There be dragons!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Still More on Hamlet


I guess it seems like if we are to place such an emphasis on her innocence and lack of knowledge of the world, then how do we hold her accountable for her actions in the work?
Innocent people can wreak havoc by their mere innocence. Shakespeare seems to have had a problem with pure innocence even while he lamented its vulnerability. The innocents of the world need protecting, are a hobble to those who protect them, often do not know the very damage that they cause. I think this last is very apparent in the denial scene.
For example, her denial of Hamlet - what do we do with that? Do we dismiss it as merely the struggle she faces in owing loyalty to her father's wishes? Or is she culpable for destroying Hamlet's trust in her and their relationship?
Both. She doesn't realize that her denial of Hamlet is going to be received as severely as it is or that her own father is capable of dangerous politics. She is obedient to him to try to win his love, but loses the love and friendship of Hamlet as consequence. She's culpable to the degree that she chooses her fool father over the madman (who even she seems to think is mad).
I'm confused about the nunnery scene: Hamlet moves from debating with himself to recognizing Ophelia and having a moment of joy. He puts back on a mask of jollity calling her "nymph" and joking that she is divine....Why is this joy a mask? It seems like he is seeking out that peace he used to be able to find in Ophelia - the line following "nymph" seems to be sincere. I can't recall anywhere else in the play where Hamlet reveals that much of himself to a character...he bears his soul to the audience alone, and maybe he confides a little in Horatio (especially at the end of the work, although before that it seems to be mere details of his plot against Claudius). But it seems that Ophelia is the only one Hamlet trusts at this point, and after she returns the letters he realizes that even this trust in her has been corrupted. And then the mask of madness and words appears.
Unfortunately, the mask of madness and words exists from the outset. Part of what Shakespeare is conveying throughout the play is that what we (the audience) percieve to be real (the bearing of Hamlet's soul in the soliloquoys, the love btwn Hamlet and Ophelia, the duel at the end of the play) is itself a mask; it's a play put on by actors who do not express their feelings, who do not fall in love, who do not fight and die. This level of interpretation is complex b/c it involves the interaction btwn the audience and the truth through the story portrayed by the actors using words. That's a lot of levels to get through to see what's "really" happening. The big question raised, then, is "when do we humans ever 'take off the mask'?" Are we ever fair? Are we ever honest? Even in our prayers, our thoughts, our reflections in private we wear a mask of images and ideas that can obscure who we are and what we truly think. Pray can become rote; thoughts can become guarded; reflections can become bent. Our very existence as humans is itself a conundrum b/c we cannot interact with anything (even God) without the panoply of words; and (as the deconstructionist point out) words themselves are by their nature deceptive. If we stick with the