Friday, September 09, 2011

Meets Hamlet

Book Cover

This is one of those WTF!1 discoveries that make life interesting and annoying at the same time. In this case the WTF moment was brought to us by Orson Scott Card (1951- ),2 Science Fiction and Fantasy writer.

Now Mr. Card is best known for his novel Ender’s Game which has for reasons that are totally inexplicable to me a large fan base. The novel is about a genius in the future who has a brutal upbringing and he is trained to fight a war against an insect like enemy and in the end in the course of the “game” he exterminates them. The novel is about how much he is a victim and about how his intentions are always pure. Some other time I may go into why the novel is a literary horror and about how it is morally and philosophically vile.3 Here I would just like to go into Orson Scott Card’s take on Hamlet.

Mr. Card decided to do a re-imagining of Hamlet called Hamlet’s Father.4 Now this is a risky endeavour in the sense that re-imagining Hamlet means re-imagining one of the great works of English literature by one the very greatest of English writers, Shakespeare. Now to make things clear Mr. Card is not using the source material that Shakespeare used to create a new “Hamlet”; instead Card is re-imaging Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

There is of course nothing particularly wrong with using "Hamlet" as a basis for re-imagining the story line, after all The Lion King, is a re-imagining of the "Hamlet" story line for example. However re-imagining Shakespeare’s Hamlet is quite a different matter, given that, for example there will be inevitable comparisons with Shakespeare’s Hamlet and frankly any such comparison’s, the re-imagined "Hamlet" will almost always suffer seriously by comparison. Not surprisingly there have been few such attempts and even fewer that are not utterly embarrassing.

For an example of one of the few examples of a re-imagining that was not utter crap and was in fact fairly good we have John Updike’s Gertrude and Claudius. This re-imagining did not attempt to redo the plot of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; instead it is a prequel but it is made absolutely clear that this prequel is a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The chief focus of the prequel is on Claudius and Gertrude. In this short novel they are portrayed as flawed individuals. Claudius is in fact portrayed as an ambitious and ruthless but also with some likable characteristics. Gertrude is not very bright but is rather sweet. Hamlet is shown as brooding, dark and rather cold. Hamlet’s father is capable but also cruel and unfeeling. No one is perfect and no one is evil. The novel ends just as the events of the play are about to start. Both Hamlet and his father do not come off very well in the book, and although Claudius is distinctly more likable than in the play, he is not a positive character either, for he is full of murderous ambition. If anything the author’s sympathy’s are with Gertrude, who simply doesn’t understand what is going on. Over all this effort of re-imagining is a success.5

Perhaps the best example of success in re-imagining Shakespeare’s Hamlet is Tom Stoppard’s extraordinary Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. In this play we see Shakespeare’s play from the point of view of two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and weaved into the play are pieces and sections of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; to make the point absolutely clear that what we have here is a adjunct so to speak of Shakespeare’s play. Not just is it from the point of view of two minor characters from the play Hamlet, but those minor character’s have no existence apart from the play.

The result being that the play is about the nature of creation and how characters in fiction “exist” apart from what they are in and yet are utterly dependent on those works for their existence. Thus Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are utterly bewildered by what is going on and have absolutely no understanding of what the hell their purpose is. In the end the play is about how real human beings are trapped like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in a play that has no discernible meaning and what happens to them seems to make no sense at all, least of all to them. This is perhaps the most successful re-imaging of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.6

Mr. Card’s re-imaging of Hamlet is another thing altogether. Unlike the two above it appears to be a near complete artistic failure along with being morally grotesque.

To get the artistic stuff out of the way first. No one will pretend, I hope, that Mr. Card can write well but the following from Mr. Card’s work under discussion should suffice to indicate its lack of quality.
Horatio brought him his sword. "Laertes is looking for you," he said.

"I don't have time for Laertes. He must know I didn't mean to kill his father," Hamlet said.

"It's not his father," said Horatio. "It's his sister."

"Ophelia? I didn't touch her."

"She killed herself. Walked out into the sea, dressed in her heaviest gown. A funeral gown. Two soldiers went in after her, and a boat was launched, but when they brought her body back, she was dead."

"And for that he wants to kill me?" 7
The above sample of the skilled literary constructions (snark) of Mr. Card should suffice to indicate that this novel fails as literature. Further the angst ridden, procrastinating, deep dark brooding Hamlet of Shakespeare is replaced by a twerp who talks like a vapid nitwit.

This is not Mr. Card’s only foray into re-imagining Shakespeare; he also inflicted on the world a dull vaporous retelling of The Taming of the Shrew, but the less said about that the better.8

Hamlet’s Father was originally published as part of a collection of stories a few years ago and was basically ignored; only recently, when it was published independently, by itself is it stirring up controversy.9

Now lets us get to the moral mess of the novel. In the novel we learn that Hamlet was never close to his father and in fact disliked him partly because Hamlet's father was paying more attention to Hamlet’s age mates; Horatio and Laertes for example. Hamlet deeply resented that. We learn that Hamlet keeps hesitating to kill Claudius because he keeps encountering evidence that his father was a bad man.

