Sunday, 28 December 2014

The Scarlet Lady

Inside this room a lady twirls,
And when she twirls our eyes pretend
That all the past is glory.

She spins within this musky heat,
Converging on the present now.
Our minds shrink deep into this pool,

Remembrance hidden in these steps.
A man is killed, but we don’t see,
Too in love with red red spinning.

Like waves in a murderous sea,
These silken undulations flounce
With the strumming of the strings.

But soon this silk squints, weeping blood.
The dance turned into drummer’s march
Has lost what it once meant to mean

Which we’ve forgotten anyway.
We shouldn’t really care to watch.
This dress no longer satisfies.

Stop dancing, scarlet lady, stop!
You’re out of step.
Remember! Remember!

She twirls, silently,
Dancing on the graves in Ypres.

Tuesday, 23 December 2014

Diary Entry – December 16th, 2014

Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!” – Psalm 137:9

See how they come, the little boys and girls.
See how they come, in helpless, mourning arms,
As fathers comfort mothers, who, in vain,
Hope, no, pretend, and even start to think
That all the children that left home today
Might just ‘come home’. No, let the bodies come,

And let, with tears, the cloud of hatred shrink,
And let, with time, the wounds begin to heal.
But clouds like this will never truly fade:
They'll haunt these ghostly classrooms and these homes,
And leave an all-infectious blood red smirk,
Spurning the scarce attempts of love in this

Clamour we call life, no. No solace can
Be found. There’s pity, yes, pity for those
Whose houses now must hold an empty bed,
And anger, too, for those with hearts so black
No sharpened stake could penetrate them, hearts
So sick, no good could dwell within them.

But no, true pity rings my Western eyes
In their clinging failure to accept the truth,
In the prayers, in the words sent up to an
Empty sky. There’s a certain irony:
When one hundred and thirty smiling lives,
The victims of a fight that is not theirs,

Are cruelly, brutally cut short by war,
I say, with certainty, there is no God.
And yet these men and women lift their heads
With eyes of trust and faith, and let out cries,
And beg, and throw themselves into the dust,
To hear that voice, his voice, addressing them.

There drifts amongst the winds that futile hope
That he would save those souls he left to dust.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

The Theme of Acting in Shakespeare's "Hamlet"



Shakespeare is almost unique as a playwright in the fact that he was part of an acting company, meaning that he was writing his plays for specific actors. Indeed, many critics have suggested that, when Polonius says, “I did act Julius Caesar,” Shakespeare knew that the actor who played Caesar (Julius Caesar was allegedly performed not long before Hamlet) would later play the part of Polonius. Others have gone even further to suggest that the actor of Hamlet, who replies with his pun, “It was a brute part of him to kill so capital a calf,” possibly played Brutus, perhaps prophesising Polonius’s death later on in the play. This is one of many examples that demonstrate Shakespeare’s interest not only in the words and speeches of his plays, but also in their acting and production on the stage. It is not impossible to imagine Shakespeare directing the King’s Men himself, cringing if he saw his masterpieces ruined by terrible acting. Shakespeare’s presence in the theatre and his interest in the art of acting explains the recurrence of the ‘acting’ theme in Hamlet, and in a number of his other plays. King Lear is perhaps the most obvious example: both of Gloucester’s sons, Edgar and Edmund, deceive him at different points in the play. They both put on an act. Just as Edgar is deceptive, Claudius deceives Hamlet and Laertes, and a number of others. Just as Edmund feigns madness and becomes Tom O’Bedlam, so Hamlet puts on his ‘antic disposition’. It is the persuasiveness of Hamlet’s madness, along with his hesitancy, that have led many to suggest that Hamlet would be far more at home in an acting company than on a throne. 

Hamlet clearly demonstrates his acting skills in his deception of almost all the play’s characters. At first, only Horatio and Marcellus are told of Hamlet’s plans to put on his ‘antic disposition’ – everyone else, particularly Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia, is completely fooled. Although we never see it, Hamlet’s madness is perhaps most convincing in his confrontation of Ophelia, which she reports to her father. Hamlet is described as the conventional mad lover: pale, his stockings fouled, his knees shaking, “As if he had been loosèd out of hell…” She goes on to explain that “He raised a sigh so piteous and profound / As it did seem to shatter all his bulk, / And end his being.” When he departed, “He seemed to find his way without his eyes.” Through his repeated use of the word  ‘seem’, Shakespeare insinuates this idea of appearances: Hamlet is not really mad, he only seems mad; he is only acting. Polonius, also deceived, unfeelingly comments to his daughter: “That hath made him mad.” Gertrude too is fooled, and is eager to discover why her son has changed so much. As well as being able to deceive, Hamlet also subtly ridicules a number of the play’s central characters, particularly Polonius. Thus, when Hamlet enters in Act 2 Scene 2 and greets Polonius as a fishmonger, there is certainly method in his madness, as Polonius later comments. The fishmonger trade was at that time one of the most unglamorous professions, and so it is bound to offend an adviser to the King. Moreover, when Polonius asks him what he is reading, the conversation that ensues is very comical:

                Hamlet: Words, words, words.
                Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?
                Hamlet: Between who?
                Polonius: I mean the matter that you read, my lord.

