Review: Hamlet’s Father

Thanks to Moriah Jovan for this review. Moriah is the author of some very interesting (and occasionally, very steamy) books. She’s pretty much the coolest person ever to guest post at BCC.

When reading Hamlet, the biggest—only—question is why did Hamlet do what he did? This, I think, is what keeps this play thriving century after century. People in real life do things all the time and you wonder, “Why did they do that?” and there is no seemingly good answer.

Or rather, there is no satisfactory answer.

Some people are stupid. Some people are jerks. Some people don’t know any better. Some people have issues. Some people have skewed perceptions and jump to conclusions based on their own experience. Some people are careless, selfish, thoughtless, confused, or mentally ill—but not, in fact, evil.

Yet most of the time we can’t accept answers like this. They’re too simple. They defy logic. We, in our own experiences, no matter how empathetic we’re capable of being, simply can’t wrap our heads around “The devil made me do it.” That’s why, when we write fiction, we have to make sure the reader can wrap his head around the “why” of a character’s actions. “Truth is stranger than fiction” is more than a saying; it’s the knife edge that fiction writers balance on all the time. Thus, this (from the foreword to Hamlet’s Father):

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.

is really the only thing you need to know about where he’s coming from in writing this piece.

In attempting to understand Hamlet’s motives, Card came up with the worst evil he could possibly conceive of: child molestation, sexual abuse, rape, otherwise known as pedophilia. That it happened to boys has nothing to do with homosexuality. Card states that there is not one homosexual character in the piece, which means that, as Ivan Wolfe so succinctly put it in this comment:

[...] 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).

For the most part, I feel the reviewers have conflated homosexuality and pedophilia. And that’s a real shame because it negates a point that the homosexual community has been rightly diligent in pursuing: Pedophilia does not equal gay, and pedophilia is bad. What’s to argue?

So the evil that Old Hamlet represents is not homosexuality, but pedophilia, and the beginning (continuation?) of the victim-abuser cycle. Here Horatio runs down the sexual fallout of Old Hamlet’s systematic molestation:

“It twisted us. I saw it in the others. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they could never look at women. Laertes—he told me, even before he left for France, that his stick was broken and would never grow again. And me—I thought I was all right. I thought…”
[...]

“A few months ago, a new page came to the castle. I taught him. He followed me everywhere like a dog. I delighted in his company. And then one day I found myself … I had him naked, I was telling him how a boy shows love to his friend and teacher … the words your father used, the very words. I was the worst of all of them! I was like him! I stopped myself. I told the boy to dress and never come near me again. That I was evil. A monster.” [1]

All that said, I read this with as queer an eye as I could muster, given I’m neither queer nor male. Again, Card has stated that “Hamlet’s Father [...] contained no homosexual characters,” though he hints that R&G are lovers:

“Things changed in the four years you were gone. When the Companions were dissolved at your parting, they [Rosencrantz and Guildenstern] decided not to dissolve themselves. Living four years together on Guildenstern’s estates has made them as fusty and peculiar as an old married couple. I pity the woman who tries to wed her way into that house.” [2]

but most readers, who probably don’t read with a queer eye and would have no knowledge of the controversy and would not know how the novella ends if they are not inveterate end-peekers like I am, wouldn’t catch it. After all, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have always come in a set. But then there’s this:

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they could never look at women. [3]

So Rosencrantz and Guildenstern live with each other as an old married couple and cannot look at women and. It can be argued that that doesn’t make them lovers. I wouldn’t argue it, but I also wouldn’t argue that there’s a link between pedophilia and homosexuality.

The question for everyone else then becomes: Do you believe Card when he says there are no homosexuals in the story? Because, let’s remember: Old Hamlet isn’t gay. He’s a pedophile. He raped children on a sustained basis.

Oh! you might say, But he didn’t molest girls! That’s what makes him a GAY pedophile! Well, first-A, the only girl available was Ophelia and she was a cipher. And first-B, Card didn’t include any characters that weren’t in the original.

Second, Hamlet’s entire internal struggle throughout the piece is that Old Hamlet was not a father to him at all. He ignored him, and favored Hamlet’s paid companions over his own son. Throughout the story, Hamlet is a boy seeking his father’s approval and not getting it, being wildly jealous of the fatherly attention paid to other men’s sons while he gets absolutely nothing from his own. Claudius and Yorick give him more quality time than Old Hamlet does. This is the bigger theme, and it’s universal: A son needing his father’s approval* and doing what he can to get it.

