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History of Ideas

Atchley, Clinton P. E. “Reconsidering the Ghost in Hamlet: Cohesion or Coercion?” The Philological Review 28.2 (Fall 2002): 5-20.

 GHOST / HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS / THEOLOGICAL

 This essay focuses “on some puzzling aspects of the Ghost’s nature and look[s] at some possibilities of what the Ghost may mean and how it functions in the play” (5). The “religious atmosphere in Elizabethan England and how this may have affected Shakespeare’s audience” (5) are considered, particularly the differing Catholic and Protestant “beliefs concerning ghosts and the supernatural” (8). Instead of defining “the true nature of ghosts for his audiences,” Shakespeare “incorporates within his play both Catholic and Protestant views of the Ghost and also presents a third perspective on the Ghost, one steeped in folkloric tradition” (10). He “expects his audience to perceive the Ghost for what it is, a diabolical manifestation on a mission to trick Hamlet into forfeiting his soul” (12); the play’s devastating/destructive conclusion “supports this interpretation” (12). In “exhorting Hamlet to commit murder through an act of revenge, the Ghost plays most foully for Hamlet’s soul” (14). The counter argument is that “the Ghost tells the truth surrounding the circumstances of old Hamlet’s death,” as corroborated by Claudius’ private “confession of guilt”; but “a devil is capable of telling the truth if it enables him to achieve his goal” (14). The question then becomes, once the Ghost has accomplished his goal by motivating Hamlet to commit revenge (and, hence, to loose his soul), why does it appear later in the closet scene and in its nightgown? The answer is to perform two functions (14): first, to prevent Hamlet’s convincing of Gertrude to repent; the Ghost’s appearing only to Hamlet “intensifies Hamlet’s apparent madness such that Gertrude attributes Hamlet’s accusations to his insanity. Her moment of grace has passed” (16). Second, by appearing in the wife’s bed chamber, wearing a nightgown, the Ghost “ reactivates the domestic values that Hamlet keenly feels he has lost” (17), and evokes cherished familial memories in Hamlet (18). “The ‘piteous action’ that the Ghost makes is directed [. . .] at Hamlet, to wring his emotions and drive him to distraction to make Gertrude think him mad. And it succeeds” (18).

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Barker, Walter L. “‘The heart of my mystery’: Emblematic Revelation in the Hamlet Play Scene.” Upstart Crow 15 (1995): 75-98.

ART / HISTORY OF IDEAS / MOUSETRAP

In an effort to “explicate the coherence of the Hamlet play scene and the function of The Murther of Gonzago,” this essay proposes “a description of the scene in the context of emblematic theatre” (75). Artistically, an emblem “both represents some phenomena or human experience and interprets it in the context of Neoplatonic truths, patterns, principles, etc., which the Elizabethans in general held to be universal” (75). By inserting an emblem (e.g., masque), Shakespeare “exploits” the “interplay of limited and omniscient points of view” in order “to provide his theatrical audience with an interpretive context for the stage audience’s behavior in both the play scene and the drama as a whole” (76). Hamlet’s discussions on theater with Polonius, Horatio, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and the players prepare theatergoers for (and alert them to) the emblematic presentation in the play scene. The dumb-show “represents and interprets stage audience behavior by delineating a psychomachia model of human nature which compels the interplay of value oriented and passion driven responses to lost love in all human beings” (86). In comparison, the dialogue of the Player-King and Player-King provides “voices for the conflicting principles through which transcendental Love shapes the Psychomachia responses to lost love in human nature” (91). The Murther of Gonzago, as “a figurative mirror of macrocosmic principle and microcosmic human nature,” “delineates the variable pattern of moral reductiveness, ‘passionate actions,’ and slanderous misreadings in which all human beings, individually and collectively, act out blind and poisoning responses to lost love” (91). Aside from the various emotional, spiritual, and mental poisonings in Hamlet, the final scene stages “a dance macabre of literal poisonings—by sword and cup, by intent and mischance, feigned and overt, forced and accidental, single and double—in which the characters complete their tragic destruction of each other” (96). “Seen historically, Shakespeare’s use of The Murther of Gonzago masque demonstrates that he thought and wrote in the modes of emblematic and Neoplatonic discourse that dominated Elizabethan art and sensibilities, and that he was very good at it” (96).

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Baumlin, James S., and Tita French Baumlin. “Chronos, Kairos, Aion: Failures of Decorum, Right-Timing, and Revenge in Shakespeare’s Hamlet.” Rhetoric and Kairos: Essays in History, Theory and Praxis. Ed. Phillip Sipiora. Albany: State U of New York P, 2002. 165-86.

HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS

This reading contends that Shakespeare’s Prince “presents a study in the failure of prudential, and, thus, stands as a critical test of Humanist educational, ethical, political, rhetorical theory. The fact that Hamlet [. . .] fails the test reveals a crisis lying at the play’s thematic center, a crisis concerning the age’s optimism toward the powers of human reason (and action) and the Humanist aspiration to master worldly fortune” (165). Analysis of three interwoven themes guides the exploration: “first, the nature of Hamlet’s Humanist decorum; second, the Prince’s bungled attempts at blood revenge; and, third, the play’s philosophical exploration of competing temporalities and notions of ‘right-timing,’ particularly as reflected in the iconographic symbolisms surrounding Prudence and Fortune, Time and Eternity” (165-66). But when Hamlet ultimately concludes “Let be” (5.2.22), his “earlier wrestling with ‘to be, or not to be’ (3.1.57) resolves into ‘be’ and ‘is’—into an eternal present tense” (180). Upon death, Hamlet transcends “the niceties of princely decorum, human language, and worldly time to enter the higher, purer, timeless silence of ‘be’ (in which state, questions of Providence are rendered moot, kairos meaningless, and prudentia irrelevant)” (181).

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Campbell, Dowling G. “The Double Dichotomy and Paradox of Honor in Hamlet: With Possible Imagery and Rhetorical Sources for the Soliloquies.” Hamlet Studies 23 (2001): 13-49.

HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS / RHETORICAL

In addition to proposing “some important source considerations” of publications on honor (19) and exploring how some critics (e.g., Watson, Desai) have come so close (but failed) to identifying the key dichotomy in Hamlet, this essay suggests that “Shakespeare uses the vengeance convention to dramatize a paradox, one that is difficult to decipher because of language limitations: the inherently and tragically violent virtue/vengeance dichotomy within the honor code” (13). To avoid linguistic confusion with a single English word that signals diverse/conflicting meanings, this article utilizes the Spanish terms honor and honra: honor “refers to humility and forgiveness and expanded, private, internal goodness, whereas honra signifies pride and vengeance, public ‘satisfaction’ or retribution” (22). Honra seems the primary tenet of everyone in Denmark—except the Prince: honor “is instinctive and implicit in Hamlet’s nature” (13-14). But he also wants to believe that he shares the same principles, assumptions, and beliefs (and social constructs) as everyone else (24). “It is Hamlet’s simultaneous and continuos struggle with both sides of the dichotomy that constitutes his superlative characterization . . .”, his “depth of feeling, his passion” (24). The “devastating tug of war between private and public behaviors and values occurs in Hamlet’s soul, as the soliloquies confirm, and explains the hesitance or delay or dilemma” (14). Shakespeare infuses Hamlet’s soliloquies “with the dichotomy, starting with no blame, working into self-blame, and ending with a futile pledge of bloody vengeance. It is the failure of vengeance to uproot Hamlet’s sense of virtue which causes the underlying intensity” (37). Nothing can shake “an innate virtuous sensibility and spur Hamlet into killing,” not the “disgusting elemental considerations” in the graveyard (36-37), and not “the shock of Ophelia’s death” (35). “Claudius has to trick Hamlet into so much as drawing his sword” (35). But even then, “Virtue rules” (35): Hamlet is “apologetic” to Laertes, causing the conspirator to “feel sorry” and to lament the lethal plan “in an aside” (35). The “split within the honor code, complete with devastating paradox, is what troubles Hamlet and Shakespeare” (23). Shakespeare seems to be striving “to articulate the hypocrisy of the honor code itself throughout his canon” (43-44). In Hamlet (and Hamlet), he creates “a major theme with the honor/honra paradox, even if he lacks those two little terms” (46).

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Cefalu, Paul A. “‘Damned Custom . . . Habits Devil’: Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Anti-Dualism, and the Early Modern Philosophy of Mind.” ELH 67 (2000): 399-431. <wysiwyg://31/http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/elh/vo67/67.2cefalu.html> 8 May 2001.

HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS / PHILOSOPHICAL

This essay briefly examines “some modern and pre-modern theories of the mind—those of Gilbert Ryle, Putnam, Augustine, Pomponazzi, and Jeremy Taylor—in order to suggest first that Renaissance philosophy and theology held theories of the mind that resemble modern-day anti-dualistic accounts of behaviorism and functionalism, and second that Shakespeare’s Hamlet is implicated in this behaviorist-functionalist tradition rather than in the innatist tradition into which it has usually been placed” (400). Too often critics mistakenly conflate “third-person statements about Hamlet’s mental states with Hamlet’s first-person reports, reports which aim to understand the role of behavior, habit, and custom in knowing and acting, rather than to explore any Cartesian theater of the mind” (400). In actuality, “for most of the play Hamlet is a radical Rylean behaviorist, inasmuch as he believes mental phenomena and predicates gain meaning only when they are identified in a one-to-one relationship with behavioral predicates” (400). Shaping Hamlet’s behaviorism “is the early modern assimilation of the Augustine-Protestant theory of the ineradicability of vicious habits” (400). “Hamlet’s understanding of the theological construal of habit helps to explain both his irresolution . . . and his sense that personal identity or subjective states are identical with customary behavioral dispositions” (400-01). In reifying and objectifying habits, he “imagines persons to be constituted by behavior, custom, and dispositional states all the way down, so that they are unendowed with what Derek Parfit would describe as any further facts to their psychological identity, such as disembodied minds or thoughts” (401). “Hamlet inherits a widely-held Augustine-Protestant preoccupation with the tortured relationship among habit, sin, and action. If there is any incredible objective correlative operating in the play, it describes Hamlet’s over-indulgence in, and misconstrual of, this tradition, which recognized the utility of retaining virtuous patterns of conduct as correctives to customary sin” (428).

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Champion, Larry S. “A springe to catch woodcocks”: Proverbs, Characterization, and Political Ideology in Hamlet.” Hamlet Studies 15 (1993): 24-39.

HISTORY OF IDEAS / NEW HISTORICISM / PROVERBS / RHETORICAL

This article analyzes Shakespeare’s conscious use of proverbs “to develop and enhance characterization and also to lend emotional and intellectual credibility to an ideological leitmotif that foregrounds political issues of concern to the Elizabethan spectator” (26). The proverbs spoken by Polonius, Laertes, and Ophelia “reflect an intellectual shallowness”; Claudius’ proverbs “suggest something sinister and Machiavellian” about his character; and Hamlet’s proverbs (as well as the ones others use to describe the Prince) “reveal something of the complexity of the man” (28). Aside from helping to develop characters, Shakespeare’s application of proverbs also “forces the spectators’ attention to political issues that underlie the major action” (32), such as the struggle for power and concern for legitimacy. Given the political climate of the Elizabethan period, Shakespeare’s audience was interested in these political matters. The playwright uses proverbs “to generate a high degree of interest in oppositional politics by depicting diverse ideologies that compete on stage in recreated Denmark and in the minds of the English spectators” (34).

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Cleaves, David. “To Thine Own Self be False: Polonius as a Danish Seneca.” Shakespeare Yearbook 3 (1992): 45-61.