story alone and skip over the problems of human nature and the whole thing being a big lie portrayed by professional liars, concentrate on the story and characters alone, we are still stuck with the problem that Hamlet wrestles with; all words are a mask. The minute he opens his mouth he is putting on a show or front or character, even to Ophelia, and what he thought before was honesty was in fact only a facade. What motivates him? Joy? Desire? Humor? Friendship? Longing? Sexuality? Even the seeming honest expression of joy at her presence becomes a tool for manipulation and getting his way "Nymph in thy orisons be all my sins remembered" = a tease which is calculated to delight the one who gives him joy.
C.S.Lewis treats of this inability to get beyond the mask in his fiction work "Until We Have Faces." So too does Walker Percy in "The Message in the Bottle" and Michael Edwards in "Towards a Christian Poetics." Always between us and others we have the word which acts like a mask. It conjures in the mind of another ideas, emotions, images which we want to be there. The risk which anyone aware of this activity runs is btwn becoming manipulative like a dragon or sorcerer and becoming a steward of the free choice in others (like a wizard). The mask of words, the limitations of the physical world, or inescapable; we are always something at their mercy. But if we are able to discover what we are about we stand more of a chance of lessening that helplessness and using words to benefit; either our own benefit or the benefit of the good.
This is what Hamlet really seems to be struggling with throughout the play. Now that he's "seen behind the curtain" words have lost their meaning; the mask cannot be removed, but all has become mask. He is then faced with wizardry (to be) or dragonishness (not to be). Words have connection to being but what is that connection? when we use words are we participating in or denying being? And does all conversation now bereft of real meaning become a cacaphony of words, words, words? There are glimpses of hope through the darkness of this play (the flash of romance btwn H & O, the humor of the players, the ending of the work) but mostly it is a dark and terrifying work in which all the world has become a "pestilential congregation of vapors," Denmark has become "a prison," love has become "stewing in the incestuous sheets," and Hamlet, the only one who seems to have seen beyond this world, teeters on the brink of suicide. That's pretty grim.
What then does one make of the Fortinbras speech. "From this time forth, my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth." It's a frequently overlooked soliloquoy but I marvel at it. I think the realization that so many men are going to die for nothing seems to prompt Hamlet out of his quandary. Maybe our lot in this world is only to die? Maybe our lot in this world is to try and accomplish something before we die? Maybe our lot in this world is to have "bloody thoughts" only? Or maybe this speech sends Hamlet into a deeper darkness which seeks to enact its will on others and not just himself. he then stands in peril of tremendous disaster. And what could possibly prompt him to say, then, "We defy augury..." and "...the rest is silence." Does something happen btwn the Fortinbras speech and the defy augury speech that changes him?

