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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: March ::
A Claudius Question
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.0558  Thursday, 24 March 2005

[1]     From:   John W. Kennedy <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 23 Mar 2005 13:44:24 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.0547 A Claudius Question

[2]     From:   D Bloom <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 23 Mar 2005 13:58:34 -0600
        Subj:   RE: SHK 16.0547 A Claudius Question

[3]     From:   Bill Arnold <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 23 Mar 2005 12:04:44 -0800 (PST)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.0547 A Claudius Question

[4]     From:   Elliott Stone <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 23 Mar 2005 21:07:50 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.0547 A Claudius Question

[5]     From:   David Basch <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 23 Mar 2005 12:58:37 -0500
        Subj:   Re: SHK 16.0537 A Claudius Question


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           John W. Kennedy <
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Date:           Wednesday, 23 Mar 2005 13:44:24 -0500
Subject: 16.0547 A Claudius Question
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0547 A Claudius Question

Colin Cox <
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 >Who's to say Hamlet is the 'rightful' king? This is pre-primogeniture;
 >Claudius as the brother probably has more rights to the throne and
 >Gertrude certainly isn't in a hurry, or rather is in a big hurry to not
 >see her son on the throne.

Larry Weiss <
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 >Hamlet was no more the "rightful king" than John Kerry is the rightful
 >president.  The kingship was elective; Hamlet lost.

Abigail Quart <
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 >

 >JW Kennedy: Denmark wasn't under a primogeniture system, was it? The
 >king was elected from among the nobles. The same system that was in
 >force in Scotland until Duncan decided to go English, altered it by
 >announcing Malcolm was the Prince of Cumberland and heir apparent, and
 >pissed off Macbeth who was king-eligible under the original system.
 >Hamlet was neither the "rightful" nor designated heir. Otherwise, the
 >death of the king from assumed natural causes would have simply led to
 >Hamlet being sent for to assume the throne. Wouldn't it? Since no one
 >suspected anything was wrong?

A) As I said in the first place, Claudius, as a murderer, is debarred
from gaining by his crime.

B) In a society that equates primogeniture with legitimacy, which
Elizabethan/Jacobean was, and coming from an author who frequently
concerns himself deeply with the concept of legitimacy, Hamlet must
perforce have about him at least an aura of legitimate kingship, no
matter the minutiae of 9th-century Danish laws of succession, even as
Shakespeare's Elsinore (like Milton's Heaven) possesses cannon, no
matter the date of the arrival of powder in Europe.

(A philosopher of more recent date would, I suppose, argue further that
when justice is in the hands of the criminal, the social contract is
nullified, but I grant that concept to have been yet beyond the horizon
in Shakespeare's day.)

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           D Bloom <
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Date:           Wednesday, 23 Mar 2005 13:58:34 -0600
Subject: 16.0547 A Claudius Question
Comment:        RE: SHK 16.0547 A Claudius Question

Abigail Quart writes,

"D. Bloom: Polonius? What was that? Manslaughter?"

Well, oops and all that.

Nevertheless, much the same kind of questioning applies. He did not go
there to kill Polonius, but the king-if the circumstances were right.
He could claim he was being ambushed and struck in self-defense, not
beyond the realm of possibility since the king had already arranged for
his judicial murder in England.

I don't dispute that Hamlet's moral stature is highly questionable by
this point, but it is the nature of revenge tragedy to probe the moral
culpability of the revenger. When, as still happens, the rich and
powerful rig the system to beat the rap for terrible crimes, what is
left but revenge?

Yet there we're stuck. One tradition demands revenge: you are no man, or
at least no man of honor, if you do not avenge such a crime against
justice, right rule, and your family. Another tradition forbids it:
vengeance belongs to God and you are a murderer if you exact life for
life. Hamlet is perplexed. His father has demanded vengeance. How can he
refuse? If the ghost has the authority of God for this demand, then the
stricture against private revenge is removed. If not, then it is
(presumably) an illusion of the Evil One and a temptation to mortal sin.

Many people assume that since Claudius is a murderer who will get away
with his crime if Hamlet does not intervene, and that since the ghost is
telling the truth about it, Hamlet is (somehow) sanctioned to violate
the stricture against private vengeance. Others doubt this because
Claudius is not a bad sort of chap, who really does love Gertrude, and
Hamlet is neurotic twit who causes the death of several people
deliberately or accidentally.

The key here is to come to grips with what you're accepting and what
rejecting. You may, for example, say that, though it is a fact that the
ghost tells the truth and then demands vengeance, that fact does not
authorize Hamlet to exact the vengeance. You may likewise say that,
though the king plots to murder Hamlet, the latter is similarly
forbidden to take revenge for that plot, since self-defense only applies
when there is immediate danger.

This, as I see it, would constitute the strict Christian moral stance
(which you may find outlined in the Catholic Encyclopedia). As long as
you are aware that you are adopting it, admit it candidly and apply it
equally (to Claudius and Laertes, for example), there can be no
complaint. Others may find it excessively precisionist or reductive or
whatever, but you need not worry about that.

