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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: August ::
What is Hamlet's flaw?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0456  Monday, 24 August 2009

[Editor's Note: I asked that folks try to bring this thread to an end, 
but it seems that I only way it will end is if I use my silver sake (for 
those threads that will not die). DONE! Any further discussion should 
take place off-list until there is another venue to discuss matter such 
as these. Right now, I just cannot take it anymore, so I am going to 
call for a temporary moratorium on posting about Hamlet. There are at 
least 35 other plays and the poems to discuss. -HMC]

[1] From:   Donald Bloom <
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 >
     Date:   Friday, 21 Aug 2009 15:42:21 -0500
     Subj:   RE: SHK 20.0454 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[2] From:   Sally Drumm <
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     Date:   Friday, 21 Aug 2009 19:13:17 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0451 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[3] From:   Conrad Cook <
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 >
     Date:   Saturday, 22 Aug 2009 01:30:42 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0451 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[4] From:   Conrad Cook <
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     Date:   Saturday, 22 Aug 2009 04:15:54 -0400
     Subj:   Subject:    Re: SHK 20.0451 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[5] David Ba<
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     Date:   Saturday, 22 Aug 2009 22:34:11 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0454 What is Hamlet's flaw?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Donald Bloom <
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 >
Date:       Friday, 21 Aug 2009 15:42:21 -0500
Subject: 20.0454 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    RE: SHK 20.0454 What is Hamlet's flaw?

Anna Kamaralli writes, "Thank you for providing such a neat illustration 
of gendered double standards. She's a "bitch", but a sadist who enjoys 
stringing up puppies is merely a "dubious hero". As I also recall you 
calling Katherina an "obnoxious bitch", perhaps you might like to take a 
rest from commenting on female characters until you get a wider 
vocabulary or a greater acquaintance with the present century?"

Well, my apologies for offending her sensibilities with my description 
of Becky Sharp as a bitch. However, I stand by the description.

Of course, Heathcliff is a far worse (far more evil) person than she is, 
at least in my opinion and, I believe, in hers. But in being so he 
partly transcends our ability to identify him clearly  --  a quality he 
shares with Iago and Milton's Satan. Since "Wuthering Heights" is not 
part of the subject here, I won't pursue my response to Heathcliff any 
farther than to say that he, like Iago, appalls, infuriates and 
nauseates me. But he also amazes me.

Becky Sharp does not.

I no more admire him than I do Adolph Hitler, but there he is, and he 
cannot be dismissed out of hand as Becky can.

Incidentally, I find a kind of perverse enjoyment in knowing that she 
remembers a post from so far back. I do use some crude words at times as 
a way of cutting through the haze of generalizing that sometimes, I 
think, makes important moral issues seem either unimportant or 
ambiguous. At least, I try. However, I will agree to reconsider my use 
of that particular word if she will agree to reconsider why she is so 
sensitive to it.

Cheers,
don

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Sally Drumm <
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 >
Date:       Friday, 21 Aug 2009 19:13:17 -0400
Subject: 20.0451 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0451 What is Hamlet's flaw?

 >born to redeem the Time.

I prefer the notion of his being born to save "Time" itself - as in, 
Time timing itself, as my philosophy prof once put it!

As for duels: there exists a specific number of types of duels for human 
beings, just as man vs man, man vs nature, and man vs himself cover all 
probabilities for plot development.

The Aristotelian Square works nicely to delineate these duels with its 
four corners and correspondences: A, E, I, O.

We could consider, hypothetically, the four corners of the Square as 
corresponding to Opposition, Analogy, Complementarity, and Reciprocity, 
the four formal relations essential for human cognition. These being 
correlative to major duel categories: Physical Self (PO), Mental Self 
(MS), Physical Other (PO), and Mental Other (MO); which, in turn, 
correspond to the three plot classes previously mentioned. But how can 
four be three?  Resolving this dilemma is a bit like understanding how 
Prufrock is, truly is, the king of his world and therefore a noble 
creature.

That being defined, here is our hypothesis: the types of duels possible 
in human existence:

PS VS PO
MO VS MS
PS VS MO
PO VS MS
PS VS MS
PO VS MO
PO VS PS
MS VS MO
MO VS PS
MS VS PO
MS VS PO
MS VS PO
MS VS PS
MO VS PO
MS VS SO
PS VS SO
SO VS MS
SO VS PS

Note: All things spiritual and/or non-human would fall under the 
category of Physical Other or Mental Other (Man vs Nature). Duels are 
defined as sources of conflict in human existence. These duels represent 
the types of plot representative within its three categories (mentioned 
above: man vs man, man vs nature, man vs himself).

