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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Still my beating heart: the quiz answer

The quiz question I posed yesterday was:

"What famous work of literature is covertly alluded to in Edgar Alan Poe’s classic story “The Tell-Tale Heart”, and what evidence can you provide to support the argument that such allusion was intentional on Poe’s part? Hint: the title of Poe’s story is a clue to the answer, but you’d have to be a literary scholar with a pretty remarkable memory in order to pick up on that clue without a major assist from your computer."

I will unfold the tale of my answer for you in stages, so as to maximize the chances of causing each particular hair on your head to stand on end, if you get my meaning, if you catch my drift.... ;)

First, the hint I was pointing to in Poe's title is the word "tell-tale", and the passage it pointed to, which you might have recognized IF you were a Shakespeare scholar with a photographic recall of the text of the history plays--I needed the assistance of a search engine myself!---is the following line spoken by Scroop, the Archbishop of York, about the dying King Henry IV in Part 2 of Henry IV (the play):

“For he hath found to end one doubt by death Revives two greater in the heirs of life, And therefore will he WIPE his TABLES clean And keep no TELL-TALE to his MEMORY That may repeat and history his loss To new remembrance…”

However, this allusion to Part 2 of Henry IV, while clearly intentional on Poe's part, is not, I assert, the end point of Poe' allusion in The Tell-Tale Heart. Yes, there are parallels between Henry IV's paranoia about his son Prince Hal being eager for him to die so that he might replace his father on the throne, on the one hand, and Poe's narrator who murdered the old man who might be his father, on the other.

But otherwise, I do not particularly perceive any strong parallels between the two stories. No, I claim that Poe's allusion to that passage in Part 2 of Henry IV is primarily a literary way station, the first stop in a two-stage allusive "flight" to Poe's main destination, the "rustic town" created by a great writer from a rustic town.

Because although most Shakespeare lovers would not, I think, recognize the above passage I just quoted from Part 2 of Henry IV, they WOULD recognize the FOLLOWING very famous passage in ANOTHER one of Shakespeare's plays--actually his most famous play, perhaps the most famous play ever written:

“Remember thee! Yea, from the TABLE of my MEMORY I'll WIPE away all trivial fond records, All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, That youth and observation copied there..."

Of course that is HAMLET speaking to the Ghost of his dead father, and isn't it obvious that these two passages in two separate plays of Shakespeare are so closely connected--so obvious, that the connection was seen and footnoted hundreds of years ago by Shakespearean editors.

But what is not obvious, unless you think about it-- and this is where it gets interesting---is the powerful resonance between the situation and attitude of Poe's paranoid crazy murderer in The Tell-Tale Heart, and Hamlet. Both involve the protagonist being in the presence of the "ghost" (whether actual or imagined) of his "father"---a protagonist tormented by overpowering Freudian guilt over the death of that "father".

That resonance is what I sensed initially, that caused me to begin a course of literary sleuthing into the text of The Tell-Tale Heart in order to verify my intuitions of that resonance. And boy, did it pay off quickly!

That is when I actually read the text of The Tell-Tale Heart and found the following textual "bread crumbs" which sealed the deal, in terms of proving an intentional allusion on Poe's part:

[The Tell-Tale Heart]

True! nervous, very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why WILL you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses, not destroyed, not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard ALL THINGS IN THE HEAVEN AND IN THE EARTH. I heard many things in hell. How then am I mad? Hearken! and observe how healthily, how calmly, I can tell you the whole story.


There are more THINGS IN HEAVEN AND EARTH, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

[The Tell-Tale Heart]

So you see he would have been a very profound old man, indeed, to suspect that every night, JUST AT TWELVE, I looked in upon him while he slept.


Hamlet, Horatio, and the guards all see the ghost at midnight

[The Tell-Tale Heart]

I had my head in, and was about to open the lantern, when my thumb slipped upon the tin fastening , and the old man sprang up in the bed, crying out, "WHO'S THERE?"


The very famous first line of Hamlet, maybe the most famous first line of any play ever written, is “Who’s there?”

[The Tell-Tale Heart]

I knew that he had been lying awake ever since the first slight noise when he had turned in the bed. His fears had been ever since growing upon him. He had been trying to fancy them causeless, but could not. He had been saying to himself, "It is nothing but the wind in the chimney, it is only A MOUSE CROSSING the floor,"


And of course you know that Hamlet refers to the play within a play as the MOUSEtrap which he uses to try to trap Claudius into an admission of GUILT when he watches a murder of a king in the play. But also in the beginning of the play, the part with the Ghost, one of the guards responds to a nervous question as to how his guard has gone with the line:


[The Tell-Tale Heart]

If still you think me mad, you will think so no longer when I describe the wise precautions I took for THE CONCEALMENT OF THE BODY. The night waned, and I worked hastily, but in silence.


Of course, after Hamlet kills Polonius (thinking he's really Claudius) by stabbing him through the curtain in Gertrude’s boudoir, Hamlet chops up Polonius’s body and hides the pieces for a while, to conceal what he has done.

And there are more less distinct echoes, which I think are not necessary to prove that Poe intentionally alluded to Hamlet in The Tell Tale Heart.

And inspired by the above findings, I subsequently found a great deal of background evidence to corroborate my interpretation of this allusion by Poe, which would take too long to spell out, but suffice to say that I've moved this on into the "certain" column.

But, as usual, this is not just a literary parlor game, there is meat on these bones (so to speak) worth considering by any student of literature. Think for a second about what it means to KNOW that Poe alluded to Hamlet in The Tell-Tale Heart. Poe has often been hailed as the creator of the detective story. Hamlet has often been hailed as a primordial form of the detective story. It now is clear that Poe derived significant inspiration from Hamlet in exactly this way! And it only bolsters that conclusion when you read the three Dupin stories by Poe (The Murders in the Rue Morgue, The Mystery of Marie Roget, and The Purloined Letter, and you see that each one of them has its own Hamlet resonance, too.

And I consider this discovery even more significant, in terms of interpretation of HAMLET. What I see in Poe's allusion is a veiled interpretation by Poe of Hamlet, in which Poe is, implicitly, suggesting that Hamlet HALLUCINATES the ghost!

Poe was not the first to espouse that idea, and the idea really only caught the ear of the Shakespeare public when Walter Greg wrote his famous article on this subject just before Joyce published Ulysses nearly a century ago, but it still is big news that Poe was ONE of the earliest---and how interesting that Poe, who wrote an essay on Hamlet, did not mention this point at all.

There are indeed more things in literature than are dreamt of in the philosophy of most literary scholars, if I am the first person to see this profound connection between the famous writings of two great and renowned authors!

Cheers, ARNIE

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