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Tuesday, March 01, 2005

In like a lion...

Tomorrow I have two tests: a practice Math 114 test and a real test on Shakespeare's Hamlet. My continuing struggles with Math is something with which one who was keeping up with this blog would be well acquainted. As far as the Melancholy Dane goes, however, I have run into some unexpected difficulty.

Most important is this: I don't buy into his predicament. The story only "works" if you accept two premises: that the Catholic view of the nature of ultimate reality is a true view, and that furthermore unless Hamlet avenges the death of his father and namesake, the shade of King Hamlet is doomed to an eternity in Purgatory, never emerging into Heaven nor evil enough to be damned. Of course, Mel Gibson buys into both premises with gusto, so his Hamlet is actually quite impressive. (We watched the movie in class.)

However, to my way of looking at things, Hamlet is an absurd man in an absurd predicament.

1.) I don't buy what the Catholic Church sells about Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, Christ as propitiatory sacrifice, etc. etc.

2.) The ghost of King Hamlet is not necessarily what he seems to be. If looked at from a materialist point of view, King Hamlet is a hallucination that Prince Hamlet shares with a few members of the Danish Army. As it is, King Hamlet's ghost speaks only to the rest, he is a mute hallucination of a beloved ruler. It is established in the play that King Hamlet was a good ruler, beloved by his people, and it is not only young Prince Hamlet who pines for him and wears the clothes of mourning. His apparition is wish fulfillment for the loyal subjects who guard Castle Elsinore and an extension of the psychological torment of Prince Hamlet.

3.) Prince Hamlet, basically, is a depressed, spoiled teenager who spends too much time reading philosophical and religious texts and not enough time with his peers. If this was modern-day America or Europe, he'd be a Goth for sure. He's got a crush on Ophelia, who seems to be somewhat inclined to be interested but is ambivalent. She's gotten bad advice from her brother Laertes and her father Polonius about Hamlet's intentions, and this only compounds the situation.

4.) Prince Hamlet would rather be an actor than the King of Denmark. That's basically where he's at. Rule means responsibility, and that's something that Hamlet is allergic to. He'd have no trouble portraying a king, but to really be one? Not for this boy.

5.) Prince Hamlet has every reason to not kill King Claudius, but only one reason to kill him, and that is to avenge the shade of his father King Hamlet. If he kills King Claudius, the crown would naturally fall to him. There is no indication he has brothers or sisters, so basically one can assume he's the sole heir. The current situation sickens him. In most cultures, the union of Claudius and Queen Gertrude is not incestuous. For instance, in Jewish households it is not only permissible for a brother to marry the wife of his dead brother, but considered a "mitzvah," a good deed and the fulfillment of divine commandment. However, in Medieval Denmark, it is considered incest. There is also the outside chance that he could himself perish for the deed of Regicide if he kills King Claudius. No matter how enthusiastically Prince Hamlet ponders suicide, he is not ready to die.

6.) There is plenty of other ethical reasons to not resort to vengeance. Vengeance tends to breed vengeance. One need only look at the shambles that are the inner cities of America to see the mischief cycles of revenge have wrought. To quote a Japanese proverb: "He who seeks revenge should first dig two graves." Both Judaism and Biblical Christianity also counsel against vengeance, for it is G_d's place to take revenge.

Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.

-- Romans 12:19
To me belongeth vengeance and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.

-- Deuteronomy 32:35

So basically even if one saw themselves as a devout Catholic, as Prince Hamlet did, revenge is a bad idea.

What then should Prince Hamlet have done in this case? Perhaps he should have taken the trip to England, after first exchanging the death warrants of his false friends Rosenkranz and Guilderstern. With them out of the way, and him presumed dead, he could take up a new life as an actor. The cycle of revenge is broken. Of course, if one bought into the religious dimensions of the story, he would have buggered out on his filial duty and left King Hamlet to an uncertain fate. But if one did not, no harm, no foul, as the deceased Ethical Philosopher Chick Hearn would say.

For the sake of the test, I suppose I should take the whole thing at face value, including for the sake of the story accepting the ethics and metaphysics of this peculiar brand of Catholicism. But I have to say that, from my own perspective, the predicament is absurd, and Hamlet is an absurd man.