November 25, 2009

Inauthenticity of Revenge in Hamlet and Chronicle of a Death Foretold / Dr. Paul Kong

Revenge, etymologically, is from the Old French word vengier, meaning to claim, set free or punish, and the prefix ‘re’ stresses the direction – it’s a reaction targeting ‘back’ to the causer. In other words, ‘revenge’ means the setting free of a desire to inflict punishment in return (usually for injury or insult).

This desire for revenge can easily be noticed in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. The unjust act, in the former is the murder of Old Hamlet by his brother Claudius, and in the latter is the deflowering of Angela Vicario, which is discovered on the night of her wedding. Hamlet reacts to this by killing Claudius and in a like manner, Angela’s twin brothers, Pedro and Pablo respond to the injury inflicted upon their sister by killing Santiago Nasar, a person named by her when she is pressed as to who the ‘real’ perpetrator is. The irrationality of Pedro and Pablo’s revenge is conspicuous while the one of Hamlet is rather subtle (and this begs a thorough scrutiny in the future). But one commonality regarding the revenge in these two texts is that the act of revenge is carried out on behalf of the victim. This means in these two texts, the avenger acts in the name of, or as the agent of the victim, rather than being the victim himself or herself. This is a reaction by means of substitution – the avenger substituting the victim in inflicting the punishment upon the avenged. In other words, this is a revenge done in the form of substitution for an ‘other’. This other, on one level, is the victim deemed dear and valuable to the avenger. But on a collective and metaphorical level, this sense of the ‘other’ can refer to what Heidegger calls ‘they-hood’, which is present in the ‘they-self’ in each of us.

Figure 1: Cover of Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Figure 2: Cover of García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold

This ‘they’ does not simply mean others, but also includes myself as long as I act and think what ‘they’ act and think. Heidegger explains that,
Everyone is the other, and no one is himself. The ‘they’, which supplies the answer to the question of the ‘who’ of everyday Dasein, is the ‘nobody’ to whom every Dasein has already surrendered itself in Being-among-one-another.[1]
This ‘they’ is not the specific, definite other, but paradoxically everyone and no one because of the nature of publicness in Being-among-one-another:
Publicness proximally controls every way in which the world and Dasein get interpreted, and it is always right . . . because it is insensitive to every difference of level and of genuineness and thus never gets to the ‘heart of the matter’. By publicness everything gets obscured, and what has thus been covered up gets passed off as something familiar and accessible to everyone.[2]
This publicness is regarded as an intelligibility formed by Dasein’s falling in with public norms, which results in the basis of everyday understanding. Because of the alignment with the other, with this publicness, the “Being-with-one-another dissolves one’s own Dasein completely into the kind of Being of ‘the others’, in such a way, indeed, that the Others, as distinguishable and explicit, vanish more and more. In this inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the real dictatorship of the ‘they’ is unfolded. We take pleasure and enjoy ourselves as they [man][3] take pleasure; we read, see and judge about literature and art as they see and judge; likewise we shrink back from the ‘great mass’ as they shrink back; we find ‘shocking’ what they find shocking. The ‘they’, which is nothing definite, and which all are, though not as the sum, prescribes the kind of Being of everydayness.”[4] Because of its inconspicuousness and unascertainability, the Being of ‘the others’ appears in each and every of us as ‘nobody’. At the same time, the understanding among each other is guaranteed only through ‘publicness’, an intelligibility of Dasein who aligns himself with social or public norms, through which, on the one hand, things deviant or heterogeneous will be ‘covered up’, passed off as something familiar and accessible to all, and on the other, an understanding of and by the other is ensured.

As one conforms to the ‘they’, he is not his own individual self, but the ‘they-self’ and Heidegger asserts that ‘the Self of everyday Dasein is the they-self, which we distinguish from the authentic Self’.[5] Here comes the question of ‘what is an authentic self’. One characteristic of authentic existence, according to Heidegger, is the awareness of possibilities, a self grounded in the possible.[6] In order to be authentic, one has to be conscious of the possibility of an existence beyond the grip of publicness so as to allow other possibilities. The contrary is an inauthentic everyday existence which is characterized by a loss of self-awareness of possibilities, and which will result in reification of individuals into an unthinking mass uncritically following what the ‘others’ are doing.

