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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: August ::
What is Hamlet's flaw?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0427  Monday, 3 August 2009

[1] From:   John Briggs <
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     Date:   Sunday, 2 Aug 2009 21:30:40 +0100
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[2] From:   Eric Johnson-DeBaufre <
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     Date:   Sunday, 2 Aug 2009 16:47:47 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[3] From:   Larry Weiss <
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     Date:   Sunday, 02 Aug 2009 17:42:24 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[4] From:   David Bishop <
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     Date:   Sunday, 2 Aug 2009 20:10:38 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[5] From:   Joseph Egert <
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     Date:   Sunday, 2 Aug 2009 18:22:07 -0700 (PDT)
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[6] From:   John Drakakis <
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     Date:   Monday, 3 Aug 2009 13:14:00 +0100
     Subj:   RE: SHK 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[7] From:   Jim Ryan <
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     Date:   Monday, 03 Aug 2009 11:22:51 -0400
     Subj:   Hamlet's flaw


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       John Briggs <
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Date:       Sunday, 2 Aug 2009 21:30:40 +0100
Subject: 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?

While we are on the subject of tragedy and fatal flaws, I don't think 
anyone has pointed out that Francis Meres referred to Shakespeare's 
"tragedies" in the following terms:

[most excellent for the stage] "for Tragedy his Richard the 2, Richard 
the 3, Henry the 4, King John, Titus Andronicus, and Romeo and Juliet."

Just what did Meres think was Henry IV's fatal flaw?

John Briggs

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Eric Johnson-DeBaufre <
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Date:       Sunday, 2 Aug 2009 16:47:47 -0400
Subject: 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?

I promise, Hardy, that this will be my last word on this subject for a 
while and want to thank everyone reading this thread for bearing with my 
sometimes lengthy responses. I'll try to keep this short.

David Bishop and David Basch both invoke the law (admittedly in quite 
different ways) in their recent responses. Bishop believes that his 
proposed themes (transformation of revenge into justice and the 
replacement of absolute monarchy with a government of law) offer 
something more concrete on which to interpret the play than Drakakis' 
claim that one of the pressing issues is the separation of word and 
action. What Bishop doesn't recognize is the way Drakakis' position is 
intimately bound up with questions of law. Whether or not Hamlet 
(strictly in the legal terms of his time) is justified or not in killing 
Claudius depends, in part, on the ability of certain actions to signify 
clearly and unambiguously, something I have been arguing they do not do. 
This brings us to Basch's argument that had Hamlet killed Claudius at 
3.3, he could have easily persuaded the court that the slaying was 
justified because the King was guilty of murdering Old Hamlet. But what 
would his evidence have been? The word of a ghost, Hamlet's own 
"prophetic soul" that told him the King was guilty, and Claudius' rising 
upon the talk of the poison.

Working within Basch's hypothetical, let's imagine a prosecuting 
attorney's likely response to this scenario. First, Hamlet's witness is 
the victim himself, now a spirit who confesses this piece of information 
only to Hamlet and who has the annoying habit of only being visible to 
certain people at certain times. Not a sterling defense witness. Second, 
we have Hamlet's own belief in the rightness of the ghost's words. But 
this simply assumes as fact what has yet to be demonstrated. Lastly, we 
have Claudius' rising at the moment when Lucianus, the nephew, poisons 
his uncle, the King. Again, let's imagine the scene:

Hamlet: But your honor, what about the King's confession of his guilt.

Judge: When precisely did he do that?

Hamlet: Well, when he got up suddenly during the play at the talk of the 
poisoning!

A clever lawyer has merely to assert here that Claudius rose in response 
to a perceived threat coming from his mad nephew, who claims to talk 
with ghosts and who has in fact confessed his frustration over his lack 
of advancement to his friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He might go 
on to note that Claudius didn't rise at all the first time he saw the 
poisoning occur (in the dumbshow) and that it was only when the poisoner 
was identified as the nephew to the King that Claudius was at all 
disturbed.

In his defense, Basch suggests that the witnesses to the Mousetrap would 
side with Hamlet, him being the people's favorite. But here's what the 
only witnesses whose voices we actually hear see the situation: 
following Claudius' opening in 3.3 that "I like him not, nor stands it 
safe with us / To let his madness range" Guildenstern says that "Most 
holy and religious fear it is / To keep those many many bodies safe / 
That live and feed upon your Majesty" (3.3.8-10, Arden 2nd). Here the 
talk is all about the possible violence that might come to the state 
from Hamlet. One could reasonably argue that this exchange, coming as it 
does after the King's rising in 3.2), suggests that the parties involved 
perceived a threat of violence from Hamlet not evidence of Claudius' guilt.