There is much yet to explore in this line of questioning regarding 
Hamlet's Fatal Tragic Flaw and if in fact such a thing doth exist in 
Hamlet the character as created by Shakespeare. Certainly Fatal Flaw or 
Fatal Tragic Flaw does exist in Hamlet the character as created by 
scholarship. Here then is the great dividing line between playwright and 
scholar. The playwright insists upon explicating human experience; the 
scholar insists upon explicating drama. Here, too, Aristotle steps up to 
the lectern to remind both playwright and scholar: Above all the writer 
must remember that story is an imitation, not of people, but of action 
and life, of happiness and misery; without action there cannot be story, 
although there may be one without character (Poetics).

So. We might be able to define Hamlet's Fatal Tragic Flaw if we first 
define the nature of his duels. The orphic triads can also be brought 
into consideration with all of the above in terms of understanding a 
playwright's intent. And we can't truly know Hamlet's Tragic Fatal Flaw 
without knowing the playwright's intent, which we can never know in the 
case of any of Shakespeare's plays. Can we?

Now we have come full circle to the horns of the dilemma we have all 
danced with during this conversation.

I still would like to know from Joe Egert his response to: Please define 
"vicarious contrition" and "fruits of King Hamlet's sins. He did not 
define these terms in SHK 20.0451  Tuesday, 18 August 2009, although he 
gave a fine response to a question that was never asked.

I imagine the "fruits" refer to F's ancestral lands, which King Hamlet 
usurped. But what of his other errors, his other sins? As for vicarious 
contrition  --  I am not sure this as phrase is possible as an action. I 
doubt that it exists in the sphere of human possibility to be 
vicariously contrite. Please correct me if I have erred. My mind is but 
a vessel for all that goes in it and that is not much in fact.

Of course, all of this is a wonderful intellectual puzzle that is a joy 
to piece together. Selah.

Sincerely,
Sally Drumm
Hack & Adjunct

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Conrad Cook <
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 >
Date:       Saturday, 22 Aug 2009 01:30:42 -0400
Subject: 20.0451 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0451 What is Hamlet's flaw?

Felix de Villiers <
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 >wrote:

 >I appreciated your reply, Conrad, and there is much food for thought in
 >it. I was just a bit disappointed because you wrote mostly in
 >generalising terms and didn't give us illustrations. You whet my
 >appetite and don't satisfy it.

Sorry.

 >Rather than look at what Aristotle has to say about tragedy, I prefer to
 >look at the text in front of me.. I think the whole tragedy derives from
 >the flaw in the character of Claudius. What follows are the reactions
 >and consequences.

Claudius's character is not "flawed" in the classical sense, of course; 
he is a bad man, not a good one with a character flaw.

To the extent you're unwilling to consider Aristotle's ideas of tragedy, 
you will of course find no merit in applications of his analytical tools.

 >"It's not clear to me, Felix, what your argument is.'
 >
 >It's not clear to me either (don't tell Hardy), but what would art be
 >without its enigmas?

Well that's true. But it is for the likes of Shakespeare to write 
enigmously, and not us.

[Now I'm wondering if Hardy will edit that to read "enigmatically," 
which of course would change the entire thing.]

 >"...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."
 >
 >If anything has structure, syllable by syllable, it is the beauty of
 >poetry and this is inseparable from what you call 'the beauty of story
 >telling", the structure of the whole play.

No, the story of the play survives translation into other languages.

 >My question, "Who still has time to think of Hamlet's flaw?" refers not
 >only to the quoted passage, but also to the richly unfolding events of
 >the play as a whole. I was concentrating more on content than on the
 >structure of the play, content, though, that is essential to the 
structure.

Frankly, Felix, I can't understand what you're saying. I suppose that 
means it must be true?

Conrad.

ps - Donald Bloom wrote:

 >It is, I grant, tedious to have to review periodically the definitions
 >of the terms we are using, but it is essential to do so if we are to
 >avoid drifting away from clear statements that we can agree or disagree
 >about.

I'm all for it!

C.

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Conrad Cook <
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 >
Date:       Saturday, 22 Aug 2009 04:15:54 -0400
Subject: SHK 20.0451 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Subject:    Re: SHK 20.0451 What is Hamlet's flaw?

Felix de Villiers <
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 >wrote:

 >First of all I NEVER said Aristotle was wrong, though to say he was
 >right would be equally dim-witted. What I meant was that I look closely
 >at the text in front of me, before turning to other theories No
 >theoretician is absolutely right, theories of drama change. Aristotle
 >was not God. I have just this minute read his theory of tragedy (a
 >summary of it)

Ah, excellent!  Welcome to the -4th Century!

