The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0018  Thursday, 8 January 2009

[1]  From:   John W Kennedy <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
      Date:   Tuesday, 06 Jan 2009 17:11:53 -0500
      Subj:   Re: SHK 20.005 Heroes

[2]  From:   David Basch <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
      Date:   Wednesday, 07 Jan 2009 13:45:34 -0500
      Subj:   Re: SHK 20.005 Heroes

From:      John W Kennedy <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:      Tuesday, 06 Jan 2009 17:11:53 -0500
Subject: 20.005 Heroes
Comment:   Re: SHK 20.005 Heroes

Felix de Villiers <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.> wrote:

 >David Basch tells us himself that we would have no Hamlet if he had
 >been like Horatio. A play made up of Horatios would die on its feet.
 >At most, we can imagine him as the upright observer of neuroses and
 >wrong-doings in a novel, but it would be the wrong-doings or
 >problematic characters that would give substance to the novel

But surely this is the very definition of the Chekhov-Inge line of drama?

 >Hamlet's words, "Give me that man/That is not passion's slave," sum
 >up the whole of Schopenhauer's philosophy, which lead pretty much to
 >a negation of life itself and a sympathy with Buddhism.

I cannot work out what you mean by this. Do you mean that Hamlet is a 
follower of Schopenhauer, and that the speech is in keeping with this, 
or do you mean that Schopenhaue is "passion's slave", and that Hamlet is 
opposing himself to that philosopher? And, either way, just how much 
Schopenhauer-like philosophy existed in Jacobean England (or mediaeval 
Denmark) for Hamlet to be responding to either? Surely Hamlet is 
praising Horatio as a representative of the Renaissance flowering of 

Unless you are putting an improbable interpretation on "passion", I do 
not see what the Great God ???? has to do with anything.

From:      David Basch <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:      Wednesday, 07 Jan 2009 13:45:34 -0500
Subject: 20.005 Heroes
Comment:   Re: SHK 20.005 Heroes

My comment earlier on Horatio in the context of "hero" seems to have 
shed much heat if not always the light that I had tried to bring.

I believe I got in on the discussion of heroism when I found Horatio's 
role being denigrated, reducing him to a kind of non-entity. I argued 
that he was no such non-entity, but a man of sterling qualities. But he 
is a powerless man set within the maelstrom of Denmark with his only 
impact the moral example of his conduct. His is the voice of skepticism 
and reason and his only role is to be a friend to Hamlet and to speak to 
him as a friend and be Hamlet's sounding board.

For example, Horatio recognizes that the dueling match is a trap and he 
tries to warn Hamlet, saying, "My Lord, you will love that wager." And 
when Hamlet has misgivings about participating in the duel match, 
Horatio advises that he say that he is ill. Despite this, Prince Hamlet 
overrules him in this and everything else. Try and tell a determined 
prince a thing or two!

Recall also at the beginning of the play, when Hamlet expresses his 
bitterness at his mother's swift remarriage, Horatio does not contradict 
nor inflame but soothes, saying, "Indeed, my lord, it follow'd hard upon."

There is really nothing that Horatio could do in the circumstance but 
serve as a true friend to Hamlet. We see Horatio's importance in 
Hamlet's moving tribute to Horatio's character. It is ironic how all 
regard Hamlet as so brilliant but yet fail to take his judgment 
seriously about his friend, though some (Carol Barton, Conrad Bishop) do 
recognize that Horatio provides the example of traits that might have 
made Hamlet more effective in his efforts to regain the throne.

I agree with Conrad Bishop's characterization of Horatio. Conrad well 
describes the literary concept of the "pivotal character," the person 
who remains the same as all about him change. It seems that Horatio is 
such a character in this play.

When I alleged that Horatio was a hero, I mentioned it in the context 
that he was the kind of person that has brought his emotions into 
balance with his life, a characteristic that makes him a man picked from 
ten thousand -- as Hamlet describes him -- with a virtue that Hamlet is 
not able to bring off in himself. This is a towering trait and I 
rejected the idea of minimizing the importance of his character in the 
play and the role he plays, though he is not heroic in action like Hamlet.

In contrast, Hamlet's anger -- his passion -- is so fierce and 
uncontrolled that he can scarcely contain it. It is only overpowered by 
his other passion to be righteous that makes him try for proof of the 
ghost's assertions. Hamlet is so determined to mete out due punishment 
to Claudius that he wants the perfect vengeance and withholds his sword 
from killing Claudius in order to leave open the opportunity to get that 
perfect vengeance. That turns out to be a fatal over scrupulousness -- 
an over righteousness -- that leads to his own destruction. This is what 
Felix de Villiers on our list calls "over zealousness." Being "over 
righteous" is not a good trait, but an overshooting of the mark that 
makes things worse.  As a result of this over shooting, Hamlet can't 
kill the king until he is able to mete out the same terrible fate that 
Claudius meted out to his father and which Hamlet feels Claudius 
deserves. Hamlet thinks that it is only "right" that this be done. 
Ironically, Hamlet later wonders why he finds himself in a pickle, being 
shipped out from Denmark by the man he let live. Hamlet had been the 
victim of his unbridled passion, doing the thing he would, rather than 
the thing he should.

Notice also the gross over righteousness of his behavior toward Ophelia. 
  All Hamlet can see is that she allows herself to be used by her father 
to spy on him. It reveals how far gone he is in his over righteousness 
and contempt of character weaknesses in others. He is livid at what 
Ophelia lends herself to, failing to realize that Ophelia is a 
defenseless, young girl, beaten down by her father, and that she acted 
out of loving concern for him.  Yet Hamlet thinks the worst and turns 
his maximum venom upon her.

The point is well taken by David Evett that King David -- another man 
who cannot escape the rule of his passions -- as nevertheless a hero, 
accomplishing great things at the risk of his life and leading his 
nation to peace and security. And as Conrad Bishop describes the 
characteristics of a hero, Hamlet too is a hero -- a man of action, 
that, despite his incomplete emotional self-control, manages in the end 
to bring off his mission, punishing Claudius and cleansing Denmark of 
the taint of a usurping murderer. No argument about this.

Notice also the progress in Hamlet's character. In Hamlet's dying 
breathe, Hamlet acquiesces in the acceptance of the "unimproved" 
Fortinbras as king -- that is, acceptance of a man unproven in 
character. This is a parallel to the words of the Bible's Ecclesiastes 
about a king who resigns himself as to how it is that, after having 
labored mightily with great skill and wisdom to create a strong, 
prosperous kingdom, he must end up leaving all to another man, without 
knowing whether that person will be a wise man or a fool. At the end, a 
chastened Hamlet finds himself accepting of that less than perfect 
condition. The question is not whether Fortinbras is good as a military 
man and a man of action, but whether he will be a person ruled by his 
passions that will angrily lead his country into fruitless wars or will 
derail the peace of his kingdom by chasing after someone else's wife. 
That is the remaining question about Fortinbras. At the time, Hamlet 
cannot know that about Fortinbras, but he yet acquiesces in that less 
than perfect situation, recognizing that we must allow ourselves to 
accept such unknowns rather than holding out for the certainty of a 
perfect leader.

The major issue of the play turns out to be character -- the kind that 
Horatio exemplifies. The tragedy presented in the play is that a good, 
wise, brilliant, brave, and talented man like Hamlet can meet a tragic 
end as a result of his own character flaw, his being a slave to his 

That is Hamlet's story, which he wants Horatio, his friend, to live to 
tell to the world, making the world aware of Hamlet's many virtues and 
to teach the lesson of how much better things would have been had Hamlet 
conquered his passions and been more like his friend Horatio.

David Basch

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