The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1985 Thursday, 1 December 2005
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?
S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>
DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the
opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the
editor assumes no responsibility for them.