There is, however, the question of the response to the play. Most people
(I believe) feel sympathy for Hamlet, and want him to "win" (to gain the
justice that has been denied). They are inclined to exonerate him for
his misdeeds (such as killing Polonius), to be frustrated when he is
frustrated, and to grieve when he dies. But they also sense that he has
been corrupted by the process of seeking revenge, that the admirable
young philosopher has become little better than Claudius or Laertes by
the end, and that it is-sadly-fitting that he die with the others.

There would be no play-or at least no great tragedy-without the
ambiguity as to Hamlet's moral position. And that is what readers and
viewers find in it.

Cheers,
don

(Sorry about the length of this. I beg your indulgence for violating one
of my own strictures.)


[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Bill Arnold <
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Date:           Wednesday, 23 Mar 2005 12:04:44 -0800 (PST)
Subject: 16.0547 A Claudius Question
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0547 A Claudius Question

Larry Weiss writes, "Hamlet was no more the "rightful king" than John
Kerry is the rightful president.  The kingship was elective; Hamlet lost."

Right.  And O.J. was acquitted, so you ought to go out tomorrow and play
golf with him.

Wrong.  The rightful king was usurped his role to assume the throne
because his uncle, older and wiser, and malignant to boot, killed his
father and usurped his nephew's right.  Nice guy, and you'd probably
want to play golf with Claudius and O.J. and only need Polonius for your
foursome!

Also wrong: You gloss the FACT that Claudius would not have killed his
brother if it were not an elective office.

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

[4]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Elliott Stone <
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Date:           Wednesday, 23 Mar 2005 21:07:50 -0500
Subject: 16.0547 A Claudius Question
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0547 A Claudius Question

We all must understand that it is very important in a Shakespeare play
to be in your seat on time and to pay close attention to the very first
few sentences. The famous first sentence of Hamlet is "Who is there?".
If you understand that these words are not addressed by one soldier to
another but rather by one actor to you the on time patron sitting in
your seat then perhaps you will understand that this is a rhetorical
question. The answer to the question is "The Elizabethan Court". Do not
try to turn the play into a history lesson about the Danish Monarchy.
This is my own idea. I did not read it in a book by my old Shakespeare
teacher Harry Levin who did, however, have a lot to say about the very
same sentence.

Best,
Elliott H. Stone

[5]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           David Basch <
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Date:           Wednesday, 23 Mar 2005 12:58:37 -0500
Subject: 16.0537 A Claudius Question
Comment:        Re: SHK 16.0537 A Claudius Question

I think many commentators on the list are missing the essence of the
play, Hamlet. It is not just about a king that murdered his brother, but
about the human condition, "man under the sun," (a phrase repeated in
Ecclesiastes 29 times) in a world of skepticism. This is a world in
which "there is a just man that perisheth in his righteousness, and
there is a wicked man that prolongeth his life in his wickedness"
(Ecclesiastes 7:15), as happens in the play and is made possible by
Hamlet's fatal flaw, the "over righteousness" that Ecclesiastes warns
againt. Hamlet could easily have said about his predicament, "And
moreover I saw under the sun the place of judgment, that wickedness was
there; and the place of righteousness, that iniquity was there" (ECC
3:16). And what happens to him is right out of the lines of this book,
"that one event happeneth to them all [the wise man and the fool]" and
that "as the fishes that are taken in an evil net,... so are the sons of
men snared in an evil time, when it falleth suddenly upon them" (ECC
9:12). Even women appearing as snares to men (Ecc 7:26) are features of
the play as both Ophelia and Gertrude play such roles.

A number of our commentators have noted the accidental, unintentional
killing of Polonious and the direct culpability Hamlet has in the deaths
of Rosenkranz and Guildenstern. I believe that it is the latter sin of
having these "friends" executed,  other products of Hamlet's deadly
"over righteousness" that fails to see that this was an excess of his
wrath against persons that merely were the unwitting tools of power. The
two may have been deplorable sycophants to power, but they were not
knowledgeably involved in Claudius's crimes, only wishing to ingratiate
themselves with a king-surely not a crime worthy of the death sentence
that Hamlet metes out to them.

I think that if the Book of Ecclesiastes is consulted, readers will find
so many of the observations and lessons of Ecclesiastes that appear in
this play that they will wonder why this source has not been considered
as the forerunner of the play, the so-called missing "Ur-Hamlet" that so
many scholars have sought, which guided Shakespeare's shaping of his
material and from which he drew his play's overall structure and essence.

Even the ending of the play is right out of Ecclesiastes, as
Fortinbrass, an untried man, reaps the throne of Denmark that Hamlet had
battled so vigorously for and with such planning. As Ecclesiastes
remarks in verses 2:18-19:

     Yea, I hated all my labour which I had taken under the sun:
     because I should leave it unto the man that shall be after me.

     And who knoweth whether he shall be a wise man or a fool? yet shall
     he have rule over all my labour wherein I have laboured, and
     wherein I have shewed myself wise under the sun. This is also
     vanity.

All this and more is to be found in Ecclesiastes as source material that
shaped Shakespeare's vision of Hamlet and I would suggest its study to
members of the list if they would wish to understand where this play is
coming from.

David Basch

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