Then we learn the big revelation that explains everything. Hamlet’s father was Gay and not just Gay but a pedophile who molested Horatio, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern on those trips into the forest for “hunting”. Further we learn that the spirit of his father out of demonic evil spite stirred Hamlet to kill the wrong man. That Claudius was a fine upstanding man. That Hamlet goaded by his father’s ghost kills innocent people. We learn that Hamlet’s father was a bad king, bad father, bad husband because he was Gay. And of course everyone disliked him. Further we learn that because Hamlet’s father molested Horatio, Laertes, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern they turned out Gay also. In fact Horatio murdered Hamlet’s father in revenge for being molested as a child. And in the end Hamlet is punished for killing innocent people by being trapped in hell with his demonic father who will apparently molest him for eternity in punishment.

I wish I was joking but I’m not.

In fact Hamlet’s dad says to Hamlet in hell:
Welcome to Hell, my beautiful son. At last we'll be together as I always longed for us to be.10

So what we get in full flower is the age old myth of the homosexual male has child molester. We further get the notion that Gays “recruit” by molesting children. We also get the myth of essential homosexual evil. Mr. Card doesn’t seem to make any distinction between being Gay and being a child molester / pedophile. But then Mr. Card seems to have a problem with Gay people and to believe the myth of Gay men has sexual predators on children. For example Mr. Card, who is a Mormon, said in a screed:
The dark secret of homosexual society -- the one that dares not speak its name -- is how many homosexuals first entered into that world through a disturbing seduction or rape or molestation or abuse, and how many of them yearn to get out of the homosexual community and live normally.

They will make it harder for us to raise children with any confidence that they, in turn, will take their place in the reproductive cycle. They will use all the forces of our society to try to encourage our children that it is desirable to be like them.11
Gay people aren’t born their recruited and they want to recruit your vulnerable children and destroy marriage and the family! To call this paranoid is merely to state a fact. So I guess it is not a surprise that Mr. Card incorporated this crap into one of his books. In 2009 Card joined The National Organization for Marriage whose purpose is to fight Gay marriage.12

But then Mr. Card has a long established dislike of Homosexuality. For example in 1990 he said:
This applies also to the polity, the citizens at large. Laws against homosexual behavior should remain on the books, not to be indiscriminately enforced against anyone who happens to be caught violating them, but to be used when necessary to send a clear message that those who flagrantly violate society's regulation of sexual behavior cannot be permitted to remain as acceptable, equal citizens within that society.

The goal of the polity is not to put homosexuals in jail. The goal is to discourage people from engaging in homosexual practices in the first place, and, when they nevertheless proceed in their homosexual behavior, to encourage them to do so discreetly, so as not to shake the confidence of the community in the polity's ability to provide rules for safe, stable, dependable marriage and family relationships.13
Mr. Card says he has Gay friends. I have my doubts considering his attitude towards Gay people. I further note that like a lot anti-Gay bigots when he discusses Homosexuality Lesbians disappear. All Gayness seems to be male in his eyes. Also do his Gay “friends” realize that he thinks of them as molesters who want to “recruit” new Gay people by molesting children?

But then Mr. Card doesn’t think Gay people really exist: For example in an interview he said:
I find the comparison between civil rights based on race and supposed new rights being granted for what amounts to deviant behavior to be really kind of ridiculous. There is no comparison. A black as a person does not by being black harm anyone. Gay rights is a collective delusion that's being attempted. And the idea of 'gay marriage' -- it's hard to find a ridiculous enough comparison. By the way, I'd really hate it if your piece wound up focusing on the old charge that I'm a homophobe.14
Yup in his world there are no Homosexuals “really”, just Homosexual acts, and because of such civil rights protections should not exist. Oh and “Homophobe” describes Mr. Card exactly.
He's [Mr. Card] delighted to get back to battle, too. "We have laws right now that protect anybody from violent acts. But I do not believe homosexuals should be given a whole raft of rights analogous to what blacks have."

[Interviewer]"You mean laws that say you can't be fired because you're gay?"

That's exactly what he means. "I think there are a lot of reasons people should be able to be fired. It should be perfectly legitimate to fire somebody for that reason or reasons like it. But I would find it appalling to fire people from most positions because of it."15
Yep he believes that people should be allowed to discriminate against Gay people because Gay people are Gay. No doubt laws against this are discrimination against Religious people. In other words Gay people should be second class citizens until they accept that they are sinful and conform. Later concerning Homosexuality Mr. Card says:
I'm amused that you think it doesn't hurt anyone. The homosexuals that I've known well, I have found none who were actually made happier by performing homosexual acts. Or by withdrawing, which is what they do, from the mainline of human life. The separation is there and is, in fact, celebrated within the homosexual community.16
Given Mr. Card’s deeply ingrained attitudes I doubt he has known any Gay people “well”. As for withdrawing from the mainline of human life. Considering that Gay people continue to be involved with friends, neighbours and family; that is crap. Of course there is a Gay community that does things together from time to time, but how that is much different from other groups is beyond me. As for knowing that performing Homosexual acts hasn’t made any of the Gay people he as known “well” happy. Just how would Mr. Card know that? Just how would he know that they’ve never achieved orgasm by having sex with someone else, which is a form of happiness / pleasure or had a committed relationship? I doubt any Gay person would confide in someone like Mr. Card. I further note that Mr. Card does not in the least admit that discrimination, hateful attitudes by others may have produced a lack of happiness among some Gay people. Instead Mr. Card clearly wants these attitudes and practices against Gay people to continue. In fact he views them as moral and necessary.

