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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: December ::
Living Characters
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1985  Thursday, 1 December 2005

From: 		John V. Knapp <
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Date: 		Wednesday, 30 Nov 2005 15:12:26 -0600 (CST)
Subject: 16.1966 Living Characters
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1966 Living Characters

Hardy, David Bishop, et al., -

We seem to be talking somewhat at cross-purposes here, and again for the 
sake of argument, I'll assume I'm not being clear.  So, of course the 
term (but perhaps not the concept) of "sibling rivalry" is 
anachronistic, but then if contemporary criticism were to confine itself 
to speaking only of concepts and language from 1600, then each 
generation's reconsideration of Shakespeare's works would consist of 
recycling what is mostly already known.  Isn't it the job of the critic 
to look anew, now and then, at, say, *Hamlet* in the light of what we 
have most recently learned about human beings and our aesthetic 
responses to its mimetic characters?  Art historians constantly revise 
their views of famous old paintings in the light of x-ray technology, 
chemistry, etc., so why shouldn't literary critics also rethink what 
appears to be "obvious" now and then, but not with a Freudian critical 
lens from 1920 but with a more contemporary psychology?

My point remains a simple one: let's look again at selected mimetic 
characters in the context of their (assumed) family life, and reconsider 
what we know about their behaviors in the knowledge of recent (since the 
1940s & '50s) thinking about human systems.  Of course, we cannot 
thereby do violence to what is in, or is not in the text, but 
speculation about such "back-stories" can range from the impossible (how 
many children had Lady Macbeth?), to the "interesting": almost all the 
opinions about Claudius, for example, come from his murdered brother's 
ghost or his son.  Why does their bitterness toward him feel so much 
more like familial betrayal and less the betrayal of a King by a mere 
usurper?  Would consideration of a reasonable back-story concerning 
Hamlet's feelings about family life help us understand a bit better what 
IS explicit in the text?

Why, for example, is young Hamlet so fascinated ("I chiefly lov'd") by 
Aeneas' tale to Dido of "Priam's slaughter" in Virgil (II,ii, 446-48; 
cf. Riverside text)?  A quick look at the Aeneid reveals the Queen's 
wretching request of Priam: "Come to me, come to the altar,/It will 
protect us, or at least let us /Die all together" (trans. Rolfe 
Humphries, 1951:  2:50.  As I have argued in Reading the Family Dance, 
the closing of family ranks to withstand the horror of "deadly Pyrrus" 
is reflected in Hamlet's "fantasy of an intact family, one similiar to 
where Hector's mother loves his father enough to die with him," and 
where "the elderly Priam love's Hector's mother enough to defend her to 
the death against Pyrrus's "villainous behavior" (Reading, 212). 
Hamlet's own recent family history has fallen short of that ideal.

Thus the bitter hatred Hamlet feels for Claudius, his burning anger 
toward his mother, his self-doubts about his own lack of resolve all 
seem even more intense to the reader/viewer by knowing that what he 
fantasizes about family life is exemplified in this little detail of his 
reading.  Can such an interesting reinforcement of what most readers 
already know or suspect be anachronistic?  Should we reduce *Hamlet* to 
what James Phelan calls "thematic leaps," where all can understood by 
moving from gritty characterological details to single concepts like 
"revenge" or "justice?" Where's the fun in that?

JVK

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