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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: October ::
The Meaning of Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1910  Tuesday, 19 October 2004

[1]     From:   John Reed <
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        Date:   Sunday, 17 Oct 2004 23:01:15 -0700
        Subj:   Re. The Meaning of Hamlet

[2]     From:   D Bloom <
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        Date:   Monday, 18 Oct 2004 09:01:58 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

[3]     From:   Bill Arnold <
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        Date:   Monday, 18 Oct 2004 07:14:06 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

[4]     From:   Bill Arnold <
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        Date:   Monday, 18 Oct 2004 07:26:01 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

[5]     From:   Frank Whigham <
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        Date:   Monday, 18 Oct 2004 09:32:23 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

[6]     From:   Kenneth Chan <
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        Date:   Monday, 18 Oct 2004 23:56:38 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

[7]     From:   Stephen C. Rose <
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        Date:   Monday, 18 Oct 2004 10:06:01 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

[8]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Monday, 18 Oct 2004 17:08:19 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

[9]     From:   Kenneth Chan <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 19 Oct 2004 08:42:34 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Reed <
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Date:           Sunday, 17 Oct 2004 23:01:15 -0700
Subject:        Re. The Meaning of Hamlet

Back on 9-29 we started to discuss a couple of points, which I'd like to
get back to, if I may.  One of them had to do with how we know what
Shakespeare intended, mainly posed alluding to the way Kenneth seems to
have a fondness for using the term as a kind of rhetorical device to
bolster his interpretations.  Although I pretty much agree with many of
those interpretations, I doubt whether he has any special knowledge on
this subject beyond that anyone else here has, and I wonder what the
real reason is (if there is a real reason) for sprinkling the arguments
with this phrase.  I don't think it adds anything to the
interpretations: maybe it is a characteristic of the scholarly milieu he
is coming from?  What is that milieu?  It seems to be a Buddhist one,
but that is just a guess.  If it is, why not just say so, and put the
book up on the shelf: Hamlet, from a Buddhist Perspective, next to The
Masks of Hamlet, which, as I see it (not meaning to offend anybody by
trying to apply a label) is a long, detailed, interesting, scholarly,
and at the same time something that tries very hard to be unbiased but
which seems, in the end to be a distinctively Jewish interpretation.
Does anyone want to discuss Jewish drama?  I never get the chance to do
so, even though it's one of my preferred subjects (Casablanca is my
favorite), since it's seemingly too volatile.

Then, regarding Hamlet discussing the morality of killing Claudius, we
here I think run into the problem of context.  Eleanor Prosser dealt
with this problem in her book, Hamlet and Revenge (Kenneth, you might
like this book, if you are not already familiar with it).  She was
arguing how one might know the real identity of the Ghost and if I
remember right at one point suggested the evidence seemed to be vague
perhaps because the audience would have been able to fill-in the gaps
with their own knowledge of the subject, and didn't need to be spoon-fed
more information.  I think the same thing might be happening with
Hamlet's soliloquies regarding the kill Claudius question.  He doesn't
ever say anything so blunt as, 'All right, listen up audience, I've got
a problem here, and we all know it has to do with the question of
whether killing Claudius is the right thing to do, morally, so I'm going
to discuss this now, so pay attention."  That would be ludicrous.  He
gives all sorts of reasons for and against, none of them, apparently,
too explicit on the moral aspect.  On the other hand, perhaps the
audience is going to fill that in.  I think they would not only fill-in
on the moral issues, but do so in a distinctively Christian way.
Perhaps being more specific on the author's part would be thought, how
do the screenwriting gurus put it nowadays, too "on the nose" ?  The
audience is going to fill-in something, sometime (they can't help it),
and once two audiences diverge too much on fundamental issues of what is
most significant in reality (and in drama), then a play written for one
audience might seem vague, mysterious, or even improper, to another
audience, and I think that is the situation we actually do have now - we
have characteristically Christian plays (even though a lot of people
wouldn't like to admit it) being interpreted from a non-Christian
perspective - nowadays that is usually a Humanist one, at least in the West.

So, Kenneth, you're not approaching this from a Humanist point of view,
it seems.  What is your point of view?  Is it your own idiosyncratic
one, or does it have something in common with somebody else's?

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           D Bloom <
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Date:           Monday, 18 Oct 2004 09:01:58 -0500
Subject: 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        RE: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

Larry Weiss writes

 >"Denmark was in parlous times, at risk of foreign attack and
 >beset by divided loyalties at home.  It is not surprising, therefore,
 >that the electors preferred Claudius, a man of action, to lead them.  I
 >am drawing no parallels."

