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Home :: Archive :: 2004 :: September ::
The Meaning of Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1781  Wednesday, 29 September 2004

[1]     From:   Ted Dykstra <
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        Date:   Tuesday, 28 Sep 2004 11:48:36 EDT
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1770  The Meaning of Hamlet

[2]     From:   Kenneth Chan <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 29 Sep 2004 11:04:33 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1770 The Meaning of Hamlet

[3]     From:   Kenneth Chan <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 29 Sep 2004 11:05:59 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1770 The Meaning of Hamlet

[4]     From:   Kenneth Chan <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 29 Sep 2004 11:21:11 +0800
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.1770 The Meaning of Hamlet


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Ted Dykstra <
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Date:           Tuesday, 28 Sep 2004 11:48:36 EDT
Subject: 15.1770  The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1770  The Meaning of Hamlet

I am recent to this thread but wonder if anyone thinks Hamlet would have
killed Claudius if he wasn't at prayer, or trying to pray at any rate.
He was coming straight from The Mousetrap, full of certainty regarding
Claudius' guilt. His argument for not killing his uncle is at that
moment is very sound given what we are to understand his beliefs are.

There are two possibilities: he would have made any excuse not to do it
at that moment, making him a man who simply cannot do the deed for any
host of reasons, or he would have done it, pat. If a production chooses
the latter choice, it certainly changes him from a man of supposed
inaction to a man of action. What happens in his mother's room then
tries his abilities to cope with reality: he has killed an innocent man,
been chided by his father's ghost, and learns that he alone sees the
ghost, his mother proclaiming him to be mad. This sends him spiraling
inwards again for a time. But only for a time.

Ted Dykstra

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kenneth Chan <
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Date:           Wednesday, 29 Sep 2004 11:04:33 +0800
Subject: 15.1770 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1770 The Meaning of Hamlet

John Reed writes:

 >"Kenneth: I agree with you almost completely (I kicking myself having to
 >admit I agree with anyone on anything), and I want to thank you for
 >resurrecting this issue.  However I can't quite agree on everything
(whew)."

Thank you, John, for your post and for the opportunity to discuss the
points you raise below:

 >"1. I think Hamlet does debate the issue with himself.  He does so all
 >over the place: every soliloquy he has is concerned with this issue."

I agree that Hamlet does debate the issue of his delay. He continually
questions why he delays, and does not seem to know the reason. What
Hamlet does not explicitly debate about, however, is whether or not
there is a moral problem in taking revenge.

 >"2. He, Hamlet appears to finally reach the conclusion that it is morally
 >acceptable to kill Claudius, since near the end of the play (in 5.2) he
 >tells Horatio, "...is't not perfect conscience/To quit him with this
 >arm?" "

Yes, Hamlet finally acknowledges that his conscience may have something
to do with his delay. This, however, only happens in the final scene,
and not before (as A. C. Bradley also noted). By this time, Shakespeare
has already demonstrated what I believe he wanted to show via Hamlet's
transformation into the dreaded avenger. By the end of the play,
Hamlet's transformation is already complete, so the issue of conscience
no longer affects him. That is the real tragedy.

 >"3. I wonder how we know what Shakespeare's plans were or what he wanted
 >to convey?"

I believe the best way to approach this is to look at what the rest of
the play is saying. There is a definite structure in the play - certain
themes continually resonate, scene after scene, through the entire play.
To reduce the length of our posts here, I have recently placed two
additional articles on my website at <http://www.hamlet.vze.com>that
would help to explain this.

 >"4. Why Hamlet delays is an interesting and much debated issue, of
 >course; it is also fairly specific.  Another issue, perhaps more
 >interesting, or at least more general, is whether it is all
 >right/ok/acceptable/proper/required whatever for Hamlet to kill Claudius?"

Good question. Here, I believe, is where the two central themes of the
play come together to create the really profound part of its message.

