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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: September ::
The Meaning of Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1633  Thursday, 2 September 2004

[1]     From:   Bill Arnold <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 1 Sep 2004 06:09:25 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet

[2]     From:   D Bloom <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 1 Sep 2004 08:19:32 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet

[3]     From:   Philip Eagle <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 1 Sep 2004 09:30:18 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet

[4]     From:   L. Swilley <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 1 Sep 2004 08:44:32 -0500
        Subj:   Gertrude and the Ghost

[5]     From:   H S Toshack <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 01 Sep 2004 15:24:01 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1605 The Meaning of Hamlet

[6]     From:   Kenneth Chan <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 01 Sep 2004 23:39:56 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet

[7]     From:   David Cohen <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 1 Sep 2004 13:05:32 -0500
        Subj:   Fwd: SHK 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet

[8]     From:   Kenneth Chan <
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        Date:   Thursday, 02 Sep 2004 09:37:53 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bill Arnold <
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Date:           Wednesday, 1 Sep 2004 06:09:25 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet

Cheryl Newton writes, "I think Gertrude's inability to see the ghost is
one of the strongest points in argument of Hamlet's madness."

OK: this is faulty logic.  If others saw the spirit of Prince Hamlet's
father and drew him to see the spirit, then the spirit was real to
others: in the context of the play.

John W. Kennedy writes, "It would seem that Hamlet is not sane in the
closet scene. Objection #1:  Ghosts do not exist in reality.  Objection
#2:  The fact that Hamlet sees the ghost while Gertrude does not shows
that Hamlet is hallucinating."

OK: this is a play created in the Shakespearean Age, and just as *E.T.*
exists in a movie, and characters in the movie can relate and audience
members can believe, so could have Shakespearean audience members.
Thus, the supposed objection does not matter.  Recall, in the context of
the play *Hamlet* the spirit of Prince Hamlet's father is seen by others
and therefore that cannot be used as judgment of the sanity of Prince
Hamlet.

OK: I want to make a *LARGER* point here that I have yet to note that
scholars have noted, about Shakespeare's plays *Hamlet* and *Romeo and
Juliet* and something I believe they have in common.  In *R.&J.* the two
families war against each other, and the characters on each side suffer
as a consequence.  In *Hamlet* I note that the two *factions* war
against each other, and the characters on each side suffer as a
consequence.  From Will S.'s point of view, the side of Prince Hamlet
and his associates who are cognizant of the spirit of his father are on
the side of good and what is right for Denmark, and the other side,
which includes the usurper and murderous King Claudius, his queen, who
swapped sides, Polonius and Laertes, and possibly Ophelia who is caught
in the middle but seems to side with the side she originated on, to her
own peril, well...that other evil side seems not to see the spirit of
Prince Hamlet's father.  In conclusion: it seems that the good people in
the play *Hamlet* see the good spirit and the bad people in the play do
not see the good spirit.  Draw your own conclusions if you accept that
is Will S.'s Act I *dichotomy,* which is, in fact, clearly stated and
explicated as the motivation for *all* of Prince Hamlet's subsequent
actions.

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

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           D Bloom <
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Date:           Wednesday, 1 Sep 2004 08:19:32 -0500
Subject: 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        RE: SHK 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet

I always think it is worth considering, when discussing how to interpret
a given scene (such as the appearance of the Ghost in the Gertrude's
closet with her not seeing it) to imagine how the scene would work if it
happened differently. In this particular case, what would have happened
if Gertrude *had* seen the ghost?

I guess that Shakespeare sensed that if he handled it with intensity, it
would blow the entire play apart, at least for a while. Gertrude would
have to respond to the ghost of the man she had so badly wronged,
perhaps with adultery, but at least with a shameful disrespect. A
confrontation of this sort could not be skimped without damage to the
integrity of the play.

While this could certainly be a bravura piece for the actress, however,
it would inevitably take the center of attention away from Hamlet, his
spiritual condition and our involvement in what he will do next. I
suspect the author thought the wiser course would be to leave it out and
keep to the main thread.

Leaving the ghost unseen by anyone except the prince thus had two
positive values: making the confused and ambiguous prince still more so;
and avoiding the negative one attendant on having to write in an intense
scene that was distracting to the exact degree that it was intense. He
would hardly need more than that.

Cheers,
don

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Philip Eagle <
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Date:           Wednesday, 1 Sep 2004 09:30:18 -0400
Subject: 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet

The recent Trevor Nunn Hamlet at the Old Vic actually had the ghost not
present in the closet scene, and Hamlet reacting to unheard lines,
clearly intending to imply that the ghost is real but that, Hamlet, at
this stage in the play, is well out of his right mind.

