by Doctor Science
I've been poking at a follow-up to my first post about Hamlet's Father, Orson Scott Card, and child abuse for a while now, but the revelations out of Penn State last week make it all too hideously relevant.
Basically, I think Hamlet's Father is about precisely the kind of abuse there was at Penn State. It's not a very good story because OSC only put in the abuse, not the cover-up and complicity of people around the abuser. IMHO he left out the cover-up because he didn't let himself explore the true nature of the situation he was describing, and he did *that* because he can't let himself acknowledge the truth about the abuse that scarred his own life. But there *is* a really good story in there, asking to be told.
Stained glass from the Elsinore Theatre, Salem, Oregon.
I am cutting here for:
TRIGGER WARNING: discussion of fictional and real-life child abuse, emotional and sexual. Survivors take care.
SPOILER WARNING: post and comments may contain spoilers for any work by Orson Scott Card.
Shakespeare fanfic: so traditional, we call it "the last 400 years of English literature"
Several critics of "Hamlet's Father" seem to object to OSC's effrontery at trying to re-write or Bowdlerize Hamlet, for writing something that's not as good as Shakespeare's version: for being fanfic, basically.
This is bollocks. Shakespeare, of course, had no compunction about reusing, recycling, renovating and re-writing other people's stories, and doing the same to him just keeps the Circle of (Literary) Life turning. Writers have had great success with Hamlet fanfic, giving the backstage backstory for two minor characters, or mixing Hamlet with Macbeth from the witches' POV, or making Ophelia the hero -- in space!, and there's plenty more to be mined in that vein.
The basic premise of Hamlet's Father is by no means ridiculous, either -- by which I mean that it's something I thought of independently some years ago. What if, I thought, the reason for Hamlet's characteristic indecision was that he loved Claudius better than he did his father, if he felt subconsciously that Claudius was a better king or father than Hamlet Sr.? OSC had the same basic idea, and saw that the logic of the story points to Hamlet Sr being an abuser. As happens with a good fanfic idea, he could see how many elements in the play (the "canon" of Hamlet) could be brought in to support this take, and a very good story could be built up.
But because OSC hasn't really faced up to the reality of the abuse in his life and told the truth about it, he can't tell the truth in his work. Hamlet's Father is riddled with poor authorial choices of all kinds, for which a writer of OSC's professional stature and experience should have no excuse.
To make it clearer, at least to me, I'll compare the story to what might have been written by a top-notch fanfic writer, a construct I'll name "Yolanda Yuletide" -- "Yuletide" because high-quality Shakespeare fanfic often shows up for the Yuletide fanfic exchange, and "Yolanda" because that's the first name beginning with Y I thought of.
I blame Dr. Seuss. This is a Yawning Yellow Yak, and Young Yolanda Yorgensen is Yelling on his back.
Also, I am blatantly hoping that a Yuletider will pick up the baton and write the *real* story, the way it deserves to be written.
OSC begins his story with Hamlet at college, called back home to Ellsinore after his father's death and mother's remarriage. The main events of the story, or at least the sequence of deaths, follow the play, except at the end:
1) After Hamlet kills the enraged Laertes, he kills Claudius
2) Horatio, horrified, confesses that Claudius didn't deserve to die, because he didn't kill Hamlet Sr., *he* did> He, like all the other young male characters -- Laertes, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern -- was raped in childhood by Hamlet Sr. When Horatio started to feel pedophilic urges himself, he killed Hamlet Sr in revenge.
3) Gertrude kills herself in remorse for not killing Hamlet Sr when she had the chance
4) Hamlet kills himself as penance for killing so many innocents
His spirit arose and looked around the hall. To where Laertes's spirit held his father's and his sister's hands; then they arose into heaven. To where his mother and Claudius, bright spirits both, embraced each other, and also rose into the air, toward the bright light awaiting them.This, as Sprog the Elder pointed out to me, isn't Shakespeare and it isn't tragedy, it's Panto. You'll notice that it's also a very Mormon vision of heaven, happy families traveling together.
And finally to the dark shadowy corner where his father's spirit stood, laughing, laughing, laughing. "Welcome to hell, my beautiful son. At last we'll be together as I always longed for us to be."
