The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0323  Wednesday, 17 June 2009

[1] From:   John N. Wall <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
     Date:   Monday, 15 Jun 2009 16:56:07 -0400 (EDT)
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0318 What ho, Horatio

[2] From:   Aaron Azlant <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
     Date:   Monday, 15 Jun 2009 18:00:03 -0400
     Subj:   Re: SHK 20.0318 What ho, Horatio

From:       John N. Wall <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:       Monday, 15 Jun 2009 16:56:07 -0400 (EDT)
Subject: 20.0318 What ho, Horatio
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0318 What ho, Horatio

Thanks, I'll give it a try one day and report back to the list. JNW

Anthony Burton wrote:

 >3. The ghost does not reveal the secrets of his prison house, his
 >"partial" revelation being nothing more than the vaguest reference to
 >details that everyone believes already. If you want the real skinny, die
 >unshriven and find out first hand.

John N. Wall
Professor of English
NC State University
Raleigh, NC

From:       Aaron Azlant <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date:       Monday, 15 Jun 2009 18:00:03 -0400
Subject: 20.0318 What ho, Horatio
Comment:    Re: SHK 20.0318 What ho, Horatio

First of all, thanks to those who responded for making me reexamine some 
of my listed items. I should probably note that my list was absolutely 
not meant as a series of adverse "gotchas"  --  one argument about 
Hamlet would actually be (cf. Booth) that any inconsistencies present in 
the play are more likely to enrich the experience of watching it, not to 
diminish it.

One possible way to look at it is by way of analogy: Like /Hamlet/, 
/King Lear/ is a soup of many potentially contradictory sources: 
England's pagan history and earlier plays about Lear (Leir), The Faerie 
Queen, the Book of Job, Arcadia, Gorboduc, Cicero (as Mr.  Cantrell has 
pointed out), etc. I submit that it is not possible to locate a 
consistent point of view throughout Shakespeare's play on the concept of 
godliness, for instance; the play variously refers to Greek or Roman 
gods, the Christian god, "thou nature art my goddess," a pagan lack of 
godliness, and so forth. Yet this inconsistency is perhaps not a source 
of weakness for the play, but rather one of its strengths, more akin to 
a refusal to settle on singular meanings.

Similarly, this is Booth on the similarly slippery conception of suicide 
in /Hamlet/ (apologies for the length of the passage, though I felt that 
it was all germane):

"Most of the time contradictory values do not collide in the audience's 
consciousness, but the topic of revenge [vice Christian commandment] is 
far from the only instance in which they live anxiously close to one 
another, so close t one another that, although the audience is not 
shaken in its faith in either of a pair of conflicting values, its mind 
remains in the uneasy state common in nonartistic experience but unusual 
for audiences of plays. The best example is the audience's thinking 
about suicide during /Hamlet/. The first mention of suicide comes 
already set into a Christian frame of reference by the clause in which 
self-slaughter is mentioned: "Or that the Everlasting had not fixed/ His 
canon 'gainst self-slaughter (I.ii.131-32). In the course of the play, 
however, an audience evaluates suicide in all the different systems 
available to minds outside the comfortable limitations of art; from time 
to time in the play the audience thinks of suicide variously as (1) 
cause for damnation, (2) a heroic and generous action, (3) a cowardly 
action, and (4) a last sure way to peace. The audience moves from one to 
another system of values with a rapidity that human faith in the 
rational constancy of the human mind makes seem impossible. Look, for 
example, at the travels of the mind that listens to and understands what 
goes on between the specifically Christian death of Laertes (Laertes: 
"...Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,/ Nor thine on 
me."-Hamlet: "Heaven make thee free of it" (V.ii.319-21) and the 
specifically Christian death of Hamlet (Horatio: "...Good night sweet 
prince,/ And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest..." (V.ii.348-48). 
During the intervening thirty lines the audience and the characters move 
from the christian context in which Laertes' soul departs, into the 
familiar literary context where they can take Horatio's attempted 
suicide as the generous and heroic act that it is (V.ii.324-31). 
Audience and characters have likewise no difficulty at all in 
understanding and accepting the label "felicity" for the destination of 
the suicide-even though Hamlet, the speaker of "Absent thee from 
felicity awhile" (V.ii.336), prefaces the statement with an incidental 
"By heaven" (V.ii.32) and even though Hamlet and the audience have spent 
a lot of time during the preceding three hours actively considering the 
extent to which a suicide's journey to the "undiscovered country" can be 
called "felicity" or predicted at all.  When "Good night, sweet prince" 
is spoken by the antique Roman of twenty lines before, both he and the 
audience return to thinking in a Christian frame of reference, as if 
they had never been away." ("On The Value of Hamlet," Reinterpretations 
of Elizabethan Drama, 154-156)

I have nothing to add to this except to submit that, if the saying is 
correct that the mark of a first-class mind is a Whitmanesque ability to 
contain contradictions simultaneously, then Shakespeare plays are 
perhaps the most perfect literary vehicles for the creation of such 
minds -- however temporarily.

