The gentleman doth protest too much, methinks (redux)

I posted last night about the controversy surrounding Orson Scott Card’s novella Hamlet’s Father. My sources for information about the book were herehere 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 MacbethOthello 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.

Comments

  1. Yes, people (Mormons? Americans? American Mormons?) like to reduce moral complexities to simpler forms and it’s a worthy discussion. But why the attack on Card? If you haven’t read the book and there are multiple credible witnesses claiming the reviews are inaccurate, how do you know Card is being overly reductive?

  2. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    It seems to me that the outcry was over two aspects of the book: 1) Card’s recasting of Hamlet Sr as a pedophile of boys, and 2) that one of the results of this pedophilia was the development of homosexuality among the victims. Card has responded with a good defense of the first issue. The second he remains conspicuously silent on and is a far more difficult issue that deserves further attention.

  3. Oh my. Has OSC again written some fan-fiction? I sure hope not. We know what he thinks about fan-fiction.

  4. ugh. I meant to say some more fan-fiction.

  5. ben orchard says:

    Card’s response does seem to indicate that he prefers a simpler tale in this instance. I wouldn’t necessarily call that ‘bogus clarity’, but it does seem that in some ways Card wants something that is a bit more accessible. Honestly though, I think that it’s still a bit disingenuous to argue that Card might be shying away from themes of inner struggle. If you’ve read his work, you should know that inner struggle is very important to him. Ender’s Game really exemplifies this: Ender struggles to define himself in a world that only wants him for his ability to make a supposedly hard decision (even though no one TOLD him his decisions were real). The sequel does the same thing: the external conflict of the story serves largely to define the inner struggle that Ender faces in dealing with a very morally questionable situation.

    That said, I would agree that members of the church (including church leaders) often want to define the world in terms of good and evil. I’d argue, however, that this is *hardly* unique to Mormonism, or even Christianity. I think it’s a fairly universal attribute in Western culture (and I suspect human thinking in general, but can’t prove that). Dualism is pretty hard-wire, as it make decision making easier (choice reduction as a method of speeding decision making is pretty well understood–reaction time studies indicate clear decision time reduction as an inverse function of the number of choices).

    To make this simpler: seeing the world as good or evil serves a useful purpose for making an initial or quick decision. “Don’t go down that alley-way cause the evil people use alleys” is often a VERY safe way to live. It might not be true that EVERY alley is dangerous, but when you are new to an area, it’s a good way to see it. Shades of gray are learned ONLY after familiarity with the basic level assessment is known. Despite that, there are STILL some things which are DEFINITELY EVIL. I hope that we never find ourselves arguing, as a society, that pedophilia is acceptable in any circumstances (of course, we might argue about what the age of consent is, or how old is acceptable for marriage–and we have–but that’s NOT the same argument).

    BTW Norbert, thank you for taking the time to look at Card’s comments, and admitting that you needed too.

  6. I still think this is a silly discussion to have without reading the actual book to determine what Card actually does and what he doesn’t do.

    Does it make Hamlet’s wavering meaningful if his father was evil? Should he defend the evil father but save the country? What if the guys who killed your king…the “bad guys”…what if they were doing a good thing? What if they are right? Are there times when our enemies do something “bad” for a morally good reason?

    It’s not like Hamlet only carries one possible moral lesson.

    I’m just going off what you have said about what he may have said (precarious). If this is what he is talking about there is complexity there. It’s not hte same complexity…but it is complex.

  7. Martin, I’m basing it on what he says in his own comments on the novella and the press release on the novella. I just skimmed over what I’ve written here to see the attack and I can’t see where I’m doing so. Sorry to offend.

  8. I’m of the mind that no one, no one can touch the classics. This is like Good Charlotte covering a Beatles album or something, regardless of the content. ;)

  9. it's a series of tubes says:

    The prior version of this post, with the extensive and pointed aspersions cast in Brother Card’s direction, was much more entertaining. I particularly enjoyed how the OP cast his position as the more “Christian” one – a somewhat laughable status given the clear error on which the comparison was based. Leaping to judgement – now that’s “Christian”, indeed.

    Norbert, I have to echo the comments of several others that until you actually read the material in question, commentary seems premature – particularly commentary as nasty as your original post was.