I assume that most Americans are as familiar as they can stomach with the Penn State football disaster, where it turns out that Jerry Sandusky, the former assistant football coach to living legend Joe Paterno, had been raping young boys for years while his colleagues and superiors ignored it or covered it up. The grand jury report makes brutal and nauseating reading. The most thorough -- and thus horrific -- account of the culture and coverup I've seen is asiangrrlMN's four-part series The Jerry Sandusky Rape Case: The History of the PSU Cover-up. C.C. Finlay has put together a timeline, for reference.
As I talk about "Hamlet's Father", the parallels to PSU should become brutally obvious -- and also the way OSC fell down on the job.
A Close Reading
He begins with the appropriate insight:
Father was once as powerful as God, or so it seemed to Hamlet. Indeed, when the Bishop discussed God, Hamlet couldn't see how there was any difference between God and Father. They were both all-knowing, all-powerful.
From the objectively pro-rape PSU demonstration after Joe Paterno was fired; source.
Very quickly, OSC starts to drop hints about what particular sort of rot might be taking place in this State of Denmark. He remembers his childhood:
"The fruit has grown large and ugly this year," said a familiar voice--Yorick, the old jester.This sample should be enough to show you how un-Shakespearean the dialogue is: the language is more understandable, all right, but also painfully dully and flaccid. There is no trace in this story of canonical Hamlet's love affair with words, his vivid joy in speech. This is the most obvious clue that this is *bad* fanfiction. I'm not saying that you have to write Hamlet fanfic in iambic pentameter, but it needs to at least feel like the same universe, atmospherically.
"It's too early for apples."
"Then what kind of weather is it that drops ugly boys out of the sky?"
"I'm not ugly. Mother says I'm a very pretty little boy."
"Better to be ugly," said Yorick, and there was sadness in his voice.
Back to OSC's scene: that very day, Hamlet found his friend Horatio weeping, after he'd gone out hunting with the King and they'd gotten lost together, separated from the hunting party. And Horatio and the other boys, the "Companions" Hamlet's father chose for him, are all "beautiful ... Strong and vigorous, lovely of face."
Years later, when Hamlet has been ordered to go to Heidelberg, Laertes asks to leave Denmark with him, though the Companions are being reassigned to the King's personal service. Hamlet takes him to his mother to get her help, though Laertes says "Queen Gertrude doesn't even know my name". This is so jaw-droppingly impossible that I assumed it meant that Gertrude had isolated herself from the court almost entirely, the better to See No Evil.
So she hadn't know that his Companions were being taken directly into the King's own guard. And when he explained it, she frowned and reached out a hand to Laertes. "One would have thought," she said to the boy, "that you served him well enough already."A little bit further the same day, ostensibly talking about politics:
She stood, and saw that Laertes was already as tall as she was, and laughed. "Well, it seems you're determined to be taller than your father."
"I should be," said Laertes. "My mother was."
"I think that if you bide only a little while, my dear husband will have no further use for you."
Laertes looked away. "If I live so long."
"I don't even know what I know," said Mother. "I don't dare ask myself a single question for fear I'll tell me an answer that I can't afford to hear."Now, when I first read this, I thought OSC was doing an excellent job of showing how Gertrude is supporting the abuse through cultivated ignorance, so that she can tell herself she doesn't see what she's actually seeing.
But in the big reveal at the end:
Mother's voice came from behind him. "When I found what he was doing to the Companions, I almost killed him myself. I caught him fondling you when you were practically a baby, Hamlet. I held a knife at his throat and vowed that I'd have his blood if he ever touched you or was alone with you again. I'd tell the barons and they'd kill him themselves. He took a solemn oath never to touch you and he kept it. I didn't know what he did with the Companions until--until Laertes came to me and told. Then I made him dissolve the Companions and let them all go free. But it was too late."So you see, it's totally not Gertrude's fault! She's obviously worthy to go to Heaven with Claudius -- because after all, how could she possibly imagine that her husband would target other little boys after she'd sent him away from her son?!? And it's not like she was *seeing* the boys all the time -- even though they're her son's Companions, in the court of a small country ...
