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Author delivers talk on Shakespearean murders

<claimed French author and psychoanalyst Pierre Bayard gave a talk in Boliou Auditorium on Monday, September 28 on the problematic murders in Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello. In the talk, titled “Whodunnit? Shakespearean Murders and Detective Criticism”, Bayard asked his audience to understand the concept of “focal uncertainty” in plays, which can lead to completely different interpretations and conclusions. 

Bayard, who describes his field of research as “detective  criticism,” examines literary works as detective novels and explores the  designation of guilt made by the authors in their works. Bayard has  applied this kind of research into the works of Agatha Christie,  Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle and showed that the authors made  false assumptions in concluding the guilt and innocence of their  characters. 

Mr. Bayard’s inspiration came from the experience of Laura Bohannan, an anthropologist living in an African village called Tiv. While reading Hamlet in the village, Bohannan was asked to recount the story by the villagers of Tiv. While hearing the story, the Tiv challenged every aspect of what they heard and were able to make observations that were very pertinent. According to Bayard, the Tiv also pointed their fingers on a major problem in the reading of the play concerning Hamlet’s hallucinations. “These hallucinations not only render Hamlet’s account problematic, but they also gives rise to vast expanses of undecidability in the entire play“. This “undecidability” is what Bayard calls “focal uncertainity,” a state of affairs in a play where it becomes impossible to say about a scene whether the view we have of it is to be attributed to a particular character or corresponds to an objective fact that everyone has witnessed. In the case of Hamlet, said Bayard, nothing proves that Hamlet and his companions are not mistaken when they believe they have seen the ghost of his father. Yet, in almost every production of the play, the viewer sees a phantom, not realizing that he is seeing through Hamlet’s eyes and not objectively.
According to Bayard, the example of the Tiv shows that it is not only possible to speak about theatrical plays you have not seen and question the focal uncertainty in them, “but it is also possible to come to the conclusion that Shakespeare was wrong.” Thus, according to Bayard, the theory of focal uncertainty leads us to doubt not only the testimony of the characters, but also the knowledge of the writer himself, by showing that he is not necessarily aware of all the possible interpretations of his text. Going back to Hamlet, Bayard points out that Hamlet first doubts Claudius’ guilt in the scene where Hamlet organizes a pantomime showing the murder of his father and then watches Claudius’ angrily leave the scene. But Bayard declares that “an entirely different staging [of Hamlet] is possible if importance is placed on the ruckus made by Hamlet, persuaded that he will confound his father’s assassin, and this ruckus infuriates Claudius, who is no longer able to follow the play. This alternative staging proposes another version of the facts, leading thus not to a simple variation of the scene, but to an entirely different play.” Claudius’s guilt is further ascertained by Hamlet in a scene where Claudius, overwhelmed with guilt admits to the murder of his brother. But why, Bayard points out, would Claudius confess his sins out loud, at the risk of being overheard and thus accused of the murder of his own brother? Bayard asks us to rethink why readers and viewers of this astonishing scene have never questioned the assumption that the confessions possibly were not pronounced by Claudius, but were imagined by Hamlet.

“What we see in the theatre, as a result of focal displacements, is  infiltrated by subjective representations,” said Bayard. Coming to  Macbeth, Bayard declares, “very few plays leave such a large space for  focal uncertainty as Macbeth, for the simple reason that the lead  characters in it are, from start to finish, subject to hallucinations.”  The two main characters of Macbeth are constantly victims of  hallucinations, as described both by Shakespeare’s text and represented  in the majority of the performances, so how do we know that the other  scenes of the play do not stem from hallucinations? Bayard, stressing  that this question plays a decisive role in our general understanding of  the play asks us to rethink whether Macbeth and his wife are truly the  assassins of King Duncan. “While this question, ordinarily would not  pose any difficulty, nevertheless turns problematic as soon as we take  into account that these two characters are plagued by fits of visual  madness, which cast some doubt on their assertions.” In Act III Scene 2, Macbeth returns from the king’s bedroom, his hands bloodied. Both  Macbeth and his wife see this blood on his hands, which attests to his  participation in the murder. The problem according to Bayard, is that  the blood on the hands is later presented by Shakespeare, repeatedly, as  the very model of visual hallucination, since it is also the scene that  signals Lady Macbeth’s mental breakdown. “This is a glaring example of  focal uncertainty, and it becomes difficult to have any faith in the one  supposedly reliable witness we have concerning the role of the Macbeth  couple in Duncan’s murder,” says Bayard, revealing that the murderer is  the character who benefits most obviously from King Duncan’s death-his  son Malcolm. The heir to the throne of Scotland, to which he ascends at  the end of the play, he has successfully removed the one man who blocked  his path to the throne: Macbeth.

Mr. Bayard ended the talk by thanking the Tiv. The Tiv also give an  example for the rest of us, said Bayard, since they could never have  been able to doubt the hallucinations of Hamlet if they had seen it on  stage. Since the theatre stages scenes by making “focal decisions” made  by the direction, it is thus necessary to think beyond the appearance of  neutrality about one particular vision being given at the expense of  others. To show the ghosts in Hamlet or in Macbeth amounts to choosing  the point of view of these heroes at the expense of the other  characters, which also hints at how to look at other scenes. Thus Bayard  concludes that “If the reading of a play, and even more its  performance, limits possibilities by resolving focal uncertainties, the  best manner of keeping intact the richness of the work is to keep it at a  distance and to abstain from seeing it performed.” 

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