  10. It’s very fashionable to case aspersions on Card, series of tubes. Didn’t you know?

  11. Norbert, I appreciate your re-writing of the post. It was the right thing to do.

  12. it's a series of tubes says:

    I must have missed it. Guess I was too busy reading and contemplating the complexity of the internal conflict in Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, and Xenocide.

  13. Nick Literski says:

    OSC’s response tells us a great deal about his character. This man claims to “think no ill of and wish no harm to homosexuals, individually or as a group,” while serving on the board of directors for the so-called National Organization for Marriage, a group which actively fights to revoke and/or prevent equal civil rights for homosexuals (and is starting to probe beyond the marriage issue). That organization, no doubt under the direction of its board of directors, continues to openly defy both state and federal court orders in its ongoing refusal to comply with campaign finance reporting laws. Given that Card can boldly engage in such dramatic deception, it’s no wonder he claims to “think no ill will of” gays, while calling anyone who defends them “the hate groups of the Left.”

    While Mr. Card may have written sympathetically of gay characters in the past, his more current words and actions are the evidence of his current character. Based on this linked response, his current character is demonstrated by calling those who support civil equality for homosexuals “the hate groups of the Left,” and painting himself as their innocent, defenseless, victim. Perhaps Mr. Card considers such deceit and animus “the Lord’s work,” since the National Organization for Marriage openly states that he officially “represents the LDS church” on their board. If so, I’m glad I don’t worship a deity who endorses such behavior.

  14. Hollywood seems to have no scruples about retelling classic stories in new ways, or for that matter, retelling stupid stories in even stupider ways. And it is a given in music that you can revisit old themes and melodies in new ways. So for Card to reimagine Hamlet is not that big of a stretch, given his love of theater.

    For me, the complexity of Hamlet is part of the draw. What perhaps looks simple, usually is much more complex, and Hamlet as a play, even without changing the lines, seems to do well in new settings or new interpretations. Thus we have the Mel Gibson Hamlet, which mixed the scenes into a new order, or Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet in a late 19th Century setting. But I also have issues with his introduction, for what he sees as “dithering” i see as “agonizing” over the choices that Hamlet is faced with.

    Reading Card’s comments on his website, though, does seem to indicate that he really isn’t interested in complexity any more, but in more clear cut right or wrong, black or white views of the world. All of the conflicted moral and emotional characters of Ender’s Game, Speaker for the Dead, or Pastwatch have been discarded for moral and political certainty in books such as his Empire series. Having some familiarity with his body of work, it’s not that hard to draw some of the same conclusions that you do, Norbert, about a more didactic worldview in Hamlet’s Father. I haven’t read it, so I can’t be sure, but Card’s recent work has to me been weakened by this increasingly binary view expressed in his books.

  15. I still think this is a silly discussion to have without reading the actual book to determine what Card actually does and what he doesn’t do.

    +++

    It sounds interesting and honestly there’s a lot one could do with Hamlet. As Card notes it’s not as if Shakespeare didn’t copy. (For all its many, many problems I personally love the book Hamlet’s Mill that attempts to be a genealogy of Hamet.) Likewise it’s not as if others haven’t rewritten Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is justly a modern classic. (Although the movie is much better than the play – naysayers be danged)

    I think there’s a great post in all this. It’s just that I don’t think one can write it without reading the book. Otherwise at best one is summarizing the controversy.

  16. Does it make Hamlet’s wavering meaningful if his father was evil?

    I think so – a common reading of the play is that the ghost of the father whispering in Hamlet’s ear is that of a demon poisoning Hamlet much as his uncle poisoned his father. The the wavering is quite significant if the other characters are evil. Suddenly there arise all these interesting tensions of doing the right thing for the wrong reason or vice versa. Even the dialogs become layered and somewhat ambiguous. Of course we’re all familiar with Plotinus’ “to thine own self be true” and how the straightforward meaning is undermined by the facts of who says it and why.

    Of course one could defend the father and say the ghost isn’t really the father at all.

    What if the guys who killed your king…the “bad guys”…what if they were doing a good thing?

    I think that adds to the complexity. What’s interesting in Hamlet is how ambiguous everything really is when you just look at the text (rather than how individual directors may emphasize it by adding in background).

