The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.0919  Wednesday, 21 April 2004

[1]     From:   Thomas Larque <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Tuesday, 20 Apr 2004 13:28:48 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0907 The Murder of Gonzago

[2]     From:   Edmund Taft <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Tuesday, 20 Apr 2004 09:53:40 -0400
        Subj:   The Murder of Gonzago

[3]     From:   Robin Hamilton <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
        Date:   Tuesday, 20 Apr 2004 17:14:41 +0100
        Subj:   Re: SHK 15.0890 The Murder of Gonzago

From:           Thomas Larque <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 20 Apr 2004 13:28:48 +0100
Subject: 15.0907 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0907 The Murder of Gonzago

 >So the Ghost tells us things that Shakespeare wants told, not things
 >that somehow Shakespeare has to tell us

Ed Taft's argument sounds reasonable to modern literary critics - who
have grown used to looking for a penis when they hear a sword, and the
many similar (not just Freudian) complications and interpretations that
modern literary criticism has thrown at literature to keep itself fresh.
  I'm not at all sure that it makes sense from the point of view of a
man writing a play to be performed before an audience that is not
expected to analyse the play for four hundred years at a time, after the

A fairly good rule of thumb in reading most Renaissance drama is that if
the dramatist (through the script) says something, it is true, unless he
later contradicts it with firmer evidence (in the style of a
revelation).  So Sebastian is not dead - although Viola tells us so in
the beginning - because he appears later and tells us so himself.  It
would be fairly typical of modern literary criticism for somebody to
argue that Shakespeare intended us to know that Sebastian was a ghost,
and for them to put together a firm and complex - and possibly even
convincing - argument on this score from tiny segments of the text held
up against a welter of background information about the beliefs of the
time.  To anybody who just watches the play, however, it is fairly
obvious that Sebastian is alive, and such splitting of hairs as would
prove that he was not is impossible in the limited analytical time that
we have to watch the play (unless the performance is slanted in
directions not indicated by the script).

With Old Hamlet's Ghost things are slightly more complex, because
although the ghost states what appears to be the truth (it has been in
some sort of purgatorial punishment, and is the dead spirit of Hamlet's
father), Hamlet continues to doubt this after it has said so, and
wonders whether it may be a devil in disguise.  This leaves us with the
possibility that Hamlet's doubts may be correct.  For your average
playgoer, however - just about 100% of the people who have watched the
play without previously pondering it through the lens of centuries of
literary criticism, theory, and Renaissance history (and
pseudo-history?) - this doubt is trumped by Hamlet's subsequent
demonstration that the ghost is telling the truth about the murder.
Hamlet declares "I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pounds"
(apparently about purgatory as well as about Claudius), a little later
Claudius himself confirms for the audience that he is a killer, and
after this nothing else appears to tell us that the Ghost has been a
lying devil rather than a true risen spirit (not in Bill Arnold's
illiterate and bungled sense of the word, of course), nor even that it
is a devil telling minor truths (about Claudius as murderer) and a major
lie (about itself as Hamlet's father) to win Hamlet to evil.
Shakespeare is careful to make these things very clear, for instance, in
"Macbeth" - where Macbeth and Macduff figure out the truth behind the
witches truth-as-lies and tell the audience, and the limits of the
witches' false truth-telling are clearly demonstrated onstage.  If
nobody does this in a play then the audience cannot be expected to
understand the playwright's intention, and a playwright who manages to
keep his secret intentions so secret that the audience don't spot them
is wasting his time (or playing mind-games for his own satisfaction
rather than writing drama for public entertainment).

The pile up of corpses, and all other things that have been listed as
subsequent evidence of the ghost's evil are in fact standard Revenge
Tragedy motifs and prove no such thing - especially not in the speed of
execution of a play in the theatre - and the final abiding memory of the
Ghost after Hamlet's declaration of belief, for anybody watching a
production based entirely on the script, is of its very human seeming
concern for Hamlet's mother - its former wife.

If this is a devil, then it is a very subtle one (and some very subtle
essays have been written "proving" that it is one - many of which
suggest, as so many corrupt arguments about Shakespeare must suggest,
that just about every word uttered in the script is a cunning lie).
Theatre scripts cannot afford to be that subtle, as has been
demonstrated by four hundred years worth of audiences - whether they
know anything of the play or not - presuming that Hamlet is a hero and
the Ghost is the ghost of his father, despite Ed Taft and legions of
similar academic critics claiming otherwise.  Even before we have
Shakespeare's Hamlet we have reference to the Ur-Hamlet with its "ghost
which cried so miserably at the Theatre, like an oyster-wife, 'Hamlet,
revenge' " (but no mention of "the devil pretending to be Hamlet's
father" or "the devil that tempted him to death and destruction").  In
all the literature between Shakespeare's time and our own, nobody -
before literary critics - has stated bluntly that there is no ghost, but
a devil in disguise.  In fact those who lived within distance of the
oral traditions of Shakespeare's time - his contemporaries and those in
the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries - apparently held the same view
of the ghost as is predominant today:  namely, the Ghost of Hamlet's
father is the ghost of Hamlet's father, as the playscript itself
ultimately suggests.

