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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: August ::
What is Hamlet's flaw?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0433  Tuesday, 4 August 2009

[1] From:   David Bishop <
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     Date:   Monday, 3 Aug 2009 21:53:05 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0427 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[2] From:   Conrad Cook <
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     Date:   Tuesday, 4 Aug 2009 07:19:13 -0400
     Subj:   What is Hamlet's flaw?

[3] From:   David Basch <
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     Date:   Tuesday, 04 Aug 2009 12:48:12 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0427 What is Hamlet's flaw?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Bishop <
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Date:       Monday, 3 Aug 2009 21:53:05 -0400
Subject: 20.0427 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0427 What is Hamlet's flaw?

John Drakakis and Jim Ryan have patiently tried to explain what they 
meant, and yet, though I admire their patience, I do not understand 
their words. There seems to be a gap between words (theirs) and 
understanding (mine). Except I think the problem is not simply that I 
don't understand their words, but that their words, as they stand, 
cannot be understood. This I'm sure is not what they believe. Evidently 
they think that to speak of "THE gap between words and actions" or "THE 
nature of action ITSELF" is, as they might say, unproblematic. I, on the 
other hand, have no idea what these grand abstractions signify -- unless 
they are applied in particular cases. But when they are, it seems to me, 
something else is at issue, something perhaps a little more concrete.

To say, for example, that Hamlet's "'subjectivity' (a problematical term 
in this context) is an effect rather than a cause" leads me to ask, What 
in the world could that mean? Then comes an answer: "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 can translate 
this as: he is not depressed because he's depressive, he's depressed 
because he's in a depressing situation. So far so good. This seems to 
have more meaning. But why start with, his "'subjectivity' [a large word 
that means what?] is an effect rather than a cause?" This has a grand, 
abstract sound. But it turns out that his 'subjectivity' means his 
feeling depressed. Of course he also feels, at times, angry, friendly, 
admiring, disdainful, etc. Why this grand abstract word, "subjectivity" 
-- or "'subjectivity'" -- to stand in for "depressed"? What is gained by 
this abstraction? As for the cause of his depression being uncertainty, 
again, what does that mean? Uncertainty about whether the ghost was 
telling the truth? About whether he should take revenge? About how he 
should take revenge? About whether words transparently explain actions, 
in general? In my response to this style of criticism, this is how it 
goes. Sentence by sentence, confusion builds on confusion, while what 
seems to be the particular point at the heart of the thicket of 
abstractions turns out, when you hack your way in to it, to be 
questionable, at least.

This impulse to say that Shakespeare is concerned with "action", or 
"words", or "language" seems to me a way of suggesting that the writer 
has found the most general terms for understanding Shakespeare, and 
therefore has arrived at the deepest possible level of insight about 
him. But I don't think that's true. The highest abstraction does not 
necessarily equal the deepest insight. General terms like this don't 
simply HAVE meaning. They must be given meaning, and when they are, the 
particular meanings offered as instances of them, it seems to me, make 
the abstractions not only superfluous but misleading.

I think the way John Drakakis and Jim Ryan use these grand abstractions 
arises from the fact that there is a whole community, a profession, a 
generation -- or generations, the young end represented by Eric 
Johnson-DeBaufre, among others -- that is used to speaking this way and 
think they are saying something meaningful. And I know the standard 
response to what I'm saying will be that I simply am not part of that 
community of understanding professionals, and that if I studied harder, 
read Derrida, or perhaps Hawkes, more assiduously, in time I would come 
to see the meaning and value of their insights. Their words are really 
quite comprehensible to the initiated. Old habits die very hard. As for 
me, my taste in philosophy runs more to Peter Strawson than to Derrida.

Again, though I find this style of criticism a tragic travesty, and have 
for many years, I appreciate the fact that John Drakakis and Jim Ryan at 
least tried to explain. And if they feel the failure in understanding is 
mine, that's perhaps understandable.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Conrad Cook <
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Date:       Tuesday, 4 Aug 2009 07:19:13 -0400
Subject:    What is Hamlet's flaw?

Joseph Egert <
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 >wrote:

 >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.

It would help me, Joe, if you narrowed down what it was you were having 
trouble unraveling with a specific question. To your point about 
Hamlet's attitude toward the Ghost, I disagree:  I think by the closet 
scene we are to understand Hamlet to have no further questions of the 
Ghost's motives.

For Aristotle, the tragic flaw is not an evil disposition, but a good 
disposition. And yet, it is a flaw because it is a virtue 
inappropriately acted on, or acted on inappropriately to the 
circumstance. And especially, we are to consider *immoderate* 
virTuesday, for example justice without mercy, an imbalance of 
virTuesday, which is a flaw.

Up until Hamlet's decision not to kill Claudius, and his subsequent 
killing of Polonius, _Hamlet_ could have been a comedy. The purpose of 
the closet scene, remember, is to get Hamlet to confess his love of 
Ophelia, at which point they will be married (see Gertrude's comments to 
Ophelia before the nunnery scene, and at the funeral). And the plan for 
making this happen is a whacky Shakespearean scheme much like something 
out of _Much Ado_.