And while I agree that not all of the items that I have listed as 
contradictions are necessarily correct, I figured that I would note the 

1. Although Laertes certainly does lead a rebellion against the Danish 
monarchy, and although the line cited by Mr. Weiss may suggest a prior 
election (though the line cited may suggest a *lack* of an election 
instead), the report of Laertes insurrection does explicitly suggest a 
popular mandate:

Messenger "...They cry 'Choose we! Laertes shall be king.'/ Caps, hands 
and tongues applaud it to the clouds,/ 'Laertes should be king, Laertes 
king!" (IV.5.106-109.)

2. This is Horatio's description of Fortinbras in the first scene:

Horatio. ...Now, sir, young Fortinbras,
Of unimproved mettle hot and full,
Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there
Shark'd up a list of lawless resolutes,
For food and diet, to some enterprise
That hath a stomach in't; (I.1.95-100).

There is indeed report in II.2 of Fortinbras' plans receiving the kabosh 
from his uncle in returns for an allowance and a promise to attack 
Poland instead (in this, his diverted plans are like Hamlet's request to 
return to Wittenberg, also denied by a regal uncle). Yet nothing in the 
earlier descriptions of Fortinbras describe him as he is when an 
audience encounters him in the fourth and especially the fifth act, a 
model of discipline.

It is also worth noting that the initial political background of Denmark 
in /Hamlet/ is one of concern over Fortinbras' possible attack; this is 
why the guards are out in in the first scene (see I.1.108-11), what 
Claudius is defying when he tears up Fortinbras' letter ("So much for 
him") in the next act, and why Claudius is happy to learn in II.2 of 
Fortinbras' reining in by his uncle. Yet, in the last act of the play, 
Fortinbras  --  who is presumably busily moving in on Denmark, in 
violation of the terms of his allowance -- is nonetheless essentially 
greeted as a savior by Hamlet, who has meantime discovered an admiration 
for Fortinbras as a man of action in IV.4 ("How stand I then...").

3. The fact that the ghost twice and ambiguously refers to "fires" -- 
this in an Elizabethan religious milieu where the denial of Purgatory 
was a still-fresh question (cf. Greenblatt)  --  argues against the idea 
that he was merely reciting common knowledge (and here the fact that the 
ghost is "forbid" to reveal his secrets may have had a contemporary 
political thrust). We are likely to take the fires as a reference to 
Purgatory (hence "partially revealing them"), but this is complicated by 
the Elizabethan religious context, by the facts that Hamlet previously 
refers to the ghost's "questionable shape" -- i.e.  coming to question 
young Hamlet but with an additional, darker connotation -- and has, 
along with Horatio, explicitly opened the idea that he may be a "goblin 
damned," and finally by the fact that the ghost's dual references to 
fire could describe hell just as well as purgatory.

4. If the ghost's visit is only with regard to his prior commandment not 
to turn his command for revenge against the queen, why refer to the need 
to "whet" a "blunted" purpose, in language that (as Booth notes) also 
references the weapon that Hamlet has just used to dispatch Polonius?

5. Hamlet does indeed refer in the "to be or not to be" speech to the 
fact that the "dread of something after death" is enough to prevent 
suicides; this supports Mr. Burton's reading. Nonetheless, Hamlet also 
asserts that "no traveler" has returned from the "undiscovered country," 
which is true enough in real life but not in the world of the play.

Additionally, it is worth noting a contradiction that I missed the first 
time around and rediscovered in my rereading of Booth: it is interesting 
Hamlet, who famously "knows not seems," also prides himself on his 
subterfuge over the next several scenes and also gives advice on acting 
-- on "seems" -- to the players who he meets several scenes later.

  -- Aaron

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>

DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the 
opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the 
editor assumes no responsibility for them.

Subscribe to Our Feeds


Make a Gift to SHAKSPER

Consider making a gift to support SHAKSPER.