Thursday, September 13, 2012

The classical usage in Hamlet

Hamlet receives the Players at Elsinore in the middle of the play named after him.

He importunes the chief to recite a stirring rendition of "Aeneas' tale to Dido" about the sack of Troy. Hamlet had heard this at least once before, and indeed demonstrates that he has committed much of the speech to memory. He has internalized the narrative.

The myth, as the Player tells it, offers useful models for action within the confines of the play. Gertrude can learn from Hecuba how a queen ought to lament her husband's death. Hamlet can learn from Pyrrhus how to decide and act. The onlookers can learn that the death of Hamlet Senior seems to be an epically earth-shattering event for young Hamlet.

It cannot escape anybody's notice that the myth of Hecuba and Priam occurs within the Hamlet. Once noted, a scholar is obligated to consider Shakespeare's narrative gain, the reason why the author inserts the mythological allusion, why here, why thus, etc.

That's an overt usage of a myth. Shakespeare is holding a smoking gun. He is caught using classical myth.

Some students of Shakespeare's Hamlet have worked with the observation that Hamlet is similar to the Oresteia. The two narratives have the ghostly supernatural, and adulterous new king, a troubled son, a tragic ending. What Hamlet really lacks, though, is an overt reference to the Orestes story.

Without an overt reference, we are only discussing archetypal similarities between the two narratives.

Bluntly: Hecuba in Hamlet is a good paper choice, Orestes in Hamlet is questionable.
     Hamlet manifests a USAGE of the Hecuba/Priam/Pyrrhus/Aeneas myth.
     Hamlet's likeness to the oresteia is a narrative similarity and NOT a usage.

Don't read this, if you are unclear about what I said above. It will only confuse, unless the above is clear.
Extraneous complicators: Reid cites Hamlet in her OGCMA, but I think she wrong to do so. (And she cites Gilbert Highet, who agrees with me.) The Player's narrative of Aeneas' tale to Dido isn't really taken very clearly from Vergil's Aeneid.

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