Philip

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           L. Swilley <
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Date:           Wednesday, 1 Sep 2004 08:44:32 -0500
Subject:        Gertrude and the Ghost

Claude Caspar writes,

 >It is clear that, should Gertrude and the Ghost meet, they must
 >inevitably have a long conversation.

Of the several remarks made on this thread about Gertrude and the Ghost
and her inability to see him,  I believe no one has noted that the Ghost
has earlier instructed Hamlet,

"Taint not thy mind, *nor let thy soul contrive/ against thy mother aught.
Leave her to Heaven.*" [my "italics"].

The questions here might be: why would it be wrong  (or ineffective?)
for the Ghost to show himself to his "seeming-virtuous" widow?  Or,
indeed, to Claudius himself? Are only those who are enjoined to correct
the illness in the state to be given such a visitation?

If the last, the emphasis seems to be on the princely responsibility of
Hamlet, a kind of harsh, rigorous training for his kingship to follow.
(Such a solution to the problem here seems more and more attractive,
since it is otherwise to be understood that Hamlet, as Prince of the
Realm, cannot act precipitously and out of private interest, cannot act
properly against Claudius unless he exposes to  the court and to the
public Claudius' crimes.  The public rather than private nature of this
solution is further emphasized by the terms of the end of the play:
Claudius is convicted immediately,  not of murdering the old King, but
of poisoning the Prince, the Heir Apparent.  )

Or should we conclude that Hamlet is sometimes mad and delusional,
sometimes sane (this ghostly appearance in the bedroom to be evidence of
the former condition)? One point is quite clear, though: if, and where
and when and for how long, Hamlet is mad, he is not responsible for his
actions and is therefore innocent of any acts or thoughts while in that
condition; the moral ball has, as it were, shifted to another's court,
at least for those scenes wherein we decide  that Hamlet is mad. Hamlet
is, for that time, no longer the central figure of the play, but
something like an innocent, passing storm.

         L. Swilley

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           H S Toshack <
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Date:           Wednesday, 01 Sep 2004 15:24:01 +0100
Subject: 15.1605 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1605 The Meaning of Hamlet

Discussion on the topic is more profitable when it moves on from
consideration of the psychological reasons for Gertrude's failure
towards an analysis of the theatrical reasons, along the lines of the
extract below (from 'Hamlet: A Study Commentary', published online at
http://www.litworks.com).

'There has been endless discussion as to why she does not see the Ghost.
Much of the argument revolves around Elizabethan beliefs about ghosts.
Think of some reasons within the play why she may not see it.

1. It isn't there - Hamlet is suffering an hallucination (but other
people saw it in Act One, didn't they?)

2. Maybe there was a ghost (seen by others) in Act One, but this ghost
is an illusion which Hamlet has grafted onto that first appearance.

3. There's no reason for her to see it.

4. It shows itself to Hamlet but hides itself from Gertrude. Why would
it do that?

a) If it's the devil in disguise, it may not want her to fully repent
(through fear of what she sees) and thus escape damnation.

b) If it's her husband in ghostly form he may want to spare her the
anguish: remember that the Ghost wanted Hamlet to treat her leniently,
and note how it is protective towards her here. In any case it wouldn't
want her to warn Claudius that there's a ghost afoot.

5. Hamlet has already partially blamed the weakness of his mother's
senses for her choice of Claudius over his father; the fact that she can
neither see nor hear the Ghost may support his contention that she is
lacking in perception (or perhaps in willingness to perceive: 'There's
none so blind as those who will not see.')

6. There's also the outside possibility that she almost sees, even
begins to see, the Ghost. There's scarcely any evidence in the text for
that suggestion (and lots against it): the episode would just have to be
'played that way'.

See how complicated the issue gets even when you're trying to keep it
simple? You'll do better to concentrate on the dramatic reasons for the
Ghost's non-appearance to Gertrude. Why does Shakespeare, rather than
Hamlet's brain or the Ghost itself, organise things like this?

1. The episode convinces Gertrude that Hamlet is truly mad.

2. That in turn allows him to protest his sanity and demonstrate it in
the sermon he gives her about redemption from sin, a sermon in which he
speaks with more conventional reason and greater authority than anywhere
else in the play other than during his lecture to the Players. For a
brief period once more we see both a sane Hamlet and a Hamlet freed from
the pretence of insanity.

3. Shakespeare is able to set up, as he does with the appearance of
Banquo's ghost in Macbeth, a powerful on-stage triangle among
apparition, those who see it and those who do not.

