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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: July ::
What is Hamlet's flaw?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0403  Friday, 24 July 2009

[1] From:   Aaron Azlant <
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     Date:   Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 18:44:49 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[2] From:   Steve Sohmer <
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     Date:   Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 19:00:16 EDT
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0397 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[3] From:   Larry Weiss <
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     Date:   Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 21:27:58 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0397 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[4] From:   Martin Mueller <
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     Date:   Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 22:07:00 -0500
     Subj:   Shakespeare and Aristotle

[5] From:   David Bishop <
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     Date:   Friday, 24 Jul 2009 10:46:56 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0397 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[6] From:   David Basch <
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     Date:   Friday, 24 Jul 2009 12:51:22 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0397 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[7] From:   Joe Egert <
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     Date:   Friday, 24 Jul 2009 12:07:21 -0700 (PDT)
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Aaron Azlant <
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Date:       Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 18:44:49 -0400
Subject: 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

 >I can do no better than to cite James Hammersmith:
 >http://www.jsu.edu/depart/english/gates/shtragcv.htm
 >
 >It is indeed foolish to insist on a tragic flaw in Hamlet. Aristotle 
did not
 >write the bible for tragedy. Indeed, the conventional idea of a tragic 
flaw
 >does not adequately explain even Antigone in her play, not to mention 
Romeo
 >or Juliet. Hamlet is universally praised or respected by everyone in the
 >play except himself. We can best understand him as a positive character
 >overwhelmed by circumstance, like Antigone.
 >
 >Richard Regan

I just wanted to co-sign this. Shakespeare disregards many of the other 
recommendations in the Poetics  --  unity of time + place, lack of 
episode, limitations on sadness, to name a few. He also insists upon 
consistency of character, which is a point that /Hamlet/ manifestly 
rejects  --  what with its titular characters many, competing 
motivations. I don't see why Shakespeare would decide that he somehow 
needed to uphold  the idea of a tragic flaw for his hero in this 
context, especially since this would have the ultimate effect of 
rationalizing Hamlet's motivation.

   --  AA

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Steve Sohmer <
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Date:       Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 19:00:16 EDT
Subject: 20.0397 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0397 What is Hamlet's flaw?

Dear Friends,

Hardy is right (as usual) about these Hamlet threads.

Briefly, Hamlet names his tragic flaw: that inner voice, conscience, 
which (he claims) makes cowards of us all. But does it?

Do any of these characters exhibit pangs of conscience: Gertrude, 
Polonius, Laertes, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildernstern, Horatio? Not 
even Old Hamlet's Ghost. Claudius has a pang of conscience while 
praying, but overcomes it. Only Hamlet has a conscience.

By the way, except for Horatio all eight the characters enumerated die 
without shriving time allowed.

Hope this helps.

Steve

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Larry Weiss <
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Date:       Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 21:27:58 -0400
Subject: 20.0397 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0397 What is Hamlet's flaw?

I agree entirely with Martin Mueller's insightful post about tragedies 
of errors (although this is perhaps for another thread), except for this 
statement:

 >Shakespeare's other tragedies are not tragedies of error in that
 >quite specific sense of plays that are rooted in a 'theory' or
 >perhaps better a 'methodology' of drama that is rooted in the
 >theory and practice of comedy.

Surely, _Romeo and Juliet_ is the quintessential comedy gone wrong with 
the tragedy flowing directly from errors.

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Martin Mueller <
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Date:       Thursday, 23 Jul 2009 22:07:00 -0500
Subject:    Shakespeare and Aristotle

Richard Regan <
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 >There is no evidence that Shakespeare know Aristotle's Poetics:
 >
 >http://www.jsu.edu/depart/english/gates/shtragcv.htm
 >
 >http://extra.shu.ac.uk/emls/si-01/si-01hagen.html

The question of whether Shakespeare knew Aristotle's Poetics depends on 
what you mean by 'Aristotle', 'Poetics', and 'know'. It is quite likely 
that Shakespeare never picked up a book that had the Poetics in it, 
although some scholars  --  e.g. Louise Schleiner  --  have made a 
plausible case that Shakespeare's direct knowledge of ancient sources 
was a lot less 'less' than Jonson said it was.