Friday, February 10, 2006

More on Hamlet




We must acknowledge the part Ophelia has to play within the work.
Ophelia always struck me as the innocent destroyed by a corrupt world. Shakespeare seemed particularly concerned with how evil destroys innocents (Little MacDuff killed by the criminals, Mercutio killed by Tybalt, Othello and Desdemona destroyed by Iago). He must have seen in his day the slaughter of innocents must have been frequent occurrence (as it is, shockingly, in our enlightened age too) His plays raise a huge problem of how innocence is to survive in a world fueled by brutal cynicism and underhanded skulduggery. How, after all, are any of us to seek revenge for wrongs done us and yet "taint not our minds". A diabolic problem requiring some Maxwell's demon for its solution.
...we learn the most about her through her relationship with Hamlet.
But through Shake's mastery she isn't just Hamlet's foil, either. We can say that she's just the "straight man" in order to see more about Hamlet. What kind of girl would a man like Hamlet love? What kind of woman would have so strong a friendship with her brother? What kind of woman would be able to stand up to Hamlet's ravings as she does? What kind of woman would have a love for her daddy despite his buffoonery? She is both intriguing and amazing, but also pathetic and pitiable. Not the feminist strong dykewoman so loved by modern women professors but a sweet, beautiful young girl as yet untouched by the cruelty of the world. One could ask whether she is at fault for what happens to her. Why doesn't she see the intrigues of the court? Why does she think so highly of her dad? Why does she love a young man who cannot give himself to anyone b/c of his own responsibilities and self-preservation? Look at that whole "Get thee to a nunnery" exchange. Why does Hamlet warn her off as vehemently as he does? What has he seen in her that he so desperately wants to shield? If "nunnery" is another word for whorehouse (which it seems to have had that double-entendre for Elizabethan audiences; like "sugar shack" for us) is Hamlet suggesting that what she needs is immersion in experience in order to survive the terrors of the world? Is his message more than just a warning to flee the court to a place of security? Is it ironical in that "nunnery" is also a religious group cloistered from the world and safe in the pursuit of holiness? I think yes to all those questions.
...taking off his mask for her alone...Hamlet's unending restlessness seems to be a bit calmed in her presence.
True, though Shakespeare does the fascinating trick of implying that this release of the tension of the mask with Ophelia has occurred but can no longer occur in the context of the play. "I loved you... you were wrong, I loved you not!" Hamlet suggests that yes, he did love her and did lead her to believe that the love was sincere; but that was in the carefree days of youth, before college, before his father was murdered, before he had to don this facade in order to survive. Because of the necessity placed upon him to live in Denmark under a shadow he cannot any longer allow her to think that he loved her or allow her to persist in loving him. therefore, "I loved you not." There's an interesting linguistic play on time in this exchange with Ophelia which we see also in the scene with Polonius and later in Hamlet's pre-duel speech.
With Ophelia it is "I did love you once (in the past)" (perfect tense) yet "I loved you not (b/c I did not know then what I know no about you)" but then "get thee to a nunnery" (b/c I love you too much to see you destroyed in the future). All this, of course in a tragic scene immediately following the debate to kill himself. Hamlet first greets Ophelia in this scene with joy "Soft you now, the fair Ophelia - nymph in thy orisons be all my sins remembered. How does my lord? I thank thee well." Hamlet moves from debating with himself to recognizing Ophelia and having a moment of joy. He puts back on a mask of jollity calling her "nymph" and joking that she is divine. Then she tries to return the "remembrances" as she has been instructed by her foolish father. This shocking change in character could not have gone unnoticed by Hamlet. What, she has doted on him without ceasing and suddenly wants to return his mementos to him? So Hamlet dons an even more concealing mask and denies that the mementos are his. Yet he is obviously stunned with her sudden duplicity; "Ha ha are you (honest) for real?" and then he's off playing the madman. Yet he is well aware that daddy (father; God) is listening. Most of his show with Ophelia is a power play against Polonius and the King (whom he undoubtedly suspects), yet a deadly one in which Hamlet is forced by circumstance to use the girl he loves as a tool to strike back at P&K while still retaining his mask of madness. Unfortunately, it is a mask which Claudius sees through "Love? His affections do not that way tend. Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little, was not like madness. There's something in his soul o'er which his melancholy sits on brood, and I do doubt the hatch and disclose will be some danger..."
With Polonius we see "what do you read my lord? words (in the past), words (in the present), words (in the future)" and when asked "what is the matter, my lord?" Hamlet intentionally miscontrues the meaning to be a conflict "Between who?" Yet his response is pregnant of the problem which he faces; Hamlet no longer sees the meaning which words convey. Words have become empty tools to be bandied about and used as scutcheons. Was this b/c of the vows betrayed by his mother? B/c of the skepticism of college? B/c of the insight into what a piece of work is man? Or D all of the above? One way or the other, when he finally explains what he's about he makes this most cryptic and confusing statement "...for yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if, like a crab, you could go backward." Though his statement seems merely madness, "yet there is method in it." Polonius (who is old) could grow young (as old as Hamlet) if he could go back in time; but also, Polonius (who is a fool) could grow wise (like Hamlet) if he could go back in time (and do it right)