What about the issue of authenticity in the context of revenge? If a revenge takes place on behalf of the victim, the avenger is not in his real self, but in the self of the other, in the they-self. Hamlet plans to avenge the murder of his father by Claudius after conversing with the ghost of his father. Harold Bloom rightly points out that ‘everything in the play depends upon Hamlet’s response to the ghost, a response that is as highly dialectical as everything else about Hamlet.’[7] The ghost begins the conversation with the command ‘Mark me’[8] (1.5.2) and ends with a request ‘Adieu, adieu, Hamlet. Remember me.’ (1.5.91); and Hamlet answers to these two ‘symbolic orders’ from his dead father with ‘I will’ (1.5.2) and “Now to my word; It is ‘Adieu, adieu, remember me’. I have sworn’t.” (1.5.111-3). Old Hamlet is murdered by Claudius as Claudius perniciously pours the poison into Old Hamlet’s ear (1.5.59-70). Now the poison of the desire to revenge is poured into Hamlet’s ear when the ghost of Old Hamlet says ‘Mark me’, and ‘so art thou to revenge when thou shalt hear’ (1.5.7). What this reveals is that Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father’s murder is out of filial obligation, a moral duty imposed upon him by the supernatural, by a spirit from the ‘other’ world.

What are the Ghost’s commands besides ‘mark me’ and ‘remember me’? The Ghost says,
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught. Leave her to heaven,
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge
To prick and sting her. (1.5.82-88)
Edward Wagenknecht claims that the Ghost’s command is threefold – avenge his foul and most unnatural murder;[9] ‘taint not thy mind’; and not ‘let thy soul contrive against thy mother aught’.[10] This will be a perfect revenge, Wagenknecht concludes, if Hamlet can avenge his father’s murder without tainting his mind, without bearing any evil thought, without letting himself be corrupted. But whether the Ghost’s command is threefold or not, and whether the revenge is perfect or not, it is obvious that Hamlet’s revenge against Claudius is inauthentic by nature, as it precludes other possibilities besides revenge, and most importantly, this ghostly command stifles Hamlet’s awareness of other possibilities.[11] Hamlet, instead of acting in his own self, observes and fulfils his filial obligation and moral duty by staging a revenge which results in not only Claudius’s death, but also the deaths of Gertrude, Ophelia, Laertes, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Polonius and finally his own death. Because of this long series of death, Wilson Knight thinks that Hamlet symbolizes the Embassy of Death.[12]

Paradoxically avenger Hamlet is of great significance in the Western culture. Harold Bloom thinks that his hero-villain ‘remains the Western hero of consciousness’ (1998, 409) and that Western culture becomes more Hamlet-like, a character who resists demystification and who incites the readers to continue to quest for personality (1998, 420). In a like manner, Marjorie Garber believes Hamlet, especially his ‘to be or not to be’ speech, not only contributes to the definition of modernity and modern self-consciousness, but also represents the birth of the modern subject, and of modern subjectivity itself (2004, 475). But if Hamlet’s inauthentic and irrational nature is revealed in his revenge, it may also imply that inauthenticity and irrationality are inevitably embedded in our modern subjectivity.

Whereas Hamlet’s revenge is out of filial obligation, the revenge in García Márquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold is wrought based on an unquestioned cult of virginity and an archaic culture of honour.[13] The plot of this novella reads as follows: Bayardo San Roman, an attractive, rich young man, shows up in August at an unnamed small town, in an attempt to seek a wife. Angela Vicario catches his fancy. At first, she resists him but is eventually talked into marrying him by her parents. A wedding feast is held six months later. On the night of their wedding, however, Bayardo returns Angela to her family because he discovers that she is not a virgin. Brutally interrogated by her mother as to the culprit, Angela mentions Santiago Nasar, 21 years old, the only son of an Arab family. In revenge, her twin brothers Pedro and Pablo murder Santiago with machetes in front of his house before the eyes of most people. After three years’ imprisonment, the twins are acquitted on the grounds of justifiable homicide, Bayardo leaves the town, and Angela suddenly falls in love with him. For the next seventeen years, she writes a weekly letter to her ‘husband’, who one August day shows up with her two thousand letters, unopened, and says, ‘Well, here I am’[14].

