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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 weve 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, toget 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 shefell 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 youre totally not sure is your boyfriend, killed your dad

  • and then still sort of wanted to be your boyfriend, but only sometimes, weve 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 violetsassociated

  • 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 were 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 Gertrudeeither inadvertently

  • or on purposesaves 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 asin action how like an angel.”

  • But then he shows that this image of angelic man is inaccessible to him, even repellent,

  • sayingand 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 weve 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 changeliterally 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 HoratioThere'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 himthou

  • 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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  • possible, thanks for watching, and as we say in my hometown, “Don’t forget to be awesome!”

Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course Literature and today we continue our discussion of Hamlet.

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Ophelia, Gertrude, and Regicide - Hamlet II: Crash Course Literature 204

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    黃齡萱 posted on 2017/07/05
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