohen <
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Date:           Thursday, 27 May 2004 07:39:06 -0500
Subject: 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago

 >How does David Cohen know that Hamlet is the ' brightest, most intuitive
 >young man in Western Europe'?
 >
 >T. Hawkes

That was just a bit of rhetorical hyperbole.  Of course I don't know.
But if you think there is a brighter or more intuitive young man in
literature, please who?

David Cohen

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Cohen <
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Date:           Thursday, 27 May 2004 08:07:41 -0500
Subject: 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago

Frank Whigham <
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 > wrote,

 >>Hamlet's personality is more hysterical than heroic; throughout most of
 >>the play, he is, as we say, all talk (and fantasy) and no action,
 >>whether suicidal or homicidal, the homicide of Polonius, which indicates
 >>neither skill nor honor, notwithstanding.
 >
 >How does this "notwithstanding" work? Do you just mean that it's
 >unskilled and dishonorable action?

Not exactly.  I said not honorable rather than dishonorable. Mistreating
Ophelia is dishonorable.  Pulling aside the arras and confronting
Claudius man-to-man would have been honorable. Discovering Polonius
would have been a different matter.

 >Or that it somehow isn't really action?

No

 >Put another way: what is the understanding here of meaning of
 >the act of Hamlet's stabbing someone (Claudius? Polonius?) through the
 >arras?

If, by meaning, you mean psychological meaning, then how about febrile
imagination, emotional agitation, and reckless impulsivity, a mix of
symptoms, that with others, suggests character disorder.  If you mean
some sort of subterranean (e.g., psychoanalytic) meaning involving
swords pushed through arrases, then I would defer to the wisdom of
others.  Otherwise I don't understand what you mean by "the
understanding . . . of the act."

David Cohen

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Edmund Taft <
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Date:           Thursday, 27 May 2004 11:42:22 -0400
Subject:        The Murder of Gonzago

One of the most problematic aspects of Hamlet's last soliloquy is its
restrictive notion of honor. As Hamlet tells us,

  Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor's at the stake. (4.4.54-57)

This seems like a retrograde notion that honors the honor of hotheads.
But it's not. I think Hamlet is saying that this is the proper
definition of honor _in war_, and if that is so, he's dead right.
Hamlet has every reason by the end of 4.4 to see his situation as
analogous to a soldier in time of war: Claudius, with the help of R&G,
are out to do him in, and he stands alone, much like Martin Luther did,
with an entire establishment against him and plotting his end. Like a
captured soldier, he now goes off to England much like a prisoner of
war. And, like such a soldier, he is obligated to escape if he can,
depending on his own native wit and luck (Providence?).

One way to understand Hamlet's actions from 4.4 on is to see them as
actions that would be justified in war. He dispatches R&G as a soldier
would do in his captors -- without a second thought. He boards the
Pirate ship as a soldier would dare danger and death (to return more
quickly to Denmark? To test fate? To do both, perhaps?). He provokes
Laertes as a soldier would try to force a confrontation with the enemy;
he taunts Claudius and uses himself as bait, just as a soldier would
taunt the enemy and then invite a confrontation; he accepts a duel
against a better fighter because in war, that doesn't matter: you just
fight, period. That's how it's done. He refuses to inspect the foils
because, like a good soldier, he is heedless of danger in the midst of
battle.

Ed Taft

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Pamela Richards <
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Date:           Thursday, 27 May 2004 05:18:01 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago

In response to David Cohen's comments on augury:

I agree with you, as I think we all must, that there are limitations to
free will, e.g. time, limited material resources, and obstacles outside
of our control, the willingness of others to cooperate with our plans,
etc.

However, men can make choices, and do.  Sometimes those choices set in
motion disastrous consequences, and often they set in motion
consequences which may have been predicted using augury.  But according
to the Renaissance Humanists, those choices stand as a hallmark of man's
dignity, and are the touchstone of his relationship to God.  So the
fated consequences of a man's choices, however unsettling, can be seen
as but a relatively inconsequential byproduct of the exercise of his
humanity, which we think of as free will.

