I posted last night about the controversy surrounding Orson Scott Card’s novella Hamlet’s Father. My sources for information about the book were here, here and here. Card has posted a response to the reviews of the book, challenging some of the assertions of the reviews on which I was commenting. I had not located his response in my research. I pulled the post of the blog until I had a chance to look at his response and consider what an appropriate post would look like.
My original post took for granted what was independently reported by several sources: that Card’s re-write of Hamlet makes a link between homosexuality and pedophilia. I do not have the book, and so, given Card’s protest, it is unfair of me to make that assumption. It will be interesting to see what other reviewers say about the issue.
However, I would still like to respond to Card’s decision to rewrite Hamlet and the thematic issues involved in this project which he has undertaken.
Card has posted the forward to Hamlet’s Father on his website. Here’s a bit of it:
Of Shakespeare’s great tragedies, I love Lear and Macbeth; Othello at least I understand. But Hamlet? I have little interest in a dithering hero; nor am I much inspired by revenge plots. Yet I keep hearing that this is the greatest of them all.
So I analyzed the story to see what it would take to make me care about it. “Hamlet’s Father” is what I came up with. I’m fully aware of the fact that I have just messed with the play that many consider the greatest ever written in any language. But Shakespeare stole his plots from other people; and nothing I do is going to erase a line of his great work or diminish his reputation in any way. So why not?
I totally agree with his right to mess with Hamlet. There is a certain hubris there, but one that a writer might take on for its own sake.
For myself, I find it odd not to care about the play, and my interest in the protagonist’s internal struggle is very much related to my Mormonism.
One reading of the play contrasts the honor-bound values of Hamlet’s father and the Machiavellian slyness of Claudius and Polonius. He ‘dithers’ as he finds himself trapped between these two visions of the world, and his only salvation lies in reaching back to the past, valuing honor and basing his actions on values rather than setting traps and allowing the ends to justify the means. His delays are caused by the temptation to engage in the same trap-setting as his uncle and Polonius and his inability to channel his emotions toward meaningful action. Put another way, Hamlet has made a covenant but is lured by the ways of world into not fulfilling his covenant. This is by no means the only way to read the play, but seeing the play in terms of trying and often failing to endure to the end in a wicked world works for me.
I care about Hamlet as it is because I understand Hamlet as a weak man. I am a backslider, a man who makes covenants I find difficult to keep. I often manage to talk myself out of virtuous acts, looking for more evidence, trying to square what I have been asked to do with my instincts and prejudices. I have on many, many occasions thought, ‘Oh what an ass am I.’ The play is all about the struggle, not the completion. A tragedy is morally instructive not because it shows us the way we ought to behave, but how we sometimes do behave and the inevitable consequences.
For me, the issue of Card’s bowdlerization as he describes it himself is that he seems to have walked away from the complexity of the internal conflict for the bogus clarity of a monster story. And in this we as church members and perhaps as an institution will find a warning: in our efforts to see the world in terms of good and evil, we sometimes run roughshod over more elemental issues. We might sometimes sweep aside the difficulties of trying to do what’s right in a world where ‘[o]ffence’s gilded hand may shove by justice’ as we lurch to say something definitive, even cartoonish, about a specific principle. If we do so, we will find ourselves unable to deal with the moral realities we all face, instead chasing after moral bogeymen and calling it righteousness.