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Home :: Archive :: 2012 :: March ::
Hamlet’s Abrupt Reversal at III.4.125-130

 

The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.103  Monday, 12 March 2012

 

[1] From:        John Knapp < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         March 9, 2012 3:55:22 PM EST

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Reversal

 

[2] From:        David Bishop < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         March 11, 2012 5:31:18 PM EDT

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Reversal

 

[3] From:        Sarah Cohen < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

     Date:         March 11, 2012 6:48:38 PM EDT

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Reversal

 

 

[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------

From:        John Knapp < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         March 9, 2012 3:55:22 PM EST

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Reversal 

 

Andrew --

 

I have written about this very scene in my chapter titled “Family Games and Imbroglio in Hamlet,” in Reading the Family Dance: Family Systems Therapy and Literary Study, ed. by Ken Womack and me (U of Delaware P, 2003): 194-218.  I would agree with the particulars of action in your analysis, but you may be interested as well in the three-way character interaction and family dynamic motivations.  This is the first “family reunion” (so to speak) since King Hamlet was killed. I often wondered why young Hamlet’s first response to seeing his father in that scene (following his conversation with the King in I, v) is just terror, as Hamlet

 

“begs the ‘heavenly guards:’ ‘save me and hover o’er me with your wings.’  Save him from what? Save him from his father?  Or save him from the double guilt he feels in berating his own mother and from the chastising he expects from his father?  Hamlet . . . assumes in what could be acted a defensive little-boy voice: ‘Do you not come your tardy son to chide?’ . . . (212).

 

I go on to argue that, assuming the reader’s mimetic view of these characters, Hamlet has seen this look before in his family.  “Does the father listen to his son’s terror and see his offspring’s own conflicted distress in angrily attacking Gertrude, his own mother? Neither parent appears to look at [young] Hamlet first . . . but seeks initially, in each case, literally or metaphorically, the spouse” (212).  Briefly, HER first worry is Claudius; King Hamlet’s comfort is saved only for his wife. 

 

While one could argue that mimetic readings (of family life in the Renaissance) have not been seen in a favorable light for some 60+ years (witness the scorn over “how many children had Lady Macbeth?”), recent work in family psychology and in criticism makes this scene ripe for just such readings.  To borrow David Ball’s ideas (in Backwards and Forwards), what each of the three characters wants is quite different from one another, and can be readily explained with some sense of family dynamics:  young Hamlet wants above all else a reunited family, but each parent has a quite different motive—separate from his and from each other’s.  Fascinating scene.

 

John V. Knapp,

Professor of English &

Editor, Style

Northern Illinois University

 

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        David Bishop < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         March 11, 2012 5:31:18 PM EDT

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Reversal

 

Andrew Wilson points to one of the toughest cruxes in Hamlet. It is possible that “Do not look upon me” is spoken to Gertrude, and that Hamlet then turns back to the ghost, addressing the next sentence to him—or at least, particularly, the emphasized word, “blood”. It seems more natural, though, to think that Hamlet speaks both lines to the ghost.

 

Gertrude’s already expressed pity supports reading 1. But the ghost has also expressed pity for Gertrude. It is conceivable that he indicates pity for Hamlet, with a bend of the head for example. Pity from either is felt by Hamlet as something that would overwhelm him with grief. It suggests that he will never succeed in his task of revenge, so the threatened tears would then be of failure, weakness and self-pity. True, he kills Polonius, thinking he might be Claudius, but he has not killed Claudius. Besides, his (in my view) carefully prepared alibi of madness now has to be expended to excuse the killing of Polonius. If Claudius had been there instead Hamlet could have claimed temporary insanity, due to deprivation of Ophelia’s love. He would have the added advantage that he stabbed blindly through the arras. With Ophelia restored to him, he could have claimed to be cured, and that it was not him but his madness that mistakenly killed Claudius.

 

Pity is also associated with Christianity, which opposes the ghost’s value system, which I call the heroic ideal. This says that taking revenge for a father’s murder is a loving son’s duty and virtue. According to the Christian ideal, by contrast, personal revenge can never be a virtue. It is a sin, which, especially for the killing of a king, will likely be punished with damnation.