    I’ve no idea how Card plays with this, but there’s a lot one could do with the text of Hamlet itself. (Of course Tom Stoppard played this up to no end)

  17. Since nobody here seems to have actually read the book, maybe we should just change the topic.

  18. How about those Red Sox? They suck.

  19. Michigan v Notre Dame—what a 4th quarter!!

  20. Steve Evans and Cynthia L. making consecutive references to the world of team sports–what a joke!

  21. I admit that was the first quarter of a football game I’d seen since this year’s superbowl, which was the first football game I’d seen in about 5 years. But I’m not kidding, it was one heck of a quarter!

  22. I think so – a common reading of the play is that the ghost of the father whispering in Hamlet’s ear is that of a demon poisoning Hamlet much as his uncle poisoned his father.

    For what it’s worth–and to possibly further complicate the interweaving of Shakespeare, Mormonism, and OSC–Eugene England very consciously used this reading of the play on several different occasions, in his classes and in a couple of essays of his. I can remember a presentation he gave before a student production of Hamlet, back at BYU in 1988, in which he asked the audience, invoking D&C 129, what do we think would have happened if Hamlet had attempted to shake his ghostly father’s hand?

  23. This post reminded me of one of my all-time favorite episodes of This American Life. If you haven’t heard it, do yourself a favor. I plan to use it for some future family home evening, or something.

    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/218/act-v

  24. I just placed a hold on this book at the library and hereby volunteer to read it so the rest of you won’t have to. You can thank me later.

  25. madhousewife,
    Since premature and/or uninformed statements are the order of the day, I’ll go ahead and thank you now instead of later!

  26. Scott, I think I’ll just go ahead and take exception to your uninformed response to her as-yet unwritten review.

  27. @No Cool Name Tom (#2)
    “It seems to me that the outcry was over two aspects of the book: 1) Card’s recasting of Hamlet Sr as a pedophile of boys, and 2) that one of the results of this pedophilia was the development of homosexuality among the victims. Card has responded with a good defense of the first issue. The second he remains conspicuously silent on and is a far more difficult issue that deserves further attention.”

    I read many negative reviews also, but since it’s the de facto response whenever discussing OSC online for people to say he’s a bigoted homophobe, I usually ignore it. However, he actually did answer the second: He says “Hamlet’s Father . . . contained no homosexual characters.”

    So, either he is lying about his work (there are no homosexuals, only pedophiles and he does not conflate the two), or the reviewers are lying (or, at the very least, the reviewers are the one conflating homosexuality and pedophilia). Someone really needs to read the book. Not me – I have too many essays to grade over the next two weeks.

  28. hurrah for madhousewife. I might read it as well. I like orson scott card’s SF and my daughter and I are on a hamlet kick right now anyway.

    I’m puzzled at the sports diversion. Isn’t this a nerd website? I mean that in the most nerds will rule the world or at least be your boss, or atelast earn very little money but enjoy thinking kind of way. But wouldn’t greek translations or large numbers be a better bet? LOOK everyone, look over here, i found a formula for figuring out all the prime numbers…you know, something like that? It’s a fascinating look at safe water cooler topic reflexes.

  29. The best current adaptation of Hamlet is “Sons of Anarchy.”

  30. Re: Mormons getting angry at someone for discussing the morality of a work, sight unseen, but based on the opinions of trustworthy mediators

    Have none of you ever attended a Standards night?

  31. Okay, I finished it and have many thoughts.

    Steve, could you email me, if you were serious about a review? I don’t have your email.

  32. lessonNumberOne,

    I’m puzzled at the sports diversion. Isn’t this a nerd website?

    Yes, it is. In fact, the sports-illiteracy of my cobloggers here is so great that, basically, whenever I want to post something I know they’ll all hate (read: not liberal), I make sure to include something sports-related in the first few lines of the post. It’s so off-putting to them that they don’t bother reading further.

  33. Scott,
    Fans of Utah State should not decry the sports acumen of others.

  34. Moriah, just use the email info under ‘info & contact’ on the left sidebar.

    Scott, I like sports. Just not the stupid sports you appear to adore.

  35. NoCoolName_Tom says:

    @Ivan Wolfe (#27)
    I must’ve missed that sentence in reading it the first time; thanks for highlighting it. Still, I wish he would have addressed that particular aspect with more thoroughness than just a sentence, especially because I know he’s explicitly made such connections in his public writings before. However, he’s responded in full as you’ve pointed out and it’s not like my wanting more somehow demands more from him. I should really try and get ahold of a copy to see for myself.

  36. bhodges (23)- Yes yes yes. This episode is amazing and in my mind is the ultimate reading of Hamlet.

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