Thursday, February 9, 2006

On Hamlet

One of my students wrote this.

We were discussing Hamlet in my English seminar the other day and my professor began to make the case that Hamlet is merely a power hungry individual who toys with everyone in the play for an egotistical boost and an intellectual advantage. He also turned Ophelia into this ditz who we apparently shouldn't lay any blame on - apparently she's a droid who isn't responsible for her actions because she is at the mercy of her father and the king. Ultimately, the professor classified Hamlet neatly as a modern relativist (based on the "nothing is good or evil but thinking makes it so" line). I think it would be much more fair to say that Hamlet is struggling between the subjective tendencies in Renaissance thought (results of Wittenberg?) and his conception of objective ideals and virtues. What say you?
Here is my answer:

Ophelia is no drone. She's probably one of the most pathetic female characters Shakespeare ever constructed (more than Cordelia from Lear though less than Desdemona in Othello); the victim of her father's clownish intrigues and a genuine love for the young Hamlet. Ophelia is still unbroken by the world. She loves her daddy and brother (though she finds the one a nuisance and the other a lecturer). She has had mild flirtations with Hamlet (though they are only the first buddings of love in a young girl). That's why her "breaking" is so severe. She loses brother, father, lover all in one swoop and sees love as nothing but treachery and horror.
I see nowhere in the text that can justify reading her as a character to be ignored and take great hackle raising at the suggestion. Nor do I see in the text suggestion of the ego-boosting bullhockey that is suggested as an interpretation of the Hamlet character. He does play one character off of another and does use words to manipulate others, but the tension of the play seems lost on anyone who wants to read this as mere power struggle. Hamlet is disenfranchised; heir to the throne, yet his immediate sire has been cacked, he is next in line for cacking. Powerful people want his head.
His own mother has been rolling in the hay with the chief of these thugs thinking no more about the results of her actions than that she is again in love (or lust). "At your age the blood is cooled; it obeys the reason," says H. Would it were so. Humans are no damn good and often do things without any reason at all, save their only desperation and desire. Gertrude is desperate for love and probably desperate to save her own smoothe white neck so she makes the beast with two backs with the man who accedes to the throne. Problem; he's also her brother (as brother in law was considered brother in Renaissance England). That's a problem.
Hamlet, I think, is one of the best drawn Shakespearean characters; a young man so ripped up and twisted about by the "modernity" of the late Renaissance (an age that had fallen into despair not far removed from our own) that he no longer can see goodness as unadulterated with evil. Everything is questioned. Everything is probed. And everything is found to be no more than illusion; an artist's trick to make us happy little gerbils in the cosmic wheel (remember this was the age of intensely brutal wars, court intrigue and the use of perspective in art; a technique designed to deceive the eye into thinking the one dimensional was three dimensional; the unreal was real). He returns home b/c he heres of his father's "untimely death" where he has strong suspicions that "all is not right in the state of Denmark". But Hamlet is already ill-prepared to deal with the Byzantine intrigues he must face (intrigues very similar to those of Elizabethan England); he can't stand the sycophants, the violence of Claudius, the buffoonishness of Patronius, yet he is a player in this strange dance of death which is The court of Denmark. How else is he to survive?
Then comes the ghost. Is he a ghost? Is he a demon? Is he a figment of Hamlet's mind? The guards see him. Horatio does not. He speaks only to Hamlet. Why does he take the form of Hamlet, sr.? Is this the ripping of the veil of reality which Hamlet has so dreaded from his studies at Wittenberg? What comes forth but a creature that commands him to seek blood and yet taint not his soul? How does one do that? How do you seek vengeance and yet remain dispassionate from the world? How do you involve in the world and yet remain aloof?
Too many questions. Words. Words. Words. The cacaphony of questions, conversations, lies and evasions, flatterings, condemnations, plottings, billings and cooings of love... All lose their meaning for Hamlet and he hears nothing but the roaring din of words.
Thus at the very end come two vital moments. One where Hamlet says, just before the duel "we defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be not now yet it will come; if it be not to come yet it is now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all." This magnificent moment where, in the face of struggling with all these questions and doubts, Hamlet realizes that the solution is to make oneself ready for what will happen and then place trust in Providence. This leads to the second powerful statement where Hamlet reaches his epiphany. As he is dying he says, "Horatio, what a wounded name. Absent thyself awhile in felicity and draw thy breath in pain to tell my tell. The rest is silence." He commands Horatio to tell the world about what he has seen. And what he has seen is that the rest of the next world is an end to all that din that makes up human life. Heaven is singing and party and joy; but at base heaven is a deep, undending silence to all the chaos and worry of this life.
Thus the play is one of intense terror, powerful introspection and social critique, and ultimately of great joy. Hamlet finds a way out from his pain by acceptance of the divine will and earns the benediction of Horatio who says, "good night, sweet prince. And may choirs of angels sing thee to thy rest."

