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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: April ::
Gertrude done her in?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0264  Monday, 2 April 2007

[1] 	From: 	Martin Mueller <
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	Date: 	Friday, 30 Mar 2007 11:33:40 -0500
	Subj: 	Messenger Reports in Shakespeare

[2] 	From: 	David Frankel <
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	Date: 	Friday, 30 Mar 2007 12:43:11 -0400
	Subj: 	RE: SHK 18.0257 Gertrude done her in?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		Martin Mueller <
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Date: 		Friday, 30 Mar 2007 11:33:40 -0500
Subject: 	Messenger Reports in Shakespeare

I hope it is a legitimate posting to reflect a little on the question 
why Shakespeare would have chosen to put a report of Ophelia's death in 
Gertrude's mouth.

Many years ago the German Anglist Wolfgang Clemen wrote a nice little 
book about _Wandlungen des Botenberichts bei Shakespeare_ or "The 
Evolution of the Messenger Report in Shakespeare." It is a dramatic 
convention, inherited from Greek tragedy, that some events are 'told' 
rather than 'shown'. It is a fairly strictly observed convention in 
Greek tragedy that the messenger's role is strictly limited to his 
reporting. He is not in any strong sense a character in the play. It is 
also a convention that the messenger is to be believed. There is no 
doubt to question his veracity.

Shakespeare likes to play with this inherited topos, and his  particular 
purposes are often clearly illustrated by asking the  simple question 
how the report deviates from ancient conventions,  which Shakespeare 
understood as well as Milton, who two generations  later produced a 
perfectly rules-compliant report about the death of  Samson.

In _Julius Caesar_ he puts the account of the offer of a crown to Caesar 
in the mouth of Casca, and he goes out of his way to tell the audience 
that Casca is a biased narrator ("after his sour fashion").  In The 
Winter's Tale, an illiterate narrator (the clown) is given the very 
difficult task of reporting two concurrent catastrophes--the shipwreck 
and the eating of Antigonus by the bear. He fails miserably, but it is 
through this failure that Shakespeare gives a brilliant account of what 
happened.

In Hamlet, there is first the question why the death of Ophelia is 
reported at all in such detail and second why Shakespeare chooses 
Gertrude as the messenger. As for the first question, it seems highly 
likely that the suspicious drowning of Katherine Hamlett in Stratford in 
late 1579 stands behind the story of Ophelia in many ways (see my notes 
on the word 'crowner' at http://panini.northwestern.edu/ 
mmueller/ShakeQuirks/index.html.

As for the second, the simplest explanation is often the most 
appropriate. At Ophelia's funeral Gertrude says

I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have decked, sweet maid,
And not have strewed thy grave.

The bond of sympathy that ties Gertrude to Ophelia here resonates much 
more strongly in the context of Getrude's earlier report, which can and 
perhaps should be seen as an intensification of sympathetic 
identification that is not uncommon in the messenger reports of Greek 
tragedy. As a sixteenth century reader or writer you would not have 
needed a deep familiarity (first hand or second hand via Seneca) with 
the genre to be familiar with that aspect of it.

Some years ago I saw All's Well at the Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, and 
I was very struck by the odd ways in which the triangle of Bertram, 
Helena, and the Countess of Rossillion repeats that of Hamlet, Ophelia, 
and Gertrude. A mother with an impossible son would like for him to 
marry a nice girl who is not of his class but of whom she is very fond.

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From: 		David Frankel <
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Date: 		Friday, 30 Mar 2007 12:43:11 -0400
Subject: 18.0257 Gertrude done her in?
Comment: 	RE: SHK 18.0257 Gertrude done her in?

Perhaps this slight change of direction will be enough to move the 
conversation into more productive areas, but if not, that's fine.

Jeffrey Jordan points out, agreeing with Hardy that

 >Gertrude is not even
 >a person.
 >Gertrude's is a facet of the Bard's imagination.

However, he spends a great deal of his time discussing off-stage 
happenings as if they involved real people-and that, I think, is an 
important part of the issue.

When Jordan says:

 >The reason why Gertrude's speech exists in the play is to
 >inform the audience of the fact of the Ophelia character's
 >death.  That's necessary because the event occurs offstage.
 >The audience won't know about it
 >unless they're informed somehow, since it isn't shown.   Shakespeare
 >used the Gertrude character to report the fact, and did it in
 >a highly poetic way because, well, the Bard was a great poet,
 >and that's how he did things.

he points out that there's a dramaturgical reason for some sort of 
speech or scene-the audience needs information.  He could press the 
point further, though, by asking why the playwright wants Gertrude to be 
the informer, and why he (Shakespeare) has her speak those particular 
words-all, perhaps, ultimately unknowable, but all aspects of the 
dramaturgy of the play.

The audience, however, having learned that Ophelia has died offstage, 
is, mostly, immersed in the fictive world of the play-and they 
experience it (perhaps this is related to Owen Fernie's comments in the 
Presentism Roundtable regarding literature-as-its-experienced) AS IF the 
characters were real.  Many readers and spectators will, despite the 
simultaneous knowledge that "the playwright dun her in", try to figure 
out what's going on in the world of Denmark as they experience it, 
either through the words on the page or the actions on the stage.

It may be that "the Bard was a great poet, and that's how he did things" 
is the final answer that theorists, critics, scholars, readers, viewers, 
et. al., come to, but in the theatre an actor playing Gertrude is still 
on stage saying these words about a person who's no longer there (and, 
as a person, only existed virtually), and audience's will speculate 
about why.

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