David Auerbach on literature, tech, film, etc.

Tag: hamlet (page 2 of 2)

One Line from Hamlet

When Stephen spins an elaborate yarn in Ulysses about Hamlet, Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father and son, and all manner of other things, a yarn that has a little to do with Shakespeare and a lot to do with himself and everything going on around him, part of the joke is that Shakespeare is such an opaque author given over to interpretation that Stephen can easily produce a vaguely plausible theory eerily resonant with his own personal obsessions without straining much. My tentativeness toward Shakespeare stems from my own preference for authors with discernible or overpowering (albeit ambiguous and misleading) authorial personae behind their works: as far as canonical authors go, people like Goethe, Milton, Melville, Gogol, Joyce, and Proust. Shakespeare sometimes seems insufferably coy by being such a cipher, and his spawning of an industry of condescending would-be elucidators of his work grates on me, though I can’t quite blame him for that.

But I have been thinking lately about his sheer talent of ambiguity, and I’ve been particularly preoccupied with the one line from Hamlet that, in terms of word-to-chaos ratio, must be one of his best ever. It’s this line in III.2 in the middle of the Mousetrap play:

HAMLET: This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king.

[Quick crib note: this is the line that causes it to appear that the Mousetrap play is not representing Claudius killing the King, but Hamlet killing his uncle Claudius. I.e., Hamlet now makes it easy for the audience (including Claudius) to infer that his purpose in putting on the play is to threaten Claudius with murder. It also renders it far more difficult to ascertain what Hamlet and Claudius are thinking for the rest of the play, how genuinely convinced Hamlet is of Claudius’ guilt, and what Claudius thinks Hamlet knows.]

Hamlet botches his whole “conscience of the king” scheme so badly with this one line (and he is already in the midst of botching it badly enough) that it really drains a fair bit of my sympathy for him. (I do expect a modicum of basic competence from my heroes.) But besides that, Shakespeare’s ability to cause such havoc to any possible understanding of the play’s themes, characters, and plot with this sentence is impressive. And it comes from such an apparently innocuous line, coming right after the seemingly weightier “Let the galled jade wince, our withers are unwrung” spiel, as if to make certain that for the next four hundred years, the line would make less of an impression than it should. And since most of the characters are already confused and only get more confused, it isn’t quite as obvious as it should be that there’s also great uncertainty as to exactly what they’re confused about.

So what gets me is not only that the line gives strength to the radical skepticism interpretation of the play, but that it does so in a rather non-showy way, as though to make it more difficult to believe that Shakespeare really intended such radical skepticism. So the clues that cause the most doubt over likely interpretations are themselves not particularly notable, so as to make the doubting itself look dubious and help guarantee that standard interpretations could take hold that wouldn’t include the full extent of the doubt. The surface-level ambiguities and filigrees would cover up the deeper problems. So, for example, while the Ghost’s provenance remains unknown, we still find out that multiple people see the Ghost, alleviating one uncertainty while exacerbating another. Claudius confesses to the audience, even though Hamlet still may have doubts. It’s a brilliant balancing act.

Any other picks for high word-to-chaos lines?


[As an example of how the radical-skepticism interpretation still doesn’t get enough purchase, take Richard Levin’s rather unconvincing attempt to wave away concerns about the Ghost’s intent:

Several critics have tried to prove, often by citing evidence from Elizabethan treatises on pneumatology, that he is not the ghost of Hamlet’s father but a devil pretending to be the ghost of Hamlet’s father in order to entrap Hamlet. This is a very serious charge because, if it were true, it would mean that he is like the deceptive villains in Shakespeare’s other plays, and so his statement to Hamlet would be completely unreliable. Shakespeare, however, eliminates this possibility by voicing it twice during the early part of the play and rejecting it both times. Horatio warns Hamlet not to follow the Ghost because it may “assume some other horrible form” to drive him mad (I.iv.69–74), but this does not happen and Hamlet returns from his encounter to assure Horatio and Marcellus that “It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you” (I.v.138). Then, near the end of the soliloquy that I just discussed, Hamlet himself wonders if the Ghost “May be a devil” who lied about Claudius’s crime in order to “damn me” (II.ii.598–603), but when he sees how Claudius reacts to The Murther of Gonzago, he tells Horatio, “I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound” (III.ii.286–287), which was a lot of money in those days; and after that we hear no more doubts about a demonic ghost. In terms of my basic assumption, therefore, we can be confident that the Ghost is not a devil because, if he were, Shakespeare would have been sure to satisfy his audience’s “need to know” this essential fact or “necessary question of the play” because he wanted them to understand this play.