We can even hear this in Polonius's line to Claudius:  "It is meet that 
some more audience than a mother, since nature makes *them* partial, 
should overhear the speech." You can imagine how a father, who is 
partial to his daughter, and thinking that he's about to marry her off, 
might say this.

That doesn't happen because Hamlet kills the wrong guy, and fails to 
kill the right guy. Were it not for this, it seems the play would have 
turned out very differently. There are a number of hints of this -- for 
example Ophelia's funeral is set up to look something like a wedding. 
Therefore, whatever it is that causes Hamlet not to kill Claudius, and 
to kill Polonius, this being Hamlet's critical mistake, ought to be 
where we look for an Aristotelian character flaw in Hamlet, the 
definition of that flaw being that it causes the character to make the 
critical error.

Now, we know why Hamlet does not kill Claudius:  because he believes 
(wrongly) that Claudius is putting his soul right with God, and if he 
kills him at that moment, Claudius will go to Heaven. So he decides to 
wait until he catches Claudius sinning -- until he's in bed with Mom, 
maybe -- and then he'll kill him.

That's no longer justice. It's framed as justice -- the alternative 
would be "hire and salary, not revenge" -- but what he is in fact doing 
is trying to force God's hand. It is as a direct consequence of Hamlet 
trying to force God's hand in this way that all the horrors of the 
second half of the play come. Therefore, if we are to look for an 
Aristotelian character flaw in Hamlet, in my opinion this is our prime 
candidate.

(How you would want to name the flaw -- whether as hubris, or lack of 
Christian charity, or even as superstitious belief in a false religion 
-- is another discussion. What interests me is that Shakespeare manages 
to conflate a lack of faith with an excess of faith. But that's the 
result of the inquiry, not the basis of it.)

These days, most Shakespeare scholars are secular in their attitudes, 
and have no strong feelings about the line -- "that his heels may kick 
at Heaven" &c. -- but you will find in the critical literature even of 
50 years ago, when Christianity was a bit more "in," that this really 
freaked people out. And they came up with all kinds of ways of 
explaining it away; that Hamlet was "rationalizing" his desire not to 
kill the guy, for example. I would argue that Hamlet isn't the one 
rationalizing there.

Conrad.

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Basch <
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Date:       Tuesday, 04 Aug 2009 12:48:12 -0400
Subject: 20.0427 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0427 What is Hamlet's flaw?

I found the discussions on list of Claudius's reaction to Hamlet's play 
within a play fascinating. These had so many nuances depending on where 
the interpreter comes from.

It seems like a Rorschach test. Those viewing the object bring 
themselves into the spectacle. This is quite natural. The problem is 
that it sometimes leads individuals to overlay their own preoccupations 
on to the texture of the play, preoccupations more pertinent to 
themselves and less so for playwright and his play. But how to 
distinguish the relevant matter from the less so?

For illustration, I note those on list who focus on issues of justice 
and revenge as being the essence of the play, with one observer 
asserting that the play is centrally about revenge becoming justice. 
Others dwell on "ambiguity" as a leitmotif throughout the play. Is some 
of this real ambiguity or is it the ambiguity caused by failing to take 
account of the signposts to his play the poet has given? When observers 
are heavy into these subjects and read these aspects as central factors 
of the play, the danger is that these will take away from what else is 
going on, things more pertinent and central.

I, for one, find it difficult to understand why revenge becoming justice 
is so important an idea since I don't see why revenge cannot sometimes 
be congruent with justice, as it is in Hamlet's case. Hamlet doesn't 
want to wreak vengeance on Claudius unless he is sure that the ghost is 
not a demon with false assertions tempting him to hell, which is why he 
has a play staged that he believes will catch the conscience of the 
king. Hamlet even tells us his motive, that he has heard that 
reenactment of a crime can bring out the guilt of the murderer.

Thus Hamlet and Horatio observe Claudius's reaction carefully and they 
think their case is proven. Hamlet now feels justified in killing 
Claudius.  He can now become the avenger of the blood of his father and 
he feels he would be praiseworthy in doing so swiftly. Later on, he even 
rails against himself for not acting for such a worthy motive when he 
had the chance. On this point, David Bishop agrees with me and so does 
John Drakakis.

I notice that all on list that discussed how Hamlet would fare with the 
Danish court skip important details. For example, Eric Johnson-DeBaufre 
and David Bishop skirt details. To them I say, No. Hamlet would not say 
that he acted on the word of the ghost but on Claudius's demeanor in 
reaction to the play. Not only did he, Hamlet, observe Claudius's guilty 
reaction but so did Horatio who too was intently watching. The rest of 
the court may not have been looking so intently at this but they did 
observe that Claudius's reaction was striking. Presumably this was a 
court that would admire a son who avenged his father.

