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Home :: Archive :: 2005 :: November ::
Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1837  Tuesday, 8 November 2005

[1] 	From: 	Stephen Rose <
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	Date: 	Friday, 4 Nov 2005 08:10:00 -0500
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 16.1825 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

[2] 	From: 	Alan Pierpoint <
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	Date: 	Sunday, 6 Nov 2005 07:34:17 EST
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 16.1811 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

[3] 	From: 	Joseph Egert <
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	Date: 	Sunday, 06 Nov 2005 21:00:28 +0000
	Subj: 	Re: SHK 16.1825 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Stephen Rose <
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Date: 		Friday, 4 Nov 2005 08:10:00 -0500
Subject: 16.1825 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1825 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

I can only conclude that the confident theologizing here is some form of 
judgment on the theological establishment for having largely ceded 
intellectual territory to what Harvey Cox called "The Secular City".

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Alan Pierpoint <
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Date: 		Sunday, 6 Nov 2005 07:34:17 EST
Subject: 16.1811 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1811 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

"My mother stays," soliloquizes Hamlet, leaving the unwitting Claudius 
in prayer as he heads, directly it would seem, to Gertrude.  Is it 
reasonable that Claudius could have wrapped up his prayer and beamed 
himself up to the "closet" ahead of Hamlet?

If it isn't reasonable, why did Hamlet suspect that the "rat" behind the 
arras was the King?  What's the usual explanation for this seeming paradox?

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Joseph Egert <
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Date: 		Sunday, 06 Nov 2005 21:00:28 +0000
Subject: 16.1825 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?
Comment: 	Re: SHK 16.1825 Hamlet: Revenge or Justice?

Here's the Gospel according to seer Rene Girard, piercing to the hidden 
center of "Hamlet's Dull Revenge" (1984):

"The incoherence we find in good dramatic literature is not any 
incoherence...It is a highly determined and specific kind of 
incoherence...Shakespeare is different. He is not merely a good, 
instinctive playwright who can fulfill the incompatible requirements of 
character portrayal and dramatic action unthinkingly and even 
unconsciously...at the same time, he never fails, in his best work, to 
provide the oblique comments that reveal he is not the dupe of what he 
is doing. The really attentive reader is always taken into the 
confidence of the creator...Unlike many modern writers who see 
'demystification' as a kind of moral duty, a sacred obligation, 
Shakespeare obviously does not mind being interpreted differently by 
different people. The most reflective part of the audience will perceive 
as ironic a handling of the material which will actually reinforce the 
more vulgar pleasure of the unreflective crowd....

"HAMLET belongs to the genre of the revenge tragedy, as hackneyed and 
yet inescapable in Shakespeare's day as the 'thriller' in ours to a 
television writer. In HAMLET Shakespeare turned this necessity...into an 
opportunity to debate almost openly for the first time the questions I 
have tried to define. The weariness with revenge and katharsis which can 
be read, I believe, in the margins of the earlier plays must really 
exist because, in HAMLET, it moves to the center of the stage and 
becomes fully articulated...[T]he tedium of revenge is really what he 
wants to talk about...he will denounce the revenge theater and all its 
works with the utmost daring, without depriving himself of the dramatic 
success which is necessary to his own career as a dramatist.

"If the victim's victim is already a killer [as in HAMLET] and if the 
revenge seeker reflects a little too much on the circularity of revenge, 
his faith in vengeance must collapse...This is exactly what we have in 
HAMLET. It cannot be without a purpose that Shakespeare suggests the old 
Hamlet, the murdered king, was a murderer himself...The problem with 
Hamlet is that he cannot forget the context. As a result, the crime by 
Claudius looks to him like one more link in an already long chain, and 
his own revenge will look like still another link, perfectly identical 
to all the other links... Hamlet must receive from someone else, a 
mimetic model [the Hecuba actor; Fortinbras; Laertes], the impulse which 
he does not find in himself...

