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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: August ::
What is Hamlet's flaw?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0423  Sunday, 2 August 2009

[1] From:   David Bishop <
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     Date:   Saturday, 1 Aug 2009 20:38:50 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0418 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[2] From:   Eric Johnson-DeBaufre <
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     Date:   Sunday, 2 Aug 2009 11:40:25 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0418 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[3] From:   David Basch <
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     Date:   Sunday, 02 Aug 2009 12:10:14 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0418 What is Hamlet's flaw?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Bishop <
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Date:       Saturday, 1 Aug 2009 20:38:50 -0400
Subject: 20.0418 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0418 What is Hamlet's flaw?

Jim Ryan gives a good example of what's wrong with saying that the fact 
that "words and actions are separated from each other" is Hamlet's 
dilemma. In many cases we see actions without words and have to 
interpret them. We also hear words and have to interpret them. These 
facts, by themselves, don't say much about Hamlet. I don't understand, 
for example, what it means to say the play is a dumb show, but the range 
of things I don't understand extends far beyond that statement, or this 
play.

When Hamlet says he has that within which passes show he is, in a way, 
lamenting the separation of words and actions. But "separation" doesn't 
tell us much. It's too abstract. It does not express Hamlet's dilemma, 
unless maybe it expresses a human dilemma, that people may dissemble, or 
fail to find the words which can express their genuine feelings, or find 
themselves unable to repent, or blame themselves for speaking without 
acting. But I doubt that many of us would truly wish, for example, to be 
deprived entirely of the ability to dissemble, even to lie. Shades of 
Jim Carrey in Liar Liar. The world would fall apart.

If I say that Hamlet is about the transformation of revenge into 
justice, and the replacement of absolute monarchy with a government of 
law, I still have a lot of explaining to do, about how these themes work 
in the play -- and in the play as part of the world. But it seems to me 
a better hook. It's a generalization, true, but the words "revenge" and 
"justice" seem to me to open a more particular, vivid and relevant 
doorway to the play than the words "words" and "actions", which are so 
vastly general that they seem to float in the ether, not vitally 
connected to the words and actions of Hamlet. Claudius's secret crime, 
we might agree, is Hamlet's dilemma. But to say that this crime, or 
keeping it secret, is a case of words and actions being separated seems 
to me to lead not toward, but away from the play. If I say that a lie is 
a problem because it's a case of words and actions being separated, do 
you feel like you're getting somewhere? There's generalization and 
there's overgeneralization. Where to draw the line is a judgment call. 
Personally I try not to offer simply judgments but also reasons and 
evidence to support them, as I hope this post demonstrates. As for 
believing that my judgments, as far as I can understand or support them, 
are true, I confess that I do. Not that I think it's impossible for 
anyone to argue me out of them, though that might be a challenge. And of 
course an interpretation can only cover some aspects of the play. 
There's always more to say.

I hope I haven't offended Jim Ryan or John Drakakis, nor insulted them 
by entertaining the possibility that they might be offended.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Eric Johnson-DeBaufre <
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Date:       Sunday, 2 Aug 2009 11:40:25 -0400
Subject: 20.0418 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0418 What is Hamlet's flaw?

David Bishop makes a fine point at the end of his most recent post when 
he writes that Hamlet's identification of the poisoner as the King's 
nephew provides a motive for hesitation since it draws Hamlet into an 
identity with Claudius. This is of course a recurrent issue in the text, 
being sounded as early as Hamlet's first soliloquy.

Much of what precedes Bishop's concluding point, however, strikes me as 
confused. Bishop claims I am reviving an old argument (Greg's), but 
this, to borrow the title of Greg's article (with which I disagree), is 
Bishop's hallucination and not my position. Let me be clear: Claudius' 
guilt is not a matter of doubt for the audience. The genre of the play 
prepares us in advance to accept the Ghost's revelation to Hamlet that 
Claudius is a murderer.

But that is not the issue. The (small) issue is whether or not the 
Mousetrap succeeds in confirming Claudius' guilt and achieving Hamlet's 
objective of grounding that guilt in something firmer than the word of a 
ghost. Bishop claims it does: "Shakespeare takes pains to show us, 
clearly and explicitly, with the "painted word" speech, before the play, 
that Claudius is guilty. Hence we are in no doubt that Claudius rises 
because his conscience, as Hamlet predicted, is caught." But this is 
just a version of the post hoc fallacy: Claudius rises during the play 
after we have been told of his guilt, ergo he rose because of his guilt.

Immediately after this, Bishop states that the King's "rising 
straightforwardly reveals his guilt, at least to Horatio, and perhaps, 
we should say, to Hamlet." Here again Bishop goes wrong: it is Hamlet 
(according to the text) who is far more convinced than Horatio that his 
interpretation of the King's rising is correct (i.e. that it is in 
response to seeing his own crime represented). Hamlet initiates the 
question about the King's behavior and states he'll "take the host's 
word for a thousand pound." Horatio's responses ("Very well, my lord" 
and "I did very well note him") are far more measured.

I want to suggest that an attentive audience can know that Claudius is a 
murderer and simultaneously regard Hamlet's conclusion (i.e. that 
Claudius' rising amounted to an admission of guilt) as fallacious since 
the rising might be motivated by the perceived threat coming from 
Hamlet/Lucianus.