However, the theme wouldn’t have worked if Old Hamlet had been diddling little girls instead of or alongside little boys. What Hamlet saw as his father laving attention on everyone but him, thereby creating Hamlet’s gargantuan inferiority complex, was Old Hamlet keeping his hands (and other things) off his kid. The reason? Gertrude caught Old Hamlet fondling Hamlet when he was just a baby, and threatened him. However, she knew about the companions and what Old Hamlet wanted with them, but as long as they kept Old Hamlet away from her son, she could deal with it. After all, a man has his needs, right? And it’s not her son fulfilling those needs, so who cares?

Polonius also knew about this and allowed his own son, Laertes, to be part of Old Hamlet’s child entourage for political power.
Which brings me to one of the first major things I found problematic: Hamlet ends up in hell with Old Hamlet lusting after him while Gertrude and Polonius go on to their heavenly reward. W.T.F.

The juxtaposition of the modern sensibility of horror over pedophilia (it wasn’t always like that, folks) and the internal morality of the story wherein Gertrude and Polonius go to heaven and Hamlet goes to hell for a misguided attempt to do some sort of justice breaks the story’s back.

The other (major) thing I found problematic was in its execution: To call this a retelling is…generous.

Hamlet’s Father is basically Cliffs Notes with entertaining dialogue and some backstory thrown in to answer the question “Why?” which is, to be fair, the novella’s raison d’être. The Lion King and Sons of Anarchy are retellings because they aren’t direct lifts from the original (but they also don’t intend to answer any questions).
Ben Orchard said in this comment:

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.

Indeed, if Card was going for accessible, he succeeded. But then there’s this bit of wisdom from Theric:

Some people will insist on reading the stories as Comments on Things. Did the authors intend that? Who cares? The first thing I tell my lit students is to forget about the author; just focus on what the story is.

I don’t believe in trashing a work without having read/seen/listened to it because one doesn’t like the creator. I might not like the creator but like the work. I might like the creator but hate the work. I might like and/or hate both creator and work. I might boycott a work because I don’t like the creator. But I’m not going to trash a work sight unseen based on my feelings for the creator.

I try not to know too much about people I admire and/or whose work I like, but sometimes I’m confronted with things I’d really rather not know. Does it affect the way I read a piece? Sometimes. Does it mean I’ll stop patronizing that artist? Probably not.

I believe that if this had been any other author than Card (or any equally vocal anti-gay-marriage author), no one would have drawn the conclusions they did.

*I’ve heard it said, but can’t cite it, that “A boy doesn’t become a man until his father dies.”

[1] Kaye, Marvin (2010-04-01). The Ghost Quartet (p. 161 / loc. 2654). Tor Books. Kindle Edition.
[2] Kaye, Marvin (2010-04-01). The Ghost Quartet (p. 147 / loc. 2389). Tor Books. Kindle Edition.
[3] Kaye, Marvin (2010-04-01). The Ghost Quartet (p. 161 / loc. 2654). Tor Books. Kindle Edition.

Comments

  1. why can’t Mormons leave homosexuality alone?

  2. Why can’t Americans leave Shakespeare alone?

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Why can’t you people leave Britney alone?

  4. Fascinating analysis, Moriah. (Fair notice: I haven’t read the book, nor do I intend to at this point because the few things I’ve read by Card have made me physically ill — namely his attacks on gay people.) That said, from your quotes above, I would agree that Card is describing R&G as a gay couple and suggesting that they “became” gay because of being molested as boys.

    I can’t comment on much more than that, but I would say that if Card claims this novel has nothing to do with homosexuality (and I’m not talking about the pedophilia, because pedophilia is simply that: pedophilia, regardless of the respective genders of the molester and victim), he’s being disingenuous, at best. Card appears to be saying that homosexuality can be caused by abuse — a claim which is refuted by scientific study and knowledgeable professional organizations.

  5. .

    So, in the end, did you like it or not?

  6. Thanks, Lorian!

    Card appears to be saying that homosexuality can be caused by abuse

    I didn’t get that from the text. What I inferred was that R&G had retreated to themselves and taken comfort in each other.

    if Card claims this novel has nothing to do with homosexuality [...] he’s being disingenuous, at best.

    I wouldn’t say that. I DON’T think it has anything to do with homosexuality. He has four victims: Horatio, Laertes, and R&G. He sets out a different consequence for each of them.

    What I DO think is that he was lying about having no homosexual characters. He could probably dance around that semantically, but R&G are together and most likely as lovers. That is NOT to say that he said “being abused by a pedophile makes you gay.” I don’t believe that, either.

