The Hamlet antinomy

Fri 07 Oct 2005 07:16 PM

At lunch, discussion led to this question: Is the world that 'Rosencrantz&Guildenstern are Dead' is set in the same world that 'Hamlet' is set in?

Thesis: They are the same world. Tom Stoppard took great care in making the events that happen in 'R&G' intersect and overlap events that happen in 'Hamlet'. Stoppard's project requires that the world of his play be the same as the world of Shakespeare's play. Stoppard's play is a brilliant success, so it follows immediately that the two plays take place in the same fictional world.

Antithesis: They are not the same world. Stoppard adds shenanigans that Shakespeare clearly did not have in mind. They reach beyond, and some of them perhaps directly violate, Shakespeare's authorial intention.*

The question puts us in a bind, because both the thesis and the antithesis are plausible. The problem, I think, is that they both presuppose that there is one fictional world picked out by 'R&G' and one picked out by 'Hamlet'. Only on that assumption does it make sense to ask whether the worlds are the same world.

Suppose instead we treat 'Hamlet' as picking out a set of possible worlds; call them the Hamlet-worlds. Similarly, 'R&G' picks out a set of worlds; call them the RG-worlds.**

We can do justice to the intuition behind the thesis by saying that all RG-worlds are Hamlet-worlds.

We can do justice to the intuition behind the antithesis in this way: The Hamlet-worlds are a mixed bag, with some of them having very little detail beyond what is specified in the script and with others filled out in exotic detail. The more conservative Hamlet-worlds are the ones with which Shakespeare would have been most comfortable. The RG-worlds are exotic Hamlet-worlds, and most Hamlet-worlds are not RG-worlds.

Antinomy resolved.

* Shades of Brian Weatherson's fourth objection to the Westphall Hypothesis.

** This connects nicely to the previous entry. The asymmetry turns out to have a deeper importance, in a way I had not considered. The argument could have gone like this: (1) A theory is associated with a set of models/worlds. (2) A theory is a story. (3) Therefore, a story is associated with a set of worlds rather than with a single world.