The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1329  Wednesday, 17 August 2005

From:           John-Paul Spiro <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:           Friday, 12 Aug 2005 21:07:39 -0400
Subject:        Shylock, Hamlet, et al.

One thing I have learned from reading SHAKSPER is that, of all of
Shakespeare's works, "The Merchant of Venice" and "Hamlet" attract the
most commentary and the least insight.

W. R. Elton always used to say to me, "400 years and we still don't have
one good book about 'Hamlet'!"  He was right.  It seems near-impossible
to say anything even sensible about the play.  Why is this?

I can understand why people get passionate (and thus unreasonable) about
"Merchant."  But why are so many people so silly about "Hamlet"?  Is it
because they don't understand the textual issues, or do the textual
issues only make matters more confusing?

Both plays have plenty of mysteries and interpretive dilemmas.  Norman
Rabkin once compared reading "Henry V" to the duck-rabbit problem
(wherein one can see a certain drawing as a picture of a duck or as a
picture of a rabbit but not both at the same time), but "Henry V" at
least allows for a simple binary.  Is he this or is he that?  "Hamlet"
and "Merchant," on the other hand, allow for many more possibilities.
Is he crazy or isn't he?  Is he a villain or isn't he?  Well, what do
you mean by "crazy" and "villain"?  And what about the other people in
the play?  And what about this interesting generalization we can make
about the time period?

If the plays stimulate so many possibilities for interpretation, it's
probably because they were supposed to.  Perhaps Shakespeare meant them
as puzzled to be solved if you find the right clues, but I don't think
so.  There are many dark spaces in these two plays; shedding light on
them means they're not dark spaces anymore, which means the plays aren't
what they are anymore.

I don't mean that we should stop asking questions and making arguments
about the plays.  That said, I'm probably not the only person on this
list who prefers silence to reductive ranting.

John-Paul Spiro

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