It's as though OSC's mind has to cover up the cover-up, has to frantically paper over the fact that this level of abuse cannot be blamed on a single, evil person. As Stewart Weiss says in the Jerusalem Post, comparing the Sandusky case with that of Moshe Katsav:
sexual abuse, if you'll pardon the expression, is a team effort. It includes not only the initiator, but also those who enable the crime, those who turn away rather than turn the abuser into the authorities.Now, in Yolanda's version, the readers would know that Yorick knew about the King's abuses, and probably had even witnessed them -- just like the janitor at Penn State, who saw Sandusky
It also involves those who know damn well that something wrong is going on, but refuse to get involved because it may complicate their lives or take up too much of their time.
"Hamlet's Father" is supposed to be a ghost story, part of a themed anthology. All ghost stories are highly atmospheric, because they're always attached to a particular *place*: a house, a castle, a well, a grove.
"Under the Aventine there lay a grove black with the shade of holm-oaks; at sight of it you could say, "There is a spirit here: Numen inest." Ovid, Fasti. Painting by John Frederick Kensett, An Ilex Tree on Lake Albano, Italy.
The other stories in the collection all respect the site-specific nature of ghosts. Tanith Lee's story, "Strindberg's Ghost Sonata" (also fanfic, you'll note), is very well and lushly written as it tells about the people caught in "a Tenement called Perfection" in a city very like St. Petersburg. The ghosts seem very real because the place seems very real, both solid and filled with emotion.
I was getting ready to say that, in a ghost story, the place is an objective correlative -- and what do I see in Wikipedia but Popularized by T. S. Eliot in his essay "Hamlet and His Problems". I don't agree with Eliot that Shakespeare's Hamlet is an artistic failure -- but then, I don't think it lacks an objective correlative when performed on stage or screen. OSC's Hamlet *is* an artistic failure, and partly I think because of such a lack.
In ghost story terms, OSC refused or was unable to show how the ghost was part of the place -- IMHO because that would mean facing that the abuse was part of the family and of the larger society. Something is indeed rotten in the State of Denmark, but he can't show it because that involves admitting that the evil wasn't just in one man.
The ballroom of Ellsinore (Kronborg) Castle, today. source.
For instance, as for other good ghost stories, Yolanda would make the description of Ellsinore reflect or embody the moral problem the ghost represents. In most ghost stories the building is old or decrepit, crumbling and leaking. I think to tell this story Yolanda will tell how the walls of Ellsinore are superficially clean and white, but the plaster can't keep the green-black mold on the walls at bay. So maybe they cover the stains with tapestries -- including the one where Polonius meets his death. OSC tries to make Polonius a good man, innocent and worthy of Heaven -- but he's plastering over the fact that Polonius is exactly the kind of man who'd tell Laertes to "respect the King" and "do whatever he asks" to gain a more influential position at court.
The Resonance of Artistic Truth
One reason I said OSC's basic idea here is a really good one is because the more I think about it, the more I can make elements from canon fit into it. It resonates with Hamlet the play, like ringing a tuning fork in front of a quiet orchestra and hearing various instruments vibrate sympathetically. "Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" is one resonance, and Polonius behind the tapestry is another. But there's also the fundamental structure of the action: by the end of Hamlet, the entire parental generation is dead. From Yolanda's POV (which should have been OSC's), this is because they were all guilty. Just as at Penn State, abuse by someone at the top of the hierarchy will be covered up, ignored, and excused by everyone who might have the authority to stop it -- because they love the hierarchy more than their own children.
In my earlier post about Hamlet's Father, I said OSC had committed
a betrayal, the worst kind an author can commit: he is lying about his own creations, which is also denying the truth of his own soul.I didn't mean that's the worst thing a *person* who is an author can do, but it is the worst kind of betrayal of the authorial vocation.
Fiction writers are, in Plato's sense, liars who describe what is untrue, so what difference does another lie make? But I agree with J.R.R. Tolkien: fiction writers are sub-creators, gods of their own little worlds, and they have a god-like obligation to see and say the truth about their creations.
Because Orson Scott Card cannot tell the truth about his own experience, he can't tell the truth about his sub-creation. Only the truth will make him free, and make him be, like Horatio, not just a victim, but a survivor.
Hamlet sees the ghost of his father, etching by Eugène Delacroix.