Monday, March 16, 2009

Le premier étage, part deux


I am on the second floor again (first floor in France, remember?), in the bibliothèque. This time I won't talk about procrastination or stalling. This is a warm-up.

I'm writing about Hamlet, and comparing a couple of essays that use specific types of criticism to interpret the play. I chose two that I think can be reconciled and even complement one another: Marxism and New Historicism. The critics who wrote these essays didn't just do a bland interpretation by the book of their school of crit. They both have specific ideas about the world of Hamlet and how it relates to political and social upset of the time.

The Marxist has Denmark turning into a giant carnival. Carnival, that is, in the celebratory social order turned upside-down sense where you can get away with things during masquerade. Think Mardi-Gras. This is a recurring theme in discussions of Elizabethan literature. Those critics of the early modern period love them some Carnival. And this Mike Bristol fellow digs it more than most. His essay is titled after some foodstuffs mentioned once in the play, the "funeral bak'd-meats."

The New Historicist also takes a narrow focus on the Danish court, and looks at the circular relationship between madness and treason. Must one be mad to commit treason? Does one go mad because of treasonous thoughts? Or is "mad" the label that is applied to anyone who acts up, as an explanation of their behavior? The last option is most likely. Hamlet's madness is feigned at first, but as Claudius becomes suspicious, Claudius makes sure everyone knows Hamlet is mad. Hamlet is labeled mad, and possibly becomes even more mad because of this mess. This correlates with the court practice in England at the time. Anyone who threatened the queens authority could be proclaimed mad, and treated accordingly (which usually meant beheading). Madness is used as control, and the label becomes a reality as the politics unfold.

I passed on writing about the Freudian psychoanalytic essay --
although, the bedchamber scene is a good'n.


I thought the madness essay was better than the bak'd-meats one, but it can borrow some of the carnival to flesh it out. I'm thinking that just as Carnival is the excuse for (temporary) social upset, madness is the monarch's "excuse" for why someone would cause social upset except on a holiday! The paragraphs above were summary of the secondary texts. What follows is my preliminary attempt to synthesize them.

The madness/treason circle in the New Historicism essay is explained above, but there is a circle in the meats essay too: Carnival for the monarch and Carnival for the subject. When a nobleman uses Carnival to raise his status, he has appropriated it for himself. Carnival is supposed to be for everyone. That's the point. The entire political system being based on a Carnivalesque foundation (an incestous "o'erhasty" marriage ) leads to real chaos, not just a masquerade ball.

Hamlet also has his own private Carnival (his mask of madness) which leads him to his death. Claudius is perfectly willing to create social upset for his own gain, but cannot accept it from his nephew/step-son. At first opportunity, the madness label is applied to Hamlet because he refuses to join in Claudius' carnival (Hamlet's excessive mourning, black clothes) and because Claudius needs a good explanation for his subjects as to why his joyous marriage and happy monarchy are not delighting the prince of Denmark. The only person who could resist the festivities of this happy time is a madman. Hamlet is mad, so when the king tacks treason onto his public suspicions about the boy, no one doubts that it is true.

There is an interplay of two conceptual pairs here (social upset/social order, madness/treason). This is what always happens to me. It's easier to deal with one pair of things. But I always have four things with crazy relationships. Well, this paper is supposed to synthesize two essays, or prove them irreconcilable. We'll see which of those things happen as I actually start to write it.

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