 >and saw several points that have been challenged, like
 >that of the katharsis. Aristotle writes that drama must have action in
 >it, and this is precisely what Hamlet avoids. I have considered this
 >flaw as his strength, but it is, in any case not, (I think) a flaw in
 >the Aristotelian sense.

Yes indeed; Hamlet does not usually bring the audience to catharsis; it 
doesn't make us cry. And while there is a great deal of action in the 
play, the one critical action is held off   --   for reasons that are 
slippery to understand. All of this is deliberate:  Shakespeare wants to 
give us a play that we cannot process, understand, and be done with, 
either intellectually or emotionally.

So we get in every aspect the reverse of the standard action revenge 
story (like _Kill Bill_, or even <http://tinyurl.com/myafu5>).

 >Hamlet extends beyond the bounds of traditional
 >tragedy, much to the discomfort of Classicists, especially in France.
 >Shakespeare is Britain's undomesticated genius. I believe the unity of
 >time and place also comes from the Greeks.

Certainly. And since Aristotle's is in general quite a good description 
of how tragedy works, and since Hamlet is a well-written tragic work 
that does not in important respects conform to Aristotle's description 
of tragedy, by considering how specifically Hamlet deviates from 
Aristotle's criteria, and why those deviations work to achieve a greater 
aesthetic, tragic effect, we will better our understanding, not only of 
this one play, nor of Shakespeare's technique, but of human emotional 
responses to art.

But one doesn't get there by throwing out or ignoring Aristotle as 
irrelevant. Aristotle is even more relevant by virtue of the fact that 
Shakespeare employs techniques both known and unknown to Aristotle. You 
can't see the new techniques without a thorough understanding of the old.

 >Having looked at Aristotle's theories I now know why there has been this
 >mania for flaw spotting. Really! Aristotle could use his own
 >intelligence, Shakespeare his, and we ours.

Or, we can do our best to build on what has been learned before us.

 >Well Hamlet has nothing to do with those two anti-heroes, aolthough he
 >too is described by Hazlitt as an anti-hero,. Going from them to him
 >brings out his virtues. I found an interesting citation on this subject
 >in Hamlet by Hazlitt:
 >
 >"The moral perfection of this character has been called in question, we
 >think, by those who do not understand it. It is more interesting than
 >according to rules; amiable, though not faultless. The ethical
 >delineations of that "noble and liberal casuist" (as Shakespear has been
 >well called) do not exhibit the drab-coloured quakerism of morality. His
 >plays are not copied either from the "Whole Duty of Man," or from "The
 >Academy of Compliments!"
 >
 >Dare I say that Heathcliff and Becky Sharp made a bold escape from the
 >'drab-coloured Quakerism of morality?" Becky is the only honest
 >character who unashamedly exercises the hypocritical avidity of the
 >others   --   apart from about two 'good' characters and a woman who can't
 >cope, vegetates and dies.

In general, there is agreement that _Hamlet_ is pretty cool. I notice 
sometimes critics level an unfair criticism. It goes like this:

The unfair critic says, you're saying Shakespeare uses such-and-such 
technique. But people who use such-and-such technique belong to 
this-or-that crowd. The critic proceeds to pee on the aforementioned 
crowd a bit, and finally, having like a wolf marked his (or her) 
territory, triumphantly concludes: Shakespeare is much cooler than any 
such crowd could hope of being; he is utterly unique!

Which of course was not the issue. Shakespeare can both use 
such-and-such a technique, in common with this-or-that crowd, and yet 
still be unique. And, beyond being an unfair use of rhetorical muscle, 
such criticism serves to end real understanding. Because it terminates 
attempts to understand what is going on in Shakespeare by 
short-circuiting comparisons between Shakespeare and other writers. In 
fact, it prevents us from building up any body of general understanding 
of what Shakespeare is doing whatesoever.

What I'm getting at, Felix, is that Shakespeare could have written the 
emotional logic of Hamlet to Aristotle's noble character flaw specs 
without infusing Hamlet with drab-colored Quaker morality. The fact that 
we don't want to describe Hamlet as being drab-colored Quaker moralizing 
doesn't say anything to the question of whether Hamlet has a character flaw.

Nor do I think your parallels are well-considered. Hamlet is not like 
Becky Sharp or Heathcliff. He's cooler  --  even beyond those virtues of 
his that are brought out in contradistinction. (joke)

 >Don't take every word I write literally.

