Only by the form, the pattern,
Can words or music reach
The stillness, as a Chinese jar still
Moves perpetually in its stillness.
T. S. Eliot
Four Quartets
Briunt Norton

Friday, October 16, 2009

How to Drive a Dane Crazy

But was Hamlet crazy or just epistemologically confused and overwhelmed?

The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
*********Hamlet, act one, scene 5

What keeps Hamlet from acting? His father's ghost told him who did the killing. Why doesn't Hamlet take this information and exact revenge for his father's death? What's his problem?
Hamlet was born betwixt and between. The, ‘times were out of joint.’ The dying Age of Faith still lingers on as seen in the ghost of Hamlet’s father. But a new age was being born. And this new Age of Science could not be satisfied by the testimony of a ghost at midnight.
Hamlet played at being crazy. But if you are born in the middle of a paradigm shift, if you feel drawn towards both ideals you will feel crazy. You will always be neither fish nor fowl and you will never feel completely at home or welcomed by either ideal. The times will truly be out of joint.
The epistemological goal of the new age was the banishment of doubt and its replacement by certainly based on independently verifiable sensory experience. Thus Hamlet ended up constructing the crude experiment of putting on the play reminiscent of his father’s death and observing his uncle’s reaction. Hamlet was too much a man of his time to be able to feel comfortable with proceeding to action without satisfying the needs of the new scientific method.


  1. Hmmm. That's kind of an interesting premise to bring up. But I wonder how much this reflects a need for scientific method as much as an emerging distrust of the spiritual or supernatural.

    I remember one of my profs mentioning that Hamlet needed to find out whether the ghost was a Catholic (real ghost sentenced to Purgatory) or a Protestant (demon disguised as ghost to trick Hamlet) ghost-- although I think he used a specific brnach of Prostestantism and I don't think it was Lutheran.

    But this idea is kind of interesting. I think I have to re-read Hamlet (or preferably find a good performance of it -- not set in the post-apocalyptic future or some nonsense-- if I can) from this perspective and see how it holds together...

  2. The Mel Gibson Hamlet is not too bad. It was directed by the great Franco Zeffirelli. Branagh is long and sometimes tedious. I think it has every last word of the original. One good thing about the Branagh is that it is available on most any P2P site. Olivier is OK but dated. The Zeffirelli was filmed at Elsinore castle in Medieval costume. The Branagh is set in something like an out of the way Czarist castle and in middle to late nineteenth century Hapsburg costume. The Branagh costumes and weapons never stop being jarring to me.
    This interpretation is totally borrowed. I heard it from a philosophy professor at Long Beach State right around 1970. I do not remember exactly but I'm pretty sure he was using it to illustrate some point from Hegel. He was interesting. He claimed to be a Marxist (in the interest of social justice). But he felt that Marxists failed to appreciate Hegel and were too quick to leave him as a mere footnote to Marx. He was also very partial to Plato. He encouraged his students to study classical Greek. He lost his job because he took LSD with a student. Where ever he taught he kept his home right next to the campus so that students could drop by at any time. I can remember that his class on Hegel was so small that we usually met in his front room. His name was Vic and he refused to be addressed as doctor. I did not get along real well with him but I took many classes from him and felt I learned a good deal. After he left teaching he bought an organic citrus ranch. I continued to visit Vic there since many of my friends were close to him. And I got on well with his wife who was a great cook for a vegan.

  3. I've seen the film versions, but I prefer live performances.

    The Branagh one always confounded me. I love Branagh's contemplative Hamlet, but his boisterous Hamlet seems to me like Branagh is screaming watch me act properly-- I am so well trained as an actor! The character seems secondary to the performance (I hope that makes sense). That's never a good thing, but it something like Hamlet it's downright unforgiveable.

    Branagh's 19th Century interpretation always bothered me too. I thought he was just doing it out of some visual conceit and just ignored it (Branagh sets a lot of Shakespeare's work in odd times and places-- which play was the one he set in 19th Century Japan? I saw it advertised, I didn't watch it.) but now it seems you're suggesting there was some specific point to the setting. Interesting. I'll have to do a bit of research and ask people a few questions about this. Thanks.

  4. I did not mean to suggest there was some specific point to the setting. With Shakespeare such things will never be much more than what you call visual conceits. Shakespeare’s words will always be the main focus. We are conditioned by our culture to give him immense respect. Though some will struggle against him and his influence just because of the stifling weight of conventional wisdom. But this fight tends to be just childish egoism. And I feel that if someone honestly seeks truth and beauty and continues to be exposed to Shakespeare, the time must come when the words will become overpowering. One day his words, his characters and the situations he writes about will break through all resistance. And visual conceits can help bring about this breakthrough by motivating nonfans to just show up for the faddish novelty that will let the words work their magic. I doubt that Shakespeare himself would care one way or the other about visual conceits. He would just want his words and his pay rendered accurately.
    Shakespeare is now universally considered a giant and a unique genius. It took a couple of centuries for this view to take hold. I think two of the major external causes were his championing by Samuel Johnson and Coleridge. But the case of Goethe is interesting by comparison. He is the closest equivalent the Germans have to Shakespeare (of course Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven must be left out if the calculations). But Goethe was recognized as such while he was still alive. You could say that, for the Germans, a near deity walked daily through the castle at Weimar. He was much more respected than the Beatles or even Cold Play. Thomas Mann’s novel ‘Lotte in Weimar; the Beloved Returns’ conveys some of this. The Germans loved and respected him but most of them remained confused as to how a human could talk to a god. Goethe grew more and more isolated as he aged. But I wonder if much of his isolation was not caused by his unique talent. His genius would have him intuiting many of the connections and complexities in a room while an educated shopkeeper was still trying to figure out where the buffet line ends.
    In your first comment you mentioned that Hamlet had to determine whether or not the ghost was Catholic or Protestant. Some such interpretation is no doubt true. But this is one of my favorite features of great writing: both that and my observations about the paradigm shift can be true. Both can be going on as well as a dozen or more other possibilities.