However, Hamlet is not just mocking Polonius: he also subtly expresses his thoughts and his anger. For instance, he observes: “To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand,” and this clearly demonstrates the same melancholy and despair that he displays in his soliloquys. Furthermore, as Polonius departs and asks for Hamlet’s leave, Hamlet says to him: “You cannot sir take from me anything that I will no more willingly part withal; except my life, except my life, except my life.” Thus, as well as insulting Polonius, Hamlet also uses his madness to express his own melancholy thoughts about life – his replies are, as Polonius observes, pregnant. This does perhaps suggest that Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ is, at least at times, not in fact feigned, but real. Is Hamlet actually mad by the end of the play?

Hamlet’s acting skill is also evident in his ability to hide what he knows. In his conversation with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of his supposed friends who are under Claudius’s instructions to find out “Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus,” Hamlet knows that they are attempting to spy on him. He realises that they are trying to make him admit that he wishes he were King (“Why then your ambition makes it one;”) but he skilfully sidesteps their probing: “A dream itself is but a shadow.” He goes on to tell them that he “cannot reason,” so that now is not the time to discuss important matters. Indeed, he then explains that he knows they were sent for, and the two men soon admit that they are under Claudius’s instructions. He hides from them the real reason for his sadness (the murder of his father and Claudius’s marriage), and instead presents himself as the mourning son and heartbroken lover, again confirming Polonius’s earlier thoughts:

“I have of late, but wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory…”

What Hamlet is telling them is all true, but he deceives them in that he hides the real truth. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are easily deceived, and indeed they think that Hamlet’s sadness is caused by Ophelia, as he intended them to think. He tells them: “Man delights me – no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling you seem to say so.” Hamlet seems to be controlling Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, directing their thoughts in certain ways so that they feed this false idea (that Hamlet’s sadness is only caused by heartbreak) back to Claudius. Indeed, the fact that throughout a lot of the play he hides his knowledge of the murder, shows his skill at masking his knowledge under a veil of madness. His expert trickery is again evident when he tells the two men that Claudius and Gertrude are deceived: “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.” This is contradictory, a clever double-give from Hamlet: he wants them to think he is mad, when he is not. This demonstrates his skilled deception, and thus his ability as an actor.

In the same scene, Hamlet demonstrates his skilful acting in his ability to immediately switch his madness off when the situation demands. Upon the entry of the Players, Hamlet seems completely sane, greeting them: “Y’are welcome, masters, welcome all. I am glad to see thee well. Welcome good friends.” In receiving his old friends, he hides his ‘antic disposition’ and acts normal. However, in the next scene, Act 3 Scene 1, he switches the ‘antic disposition’ back on in the knowledge that Ophelia is being used to spy on him (another instance of the spying theme).  Although Hamlet seems mad in this scene, many have questioned whether it is feigned madness, or whether Hamlet is simply expressing his anger against women. He claims to not have sent Ophelia any letters, and then goes on to tell her: “Get thee to a nunnery - why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?” Hamlet is disgusted at his family, and indeed the whole world, so much so that he thinks the human race should be left to die out. This anger is real, but it is very possible that he is only expressing this anger so that he seems mad. It is likely that his seemingly mad words to Ophelia are motivated by both his feigned ‘antic disposition’ and his real anger. Nonetheless, Ophelia is tricked, and exclaims: “O heavenly powers, restore him!” She laments that such a noble mind has been “o’erthrown” and that his “unmatched form and feature of blown youth” has been “Blasted with ecstasy”. Although Ophelia is tricked, Claudius is not:

                “Love? His affections do not that way tend;
                Nor what he spake, though it lacked form a little,
                Was not like madness.”

Here, Claudius voices the audience’s thoughts: although Hamlet may seem to be slightly mad, his anger was not feigned, it was real. There really is “something in his soul / O’er which his melancholy sits on brood.” Thus, we can see that, while Hamlet can deceive Polonius, Ophelia, Gertrude, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern, Claudius is not deceived. Hamlet’s acting becomes less convincing when he allows his own emotions to take over – he forgets that he is being spied on, and loses sight of his aim to deceive. As Claudius observes, Hamlet is not mad, he is angry and emotional. Thus, although Hamlet is a good actor, he allows his passion to overtake him.