HISTORY OF IDEAS / POLONIUS

This article proposes that Polonius “invites comparison to Seneca—not to the tragedies or essays, but rather to the biography of Seneca himself” (45). Regardless of current research on Seneca, Renaissance publications, as well as John Marston’s The Malcontent, reflect negative opinions of the Roman. In this historical context, Seneca and Polonius share several characteristics: both are hypocrites, flatters, and ministers to tyrants (Nero and Claudius, respectively). Although Polonius appears as an imitation of Seneca, he also mocks the Senecan philosophy; but perhaps parody is a necessary choice for the playwright trying to avoid the unfashionable style of Senecan imitation. Fluctuating between derision and concurrence, Shakespeare reveals his familiarity with Thomas Nashe’s criticism of Senecan imitations through subtle clues within the play. According to this article, Shakespeare “found the advice of Nashe and of Nashe’s supporters to be worth not only ridicule but obedience” (57).

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Coyle, Martin. “Hamlet, Gertrude and the Ghost: The Punishment of Women in Renaissance Drama.” Q/W/E/R/T/Y 6 (Oct. 1996): 29-38.

HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS / NEW HISTORICISM

By presenting Hamlet in the context of the Renaissance drama canon, this essay argues that Hamlet’s “difficulties over Gertrude are not so much psychological as political, or, more accurately perhaps, ideological” (29). A survey of Renaissance revenge tragedies (e.g., A Woman Killed with Kindness, Othello, The Changeling, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, The Revenger’s Tragedy) reveals the key codes of disciplining an adulteress: the male has a duty to punish the female (and “perhaps to rescue her soul”) (31); the punishment “is a reclaiming of rights over her body and control of her will” (33); any physical violence must be within the boundaries of propriety (e.g., suffocation) (33); and only husbands or lovers are permitted to kill the woman (34). This brief study also highlights the importance of the marital bed as a symbol. Hamlet’s protagonist repeatedly stresses Gertrude’s soiled bed, revealing a primary concern “to restore the royal bed to its former status as a symbol of chaste marriage, fidelity, loyalty, innocence” (37). In the closet scene, the son breaks with the Ghost by attempting to punish (and to save) the adulteress with verbal violence, but Gertrude can only “be saved” by her true husband, Old Hamlet, “who, of course, cannot help or harm her” (36); her “destiny is sealed by sexual codes that lie outside their [the Ghost’s and Hamlet’s] control and, indeed, outside the control of the text” (36). In the final scene, Hamlet “acts in his own right to avenge his mother and himself rather than as an agent of his father” (35). By moving away from the tradition of the Oedipus Complex, this interpretation shows “how different Hamlet is from the play modern psychological criticism had given us” (37).

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Deans, Thomas. “Writing, Revision, and Agency in Hamlet.” Exemplaria 15.1 (Spring 2003): 223-43.

HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS / TEXTS

This article argues “that acts of writing and rewriting in Hamlet not only reveal key dimensions of Hamlet’s character but also showcase humanistic literacy practices associated with the Renaissance commonplace book” (223). Hamlet initially responds “to the commandment of his father in act 1 by fearfully copying words verbatim into his commonplace notebook” (228). But the words only represent “a stray fragment, recorded in his notebook but not recruited for use in a larger purpose” because Hamlet “has not yet learned how to translate this commandment into conduct” (236). His 16-line addition to the original Mousetrap script is “the first time in the play Hamlet demonstrates a creative facility with reading and writing, and as a direct consequence of his crafty revision he exposes Claudius and discovers a means to act in the world as both an avenging son and an assertive prince”; “here, as elsewhere in the play, we observe Hamlet’s personal agency emerge in direct relationship to a material act of writing—through revising a text and observing its effect on an audience” (238). When Hamlet rewrites Claudius’s execution order to England, he “creatively revises a text and by means of that revision finds a way to act effectively in the world”; “using writing (or rather, rewriting) to both subvert and assume Claudius’s regal power,” the Prince “takes control of his life only as he takes control of written discourse” (239). “He re-envisions his own agency by means of revising written text” (241), reflecting his development “into a writer of humanistic sensibilities for whom creatively appropriating existing texts is more important than inventing wholly original texts” (240). “Even though he ultimately develops the capacity to revise and reframe his father’s commandment, he is still compelled by conscience and paternal authority to obey its central imperative” (242). Hamlet also “does not have absolute power to script the ending of his choice” due to the play’s “conventions of tragedy” and its “interactive arena where characters act and react in relation to one another” (242). “Hamlet’s capacity to read and revise text, as it emerges in the course of the play, confirms at least a measure of personal agency made possible by writing and suggests the pivotal role that writing can play not only in developing character [. . .] but also in setting right a world out of joint” (242-43). 

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DiMatteo, Anthony. “Hamlet as Fable: Reconstructing a Lost Code of Meaning.” Connotations 6.2 (1996/1997): 158-79.

HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS / MYTHIC CRITICISM / OPHELIA