Two themes resonate continually through the play: One theme is centered
on the need to face up to the truth and to the profound, and on the
importance of realizing our personal mortality. The other theme is
centered on the issue of revenge and demonstrates how the terrible
mandate of vengeance transforms Hamlet.

There is a reason why Shakespeare brings these two themes together in a
single play. They combine to deliver the key point in Hamlet. We can
view this from two complementary perspectives.

In the first, Hamlet can be seen as a play that brings home to us the
need to face the truth of life, as this is an essential step on the
spiritual path. The play also illustrates the nature of this spiritual
path, a path of love and compassion, and hence emphasizes that revenge
has no place in it.

Viewing the play from the second perspective, Hamlet can be seen as
drama designed to demonstrate the error of seeking vengeance, and more
significantly, to make us experience why it is wrong. Revenge is wrong
because there is only one route to salvation from the sufferings of our
mundane existence, and this route is utterly destroyed by a mind focused
on vengeance. Not only that, if we have already taken the first step in
facing the profound, the path of vengeance becomes even more devastating
for us and leads to a state of bitter cynicism and total desolation. The
world then becomes an appalling dungeon, cold and futile.

This is essentially what happens to Hamlet. Among all the characters in
the play, Hamlet is the only one courageous enough to face up to the
truth of his personal mortality. Unfortunately, he is also burdened with
the dangerous poison of revenge and this practically destroys him
spiritually.

In terms of justice, we may argue that Claudius deserves the death
penalty. However, if we confront the profound, we will realize that it
is not for us to administer this justice. There is something else that
is simply far more important.

That is why saints and bodhisattvas do not go around clamoring for
justice. It is simply not their purpose in life. Shakespeare also
displays this curious lack of concern for poetic justice. That, I
believe, is the reason why Shakespeare has sometimes been wrongly
accused of writing without a moral philosophy. It is also the reason why
some of his plays, like "Measure for Measure" and  "All's Well that Ends
Well," are considered "problem plays" - the villain virtually goes
unpunished. Shakespeare is not overly concerned about poetic justice
because there are other things far more important, something we will
realize when we confront the profound.

I agree, John, that the "progression of evil" (which you raised in your
earlier post) occurs unless remedial action is taken. The first step in
this remedial action, I believe, is to face up to the truth.

With best wishes,
Kenneth Chan
http://www.hamlet.vze.com

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kenneth Chan <
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Date:           Wednesday, 29 Sep 2004 11:05:59 +0800
Subject: 15.1770 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1770 The Meaning of Hamlet

Colin Cox writes:

 >"On a very practical level, the delay is caused by Hamlet's need for
 >concrete proof, not divinely suggested, that Claudius actually committed
 >the crime."

Certainly, the need for concrete proof may be cited as one reason for
the delay. However, it is doubtful that this is the only reason or even
the main reason.

The evidence is found in the soliloquy itself (at the end of Act 2).
Hamlet begins by questioning why he delays - he does not seem to know
why. And he even questions whether he is delaying because he is a
coward, and so on. This would not occur if Hamlet felt that he was
delaying simply because he needed proof.

The second soliloquy on the delay (Act 4, Scene 4) provides even more
convincing evidence that the "need for proof" is not the real reason for
the delay. Here, Hamlet again questions why he delayed his vengeance. He
still does not seem to know, and this is after he has already caught the
conscience of the king in the "mousetrap."

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

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Kenneth Chan <
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Date:           Wednesday, 29 Sep 2004 11:21:11 +0800
Subject: 15.1770 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1770 The Meaning of Hamlet

Terence Hawkes writes:

 >"Kenneth Chan announces that 'Shakespeare needed Hamlet to follow the
 >course of action in the play. . . ', adding  'I am quite sure this is a
 >contentious issue, so let us discuss it.'
 >No it isn't. Please let's not."

I'm afraid there has been a miscommunication here. My apologies for
that. The contentious issue I was referring to is that of conscience
being the reason for Hamlet's delay, not that "Shakespeare needed Hamlet
to follow the course of action in the play." Sorry for not being more
specific.

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

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