"If human society is built upon fundamental scapegoat effects which 
protect men from their own violence by projecting its full capabilities 
upon a god or some other supernatural entities, we can well understand 
why the generative mechanisms of their culture might be something which 
men may never be able to confront directly and understand thoroughly.... 
I attribute to the Western world a superior power to decipher the true 
nature of cultural phenomena...Our power to deconstruct cultural myths 
and explicate them to death literally, does not come to us from the 
Greeks; our most precious ability does not originate with the inventors 
of philosophy and the precursors of modern science; it originates with 
the Jews...The story of Cain and Abel, for instance, closely parallels 
many myths that seek to account for the foundation of a human community. 
We have two brothers; one murders the other...The foundation of Rome 
looks very much like this. Romulus kills his twin brother Remus and the 
cultural order follows. There is a difference, however. The Roman myth 
presents the victim as a transgressor and a culprit, the murderer as a 
just man. The biblical story presents the victim as an innocent and the 
murderer as a criminal...Soon afterward, a violent escalation begins 
that leads back to the complete circularity of revenge, [completing] the 
cycle which began with the murder of Abel...Ultimately, everything 
reverts to undifferentiated revenge, [a] violent disintegration...the 
Great Flood...

"All [non-biblical] mythologies project human violence against the 
founding scapegoats and these projections are never overturned or even 
seriously challenged by the religious and philosophical traditions that 
derive from these same mythologies. The Bible, on the other hand, 
dismantles these projections. Behind the apparently gratuitous 
imagination of mythology it reveals the fear, hatred, and violence of an 
entire community....There is obviously a common basis to the Oedipus 
story and the Joseph story but a radical difference in the 
interpretation. The Greek myth accepts the accusations as fact, even 
dignifies it into some kind of religious truth. In the modern world the 
incest motif, borrowed from the Oedipus myth, becomes the truth of human 
desire, the founding myth of psychoanalysis as a substitute religion. 
The biblical text rejects this same motif as the typical slander of 
ignorant people, unable to resist the mimetic contagion of 
victimage....[T]he sociologist Max Weber correctly observed the biblical 
tendency to side with the victim...Approval of victimage is the mythical 
norm, whereas disapproval is the exclusive monopoly of the biblical text....

"Even in its most primitive layers, the biblical text already tends to 
demythologize more effectively than any modern demythologizer. In the 
Pentateuch, this demythologization still occurs within a mythical 
framework, as it does, to a certain extent, in Greek tragedy. With 
pre-exilic and exilic prophecy, this framework disappears and the 
prophets openly denounce violence and the idolatry of violence...One 
achievement of these texts is to make the role of the scapegoat fully 
explicit as founder of the religious community, outside of any specific 
context...To all previous religious laws, the gospel substitutes a 
single command: 'give up retaliation and revenge in any form.'...

"The sacrificial misreading of the gospels made the various phases of 
Christian culture possible. In the Middle Ages, for instance, gospel 
principles were superficially reconciled with the aristocratic ethics of 
personal honor and revenge. With the Renaissance, this edifice began to 
collapse and Shakespeare is a major witness to that event. Even after 
the disappearance of blood feuds, duels, and similar customs, Christian 
culture never disentangled itself completely from values rooted in 
revenge. Although nominally Christian, social attitudes remained 
essentially alien to the authentic Judeo-Christian inspiration.

This inspiration never disappeared but it often became too weak to 
challenge the prevailing compromises, even to take full consciousness of 
itself. It made its influence felt as a nameless and ambiguous force, a 
creeping subversion of all social values and attitudes.

"Hamlet is certainly no coward...[His] failure [to seek revenge] never 
receives the direct and unambiguous explanation it demands in terms of a 
revulsion against the ethics of revenge... HAMLET belongs to a genre 
which demands that the ethics of revenge be taken for granted... The 
spectators are provided with the victims they expect....