This article explores how the “nexus” of Hamlet and mythic heroes “links with another analogy between fable and history that involves an unsettling convergence of spirits” (159), how Shakespeare’s audience perceived “the myths’ cognitive potential . . . to have great speculative power” (159-60), as well as how myths are “enlisted but also deeply called into question by Hamlet” (160). A comparison of terminology, imagery, and plot between mythology and the play identifies parallels between Hamlet / Adonis / Orpheus / Vulcan / Aeneas / Hercules and Ophelia / Venus / Dido. While “classical points of contact” suggest a “symbolic coding and an implied range of meanings,” they also locate Hamlet “in a relationship to a specific audience or readership trained in academic recital and exegesis of Ovid and Virgil” (164). Due to the “hermeneutical traditions as they had come to evolve in the late Renaissance,” one must “read myth allusions in Hamlet not archetypically but stenographically” (165). For example, the “acquired double potential of myth allowing it to serve simultaneously as examples of human virtue and vice complexly connects in the play with Hamlet’s anxiety not only about his father’s apparition but also his own thoughts” (165). Is the Ghost a reliable source or “Vulcan (a daimon) forging his son (or a soul) into an agent of evil” (167)? Are Hamlet’s “imaginings” merely “misconceptions” or “the results of a moral contamination” (166)? The analogies between Hamlet’s experience and that of his mythic predecessors “indicate how Hamlet in plot, terms and phrases lingers over a whole range of ancient concerns through which late Renaissance culture both couched and covered over its own ambition and fears” (167-68). “Arguably,” Hamlet “stages the death not only of Hamlet but of the typically Renaissance belief in eloquence as some ultimate civilizing or enlightening process” (172). “The implied cleft between the miraculous possibilities posited in fable and the brute mortality of historical events in Denmark can also be sensed in the play if we consider the contrary influences of Ovid and Virgil upon the myths that the play takes up” (173): Hamlet seems “caught between the Virgilian sublime and Ovidian mutability” (173-74), and “Virgil’s permanent order and Ovid’s flux seem to vie for influence over the play” (174). “By bringing these parallelisms with figures from epic and fable to bear upon the history of Hamlet, the play acts out the tragic pathos that results when history and myth are implicitly revealed to be irreconcilable” (175). “The conflict of myth and history and of art and life is densely articulated through symbolic shorthand in Hamlet” (175).

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Dunn, Leslie C. “Ophelia’s Song’s in Hamlet: Music, Madness, and the Feminine.” Embodied Voices: Representing Female Vocality in Western Culture. Ed. Leslie C. Dunn and Nancy A. Jones. New Perspectives in Music History and Criticism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994. 50-64.

FEMINISM / HISTORY OF IDEAS / MUSIC / OPHELIA

This essay argues “that the representation of Ophelia’s madness involves a mapping of her sexual and psychological difference onto the discursive ‘difference’ of music” and that “this dramatic use of music reflects the broader discourse of music in early modern English culture, with its persistent associations between music, excess and the feminine” (52). Early modern British writers contend with “the conflicting ideologies of music inherited from Platonic and Christian thought”: music represents “the earthly embodiment of divine order,” but it also introduces “sensuous immediacy” and “semantic indeterminacy” (56). While Pythagorean harmony “is music in its positive or ‘masculine’ aspect,” music also possesses the capability of “cultural dissonance” in its “negative or ‘feminine’ aspect” (58). In Hamlet, singing allows Ophelia to become “both the literal and the figurative ‘dissonance’ that ‘expresses marginalities’” (59). Her representation “draws on gender stereotypes of the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage” and simultaneously dislocates them (60): “If Ophelia’s singing lets ‘the woman’ out, then, it does so in such a way as to problematize cultural constructions of women’s song, even while containing her within their re-presentation”; but her “disruptive feminine energy must be reabsorbed into both the social and the discursive orders of the play” (62). Gertrude’s description of Ophelia’s drowning “re-appropriates Ophelia’s music” and “aestheticizes her madness, makes it ‘pretty’” (63). Rather than dismiss Ophelia’s singing “as a conventional sign of madness,” critics should “acknowledge its significance” by “making her singing our subject” (64).

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Hamana, Emi. “Whose Body Is It, Anyway?—A re-Reading of Ophelia.” Hamlet and Japan. Ed. Yoshiko Uéno. Hamlet Collection 2. New York: AMS, 1995. 143-54.

FEMINISM / HISTORY OF IDEAS / OPHELIA

According to this article, although Hamlet “treats the question of the female body through masculine ideologies and fantasies,” the text is “not a closed, monolithic structure,” as is demonstrated by the contradictions discussed in this essay (143). A brief examination of Christian tradition and Cartesian dualism explains the Elizabethan tendencies towards misogyny and somatophobia (143). In Hamlet, Gertrude’s sinful lust is punished by the objectification and de-sexualization of the body, but the innocent and puppet-like Ophelia also “suffers a series of patriarchal oppressions” (145). While the mad scene follows the “Renaissance theatrical convention” and “the masculine assumption” of “mad women as erotomaniacs,” it also “has a subversive dimension”: “It invites us to rethink the conceptualization and representation of the female body” with contradictions that “question patriarchal ideology” (146). Ophelia’s madness disrupts the play’s dynamics (146), and “grants her autonomy as a subject” (147); most importantly, it shows “the dualism of mind and body,” not as binary opposites but as “inseparably related” (147-148). This “embodying of the mind” (149) contrasts sharply with Hamlet’s aspirations of “separating the masculine mind (reason) from the feminine body” (148). In the drowning report, the similar merger of “mind/body and subject/object” “represents a different kind of female body: not a fixed entity but a mutable structure” (151). Ophelia “revolts against those forces that shape her textual boundary,” “destabilizes patriarchal control, and resists masculine fantasy of order and universalization” (152).

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Hart, Jeffrey. “Hamlet’s Great Song.” Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education. By Hart. New Haven: Yale UP, 2001. 169-86.

HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS / PHILOSOPHICAL

While continuing the monograph’s argument that the Renaissance was marked by “the intellectual availability of various and often incompatible ways of looking at the world” (e.g., Christianity, Machiavellism) (181), this chapter contends that, in Hamlet, Shakespeare “clearly decided to express a wide range of poetic possibilities and make him the epitome of his age”—the artistic product is “a credible human being and even a credible genius” (175). Hamlet fully engages “most or even all of the contradictory possibilities of the Renaissance, from the lofty aspirations of Pico della Mirandola to bottomless skepticism, from the ideals of humanism to recurrent thoughts of suicide, from the intellectual reaches of Wittenberg to mocking cynicism and an awareness of the yawning grave” (178). “The stature of Prince Hamlet as a great tragic hero rests upon the fact that though in all practical terms he was a catastrophe—those bodies all over the stage—he nevertheless gave himself to and fully articulated the cosmos available to him in all of its splendor, horror, and multiple contradiction” (182). What Hamlet “says becomes the core of the play. It is his voice, not his deeds, that dominates the stage . . .” (169). “The great loss, the terror, we feel at the end of the play comes from the realization that his voice, that great song, is now stilled and that nothing like it will be heard again” (169).

