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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: September ::
The Meaning of Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1661  Monday, 6 September 2004

[1]     From:   D Bloom <
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        Date:   Friday, 3 Sep 2004 08:10:12 -0500
        Subj:   RE: SHK 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet

[2]     From:   Larry Weiss <
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        Date:   Friday, 03 Sep 2004 14:20:59 -0400
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet

[3]     From:   David Cohen <
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        Date:   Friday, 3 Sep 2004 15:05:27 -0500
        Subj:   Fwd: SHK 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet

[4]     From:   Kenneth Chan <
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        Date:   Saturday, 04 Sep 2004 12:05:15 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet

[5]     From:   Kenneth Chan <
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        Date:   Sunday, 05 Sep 2004 07:20:58 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet

[6]     From:   John Reed <
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        Date:   Saturday, 4 Sep 2004 16:38:51 -0700
        Subj:   Re: The Meaning of Hamlet


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           D Bloom <
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Date:           Friday, 3 Sep 2004 08:10:12 -0500
Subject: 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        RE: SHK 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet

A query:

What do you (any of you) mean by the word "mad"? Or insane, crazy,
lunatic, etc.

These words get bandied about (along with quasi-modifiers like "quite,"
"rather," "totally," "very," which intensify a concept on the verge of
meaninglessness) a great deal but they seem to mean different (perhaps
very, rather, totally, quite, or extremely different) things to
different people.

I don't want to sound like some sophomore debate-team member ("Let's
define your terms"), but in a discussion of Hamlet's possible madness, I
find myself constantly perplexed (and discouraged, not to say
demoralized) by not having the foggiest notion of what any given poster
means by the term used.

Words in common (as opposed to primarily academic) parlance are not
meaningless just because they are imprecise. God help us, how would we
have poetry if they were? But in academic use, where they are being
assembled to try to reach rational judgments, we need to know more
exactly what they mean to the user.

If you cannot define your term in a sentence or two, do you really know
what you're talking about? (I am, I realize, subject to the same stricture.)

Cheer,
don

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Larry Weiss <
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Date:           Friday, 03 Sep 2004 14:20:59 -0400
Subject: 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet

 >having established that the ghost is
 >visible to ALL present, Shakespeare then presents us with one who is
 >not.  And the scene follows directly upon Hamlet's very manic behaviour
 >after the play.  So I vote that, still in the exaggerated manic state,

This may be credible psychology, but as dramaturgy it sucks.  How would
this notion be conveyed to the audience, especially at the Globe?  Even
if we assume that all the stage directions (not just "in his nightgown")
are non-authorial, the fact remains that the text presents the ghost on
stage with a great deal to say.  I cannot imagine a contemporary
audience concluding that this time the ghost is a figment of Hamlet's
imagination.

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Cohen <
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Date:           Friday, 3 Sep 2004 15:05:27 -0500
Subject: 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Fwd: SHK 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet

Cheryl Newton <
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 >David Cohen <
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 >
 >1. Hamlet is not mad-assuming "mad" means psychotic-at any point in the
 >play, but rather is play acting.
 >
 >
 >Well - as you say, if we assume madness to be static psychosis, yes . . .

I don't know what you mean by "static psychosis." A psychosis
(hallucination, delusion, irrational, disorganized thinking) may be
chronic, as with many schizophrenic conditions, acute, as with a drug
induced or brain based (vascular disruption) psychosis, or recurrent, as
with an epileptic or manic condition or any of these yet of unknown origin

 > . . . But that view of mental health is vastly oversimplified . . .

Well, I hope not, given that I (with a colleague) have written the book
on  this and other conditions-Willerman & Cohen, Psychopathology, 1990),
a graduate level  textbook-and so ought to know at least a little
something about psychosis

 > . . . Most of us are but mad north north-west.

No we aren't-where's you empirical evidence?  In fact the
epidemiological evidence says we are not-and it doesn't matter which way
the wind blows.  Now, you may want to inflate the term madness to
include neurotic and borderline conditions (admittedly more common on
campuses than in the real world where such behavior has consequences),
but such inflation to imprecision makes the concept useless.  In no way
is Hamlet psychotic in the strict sense of the word, at any time and
under any wind conditions.  In no way is he borderline.  You could argue
that, at times, he is quite neurotic or otherwise nutty, but then you
have to speculate on where the neurosis comes from.  In my last post, I
suggested a manic-depressive temperament.  In any case, this hardly goes
to what makes him so interesting and important a character.

