Friday, October 22, 2010

Part Teh Second: Hamlet Versus The Logical Positivists: Doubt

I'm re-reading my post of yestermorn (which is how Shakespeare would say it, I guess) and I can't believe how thoroughly I fucked myself1. Logical What-The-Fucks? Guh? And I promised to make all of that shit relevant to Hamlet somehow. Man! What was I smoking2?

Plus, at some point after I uploaded that post, I took another look at this:
3 In the same way that, in math, "2+2=43a" [...]
3a Assuming Base 10, here, of course.
and was in mortal fear that someone would call me out on my error of omission, here, because footnote 3a should read "Assuming Base 5 or better, here, of course" because 2 plus two equals 4 in bases 5, 6, 7 etc. Not just base 10. And I gave a lot of thought to fixing it3, but then I thought, "You know, maybe I should just leave it there and see if a mathematical equivalent of Militant Grammarian (and Itinerant Dildo Connoisseur) sea legs girl comes along and corrects my math."

But none of you did, not even slg, presumably because she's ... uh ... "busy" with her latest purchase, probably running around the house going, "What the HELL happened to our emergency reserve of batteries!??1!? I need some NOW!1! Because I used up all the others in my new ... uh .. flashlight ... yeah, that's it ... flashlight ..."

So eff all ya'll! Woo-Hoo! I got away with yet another factual error, only the ninth one ever to appear on the Intertubes, seven of which are mine.
In Shakespeare's Hamlet, we have a really good example of the marvel of ambiguity that is the English language. Whereas the logical positivists yearned to purge natural languages of ambiguity, and thus turn them into artificial languages - lacking nuance, incapable of reflecting the variety of human experience of, and interaction with, the world - Shakespeare, on the other hand, celebrates this aspect of the language he spoke and wrote: the English language. Shakespeare knew, intuitively, that much of life is messy and ambiguous and difficult to describe and can't be reduced to true-or-false statements.And what can't be reduced to a series of true or false statements is most definitely not "meaningless", in any sense of that word.

The best answer I ever heard to the oft-asked question, Is Hamlet, in Shakespeare's play, really mad or is he faking it? was "Yes". Because you can make a convincing case either way based on solid textual evidence.

And so doubt is at the center of the play, just as it is in real life. That's one of the reasons I ended yesterday's post promising that the theme of today's post would be: Doubt; or, By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!

The other reason is this, which is just a marvelous, shining instance of the way Shakespeare used language to reflect the essential dubiety of human epistemological pursuits:

Hamlet's Mom and his Uncle the king are trying to figure out what it is that has lil Hammy in such a funk; and Polonius says he knows what it is: Hamlet is lovesick over Ophelia, Polonius's own daughter. Polonius thinks he knows this because Hamlet gave O. a letter that includes this poem:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

Which, on the face of it, seems to be an overt profession of love. But is it? Or, to put the question in such a form that it can be truthfully answered with a "yes": Is this a profession of love or the very opposite?

Because here's the great thing about language. It evolves. "Doubt", today, basically means "to be skeptical of", which it also meant in Shxpr's day, which is obvious from its usage in the poem above, to cite but one example. (Of course other examples abound.) But the word "doubt" comes from the Latin dubita, which meant, yeah, "doubt"; but it also meant "consider; think".

It retained that second meaning in Shakespeare's time (but has since shed it). Look again at Hamlet's poem to see an example of "doubt" being used to mean "think". The third line (and the poem as a whole) make sense only if the "doubt" in line 3 is being employed as a synonym for "think" or "consider":

Be skeptical of the the fact that the stars are fire; be skeptical of the the fact that the sun moves ... but ...

Be skeptical of truth to be a liar?

No. It has to be Consider truth to be a liar. Think it a liar. Has to be. Just to make any sense.

But then, of course, the issue becomes ... which meaning of "doubt" does Hamlet intend in the fourth line?

Never be skeptical I love?

Or ... Never think I love?

So, the poem: Profession of love or profession of anti-love?

Answer: Yes.

Because we can't possibly know, and if we think we do it's because of whatever prejudice we already have about Hamlet. "Hamlet must intend doubt to mean 'doubt' here because Hamlet loves Ophelia."

And how do I know Hamlet loves Ophelia?

Because Hamlet loves Ophelia.

Very convincing.
When Hamlet first sees the ghost of his father, the ghost beckons Hamlet to go off with him; which Hamlet agrees to do. But his fearful buddies grab him and try to prevent him from going off with this possibly infernal apparition. Hmlet responds to their attempts to restrain him with the lines:
Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me! 
"Lets" is another one of those weird words, like "doubt" that mean both something and its opposite. In Elizabethan times, "let" meant both "allow", as it does today, but also "prevent", and it is in the latter sense that Hamlet is using it above.

Again, this kind of ambiguity - which would have driven the positivists insane - is precisely what makes Hamlet a great play. Meaning is expanded, not constricted, by this linguistic flexibility, and the linguistic flexibility and ambiguity mirrors the ambiguity of the world we live in. Hamlet is all about perceiving things and thinking you know what they mean only to find out ... well ... not so much.

One such instance of this is at the heart of the play. It's the play within the play itself.

