The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1950  Tuesday, 7 August 2001

From:           Brian Haylett <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Saturday, 04 Aug 2001 15:45:40 +0100
Subject: 12.1933 Re: The Tragedy of Claudius
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1933 Re: The Tragedy of Claudius

Some comments on John Drakakis's last:

>I can imagine a performance in which Horatio makes his distaste for Old
>Hamlet's behaviour manifest.  I suppose we could read Horatio's
>description as a critique of kingly chivalry but, surely, Brian, Horatio
>seems to go out of his way to justify Old Hamlet's personal involvement
>in the conflict with Old Fortinbras. I think your reading of the
>parenthetical line: 'For so this side of our known world esteemed him'
>is unduly negative.

As I read it, Horatio is not going out of his way at all: he says only
that the result of a particular bout was in accordance with pre-agreed
rules. (I am reminded increasingly of the first scene of Henry V.) Nor
do I concede that it is 'negative' to indicate the ambiguity of lines
that John referred me to as his defence. If I were directing 'Hamlet', I
would start with the premise that Horatio is as sceptical about recent
history as he is about other things - not that he is so definite as to
disapprove. I merely say that the line John quotes could be read as:
'Everyone says he was valiant, so I suppose it must be true'.

>Are you not in danger of beginning from the assumption that what Hamlet
>resists is violence itself?  If so then this is a romantic reading that
>attributes Hamlet's hesitation to a distaste for action.

I tried to hint last time that my stance is not based anachronistically
on either woolly liberalism or on romanticism: the morals involved are
timeless. I referred to the Bible as a likely source. Nor is it a matter
of 'distaste for action'; I am sure that, as has been often said, Hamlet
is unable to act. He is being asked to emulate his father but is quite
incapable of it, for reasons that may be taken as honorable but which he
does not understand. To that extent the play presents us with the
borderline between primitive reaction and civilisation.

>  I wonder if Claudius's private confessions, that you seem to read as
> some kind of inner turmoil (and hence worthy of your sympathy) is
> anything more than
>the 'confession' of guilt that Hamlet is not given explicit access to,
>but that the audience is.

The latter is certainly important.

>Another point:  Horatio is wrong in his surmise about the appearance of
>the Ghost. The business with Old Fortinbras is not the reason why it
>appears.  This makes his speculation all the more interesting in that it
>recuperates an image of Old Hamlet that his son later corroborates.
>What then is this description doing here? Why do we need to know this
>about the way in which 2 kings behave?  We will see the way a third
>(illegitimate) king behaves at the beginning of 1.2.

I don't follow you here at all. The fact that the two older kings were
fighters and the new one is not is surely part of my case?

>Finally, I'm a little puzzled too by the handing over of power to Young
>Fortinbras at the end.

Yes, it is surprising - unless Shakespeare is making it obvious, as I
believe, that Hamlet is responsible for the loss of Denmark to his
father's enemies (and therefore failing the Ghost by trying to serve
him). You may think Young Fortinbras is some kind of hero, but the play
shows that he is following in his father's footsteps - grabbing
territory by strong-arm methods (I don't think we can ignore that
derivation of his name).

Well, we're not going to agree, but perhaps we've helped to air some of
the issues. My very erstwhile tutor told me that the job of a dramatist
was not to provide answers but to point to at least two sides of the
questions. I'm content to finish where I started with the belief that
(in part of the play only) Shakespeare is pondering what happens when a
regicide turns out to be an effective king. The contrast for me is
'Henry V', where he questions what happens when a national hero is a
self-centred, self-deceiving man.  (We've had that thread, though!)

Brian Haylett

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