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Iwasaki, Soji. “Hamlet and Melancholy: An Iconographical Approach.” Hamlet and Japan. Ed. Yoshiko Uéno. Hamlet Collection 2. New York: AMS, 1995. 37-55.

ART / HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS

This argument interprets Hamlet as Shakespeare’s “play of Saturn in that the Saturnine atmosphere of melancholy and death, initially brought by the ghost of the dead King Hamlet in the opening scene, is dominant throughout” (37). The play’s combinations of doomsday/prelapsarian paradise, light/darkness, mirth/mourning, time/timeless (38), uncle/father, aunt/mother, appearance/reality, (40), and order/chaos cause Hamlet to slip into melancholy and to suffer from “disillusionment and doubt” (41). His posture of melancholy replicates that of “the classical Saturn on which is based the icon of melancholy in Renaissance art”: a figure who is “supposed to be of a melancholy humour, sinister, fond of solitude and to dislike women” (39). But Hamlet matures. After experiencing “God while at sea,” Hamlet “is now ready to accept whatever should come” (44). Although the final scene “is a dramatic version of the Triumph of Death,” Hamlet perceives that “this scene of so many deaths is neither the triumph of Death nor that of Fortune” (45). Because of his “readiness,” Hamlet “finally transcends the life of meditation to attain a higher ideal—meditation and action synthesized” (46). Hamlet achieves the ideal of the Renaissance, but the real tragedy is that his life “is so brief” (47).

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Kawai, Shoichiro. “Hamlet’s Imagination.” Hamlet and Japan. Ed. Yoshiko Uéno. Hamlet Collection 2. New York: AMS, 1995. 73-85.

HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS

The thesis of this article is that “Imagination is closely related to both passion and reason, and it is through his imagination that he [Hamlet] regains his composure in the last Act” (74). Notable philosophers (e.g., Bacon, Plato, Burton, Wright, Donne) have long considered imagination as “the intermediary between sense and reason”: the senses perceive information to create a “phantasma” or image of an object that the reason judges (74). Hamlet does not have an overactive or problematic imagination; for example, he sees the same ghost that others witness (76), but his awareness of potentially interfering passions motivates him to test his judgement, ergo The Mousetrap. Because “passion betrays itself and brings forth a misconceived action” (e.g., Polonius’ murder), Hamlet continuously “tries to control his emotions” (78). As the arguments surrounding Sir James Hales’ suicide and the three branches of action show, “one has to have some emotions and impulses aroused by imagination” in order to complete an act (80). Unfortunately, Hamlet’s “imagination works in such a way that it weakens his resolution instead of strengthening it” (81). After his voyage, Hamlet’s imagination helps him to realize that he was not “born to set things right,” nor is he Hercules facing a “most difficult task” (83): “if he is to be the heaven’s ‘scourge and minister’ (III.iv.175), it is not through his own will, but heaven’s” (83-84).

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Kim, Jong-Hwan. “Waiting for Justice: Shakespeare’s Hamlet and the Elizabethan Ethics of Revenge.” English Language and Literature 43 (1997): 781-97.

AUDIENCE RESPONSE / HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS

“This study focuses on the Elizabethan ethics concerning revenge and the meaning of Hamlet’s waiting for justice or delaying for revenge and its meaning will be discussed with reference to the Elizabethan ethics of revenge” (782). Shakespeare endows the Ghost with ambiguity, mixing “personal vindictiveness” with a “concern for Gertrude” (782), and Elizabethan audiences “regarded the ghost which keeps on urging to revenge as a devil” (783). Naturally, Hamlet has suspicions “about the nature of the Ghost as Elizabethans did, and it is natural that he waits for revenge until he confirms the credibility of the Ghost’s statements” (782). While The Mousetrap elicits proof of the Ghost’s accusations, the “command to revenge still contains ethical problems in terms of the Elizabethan ethics” (784): “All Elizabethan orthodoxy condemned and punished personal revenge” (785). But Shakespeare’s contemporary audience was still influenced by a residual pagan revenge ethic which commanded a person to avenge the murder of a family member. Perhaps Shakespeare “hoped to appeal to audiences’ instinct” by presenting an individual’s “struggle against ruthless revenge and his reluctance to be the conventional revenger” (788). Fortunately, the “contradiction between the official code of the Elizabethan ethics of revenge and the popular code of revenge is resolved” in the final scene of the play (794). Hamlet appears as “an agent to practice the public revenge or justice through the hand of Providence, when Claudius’ crime was exposed to public. Through this device, Shakespeare made the Elizabethan audiences sympathize strongly with Hamlet’s final action; he abstains from ruthless vengeance. His action might have had their emotional approval and not disturbed their moral judgement” (788). “Hamlet’s action of waiting for justice and delaying injustice, the core of his action, may be admired from either the Christian point of view or the view point of the Elizabethan ethics” (795).

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Knowles, Ronald. “Hamlet and Counter-Humanism.” Renaissance Quarterly 52 (1999): 1046-69).

HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS

This essay reexamines “the question of subjectivity in Hamlet by reappraising the significance of the Renaissance revival of philosophic skepticism; the continued debate between medieval views of the misery of man’s life and the Renaissance celebration of existence; the particular importance of the commonplace in the theory and practice of dialectical and rhetorical topics” (1066). “In the anguish of grief and loathing Hamlet’s subjectivity is realized in a consciousness which rejects the wisdom of tradition for the unique selfhood of the individual” (1066). Yet culture “is as much within as without the mind and Hamlet is forced to submit to the plot and history, albeit in a series of burlesque roles, but for a moment he has stood seemingly, ‘Looking before and after’ (4.4.37), back to antiquity and forward to our own age . . . in which ‘identity crisis’ has become a commonplace expression” (1066-67).

