Monday, March 31, 2014

Idle Thoughts Excessive Grief -- Xenophon vs Shakespeare

So here's some thoughts off the top of my head. Call me and we can talk about them.  Although this is unedited and barely proofread, I'm going to post it under idle thoughts. As a set of idle thoughts, it might be worth reading. If anyone else ever reads this, remember, it's barely proofread and not edited at all because I just don't feel like bothering to do those things today.

Okay, some thoughts on Hamlet. Well, here's Hamlet. He has two conflicting cultural pressures on him, both of which are very powerful. This is all taking place in Denmark, one of the homes of the Vikings. Revenge plays a critical role in an honor culture. Remember that in an honor culture if you lose everything you have even if you die and your family dies with you that's a good thing as long as it defends your honor. On the other hand, losing your honor and maintaining those things makes you weak and earns the contempt of everyone around you.

But by the time we look at Hamlet, the Vikings are long gone, still, the need for honor has a strong cultural hold. However, there's a contrary pressure on him. He is also a Christian. He is not supposed to seek revenge. He should be turning the other cheek. Revenge or forgiveness is a massive moral problem for him.

Of course, he could say that he's only seeking justice not revenge. But that just raises a new question. When does revenge turn into justice, when does justice turn into revenge?

Not to mention, the only evidence he actually has that any of this happened consists of two things:  First, the statement of a ghost who claims to be his father. For all we know it's an evil spirit who knows the ultimate result of seeking revenge will be everyone's death, which of course is what happens at the end of the play. Is this a father asking his beloved son to give him justice in the afterlife or is this a demon sent from hell determined to destroy the entire ruling family of Denmark? We don't really know.  Maybe he's the ghost of a king of Norway who wants to bring Denmark down.

The second piece of evidence he has is his fevered interpretation of the way the king reacts to the play which is supposedly re-creating his father's murder. Does the king really react that clearly in a way that shows he's guilty? Or is he just reacting because he realizes that Hamlet, who has been behaving insanely, obviously thinks he murdered his brother, Hamlet's father?

This supposed evidence wouldn't get an arrest warrant, or probably even get as much as an investigation in a modern justice system. Nevertheless, it's an enough for Hamlet to run around slaughtering everybody in sight.

The king's effort to kill Hamlet can be seen as an act of self defense. He's going mad, running around making wild accusations. He's destroying his country. It was no secret to Shakespeare's audience that kings and queens often did harsh and even cruel things in order to protect their nations from instability. In that light there is no real evidence contained in the efforts to kill Hamlet that the king was in fact guilty. He may simply have been a harsh but rational king.

Hamlet is almost universally regarded as a great character demonstrating the struggles and sufferings to which men are subject in times of great stress. I have to say I find him wimpy and feckless. He either needs to look the ghost in the eye and say how the hell do I know you're my father's ghost? You haven't offered any proof.  You look like him but disguises are easy for spirits to assume. Then he could simply let the whole damn thing go. Yes, the doubt might torment him, but you live with it.

On the other hand, if he really does believe the ghost and that his trap in the form of a play really did prove the king was guilty, why does he keep equivocating? Get the damn thing over with. As a member of the royal family assassination was a way to the top. I'm quite certain he could have arranged a palace coup and gotten away with it.  At least he would have had a reasonable chance of success, and in the process he would have maintained a stable nation.

Instead he whines what if this, what if that, what if this, what if that.  I don't like him. I don't respect him. I don't see anything to admire in him.

As far as I'm concerned, when he starts going on and on about to be or not to be I'm sitting there watching the play and thinking, do it do it do it. It would put an end all the blather.

Of course, there is a way which I rather do enjoy the play. Some of the scenes are really good especially alas poor Yorick If you remember that Hamlet was already acting as if he was insane before the ghost appeared as if he was obsessed with grief for his father, the play can make a lot more sense. If you assume from the beginning that Hamlet is in fact insane, his weird inexplicable behavior becomes explicable and understandable.
In other words, as a play of a man tormented by two conflicting needs and by doubts I don't like the play. If you look at the play as showing the dangers of allowing yourself to grieve too much and leading yourself into insanity it's not so bad.

I had to look this quote up. I was sure it was by Zeno but it was actually by Xenophon, but I found it.

Excess of grief for the dead is madness; for it is an injury to the living, and the dead know it not.

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