I don't think fate versus free will must be a matter of "only one or the
other"; in fact, in my own experiences of augury, I find that acts of
free will, ironically, can usually be predicted.  While some events are
clearly fated, augury can demonstrate that in other events, person
involved is permitted a choice--the outcome of which can usually be
accurately predicted.  So one phase of the cycle leads to the next.

I see reason in Hamlet to believe that Hamlet himself was a Humanist of
the Renaissance variety (as opposed, due to the restrictions that his
time in history placed on him, to a secular humanist).  I do agree that
Hamlet was ostensibly a Protestant.  Yet if he is indeed a Humanist, it
is much harder to characterize him as following a strict fundamentalist
Christian belief system about fate, free will, the supernatural, and the
afterlife.  So for example, although characterized as a Protestant, he
seems not to quibble about the Ghost's description of a purgatory-like
afterlife; he does not jump to the conclusion that the Ghost is a
demonic apparition; he says to Horatio, "There are more things in heaven
and on earth that are dreamt of in your philosophy."  Early in the play,
he is very unsettled about the consequences of facing death; later, in
the "fall of a sparrow" speech, a serenity has descended.  A choice has
been made.

I have found in my readings that there is a category of those who "defy
augury" in an attempt to settle a disagreement about God's will.  These
were soldiers on opposing sides, who entered a battlefield to determine
which of their Kings ruled by divine right.  Although Hamlet found
himself more in the position of an assassin, strictly speaking, I
believe he also considered himself a soldier, and as such, it would have
been his duty to defy augury in the event of an encounter which would
demonstrate God's will.

Regards,
Pamela Richards

"There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow" suggests we lack
free will, while "we defy augury" suggests that we have it-yet only
augury in the sense of occasional fallible predictions made by ordinary
people, for instance, betting on the outcome of a duel between Hamlet
and Laertes.  It is quite different for the mysterious kind of augury
made by professional fortune tellers (Cymbeline), seers (Julius Caesar;
Troilus and Cressida), or supernatural characters (Macbeth) whose
auguries, however mysteriously expressed, are accurate to the last
detail.  We-at least the characters-do NOT defy that kind of augury.
And how does that kind of augury comport with the idea that we have free
will?  It doesn't.  I find no convincing evidence in the text of the 37
plays that Shakespeare truly believed that augury or Providence =
Christian God, nor how any of this fosters free will rather than
determinism.  Moreover, I find that the majority of text about free will
versus determinism seems to favor determinism by external factors (e.g.,
stars, gods, providence, fortune, and those mysterious factors of time
and chance) and internal factors of biology (best examples involving
"adoption studies" concerning Perdita and the sons of Cymbeline).  In short:

Through experimenting in many plays with both sides of the question,
Shakespeare seems to favor this idea: Despite what we imagine, much of
what we do is mere marionette-like with strings controlled by various
internal and external factors of chance and necessity beyond our
conscious selves that limit our free will.  Those factors that we must
ignore or deny to have the sense of free will include our inevitable
life cycle from birth to death, the irremediable fact of aging, the
impermanence of things held dear, such as friendships, the evidence that
life is full of chance events, that our biology is imperious, that gods
are arbitrary, and finally, that our lives are absurd if indeed we live
in an indifferent universe."

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Cohen <
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Date:           Thursday, 27 May 2004 15:56:59 -0500
Subject: 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago

Edmund Taft <
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 > wrote,


 >In effect, David Cohen's negative view of Hamlet the man has a long
 >critical history, in part based on an Aristotelian view that Hamlet must
 >have a flaw (or flaws), and in part on the American preference for "men
 >of action," a point of view that stresses how neurotic, sissified, and
 >over-intellectual Hamlet can seem at times to be. He's not Gary Cooper
 >or John Wayne. Or Henry V, either - at least, not until after 4.4.