4. Gertrude becomes a startled observer who can describe in detail for
us the effect the Ghost has on her son.

5. If Gertrude had seen the Ghost...think about the consequences for the
story.'

H S Toshack

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kenneth Chan <
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Date:           Wednesday, 01 Sep 2004 23:39:56 +0800
Subject: 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet

Tom Krause writes:

 >"I can't quite agree that he "meticulously crafts them to convey specific
 >messages" and that different parts of the play "are meant to form a
 >cohesive whole." In some cases, he seems to have crafted them - not
 >particularly meticulously - to convey multiple messages on multiple
 >levels with an attendant loss of cohesiveness."

The answer to whether or not "Shakespeare meticulously crafts his plays
to convey specific messages" rests on whether it can be demonstrated.
For Hamlet, I believe I have already done so - the evidence is in my
book "Quintessence of Dust."

I have deliberately written the book as a running commentary on
practically the entire play in order to demonstrate that it all fits.
There are, in fact, hardly any extraneous lines in the play. They all
either contribute towards moving the action along or towards imparting
its central message.

A crucial key towards understanding Shakespeare's intended message
resides in the sections of the play that do not contribute to moving its
action along. If they do not contribute to its action, in all
likelihood, they contribute to its meaning.

There are many sections in Hamlet that certainly do not contribute to
its main action. These include the following:

  1) the swearing ritual at the end of Act I;
  2) Polonius's dialogue with Reynaldo;
  3) the dramatic recitation on Pyrrhus;
  4) Hamlet's advice (on acting) to the players;
  5) the graveyard scene and the dialogue with the gravedigger;
  6) the dialogue with Osric.

The key to the meaning of Hamlet lies in explaining why Shakespeare
included all these rather prolonged episodes in the play. If all of them
can be shown to contribute cohesively to the meaning of the play,
shouldn't we then conclude that Shakespeare did indeed meticulously
craft his play to convey a specific message?

Another key to discovering Shakespeare's intended meaning lies in his
tendency to repeat his message, scene after scene, until it pervades the
entire play. If it can be shown that Shakespeare has repeated the same
point ten times in the play, wouldn't we have to conclude that he did
intend to say it? This effect can be demonstrated in Hamlet.
Shakespeare's message actually reverberates through his entire play like
an endless echo.

Tom Krause writes:

 >"To phrase the point as a broader question: do you reject all possible
 >interpretations of Hamlet -- or parts of Hamlet -- other than the
 >spiritual one you propose?"

The question one has to ask really is "how well does the key fit?" If an
interpretation fits one part of the play but is contradictory to another
part, I don't think the key fits very well. That is why I stress that we
should try to interpret each part of the play in the context of what the
rest of the play is saying.

We have done Shakespeare a grave injustice with comments like that of
Samuel Johnson who wrote, in the 18th century, that Shakespeare
"sacrifices virtue to convenience and is so much more careful to please
than to instruct that he seems to write without any moral purpose."

Johnson is sorely mistaken, for it can be shown that Shakespeare has, in
fact, meticulously crafted his plays to convey deep messages for
humanity. These frequently take the form of reverberating themes that
pervade entire plays, and, often, these themes build in intensity to
reach a thundering climax.

This is certainly the case in Hamlet. The message does build to a
thundering climax in the final duel scene. It is important that we
understand what it all means.

In the end, it is not our varying opinions that count. It is whether or
not they can be demonstrated decisively to be correct or not.

Kenneth Chan
http://www.hamlet.vze.com

[7]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Cohen <
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Date:           Wednesday, 1 Sep 2004 13:05:32 -0500
Subject: 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Fwd: SHK 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet

Cheryl Newton <
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 >I think Gertrude's inability to see the ghost is one of the strongest
 >points in argument of Hamlet's madness.  Everyone present sees the ghost
 >on the battlements.  Presumably, everyone could also hear him since he
 >leads Hamlet away for their conversation.
 >
 >But Gertrude hears & sees nothing - calling Hamlet's vision the coinage
 >of his brain.

My take on all this is as follows:

1. Hamlet is not mad-assuming "mad" means psychotic-at any point in the
play, but rather is play acting.

2.  The Ghost is real, given that Horatio et al. and the audience sees it.

3.  The ghost, as the Shadow of 1940s radio fame, has the power to cloud
men's (and women's) minds, which it does in the case of Gertrude because
its communication is only for Hamlet (to rekindle his seeming blunted
purpose yet without harming his mother).  Unlike Macbeth who does
hallucinate, Hamlet does not.