    I really just think that at this point, he can’t write ANYTHING about homosexuality now without being hammered over what he might have meant or what subliminal message he’s trying to send.

    My biggest point is that the work is flawed for better reasons than whatever his agenda may or may not be–and the better reason is that the facilitators of the abuse went to heaven and the avenger went to hell, which means that Card asked WHY of Hamlet, but didn’t ask WHY of Gertrude and Claudius (not to mention the fact that suicide, in the thought of the day, was a ticket straight to hell, and Gertrude committed suicide), which meant that he violated/invalidated his premise’s internal logic.

  7. So, in the end, did you like it or not?

    Like it? No. Didn’t hate it, either. It was an easier read than other things I read for information or research, but it wasn’t terribly entertaining.

  8. Hm. Okay. I don’t think it has anything *realistic* to say about homosexuality, that’s for sure.

    I keep going back to this phrase, however:

    It twisted us. I saw it in the others. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they could never look at women.

    I have no quibble with the idea that molestation does tend to twist those who have been victimized (though there is some question as to how often it actually makes them become abusers, themselves — some of the research on this point is quite flawed), but what it does *not* do is make people gay. And the snippet above does clearly suggest that R&G “cannot look at women” and therefore seek solace in their relationship with one another directly as a result of having been abused. It doesn’t say they have sex with each other, but I think that is certainly implied. And I think the link is clearly drawn between the abuse and their relationship.

    I think this is Card grinding the axe that he believes homosexuality is a psychological “illness” or “twisting” which can be cured or at least prevented.

  9. Sounds interesting. However not my cup of tea. Unfortunately for every good Card story it seems like there are two or three bad ones – and the bad ones are often due to trying to “force” things into a simple frame that just is unnatural for the setup. You didn’t really address the story Card creates as a story but it sounds more like one of those “forced” stories (like Memory of Earth) rather than ones that really flow well. (Maybe that’s wrong – I’d love you to comment on that)

    Lorian, your comments are interesting since I think they highlight a problem. Texts are always ambiguous and bring meaning when placed in a context. Effectively a lot of “queer interpretation” is picking particular contexts from which to read a text. (Frequently either a context where one presumes a high probability of gay relationships or attraction or a high probability of homophobia – although the good ones are more complex) Thus for instance a queer reading of Sesame Street might emphasize Bert and Ernie’s relationship and then might point out the repression of acknowledging that relationship in the context of the show. The problem with these sorts of readings is that other contexts are always possible – and in my opinion often the gay readings are pretty strained. After all probably the majority of relationships between close male friends are platonic with no homosexual overtones. It’s just that the emphasis on queer readings tends to fill in these gaps. Look at how something like Top Gun gets hilariously read to such a point that it’s almost impossible to see the film in normal ways anymore for many people. However really what is going on is imposing a different context on the text and the question then becomes how fair that move is.

    Now I don’t think Card consciously intends such overtones. However given the place he has in the community where people judge him homophobic and where at minimum he’s written against homosexual marriage I don’t think he gets to control the message as much as he wishes. Two men who are “sexless” in heterosexual terms simply will (and with justification) be read not as simply sexless but as homosexual. I don’t think the text necessitates that reading but given the (apparent) ambiguity of the text plus that expected context I think Card should have made it either less ambiguous or expected this outcome. Card is responsible for knowing that his text is entering a context where these readings are natural. Card simply doesn’t get to control the text to the degree he might wish.

    It’s interesting precisely because Hamlet is that classic example of an ambiguous text open to so many readings. (Once again let me refer to Tom Stoppard who plays up the sexual ambiguity angle himself quite a bit in his play) So that there is this double move in Card to attempt to overcome the ambiguity that (apparently) instead highlights certain ambiguities seems quite funny in some ways.

  10. and the bad ones are often due to trying to “force” things into a simple frame that just is unnatural for the setup. You didn’t really address the story Card creates as a story but it sounds more like one of those “forced” stories (like Memory of Earth) rather than ones that really flow well. (Maybe that’s wrong – I’d love you to comment on that)

    I don’t know Memory of Earth, so I can’t compare and contrast.

    Otherwise, you’re right. One reason I DIDN’T enjoy it was because it read like jazzed-up study notes (lots of telling, not a lot of showing). It wasn’t until the ending that the whole thing felt like it was wedged into a too-small box. As a writer, I could speculate on a number of things that might have been going on here artistically, things I’ve done or things I’ve had to rewrite because it didn’t flow or didn’t make sense within the context of the world I’d created.

