The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1954  Tuesday, 7 August 2001

From:           Alan Pierpoint  <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Saturday, 4 Aug 2001 14:36:09 EDT
Subject: 12.1901 Re: The Tragedy of Claudius
Comment:        Re: SHK 12.1901 Re: The Tragedy of Claudius

Regarding the hypocrisy of Claudius (or Hamlet, or Fortinbras, or
Elizabeth I, or any other monarch who would promote human or Christian
values while presiding over a warrior society, with its
institutionalized murder, torture and assassination):  Doesn't hypocrisy
come with the territory?  Whether ethics are "contaminated" or not, they
don't lead to social order if they are not broadly shared.  The evidence
of his plays suggests that Shakespeare approved of a monarch on the E-I
model; a queen who promoted education and the arts, kept a measure of
religious peace, defended the kingdom against invasion, and guided it
through a half-century of prosperity was "allowed," ethically, to have a
few real or suspected rivals to her power tortured or beheaded.  But I
don't think the play "extols violence as an effective means of
sustaining power," as John Drakakis states.  Even if we grant that
Horatio was "extoling" the victory of Old H over Old F, the emotional
force of the play's ending exposes the terrible waste of violence as a
solution to any problem, personal or political.  I would also take issue
with claims that Hamlet "nominates" or anoints" Fortinbras as his
successor.  "I do prophesy the election lights / On Fortinbras" is
hardly a nomination, or even an endorsement, but rather a prediction
that, in a society still ridden with the ethic of violence, and deprived
by violent death of all the likely candidates for succession, the
"election" will go to the guy with the biggest standing army in the
vicinity.  As king, he would control the spin on recent events, and
Hamlet wants the world to know his reasons.

The "thesis" of the Anglo-Saxon warrior society, and its antithesis,
Christian humanism, were locked in conflict in Shakespeare's England.
By projecting that conflict onto medieval Denmark and giving us a prince
with humanistic leanings, and then burdening that same prince with a
father's command for revenge, Shakespeare deconstructs the major
contradiction of his time.  Although he was enough a prisoner of his
place in history not to be able to visualize the "synthesis" of modern
liberal democracy, it seems clear to me that the moral position of this
violent play is not to extol violence, but to expose its
destructiveness, both to life and to "ethics."

If I didn't believe this, I could not in conscience teach this play to
my high school seniors.  We need a reason to teach Shakespeare, other
than the fact that he sits in the canon like a giant English toad.  One
reason, among several, is that the violence in this play has profound
moral and ethical consequences, as contrasted with the gratuitous
violence of so much of contemporary culture, both high and low.  If my
students can "get" Hamlet, they can begin to see the cultural wasteland
they have been born into for what it is.  Such is the hope, anyway.

One last comment on a forbidden question:  Shakespeare's take on the
question of humanism v. the warrior ethic is additional evidence of his
authorship, as opposed to the claims on behalf of a certain decadent

Alan Pierpoint

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