Thursday, February 2, 2006

On Happiness


In Boethius’ great work “The Consolation of Philosophy” Lady Philosophy states that
“happiness is the highest good of rational nature”
– Consolatio Philosophiae Bk II, iv
This is not true for animals whose highest good consists in existing. Nor is it true for the angels whose highest good consists in service.
Why? Rational souls perceive the good and choose by will, not instinct or duty. Animals are what they are by instinct; they neither choose to improve their condition by seeking higher good, nor do they denigrate their condition by choosing against their nature. For animals the greatest good is to be an animal. Cows are cows, eggs is eggs, and chickens are chickens. Angels are what they are by one, ineffable choice backed by a pure intellect which sees truth not by the slow and laborious acquisition of such but in one, all-encompassing flash of the essence of the thing. Thus their greatest good is not happiness, but service of the good. Rational souls, on the other hand, acquire knowledge through slow labor. Thus our will occurs not all in one fell instance but in ever increasing and hopefully improving instances. The rational soul knows the good by choice. It loves by choice that which it comes to know. It serves by choice that which it comes to love. This is the natural telos, or end purpose, of man. Added to this is the gift of the supernatural telos of man which is to be with God in heaven. This blessedness, or beatitude is a gift given to a person worthy of reciprocal love. Like the romantic relations between a lover and his beloved, the reciprocal love of God comes as a gift freely given to man who has freely chosen to make himself worthy of love. Similarly, the happiness that comes as gift in human relationships is the pattern for the happiness, or beatitude which comes from the romance with God. Thus Lady Philosophy also says that
“Submitting to His laws and obeying His governance is freedom.”
– Consolatio Philosophiae Bk I, v.
For rational souls this freedom is not duty or instinct but choice; freely given love, freely accepted gift of reciprocal love. Thus happiness is the free choosing of the good.
This raises a secondary question, namely whether happiness consists merely in the choosing of the good or the having of the good. If we look at natural examples we note that the man who chooses the fine food experiences a modicum of happiness when he chooses, but his happiness is not complete unless he actually receives and consumes the fine food. Otherwise his choosing remains incomplete because he suffers want. He does not fulfill or attain his desire and so remains unhappy. Similarly, a man who chooses to love a woman may possess some modicum of happiness in the choice itself, but more often than not he suffers intensely after his choice by not having the company and love of the woman he chooses. His choosing remains incomplete because he suffers want. He does not fulfill or attain his desire and so remains unhappy. The attainment of happiness, it would seem, is not solely derived from the choice but from the attaining or fulfilling of desire for the thing. In the realm of complete happiness which derives from that which is permanent rather than mutable the choice of the permanent is insufficient. One must attain the immutable and thus fulfill the desire for the immutable in order to be sufficiently happy. How then does one do this? How does one attain a reciprocal response. As said before one can’t “attain” such reciprocation in the way we attain a burger, or attain good health. There is no formula which ensures the giving of love. Yet in the romantic sense we can attain the free gift of reciprocal love; as the lover can attain his beloved’s consent, or the friend can attain the friendship of another through the showing of friendship. Our choice to pursue a knowledge of the good, not for grades, or prestige, or filthy lucre, but out of a sincere desire to know is rewarded with gaining a knowledge of the good made more intimate by deeper involvement. Our knowledge of the good prompts us to be drawn erotically toward the good which, though powerful, proves to be not an inexorable draw but one which we can choose to accept or reject. We fall in love with the good which we perceive first in lesser goods, then increasingly greater goods, until we love The Good itself. Our choice to love The Good itself prompts us then to serve That Good. Again, we choose to serve and are not made slaves, but like the medieval knight for his lady we put ourselves into the service of The Good, and thus “win” its love. Thus the scripture passage in which Our Lord says
“Whoever loves me will do my will, and my Father will love him and We will come to him.”
We cannot achieve happiness by good works alone, which are hollow actions without the love that prompts them, but neither can we achieve happiness by merely knowing or merely loving The Good. The three states of knowing, loving, and serving are intimately united. Without knowing one cannot love or serve for one cannot love what one does not know, yet without love and service, our knowledge of The Good remains vague, sterile, and cold. Claims of loving The Good without any real knowledge of what we are loving prove a shallow love and a service which often goes awry. Without knowledge and love, however, the actions of service are a facade; a farce designed to deceive or trick others and ultimately to trick God Himself into giving His love. Something akin to the false lover, or “player”, who knows the lies and tricks that worm into another’s heart and seduce their love but who has no intention of actually loving. This is the Pharisee who is “like a whited sepulcher” and “full of dead men’s bones.” Our freedom and happiness come not as a Pharisaical tricking or seducing of God, but as the natural consequence of reciprocal love.