Not only is Hamlet a good actor, he is also an ardent devotee of the theatre. This love is demonstrated in Act 2 Scene 2 when Hamlet recites a whole 13 lines of a speech from his favourite play. Even Polonius praises Hamlet for his skilled recital:  “’Fore God my lord, well spoken, with good accent and good discretion.” The fact that he knows by heart such a long extract shows his passion for acting. Moreover, he demonstrates his love of the theatre in his beseeching of the First Player: “Prithee say on…” and his scalding Polonius for interrupting: “It shall to th’ barber’s with your beard… He’s for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps.” Hamlet’s intimacy with the Players (he calls them “good friends”) and his passion for the theatre suggest that he would be well suited to life in an acting company.

Finally, Hamlet would probably not make the best of Kings. His emotional soliloquys show his character to be passionate and scholarly (admittedly good regal attributes), but also hesitant and uncertain (very bad regal attributes). In his third soliloquy Hamlet displays his characteristic indecision: even though he wants to be firm and decisive (he exclaims “Hold, hold, my heart, / And you my sinews grow not instant old / But bear me stiffly up,”) it is his scholarly indecision that leads to his tragic fall. Compared to Claudius’s decisiveness (after discussing his marriage to the queen, he immediately turns to legal matters: “Now follows that you know…”), Hamlet seems weak and lacking in resolve. Claudius, although not a morally good person, is good at ruling a state. Moreover, Hamlet also seems rather weak in his death-wish: as soon as he is presented with any difficulties in his life, he considers giving up on life entirely. A good King would certainly not do this.

Thus, we can see that Hamlet would not be the best of Kings. But would he make a better actor? Along with his skilled deception and his knowledge of the theatre, Hamlet seems to have the sensibilities and passions required for acting. His soliloquys demonstrate a scholarly and yet still sensitive character, surely what is needed in an actor. They need to be able to understand the importance of what they are saying, they need to be able to memorise their lines, and they need to be able to show their passion, all of which Hamlet can do. Therefore, Hamlet would certainly be more suited to a career in acting than in politics. However, whether he would be the most successful of actors is still debatable. He does, at times, seem to let his guise slip, as when he expresses his anger at women to Ophelia. Nonetheless, he is a good actor, particularly in comparison to all the other characters of the play: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s spying is immediately discovered by Hamlet; Claudius’s feigned care for Hamlet is obviously false; Polonius’s attempts to discover the reason for Hamlet’s madness are particularly unsubtle. The play is based around this theme of acting, of appearances, and Hamlet is (excepting the real Players) the best actor. Thus, one could very well argue that Hamlet should have been an actor. Perhaps he and Edmund ought to go into the trade together, although they might not always play the central roles!

Monday, 17 November 2014

A Question About Writing

A very interesting question was proposed to me recently about the nature of literary criticism. Since it is of such high relevance to me as a student of English literature, and also a writer of creative fiction and poetry, I thought I would try to explore the question and its possible answers. The question is this: can creative writing make us better critics? My answer is yes, it can, and almost always does. I say almost because one might argue that it can get in the way of criticism, but that is uncommon. Now, when I refer to creative writing I mean anything from fun newspaper articles and travel writing, to poetry and novel writing – really, I am referring to anything that attempts to evoke an emotional response, which is surely what all creative writing attempts to do. By literary criticism I mean commenting upon any sort of literature; this involves anything from a passing comment to an in depth analysis. It is interesting to note that many of the most famous literary critics were also poets or authors, including Plato, Alexander Pope, John Milton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and T.S. Eliot, amongst many others. Indeed, I highly doubt that there has ever been a critic who has not themselves attempted to write their own work, be it a short story they have written in school, or a published novel. It is not the creative writing produced that we are concerned with, it is their experience of the process of writing. I am not saying that their writing must be good, just that a critic who has attempted to write at some point will be better for it.

Creative writing helps literary criticism in a number of ways, but the most obvious argument is this: if we have never written creatively ourselves, we surely struggle to judge someone else’s ability to do so? If we have never written a poem, is it not much harder to know what it is like to write one? Without having experienced the process of writing creatively, it is very hard to imagine what it is like, and without this knowledge we might not be able to judge adequately a writer’s merit. We need to understand what writing actually is before we can make a criticism of it, and this knowledge surely requires some personal writing experience? For instance, a critic who has never tried to write a poem will be unaware of how hard it is to write a poem, and so they may think that a lot of poetry is terrible. On the other hand, someone who has written poetry will know how tough it is, and so will appreciate every good poem. Yeats observed that the more a critic knows, the better his criticism is likely to be, and this knowledge constitutes a knowledge of the creative writing process. Thus, an attempt to write creatively will give a critic a certain empathy that is necessary in writing about literature.