    @Lorian, regarding R&G’s relationship, whether sexual or not. I haven’t explained myself well enough. I got the distinct impression that they were ONLY with each other. As in, they didn’t have relationships with anyone else, either, male or female. So to me, personally, it didn’t matter whether they were lovers. It only mattered that they were sticking together and keeping everyone else, female AND male, away.

    I totally get why someone can read it that Card was saying the abuse “turned” them gay, but since I don’t believe anyone can be “turned” gay, it didn’t really register as them having “turned” gay (or that Card was trying to say that), but more that they turned to each other as survivors and kept to themselves. That’s what I’m trying to say.

  11. “You will never do your best work in someone else’s universe” -OSC

  12. I totally get why someone can read it that Card was saying the abuse “turned” them gay, but since I don’t believe anyone can be “turned” gay, it didn’t really register as them having “turned” gay (or that Card was trying to say that), but more that they turned to each other as survivors and kept to themselves. That’s what I’m trying to say.

    Valid point, Moriah. I think the implication of homosexuality is there, but I can see how you might read it as simply a survivor’s dependency upon another survivor (and, incidentally, if I saw such a thing in the real world, that’s probably exactly the interpretation I would make). Whether that’s what Card intended, I don’t know.

    Thanks again for this insightful analysis.

  13. Nick Literski says:

    #6:
    I really just think that at this point, he can’t write ANYTHING about homosexuality now without being hammered over what he might have meant or what subliminal message he’s trying to send.

    I’m not buying the “OSC, the poor, misunderstood victim” game. This “man” serves on the board of directors of a virulently anti-gay organization, which since about the time of his appointment has resorted to all sorts of scandalous claims regarding gay men and lesbians (beginning with the often ridiculed “Gathering Storm” commercial, a suspiciously science-fictiony narrative about how gays are a threat to all straight christians, all of which were paid actors, many of which were LDS). For OSC to participate in these sorts of frauds, and then claim shocked innocence when people read his attitudes into his work, is revolting.

  14. Nick, please tell me where I’ve indicated I consider him a poor, misunderstood victim.

  15. Steve Evans says:

    Nick, even if you think OSC is the devil Moriah’s statement is probably correct.

  16. Nick Literski says:

    OSC makes the same claim in his published response, even to the point of whining that he (1) can’t include gay characters in his books anymore because of such “accusations,” but (2) will likely get the same accusations for not including gay characters in his book. It’s all “Poor me! I can’t win! Those ‘haters on the Left’ (his words) are out to get me!”

  17. Yes, but Nick, you leveled the accusation at me personally, and now you want to shunt it off into what OSC has said as if I’m some mouthpiece for him, and trust me, I am not.

    My only connection to OSC is the vague hope that he will tell the world how vulgar and disgusting my books are and that I should be excommunicated. Ka-ching.

  18. Nick Literski says:

    Moriah, based on the remarkable similarity between what you wrote and what OSC had already written, I mistakenly assumed that you were in league with him on that point. I apologize if I misunderstood your intent.

  19. Thanks, Nick.

    I don’t give a fat rat’s ass about OSC one way or another. Some authors are outspoken about their views. Some keep them to themselves. He’s never been one to keep his views to himself (none of which I have ever agreed with, especially his child-rearing advice) and sometimes, when you open your mouth, you poison your well. C’est la vie.

  20. Steve Evans says:

    Moriah, if it helps, I think your books are vulgar and disgusting.

  21. Oh so THAT’s why all your copies are so dog-eared.

  22. Clark’s got this one spot-on, in my opinion. OSC may not have meant his story to say “sexual abuse turns boys gay,” but given his vocal position in the anti-SSM movement, the quotes that Moriah has reproduced sure sound like dog whistles to me.

  23. It’s gratifying to get a shout out in the initial post. Overall, I think Clark said most of what I would have said, except better.

    Card may even have intended R&G to be asexual life partners who weren’t interested in sex at all, but given his past writings, it’s clear why many would jump to the conclusions they have. I couldn’t get through OSC’s Empire, because while he had several characters with various political viewpoints, one of them was pretty much cut and paste from Card’s own political essays.

    I do find it interesting that most of Card’s harshest rhetoric on homosexual issues came after a campaign to get Card fired from writing Marvel Comics “Ultimate Iron Man” series, based almost entirely on his “Hypocrites of Homosexuality” essay (which, as a statement of an orthodox Mormon position, I have no significant problems with – though some of his more recent statements, I do have problems with). After that little firestorm, Card started getting testier and testier (and Marvel comics has not invited him back since then).

    No real conclusions here – I may, some day, read Hamlet’s Father, but not anytime soon. I rather enjoy Hamlet as it is.

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