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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: November ::
The Meaning of Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1978  Thursday, 18 November 2004

[Editor's Note: I would appreciate it if contributors to this thread
would make an effort to bring it to a conclusion soon.]

[1]     From:   Kenneth Chan <
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 >
        Date:   Thursday, 18 Nov 2004 10:22:57 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1966 The Meaning of Hamlet

[2]     From:   Kenneth Chan <
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 >
        Date:   Thursday, 18 Nov 2004 13:23:08 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1966 The Meaning of Hamlet


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kenneth Chan <
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 >
Date:           Thursday, 18 Nov 2004 10:22:57 +0800
Subject: 15.1966 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1966 The Meaning of Hamlet

Reg Grouse writes:

 >"Shakespeare presents Hamlet as a very contrasting character to Laertes.
 > He shows us an intelligent, sensitive young man who thinks carefully
 >before he acts unless he is reacting to a danger.  I am suggesting that
 >it is Hamlet's introversion that Shakespeare is displaying.  This would
 >account for his delay in killing the King."

Thank you, Reg Grouse, for your thoughtful post. Certainly, I agree that
Hamlet's intelligent, inward-looking, and sensitive personality
contributes to his delay.

There is, however, one other distinctive trait in Hamlet we must not
overlook - Shakespeare actually emphasizes this trait repeatedly
throughout the play. Hamlet stands out, among all the characters in the
play, as the only one who fully accepts and faces up to the reality of
death without flinching.

That the issue of death is a central theme in the play cannot be
overemphasized. No other Shakespearean play comes even remotely close to
Hamlet in the number of references to death and its reality. And through
Hamlet's blunt and taunting remarks about death, Shakespeare is
practically subjecting us to a kind of shock treatment designed to shake
us out of our denial of the inevitable.

What this also tells us about Hamlet is that he is one who faces up to
the profound truth of his own personal mortality. This trait, more than
anything else, distinguishes Hamlet from the rest. There is no denying
that Shakespeare deliberately makes this point, because he continually
emphasizes it.

This trait alone makes Hamlet a spiritual person - he faces up to the
truth and to the profound. And it is this characteristic that we need to
take into account when we seek the reason for Hamlet's delay. Hamlet
delays not just because he is introverted, but also because he faces up
to the truth of our existence. This, coupled with his sensitive
inward-looking nature, would certainly stir within him what I have
called his inner conscience.

There is also plenty of other evidence in the play that conscience is
the key factor in Hamlet's delay. In particular, Shakespeare provides
us, repeatedly, with suggestions that there is something deeply wrong
with the pursuit of vengeance. He reminds us many times that the ghost
is not an enlightened being and that its counsel is suspect. He
impresses upon us the diabolical nature of the ghost's mandate through
the eerie swearing ritual at the end of Act I. He also creates the
experience of the horror of vengeance through the terrifying depiction
of the avenger in the Trojan War speech.

Most significantly, Shakespeare portrays for us, as a central theme in
the play, the progressive transformation of Hamlet into the brutal and
dreaded avenger. First, he illustrates the effect of the mandate of
vengeance on Hamlet's mind-the transformation of his world into a
sinister and dark prison. And then, he proceeds, step by step, to show
Hamlet becoming progressively more callous and brutal until he is
capable of dispatching his former friends - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern
- to their death without a hint of remorse. Hamlet does not even care
whether or not they were party to Claudius's plot (or merely pawns in
his game), and significantly, he does not even allow them any shriving
time before their demise.

(A more cohesive discussion on the reason for Hamlet's delay may be
found on my website at
<http://homepage.mac.com/sapphirestudios/qod/excerpt.html>)

In trying to understand Hamlet, it is important that we consider
Shakespeare's play in its entirety. Every part of Hamlet can be clearly
demonstrated to play a role in defining Shakespeare's central theme. If
we base our interpretation only on certain selected portions of the
play, and ignore the rest, we may well end up with a distorted perspective.

Reg Grouse writes:

 >"I mention this philosophy because it leaves the discussion in the domain
 >of empiricism where it belongs rather than removing it to the intangible
 >heights of spiritualism."

Matters of conscience and spirituality are actually not things that
exist in some removed and "intangible height." The spiritual path is
very real and empirical in the sense that we can verify its nature and
principles simply by facing up to the profound and transforming
ourselves in accordance to the truth. All of us have the means to do
this - here, and right now.

What I am trying to say is that we should not divorce spirituality from
our everyday existence. This, I believe, is also Shakespeare's point -
there is a reason why he pervades the entire play with the issue of
death and its reality. If we face up to the truth of our personal
mortality, we will realize that we cannot separate spiritual matters
from our everyday life.

Regards,
Kenneth Chan
http://homepage.mac.com/sapphirestudios/qod/index.html

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kenneth Chan <
 This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it
 >
Date:           Thursday, 18 Nov 2004 13:23:08 +0800
Subject: 15.1966 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1966 The Meaning of Hamlet

Stephen C. Rose writes:

 > "I think
 >where this becomes a mite tendentious when it's insisted that we (if we
 >read aright) are privy to the pov of the author of the play. I think we
 >are all entitled to our own pov of the pov of the author and mine is
 >that Shakespeare happily transcends anything anyone might put out as an
 >explication if his intent or meaning. I take it that is why he is often
 >seen as having been without a peer in representing life as it is --
 >something that defies systemization and continually defeats all systems
 >that would enclose meaning."

I certainly agree, Stephen, that we are entitled to our own views and
interpretations. However, I am trying to point out in this thread that
we must, to a large extent, still be constrained - as well as guided -
by what Shakespeare actually writes in his plays.

I have outlined the reasons for my interpretation of Hamlet in an
earlier (rather long) post in this thread. My reasons are all based on
the extensive evidence from Shakespeare's actual script (in its
entirety). This post may be viewed at
<http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2004/1716.html>so I won't repeat
myself here.

If there is any "insistence" on my part (regarding a point of view), it
is, nonetheless, all based on a reasoned, consistent, extensive, and
detailed reference to Shakespeare's script. In a scholarly environment,
shouldn't this merit serious consideration? If my conclusions are
disputed, I would  be grateful for an alternative interpretation backed
also by a reasoned reference to the Shakespearean script itself.
Otherwise, there would truly be no scholarly dialogue, and we could end
up merely declaring differing personal viewpoints interminably.

Let us understand Shakespeare by following closely what he actually
writes in his plays. There are definite patterns in the construction of
his plays and distinct motifs that resonate continually through each of
them. Indeed, let us heed these signs that Shakespeare meticulously
provides.

Generalizations do not really help us advance our critical appreciation.
Let us substantiate our viewpoints and analyses with evidence from
Shakespeare's own hand. We need to abide by a valid frame of reference.
In trying to apprehend Shakespeare and the transcendent qualities of his
works, let us be guided, not so much by personal preference, but by
evidence found in what he actually writes.

Regards,
Kenneth Chan
http://homepage.mac.com/sapphirestudios/qod/index.html

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