It is also worth noting that a lot of fiction is about the process of writing, and in order to understand this sort of fiction, one must surely have some experience in the process? For instance, someone who has never had writer’s block may find it harder to fully understand the meaning of Sir Philip Sidney’s Sonnet 1: “I sought fit words to paint the face of woe, / Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain…” Someone who has never felt bereft of inspiration may not fully relate to this poem, whereas someone who has struggled for words may understand it better. As the Ronald S. Costar notes in an article entitled “Literary Criticism and Creative Writing,” a good critic has “breadth, perceptiveness, and insightfulness,” and has an ability to respond to “not only what is in the work, but what lies around and behind it,” and this surely requires a knowledge of what it is like to write creatively. Thus, someone who has experience of creative writing may understand more fully the creative writing of others.

Someone who writes or has written creative writing of their own will also be more used to editing works, and so will be more accustomed to looking out for certain aspects of writing that significantly weaken it. For example, a critic who also writes poetry will recognise more easily in others’ poetry what they themselves try to avoid in their own poems. Of course this is subjective, and also readers, like writers, will also have their own preferences. Nonetheless, the editing process can improve one’s perception and analysis of literature, since it makes one more thorough.

However, some might argue that creative writing is very different from literary criticism, and that a commitment to both pursuits will lead to a weakened mixture of the two. Because literary criticism is analytical (and some might argue objective), and because creative writing is creative and subjective, it might lead to perhaps weakened criticism. However, completely objective criticism is surely impossible, because any critic will be unconsciously influenced by not only their own surroundings, but also their gender, their colour, their sexuality, their beliefs, and even their emotions at the time of criticism, and so this argument is defeated. It is, nonetheless, possible to argue that a writer of creative writing may be too influenced by their own preferences in terms of writing style, language, subject matter and purpose, and that this prejudice may influence and weaken a criticism. However, surely a literary preference is not something that is only found in authors and poets – normal readers are prejudiced too. Moreover, if an author-critic is so egocentric that he dislikes writing that is not like his own, this is due to his own arrogance, not because he has experience of creative writing. A relative judgement of creative writing (be it relative to one’s own or someone else’s) is always preferable. Therefore, although it is possible to argue that a literary critic who also writes creatively will be unable to see the wood for the trees, this is the fault of the critic alone. A good critic looks at the overall picture, and this can be seen better if one has experienced creative writing themselves.

To criticise literature without having tried to write any yourself is like travel writing about a place you have never been to, or being a food critic without ever trying to cook yourself. Yes, it can be done, but it may fail in its detail, understanding and, in particular, empathy. To understand the writing of literature, and indeed to understand literature itself, requires experience, and so creative writing can, and does, improve literary criticism. But if a creative writer has an advantage when criticising others, does the reverse thesis also hold some truth? Do literary critics make better writers? Arguably they do, on the basis that being a critic will make one more analytical and scathing of one’s own work, and so perhaps lead them to improve it. Moreover, a critic has a knowledge of other works (which every critic has), and this comes to good use in creative writing. As Eliot observed, a writer of fiction should write with a knowledge of tradition. Thus, some of the most famous critics also wrote their own literature, and all of the most famous authors, poets and playwrights must have also analysed and criticised literature, if not on paper, then in their mind. The two work together, the one helping and improving the other, and vice versa.

"To be, or not to be..." - An Analysis of Hamlet's Fifth Soliloquy


Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be…” soliloquy is possibly the most famous and most quoted speech in all of English literature. In the soliloquy, Hamlet contemplates the disparities of the human world, the attraction of suicide, cowardice, revenge and the human conscience. The harrowing thoughts expressed by our young prince embody a large number of the play’s themes, and indeed they reveal a vast amount about the hero’s character. The language itself demonstrates Hamlet’s perceptive, intelligent but also (and perhaps consequently) melancholic character and hopeless attitude to life. These aspects of his personality are demonstrated throughout the play, particularly in his soliloquys, and the concerns he expresses about death and revenge are also recurring themes of Hamlet.