But whatever direct knowledge Shakespeare had or didn't have, 
Aristotle's Poetics was one of the most heavily edited and commented on 
books of the sixteenth century. In the middle of the century three great 
commentaries by Robortello, Maggi, and Vettori went through the text 
word by word. Their interpretations set up a framework of an 
Aristotelian dramaturgy that dominated European literary criticism for 
several centuries. Sidney's Arcadia and the wonderful conversation 
between the canon and the curate about drama in Don Quixote (1.48) are 
striking evidence of the common elements that are shared across Europe. 
Aristotle's Poetics, in a 'mash-up' that includes Horace and Roman 
comedy, was in the air. It was something you knew about perhaps without 
even knowing that you did. But Shakespeare plays very knowingly with the 
'Aristotelian' unities when he aggressively violates them in the 
Winter's Tale and even more aggressively observes them in the Tempest.

So it is an entirely reasonable thing to think about Shakespeare's plays 
within an Aristotelian framework, whether you think of Aristotle as an 
author for all ages or, more plausibly, think of Shakespeare as 
operating in a theatrical or dramaturgical  environment that was in very 
particular and pervasive ways shaped by Aristotle's Poetics and the 
reflections it engendered. The 'tragic flaw', however, is not a very 
central concept in that Aristotelian environment. Historically speaking, 
it belongs to a later phase of Aristotelian reception, with Hegel and 
the Schlegel brothers as the dominant voices, in which the opposition of 
'ancient' and 'modern' is lined up with an opposition of 'objective' and 
'subjective' and the Aristotelian concept of 'hamartia' is associated 
with the basic constitution of the protagonist's self.

[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Bishop <
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Date:       Friday, 24 Jul 2009 10:46:56 -0400
Subject: 20.0397 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0397 What is Hamlet's flaw?

Maybe the flaw in the tragic flaw idea is that it reduces the hero to 
one essential quality, "solving" the play with a formula that is too 
abstracted, and too simply centered in the hero, to do justice to the 
array of forces involved.

In high school I was taught that Macbeth's tragic flaw was his ambition. 
This is certainly an element of his tragedy, but it would not function 
as it does without the spur provided by Lady Macbeth. Not to mention the 
witches, and much else.

So to say that Hamlet makes errors, or is overrighteous, that Romeo is 
impulsive, etc., seem to me unsatisfying ways of understanding these 
plays, because they are too abstracted from the specific content of each 
play. I also have trouble taking Hamlet's failure to kill Claudius at 
prayer, for example, as simply an error.

I'm happy John Drakakis found some value in my opinions, though I'm not 
sure what presence is, or how Hamlet is both antidote and poison. But 
those questions may be off-topic. As also, perhaps, the question of what 
makes a theory idiosyncratic. Is there a non-idiosyncratic theory about 
Hamlet? Maybe Hardy has in mind those offered by Amnon Zakov or Margreta 
de Grazia.

Best wishes,
David Bishop

[6]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Basch <
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Date:       Friday, 24 Jul 2009 12:51:22 -0400
Subject: 20.0397 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0397 What is Hamlet's flaw?

Richard Regan offers two articles that allegedly prove that the thesis 
of a "fatal flaw" could not have been extant within Shakespeare's play, 
Hamlet. The articles are most impressive but seem to pose a hypothesis 
contrary to fact since the play Hamlet itself includes lines that 
specifically speak of the condition of a flaw that poisons all other 
qualities of a person, no matter how good. This is expressed in a few 
ways in Shakespeare's play, even in the sense of drunkenness in Denmark 
that takes away from all other of Denmark's good performance in other areas.

Martin Mueller and Scott Shepherd make the same point in their comment 
during the last round on list of this issue and Jim Carroll in the 
postings earlier describe Aristotle's view on this issue in his Poetics, 
quoting directly from Aristotle on how such "errors or frailties" bring 
about changes in fortune, as happens in Shakespeare's plays.

I would also note that the critics that Richard Regan refers to assume 
Shakespeare's ignorance of Greek, which I don't believe is warranted by 
evidence. I recently saw on television a piece about an English person 
who could learn a new language in a week. This was illustrated by having 
him learn Icelandic and then, a week later, appear on Icelandic 
television on a talk show where he converses in the new language. Does 
anyone think Shakespeare lacked such facility, a man who seems to have a 
photographic memory? He remembers the myriad words of writers and wrote 
in a manner that indicated he had read original literary works in 
foreign languages since some of these had not been translated. We 
underrate Shakespeare's ability to our disadvantage.

I would note that, as I understand it, when Aristotle was formulating 
his treatise on tragedy in his Poetics, he reviewed numerous plays in 
seeking out the characteristics of tragedy and used as his example the 
"atypical" Oedipus Rex, which clearly illustrated his point in its 
making use of "recognition" and "reversal," double factors in bringing 
about the play's dramatic impact.