Of course a very clever lawyer would simply argue that Hamlet's only 
real piece of evidence to this point (Claudius' rising) could signify 
any number of things, from a fear that Hamlet was gunning for him to an 
involuntary response to the call of nature. It isn't that it CANNOT 
signify his guilt, only that it does not unambiguously do so.

To argue that it does is to claim more than the text allows us. It 
certainly means this to Hamlet, but that it signifies with any certainty 
at all remains the vital question from a legal standpoint. This is not 
to suggest that the play is reducible to a legal drama, but questions of 
law and justice form part of its center of interest and it is to these 
questions (as well as to others) that the issue of the correspondence 
between meaning and action addresses itself.

I see I have not kept my word and that my own actions run quite counter 
to my professed desire to keep this short. Isn't it always thus?

Cheers,
Eric Johnson-DeBaufre

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Larry Weiss <
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Date:       Sunday, 02 Aug 2009 17:42:24 -0400
Subject: 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?

I agree with most of what Eric Johnson-DeBaufre has said, but with one 
tiny quibble (which, however, might have significance):  Eric says,

 >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.

I don't think that Hamlet misconstrues Claudius's actions. Claudius is 
in fact seeking absolution and arguably expressing a degree of remorse. 
But, what Hamlet misses and Claudius gets right is that these voicings 
are of no consequence theologically as Claudius has not made and cannot 
possibly make a "perfect act of contrition" so long as he retains the 
fruits of his sins. (I realize this might inspire a debate on the 
grander subject of Catholic doctrine in this play, but to me the issue 
is all but foreclosed by the Ghost's declaration about being in Purgatory.)

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Bishop <
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Date:       Sunday, 2 Aug 2009 20:10:38 -0400
Subject: 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?

In saying that Eric Johnson-DeBaufre was reviving an old argument I had 
in mind versions that have appeared recently, and not so recently, on 
this list. However, I'm happy to consider the argument only as Eric 
himself presents it.

He agrees that the audience knows Claudius to be guilty, as a result of 
the ghost's revelation and also the guilt-confirming "painted word" 
speech. Yet he believes that Claudius's rising may not confirm his 
guilt. It may instead indicate his response -- fear? anger? -- to the 
revelation that Hamlet is threatening, by calling Lucianus "nephew to 
the king", to kill him. Would not his sense of being threatened have to 
arise from his guilt, and also from his sense that Hamlet has somehow 
discovered it? If so, what does the "nephew" add to the situation? If 
Hamlet had said, "Lucianus, the poisoner", should we imagine that 
Claudius would not have risen, and as a result would have revealed 
nothing? Or that he would not have felt Hamlet was threatening him? And 
if he does reveal nothing about his guilt with his rising, to whom does 
he reveal nothing? To Horatio, who doubts whether any guilt has been 
revealed? Horatio agrees with Hamlet. If you think his agreement is 
restrained, and it might be that Shakespeare intended us to feel this, 
could it not be that Horatio is not expressing doubt about what was 
revealed but is trying to influence the increasingly manic Hamlet to 
calm down? To go back to an old response, by Harold Jenkins, what would 
be the point of this supposed ambiguity? That "in the world of Hamlet" 
(as opposed to what world?) ambiguity sometimes causes problems? But to 
deny that a particular action, in a particular context, is ambiguous 
does not amount to denying the existence, at other times, of ambiguity.

Eric speaks as if "the correspondence between meaning and action" has a 
straightforward meaning. He's sure that "this link" is "desired". As far 
as I can understand what he means, he's saying, for one thing, that 
actions can be misinterpreted. Yes, I agree. He's also saying that 
sometimes people dissemble by acting in a way that intentionally 
misleads other people. Yes, I also agree. As far as the understanding of 
action goes, though, I believe that we do understand some actions, 
sometimes, in context, even though our deep knowledge of human action, 
of how, for example, the chemistry of our brains is involved in our 
actions, has limits. Criticism, I think, involves distinguishing 
contexts, and degrees of ambiguity, rather than insisting on the 
all-pervasiveness of ambiguity, even though we might agree that in some 
absolute sense, which requires its own particular context, ambiguity is 
all-pervasive. If Eric means that it would be good if we could 
accurately read each other's thoughts at all times, I have doubts about 
whether that would always be a good thing. So perhaps I don't find the 
"correspondence between meaning and action", even if we could agree on a 
meaning of that phrase, as simply "desired" as he does. Nor do I think 
we are meant to feel, wholeheartedly, that Hamlet ought to be rushing to 
take his revenge. The confirmation of Claudius's guilt removes Hamlet's 
supposed excuse for delaying. Then he heads for his mother's closet-not 
Claudius's. There's a mystery in Hamlet's delay, at every stage. I think 
this is more likely to be what occurs to an attentive audience than the 
"ambiguity" Eric sees and I do not.