Of course there is no final trump in literary criticism.  Shakespeare's
true meaning lies buried with his corpse and is unprovable, however much
we may convince ourselves.  However, I'm with Don Bloom on this one.
The evil ghost theory doesn't stand up to the play in performance -
unless the performance is carefully stacked to suggest it (which can
create an interesting performance, but not one that can claim the
authority of the Shakespearean script).  In literary criticism and
adaptation, or in deliberately novel and interpretative performance,
however, such a reading is not only wonderful and convincing (or should
that be entertaining and not instantly disprovable? - which means much
the same thing in terms of literary criticism and adaptation) but is the
very thing that keeps literary critics in their jobs, finding enough new
ways of looking at old plays to keep tens of thousands of academics and
hobbyists producing millions of books, essays, lectures, and arguments
on Internet discussion groups - incidentally creating opportunities for
new performance readings at the same time.  These are the things that
keep Shakespeare's plays - as well as literary criticism - fresh and
alive in the modern world, and they should be celebrated and continued,
but they should not - so often - present themselves as the only,
unadulterated, unquestionable (although completely different from past
ideas and assumptions) truth!  Most of these arguments, however good,
give us new ways of looking at the script - suited to our own times -
not truer interpretations of the script's original historical meaning.

Those things (new readings vs. historically accurate interpretation) are
at least equally valuable, and in fact refitting the plays to have rich
and significant meaning to modern audiences may ultimately be more
important to the survival of Shakespeare's plays through the ages.

Thomas Larque.

From:           Edmund Taft <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 20 Apr 2004 09:53:40 -0400
Subject:        The Murder of Gonzago

Sean Lawrence writes that "by avoiding speculations in historical
metaphysics, we give ourselves greater scope to examine the intellectual
and exigent questions surrounding suicide, being and nothingness, ethics
and the Other."

I confess to being baffled by this statement. The inability to pin down
the true origin of the Ghost (and whether it is a good or bad Ghost) is
not a point of speculation but a matter of logic applied to a system of
belief that few in the audience would have questioned.

On the other hand, I agree with Sean that questions of suicide, being
and not being, ethics, etc. are important, but they are all answered (or
NOT answered) with reference to the Will of God. If Hamlet is doing
God's Will, then he's OK; if he's not, well, hell will receive another

No matter how you cut it, this fundamental question will not go away.
Nor should it.

Ed Taft

From:           Robin Hamilton <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Tuesday, 20 Apr 2004 17:14:41 +0100
Subject: 15.0890 The Murder of Gonzago
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.0890 The Murder of Gonzago

Thomas Larque <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.> writes,

 >I'm not sure whether anybody has pointed out that - theology aside -
 >Shakespeare *needs* purgatory for the literary situation in "Hamlet".

Here's my take on this (from "The instability of +Hamlet+", _Critical
Survey_ 3 (1991), 170-177: 173):

Accepting then that the Ghost is the spirit of Hamlet's father returned
from the grave, has it returned from a Protestant afterlife or a
Catholic afterlife? The question may at first appear trivial, but is
absolutely crucial to what happens in the play and how we respond to
this. Again, there's a simple answer to this question: the Ghost has
returned from a Catholic afterlife, since it describes itself as
suffering the pains of purgatory, being purged of sins committed in its
life on earth.

The very existence of purgatory defines the afterlife as Catholic, since
one of the crucial doctrinal divisions between Catholic and Protestant
theology was over this very point. For Protestants, there was only
Heaven and Hell, with no intermediate state; for Catholics, there was
the intermediate state of Purgatory.
Why is this so important, why does Shakespeare go to such pains to
establish so prominently the fact that the Ghost emerges from a Catholic

Consider what would be implied if the Ghost had indeed returned from the
Protestant afterlife. In this case it would either have come from Hell,
and be, despite being the Ghost of Hamlet's father, a damned spirit; or
it would have returned from heaven and would in that case be the exact
equivalent of an angel.

In the first case, its advice to Hamlet would be damnable, coming from
the spirit of a man condemned eternally to Hell; or if it came from
Heaven, then its words would have all the authority of a blessed angel,
and should be acted on immediately.

Coming as it does from Purgatory, being in a state of sin, but not
absolute damnation, the Ghost's words have exactly the same authority
that they would have if they were uttered by the living father of Hamlet.

What this means is that even having solved the problem of what the Ghost
is, Hamlet is still left with the further problem of what to do about
what the Ghost says: should he do what it advises, or not?


What we can be sure of in the presentation of the Ghost is that it is
the Ghost of Hamlet's father, returned for a space from a Catholic
Purgatory, but equally, that Hamlet must prove this for himself before
he even begins to act.  Given the play's stress on the dubiety of the
nature of the Ghost when it is first encountered, it would be quite
wrong for Hamlet merely to accept the spirit's estimate of its self
without testing this estimate.

Robin Hamilton

(Please make allowances for the tone of the above, and the number of
over-simplifications involved.  The paper was first delivered to a group
of sixth-formers at a conference, and was thus directed at intelligent
sixteen and seventeen year olds, rather than members of SHAKSPER.  Its
origins still show in register of the piece.


S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>

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