Hamlet begins his soliloquy with the famous aphorism, “To be, or not to be, that is the question…” This rather extreme simplification of an almost impossible question immediately conveys Hamlet’s perturbed state of mind: suicide is a genuine option at this point. It has come down to a simple choice that needs to be made: life or death, and the audience mourns to witness Hamlet’s appearing to sway towards the option of suicide, which is described as warring against and so ending “a sea of troubles”. This natural metaphor intimates not only the enormity of his troubles, but also their potency and uncontrollability. He presents death as alluring and attractive, metaphorically comparing it to sleep, certainly more appealing and natural than death. Hamlet also refers to “The sling and arrows of outrageous fortune,” depicting life as a cruel battle and immediately recalling his earlier exclamation in Act I, Scene 5: “O cursèd spite, | That ever I was born to set it right.” He goes on to describe “the whips and scorns of time, | Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely…” giving an extensive list of all the world’s disparities and problems.

Hamlet’s first soliloquy, in Act I, also relates the harsh cruelties of our lives. Again, he seems to be swaying towards the notion of suicide when he exclaims: “O that this too too solid flesh would melt, | … | Or that the Everlasting had not fixed | His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” The threat of damnation is thus presented by Hamlet as the only reason for not killing oneself, and his hyperbolic repetition of ‘too’ shows his desperation. He describes the uses of the world as “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable.” It is worth noting that “weary” is a word he repeats in the fifth soliloquy. Hamlet’s depiction of the world as rotten and stale (a motif that recurs throughout the play, particularly in describing Denmark) accompanied by his exclamations (“Fie on’t, ah fie,”), emphasises his melancholic state of mind. He later describes Denmark as a prison (page 141) with “many confines, wards, and dungeons…” This, too, demonstrates his despair and his consequent desire for escape, and perhaps suicide. Thus, the language employed by Hamlet in his fifth soliloquy reflects the ideas expressed regarding death and suicide in various other parts of the play.

Hamlet’s fascination with death and its uncertainty is another motif that recurs throughout the play. In his fifth soliloquy, Hamlet, although seemingly attracted towards death (“To die, to sleep – | No more…”), realises:


“To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.”

There is a suggestion here of risk and the idea that the dream of death could in fact be a nightmare. Moreover, Hamlet’s use of the word “us” rather than “me” universalises Shakespeare’s explorations of Hamlet’s mind into explorations of the human condition, implying that these ideas are felt by all at some point or other. Hamlet goes on to question why people would bear life’s problems if “he himself might his quietus make | With a bare bodkin?” It is this “dread of something after death” that helps to make the question of “To be, or not to be” much more complex than Hamlet at first believes. He would rather bear the ills that he currently experiences “Than fly to others that we know not of…” Life is here presented as the lesser of two evils, since the unknown may be even worse. These gloomy ideas of death are perhaps inspired by the Ghost’s descriptions of his own purgatorial afterlife: he is “Doomed for a certain term to walk the night, | And for the day confined to fast in fires…” It is somewhat ironic that Hamlet should describe death as “The undiscovered country from whose bourn | No traveller returns,” since he has only just seen his own father returned from the dead. Shakespeare could be suggesting that the Ghost that Hamlet saw was not really a “traveller”, but in fact the devil himself, a concern raised in Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy.

Hamlet’s fascination with death is demonstrated again in Act 5 Scene 1, the famous grave scene. Hamlet questions how the Clown could possibly be singing while digging graves, which he sees as harsh and unfeeling. He is angered by the way the Clown treats the skulls, asking: “Did these bones cost no more the breeding but to play at loggets with ‘em? Mine ache to think on’t.” Hamlet is amazed (emphasised by his repeated questioning) that such important people as politicians, Lords and lawyers should be treated with such disrespect by a “rude knave”. Perhaps he himself feels threatened by the great irony of death: that everyone, even Princes, are reduced and equalised by the great powers of nature. These ideas are expressed again when Hamlet, after seeing Yorick’s skull, reflects upon the cruelty of death: “To what base uses we may return, Horatio! Why may not imagination trace the noble dust of Alexander, till a find it stopping a bunghole?” The suggestion is that Hamlet is thinking of his own death and afterlife and how his body will be treated. These reflections show Hamlet’s fascination and fear of death, also demonstrated through the language of his fifth soliloquy.

Hamlet’s fear of death and its uncertainty is what causes him to delay. He is an intelligent and sharp young man unlikely to act without due consideration: it is this discernment in his character, demonstrated in his fifth soliloquy, that prevents him from committing suicide. He takes care to question a number of aspects of suicide: whether God would approve (his first soliloquy), and whether it would be considered “nobler” to “suffer | The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” or to kill himself, and here we see his feeling of duty as a Prince and as the son of his virtuous father. He explains:


“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought…”

It is the scholar’s predicament that “enterprises of great pitch and moment | … turn awry” once contemplated and considered at length. This intelligence, shown throughout the play, also leads to Hamlet’s delaying in his resolution to avenge his father’s death.