This murder, or more accurately, this revenge, is ‘announced’[15] by the 24-year-old twins Pedro and Pablo once they are told that Nasar is the deflowerer, but mysteriously while nearly everyone in the village knows about this, the murder cannot be prevented. This raises two questions – Why do Pedro and Pablo make known their revenge and their desire to kill Nasar while they are on their way to his home? And why can’t this murder announced be stopped? One possible answer to the second question might be that the novella is about the failure of getting the right message communicated. On that morning when Nasar enters the kitchen, both the cook Victoria Guzmán and her daughter Divina Flor know that Pedro and Pablo are waiting outside to kill him, but Victoria Guzmán is busy keeping Nasar away from flirting her daughter:
-Ya estás en tiempo de desbravar -le dijo.
Victoria Guzmán le mostró el cuchillo ensangrentado.
-Suéltala, blanco -le ordenó en serio-. De esa agua no beberás mientras yo
esté viva.
(“The time has come for you to be tamed,” he told her.
Victoria Guzmán showed him the bloody knife.
“Let go of her, whitey,” she ordered him seriously. “You won’t have a drink
of that water as long as I’m alive.”) (8)[16]
while her daughter is too young to decide to tell him or not. When Nasar passes the milk shop where the twin brothers are waiting to kill him, the shop owner Clotilde Armenta only makes a mild attempt to delay the murder, saying ‘Déjenlo para después, aunque sea por respeto al señor obispo.’ (“Leave him later, if only out of respect for his grace the bishop.”) (14) There are plenty of incidents like this in the novella, ultimately contributing indirectly to the murder. But one possible explanation for the failure of the villagers to stop the twins’ revenge is that the villagers behave in their they-hood as they are unconsciously under the grip of the primitive communal values of virginity and honour. In other words, the cult of virginity and the code of honour are within what Heidegger calls ‘publicness’, in which they are passed off as something unquestioned and familiar and are accessible to every villager. It goes without saying that they are aware of the irrationality of the murder, especially when Nasar is not provided with a chance for explanation. But at the same time, they also know that this is a revenge for the transgression of a sexual taboo and for the defence of a family honour. With this consideration, anyone who explicitly attempts to stop the twins and to prevent the murder is in direct confrontation with the village’s collective will and communal values. Under the weight of such communal forces, villagers are unable to act rationally. This inability to act in face of traditional values contributes not only to the inevitability of the revenge, but also to the passivity and the inauthentic existence of the villagers who fail to think otherwise for other possibilities.

Perhaps by announcing their intention to kill Nasar to more than a dozen people they encounter en route, the twin brothers implicitly try to do all they can and hope that somebody may be strong enough to stop them. For sure they clearly understand they must exact this revenge out of their communal obligations, because of which, their murder is regarded as ‘homicidio en legítima defense del honor’ (‘homicide in legitimate defense of honor’ (48)) and ‘un acto de una gran dignidad’ (‘an act of great dignity’ (49)). They also know they will be deemed innocent in this revenge for honor:
-Lo matamos a conciencia –dijo Pedro Vicario-, pero somos inocentes.
-Tal vez ante Dios –dijo el padre Amador.
-Ante Dios y ante los hombres –dijo Pablo Vicario-. Fue un asunto de honor.
(“We killed him openly,” Pedro Vicario said, ‘but we’re innocent.”
“Perhaps before God,” said Father Amador.
“Before God and before men,” Pablo Vicario said. “It was a matter of honor.”) (49)
But the inauthenticity of their act exposed as the announcement of their intention to kill Nasar reveals what they do not want to commit, for they could have killed him without divulging their plan to the others. By making known their revenge, they paradoxically make their ‘announcement’ simultaneously deontic, i.e. about their obligation, and epistemic, i.e. about their implicit volition of not carrying out the act.

