B2 High-Intermediate 190 Folder Collection
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Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature and today we continue our discussion of Hamlet.
Mr. Green, Mr. Green, I’ve figured it out already. Hamlet has an Oedipus complex. That explains everything.
No, no, no Me From the Past. As we’ve already learned, not even Oedipus had an Oedipus complex.
Although your fascination with it is starting to freak me out a little.
And while you can read Hamlet as being entirely about sex, sex, sex, sex, sex, you don’t
have to. I’ll give you this though Me From The Past,
whether or not Hamlet wants to sleep with his mother, he definitely has girl trouble.
[Theme Music]
So Hamlet’s pretty vicious to the women in this play. He orders Ophelia, for instance, to “get thee to a nunnery!”
And he tells his mother Gertrude: “frailty, thy name is woman,” even though Hamlet isn’t terribly
robust, as you may have noticed. Now there’s been some backlash discussing
gender dynamics in literature, but this is a really important contemporary approach to
the study of literature. It’s not the only one. It’s not the only one that we do here.
But it is one that matters. So a basic reading of Hamlet would look like this:
Claudius has and uses power, Hamlet has power but mostly chooses not to use it,
Polonius has less power than he imagines himself to have, and Ophelia and Gertrude have no
power. Right? Yeah, not exactly. Let’s go to the Thought Bubble.
So in painting, there’s a tradition of depicting Ophelia as a tragic, romantic, completely
powerless heroine, following the mythology created by Gertrude when she describes Ophelia’s
death in extensive detail. How she “fell in the weeping brook. Her
clothes spread wide, / and mermaid-like awhile they bore her up […] till that her garments,
heavy with their drink, / pull’d the poor wretch from her melodious lay / to muddy death”
Did Gertrude actually see this? Probably not. And if she did, why didn’t she to try to
save Ophelia instead of coming up with a lovely simile about how much she looks like a mermaid
while she drowns? Gertrude’s description makes Ophelia’s
death sound like an accident. A branch broke and she plunged helplessly into the water.
Could have happened to anyone hanging out on a riverbank wearing lots of layers.
But pretty much everyone else accepts Ophelia’s death as a deliberate suicide caused by her
madness. So that raises the question: What kind of agency did she have since she clearly
had some and how did she use it? And, also, what caused her madness?
Thanks, Thought Bubble. So before Hamlet escapes into madness he’s
in a difficult spot. He’s heir to a throne that should be his already, son to a mother
he no longer trusts, nephew to the guy who possibly killed his dad. Well, Ophelia is
in a pretty tight spot too. I mean, Ophelia’s father has been murdered
by Hamlet, who used to be in love with her, and who is now shouting at her about nunneries
and then making weird sexual banter and then going off to sea.
It’s like if that guy, who you’re totally not sure is your boyfriend, killed your dad
and then still sort of wanted to be your boyfriend, but only sometimes, we’ve all been there.
In Act 2, Polonius says of Hamlet, “though this be madness yet there is method in’t”
and let’s not overlook the method in Ophelia’s madness. Like, towards the end of Act 4, she
hands out flowers she has collected to Claudius, Gertrude, and Laertes.
These flowers each have meanings that would be known to the Elizabethan audience, who
were the kind of people who liked their bouquets to contain secret codes.
“There’s fennel for you, and columbines,” says Ophelia, presumably to Gertrude as Fennel
signified flattery and Columbines marital infidelity.
She also hands out rue, which signified repentance, and mentions that the violets –associated
with faithfulness – “withered all when my father died.”
This is Ophelia at her most deliciously subversive, delivering her own form of judgment, speaking
out against corruption and injustice and doing it in her own particularly feminine way behind
the mask of seeming madness. So while Hamlet’s off on some pirate ship
giving yet more soliloquies about his indecisiveness, Ophelia is asserting her own beliefs about
right and wrong and life and death, and she’s doing it in a way that’s clear. I mean,
at least it would be clear to Elizabethans. But then, she tragically decides to inflict
this judgment on her own body, viewing her death as the only way to free herself from
Elsinore’s depravity and depression. Quick personal sidenote: I think that is a
terrible decision and a poor use of Ophelia’s agency. As bad as her her use of the flowers
is good. Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Even in Ophelia’s case.
So there’s very popular reading of Hamlet that Ophelia’s suicide is an assertive choice,
the only choice she really can make. But, in fact, the flowers show that she can also
make other choices. Now of course those choices might have resulted
in her death anyway, but the choice was there. All that noted, there’s no question that
while Hamlet is stuck between to be or not to be, Ophelia actively chooses NOT to be.
She makes her peace with death, and she does it a whole act before Hamlet does.
So without Ophelia we’re left with the other woman in the play, Queen Gertrude. Gertrude’s
quickie marriage to Claudius forces Hamlet to think a lot more than he would want to
about his mother’s sexuality. Or maybe it’s exactly as much as he wants to.
Hamlet sees Gertrude’s hookup with Claudius as a betrayal of his father but also of Hamlet
himself, because it deprives him of the throne. So it’s not fair to say that Gertrude has
no power or agency, she has the one vote in the election for who becomes king.
But does her choice make Gertrude a traitor? I mean is she complicit in her husband’s
murder or is she just another victim of Claudius’s sweet, sweet, poisonous lies?