 >2.  The Ghost is real, given that Horatio et al. and the audience sees it.
 >
 >
 >On the battlements, true.  But having established that the ghost is
 >visible to ALL present, Shakespeare then presents us with one who is
 >not.  And the scene follows directly upon Hamlet's very manic behaviour
 >after the play.  So I vote that, still in the exaggerated manic state,
 >he is hallucinating.

I vote that he is not.  Where in the scene with his mother does he show
"the exaggerated manic state"?  Have you ever seen an exaggerated manic
state, which is very crazy and which, in the USA, because it was so
crazy, used to be incorrectly diagnosed as schizophrenic?  I bet not.
In the scene with his mother, Hamlet is angry, sad, desperate, but not
"extremely manic." Perhaps the simplest explanation is the best:
Gertrude's inability to see the ghost is either (a) determined by the
ghost because the communication is for Hamlet alone, and/or (b)
Shakespeare made it so  to enhance the dramatic impact of the scene.  In
any case, as I see it, Hamlet is never "mad" and never hallucinated at
any time.

David Cohen

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kenneth Chan <
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Date:           Saturday, 04 Sep 2004 12:05:15 +0800
Subject: 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet

Tom Krause writes:

 >"I don't have your book, and so am very curious to
 >hear how you interpret the following lines/passages, and how they fit in
 >with the single spiritual message that you see:
 >
 >1.  Rosencrantz's reference to the "late innovation" that has caused the
 >"inhibition" of the tragedians.
 >
 >2.  Hamlet's reference to the fact that people are paying 20, 40, 100
 >ducats a piece for Claudius's "picture in little."

. . .

 >On the same general subject, what do you make of the "little eyases"
 >passage, which is present in the Folio but not the second quarto?  Is it
 >consistent with the spiritual message, or does is it merely a
 >contemporary reference that distracts attention from the spiritual
 >message?  Does your theory shed any light on the debate as to whether
 >the little eyases passage was an addition to the original play, or was
 >deleted from it?"

Thank you for your questions, Tom. The passage of the "little eyases"
actually fits perfectly with the spiritual message in Hamlet. This is
just one example of how the entire play has been meticulously crafted by
Shakespeare to convey its meaning.

A key point in the spiritual message of Hamlet is our tendency to hide
from the profound and from the inevitability of death, and how as a
result, we waste our lives chasing after irrelevancies. We continually
hide from the truth by artificially beautifying reality and by indulging
in distractions.

The usurpation of the serious performers by the "little eyases" thus
appropriately symbolizes this preference of ours for trivial
distractions rather than the real issues of life. The mature players who
portray reality are being driven out by the troupe of child-actors who
mock them.

The analogy becomes even more accurate when Hamlet says:

"Will they pursue the quality no longer than they can sing? Will they
not say afterwards,
if they should grow themselves to common players-as it is most like, if
their means are no better-their writers do them wrong to make them
exclaim against their own succession?"

The child actors are deluding themselves and will face the consequences
in time. Likewise, we will inevitably meet the profound whether or not
we hide from it. Shakespeare stresses this idea by having virtually all
the main characters die in the end. We cannot escape truth by indulging
in distractions; we just end up facing it tragically unprepared.

Shakespeare then pushes the spiritual message further with Hamlet saying:

"It is not very strange; for my uncle is King of Denmark, and those that
would make mouths at him while my father lived give twenty, forty,
fifty, a hundred ducats apiece for his picture in little. 'Sblood, there
is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out."

There is indeed something unnatural in not facing the truth. We, like
the masses in Denmark, will pay large sums for trivialities because they
are the in-vogue distraction of the day, and yet we give no thought to
the reality confronting us. Are we not mad? Truly, as Hamlet puts it,
"there is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find
it out." Hamlet's last statement thus ties up this episode with the
recurring question on our "madness" in behaving this way.

This same message (as illustrated by the episode of the "little eyases"
here) resonates through the entire play. It echoes relentlessly, scene
after scene, with unmistakable consistency, making it impossible to deny
that Shakespeare means it. That is why I know that Shakespeare has
meticulously crafted the entire play to convey a deep spiritual message.

The passage with the "little eyases" is thus consistent with what the
rest of the play is saying. It is not merely an afterthought that is
tagged on artificially.