In Act 2 Scene 2, Hamlet, comparing himself to the passionate player, accuses himself of having no resolve and for being “unpregnant” of his cause. He casts aspersions on his own manliness by exclaiming: “Am I a coward?” and asking who “Plucks of my beard and blows it in my face, | Tweaks me by th’nose…” Then, in an effort to emulate the powerful emotions of the First Player, he pours out a splurge of anger: “Bloody, bawdy villain! | Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!” He soon realises, however, that his outburst of words is futile without action: “Fie upon’t, foh! About, my brains.” His discernment leads him to delay and question the nature and intentions of the Ghost, which “May be a devil” and may be trying to damn him. Thus he decides upon the play, in which he might “catch the conscience of the king.” The audience can see that he is not delaying simply due to cowardice. Rather, it is because of his intelligence and his consequent uncertainty about the Ghost. Intelligence is also seen as the cause of delay in various other parts of the play. Even once he has seen Claudius’s reaction to the play, which surely serves as a proof of his guilt, he ensures that Horatio too agrees and asks: “Didst perceive?” As an intelligent man, Hamlet wants absolute evidence of Claudius’s guilt before he makes any rash decisions, for he knows that if he was to wrongly commit murder then he would be eternally damned. Henry Mackenzie describes Hamlet as a man of exquisite sensibility and virtue “placed in a situation in which even the amiable qualities of his mind serve but to aggravate his distress and to perplex his conduct.” It is his discernment and forward thinking, the “amiable qualities of his mind,” not cowardice, that makes him “lose the name of action”, and these characteristics are skilfully portrayed in the fifth soliloquy.

Hamlet’s fifth soliloquy also returns to the play’s central theme: revenge and its justification. Unlike Vindice, who only seems to realise the sinful nature of his murderous vengeance at the end of the play, Hamlet questions throughout whether revenge is justified. Therefore, his use of the word “conscience” (“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all…”) can in fact be seen as a reference to his moral uncertainty about whether revenge is good or evil. Indeed, less than ten lines before Hamlet’s speech begins, after Polonius’s speech about sugaring over the devil, Claudius himself exclaims: “Oh, ‘tis too true. | How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!” and he goes onto cry: “O heavy burden!” And so, Hamlet’s own use of the word “conscience” immediately encourages a comparison between Claudius and Hamlet, both polarised in the extent to which they allow their consciences to determine their action. While, as Hamlet explains, conscience may lead to cowardice, it also sets us apart from evil. Claudius, although saying: “My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,” refuses to give up what he has gained from his fraternal murder: “May one be pardoned and retain th’offence?” Despite claiming that he does have a conscience, he never acts upon it, even to the extent that, when Gertrude proposes to drink from the poisonous cup, all he can bring himself to say is: “Gertrude, do not drink!” He is heartless and cruel, and it is this that separates him from Hamlet.

However, Hamlet is not completely devoid of flaws: although questioning the morality of vengeance (as when he asks the ghost: “Do you not come your tardy son to chide…” and describes revenge as his “dread command”), he does not seem to realise that by killing Claudius he effectively, some would argue, sinks to his level. Herman Ulrici points out that it would be a sin to put Claudius to death without a trial and without justice. However, is this necessarily true? Claudius has killed Hamlet’s father, and has also attempted to kill Hamlet himself, and so one could argue that Hamlet, by killing Claudius, is simply preventing further deaths, and thus that revenge is somewhat justified. Nonetheless, Hamlet’s occasional lack of conscience is undeniable: his cruelty to the women of the play is a good example of this. Despite his father’s beseeching him: “Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive | against thy mother aught…” he still grows angry at her for marrying Claudius. This cruelty to his mother is particularly evident when he unremittingly questions her about her actions, asking, amongst other things: “O shame, where is thy blush? Rebellious hell…” We begin to pity her as she begs him repeatedly to “speak no more” and tells him:


“Thou turn’st my eyes into my very soul,
And there I see such black and grainèd spots
As will not leave their tinct.”