Interestingly, Oedipus's major fault is being the victim of the 
predicted fate he was to undergo that had nothing to do with him 
personally. However, the dramatist also included Oedipus's human fault 
of impetuousness that made him more liable to fall into the trap despite 
forewarning.

For the convenience of those who wish to know more about what is in 
Hamlet, I present some of the lines below from Hamlet directly alluding 
to this issue. I would conclude from these lines that, if Shakespeare 
did not get the idea from Aristotle, he invented it anew. Says Hamlet 
after witnessing Claudius's crowd reveling in drink:

         This heavy-headed revel east and west
         Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations:
         They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
         Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
         From our achievements, though perform'd at height,
         The pith and marrow of our attribute.
         So, oft it chances in particular men,
         That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
         As, in their birth  --  wherein they are not guilty,
         Since nature cannot choose his origin  --
         By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
         Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
         Or by some habit that too much o'er-leavens
         The form of plausive manners, that these men,
         Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
         Being nature's livery, or fortune's star,  --
         Their virtues else  --  be they as pure as grace,
         As infinite as man may undergo  --
         Shall in the general censure take corruption
         From that particular fault: the dram of eale
         Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
         To his own scandal.

(I would note in passing the lines giving Hamlet's argument against 
being prejudiced against people of different origins:

      As, in their birth - wherein they are not guilty,
      Since nature cannot choose his origin )

It seems that Shakespeare is calling attention to the device that he 
uses in his play to create his tragedy of a good man whose faults bring 
him to destruction. Notice that these are faults in the play that even 
good men don't realize they have and therefore this adds a cryptic note 
to his play that makes deeper study of it most worthwhile. I will quote 
also from what the Psalmist has to say about such things, which likewise 
seem applicable to Shakespeare's play:

   PSA 19:12  Who can understand his errors? cleanse thou me
   from secret faults. PSA 19:13  Keep back thy servant also
   from presumptuous sins; let them not have dominion over me:
   then shall I be upright, and I shall be innocent from the
   great transgression.

I would suggest that if all the above is not convincing about a poet who 
appears to think like Aristotle, it should take some of wind out of the 
sails of those persons who presume absolutely on this issue in the light 
of the ambiguities raised.

David Basch

[7]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Joe Egert <
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Date:       Friday, 24 Jul 2009 12:07:21 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0389 What is Hamlet's flaw?

Sally Drumm advises us, "Because Hamlet cannot forgive the past, the 
future is lost. This is Hamlet's great lesson."

Exactly what part of the past is Hamlet expected to forgive? and towards 
securing what glorious future? Vincentio's corrupt Vienna?

Conrad Cook interprets the Ghost as instructing Hamlet to "remove the 
usurper from the throne and see worldly justice done." Instead, in their 
first encounter, he commands the Prince to (1) revenge a murder, (2) 
stop the ongoing "luxury and damned incest" while leaving Momma to 
Heaven, and (3) remember him. Nowhere is 'justice' or God's will mentioned.

Hannibal Hamlin notes Shakespeare inherited, among others, the Wheel of 
Fortune model for tragedy. Hamlet himself might argue, in his case, the 
Wheel is being driven by Providence.

John Drakakis explains, "Once Claudius's guilt is publicly revealed in 
5.2 then Hamlet can exact a summary justice, since he is 'technically' 
king at this point[...]."

Where is Claudius' guilt for murdering his predecessor publicly revealed 
in 5.2? I don't see it.

David Basch denies human agency as an instrument of Providence in 
misquoting Hamlet on the "divinity that shapes our ends, rough hewn 
though it may be." Shakespeare acknowledges such agency, though shorn 
perhaps of prescience of those ends . . ."rough-hew them how we may."

Finally, David Bishop describes the Prince as a young idealist "sure of 
his own purity of soul". Did David mean "unsure"?

Also, by the Christian standards of Shakespeare's day, did King Hamlet 
("the question of these wars") sin in dueling and slaying King 
Fortinbras, even if we accept as accurate Horatio's report of it as 
honorable combat based on a "sealed compact"? (fine word "compact"). Was 
time itself disjointed that day -- the same day the avenger was born to 
set it right? Are we seeking for tragic flaws in the wrong Hamlet?

Remember Laertes' dying words, "The King, the King's to blame."

But which King?

Joe Egert

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