Whether the act of revenge is executed at a personal or familial level, like Hamlet’s, or at a communal level, like the twin brothers’, or at a racial or even national level, its inauthentic nature needs to be heeded. Its inauthenticity can be conspicuous if the revenge takes place through substitution, but its presence can be possible even if the revenger is the victim himself, especially when he justifies his act with other reasons other than his intention to inflict injury or insult back to the causer. The inauthenticity of revenge is thus of importance in that it reminds us not to take the act of revenge at face value, no matter how ‘righteous’ the revenge seems to be. Behind it may lie the forces of traditions, culture or the dominant ideology covered up in the publicness within our they-hood. When we are hurt or injured, the desire to revenge is always inevitable and it is problematic to justify a revenge if it is authentic. It is equally impossible to simplistically ask one not to think about revenge after being insulted or hurt. Perhaps, before risking an inauthentic revenge, before falling into they-hood and publicness, one should retains his authentic self and hence seeks out other possibilities, no matter how illusory or utopian it sounds and in the hope that these other possibilities will not be turned into other forms of revenge.

[1] Martin Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. John Macquarrie & Edward Robinson, Oxford: Blackwell, 1962, pp. 165 – 166.
[2] Ibid. p. 165.
[3] Here Heidegger uses a simple German pronoun, man, meaning ‘one’, as ‘we’, ‘they’, ‘you’ or ‘people’ are used in English.
[4] Heidegger, Being and Time, p. 164. Original italics and bracketing.
[5] Ibid. p. 167. Original italics.
[6] See Michael Gelven’s A Commentary on Being and Time. Illinois: Northern Illinois University Press, 1989, p. 74.
[7] Harold Bloom, Shakespeare, the Invention of Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998, p. 387.
[8] The phrase ‘mark me’ is of great interest and significance here, since it does not merely refer to the aural, meaning ‘listen to me carefully’, but also to the visual, as to mark something means to leave traces for visible impression or identification.
[9] Paul Gottschalk in ‘Hamlet and the Scanning of Revenge’ holds a different view, claiming that what the Ghost is concerned is not retaliation, but restoration of order for the spiritual health of his nation, pp. 165-166.
[10] Edward Wagenknecht, ‘The Perfect Revenge – Hamlet’s Delay: a Reconsideration’, p. 191.
[11] Paul Gottschalk discusses the inauthenticity of Hamlet’s revenge from another perspective: Professor Harold Jenkins, observing that the cry, ‘O, vengeance!’ occurs in the First Folio but not in the Second Quarto, argues for its inauthenticity, suggesting the inappropriateness of Hamlet’s ‘call for vengeance while he is still absorbed in self-reproaches . . . ’, p. 163.
[12] Wilson Knight, The Wheel of Fire, Ch 2, ‘The Embassy of Death: an Essay on Hamlet’, pp. 17 – 49.
[13] See Arnold Penuel’s "The Sleep of Vital Reason in Garcia Narquez’s Cronica de una muerte anunciada", in Critical Essays on Gabriel Garcia Marquez, ed. by George R McMurray, esp. pp. 118-194.
[14] The crime to which this novella alludes occurred on Monday, 22 January 1951 in the town of Sucre, where Garcia Marquez’s family had lived for 10 years. For the details of this crime, see Gene Bell-Villada,  Garcia Marquez: The Man and His Work, Chapel Hill and London: The University of North Carolina Press, 1990, pp. 189 – 190.
[15] The original Spanish title is Cronica de una muerte anunciada, in which the Spanish word anunciada, coming from the verb aunciar, should more appropriately mean ‘to announce or make public’.
[16] Chronicle of a Death Foretold, trans. by Gregory Rabassa.

Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare, the Invention of the Human. New York: Riverhead Books, 1998.

Garber, Marjorie. Shakespeare After All. New York: Ancho Books, 2004.

García Márquez, Gabriel. Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Trans. Gregory Rabassa. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1982 .

Gottschalk, Paul. "Hamlet and the Scanning of Revenge." Shakespeare Quarterly, 24.2 (1973): 155-70.

Knight, Wilson. The Wheel of Fire: Interpretations of Shakespearian Tragedy. London and New York: Routledge, 2001.

McMurray, George R. Critical Essays on Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Boston: G. K. Hall and Co, 1987.

Wagenknecht, Edward. "The Perfect Revenge – Hamlet’s Delay: a Reconsideration." College English 10.4 (1949): 188-95.

Dr Paul Kong is an alumnus of HKU, and taught the Postmodernism component of the MA programme at the Department of Comparative Literature in 2007. At present, he teaches stylistics, literature and comparative cultural studies at City University of Hong Kong. His book entitled The Raiders and Writers of Cervantes' Archive was published this June by Ashgate. His research interests include literature, narrative theory, critical theory and cultural studies.

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