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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: July ::
What is Hamlet's flaw?
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0416  Thursday, 30 July 2009

[1] From:   Michael Saenger <
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     Date:   Monday, 27 Jul 2009 14:22:13 -0500
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0409 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[2] From:   Steve Roth <
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     Date:   Monday, 27 Jul 2009 14:02:16 -0700
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0409 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[3] From:   Eric Johnson-DeBaufre <
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     Date:   Monday, 27 Jul 2009 19:09:15 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0409 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[4] From:   David Bishop <
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     Date:   Monday, 27 Jul 2009 21:49:59 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0409 What is Hamlet's flaw?

[5] From:   Conrad Cook <
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     Date:   Monday, 27 Jul 2009 22:19:52 -0400
     Subj:   What is Hamlet's flaw?


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Michael Saenger <
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Date:       Monday, 27 Jul 2009 14:22:13 -0500
Subject: 20.0409 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0409 What is Hamlet's flaw?

All of the preceding clarifications of the time-contingent 
understanding of Aristotle have helped, but I think one of the most 
interesting reasons why Hamlet doesn't have "a tragic flaw" is that 
Shakespeare was not writing a riddle to be solved in the classroom. 
Watching a play, or reading it, always involves interpretative 
judgments, but the only such judgments that Shakespeare would have  been 
able to imagine were the kind that had occurred to that point.  Of those 
sorts of reactions, we have some samples -- stage narratives,  influence 
upon other playwrights, revivals and/or successful runs,  parody by Ben 
Jonson, that sort of thing. But the kind of criticism  we teach our 
students to do, and that we do ourselves, was  fundamentally unthinkable 
in Shakespeare's lifetime, and the idea of  locating a tragic flaw is 
deeply invested in a certain kind of pedagogy.

Michael

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Steve Roth <
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Date:       Monday, 27 Jul 2009 14:02:16 -0700
Subject: 20.0409 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0409 What is Hamlet's flaw?

 >encourage anyone with a special interest in _Hamlet_
 >on in Hamlet to go to this site and blog away

Well I haven't actually set up the blog at my site yet -- was just 
floating the idea by Hardy -- but will do so in the next few days.

Thanks,
Steve

[Editor's Note: Sorry for my overzealousness. -Hardy]

[3]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Eric Johnson-DeBaufre <
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Date:       Monday, 27 Jul 2009 19:09:15 -0400
Subject: 20.0409 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0409 What is Hamlet's flaw?

David Basch writes:

 >Concerning the issues of Hamlet's flaws, I have a comments
 >on Joe Egert's remarks. He writes:
 >
 >Where is Claudius' guilt for murdering his predecessor
 >publicly revealed in 5.2? I don't see it.

Just because Joe Egert doesn't see it does not mean that others, equally 
astute and qualified as himself don't as well. For example, Lawrence 
Olivier saw it in his film of Hamlet and helped his audience to do so.

In that film, we saw Claudius dramatically rise, quite disturbed, in 
front of the court spectators. Gertrude is outraged at Hamlet for 
bringing about this situation so angering to Claudius. If Hamlet had 
struck him at the time, he, the people's favorite, could have argued 
before the Danish court as the heir to the throne that the reenactment 
of what Hamlet thinks happened with his father caught Claudius's 
conscience more than anyone else and revealed his guilt. This 
observation is something that Horatio corroborates. Thus, Hamlet would 
have struck, beaten the rap, and saved himself. Joe Egert may not see it 
this way but it is nevertheless an arguable point.

I think David Basch has misread 5.2 for 3.2 since he makes reference to 
the Murder of Gonzago. More importantly though, I have to reiterate (and 
I'm hardly alone in this) that Claudius' rising on the point of the 
poisoning reveals nothing whatsoever about Claudius' guilt. Shakespeare 
(deliberately I think) refuses any such clarity by making Hamlet speak 
more than is set down for him (clown that he is). When the poisoner 
enters, Hamlet informs us (and Claudius) that "This is one Lucianus, 
nephew to the King." We then witness Lucianus poison the king by pouring 
poison into his ears. Claudius rises. But what does he rise in response 
to? Is he touched with guilt by seeing his own crime represented (as 
David Basch would have it) or does he rise in fear at seeing an uncle 
murdered by his nephew? We don't know. Hamlet presumably takes Claudius' 
reaction to be a sign of guilt, but the irony is that Hamlet (easily one 
of the most brilliant of Shakespeare's characters) shows himself to be a 
poor auditor here. He signally fails to take his own advice to the 
players (not to speak more than is set down for them), and this leads 
him to introduce a measure of ambiguity and instability in to the very 
thing he hoped would achieve clarity.