Tom Krause writes:

 >". . . am very curious to
 >hear how you interpret the following lines/passages, and how they fit in
 >with the single spiritual message that you see:

. . .

 >3.  Hamlet's characterization of Claudius as "A cutpurse of the empire
 >and the rule,/ That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,/ And put it
 >in his pocket!""

This passage belongs to another section of the play, and is part of the
action that dramatizes the transformation of Hamlet into the dreaded
avenger. This concerns a different aspect of the spiritual message in
the play, which illustrates why revenge and condemnation of others is
wrong, and how an acceptance of reality and the inevitability of death,
coupled with this frame of mind, is a disaster.

More on this can be found in the Prologue of my book which is posted on
my website at
http://www.hamlet.vze.com

Tom Krause writes:

 >"Does acceptance of your theory necessarily
 >mean that mine is wrong, or is there a way they can work side by side?"

Tom, I do not pretend to have interpreted everything that Shakespeare
means to say. This is probably beyond my limited mind. There is, thus,
no reason why other theories may not exist side by side.

I believe, however, that I have seen enough of what Shakespeare is
trying to say to decisively conclude that he did meticulously craft his
plays to convey deep messages for humanity.  Others may, of course, do a
better analysis of the spiritual meaning behind his plays.

We must not, however, make the mistake of thinking that four hundred
years of critical enquiry has exhausted the possibilities in
Shakespearean analysis. As far as I can tell, we have barely scratched
the surface. Much of the deeper spiritual meaning in his plays are yet
to be uncovered.

It is important, though, that we acknowledge the spiritual messages in
Shakespeare's plays. Once we recognize them, his works can be
transformed into a priceless resource for the spiritual welfare of
humanity. They have, unfortunately, been left unutilized in this way for
far too long.

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

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kenneth Chan <
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Date:           Sunday, 05 Sep 2004 07:20:58 +0800
Subject: 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1647 The Meaning of Hamlet

L. Swilley writes:

 >>"Kenneth Chan writes,
 >>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.
 >
 >If we excised every part of every play that did not "contribute to its
 >main action," I think the whole presentation would be over in fifteen
 >minutes. Every part of a play comments on all the others by the very
 >fact of its inclusion; it is by that means that the playwright deepens
 >and broadens the ideas of the work.  For example, in "Hamlet," Polonius'
 >dialogue with Reynaldo is an extension and examination  - and judgement
 >- of "by indirection, find direction out,"  an idea that is repeated by
 >several characters and in many contexts of the play."

I certainly agree that every part of the play comments on all the
others. In Hamlet, however, the different parts actually do more than
that. All the episodes on the list above contribute specifically to the
central spiritual message in Hamlet. They are meticulously crafted by
Shakespeare for this purpose.

For example, Polonius's dialogue with Reynaldo is far more than just an
examination of "by indirection, find direction out." The whole prolonged
dialogue actually highlights three motifs that reverberate endlessly
through the play, motifs that are critical to the central spiritual message.

One motif is that centered on the word "honesty," or rather, the lack of
it. Polonius's scheme to ferret information about Laertes certainly
lacks honesty, but Shakespeare's concern is the lack of honesty at a
deeper level. This is also illustrated in the scene by the character of
Polonius. He preoccupies himself with petty intrigues of little
consequence as a means to hide himself from the profound and from the
inevitability of death; he focuses his mind instead on matters
irrelevant to the real issues of life. This is the lack of honesty that
Shakespeare is drawing our attention to - our lack of honesty in facing
the truth.

The episode also highlights the failure to follow Polonius's own advice
to Laertes: "To thine own self be true, and it must follow as the night
the day, thou canst not then be false to any man," which is another
recurring motif.  Being true to our own self essentially means facing up
to reality, to the inevitable, and to the profound. If we are unable to
do this, we will fill our lives with petty, irrelevant concerns and
deceitful conduct, both to ourselves and to others, as Polonius
demonstrates here. He occupies himself in being false to others via
petty intrigues and elaborate deceptions because he is false to himself
in the first place as he steadfastly refuses to face the profound.

The scene also illustrates a third recurring motif: the process of
artificially beautifying things to conceal the truth, in this case, to
conceal Polonius's real intention of spying on Laertes. Again,
Shakespeare is more concerned with our propensity to artificially
beautify at a deeper level. We frequently use the act of deception to
hide from the profound - we artificially beautify reality to conceal the
truth.