Well, I'm not so sure about either. The foreign attack question depends
on whether you regard Norway as a separate entity from Denmark. I
believe the historical situation of Wales and England may be useful
there (and, in another sense, Scotland and England). Moreover, even if
not foreign, the danger from Fortinbras seems to have been slight, since
it was ended with a reminder to Old Norway to keep the boy on a short
leash. The guard at Elsinore would appear to be simply a normal
precaution against a sudden raid.

The text does not seem to me to suggest that Claudius was a "man of
action," but rather a Renaissance politician -- cunning, murderous,
cautious but able to wield power when he can seize it. Old Hamlet was
the man of action.

Of course, the whole matter of Hamlet being 30, and yet still hanging
about Wittenberg, makes little sense. It explains why Claudius was able
to gain the election so easily, but it's about a full decade out of
whack for normal or expected behavior of a prince.

Cheers,
don

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bill Arnold <
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Date:           Monday, 18 Oct 2004 07:14:06 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

Martin Steward writes, "Finally - were I a knight of the realm, you
should refer to me as 'Sir Martin', not 'Sir Steward'. Not that I'm a
stickler for ceremony, mind."

Indeed, in deed, right you are, Sir Martin!  But, and I say this
somewhat tongue-in-cheek, over here, in the states, outside the kingdom,
I was taken somewhat to task by the feminists for calling Emily
Dickinson, "Miss Emily."  Of course, she had a love for all things
*Brit* whatwith her love of Earls and Kings, and ermine and things.
And, Lord knows, or should I say, Lords know!: I did not wish to enflame
the feminists on the list by being Brit and Proper, Sir Martin.  Lord
knows, Hardy has had enough problems of late without a couple us wits
throwing a couple roosters into the hen house.  And write on, as right
on you usually are about things Shakespearean, Sir Martin.

Bill Arnold
http://www.cwru.edu/affil/edis/scholars/arnold.htm

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bill Arnold <
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Date:           Monday, 18 Oct 2004 07:26:01 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

Colin Cox writes, "Burleigh was well reputed for his pithy aphorisms as
reflected in Polonius' advice to his offspring. Also the fishmonger
comment can be attributed to Burleigh...Sir Francis, as spymaster,
worked very closely with Burleigh but had been dead for many years at
the time of Hamlet. Burleigh was also dead at this time but his passing
would still be in very recent memory."

Again, I ask: does the *fact* that Polonius is modeled upon a real
person in court history, and his role to the usurper king Claudius, make
Shakespeare's intention as a dramatist more evident?  Obviously, the
audience must have had awareness of the roles of minions to the throne
in English history.  Therefore, wouldn't they have seen the same roles
being cast in Polonius and Claudius?  They had been given by Shakespeare
*rhyming* names in the from the same bolt of *-ius* colored cloth, no less!

Bill Arnold
http://www.cwru.edu/affil/edis/scholars/arnold.htm

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Frank Whigham <
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Date:           Monday, 18 Oct 2004 09:32:23 -0500
Subject: 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

 >Burleigh was well reputed for his pithy aphorisms as reflected in
 >Polonius' advice to his offspring. Also the fishmonger comment can be
 >attributed to Burleigh.

Is there documentary evidence for this attribution?

Frank Whigham

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kenneth Chan <
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Date:           Monday, 18 Oct 2004 23:56:38 +0800
Subject: 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

Rolland Banker writes:

 >"Of course, with Shakespeare, so much is packed into the play and plays
 >that everyone can bring his own topographical bag of ideas and walk away
 >with all kinds of goodies: spiritual or otherwise."

Rolland, I agree with what you say above. Certainly, there may be
multiple messages in Hamlet.

Nonetheless, there is a crucial difference between that understanding
and what I am trying to convey. And this is the difference: I am not
talking about an interpretation that fits only certain lines in the play
while leaving the rest of the play either irrelevant or even
contradictory to its meaning. Many interpretations can fit this loose
criteria.

What is important is that there is a meaning in Hamlet that is
consistent with every Act, every Scene, and practically every line that
Shakespeare wrote in the play. In other words, if we understand the play
correctly, all the lines either move along the action of the play or
contribute to its central message. If such a meaning can be found in the
play, it can only mean that Shakespeare planned it that way.

We would then not be true to ourselves if we lump this meaning with all
the others, and dismiss it as merely another of the many interpretations
that can be derived through the use of only certain selected lines in
the play. This way of disregarding the central meaning in Hamlet would
be tantamount to denying what Shakespeare means to convey. And that
would be really ironic because a key message in Hamlet is exactly that
we should be true to ourselves and face up to reality.

