Saturday, May 10, 2014

In a Manner of Speaking

In the last blog post, "Faces and Places," I ventured "to slightly revise Hamlet," by writing, "I am native there and to the manner born." It is possible (even probable) that many (if not most) people did not recognize that the one word changed was "there" from the original "here," but thought that the change was to "manner" from "manor." Such is the curse of homonyms--and--more importantly, not knowing the original sources of quotations.

In Act I, Scene 4 of Hamlet, the Prince, Horatio, and Marcellus are on the battlements of Elsinore awaiting (they hope) the re-appearance of Hamlet's father's ghost. In the meantime, below them in the castle, they hear "A flourish of trumpets, and ordnance shot off." Horatio, clearly surprised, asks, “What does this mean, my lord?” Hamlet informs him: 
The King doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail*, and the swagg'ring upspring reels,
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettledrum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.
 “Is it a custom?” asks Horatio. And with Hamlet’s response Confusion makes his entrance.

Ay, marry, is't;
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.

Indeed, a double dose of Confusion, that merry addler of people's brains.

As a pun (one assumes in this case the creators really did know the original), the title of the successful British sitcom To the Manor Born (1979-1981), starring Penelope Keith and Peter Bowles worked perfectly, for the series involved the desire of the previous occupant (now rather impoverished), Audrey fforbes-Hamilton, to regain possession of the manor from the present owner, the nouveau-riche supermarket tycoon, Richard DeVere (original name, Polouvicka). Now a manor is a pretty nice place to dwell in, I imagine (being an American peasant myself), but consider that Hamlet is a prince and calls the castle Elsinore his home (when he is not off studying at Wittenberg). Thus, he's not likely to be calling himself "manor born." 

Recall that Horatio's question was about "custom"; Hamlet's reply is that the wassailing is customary, but that even though he is native to the culture, it is a practice of which he disapproves. To his mind, he says (and here's the second bit of Confusion's mischief),

. . . it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.

It's that word "more," which can modify something quantitative or something qualitative. "I caught more fish than you today"--quantitative. "The judge's sentence was more lenient than the guilty party deserved"--qualitative. Hamlet's statement is a qualitative judgment (as we will see in a moment). And the misuse of his phrase arises because people take the "more" as signalling a quantitative observation, rather than a moral judgment. Thus  we get the creeping-along puritanical motorist who's being past by all other drivers complaining that the speed limit is "more honored (sorry, but as I said above, I'm American) in the breach (i.e., not being observed) than in the observance."

After making the above remarks, Hamlet goes on for twenty-two lines to complain to Horatio how such customs of hard drinking make Danes 

traduc'd and tax'd of other nations;
They clip [call] us drunkards and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform'd at height, 

The pith and marrow of our attribute.
To better explain the origin of the negative reputation of his nation, Hamlet uses the analogy of how individual men--men with “the stamp of one defect,”—are forever branded in the eyes of others by that fault, no matter what “virtues else—be they as pure as grace” they may have. 

Back in August, 2011 the blog post entitled "Ask the Wrong Question . . ."** focused on Prof. Joshua Knobe of Yale, a pioneer in the field of experimental philosophy, who had the observation that."people are more likely to assign blame for things that go wrong than to give credit for things that go right" (Stanford magazine)*** named after him--the "Knobe Effect." (Isn't this where we're all supposed to go "Duh"?) The Stanford article (Knobe's an alum) goes on to pose (in paraphrase) some of Knobe's questions ensuing from his "Effect:"

Why should the results of an action have a bearing on intentionality? And when it comes to questions of character, why do we tend to give more weight to negativity? Why does it sometimes happen that a single misdeed in a lifetime of otherwise exemplary behavior can destroy a reputation? 

The article points out that "Knobe has office space in both the philosophy and psychology departments at Yale."

Perhaps if he had space in the English department, he'd have learned that Shakespeare dealt with the issue over 400 years ago.  


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