Richard Levin, “Gertrude’s Elusive Libido”

Well, I’ll take Hamlet’s word for a thousand pound, which is still a lot of money in these days!]

“Literary Theory and Historical Understanding,” Morris Dickstein, Revisited

Joseph Deumer, writing on Morris Dickstein, nicely sums up the affiliation between the new critics and the new theory crowd:

I’ve often thought, in passing, that there is a close relationship between the New Critics & the various Deconstructionists…Both schools reject claims of expressive meaning in the texts they examine in favor of a forensic hermeneutics.

I’m with him. I wonder again, though: is the new historicist approach so different? When Hamlet becomes a conduit for doctrinal medieval spats over the nature of Purgatory, as Stephen Greenblatt would have it, or when Frank Norris gets tied up into mercantilist disputes, in Walter Benn Michaels’s work, expressive meaning gives way to a dreary fatalism. The hermeneutics used in the historicists’ calculus of exploitation and oppression are less hermetic than those of new criticism and theory, but they are just as schematic. I’m inclined to see these historicist investigations as a subset of the general theoretical mindset in the last thirty years, not as their own genre.

Despite his delineation between historical and theoretical criticism (see last entry), Dickstein probably agrees. I understated the grouchiness of the article, and Dickstein’s obvious unhappiness with a lot of new historicism. He appears to be scouring the literary world for any sort of real political engagement, and grudgingly settling for new historicism’s unpleasantly impractical intersection of cultural history and class warfare.

A look back at Dickstein’s 1977 book Gates of Eden, a weird amalgam of history and literature of the 60’s, reveals a yearning–sublimated in “Literary Theory and Historical Understanding”–for a time in which literature and literary studies were both heavily invested in social change. Dickstein finds it in his experiences as a young professor in the 60’s. Unlike Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe, Dickstein was involved in the new radicalism in the early part of the 60’s, long before Berkeley and Kent, and his yearning for its union of aesthetic and political involvement comes out clearly. For him, new historicism is a clearly inadequate shadow of that period.

Coming out of the 50’s, the correlation of social unrest with important-seeming books by people like Joseph Heller, Philip Roth, James Baldwin, Norman Mailer, John Barth, William Gaddis, and Thomas Pynchon made it appear to some that the harmony was at hand and that the locus of change was right where it should be: in the centers of higher learning. (They were so, so wrong.)

But even Gates of Eden suggests that Dickstein found himself on the wrong side of the literary fence. His book focuses far more on literature than it does literary studies. Marcuse and Norman O. Brown, both about as “radical” as you can get in 60’s intellectuals, are cited half-disapprovingly by Dickstein: they talked the talk and exhorted students to rethink political and social foundations, but the merit of their work was its practical effects, not its theoretical basis. He lays into Marcuse for having failed to generate a neo-Marxist project, but congratulates him on having inspired countless students to challenge orthodoxy. His greatest pride, which he echoes in the article, was in being part and parcel with the activists, and in shaping their mindset and critical apparati.

Finally, it is not the product of the academic establishment that interests Dickstein, the parade of editions of 500 that are slotted into university libraries around the country and only pulled out for dissertations, but the process of the university, where established models of discourse and engagement are used to produce halfway decent human beings. At points it nearly seems as though Dickstein treats modern criticism, historicist or not, as an expedient doctrine, not of value for its intrinsic meaning, but for getting people to think more sharply, before (or while) they reorient themselves to political activism. Ironically, this is a historicist view to take of literary criticism itself, and like many historicist treatments, it denigrates the integrity of the work it considers.

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