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

[7]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Stephen C. Rose <
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Date:           Monday, 18 Oct 2004 10:06:01 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

I note a good deal of moralism creeping into the discussion of the
meaning of Hamlet. I am an incurable moralist. But a good antidote to
such is a reading of Nietzsche's Twilight of the Idols. While I believe
overall that WS did at least open the door to a moralism of cowardice
(pace Falstaff), I also believe that he continually achieves a realism
beyond the capacity of the rest of us. Seeing it all and both sighing
and smiling at the same time. Perhaps, following Mark Taylor's helpful
NYTimes Op Ed on Deridda, Hamlet is a supreme act of deconstruction. Best, S

[8]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Monday, 18 Oct 2004 17:08:19 -0400
Subject: 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

 >In
 >PTSD for instance self medication is one of the prime symptoms.

Not according to DSM-IV.

[9]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kenneth Chan <
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Date:           Tuesday, 19 Oct 2004 08:42:34 +0800
Subject: 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1903 The Meaning of Hamlet

Ken Campbell writes:

 >"Shakespeare does highlight Claudius' drinking right before Hamlets first
 >soliloquy"

I agree that Shakespeare definitely highlights Claudius's alcohol
indulgence. There is no dispute that Claudius has this problem. What
Shakespeare does not do, however, is highlight a drinking problem in
Hamlet himself. It is never directly mentioned. If Shakespeare means to
convey this meaning, why is it not mentioned directly even once?

Ken Campbell writes:

 >"Why in the next scene does Laertes say to Ophelia about Hamlet
 >
 >The canker galls the infants of the spring
 >Too oft before their buttons be disclos'd,
 >And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
 >Contagious blastments are most imminent.
 >
 >Polonius is even stronger.
 >
 >I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth
 >Have you so slander any moment leisure
 >As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
 >Look to't, I charge you. Come your ways.
 >
 >What do they see in Hamlet that makes them warn Ophelia off him, now?"

Actually, both Laertes and Polonius clearly state the reason for their
warning to Ophelia - they are concerned about Ophelia losing her honor
(i.e. her maidenhood). Both Laertes and Polonius are, in fact, very
explicit about this. Significantly, neither of them mention an alcohol
problem in Hamlet. Again, if Shakespeare means to convey this meaning,
why is alcohol not mentioned here at all?

Ken Campbell writes:

 >"This next passage
 >
 > So oft it chances in particular men
 >That, for some vicious mole of nature in them,
 >As in their birth,- wherein they are not guilty,
 >Since nature cannot choose his origin,-
 >By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
 >Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
 >Or by some habit that too much o'erleavens
 >The form of plausive manners, that these men
 >Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
 >Being nature's livery, or fortune's star,
 >Their virtues else- be they as pure as grace,
 >As infinite as man may undergo-
 >
 >Shall in the general censure take corruption
 >From that particular fault. The dram of eale
 >Doth all the noble substance of a dout
 >
 >To his own scandal.
 >
 >Mr. Chan writes "Most significantly, alcoholism cannot explain why
 >Hamlet delayed his revenge. Why did he not, at an earlier time, simply
 >swig enough of the stuff to quell his inhibitions and finish off
 >Claudius?"  It is clearly stated here that the "dram" a measure still
 >used when ordering a drink in England of "eale" or ale. [1605 quarto]
 >Which creates (self)doubt in the mind about his own innate goodness."

While the passage above does appear immediately after Hamlet's complaint
against excessive drinking, Shakespeare takes great pains to point out
that the "vicious mole of nature" and the "dram of eale" do not only
refer to a drinking problem. The eight lines from "As in their birth"
till "Being nature's livery, or fortune's star" specifically emphasize
this. Why are these lines included at all if Shakespeare is trying to
point out Hamlet's drinking problem here? And why does he make Hamlet
criticize his nation's drinking habit? Hamlet doesn't sound at all like
an alcoholic.

Ken Campbell writes:

 >"... I am not in any way suggesting that he really
 >goes mad from alcohol but it might act as an impediment to his taking
 >action "as swift as meditation or the thoughts of love, may sweep to his
 >revenge."

I am afraid you have not explained how alcohol impedes Hamlet from
taking action, and particularly, from taking revenge? Significantly,
Hamlet does show that he can take action in the planning and execution
of his improvised play. Also, after the "mousetrap" falls, he does act
to take revenge. He is foiled only because he wanted to send the King to
hell (instead of heaven) and because he identified the wrong man behind
the arras.

The point is that Hamlet did act. And if Hamlet is alcoholic, he acted
while still an alcoholic. He can't suddenly have been cured of it. So
the question returns: Why did he delay his revenge? The reason, then,
must surely be something else, and not alcoholism.

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

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