And this is where the oedipal reading comes in, like is Hamlet angry at Claudius because
Claudius has done what Hamlet always secretly wanted to do. You know, kill the father, marry
the mother, become king. And he does focus pretty intently on Gertrude’s
“incestuous sheets,” but most of the time he’s hesitating to kill Claudius, it’s
because he doesn’t want to become a murderer not because of anything about what’s happening
between the sheets. For a character with not that many lines,
Gertrude is very interesting. Like is her ultimate loyalty to Hamlet or to Claudius?
Shakespeare presses this idea in the duel scene when Gertrude — either inadvertently
or on purpose — saves Hamlet’s life, if only for like a minute.
Gertrude reaches for Hamlet’s poisoned cup, and Claudius orders her not to drink, but
her only response is “I will, my lord, I pray you pardon me.”
Is she just thirsty or is that a conscious choice?
In her final moments, is she showing Hamlet where her allegiance lies? Now, of course,
Shakespeare meant this to be ambiguous but her final line is, “O my dear Hamlet!”
not “O my dear Claudius.” Now both Gertrude and Ophelia’s defiance
of authority ultimately results in their suicide. And I want to underscore that I don’t think
suicide is heroic, but the most interesting discussion question in my high school English
classes was, “Which of these characters, in Hamlet, is the most heroic?”
I think you can make a case for almost anyone, except for Polonius and of course Claudius.
But there’s certainly a case to be made for Gertrude or Ophelia. Anyway, this leads
us to the question whether heroism always involves taking heroic actions. Certainly,
Hamlet’s a big fan of action. I mean not in his own life, but, you know, as an idea.
I mean he describes man as “in action how like an angel.”
But then he shows that this image of angelic man is inaccessible to him, even repellent,
saying “and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
And then of course smack dab in the middle of the play Hamlet lectures the traveling
players about how best to act. And then Hamlet doesn’t act, for scene after scene, after scene.
Except when he stabs Polonius who, while annoying, is innocent.
But is this indecision meant to be seen as heroic? Like iIs Hamlet a weak and wishy washy
guy for wasting all his time on investigations, or is it in fact kind of heroic to fact-check
information that you get from a ghost before killing someone?
Amleth, the inspiration for the tragedy, acts decisively and he’s certainly seen as a
hero. But it’s much more complicated in Shakespeare’s play.
For one thing, as we’ve seen, ghosts were not necessarily to be trusted, Oh… a ghost
is moving my desk. It must be time for the open letter. No, no, no, no, you no! You are
not real. You are not a ghost. You are a digital representation created by Thought Cafe. I am
not giving you an open letter! Moving on! Sorry, I’m scared of ghosts, even though
they aren’t real. They definitely aren’t real. Anyway, there’s also the fact that
killing a king - even if that king is a usurper - was generally seen as not a fantastic idea.
Except when it came to Macbeth. I mean kings were seen to rule by divine right,
so offing one was an insult to god. Also, it was in Hamlet’s best interest to keep
that idea around so, you know, no one would off him if he became king.
So maybe it’s a good thing that Hamlet doesn’t take murder lightly. Well, except for when
he kills Polonius for the unforgivable sin of hiding behind curtains.
So what finally turns Hamlet into an actor? Maybe pirates. Maybe nothing, Many critics
feel that it’s a different Hamlet who shows up in the fifth act, one who has undergone
a “sea change” literally and now feels less conflicted about his own mortality.
Bit it’s not like the play immediately becomes a Jean Claude Van Damme movie, I mean Hamlet
tells Horatio “There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis
not to come. If it be not to come, it will be now.” That doesn’t sound like a guy
who’s about to go on a slaughtering spree. When Hamlet does act it’s at the last possible
moment. Killing Claudius only because he has learned that Claudius was planing to kill
him, Gertrude, and Laertes. At a certain point all that stuff about mortal
and divine justice and the perpetual cycle of violence goes out the window and you think,
"Hey, maybe I should just kill this multiple murderer."
But then, of course, in doing so you re-raise all those questions about mortal and divine
justice and the perpetual cycle of violence. Ahhh, I love Shakespeare!
But one thing you can say about Hamlet is that once he starts to take action he really takes it.
He stabs Claudius with the poison sword and forces him to drink from the poison cup.
Killing him twice. And he insults Claudius, calling him “thou
incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,” which in Elizabethan terms is quite the burn.
But taking action doesn’t really resolve or integrate Hamlet’s character. As he dies,
Hamlet charges Horatio with telling his story, as though only in death will Horatio be able
to make a coherent narrative out of all of his delay and wavering and ambivalence.
If it’s revenge that made the original Amleth famous, that’s not what keeps drawing us
back to Shakespeare’s play. It’s Hamlet inaction rather than his action that makes
us pay attention. The soliloquies in which he weighs his options
and tries to decide whether he will direct the course of his life or let fate determine
it teaches us something about what it means to be human, to have a conscience, to make
difficult decisions in our own lives. Or not make them. Inaction, as Hamlet shows
us, is its own kind of action. Which kind of action is heroic? I don’t know. Tell
me what you think in comments. Thanks for watching, I’ll see you next week.
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Ophelia, Gertrude, and Regicide - Hamlet II: Crash Course Literature 204

190 Folder Collection
黃齡萱 published on July 5, 2017
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