Incidentally, there is no such thing as mad or not mad, unless you are
talking about extremes of psychosis (e.g., Leontes' acute delusional
disorder) versus normalcy (good Camillo).  Rather, it is the often
diagnostically ambiguous areas between the two that are most
interesting, for instance the mental illnesses of the so-called
borderline personality disorder (a mix of hysteroid neurosis and
irrationality), or hypomania, or OCD and the phobias or hysteria-all
suggesting mental illness and even some aspects of irrationality
(madness) but not psychosis.  So what's going on with Hamlet?

Hamlet is newly melancholic: that he was of late a friendly, pleasant,
and amusing fellow until circumstances turned him sour; as Ophelia has
observed, "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!"  So we might ask of
Hamlet's "mental illness": Does it merely reflect cruel circumstances to
which Hamlet responds with antic measures to defend against danger
(environmental hypothesis) or a pathology, a neuropsychological defect
merely whipped into illness by cruel circumstances (biological
hypothesis)?  We can only speculate, as we might for any real-world
individual.  We speculate about such things all the time-what motivated
that kid to commit suicide; or what made those two boys shoot up that
school, and so on.

Let's say Hamlet's sensitive unconscious, like the proverbial "canary in
the mine," correctly intuits "something rotten in the state of Denmark,"
namely foul play that is both highly personal and dangerous to his
survival.  In that case, his melancholy may be mental illness-it spoils
his life and adversely affects others-yet not pathology.  In other
words, it is understandable, however troubling it may be.

Still, there is good reason to call it pathological, for it is much too
deep and enduring to be a simple matter of sadness and anger over cruel
circumstances.  In other words, it goes further and deeper than what one
might expect for a brilliant and sensitive person. Speculating, it might
reflect a mild manic-depressive, or "cyclothymic," potential merely
excited by such circumstances.  The manifest expressions of that
potential are as much defined by energy, affability, and charm (Hamlet
of Wittenberg) as by the free play of an antic disposition which
includes the pretense of madness mixed with unrelieved melancholy larded
with fantasies of death and suicide (Hamlet of Elsinor).

David Cohen

[8]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kenneth Chan <
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Date:           Thursday, 02 Sep 2004 09:37:53 +0800
Subject: 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1623 The Meaning of Hamlet

Ed Taft writes:

 >"Kenneth Chan correctly observes,
 >"Immediately after failing to see the ghost, Gertrude concludes that
 >Hamlet is mad and hallucinating."
 >Of course. And this is clearly what the Ghost wants her to conclude. As
 >a result, Hamlet must immediately work to convince her that he is sane
 >and work doubly hard to get her to repent and to win her over to his side.
 >Now, Kenneth, what does that tell us about the Ghost?"

Understanding the nature of the ghost in Hamlet is critical to a correct
understanding of the play. Thus, we should defer to the one true
authority on this - and that is Shakespeare himself.

Shakespeare certainly makes it clear what the nature of the ghost is. He
repeatedly points this out throughout the first Act. (This is one
example of what I mean by Shakespeare's tendency to repeatedly echo the
points he wants to make.)

We are told by Shakespeare no less than five times that the ghost is no
enlightened being. We are told of this in Scene 1 when the ghost
hurriedly leaves on the crowing of the cock, and this message is echoed
again in Scene 2 when Horatio relates the incident to Hamlet.

In Scene 5, the nature of the ghost is again repeatedly stressed. The
very first words of the ghost himself tells us directly that he is no
enlightened being but one that needs to undergo purgation. And in case
we miss this, Shakespeare even has the ghost elaborate on the nature of
his purgation.

And now, at the end of Act 1 - in case we have still missed the point -
Shakespeare treats us to an emotional presentation of the nature of the
ghost and his mandate of vengeance. This takes the form of the prolonged
swearing ritual, which has an unmistakably diabolical aura. The
proceedings are conducted in the dark through the use of almost derisive
remarks by Hamlet, while being urged on by the sinister cries of the
ghost from below, the traditional location of hell. The whole ritual is
designed to leave us with an emotional impression that what
transpires-the injunction to vengeance-is actually evil in nature.

The nature of the ghost should now be clear. He is certainly no angel
and there is no reason to believe that he is less deluded than any of
us. It is a gross mistake to treat the ghost as some sort of messenger
from heaven, and Shakespeare has actually taken great pains to ensure
that we do not do so.

There is also no reason to think that the ghost has the power to control
external circumstances - he can't even control his own (since he is
being compelled to undergo purgation). Thus we cannot assume that
Gertrude's inability to see the ghost has anything to do with what the
ghost himself wants. It is unlikely that the ghost has these powers.
Otherwise, why doesn't he just go and frighten the hell out of Claudius
himself?

Kenneth Chan
http://www.hamlet.vze.com

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