What this long digression indicates is that Mr. Card’s re-imagining of Hamlet is in fact part and parcel of a religious / political agenda. It is not the product of an artistic effort to push the boundaries of conceptions of Hamlet but a simple piece of propagandizing and a pretty crass one at that. I have mentioned earlier that the Hamlet in Hamlet’s Father seems to be a pretty dismal one dimensional bore. The same is true of the other characters they seem to excite little interest. The very human attributes, ambiguity and tragedy of Hamlet seem to be absent.

There is of course nothing wrong with re-imagining Shakespeare’s Hamlet; although doing so is a pretty ambitious undertaking. Neither is there anything particularly outrageous in imagining Hamlet’s father has evil. After all the play does in fact give clues that Hamlet’s father was not a good man and after all the ghost of Hamlet’s father is from hell. It is also worthy of note that the play within a play sequence that Claudius does not collapse when he sees performed the rather bizarre method of assassination that the ghost claimed to Hamlet was how he was killed but a bit later. The method of assassination was supposedly by poison administered through the ear has the King slept in a garden. This method of assassination seems more than a trifle improbable. So it appears possible that the King’s ghost lied to Hamlet about that however it is indisputable that Claudius did in fact assassinate Hamlet’s father the King. Further it appears that Hamlet and his father were close. So why the ambiguity about the method of assassination? A nice question! Is it because by throwing in this ambiguity it screws things up even more, and makes more likely the King’s revenge is not just against Claudius but his wife Gertrude whom he condemns also in speech and against others who did not avenge his death? After all since the ghost of Hamlet’s father is in hell it is not improbable that he would be full of malice. . In fact is the ghost even really Hamlet’s father? Is he perhaps a demonic spirit from hell? In the end the point is un-resolvable and possibly there is in fact no ambiguity at all. But it would be like Shakespeare to suggest it.

So turning Hamlet’s father into a demonic liar or even a pedophile isn’t necessarily bad or artistically “wrong”, what was wrong both morally and artistically was deliberately turning / re-imagining the plot of a canon play into a piece of clumsy, blunt propaganda.

Orson Scott Card

1. WTF means what the fuck.

2. Orson Scott Card, Wikipedia Here.

3. Card, Orson, Scott, Ender’s Game, Tor Science Fiction, New York, 1985. For devastating critiques of Ender’s Game see Kessel, John, Creating the Innocent Killer: Ender’s Game, Intention and Morality, Here, article appeared originally in Foundation, the International Review of Science Fiction, Vol. 33, No. 90, Spring 2004, Radford, Elaine, Ender and Hitler: Sympathy for the Superman, Peachfront Speaks Here article appeared in Fantasy Review, No. 102, 1987, pp. 7-11.

4. Card, Orson Scott, Hamlet’s Father, Subterranean Press, Burton MI, 2011.

5. Updike, John, Gertrude and Claudius, Ballantine Books, New York, 2001.

6. Stoppard, Tom, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Grove Press, New York, 1994. (Originally 1966). There is a movie version (1990) and it is excellent. See IMDb Here.

7. Card, Orson Scott, Hamlet’s Father, 2011. Quoted from Raintaxi Review of Books, Alexander, William, Hamlet’s Father, Here.

8. See Card, Orson Scott, The Taming of the Shrew By William Shakespeare: As Translated and Updated by Orson Scott Card, Hatrack Here.

9. Card, Orson Scott, Hamlet’s Father, in Kaye, Marvin, Editor, The Ghost Quartet, Tor Books, New York, 2009. The publisher of Hamlet’s Father has replied to the criticism. See Schafer, Bill, A Note on Hamlet’s Father, Subterranean Press, Here. The letter seems to consist largely of incomprehension that the book is causing controversy. Did the publisher read the book?!

10. Card, 2011, quoted in Alexander.

11. Card, Orson Scott, Homosexual “Marriage” and Civilization, The Ornery American, Civilization Watch Here. Mr. Card's Mormonism plays a role in hios bigotry given many Mormons rather bigoted attitudes towards Gays.

12. See National Organization for Marriage Here

13. Card, Orson Scott, The Hypocrites of Homosexuality, Nauvoo Here.

14. Minkowitz, Donna, My Favorite Author, My Worst Interview, Salon Here.

15. IBID, Here.

16. IBID.

Pierre Cloutier

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