Interpretative Impacts in Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”
“For there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so” (2.2, 249-250)
From the start of Shakespeare’s Hamlet it is clear that much of the action is cerebral. The play never escapes the confines of Hamlet’s head. One is never sure if Hamlet’s madness is actual or contrived, or if his mother’s intentions are adulterous or innocent. This is because Hamlet’s interpretation of the events is the dominating voice of the play. He declares that there is no meaning outside of thought “thinking makes it so” because his thoughts and opinions are the only arbiter of “good or bad.” The action in Samuel Delany’s The Tale of Gorgik is similarly confined to the protagonist’s interpretation of his world. Gorgik’s narrative involves his struggle to constantly read and interpret the foreign world of court life.
Both Hamlet and Gorgik must rely on their evolving sense of the action surrounding them to navigate social contexts. Their social navigation is analogous to the reader’s experience navigating a text. Their interpretive stances of the affect the action of the play just as the reader’s interpretation creates the meaning of a text.
A symptom of Gorgik’s and Hamlet’s social navigation is that both are intensely implicated in the worlds they navigate. They must simultaneously interpret and remain involved, despite their ignorance of the rules of the world. However, in Gorgik’s case Delany points out that it is a lack of knowledge that affords him close proximity to his new world.
But in his ignorance, young Gorgik was again closer to the lords and ladies around him than an equally young potter’s boy who would have been. For it is precisely at its center that one loses the clear vision of what surrounds, what controls and contours every utterance, decides and develops every action, as the bird has no clear concept of air, though it support her every turn, or the fish no true vision of water, though it blur all she sees. (52)
Gorgik’s ignorance allows him to prosper in the world because he is not perceived as a threat. He is “closer to the lords and ladies” than an educated outsider would have been. This is because his interpretive stance is innocent observation. His ignorance affords him an intimacy with the players in the court. He is therefore a part of the world but not of the world. He must interpret and read their actions but is too close to the center, too involved in the world to see its workings clearly. He is the bird and fish who have no knowledge of the medium through which they travel. He is ignorant of his medium but is still able to navigate that medium successfully.
Since he has “no clear vision of what surrounds,” he relies on his observations for meaning. There is no outside information and Gorgik’s own interpretation is the only available option. This is the experience of the readers who, instead of possessing the supposed distance and knowledge of the apprentice, are instead intensely involved in the text they absorb since it becomes a part of their world. The reader must feel her way through a text by becoming part of the world it contains but by doing this, it becomes a part of her world.
The text becomes part of her context of interpretation and she grows closer to the center and so closer to the meaning which resides in her. She must blur the distinction between herself and the text until the text, like the bird in air “support her every turn” and ceases to be a foreign world.
Stanley Fish claims that in the act of reading, one never possesses an insight outside one’s personal context. In “Is There a Text in this Class?” he reasons that “communication occurs within situations and that to be in a situation is already to be in possession of (or to be possessed by) a structure of assumptions it is within the assumption of these purposes and goals that any utterance is immediately heard” (583). A reader possesses a “structure of assumptions” that color her interpretation of the text. These structures of assumptions form her context and her context is how she receives a text.
The reader can not be divorced from these structures. It is symbiotic relationship with the reader possessing and being “possessed by” by these assumptions. Therefore all interpretation, whether it be Gorgik’s reading of his world, or a reader’s analysis of a text, is dependent on the interpreter’s “structure of assumptions.” A reader’s “thinking makes it so” to the extent that her interpretation is the meaning in the text.
Gorgik’s social navigation differs from Hamlet’s in Gorgik’s choice of an interpretive stance. He is not quick to evaluate the meaning in what he sees. He evaluates insofar as it affords him survival. Because he does not claim to know the motivations behind what he sees, he is able to stay in the favor of royalty. Gorgik is more successful than Hamlet in navigating his world because he alters his interpretation as he goes along whereas Hamlet claims to know the truth about what he sees. Yet he always sees the situation through his paranoid perspective. This choice of static interpretation is demonstrated in Hamlet’s inability to kill the King while he is praying. Hamlet is thrust up against the definitive act of the play. It has consumed him from the moment the play began and yet when face to face with the opportunity, he cannot do it. He has opportunity, but he lacks a definitive interpretation of what his act will mean.
He reads the act differently than the King does and so convinces himself that the time is not right. “Am I then reveng’d/ To take him in the purging of his soul/ When he is fit and season’d for his passage? No” (3.3, 84-87). He sees the King asking for forgiveness and receiving it, whereas the King reads his own actions much differently: “My words fly up, my thoughts remain down below/ Words without thoughts never to heaven go” (3.3, 97-98). The King thinks he does not posses adequate concentration and remorse to receive forgiveness. The audience is led to believe that had Hamlet killed Claudius, he would have died unforgiven. Hamlet loses his opportunity for revenge because he stops to decide the meaning in the situation. If put in the same situation, Gorgik would have killed Claudius because he would not have hesitated to judge the true meaning of Claudius’s action.
Gorgik’s interpretive stance is not to claim to know while Hamlet must constantly remind everyone that he is the only one who knows what is going on. Immediately after he kills Polonius, he goes on a tirade lambasting his mother for what he has condemned adulterous behavior: “Sit you down/ And let me wring your heart; for so I shall/ If it be made of penetrable stuff? That it be proof and bulwark against sense” (3.4, 34-37). He scolds her and claims to offer “proof” of her sin. He takes the liberty to chastise his mother’s actions because he claims to be the judge of right and wrong whereas he simply interprets everything through his lens of emotional turmoil. The play is affected by Hamlet’s dominating voice of justice. Similarly, Gorgik’s affects his world as well. In Gorgik’s case, however, the affect is more subtle and perhaps more influential.
Whereas Hamlet’s inability to interpret works against him, Gorgik’s method of weaving in and out of the social context saves him. Hamlet believes he objectively assesses everything. But objectivity, like subjectivity, is merely another interpretive claim. He claims to understand the situation perfectly, but instead sees everything through his lens of paranoia. Gorgik, however, makes no claims to his analytic authority. He threads his way in and out of the lives of the royalty, interpreting along the way.
Gorgik becomes symbolic of the many influences of worlds he encounters. Delany concludes the story by declaring that Gorgik was “the optimum product of his civilization each of his civilization’s institutions had contributed to creating this scar-faced giant” (77). Instead of affecting the worlds he is in by shouting to make himself known (like Hamlet does), Gorgik smoothly moves through many roles and is influenced along the way. He becomes the “product” of the worlds he encounters rather than producing those worlds. By silently observing and not making any claims about meaning, Gorgik navigates different contexts with ease. He does not hesitate to pontificate; Hamlet is always pontificating.
Gorgik is a better reader than Hamlet. He allows his surroundings, to uses Fish’s term, to influence his “structures of assumptions.” He enters each world without making interpretive claims but with the knowledge that he is constantly reading and interpreting. This is the challenge of a reader analyzing a text. She must weave her way in and out of the texts, sometimes reading so intensely that she loses all consciousness of the distinctions between herself and the text. Hamlet’s interpretive stance is flawed. He thinks he possesses understanding of his world and does not acknowledge his involvement in his interpretation. He is constantly judging and evaluating rather than absorbing and deducing.
Hamlet sees himself as en entity removed from the action surrounding him. Instead of navigating, he stops to expound and interpret. A reader does not need to stop to interpret, because interpretation happens while navigating a text. Just as Gorgik is a product of the worlds he encounters, a reader is the product of the texts she navigates, always unconsciously interpreting because that is the only way to navigate successfully.
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