I have no "American preference" for men of action (e.g., Washington)
over men of thought (Einstein) or vice versa, though if I were forced to
choose, it would be men of thought.  Both are essential to the human
drama, and no doubt some prefer  geniuses who combine thought and action
big-time (e.g., Darwin, Socrates, Churchill).  I was merely responding
to the idea that the central theme of Hamlet is about honorable action
(rather than dishonorable actions), the character disorder that
underlies them, and the chaos caused by revenge-and doesn't the later
theme predate Aristotle (Aeschylus)?  Incidentally, I don't see much of
anything of John Wayne or Gary Cooper in Hamlet before or after 4.4.
For one thing, neither required a model to learn how to behave, and for
another, neither typically died at the end of a drama.

 >I respect this view but think it's wrong. To my mind, _Hamlet_ is
 >basically the world's first (and best) detective story. Shakespeare
 >gives Hamlet a task that seems impossible: he must somehow discover (1)
 >whether or not Claudius is guilty of regicide and (2) if that's true,
 >whether or not vengeance is sanctioned by the Will of Heaven.  Even Sam
 >Spade or Sherlock Holmes would blanch at such a task.

Well I wonder, if you needed a great detective, would you hire Hamlet or
Holmes or Spade?  How about Poirot or Wainthrop?

 >But Hamlet never
 >gives up; he also never acts prematurely (even in the case of Polonius,
 >but I digress).  He can't act after the Mousetrap because its result is
 >(for him) inconclusive . . .

Then how to explain Hamlet's near-hysterical delight immediately after
the King flees the scene: "I'll take the ghost's words for a thousand
pound.  Didst perceive?" And so on.  Hamlet seems convinced.

 >thus, he can't kill Claudius while praying
 >because his rationalizations mask the fact that Hamlet has not yet
 >conclusively proven Claudius' guilt. . . .

In my view, the last quote and "Now I might do it pat, now that he is
praying" strongly suggests that he  IS convinced of the guilt despite is
inaction.  Killing Claudius there and then would not have been
honorable-drag him out of the confessional, engage him in a duel, and
then kill him would be honorable; not done, Hamlet is merely
procrastinating with rationalization.  Bad for him.  Good for us,
because we get more Hamlet.

 >His soliloquy at the end of 4.4 is the key; he has come to a
 >complete dead end; all of his efforts have failed so far.
 >
 >That's when Hamlet begins thinking about the mission of a
 >soldier . . . In effect, Fortinbras and his soldiers become Hamlet's
 >model . . . In time of war, soldiers must, of necessity, shelve
 >whatever doubts they have about the mission or the commander.
 >Their duty is to follow orders and to go repeatedly in harm's
 >way to try to achieve
 >their objective . . . In so doing, they necessarily tempt fate.

I am not sure what you mean by "tempt fate." More basically, I am not
sure what you mean by fate?  Is fate temptable (and often contemptible),
like Greek gods, who can seduce or reduce you for messing with them-or
like the God of the Old Testament?  Or is it something more gentle
though still capable of being influenced, i.e., Christian God of
Catholicism that responds to good works?  In this sense, Hamlet would
seem to have at least some free will the action of which can alter the
chance of salvation or damnation (that was, I believe, St.  Augustine's
view ).   All this seems different from a Protestant
(Wyclifian/Lollardian) view that there is no free will and one's actions
reveal rather than decide one's fate.   Is Hamlet then merely trying to
figure out what has been preordained for him by a "loving" God of
predestination (leading him by the nose, as you put it ) or confronting
the remorseless fate of a materialist universe, in either case, with
free will an illusion.

 >In effect, Hamlet's actions from 4.4 on show that he has adopted this
 >model of action . . .  So, like a warrior, Hamlet will go in harm's
way, risk
 >his life, and tempt fate. If fate/fortune (Providence?) kills him before
 >the mission is accomplished, then he will know that vengeance was not
 >foreordained . . .

