Friday, January 26, 2007

My crappy Hamlet essay from college

Matthew Weinberg


“Better Historicism”

New Historic criticism might be just as effective at deciphering text as psychoanalytic criticism, but one could not tell from Karen Coddon’s essay on Hamlet. Whereas Janet Adelman’s essay is clear, logical, and convincing, Coddon’s is wordy, convoluted, and confusing. Coddon’s point seems easy enough to prove: she tries to decipher the original connotations of the word “madness” in Shakespeare’s time, and how it had political implications that it has lost today. But her historical references are not explained well, and her language is idiomatic and cluttered. By contrast, Adelman proves her point effortlessly, arguing that, because Gertrude does not follow Hamlet’s sexual ideals of herself, she causes him to overly vilify herself and overly idealize his dead father. Although both essays have solid arguments, Coddon loses the reader in poor technique.

Not that Coddon’s critical tools are faulty; she gives us a healthy amount of historical facts and quotes from letters, diaries, and other scholarly books. But her choice of quotes and subsequent analysis of these quotes fails to solidify her ideals about the nature of madness in politics. For instance, she quotes a diary entry from a man named John Harington without bothering to explain who this man is in relation to the Earl of Essex. Also, the actual quote is written in confusing Renaissance English. And after all this confusion, Coddon’s attempt to explain the quote’s relevance to her topic only confuses the reader more: “But in Harington’s discourse the causal relation between overreaching and insanity is ambiguous; ambition may ‘speedilie leade on to madnesse,’ but madness spurs the subjective overthrow of the pales and forts of reason that should constrain the ‘haughtie spirit.’”i This language is unnecessarily verbose and abstract. With phrases like “subjective overthrow” and “pales and forts,” the reader cannot help but ask, “What is she talking about?” Coddon also makes the mistake of putting quotation marks around vague words she tries to emphasize, without making it clear why she emphasizes them.

In contrast, Adelman keeps her analysis simple by sticking solely to the text. Because she does not bring in outside forces, she does not clutter the reader’s mind with obscure information. She also explains, much better than Coddon, how the quotes she chooses are relevant to her points about Hamlet’s ideological simplification of his parents. After she quotes the line “A bloody deed. Almost as bad, good Mother, / As kill a king and marry with his brother,” she elaborates:

Given the parallel with his killing of Polonius, “as kill a king” first seems to describe Claudius’ act; but when the line ends with “brother” rather than “queen” or “wife,” the killing attaches itself irrevocably to Gertrude, playing out in miniature the shift of agency from him to her. For Claudius’s crime is nearly absent here: in Hamlet’s accusation, Claudius becomes the passive victim of Gertrude’s sexual will; she becomes the active murderer.ii

Here Adelman makes it perfectly clear what the quote has to do with her topic: it shows how Hamlet’s choice of language reveals his biases against his mother. Also, her reiteration of “brother” is not extraneous, because it helps to back up her argument. Unlike Coddon, the reader can understand where Adelman is heading with her quote.

Thus, Adelman’s essay is infinitely more effective at proving her argument, even going beyond to suggest that Hamlet’s point of view is a skewed one, which the reader should take with a grain of salt. Coddon’s essay, however, is a mess, and the reader comes away from it hardly convinced of anything. What Coddon probably wanted to say was that Renaissance politicians often used the term “madness” to discredit people who threatened their power. However, this point is lost amid unexplained historical references and a thick vocabulary. Whereas the reader walks away from Adelman’s essay knowing exactly what she had to say, he walks away from Coddon’s thinking about how she could have said it better.

i Karen S. Coddon, “ ‘Such Strange Desygns’: Madness, Subjectivity, and Treason in Hamlet and Elizabethan Culture, (Boston, Bedford/St. Martin’s), p. 381

ii Janet Adelman, “ ‘Man and Wife is One Flesh’: Hamlet and the Confrontation with the Maternal Body,” (Boston, Bedford/St. Martin’s), p. 269

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