Hamlet reckons he can expose the king's wrong-doing by staging a reenactment of the king's crime ("the play's the thing/ Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king"), which he needs proof of because the only evidence he has is ... well ... there was this ghost, you see ... and he told me that ... etc.

So Hamlet goes to all this trouble of re-staging the king's alleged crime to "prove" the king's guilt, but manages to do it in such a way that the play (within-the-play) is different enough from the real world (of the play Hamlet) that it proves nothing, even though Hamlet fools himself into thinking it proves the king guilty beyond a doubt.

Because look what Hamlet does with the play-within-the-play. He partially re-writes the drama that the players are going to perform ("Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town-crier spoke my lines") so that it mirrors the circumstances of his father's murder. If the king reacts to this Denmark's Most Wanted reenactment, it could only mean one thing, right? That the king has a guilty conscience.

Well, uh, not so fast. Because as the play is unfolding, what does Hamlet say about the play's evil murderer as he enters the stage?

"This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king"

Nephew to the king. Claudius, the current king, is Hamlet's father's brother. Hamlet wants the play-within-the-play to pull double duty, as both reenactment of his father's murder and as threat to Claudius: I'm a-gonna do you in the same wise you done mah daddy!

Okay. So when the king reacts - and he does react - what is he reacting to? The reenactment of his crime? Or the clearly implied threat to his person? Thanks to Hamlet's muddying of the water, the is no way to tell4.

Think about it: Hamlet is walking around all broody and dressed in black, like a Danish goth, and he's slightly pissed that he's not king because his uncle not only "hath kill'd my king and whored my mother" but  "Popp'd in between the election and my hopes" and now all of a sudden he wants his uncle to watch this play ... a play in which a king is murdered by his nephew.

And it gets kinda weird here because Hamlet specifically asks his buddy, Horatio, to back him up on his interpretation of what went down, which is pretty much Horatio's whole role in this play - verifier of Hamlet's views, because no one else, including Hamlet's mother, seems particularly upset at the death of Hamlet's dad - and what does Horatio say?

O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a
thousand pound. Didst perceive?
Very well, my lord.
Upon the talk of the poisoning?
I did very well note him.

Yo, Ho-dawg, didja catch that.


When they talked 'bout cappin' his @$$?

Yep. I saw that, yo.

And that's it. Not, "Yeah, dude, you're sooo right! I mean, if that wasn't an admission of guilt then I don't know my Rosencrantz from  my Guildenstern!"

None of that. Just, "Yeah. I saw it."

And Hamlet is just full of ambiguous weirdnesses like that.

But aren't they what make the play more rather than less meaningful?

Not to the logical positivists!
1 Not literally, obviously, but I totally could if I wanted because, yeah, it's that big.

Plus I'm not saying I have, but I will say this:

LuMu, I really don't know what it is you see in anal. Because ouch.

2 Yesterday was Thursday, so most likely it was some Maui Wowie. Which explains why I can't remember it.

3 No I didn't.

4 We in the audience know what Claudius is reacting to (it is, indeed, the reenactment of his regicide/fratricide), but that is only because we are privy to his thoughts; i.e., to information that Hamlet does not have. My point isn't that Claudius didn't kill Hamlet Senior, because he did; it's that Hamlet hasn't actually proved what he thinks he's proved with the play.


  1. yep... still nothing but a high pitched squeal... I kinda hope the phillies win, so you come back down to my level...or as close as possible...

  2. Yo, Ho-dawg, didja catch that. Who you callin Ho-Dawg??$%?

    Love the label you put on this one: uttter utter bullshit. Is that 3rd t in the first uttter for emphasize or were your fingas flyin on the keyboard? I just want to know the level of utttter bullshit here.

    Thanks, G. BTW, who's winning?? GO COCKS!!!!!!!!

  3. Oh $hit - typo in my comment. meant "emphasis".

    And here I was all up on my high horse. Hate it when that happens!

  4. @Beth - No need to be apologetic. Because that third "t" was indeed for emphasize.

  5. In Stan Marsh voice: "I call shenanigans!"

    I might read that post some day/week when I have the time. I was going to make a comment about the 2+2= 4 to the power of 3(to the power of a), but thought better of it.

    Scanning a gloss of this post's text, I see it's on ambiguity. Ever read the so-called classic text "Seven Types of Ambiguity" in college? I x'ed out he first word of the title and corrected it to "Several Types of Ambiguity," as it's ambiguous-er.

  6. You are so cool.

    I know the topic of doubt in this post makes you wonder if I mean that in the sense that I am impressed with your accessible, yet thought provoking, analysis and interpretation of Hamlet and Shakespeare's use of intentionally ambiguous language, or if I am being a sarcastic snarky bitch.

    I mean it exactly as you think I do.

  7. reading through this and your discussion of ambiguity in the text makes me think of the original interpretation of the play. these were performed, not read, correct? so, the audience didn't have the ability to scour the text and analyze it...they just took it as it was played out before them. in that type of setting, the harper would take hamlet's words at whatever way he interpreted, say, the word "doubt" and would have probably applied the same understanding of that word to all four of its uses in that poem. all the while, the miller sitting next to him would have interpreted it completely different. and, upon leaving the globe, there would have been this buzz of conflict between the viewers who saw a completely different play than the milk maid they sat next to.

    i dig on that concept.