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Landau, Aaron. “‘Let me not burst in ignorance’: Skepticism and Anxiety in Hamlet.” English Studies 82.3 (June 2001): 218-30.

GHOST / HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS / NEW HISTORICISM / PHILOSOPHICAL / THEOLOGICAL

This essay proposes that, by considering Hamlet “within the context of the Reformation and the concurrent skeptical crisis, the distinctly epistemological making of Hamlet’s ineffectuality takes on an intriguing historical dimension: it suggests the utter ineffectuality of human knowledge as this ineffectuality was advocated by contemporary skeptics” (218). The opening scene presents “the debacle of human knowledge” (219), the “mixed, inconsistent, confused, and tentative versions of human understanding” through the “uselessness” of Horatio’s learning to communicate with the Ghost and the in-conclusiveness of Bernardo’s “Christian narrative” to explain the spirit (220). This “contradistinction with standard versions of early modern skepticism, which vindicate and embrace human ignorance as against the violent pressures of early modern religious dogmatism,” suggests Shakespeare “to be anxious about uncertainty and its discontents in a way that Greek and humanist skeptics never are” (220). Hamlet’s direct echoing “of contemporary thinkers as diverse as Montaigne and Bruno only strengthens the impression that the play, far from representing a systematic or even coherent line of thought, virtually subsumes the intellectual confusion of the age” (221). “The ghost functions as the very emblem of such confusion” (221), withholding “the type of knowledge most crucial to early modern minds: religious knowledge” (220). The “very issues that are associated, in the Gospels, with the defeat of skeptical anxiety, had become, during the Reformation, axes of debate, rekindling skeptical anxiety rather than abating it” (223). In this context, the Ghost appears “as an implicit, or inverted, revelation” (222), “a grotesque, parodic version of Christ resurrected” (223): instead of “elevating Hamlet to a truly novel and unprecedented level of knowledge” (224), the Ghost “leaves Hamlet with nothing but ignorance” (222). Hamlet claims to believe the Ghost after The Mousetrap, but his ensuing “blunders” “debunk the sense of certainty that he pretends to have established” (227). The problem seems the “inescapably political” world of Denmark, where “errors, partial judgements, and theological (mis)conceptions are never only academic, they cost people their lives and cannot, therefore, be dismissed as unavoidable and innocuous imperfections or indifferent trifles,” as Montaigne and Pyrrhonist believe (228).

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Levy, Eric P. “‘Defeated joy’: Melancholy and Eudaemonia in Hamlet.” Upstart Crow 18 (1998): 95-109.

HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS / PHILOSOPHICAL

Approaching Hamlet’s melancholy in terms of “eudaemonia or the classical idea of happiness,” this article explores how Hamlet’s “pain is eventually linked with a distinctly tragic doctrine of eudaemonia according to which unhappiness or dysdaemonia can fulfill a purpose higher than eudaemonia” (95). In a classical context, happiness “is not merely a state but the ultimate goal or telos of life,” “directed by virtue” and achieved by “the appropriate use of an aptitude or capacity” (96). Unfortunately, the Ghost’s call for revenge “launches Hamlet on a dramatically ambivalent ‘course of thought’ (III.iii.83) concerning the proper exercise of his own thinking” (97), making him “eudaemonistically challenged” (98). “Hamlet’s antithetical pronouncements on the proper exercise of reason reflect—and to some extent epitomize—the great antipodes of Renaissance moral doctrine: Stoicism and opportunism” (98). “According to Stoicism, happiness or eudaemonia requires emotionless acceptance of circumstance over which the individual has no final control”; “But according to opportunism, happiness or eudaemonia results from the deft exploitation of circumstance” (105). The Murder of Gonzago emphasizes the “conflict between these opponent interpretations of fortune”: “the impromptu staging of that play exemplifies shrewd opportunism,” but the Player-King stoically articulates “the fragility of human ‘enterprises’ (III.i.86)” (105). “The disjunction between Stoicism and opportunism—acceptance of universal scheme or exploitation of immediate circumstance—achieves ‘reconcilement’ (V.ii.243) in the notion of the drama, Hamlet, as subsuming design unfolded through the singular actions of character” (106). For example, Hamlet opportunistically rewrites his own death warrant but “is acutely aware of a higher power directing his destiny. Hence, the notion of ‘play’ or drama not only becomes a metaphor for the encompassing design of end-shaping divinity, but also underscores Hamlet’s own status as the eponymous hero of the tragedy concerning him” (106).

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Levy, Eric. “The Problematic Relation Between Reason and Emotion in Hamlet.” Renascence 53.2 (Winter 2001): 83-95.

HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS

This article suggests that, “though Hamlet is filled with references to the need for rational control of emotion, the play probes much deeper into the relation between reason and emotion—particularly with respect to the role of reason in provoking as opposed to controlling emotion” (84). According to “the classical definition,” “man” is “the rational animal whose reason has the ethical task of rationally ordering the passions or emotional disturbances of what is formally termed the sensitive appetite” (83). But the Aristotelian-Thomist notion of sorrow holds that “reason not only controls emotion but also provokes it,” as “inward pain is perceived by the mind”—“a mental event” that cannot exist without thought (88). The Aristotelian-Thomist synthesis proposes that “inward pain seeks relief through outward expression” (90). Yet such a purging of inner pain “can subject its audience to tremendous strain,” as the play demonstrates, for example, through the effects that Hamlet’s destructive guise of madness have on Ophelia (90). Instead of relief through outer expression, the play suggests that inward pain can be escaped by recognition/understanding of how thought contributes to it and by “modification of the mode of thought creating that pain” (89). For example, Claudius advises Hamlet to end his prolonged mourning by accepting the “inevitability of death” (89); and Hamlet soothes his “misgiving” prior to the duel by shifting his focus to providence (90). Interestingly, his embracing of providence allows Hamlet to convert, what the Aristotelian-Thomist doctrine terms as the “anxiety” and “perplexity” induced by “unforeseen circumstance” into “emotional peace” through “mental awareness (91-92)—“Let be” (5.2.220). While Aristotelian-Thomist synthesis perceives the role of reason as controlling emotion, through moderation, Hamlet uses his thinking to transform emotion (93)—“there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (2.2.249-50). “The highest task of conscience in Hamlet concerns the moral evaluation not only of the objects of thought or apprehension, but also of the act of thinking about those objects,” for “There remains the responsibility of thought to recognize the emotional consequences of its own activity” (94).

