Sunday, January 5, 2014

David Gontar's "Hamlet Made Simple and Other Essays": Review

Professor Gontar takes on, in his spirited introduction, the sentimentalists (as in Ophelia), the conventional readers and critics (Polonius), the concealers (Gertrude), and the technocrats (Fortinbras). I recognized intimately the last faction: "A trivialized Shakespeare is no threat. His fangs are plucked. And this is the defense mechanism taught to generations of graduate students." (22) As an alternative, holding up the texts as humanist mirrors not to nature but our own gaze, David P. Gontar asks we not avert our gaze as did Hamlet's Queen.

In eighteen chapters, concluding with the Hamlet essay, close readings follow. While an overview of this project, and how they may relate to one another, would have added cogency to the introduction aimed at students, the chapters demonstrate the range of inquiry in elevated but not inaccessible language--this is a blessing compared with many critics from that last of those four cohorts who seek to dissect--but who murder Shakespeare's soul. This book compiles Gontar's strategies to challenge inert or facile commentary.

I'll give a quick overview of each theme in order. What happens if one's tricked into love? Marital discord, and the unsettled nature of relationships, begins Hamlet Made Simple. Sonnet 116 in light of 42 follows; Juliet as tragic hero compared with Cleopatra offers a fine choice, but it ends too soon, as it gets interesting. This pattern may not be a flaw for some, as stirring up the reader's imagination shows the power of Gontar's ability to rouse attention, but it may frustrate those students wanting more follow-through. Parallels emerge, but only as ten enumerations of how to "count the ways."

"Ned Poyntz" in Henry IV shows possible ties with the real Prince Hal; "Does Prospero's story add up?" (84) That sparks a look at his hypnotic sway over Miranda, and how we perceive this control over her and Caliban in a "moral labyrinth." In Troilus and Cressida, "self-procured cuckoldry" sets up The Rape of Lucrece and Cymbeline for similar treatment. Dr. Gontar traces this to an ambivalent Troubadour culture, but I wanted more context in an essay that, again, merited more expansion.

Still, saying less can be more. The idea of the snob (a word not invented in Shakespeare's time, alas), begins a consideration of how the authorship question bears on the uppity attitude of the "orthodox Stratfordian professoriate" rather than its "rebels." I admit from my own doctoral training (if as technically a non-Shakespearean, I had enough proximity, given my medievalist diss. concluded with Hamlet) that this issue never entered any seminar or article assigned. Gontar does apply the debate thoughtfully, as the title essay will return to it-- as well as others in this anthology now and then.

Challenging contrasting readings by Marjorie Garber and Harold Bloom, Gontar "unreads" Julius Caesar as he focuses on the "Brutus/Caesar filiation"--a theme in retrospect that foreshadows another. Accretions as "indices of divinity" in All's Well adapt Boccaccio's anti-clerical tale into one employing Renaissance humanism while critiquing religion, even as post-Reformation contexts enter the play. Chastising cultural materialists, Gontar rejects any restoration of  "a creeping, subterranean Catholicism" as opposed to humanist ideals. The Tudor dramatic sketch "Woodstock" counters Bloom's claims that Shakespeare alone invents the modern human.

Gontar is not only a professor of philosophy, but a lawyer. How compliant is suicidal Lucrece in her own predicament? Gontar weighs the textual evidence for "wanton modesty" and applies it further to Thomas Seymour and Princess Elizabeth cleverly. This long chapter justifies its length as it pursues intriguing suppositions in the historical and legal record.

A footnote section on the resemblances between Shakespeare's Droeshout portrait and an anonymous oil painting of the supposed Virgin Queen precede a section on "poetically induced ardor" in five plays. Gontar locates, spinning off of Plato, the "moment of hearing" as a crucial juncture for passion.

After another legally grounded section interrogating a less sympathetic Portia than is usually assumed, it's back to discontent with a supposedly pluralist contemporary criticism which in the guise of ambiguity shoves aside conservative in favor of radically labeled approaches to texts.  Gontar scrutinizes a post-structural feminist's assertions as he takes apart her suppositions. It's lengthy, but once more, this allows him his combination of legal and critical strengths to rally his counter-claims.

Correcting an attempt to place Measure for Measure as "a reply to Machiavelli," Gontar dismantles a critic's theory and builds another based on Plato's ideal community as Shakespeare's contribution. Martin Lings' curious New Age "Islamic" endeavor, by which his own and two fellow Europeans' conversion to Sufism account for this esoteric quest, gets an unsurprising reaction.

At nearly forty pages, the title essay excited me. Stephen Greenblatt, according to Gontar, "goes astray" (this is hinted at earlier on p. 178 and I will tend to concur) when identifying "the nature of the ghost." (384) Gontar turns north to the "wyrd" and the uncanny pagan elements for the Prince's father's "emissary." (385)

"A little more than kin, and less than kind." Why young Hamlet calls Claudius this will ground Gontar's thesis. Hamlet "senses he is not the son of the man he loves but the man he loathes." (401) While allowing aporia, Gontar closes in on this crux to evade psychoanalytical reductionism as to why Hamlet hesitates. We don't know with "apodictic certainty" this paternity, so the play keeps its depth and its mystery. Gontar may to some dance away from the very idea he courts and wins over, but this nimble textual shifting may be truer to the play's famously debatable truth-claims, after all.

The authorship question returns in an afterword in context of Cymbeline; this points too back to Northern or Celtic progenitors for the author himself, in Gontar's suggestive inquiry. As England fought off Catholic Europe, no return to Catholicism could achieve its freedom but only an embrace of the new faith--if as a melange of pagan practices and Catholic ideas within that same emerging nation, characterized so memorably by whomever wrote all those plays, poems, and sonnets. A reader returning to those texts after Gontar's book will find welcome material to tease out for him or her self. (Amazon US 8-14-13: Prof. Gontar kindly provided a copy asking for my review.)

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