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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: August ::
What is Hamlet's flaw?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0451  Tuesday, 18 August 2009

[1] From:   David Evett <
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     Date:   Friday, 14 Aug 2009 19:21:58 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0448 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[2] From:   Joseph Egert <
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     Date:   Saturday, 15 Aug 2009 12:55:04 -0700 (PDT)
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0448 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[3] From:   Conrad Cook <
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     Date:   Saturday, 15 Aug 2009 02:07:22 -0400
     Subj:   What is Hamlet's flaw?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Evett <
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Date:       Friday, 14 Aug 2009 19:21:58 -0400
Subject: 20.0448 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0448 What is Hamlet's flaw?

"I often imagine hearing Louis Agassiz exhorting his students: 'Look  at 
your fish.'"

Looking at your fish is good, very good. Finding a truthful language 
with which to convey even what you yourself think is important about 
your observations to others is good, too -- and almost certainly more 
difficult.

David "Agassiz" Evett

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Joseph Egert <
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Date:       Saturday, 15 Aug 2009 12:55:04 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 20.0448 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0448 What is Hamlet's flaw?

 From Sally Drumm:

 >Has young Hamlet achieved perfect vicarious contrition by
 >helping to restore the fruits of King Hamlet's sins to young Fortinbras?
 >
 >Please define "vicarious contrition" and "fruits of King Hamlet's sins."<

Young Hamlet may be viewed as the play's imperfect Savior -- like Jesus, 
born to redeem the Time. That time was deranged by King Hamlet's 
slaughter of King Fortinbras, the 'first corse' in this drama. It is 
King Hamlet, not Claudius, who is the "question of these wars". We 
cannot verify Horatio's report of that duel between God's anointed royal 
magistrates, in this play where eye and ear are consistently being 
'abused' by false report of tongue or pen. Was King Hamlet's swordtip 
stealthily envenomed? Did he or Old Norway use sorcery to fix the duel 
for which the latter was punished with 'impotence'? We simply cannot know.

Let's assume the royal duel was conducted as reported. Would the 
religious authorities and humanist scholars of Shakespeare's day have 
condemned even entering into such a duel as an act of sin, grounded in 
prideful idolatry of 'divine ambition', and tempting God? If we posit 
young Fortinbras as King F's natural son and not Old Hamlet's or Old 
Norway's bastard, hasn't King H sinned in regicidal slaughter of the 
youth's father? By retaining the 'effects' of his crime, Claudius 
(mortally damned as he was) could not perfect his repentance. Young 
Hamlet, however, by helping restore King H's sinful fruits to young F, 
has reversed the original duel's decision and vicariously expiated King 
H's sin. The Time has now been set right.

Like dead Pompey's statue in JC, the death of King Fortinbras casts a 
long shadow over the entire play. It is its Original Sin.

Regards,
Joe Egert (dismounting from his hobby horse)

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Conrad Cook <
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Date:       Saturday, 15 Aug 2009 02:07:22 -0400
Subject:    What is Hamlet's flaw?

It seems to me we are coming more and more to the heart of the matter.

Felix de Villiers <
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 >wrote:

 >From the start I have felt uncomfortable with the title of the thread
 >and have asked myself why. Somehow it has a philistine ring in my ears.
 >It is like asking, "What is Heathcliff's flaw in "_Wuthering Heights_?
 >or Becky Sharp's flaw in _Vanity Fair_?" They may have more than one
 >flaw, but these are swept up on the tide of inspiration, rich in
 >infinite details of the works in which they are conceived. It is the
 >conception as a whole that interests us more than single flaws.
 >
 >Traditionally Hamlet's flaw is his indecision, but is this not his
 >strength?

That is the tradition, but so far as I can tell there's no textual 
grounding for it. Most modern discussions of Hamlet's character have 
been badly crippled by Freud's psychoanalytic legacy. The psychoanalytic 
approach in combination with asking the question -- "Why does Hamlet 
delay?" -- has lead much criticism in fruitless directions. Hamlet tells 
us why he delays:  and an interpretive strategy that imputes 
subconscious motives to him I think should be expected to demonstrate 
that such a reading has textual validity.

