The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 15.1746  Friday, 17 September 2004

From:           Kenneth Chan <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Wednesday, 15 Sep 2004 22:00:13 +0800
Subject: 15.1724 The Meaning of Hamlet
Comment:        Re: SHK 15.1724 The Meaning of Hamlet


My original intent in starting this thread was to discuss Hamlet, the
play. However, we seem to have drifted onto discussing issues
surrounding the play, but not the play itself. It is partly my fault in
making the thread too general.

Some members have, however, expressed to me privately that they are
genuinely interested in following a discussion on the meaning of the
play itself. So perhaps we can try focusing the discussion back onto the
text of the play.

My feeling is that all the other issues - concerning Shakespeare as a
person, the proper approach in Shakespearean scholarship, whether
Shakespeare actually planned a message or not, and so on - are actually
secondary issues and cannot be resolved without a close examination of
the play itself. As Hamlet puts it: "The play's the thing ..."

So perhaps we can shift the discussion back to the actual play. I can
think of no better starting place than on the question: "Why does Hamlet
delay his revenge?"

The reason for his delay is crucial to the meaning of the play, and has
been a controversial issue for centuries. My reading of it is that
Hamlet delays because his conscience is telling him that revenge is
morally unsound. This is not conscience, taken in the usual sense, but a
deeper inner voice that Hamlet fails to acknowledge explicitly. That is
why Hamlet himself is unsure why he delays.

This suggestion, of course, is not new. It has been raised in the past
and largely dismissed because A. C. Bradley had argued so effectively
against it. However, I believe Bradley missed a crucial point. His
argument is outlined clearly in his book "Shakespearean Tragedy": Why,
he asked, if an inner conscience answers to Shakespeare's meaning, did
he then conceal that meaning until the last Act?

Actually, Shakespeare did not try to conceal this meaning until the end;
he actually took great pains to suggest it, right from the beginning of
the play. What he could not do, however, was to allow Hamlet to state it
explicitly. And for a very good reason. If Hamlet had recognized the
cause of his delay, it would have altered the course of the action and
defeated Shakespeare's main purpose in the play.

Shakespeare's aim was not to have Hamlet intellectually argue out the
question of whether or not it is immoral to wreak vengeance. His
intention was to have the audience find the answer to this question in
the experience of the entire play, in its totality. This is
Shakespeare's method of conveying his message, and it is the most
effective way to do so. Shakespeare makes us live through it so that we
learn through our emotional involvement and our experience of it.

If Hamlet had recognized intellectually that a moral issue was causing
his delay, he would certainly have argued it out with himself. It would
have been completely out of character for him not to do so. But to have
him conduct an intellectual debate on the issue would have totally
defeated Shakespeare's purpose, which was to show and not merely tell,
why seeking revenge is a moral disaster.

To do that, Shakespeare needed Hamlet to follow the course of action in
the play. If Hamlet had debated the moral issue with himself, he would
either conclude that it is morally acceptable, which would contradict
what Shakespeare wanted to convey, or he would conclude that it is
morally wrong and abandon his course of vengeance. Since neither
alternative was conducive to Shakespeare's plan, he allowed Hamlet to
delay without explicitly debating the moral issue.

I am quite sure this is a contentious issue, so let us discuss it.

Kenneth Chan

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