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Nojima, Hidekatsu. “The Mirror of Hamlet.” Hamlet and Japan. Ed. Yoshiko Uéno. Hamlet Collection 2. New York: AMS, 1995. 21-35.

ART / HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS / NEW HISTORICISM

This article approaches Hamlet as a play reflective of the Renaissance’s “discovery of perspective” (21). A survey of innovations in visual and literary arts shows that “the discovery of an individual point of view necessarily brings about a subjective or relativistic perception of the world” (24). In Hamlet, the Prince, “after his mother’s re-marriage, becomes a prisoner of ‘the curious perspective’ in which ‘everything seems double’” (28): “The ‘conscience’ (consciousness) of Hamlet caught in the collusion of these double-images [e.g., reality/dream, waking/sleeping, action/inaction, reason/madness] is imprisoned in a labyrinth of mirrors” (28-29). In the curious perspective, the revenging hero (by feigning madness) doubles as the fool; hence, Hamlet’s motives for revenge are “undermined by the complicity of the Fool with the Hero which necessarily reduces all to absurdity or nothing” (30). The “‘good’ or ‘bad’ is nothing but an anamorphosis reflected in the curious perspective of Hamlet’s inner world” (30). The structure of this play “is likewise a labyrinth of mirrors. Various themes echo with one another like images reflected between mirrors” (31). Examples include the multiple models of the father/son relationship and the revenge theme. In addition, “Almost all the characters are spies in Hamlet,” further suggesting the curious perspective; the recurrent poison theme also seems “reflected in the mirror” (32). All of the plotting characters become ensnared in their own traps, because “reflexives of plotting and plotter are nothing but an image in the reflector” (33). Adding to the complexity, the dramatic genre leaves Hamlet “to the liberty and responsibility of an actor’s or an audience’s or a reader’s several curious perspective” (34).

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Nyberg, Lennart. "Hamlet, Student, Stoic-Stooge?" Cultural Exchange Between European Nations During the Renaissance: Proceedings of the Symposium Arranged in Uppsala by the Forum for Renaissance Studies of the English Department of Uppsala University, 5-7 June 1993. Ed. Gunnar Sorelius and Michael Srigley. Acta Universitatis Upsaliensis, Studia Anglistica Upsaliensia 86. Uppsala: Uppsala U, 1994. 123-32.

CLAUDIUS / HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS

Attempting "a synthesis of what has been discovered about the intellectual and theatrical nature of the play," this study approaches Hamlet "from the point of view of the idea of role-playing, as it is explored in the play and reflected in the intellectual background, especially in the Italian sources of Castiglione and Machiavelli" (125). The very "idea of role-playing, which in many of the comedies is explored with a sense of joy and liberation, is in Hamlet more often than not viewed with disgust" (127). For example, Hamlet spends much of the play not only trying out roles for himself but making the masks of others slip (128-29). Castiglione considers an individuals mask "affectation" (127). Hamlet has the "skill to read the deceptive masks of others," as the nunnery scene proves (129). But he never really succeeds in unmasking Claudius with The Mousetrap. The problem is that the King "is as skillful a role-player as Hamlet himself" (129). Both share striking characteristics of Machiavellism (130) and of an adeptness with improvisation (129). Even their "expressions for a belief in providence" are eerily similar (130). Together, Claudius and Hamlet suggest the play's conflicting assessments of role-playing: "On the one hand the role-playing capacity of man is celebrated but, on the other hand, the immoral purposes it can be employed for give it a dark tinge" (131).

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Sadowski, Piotr. "The 'Dog's day' in Hamlet: A Forgotten Aspect of the Revenge Theme." Shakespeare and His Contemporaries: Eastern and Central European Studies. Ed. Jerzy Liman and Jay L. Halio. Newark: U of Delaware P, 1993. 159-68.

HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS

Focusing primary on Hamlet's words to Laertes-"The cat will mew, and dog will have his day" (5.1.292)-this essay proposes that many of Hamlet's "cryptic statements" have a "profound significance and point to a complex of ideas existing outside of Shakespeare's text in the sources and traditions to which Hamlet's story originally belonged" (159). For example, possible Hamlet sources (e.g., Historia Danica, History of Rome, Ambales saga, Shahname) consistently contain "the identification of the heroes with dogs or wolves in their role of fierce avengers and rectifiers of their wrongs" (161). These "canine allusions" "refer to a well-defined complex of cultural ideas and rituals, particularly characteristic of pre-Christian Scandinavia, in which canine symbolism played a dominant role" (161). Hamlet's "barbaric, 'canine' soul" ultimately awakens in the play's final scene, doing justice to "the vast and old heroic tradition of pagan Scandinavia" (166).

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Taylor, James O. “The Influence of Rapier Fencing on Hamlet.” Forum for Modern Language Studies 29.3 (1993): 203-15.