 

Laertes offers an indirect glimpse into Hamlet’s mind. Thinking his father has been murdered by Claudius, he charges in to take revenge. He realizes, though, that to do so involves accepting the value of revenge and throwing out other, incompatible values: “To hell, allegiance. Vows, to the blackest devil. Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit. I dare damnation.”

 

Allegiance and vows sound closer to what I call the patriotic ideal, a middle ground where revenge is replaced by justice. This value system gives Hamlet his duty as the prince of Denmark to respect the king and preserve the order (sanity and health) of the state. The problem for Hamlet is that the person responsible for justice is the king: the criminal. Conscience and grace sound more Christian. This is presented simply as a statement of common wisdom. We're expected to understand it.

 

Yet it involves an oxymoron. Is it cowardly, as Laertes implies, to fear God? The heroic ideal would say so, but the Christian ideal would not. If the act threatens damnation this must mean that God sees it as a mortal sin. So from a Christian point of view, where damnation is a threat, the act of not killing Claudius, because killing him would be a sin, cannot be cowardly. To put the ideal which makes it cowardly uppermost is to deny the Christianity that would make the act damnable.

 

A similar oxymoron is: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” The “craven scruple” shows the same structure, as does the prayer scene, which I call an oxymoronic scenario. It gives us words that don’t make sense, because they imply that Hamlet can simultaneously be a fully believing Christian and a fully believing hero, who would use God to take ultimate revenge on Claudius’s soul. (To “circumvent God” as he says later.)

 

The play’s central structure is the transformation of revenge into justice, or, at least, proto-justice. The proposed revenge is replaced at the end by the justified killing of a tyrant and a criminal, for the crime of murdering his heir: Hamlet. Hamlet gets what he needs for proto-justice. His mother’s death calls for investigation and trial: “Treachery! Seek it out!” He has evidence of intent in the preserved commission. He has the dying testimony of Laertes. Finally, he has the ultimate proof: his own death. He does not stab Claudius until told he is dead. When he stabs him Claudius says, “Oh yet defend me friends, I am but hurt.” This indicates that it is not Hamlet’s sword thrust that kills him but his own (authorized) poison, with poetic justice: “The point envenom’d too? Then, venom, to thy work.”

 

A hint of revenge remains, but it sounds more like revenge for his mother: “Follow my mother.” However, this is not real revenge, from our point of view, because it’s mistaken: Claudius did not mean to kill Gertrude. It serves to release some revenging energy without being actual revenge: a kind of lightning rod redirecting that energy into the ground.

 

The final requirement of justice, along with objective evidence, is an official who is charged to punish crime justly. Hamlet can’t recuse himself: the ideal of justice is not fully developed. But he does symbolically pronounce himself the legitimate king: “This is I, Hamlet the Dane.” Meanwhile the original crime, the murder of Hamlet’s father, unsusceptible of public proof, short of explicit confession, drops out of sight. Revenge has been transformed into justice. We have also begun to learn that tyrants ought justly to be overthrown. The modern world is stirring.

 

Best wishes,

David Bishop

 

[3]-------------------------------------------------------------

From:        Sarah Cohen < This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it >

Date:         March 11, 2012 6:48:38 PM EDT

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Reversal

 

Thank you to Andrew Wilson for pointing out the apparent contradiction in Hamlet’s speech! Speaking from my theatrical (not scholarly) perspective, here is how I would resolve it. 

 

I would direct the actor playing the Ghost to direct his pale glare towards the Queen while she is speaking, and for the first couple of lines of Hamlet’s text, and then look Hamlet full in the face just before his “do not look upon me”.

 

It is no contradiction to say that LOOKING at the Ghost, and considering his cause, would incite anyone to action (or so Hamlet keeps telling himself), but that being LOOKED AT by the Ghost has an entirely different effect. Tears, perchance, for blood.

 

Sarah

 
 

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