If fate kills him, he will know nothing so how does he benefit?  Do you
mean he will earn some sort of post-mortem spiritual revelation?

 >. . . if, however, fate spares him and leads him by the nose to
 >the point where he can and should kill Claudius, why then
 >fortune/Providence was guiding him all along, and he will carry out the
 >orders given him.

This description of Hamlet as a marionette player led by the nose by
fate suggests that Hamlet has no free will and if so-if action is a
set-up arranged by fate-where is the dignity, the honor?

 >In effect, he can act
 >like a good soldier and, at the same time, test Providence to see if it
 >will save/protect/guide him. If it does, then he knows that vengeance is
 >sanctioned, and he will, given the occasion, know his course . . . it
can be seen as honorable.

So the collateral death of Gertrude is part of honorable action?

I suppose the major difference between our interpretations is that,
while we both recognize the metaphysical as well as psychological
aspects of this richest of plays,  I naturally (as a psychologist) focus
more on the psychological while you seem to focus more on the
metaphysical.  By asking you all those questions above, especially about
the connection among fate, free will, and honorable action, I am merely
trying to get a better appreciation of your view.

David Cohen

[7]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Ramsay <
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 >
Date:           Friday, 28 May 2004 01:14:50 -0400
Subject: 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago

Edmund Taft <
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 > wrote,

 >David Cohen disagrees that Hamlet is honorable and wonders how in the
 >world I could write such a thing. Actually, I was quoting David Bishop,
 >but I also went on to say that I had no fundamental disagreement with
 >him, so it's a moot point.

Not moot at all. Consider the opinion of a 'real expert' on Hamlet's
honorable character.

Claudius: ...he, being remiss,
          Most generous and free from all contriving,
          Will not peruse the foils (IV-7 l 134)

And Claudius is correct. Hamlet does not peruse the foils.

[8]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Bishop <
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 >
Date:           Friday, 28 May 2004 02:11:46 -0400
Subject: 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1129 The Murder of Gonzago

If Hamlet, as Pamela Richards says, wants to provoke a confrontation
with Claudius--which as a general proposition is difficult to disagree
with--exactly what sort of confrontation could he have in mind? After
Polonius's death, Claudius has Hamlet brought guarded to his presence.
Is this a confrontation, or an opportunity for one? What should Hamlet
do that he does not do? Should he proclaim Claudius a murderer and kill
him, saying to the people that he knows Claudius was guilty because a
ghost told him so? What would be likely to happen then, the thought of
which might give Hamlet pause?

Just wondering.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[9]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Patrick Dolan <
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 >
Date:           Friday, 28 May 2004 07:14:29 -0500
Subject:        Re: SHAKSPER Digest - 26 May 2004 to 27 May 2004 (#2004-102)

Edmund Taft wrote:

 >_Hamlet_ is
 >basically the world's first (and best) detective story.



Surely Oedipus Tyrannos counts as a "detective story" in the sense
contemplated here. The trouble with saying "the first" is that there's
usually a counterexample lurking in the weeds. I'll bet there's a story
before Oedipus's that would count.

But the analogy raises some interesting lines of thought. If you
consider Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest, you'll see a story in which the
detective is the instrument of revenge and cleansing because the world
he operates in is so corrupt that only an individual and outsider can
act--everyone else is too corrupted or weak. We've spent a lot of time
worrying about whether Claudius "deserves" to be the object of revenge.
Have we spent enough worrying about whether Hamlet "deserves" to be its
sole agent? Surely this goes beyond whether or not he knows the truth
about his father's murder. Whatever the religious sect, after all, early
modern English political theory was uneasy with the notion that a
subject could decide to kill the sovereign and do it.  So Hamlet could
be sure as the day is long, and there will still be tension in any
decision to kill or depose.

Cheers,
Pat

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