DUEL / HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS

This article contends that Hamlet’s transformation in the last act of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s execution, as well as the slayings of Claudius and Laertes “are best understood if seen in the context of fencing, the imagery of which informs and illuminates the play” (203). A brief survey of Elizabethan fencing trends and of Vincentio Saviolo’s guidance to duelers provides an informative backdrop for the argument based on “the relationship between the rapier as an effective weapon and the word as a rapier—an even more effective weapon” (205). Throughout Hamlet, fencing and language are related because Hamlet’s “metaphorical sharpening and focusing of language” mirrors the duelist’s need to “keep his weapon honed and his skill exercised so that he will be ready to counter any attack” (206). For example, Hamlet’s words in 2.2 moves “toward the satiric tradition in which words are wielded as whips and lances and daggers”; the Prince turns “to Juvenal for instruction in their [words’] use because he has not yet fully mastered their power” (208); Hamlet’s meeting with the players marks the moment when “the satirist and avenger coalesce in Hamlet,” as he grasps “the potential of language to strip pretence from the hypocrites and cut deceit from corrupt statesmen” (209); with Gertrude and Ophelia, Hamlet’s “speech becomes pointed and rapier-edged”: “he is as menacing and relentless as the aggressive swordsman who presses every advantage in the fray” (212). With the death order for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet heeds Saviolo’s warning that “the duellist could not afford the luxury of merely wounding or disabling his opponent. The duel was an all-or-nothing venture” (213). Saviolo’s wisdom is also obeyed when Hamlet launches a proper frontal assault on Claudius in the final scene. Although “hardened by his duel with evil and his futile attempts to avenge his father’s murder, Hamlet of the final act has maintained his humanity” (214).

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Terry, Reta A. “‘Vows to the blackest death’: Hamlet and the Evolving Code of Honor in Early Modern England.” Renaissance Quarterly 52 (1999): 1070-86.

HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS

This article attests that “analysis of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and in particular its characters’ use of promise, provides new and revealing insights into evolving Renaissance codes of honor” (1070). Historical documents show that the Renaissance period marked a “transition in the evolution of the code of honor”: the medieval “external code” (e.g., lineage, deeds, loyalty to a lord) “coexisted and overlapped” with “an internalized concept” (e.g., conscience, godliness, political allegiance) (1071). But, for all of the changes, “the concept of promise did not diminish” (1074). In Hamlet, the major characters “represent different stages in the evolution of a changing code of honor” (1076). For example, Horatio, “utterly loyal and obedient” to Hamlet, “represents the chivalric, medieval concept of honor” (1077); and Claudius, manipulator of loyal courtiers, epitomizes “the way in which a system of honor that is entirely politicized can be perverted” (1082). In comparison, Hamlet appears “as a transitional character in the changing code of honor” (1079): his initial oath commits him to kill Claudius based on “familial loyalty,” while his later vows are voiced “in terms of Christian images” (e.g., “Sblod” [2.2.336], “God’s bodkin” [2.2.485]); also, he voices the first oath privately, in a soliloquy but converts it “to a public form of oath” in discussion with Horatio (1.5.140-41) (1080-81). By medieval standards, Hamlet must avenge his father’s murder; but to kill a king, “God’s anointed ruler” and “an elected king,” is to go against the new honor of conscience (1081). Interestingly, Hamlet “exacts revenge for his father’s murder only after Claudius’s treachery has been publicly revealed by both Gertrude and Laertes,” allowing him to fulfill the initial vow of vengeance and to retain his political/theological honor (1082). But Hamlet’s effort to find a balance in the shifting honor codes “contributes not only to his own tragic death, but to the deaths of several others as well” (1084). Through Hamlet’s characters and their promises, Shakespeare “takes a conventional stance in a period of change” (1084).

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Tkacz, Catherine Brown. “The Wheel of Fortune, the Wheel of State, and Moral Choice in Hamlet.” South Atlantic Review 57.4 (Nov. 1992): 21-38.

CLAUDIUS / HAMLET / HISTORY OF IDEAS

This essay explores the importance and ramifications of the prayer scene. Themes of duty and kingship, as well as motifs of the wheel and decent, prepare the audience for this crucial scene. The player’s Hecuba speech also anticipates the prayer scene because it provides an intriguing description of a hesitant Pyrrhus, who parallels Hamlet and Claudius. As Hamlet hesitates to avenge and Claudius hesitates to repent, “these two kinsmen who will at last kill each other are here fatally alike” (27). The key difference is that Claudius remains unchanged, while Hamlet develops a “new viciousness” “that makes this scene the moral center of the play” (28). After leaving Claudius to pray, Hamlet “strikes the blow that kills Polonius, he orders the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and his cruelty to Ophelia, orphaned at his hands, leads at least indirectly to her drowning” (31). But were Claudius apprehended, imprisoned, or slain before/during the pivotal prayer scene, these deaths and those of the final scene would be completely avoided (31). In the prayer scene, “at the center of the play, Hamlet’s subjection to Fortune shows itself most crucially; by being passion’s slave, he subjects the wheel of state to the wheel of Fortune” (35).

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Usher, Peter. “Advances in the Hamlet Cosmic Allegory.” Oxfordian 4 (Fall 2001): 25-49.

HISTORY OF IDEAS / PHILOSOPHICAL

By asserting “that Hamlet contains a cosmic allegory,” this article suggests that Shakespeare “was well aware of the astronomical revolutions of his time, and by dramatizing the triumph of heliocentricism and the infinite universe as a subtext of his great play, he celebrated what is in essence the basis for the modern world view” (27). The play appears imbued with allusions to the astronomical debate based on linguistic references to the contemporary scientific terms (e.g., retrograde [1.2.114], infinite space [2.2.259]) and character names borrowed from actual scientists (e.g., Claudius Ptolemy, Marcellus Palingenius Stellatus). Even the plot seems charged, as Shakespeare departs from Historia Danica in the final scene to recognize that “the English cosmological contribution is an outgrowth of the Polish contribution”: Fortinbras goes “first to Poland, to pay homage to the grave of Copernicus, and then upon his return to salute the English ambassadors. Thus the two models favored by Shakespeare, the Polish and the English, are triumphant following the demise of geocentricism,” which Claudius and his followers represent (33-34). Aside from discerning meaning in the “opaque” dialogue between Hamlet, Horatio, and Osric in act five, scene two (42), this cosmological interpretation of Hamlet also uncovers the scientific basis for Hamlet’s “nutshell” (2.2.258).

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Contact the author at h.blankenship@hamlethaven.com