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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: August ::
What is Hamlet's flaw?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0439  Thursday, 6 August 2009

[1] From:   John Knapp <
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     Date:   Wednesday, 05 Aug 2009 18:41:33 -0500
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0435 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[2] From:   Nicholas Clary <
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     Date:   Thursday, 6 Aug 2009 07:04:29 -0400
     Subj:   RE: SHK 20.0435 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[3] From:   David Bishop <
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     Date:   Thursday, 6 Aug 2009 12:07:07 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0435 What is Hamlet's flaw?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       John Knapp <
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Date:       Wednesday, 05 Aug 2009 18:41:33 -0500
Subject: 20.0435 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0435 What is Hamlet's flaw?

While I have found the conversation about Hamlet's "flaw" stimulating -- 
should one assume a familiarity with the Greek "Hamartia," not so much a 
personality issue but a choice (or choices) made? -- I must take issue 
with the esteemed John Drakakis when he suggests that, at "the risk of 
sounding prescriptive, we have a responsibility as teachers of 
undergraduates and postgraduates to familiarise ourselves with current 
analytical discourses within the discipline, even if we have quibbles, 
radical disagreements, etc about the relevance or otherwise of 
particular terms."

Drakakis refers to Jacques Derrida, whose statements and 
deconstructionist arguments generally were (I believe successfully) 
refuted over twenty years ago in the eyes of many critical theorists. 
Beginning with Robert Scholes's *Textual Power* (Yale UP, 1985), to John 
Ellis *Against Deconstruction* (Princeton UP, 1990), to Norm Holland's 
"The Trouble(s) with Lacan" on the PsyArt Net (1998) to the much more 
recent Joe Carroll's *Literary Darwinism* (Routledge 2004), almost no 
one -- outside the church of  Deconstruction/constructivism/PoMo 
generally -- thinks these arguments are "current analytic discourses;" 
they haven't been in the thinking of many in criticism for a long time. 
While I would agree that Drakakis's arguments are "rigorously textual," 
I would hope he would rethink his theoretical grounding.

With Respect,
John

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Nicholas Clary <
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Date:       Thursday, 6 Aug 2009 07:04:29 -0400
Subject: 20.0435 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    RE: SHK 20.0435 What is Hamlet's flaw?

Those interested in a compact survey of opinions about characters (and 
the play as a whole), which are arranged in chronological order, might 
take a look at www.hamletworks.org and choose the tab "About Hamlet." 
Bernice Kliman has done an admirable job in selecting and transcribing 
pertinent excerpts from annotations in editions of the play and from 
other scholarly publications.

Nick Clary

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Bishop <
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Date:       Thursday, 6 Aug 2009 12:07:07 -0400
Subject: 20.0435 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0435 What is Hamlet's flaw?

John Drakakis speaks in his accustomed abstract way about Hamlet, while 
denying that what he says is abstract. I'd call that a gap between words 
and action. But to call it that fails to specify the particular problem 
here. Do I think, for example, that he's lying? Of course not. John 
Drakakis says his words are not abstract, and John Drakakis is an 
honorable man.

So evidently I need to explain, more clearly, what I mean by "abstract". 
The "gulf between words and actions" is abstract because it could refer 
to, among other things, good manners, absent-mindedness or anonymous 
generosity. "Separation" is not necessarily a problem. It depends on the 
circumstances. This phrase could refer to Hamlet's self-excoriation for 
speaking daggers at Claudius but using none, or to Claudius saying a 
prayer of repentance (apparently) while not really meaning it. These 
seem to me examples, perhaps, of irresolution, but with quite different 
emphases. Claudius wants to be Christian, but can't; Hamlet wants to be 
unChristian, but can't. The phrase might also describe Macbeth, or 
Othello, or The Merchant of Venice. To say why this "gulf" is "the 
problem" of Hamlet is not as easy as saying that it is. Or even that no 
qualified professional would need, or request, any further explanation.

To take another example of what I would call excessive, unanchored 
abstraction, what does it mean to say that the ghost "authorises 
meaning"? It may mean that he represents a value system that demands 
that the son of a murdered father take revenge. But if so, we might say 
that Christianity "authorises" a rival meaning: that taking revenge, 
especially by killing a king, is damnable. When Laertes says "I dare 
damnation", the daring comes from the ghost's value system and the 
damnation from Christianity.

Laertes knows that to take revenge he must throw away certain values: 
allegiance, vows, conscience and grace. Allegiance and vows -- his 
subject's duty to the king and the state -- might be taken to represent 
yet another value system, distinct from the ghost's or Christianity. I 
think Shakespeare is suggesting, by using Laertes as a kind of 
contrasting mirror, that these are values Hamlet can't so easily bring 
himself to jettison. Laertes also differs from Hamlet in being a private 
person, free, unlike the prince, to carve for himself.

I suspect that in speaking of a "gulf between words and actions" John 
Drakakis means to refer to, among other things, Hamlet's, and perhaps 
Shakespeare's, streak of skepticism. All ideals end in dust. But 
Hamlet's skepticism is a mood, a potentiality: his belief can fade and 
also revive. He can see Yorick in his grave and still want Heaven to 
forgive Laertes, and care about leaving behind a wounded name. These 
grand abstract phrases, so familiar to John Drakakis and his colleagues, 
when brought down to earth by being given an intelligibly specific 
meaning, often, it seems to me, turn out to make the play sound simpler 
than it is.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

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