I find it something of a metadramatic commentary on the contemporary 
defense of the theater as a moral institution. Apologists (and Hamlet in 
2.2 seems to be among them) defended the theater by telling apocryphal 
stories of murderers who confessed to their crimes after seeing them (or 
something like them) represented on the stage. 3.2 (in my reading) 
evinces a certain skepticism about this by showing a murderer rise in 
reaction to a crime but providing the audience with two very different 
and equally plausible reasons he might have for doing so.

Eric Johnson-DeBaufre

[4]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       David Bishop <
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Date:       Monday, 27 Jul 2009 21:49:59 -0400
Subject: 20.0409 What is Hamlet's flaw?
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0409 What is Hamlet's flaw?

"Words and actions are separated from each other in 'Hamlet' and the 
tragic hero has to try and somehow resolve the dilemma."

John Drakakis here makes what seems to me a good example of a 
"theoretical" statement that can't quite be made pragmatically relevant 
to this play. What does a world look like when words and actions are not 
separated? Or is this just a way of saying that Claudius dissembles: 
that Claudius's secret crime is Hamlet's dilemma? So what else is new?

This is what I call a Grand Abstract Pronouncement, or GAP. I don't want 
to clutter up this list too much with my idiosyncratic theories, but in 
the unlikely event that John Drakakis wants to have a look at my work, 
he'll find a more detailed discussion of the concept of a GAP in my 
book, Eight Hamlets, in the chapter on Marjorie Garber.

I thought the thing about revenge was that it was personal. As far as 
it's impersonal, doesn't it become justice? Except, that is, for God, 
who mystifyingly combines the two.

Best wishes,
David Bishop


[5]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:       Conrad Cook <
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Date:       Monday, 27 Jul 2009 22:19:52 -0400
Subject:    What is Hamlet's flaw?

Joe Egert <
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 >wrote:

 >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.

Joe,

(1) is worldly justice, there being no court to try the case. In (2), 
you have omitted:  *Let not the royal throne of Denmark be a couch* for 
luxury and damned incest (or however it goes); what is at issue is the 
moral pollution of the office of the head of state. In (2b), leaving 
Gertrude to Heaven, the injunction is to for Hamlet to *taint not his 
mind* against his mother, which in conjunction with (3) constitutes 
instruction to keep a proper attitude toward his parents.

On this last point, the passage as a whole can be seen as an inventory 
of how Hamlet should relate to all his three parents.

 >Nowhere is 'justice' or God's will mentioned.

When there is no court which Claudius can be brought to, "revenge my 
foul and most unnatural murder" amounts to "see worldly justice done." 
The injunction that Gertrude be left to Heaven entails that her fate be 
sorted out by God. The second instruction being given in contrast to the 
first makes it clear, in my opinion, that fundamentally Hamlet is told 
to straighten out matters of state. Going beyond this, as Hamlet does 
when he tries to secure Claudius's damnation, is the action that causes 
things to go bad.

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.

In regard to the larger question of whether Hamlet really has an 
Aristotelian flaw  --  I think he does, but what is more important is 
whether Shakespeare is doing the kind of thing Aristotle is talking 
about when he discusses flawed characters. Aristotle's basic point is 
that tragic characters, to be tragic, must bear some moral 
responsibility for their downfall (or else they are victims), and yet 
the consequences they suffer must be out of proportion to their error 
(or else they get plain justice).

In my opinion, not only does Hamlet fulfill these criteria, but most of 
the major characters do, too. Shakespeare expresses this pattern as 
"being hoist on one's own petard," in the case of self-responsibility, 
and that in a man, "the dram of evil doth all the noble substance snuff, 
to his own scandal," in the case of disproportionate consequence.

Conrad.

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