As far as Heathcliff and Becky Sharp go, I'm not sufficiently familiar 
with these stories to comment. However, if they achieve a good tragic 
effect with characters lacking a tragic flaw, then Aristotle is wrong 
about what tragedy is -- perhaps a more important development than 
anything having to do with _Hamlet_.

 >.. His paranoia is matched by brilliant reflections and insights. A 
King is
 >food for worms and may pass through the stomach of a beggar. He sees the
 >senselessness of wars over a worthless patch of land that leads
 >thousands to their death. He sees the glorious promise of life on earth
 >threatened by meaninglessness. Who of us have not had moments when
 >nature, cities like Venice, the beauty of the men and women we see
 >around us, do not seem unreal faced with the self-destructive tendencies
 >of our kind? In his visionary delirium Hamlet/Shakespeare sometimes
 >gives a glowing, smoldering voice to language that almost rise
 >enigmatically above their immediate context, as in his words after
 >killing Polonius:
 >
 >                                     O, such a deed
 >As from the body of contraction plucks
 >The very soul, and sweet religion makes
 >A rhapsody of words: heaven's face doth glow:
 >Yea, this solidity and compound mass,
 >With tristful visage, as against the doom,
 >Is thought-sick at the act.
 >
 >Who still has time to think of Hamlet's flaw?

It's not clear to me, Felix, what your argument is, unless perhaps 
you're reminding us that considerations of the play's structure do not 
do justice to the beauty of the play's language. But that's not the 
purpose of looking at the play's structure.

The purpose of looking at the play's structure -- at the 
cause-and-effect sequences and at situations that seem to mirror each 
other -- is to identify the beauty in the storytelling. It helps us to 
see all the little ironies in the unfolding of events.

If this is our goal (or one of them), then it is vitally important that 
we understand the extent to which Hamlet is a virtuous man who deserves 
our sympathies, as well as that we see clearly all the little meannesses 
in his character that tamper with our sympathies; and to understand 
which of those meannesses lead to his downfall (if any do) and which do 
not (if any do not). Properly, this is what we are doing when we look 
for Hamlet's character flaw:  we are not, or should not be, 
psychoanalyzing him.

Also, of course, there is the more interesting question of meannesses 
Hamlet may have that do not tamper with our sympathies.

Certainly there is more to the play than Hamlet's character flaw; in 
this you are right (if this is your point). But the same can be said for 
any domain of inquiry under which we might investigate the text.

John Knapp <
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 >wrote:

 >In general, while scientists tend to work toward a consensus because
 >"nature" talks back to scientists and it's "not nice to fool mother
 >nature," literary critics can only talk back to one another. Ours is a
 >very conservative discipline that tends to rely on reputation as much as
 >strength of rhetorical skills. But we are, nonetheless, still subject to
 >many of the "laws" of disciplinary initiation, growth, development,
 >innovative exhaustion, and finally, decline. Alas, old ideas (like
 >Saussure's rather silly "language never errs") tend to decline as their
 >(tenured and aging) proponents either retire or die, rather than because
 >its proponents have not found consensual confirmation in the critical
 >universe.

Well, there's that old joke that if academics ever established anything 
they'd put themselves out of work. Just as the MLA needs to keep 
revising its standards, as to what is double-spaced and what is not, to 
keep us buying the most recent guidelines, academics need to kill off 
their inherited theories, replacing the Renaissance with the Early 
Modern Period, and so on. Because "the Renaissance" is an artificially 
created category (and "the Early Modern Period," presumably, is not).

And, I think it's clear that theories of literary criticism tend to be 
especially sensitive to cultural trends. We can see post-modernism in 
part as the academic expression of the back-swing to cultural imperialism.

So, how then are we to counter-balance our own cultural biases?  Is it 
possible to develop a textually-based way of evaluating evidence that 
would enable us to *ground our investigations in the subject of our 
inquiry, and thereby abrogate the tendency we all have to read our own 
meanings into a text?

How do we query a text for its meanings?  How do we learn to treat a 
thesis as a hypothesis which can be tested against a text?  How can we 
tell whether a statement about the world of Elsinore is *actually* 
implicit in the text as we have it?

Is anybody else working on this?

Conrad.


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