Even when the ghost begs Hamlet to “step between her and her fighting soul,” he continues to attack her for her actions. However, he does tell her later that he “must be cruel only to be kind,” and so we begin to understand the teleology of his attacks – he simply wishes to metaphorically heal his mother of her sins. In the case of Ophelia, on the other hand, there is little justification for his cruelty: he simply uses her as a pawn for his plans. Ophelia believes and is “so affrighted” by everything that Hamlet says to her in his “antic disposition”. Hamlet’s least admirable side is seen in Act 3 Scene 3 when he refuses to kill the praying Claudius, fearing that, if he does, Claudius will be sent to heaven. Instead, he resolves to kill him “When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage, | Or in th’incestuous pleasure of his bed…” He wants Claudius to be “about some act | That has no relish of salvation in’t…” Murder is not enough for Hamlet – he wants to ensure that Claudius experiences the true horrors of Hell that he feels he deserves. Dr Johnson (1765) spoke of the “useless and wanton cruelty” of Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia, and he says that Hamlet’s speech in the prayer scene is “too horrible to be read or to be uttered”. It is, indeed, an awful thought, but there is some sense of justice in the idea: surely it is not true revenge if Hamlet’s father goes to Hell and Claudius goes to Heaven, when it should surely be the other way around? Thus, the debate comes down to the morality of revenge, a debate impossible to conclude. However, the critic Maynard Mack (‘The World of Hamlet’) seems to present a fair argument: “The act required of him, though retributive justice, is one that necessarily involves the doer in the general guilt.” Although the inner play reveals to Hamlet Claudius’s guilt, the question of revenge and its morality still remains: how does one revenge a murder without becoming a murderer oneself?

The language of Hamlet’s fifth soliloquy thus serves to expand and elucidate many of his traits already displayed in the play, and it prepares the audience for his actions later on. It reveals Hamlet’s fear of and fascination with death, his discernment and intelligence, as well as inviting a comparison between himself and Claudius (through the word “conscience”). It is obvious from the outset that Hamlet is the more admirable of the two, but Hamlet is certainly not perfect. Indeed, as Aristotle says, every tragic hero must have a ‘hamartia’ (error of judgement or tragic flaw), otherwise the audience will be left with a sense of total injustice and outrage. Shakespeare places Hamlet in a situation almost impossible to navigate safely: perhaps we are too harsh in our judgements of Hamlet? Is it not part of the human condition to desire some form of retribution? Whatever the answer, it is clear from Hamlet’s “To be, or not to be…” speech that he is an intelligent young man with an active, although occasionally failing, conscience – surely he is admirable for this?

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Explain the views on Falsification of Flew, Hare, and Mitchell


The Verification Principle, presented by A.J. Ayer in his book Language, Truth & Logic, holds that a statement only has meaning if a) you know how it could be empirically verified, or b) it can be verified through logic (e.g. tautology or mathematical truths). This Principle was the central thesis of a group known as the Vienna Circle. The group, including Ayer, Schlick, Carnap and others, developed in the 1920s a theory called Logical Positivism. The Logical Positivists aimed to cut the rubbish out of academia and to act as the ‘hand-maid’ to science and other academic pursuits, as they thought all philosophy ought to do. They rejected all religious, moral and emotional language as meaningless. Ayer, however, soon noticed the flaws in the Verification Principle: he points out that, according to the principle, any statement with the word “all” is meaningless, since it would be an endless and impossible task to prove it empirically. This, he says, is a flaw, since statements in which “all” is used are in fact meaningful. He also criticises the Verification Principle since it would imply that every statement about the past is meaningless, as the past cannot be empirically verified – he argues that statements about the past are, in fact, meaningful. He therefore renders a distinction between strong and weak verification, advocating weak verification over strong. However, weak verification (a statement has meaning “if it is possible for experience to render it probable”) is also flawed, since it is not actually empirical proof.

It is because of these weaknesses that Flew developed his own principle, the Falsification Principle. Flew explains that statements only have meaning if a) you know how they could be proven false, and b) if you would be prepared to accept that evidence. This idea was originally proposed by Karl Popper, who claimed that scientific language is more to do with falsification than verification. He suggests that an assertion is true until proven false. Thus, the Falsification Principle, unlike the Verification Principle, would say that the claim “All ravens are black” does have meaning, because if somebody were to find a red raven, it would be falsified. Flew comes to this conclusion in a University debate, ‘Theology and Falsification’. He begins by relating John Wisdom’s Parable of the Gardener, taken from Wisdom’s article ‘Gods’: two explorers come across a garden that seems tended in parts, and untended in others. One explorer argues that there is a gardener, the other argues that there is not. They camp in the garden in order to find out, but no gardener appears: the believing explorer then qualifies his original assertion: ‘But perhaps he is an invisible gardener.’ So they set up an electric barbed-wire fence and patrol with bloodhounds, but no gardener is caught and no screams are heard; the believer is still not convinced: ‘But there is a gardener, invisible, intangible, insensible to electric shocks, a gardener who has no scent and makes no sound, a gardener who comes secretly to look after the garden which he loves.’