"If the preceding observations are correct, the dependence of human 
culture on revenge and victimage is too fundamental not to survive the 
elimination of the most grossly physical forms of violence, the actual 
murder of the victim. If the Judeo-Christian ferment is not dead, it 
must be engaged in an obscure struggle against deeper and deeper layers 
of the essential complicity between violence and human culture. As the 
struggle reaches these deep layers, we lack the words to describe the 
issues; no concept can embrace the type of subversion values and 
institutions must undergo. When language fails, silence can be more 
suggestive than words... the strange void at the center of HAMLET 
becomes a symbolic expression of the Western and modern malaise...Our 
'symptoms' always resemble that unnamable paralysis of the will, that 
ineffable corruption of the spirit, that affect not only Hamlet, but the 
other characters as well. The devious ways of these characters, the 
bizarre plots they hatch, their passion for watching without being 
watched, their propensity to voyeurism and spying, the general disease 
of human relations make a good deal of sense as a description of an 
undifferentiated no man's land between revenge and no revenge in which 
we ourselves are still living...symptomatic of 'sick revenge'....

"Shakespeare is still ahead of us as a 'demystificator'...Like Hamlet we 
are poised on the brink between total revenge and no revenge....The 
enterprise is sick...We are still trying to project our own violence 
against that [biblical] god but to no avail, this time, since we no 
longer believe in him. In reality, if mankind's domination of the entire 
world can become a peril to mankind, it cannot be the fault of some god, 
it can only be the human spirit of revenge which is not completely 
extinct with us. If we had not decided to exclude the Judeo-Christian 
scriptures from our cultural problematic, this fact alone would 
immediately remind us of the still unheeded or only partly heeded 
evangelical warning against revenge. The Judeo-Christian text may be 
more relevant to our destiny, after all, than the Oedipal mythology of 
Sigmund Freud or the dyonisiac mythology of Friedrich Nietzsche. We 
should suspect by now that there is more to the warning against revenge 
than utopian anarchism and sentimental moralism....

"The traditional perspectives on HAMLET are far from neutral; their 
first consequence is that the ethics of revenge are taken for 
granted...Hamlet's problem thus shifts from revenge itself to hesitation 
in the face of revenge...Should our enormous critical literature on 
HAMLET fall some day into the hands of people otherwise ignorant of our 
mores, they could not fail to conclude that our academic tribe must have 
been a savage breed, indeed....Almost all critics today stick to the 
ethics of revenge...It is no accident if the sanctity of revenge 
provides a perfect vehicle for all the masks of modern ressentiment. The 
remarkable consensus in favor of revenge verifies, I believe, the 
conception of the play as that no man's land between total revenge and 
no revenge at all, that specifically modern space where everything 
becomes suffused with sick revenge...

"It cannot be a fortuitous coincidence if the world, which four 
centuries ago wrote HAMLET,...is also the world whose sole religious law 
is to renounce revenge, the world that now even refuses to mention it 
but cannot ignore it any more, the world that finds itself compelled 
more and more to obey that law--or else...As modern culture turned to 
science and philosophy, as the Greek side of our inheritance became 
dominant, to the point when mythology proper, with disciplines like 
psychoanalysis, made a kind of intellectual reappearance, the 
Judeo-Christian text was rejected to the outer fringes of our 
intellectual life; it is now entirely excluded...A silence has descended 
upon the earth, as if an angel were about to open the seventh and last 
seal of an apocalypse.
Terrifying as they are, the possibilities of meaning which lie beyond 
that stupefied silence are less demoralizing than the current nihilism...

"HAMLET is no mere word game. We can make sense out of HAMLET just as we 
can make sense out of our world, by reading both against revenge. This 
is the way Shakespeare wanted HAMLET to be read and the way it should 
have been read long ago. If now, at such a time in our history, we still 
cannot read HAMLET against revenge, who ever will?"

Exactly!
Joe Egert

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