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Sunday, September 24, 2023


Professor returns to Honors College with new take on Hamlet

A Clifton Waller Barrett professor brought new insight to Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” to Honors College students and guests Friday at Michael J. Cemo Hall.

English professor Paul Cantor was invited to lecture as part of the Ross Lence Master Teacher Residency, a series of events including a luncheon, seminar and dinner. The residency was organized to honor Ross Lence, an Honors College professor from 1971 until his death in 2006.

“It’s an effort to celebrate (Lence’s) teaching and his life and to bring his former students back together,” said Honors College professor Terry Hallmark.

In his lecture, Cantor focused on tragedy and renaissance culture as the historical context for Hamlet’s struggle with revenge. He argued that the conflicting principles of Christianity and classical epic heroism are symbolic of the contradictions within the human impulse.

“Revenge is at the heart of antiquity, but Christianity forbids it,” Cantor said.

Cantor also argued that the geographical context of the story is symbolic of the inner ideological conflict — Norway representing classic heroism while the southern cities embrace modernity. Denmark and its people, he notes, are torn between the two, just like Hamlet.

“Hamlet is, at his core, a true Christian but with a strong classical side,” Cantor said. “If a Christian takes revenge, it must be more horrid than a classical hero’s act, because he must consider the enemy’s soul.”

The final argument of the lecture suggested the final act of the play represented a betrayal of Christian values deeper than revenge — suicide. Cantor ruled Hamlet’s intentional death as a “suicide in self-defense,” the same justification given for Ophelia’s burial.

“The lecture definitely brought attention to Hamlet’s self-hatred and raised questions on his will to live,” said political science freshman Emma Weathers.

Cantor closed the lecture by noting the irony in Hamlet’s choice of successor, Fortinbras, as the ultimate tragedy of the Danish legacy. He said Hamlet’s final actions served to undo everything that his father stood for.

“He presented a new perspective on Hamlet’s motives,” said chemical engineering freshman Sydnee Landry. “It was a whole different reading of the play.”

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