I think Eric is trying to say something about the play, but the 
generality of his terms works against the clarity of his meaning. In my 
reply to John Drakakis I went into this further. Eric's attempts to 
ground his view of the play in these very general terms, which he 
apparently thinks have a more straightforward meaning, here, than I 
think they do, seems to me to unnecessarily impede understanding.

As for David Basch, his ideas of plausibility and mine are very far 
apart, and I tend to doubt whether this gulf can be crossed. If Hamlet 
were to kill Claudius and say that he knew Claudius did the murder 
because a ghost told him, and because Claudius walked out of some 
Italian play, I don't think it's plausible that Hamlet's succession 
would have proceeded as smoothly as David imagines.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Joseph Egert <
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Date:       Sunday, 2 Aug 2009 18:22:07 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?

It's clear from the responses here that many believe the Ghost is intent 
on justice through PUBLIC revenge. Yet nowhere does he couch his command 
in such terms. Instead he demands that young Hamlet unequivocally prove 
by slaying the slayer that he is the dead King's loving son and true 
heir, and not someone else's bastard. Some would argue that Hamlet in 
fact fails this test of legitimacy:

      http://www.shaksper.net/archives/2005/1379.html

Arnie Perlstein elsewhere asks "whether any interpreter has actually 
made the case" for the Ghost being a Devil in disguise.

Arnie, pick up Prosser's HAMLET AND REVENGE, and allay all doubt. This 
demon of a Ghost (or Father Death as I call him) hungers for as many 
human scalps on his belt as he can muster. Any premature slaughter of 
Gertrude or even Claudius might deny him his Feast at the end. One can 
imagine this demonic force (Hamlet's madness?) preying on the Prince's 
melancholy to excoriate sweet Ophelia, to seek damnation for Claudius, 
to strike at the unseen Polonius. A creative director would have his 
Hamlet at these moments appear blasted with hairs standing on end.

John Drakakis is puzzled. "What text", he wonders, leads me to insist 
Claudius' guilt for the murder of his predecessor is NOT publicly 
demonstrated in 5.2? Why the text(s) of the play HAMLET by one William 
Shakespeare et al. At least, a close reader like David Bishop agrees. 
Perhaps, as frontstory, Horatio "spills the beans" in 5.3, but not in 5.2.

David Basch upbraids this lowly amateur for concluding too hastily from 
limited facts. He'll be happy to learn I miscorrected his misquote, 
substituting "may" for "will". One more device "ouerthrowne".
Serves me right for being "overly wise." Eh, David?

Conrad Cook explains:

"Since a character flaw is the imbalance of virtue that causes the 
protagonist to critically slip up, whatever it is that motivates Hamlet 
not to kill Claudius, and to kill Polonius, is (I think) our prime 
candidate for a character flaw in Hamlet."

Sorry, Conrad, after many attempts I still cannot unravel this. Perhaps, 
Hardy permitting, you can elaborate for our benefit. And isn't the 
'flaw', contra Steve Sohmer, a defect in conscience, and not an excess? 
Hamlet's doubt in the benevolence of the Ghost never really leaves him, 
despite desperate efforts to convince himself.

Michele Marrapodi sees the killing of Polonius as "Hamlet's only 
mistake." I see that mistake as acting on insufficient evidence here as 
elsewhere. He is plagued by relentless doubt throughout. While we as 
audience overhear Claudius' damning confession, Shakespeare withholds 
such certainty from Hamlet himself, even in Act V, when he appears to 
leave certainty to a higher power. That higher power permits the Ghost 
to engineer the mass slaughter of both innocent and guilty. When Laertes 
cries, "The King, the King's to blame", does Shakespeare mean the King 
of Kings? Is Hamlet the Devil's scourge as well as God's?

David Bishop thinks "the convention is to believe the ghost, who in 
Hamlet is, I would say, powerfully believable. In fact, extremely hard 
to disbelieve." Then, why does Hamlet suffer so many recurring doubts 
and need so many proofs? And why does Shakespeare surround these ghostly 
appearances with such demonic atmospherics, as Prosser details? David 
also notes elsewhere the commission to England to kill Hamlet is 
evidence of Claudian tyranny. Doesn't Hamlet's forging of this command 
and counterfeit deaths of R &G cast suspicion over the authenticity of 
the Ghost's commission to kill Claudius. Is the Ghost himself a forgery?

Many thanks to Ed Taft for his support, and to all contributors for 
making such discussions so intriguing.

Your fellow resolute,
Joe Egert

[6]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       John Drakakis <
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Date:       Monday, 3 Aug 2009 13:14:00 +0100
Subject: 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    RE: SHK 20.0423 What is Hamlet's flaw?