The larger issue involves the significance of this moment in terms of 
one of the play's larger themes, a theme Bishop has already dismissed in 
some measure as a "grand abstract pronouncement" in his response to John 
Drakakis. As I suggested earlier, one of the play's central issues 
involves the correspondence between meaning and action. In the world of 
Hamlet the desired link between these things is broken. And it is broken 
both ways. Thus on the one hand we face the difficulty of making 
uncertain meaning from actions -- Hamlet believes the King's rising 
signifies his guilt but, as 3.3 shows, he also takes the King's praying 
(wrongly) as a sign of repentance, suggesting that perhaps Hamlet's 
ability to derive the truth of meaning from action is impaired. Meaning 
cannot be derived straightforwardly from action in 3.3, suggesting that 
we perhaps err in following Hamlet's belief that it arises 
unproblematically at 3.2. On the other hand, it means that meaning does 
not always prove a sufficient motive for action. Hamlet has reasons in 
abundance to take revenge on Claudius but cannot seem to act (see the 
end of 2.2) or can only act in the "wrong" way by "unpack[ing] [his] 
heart with words."

Bishop's position that some actions bear on their surface 
straightforward meanings is one that the play (in my reading) subjects 
to profound skepticism and interrogation. In a world where the public 
act of mourning is signified by certain kinds of dress, how is one to 
distinguish between true and false grief? In such a world the link 
between the act and its meaning remains terribly broken, leaving Hamlet 
with the impossible task of trying to stitch them together.

Cheers,
Eric Johnson-DeBaufre

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Basch <
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Date:       Sunday, 02 Aug 2009 12:10:14 -0400
Subject: 20.0418 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0418 What is Hamlet's flaw?

I am happy about the discussion on list of the play within the play 
incident in Hamlet. Not that I agree with all the views presented 
interpreting what happens in this play. The advantage has been that many 
things have been put on the table to chew on by others not deep into 
taking sides in the controversy. Given the hundreds of persons that 
presumably will review the discussion, the views presented that are 
rooted in the personal preoccupations or at the extremes of plausibility 
will be shaken loose and readers on list will be getting closer to the 
plausible meaning of the events Shakespeare presented in his play.

I believe that David Bishop has made valuable contributions to this 
discussion in his own careful analysis of the sequence of action in 
question. He plausibly (at least to me) sets out the events that tell 
that Hamlet intended to catch the conscience of the king and actually 
catches it too. But, in my opinion, after following him along for the 
most part, he at the end veers off on a tangent that takes the action of 
the play off the track. Because he comes so close to in his plausible 
narration, I feel impelled to try to rescue his account. David wrote:

 >Finally, we might note that the reenactment of the crime with
 >a nephew does seem to superimpose Claudius's killing of his
 >brother on Hamlet's proposed killing of Claudius, reminding
 >us, quietly, of what we might take to be a thought that might
 >have occurred to Hamlet: that if he kills Claudius he will
 >become, at least in the eyes of the world, like Claudius: a
 >murderer and a regicide. Thus a reason for hesitation is
 >incorporated into the moment which is supposed to remove his
 >hesitation.

Let us back up a moment in considering David's comment. The play within 
the play is supposedly based on a previous known play, which Hamlet has 
somewhat modified. If that is the action, it would be too much to expect 
that there is a previous play that fully delineates the action in 
Claudius's crime. To have had such a play is implausible. Hence, Hamlet 
was presumably limited by the events of the earlier play with its 
scenario of a nephew murdering his Duke Uncle. But this is not a problem 
since there is enough of a correspondence in the play to the details of 
King Hamlet's murder.

No doubt, Claudius seeing the dumb show and taking account of the later 
dialogue of the characters in play is somewhat unsettled, certainly 
enough to ask Hamlet: "Have you heard the argument? Is there no offence 
in't?" But as the action proceeds to the attention of all, Claudius cracks.

It is plausible, as David asserts, that the play's action describing a 
nephew as the perpetrator of the Duke's killing could have played a part 
in further focusing Claudius's attention to the fact that, in staging 
this play, his own nephew, far from being mad, was gunning for him and 
made his outburst more dramatic.

Judging from the situation, I maintain that, had Hamlet acted at the 
time, he could reasonably have persuaded the Danish court that he acted 
against Claudius as blood avenger of his father's murder. I see no 
evidence in the play that Hamlet or Horatio thought otherwise.

In fact, Hamlet only stays his hand because, finding Claudius at prayer, 
he self-righteously over reached to attain a possible future, perfect 
vengeance that would send Claudius to damnation. Nothing else stays 
Hamlet's hand.  I would mention that noted commentator William Hazlitt 
presented this exact thesis of Hamlet's hesitation long ago.

Those on list who think that Hamlet, the favorite of the people, would 
be punished by the Danish court for regicide of their king, against a 
king for whom a plausible case could have been made that he had attained 
his throne through murdering his brother, are overlaying their own 
judgments on to the situation. The one to be charged with regicide, 
Hamlet, would have been the heir to the throne and the people's 
favorite. Without a doubt, he would have gotten every consideration 
possible in explaining his case from those who would judge him, the very 
people who observed Claudius's reaction to the play.

For some who think that they have better judgment on what Hamlet thought 
about this, that is, over what Hamlet himself expresses in the play are 
on thin ice. In fact, Hamlet never gives it a thought. Those who see 
different are superimposing irrelevant considerations on to the play and 
would make nonsense of its action. Seeing this clearly is key to 
understanding the play for then we see clearly how Hamlet here trips 
himself up by his hidden character fault on his way to further such 
faulty actions as the play proceeds until he does himself in by his own 
intemperate actions.

David Basch

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