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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: June ::
Hamlet and Ophelia, Typologically
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0337  Wednesday, 24 June 2009

From:       Conrad Cook <
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 >
Date:       Tuesday, 23 Jun 2009 07:24:41 -0400
Subject: 20.0320 Hamlet and Ophelia, Typologically
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0320 Hamlet and Ophelia, Typologically

  Gabriel Egan <
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 >wrote:

 >At a talk last week at Roehampton University in London on the subject of
 >_Hamlet_, Showalter surprised her audience by admitting that she never
 >had faith in Lacan's claim, nor indeed an interest in his work. In the
 >early 1980s, she explained, you just had to embellish such a paper with
 >something from one of the high French theorists. ...

Gabriel, perhaps I should say, while I'm not personally religious, I am 
secularly serious in advancing the idea that Shakespeare designed the 
play typologically, as Showalter apparently was not serious in some of 
her framing. Interesting story, though, and a good reminder.

The play as a whole has of course been burdened with diverse 
interpretations, which only means that as a culture we haven't reached a 
stable consensus on how to look at it.

  Felix de Villiers <
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 >wrote:

 >... What I couldn't
 >understand was your categorisation of Ophelia as the type of Divine
 >Wisdom, and this is because you didn't explain it. No sooner have you
 >classified her thus, than you go on to describe her as a reversal of her
 >type: demure, obedient, submissive.

Yeah, that goes back to the earlier comment about Ophelia being a 
"manque" Wisdom. I appreciate such critical views and will have to 
reconsider how to pose the argument. Meantime, I'll address the critique 
as well as I can presently.

 >At the end of your comment, you
 >reinstate her as Divine Wisdom, but ambiguously, as a being that will do
 >anything for Mankind, i.e., Hamlet, and will allow herself to be used,
 >in short, a masochist.

(I wouldn't go so far as to say Ophelia wants to be treated badly, or 
enjoys it.)

 >Shakespeare was too much a poet of the 'here and now,' despite all
 >surrounding dimensions, too much a draughtsman of detail, to allow his
 >work to be subsumed by classificatory concepts, allegories, and types,
 >although these can, indeed, throw light on the richly fabricated content
 >of his work. To continue the game of typologies, I'm interested in your
 >discussion of positive and reverse typologies. The whole play is a
 >reverse type of the tragic genre. It is full of procrastinations, and
 >not only those of Hamlet: anything but the accomplishment of the act of
 >revenge  --  and this is one of the humane aspects of Hamlet's character.

As far as I can tell, in Hamlet, Shakespeare generally includes a 
reversal. It's not that there are straight types and reverse types; all 
types include a reversal. And he seems to apply that to the relations 
between the characters, which repeat with a reversal the relations 
between their types.

In retrospect, Ophelia wasn't a good introduction to this line of 
thought. It's how the conversation developed, but in her case I have to 
make a structural argument, and very difficult to put across with brief 
evidence appropriate to this venue. Look at Laertes (we'll come back to 
his sister in a moment):

L:  Occasion smiles upon a second leave.
P:  Yet here, Laertes?  Aboard, aboard for shame.
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay'd for. There, my blessing with thee. (1.3.54-59)

Laertes is the type of the Messiah:  a repetition of that image with 
reversals. We have a reference to a "second leave" rather than a "second 
coming." We have "aboard, aboard," which can also be scanned, "a board" 
  --  two of them; the lumber to build the cross -- which is done "for 
shame." Further, we have the image of Christ's shroud in the mention of 
the sail, which is tied to the mast, and which is given a body, with 
"shoulder."

Laertes tells Claudius:

To his [Polonius's] good friends thus wide I'll ope my arms,
And, like the kind life-rend'ring pelican,
Repast them with my blood. (5.4.145-147)

The actors' lines require him to go physically into cruciform posture. 
He compares himself to the pelican, which was in Medieval times 
considered a type of Christ, because it was thought to feed its young 
with its blood. And Laertes specifically applies this to himself (but 
even here there is a reversal, of roles, since he, the child, is doing 
the feeding). These all are repetitions of Messianic characteristics. 
However, Laertes is in a rage, he cuts a deal with Claudius, and he 
leads an armed rebellion. He is proud and perhaps loveless.

In contrast, to get at Ophelia's typic identity the quote-mining 
approach doesn't work, because she is defined through her relationships 
to other types:  to her brother, to her father, to her lover. Her typic 
identity is defined through her relationships because her character's 
identity is defined through them; the structure of the one reflects the 
structure of the other.

 >If anyone in the play can be classified as the reverse type of  Divine
 >Wisdom, it is Hamlet. In one of his letters Keats wrote, "Byron says,
 >'Knowledge is sorrow'; and I go on to say that 'Sorrow is wisdom'  --  and
 >further for aught we know for certainty 'Wisdom is folly'" Shakespeare
 >sums all this up in his play. Hamlet's wisdom is hollowed out by
 >knowledge and despair

That's interesting, and there may be something to it, but it 
demonstrably is not how Shakespeare is using types:  Laertes is the type 
of the Messiah, and there are important reversals that prevent him from 
being a duplicate of the Messiah; but he is not a "reversal" in the 
sense that he becomes an inversion; he's not a bad person.

So you get this funny trick where the story is composed of these strange 
reversals of the characters of the Christian story (as it was understood 
to Shakespeare's time), and which plays out as a strange reversal of 
that story, like a fractured fairy tale done seriously, for a pervasive 
sense that everything is off-kilter and yet adds up.

It looks like they're putting the chairs on the tables and turning off 
the lights. I greatly appreciate the feedback I've read, as well as any 
coming out in this next, last batch. Those who are interested in 
continuing the conversation are welcome to email me.

Thanks, all,
Conrad


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