The rest of the play then resonates, scene after scene, with these three
themes. And, in the end, it builds up to a resounding climax in the
final duel scene. Thus, this long dialogue between Polonius and Reynaldo
is much more than just a comment on the other parts of the play. There
can be little doubt that it is a carefully crafted integral part of the
spiritual message in Hamlet.

Significantly, Shakespeare immediately follows up this episode (between
Polonius and Reynaldo) by introducing the issue of "madness" via
Ophelia's report of Hamlet's behavior before her. This is deliberate and
typical of Shakespeare throughout the play. He brings up the issue of
madness here because he is posing us with the question: Are we not mad
in behaving this way? (See my other post on this same list - concerning
the episode about the "little eyases" - where Shakespeare again poses
exactly the same question at the end of it.)

I hope all this provides further convincing evidence that Shakespeare
did meticulously craft his plays to convey deep spiritual messages. What
is particularly important, though, is the way he imparts these messages.

Shakespeare seldom states them in mere words. Instead, the messages are
conveyed through our emotional involvement in the entire drama. The
meaning of each play is found in what the whole action of the play moves
us to feel. Thus, we learn from the play because in a sense, we live
through it, and it becomes a part of our psyche. This is akin to an
initiation and provides a far more valuable lesson than any intellectual
teaching can achieve. Here lies the true art of Shakespeare.

It is crucial, therefore, that we recognize the spiritual messages in
Shakespeare's plays. For a realization of their meaning transforms the
plays from mere entertainment and art into powerful experiences of the
spiritual truths of the universe. Shakespeare's plays can then be
utilized as a critical resource for improving the spiritual welfare of
humanity.

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

[6]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John Reed <
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Date:           Saturday, 4 Sep 2004 16:38:51 -0700
Subject:        Re: The Meaning of Hamlet

Not having had formal instruction in Shakespeare studies (as everyone
can tell), I am often not aware of the normal academic interpretations
of what is true (or at least proper).  But I think I'm catching on.
Everything revolves around the text.  Maybe it would be better to put
text in CAPITAL LETTERS.  So: Gertrude claims not to see the Ghost.  Her
claiming not to see the Ghost is in the text.  Therefore, the text
indicates Gertrude does not see the Ghost.  Is that it?  I guess
(realizing guesses are of no consequence, or at any rate of even less
consequence than feelings) there is something else: according to modern
belief - that of Enlightenment Philosophy - ghosts do not exist.  So
since they don't exist AND Gertrude claims she doesn't see it all the
more shows that she doesn't see it, and Hamlet claiming to see it can't
have really seen it since it can't exist, therefore he is either
delusional, idiotic, mad, insane, or hallucinating.   This would seem to
thicken with the other proofs to finally indicate Hamlet is generally
insane, or to use a less formal and possibly more poetic term, mad.

Need I point out the original audience not only believed in ghosts (and
other kinds of spirits) but had a pretty complicated system for
determining what was what?

Same thing for when Hamlet (and Horatio and the boys) see the Ghost as
Old Hamlet.  Not only do they see it that way, but it itself claims to
be the ghost of Old Hamlet.  It's unanimous: so the text indicates they
see it as Old Hamlet, so it is the ghost of Old Hamlet and therefore
that's the way the audience sees it, too, yes?  Wait a minute, how do we
go from Hamlet seeing it as Old Hamlet to the audience seeing it as Old
Hamlet?  I lost the connection somewhere.

Regarding Point 4a., above, if the Ghost were a devil in disguise (I say
a devil, not necessarily the devil), it would certainly not want
Gertrude to repent to any degree.  I'm not sure I follow the reason,
"through fear of what she sees..."   Fear might be involved, but it
seems it would be the fear of losing something she doesn't want to lose;
in her case it might be a set of things associated with being queen:
power, prestige, Claudius as husband, the preferred dosage of ale, or
whatever.  Fleshly pleasures, in general, one might say.  Once doubt
about these things is introduced then the victim has to make a decision:
to do something about retaining the pleasure, or to give it up.  In her
case giving it up would seem to necessarily involve at least a certain
degree of repentance.  Hamlet at any rate is trying to get her to
repent.  Could it be an accident that the Ghost shows up just at that
moment (I didn't think of this myself, darn it).  Gertrude does not seem
to follow Hamlet's advice on these points....

In this play, as in others, the Theory of the Progression of Evil would
seem to be involved.

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