The sceptic then asks: ‘But what remains of your original assertion? Just how does what you call an invisible, intangible, eternally elusive gardener differ from an imaginary gardener or even no gardener at all?’ Due to the believers rejection of falsification and his repeated qualification of the original assertion, the statement actually has no meaning at all. Thus, Flew concludes that a statement, to be meaningful, must be able to be falsified, and, if proved wrong, it must be accepted as wrong by the maker of the statement. Flew, then, implies that all religious statements are fideistic and therefore meaningless, since he views the Problem of Evil (and other evidence) as an argument against God, and sees religious qualification (i.e. God is loving, but he allows evil) as rendering statements meaningless. He questions: ‘What would have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or the existence of God?’ 

R.M. Hare, in the same debate, responds to Flew and presents his concept of the ‘blik’ (German for ‘view’). Hare uses another parable to explain his point: there is a lunatic who believes that all the dons at his university are out to kill him. Even though he meets very kind and respectable dons, he puts their kindliness down to their ‘diabolical cunning’. Hare explains: ‘However many kindly dons are produced, the reaction is still the same.’ A ‘blik’, then, is an ingrained belief that cannot be changed. Flew would say that the statement ‘every don wants to kill me’ is meaningless, because he refuses to accept any falsification. However, if his statement was meaningless, then he would be asserting nothing, and thus there would be no difference in the lunatic’s beliefs and our own beliefs. This would therefore mean that the lunatic is sane, but this is not true: his actions show that the statement has meaning to him. Thus Hare questions Flew’s claim that religious people are making statements about the natural world, and he questions whether religious language can be compared to scientific language. He explains that religious statements are based on a perception of the natural world that has personal meaning. He also uses the example of the car: we assume when we drive a car that it will remain solid and not break (this is a blik), but there is no real reason to assume this – we can neither prove nor disprove that it will stay solid. But the statement ‘my car will not break’ is not meaningless, as it has a profound effect on the way we live our lives. He is, therefore, implying that falsification is fine for scientific language, but cannot apply to religious language, which requires more evidence to count against it. Finally, Hare explains a major difference between his own parable and Flew’s: the explorers in the parable of the gardener discuss the garden with slight curiosity, whereas the lunatic is incredibly concerned about the dons. In the same way, religious people care much more about their statements than scientific people, and so the student is not able to take up the explorers’ detachment.

Basil Mitchell also replies to Flew, and he too presents a parable. He describes a wartime conversation between a member of the resistance and a deeply impressive stranger, who is in fact the commander of the existence, or so he claims. The partisan believes him completely, and when he sees the stranger helping members of the resistance he says ‘He is on our side’. Even when he sees him in police uniform and handing over patriots, he still trusts the stranger and tells his friends, ‘The stranger knows best’. He refuses to put the stranger to the test because of his trust in him. However, he does not ignore the questions of his friends or the telling evidence that suggests he is not a member of the resistance. Rather, he recognises that the stranger’s ambiguous behaviour counts against what he thinks about him. It is, in a way, a trial of faith. Mitchell writes: ‘No, he will only be regarded as sane and reasonable in his belief, if he experiences in himself the full force of the conflict.’ The difference between Hare and Mitchell’s theories is that a ‘blik’ does not accept contrary evidence and let it count against belief; rather, the lunatic just continues blindly with his belief. In the same way, theologians consider the Problem of Evil, but do not necessarily give up their faith because of it – faith, for Mitchell, is stronger and more important than that. Faith means that religious statements cannot simply be falsified, but it also means that the statements are not simply vacuous formulae, since they are also explanations (Mitchell says that the partisan’s belief about the stranger ‘explains and makes sense of the Stranger’s behaviour.’) Thus, Mitchell holds that, because religion is the most important thing in many people’s lives, it cannot be condescended to a ‘meaningless’ belief, nor can it simply be put down to a ‘blik’. Religious belief is hard to give up, but Mitchell does point out that some people do give up their faith. Overall, then, he argues that religious faith cannot be falsified by rules that apply only to scientific statements – faith is far more important than that.

Flew responds to both of these ideas in his conclusion to the debate. He points out that there are many plausible explanations as to why the stranger in Mitchell’s parable seems not to be on their side: he is a man, and not an omnipotent, omniscient creator. He also argues against Mitchell when he says that, ‘if relentlessly pursued, he [the theologian] will have to resort to the avoiding action of qualifications.’ He responds to Hare by saying that, if religious utterances are affirmations of a ‘blik’ rather than assertions about the cosmos, then they are not religious statements at all. He also adds that, if they were not intended to be assertions, then many religious activities would be fraudulent and phrases like ‘You ought because it is God’s will’ assert no more than ‘You ought’. It is simply a fraudulent substitute for a reason. Controversially, he ends the debate with a proposition: when religious intellectuals retain their faith in a loving God in face of the reality of a heartless and indifferent world, they are using ‘doublethink’ – a method of holding two contradictory beliefs, while accepting both to be true.