It is evident in the play that Hamlet thinks he is justified in 
executing Claudius for the murder of his father based on the evidence of 
guilty demeanor witnessed also by Horatio. If David and Eric can't, 
Hamlet and Horatio think they can read character from body language. (No 
doubt they would be great on reading body language on the TV show, the 
O'Reilly Factor.)

As to how Hamlet will deal with the aftermath of killing Claudius, I 
think that the character Hamlet is better able to judge how it will go 
over with the Danish court, long ago and far away, when he explains it 
in detail to the courtiers than Eric and others on list can do. I trust 
Hamlet's judgment on this issue, so disturbing to others on list. Not 
only does it not disturb Hamlet but he doesn't even regard it as a 
problem. He expects that he can persuade the court and acts as though he 
could.  Commentators asserting that Hamlet cannot persuade the court are 
injecting themselves into the play on a matter not pertinent to the 
character Hamlet and presume to know how the court would regard a prince 
acting to avenge his father when the thinks he has evidence to justly do so.

But as some on list have observed, the real problem in the play is that 
Hamlet fails to act, as mentioned by David Bishop. It is not because 
Hamlet is worried that he did not prove his case. Hamlet is so sure he 
is in the right that he thinks Claudius deserves exactly the same fate 
as Claudius inflicted on his father, namely, to be killed without having 
the opportunity to repent for his sins. Hamlet wrongly thinks that 
Claudius has repented and so he wants to save his punishment of Claudius 
for a time when Claudius has added further blackness to his deeds. 
Hamlet here wants the perfect punishment, perfect justice, which is hard 
to get on earth.

Hamlet's motive is his over righteousness, wanting a full measure of 
punishment for Claudius, perfect justice. But this craving goes beyond 
what the circumstances will permit and leads him to not carry out 
punishment when he had the chance to do so. As Ecclesiastes tells, "To 
everything there is a season, . . . there is a time to kill . . ." 
Hamlet fails to seize the moment.
That this reaction is not merely my own obsession overlain is indicated 
by the fact that a seasoned commentator like William Hazlitt brought 
this up in his analysis of the play. The view that Hamlet is over 
righteousness is also established, among other incidents in the play, by 
Hamlet's over righteous reaction to Ophelia, who is more victim than a 
collaborator in a plot to spy on him, but which Hamlet's over 
righteousness leads him to misconstrue, to the wincing of audiences.

This situation in the play that exhibits Hamlet's fault in character 
appears to link it to the warning of Ecclesiastes about this very 
character trait, which is declared to be one of the traits (the other is 
being "overly wise") that will inevitably lead to self-destruction ("Why 
woulds't thou destroy thyself?") And when we examine the play, Hamlet 
also exhibits Ecclesiastes' other deadly flaw, a combination of flaws 
common to many sincere persons who regard themselves as good persons 
(and which we would all be wise in being alert to in ourselves).

What is more, the play enacts many others of the sayings of 
Ecclesiastes.  For example, Hamlet looks at the clouds in an episode 
mocking Polonius, about which cloud watching Ecclesiastes warns, "he who 
regards the clouds will not reap," foreshadowing the fact that Hamlet 
will not do so. Another episode is that the unproven Fortinbras (as a 
result of "time and chance," for "the race is not to the swift"), walks 
in to inherit the throne that Hamlet labored for with great effort and 
wisdom. And though that is so, "who knows whether he (the inheritor) 
will be a wise man or a fool?" This one of the pitfalls Ecclesiastes 
brings up concerning what could happen with the vain pursuit of power, 
so well illustrated in the play.

This and many other parallels (read Ecclesiastes and you will be 
impressed by how many of these there are) lead to the conclusion that, 
more than anything, the wisdom of Ecclesiastes is the key to 
understanding Shakespeare's play. On this score, I am not alleging that 
it is my superior sensitivity that enables such a conclusion but only 
the happy accident that I have read Ecclesiastes and can see its 
application to the play, which provides guideposts to my reading and 
seeing the play.

In my view, the play turns out to be a tragic parable about how hidden 
character flaws can bring destruction on even a good man. The tragedy is 
that good Hamlet doesn't even realize his flaws and we find him 
wondering in the play why all his ventures fail ("How all occasions do 
inform against me,..."). The play is concocted from the wisdom of 
Ecclesiastes which the poet obviously had taken inspiration from and 
wove into its plot.

Finally, as I have mentioned before, Aristotle surveyed the many 
tragedies written by the playwrights of his time to ferret out its 
perfect form, which he presented in his Poetics. This means that 
Aristotle regarded some of the plays he examined as imperfect examples 
of tragedy. Thus, for the information of John Briggs, the device of the 
"fatal flaw" is an illustration of what he regarded as making for the 
most intense experiences of "pity and fear" to be found in such plays 
and that not all plays described as tragedies necessarily have to have 
this precise device. But the device is certainly in the play, Hamlet. 
Shakespeare obviously agreed with Aristotle that this device makes a 
dandy tragedy. The unique feature here is that Shakespeare also found 
that the wisdom of Ecclesiastes provided raw material for constructing 
such a moving tragedy.

David Basch

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