I wish that David Basch's account of Hamlet's delay were as 'modern' as 
he implies. Given the nervousness around the ct of regicide at the end 
of the 16th century I doubt whether the Danish 'court' (to be 
distinguished from a hypothetical theatre audience) would have seen it 
this way. Besides, what proof would Hamlet have, given the attitude of 
the Court as represented in Act 1 scene 2. Claudius is worried about 
what 'the people' might think, but we see what 'the people' constitute 
in Act 4.5, which, whatever else it does, it clearly doesn't condone 
'democracy', and it makes it clear what a 'real' revenger risks, and 
what the risk is to the regime, if he acts precipitately. The 
distinction between what Laertes does and what Hamlet can't do is only 
made explicit in Q1 if I remember correctly. Laertes' case is NOT the 
mirror image of Hamlet's. This does not fully answer Hamlet's 
predicament since we still have to account for his behaviour when 
overhearing Claudius at prayer: or should I say THINKING that he 
overhears Claudius at prayer, since all he sees is the player king on 
his needs in the outward gesture of prayer. Many years ago, Nicholas 
Brooke in his 'Shakespeare's Early Tragedies' thought that this was 
Hamlet at his most morally repugnant. Perhaps in the light of this 
debate we might want to re-think that response, and to suggest that this 
is what unrestrained revenge (of the kind that Laertes proposes later) 
looks like. There is a double irony here since Hamlet, had he killed 
Claudius, would have sent him to everlasting damnation, but had he done 
so then he would be guilty of exactly the same behaviour that Laertes 
later proposes - behaviour that places him alongside Claudius in the 
undermining of the performative efficacy of language. Laertes' rebellion 
would undermine language in exactly the way that the 'rebel' Claudius does.

In response to David Bishop, let me say immediately, I see nothing 
offensive in contesting these issues. My point in drawing attention to 
the 'words/deeds' opposition in the play, was not to reduce the dramatic 
structure to a single binary. The gap between words and actions is 
something that in a post-Derridean world we may think of as 'natural' or 
even axiomatic, but in a culture for which print was a new technology it 
carried far wider implications. Hamlet's delay can be attributed to a 
number of causes rather than to any one cause. Moreover what we might, 
from our modern perspective, read as a 'character flaw' looks a little 
different when we think more historically. In a sense Hamlet is a 
product of the situation he finds himself, and his 'subjectivity' (a 
problematical term in this context) is an effect rather than a cause. 
Hamlet's situation doesn't arise because he is a depressive. He is 
depressed because the situation he finds himself in offers him no 
certainty. I don't think I need to complete this argument since the 
conclusion is fairly obvious, although I would emphasise that at the 
root of this dilemma is not the inadequacies of language per se, but the 
difficulty of finding a language that can transparently represent the 
world, and the situation, and that Hamlet needs if he is to make any 
action meaningful. In short, we are the inheritors of Claudius and not 
Hamlet (an unflattering thought), in part because we accept as axiomatic 
a distinction between the 'private' and the 'public' spheres, and 
between signifier and signified (Derrida's 'differance'). This is not a 
new idea, and though in a different register, precedes Derrida.. It is 
there in one form in a much overlooked book by Terence Hawkes, that, as 
usual, has anticipated very considerably some of the contemporary 
debates about oral and literary language in the Renaissance, 
'Shakespeare's Talking Animals' (1973). If ever a book, now out of 
print, cried out for re-issue, then this one does.

Cheers,
John Drakakis

[7]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Jim Ryan <
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Date:       Monday, 03 Aug 2009 11:22:51 -0400
Subject:    Hamlet's flaw

Apparently, I was too terse in my post listing the actions in Hamlet 
that are either explicitly or implicitly presented as dumb shows. It is 
of course true, as David Bishop writes, that words and actions are 
separate in many plays. In Julius Caesar Calphurnia's dream and Caesar's 
putting aside the coronet Antony offers must be interpreted; in 
Coriolanus action and eloquence are prominent issues. But in neither of 
those plays are the actions to be interpreted presented as dumb shows. 
In JC the characters and the audience are invited to read omens or 
political intentions; in Coriolanus -- another play like Hamlet that 
explores the nature of action itself -- we are not invited to think of, 
say, Coriolanus kneeling silently before his mother as a dumb show. In 
the reflexively mimetic Hamlet, by contrast, physical actions and 
particular gestures are treated as dumb shows by the characters of the 
drama, as Ophelia puzzles over Hamlet's actions in her closet. As the 
specific form Shakespeare's general preoccupation with words and actions 
takes in Hamlet, dumb shows are not merely a theoretical issue divorced 
from the particulars of the drama. They are rather like the 
substitutions in Measure for Measure (though much more finely 
calibrated) -- analogous actions that structure the play.

As to revenge and justice, they are not merely moral or social issues in 
the play. They are also the occasion for probing the nature of action 
itself. And if (as Francis Fergusson reminds us) human action is a 
mystery, the play is an "inexplicable dumb show."


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