The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 14.0777  Thursday, 24 April 2003

From:           Gerald E. Downs <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Thursday, 24 Apr 2003 02:20:26 EDT
Subject:        Re: Bloom on Horatio

In Harold Bloom's new book on Hamlet he says Horatio "is too drab to be
theatrical. We hope we are not drab."

Bloom is referring to these lines   5.1.202-12:

Hamlet:    To what base uses we may return,
Horatio!  Why, may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander
till a find it stopping a bung-hole?

Horatio: 'Twere to consider too curiously to consider so.

Bloom:    "Curiously" means something like "oddly," over-ingenious and
on the wrong scale. Undeterred, Hamlet rushes on to clinch his point:

Hamlet:   No, faith, not a jot, but to follow him thither with modesty
enough, and likelihood to lead it. Alexander died, Alexander was buried,
Alexander returneth to dust, the dust is earth, of earth we make loam,
and why of that loam whereto he was converted might they not stop a
beer-barrel? *******
The passage needs some interpretation. The 'it' to be led is the
imagination. Bloom's only gloss (of 'curiously') I think is too limited
and he doesn't seem to take the probabilities of contemporary staging
into account.

Hamlet complained of the smell of Yorick's skull, which had lain buried
23 years. The smell would not come from Yorick, or Alexander. It was
probably an infusion from one on stage, viz., the gravedigger or his

When Hamlet suggested Alexander's fate, he was playing to his earlier
remark (133-4) that the gravedigger would hold them to literal meanings,
and so he turned the tables on the clown with bawdy joking.

"Bunghole" was meant to be taken as "anus," and Alexander's fate was
proposed to stop such a hole, possibly the one that just stunk up the

Horatio noted (perhaps with the visual aid of a clown) that to
investigate -- 'consider' -- too curiously (with both dog- and cat-like
inquisitiveness) the speculation -- 'to consider so' -- would be to
stick one's nose in unpleasant places.

He used one word twice with different meaning, and one word with double
meaning. This shows he was aware that Hamlet was not going to acquiesce
in the gravedigger's observance of literal meanings only.

Hamlet then completed a 'shaggy dog' argument that the characters on
stage expected to lead to something other than a beer-barrel
conclusion.  Because a bunghole is literally limited to that kind of
use, Hamlet abides by the gravedigger's injunction, though the clown, by
his clowning, did not.

No double meanings: get your mind out of the gutter.

He immediately follows this with:

    Imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay,
    Might stop a hole to keep the wind away.

Same joke, same expectation, but he then 'refers' to patching a wall.
The clowns had responded with fartlike antics and were 'undone by
equivocation.' The gravedigger had 'galled Hamlet's kibe' by his
impertinence, and the courtier had good naturedly got even with the

Is there too much "Art" in this? Would Shakespeare have been unaware of
the ambiguities? He and Hamlet lived on equivocation. If he was aware;
if he wrote them, he intended the jokes.

Clowns were crude, visual, and unencumbered by modern niceties. During
Hamlet's and Horatio's otherwise pointless commentary they would not
have stood by with thumbs in bungholes.

Bloom speaks 'by the card' but when it comes to plumbing the depths of
Hamlet, is he too much like Jack Horner?

Remember the ship-board conversation?

     Look at all the water.
     And that's only the top.

Bloom talks about all the water, but does he go deep enough?

Gerald E. Downs

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