And here I thought I could take you at your word.

Conrad.

[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Basch <
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 >
Date:       Saturday, 22 Aug 2009 22:34:11 -0400
Subject: 20.0454 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0454 What is Hamlet's flaw?

Reviewing the commentaries on the "Hamlet's flaw" issue, I would leave 
the following comments.

I think Felix de Villiers has gotten wrong what Aristotle did with 
tragedy. As I understand it, Aristotle reviewed the plays actually 
produced by the Greeks that were called tragedy in order to distill from 
it the most general and the most effective form of tragedy. Aristotle 
was big about finding the form or essence of things. He thus came up 
with his recipe for tragedy. Scholars have noted that Oedipus Rex was 
not exactly the average Greek play, but Aristotle believed that it 
exhibited the most successful of the forms, being dramatic and 
powerfully emotionally moving. The point is that Aristotle gave the 
world his philosophical view of what tragic form was, the very recipe 
for those playwrights who wanted to produce a successful tragedy. This 
does not mean that authors had to follow this exact formula but their 
plays had to somewhat conform if they were to achieve the results that 
plays like Oedipus Rex produced.

In Aristotle's discussion, he observed that when the hero's tragic 
downfall was the result of the personal flaw of the hero, his bringing 
the event on himself, the impact was great, hence he recommended that 
vehicle to dramatists. But there is no reason that inventive playwrights 
could not achieve powerful results in other ways. Aristotle did not 
armchair his view of tragedy from thin air but based it on his 
observations of successful tragedy.

The issue of catharsis has posed a problem since many readers 
misunderstand what Aristotle was driving at. In one view, and I think 
the correct view, catharsis refers to the emotional impact of undergoing 
the climax of the play, in which the audience experiences powerful 
emotions such as pity and fear, which experience gives a kind of 
psychological purging of these emotions within the experiment. It was 
these kind of emotions that in the judgement of Aristotle had the 
greatest impact, hence he recommended that dramatists arranged their 
plays to bring these about.

Felix notwithstanding, I think that there is plenty of action in Hamlet. 
The play does fulfill most of Aristotle's recipe and he does have hidden 
faults that destroy even a good man like him, a powerful irony that 
Shakespeare delivers. Yes, Hamlet fails at a critical moment to carry 
out his act of vengeance, but even that is part of the action of the 
play. The character Hamlet gives his reasons for such hesitation, which 
even puzzles him since he is blind to his over righteousness that 
prevents him from acting except in the most perfect of circumstances.

Although some in the audience may not believe Hamlet and indulge in 
second guessing of his ability to think for himself and to read 
Claudius's body language, this goes outside the script and assumes a 
greater competence than the character or the playwright in understanding 
the action the playwright is presenting. If one does so, one ought to 
have a better reason than pop psychology or the latest faddist, 
unestablished theory of personality or literature.

An illustration of the problem of understanding Shakespeare's play is 
what happens when a viewer is too young and inexperienced. He will fail 
to understand what is driving the characters and will not get the 
author's point. Similarly, if even a mature viewer superimposes his own 
involvements and even obsessions onto the action, he will miss what is 
happening in the play since he will be living with his own reality and 
not that of the playwright. And since most of us are blind to our own 
emotional faults, it will not be surprising that some will think their 
own reality is the reality of the playwright. So, as some have pointed 
out on list, anyone insisting on their personal reality as reality ought 
to be prepared to defend their point by reference to the play and its 
action.

I have conscientiously tried to ferret out Shakespeare's reality in 
Hamlet. I think I have succeeded to some extent in doing so based on the 
signals the poet gives in his play, which I have from time to time 
mentioned on list. I have thus presented many of my "dots" found in the 
play which I have subsequently joined into the whole which I see. This 
tells me the poet was producing a tragic dramatization of the wisdom of 
Ecclesiastes since patterns from this work show up all over the place.

This may go against the stream of academic opinion since many scholars 
are intent on showing a Shakespeare that was utterly secularist and 
aloof from biblical materials, although Ecclesiastes in many respects is 
a unique religious work that incorporates much secular skepticism in its 
insights. I think that this is overdone by many scholars and poses a 
problem in getting such an approach as I have suggested fairly considered.

I can only say that I have offered my view and the reasons for it. So 
far I don't think I have read anything in the commentaries on list or in 
the literature that decisively demolishes this Ecclesiastes thesis. I 
think it stands on its own as a plausible thesis along with the many 
others, some of which having far less to commend them.

David Basch

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