Mikhail Bakhtin, a Marxist scholar, used the term carnivalesque to describe a dominant style or atmosphere through humor and chaos. The original word carnival is Latin for carne vale, meaning farewell to the flesh. In the Catholic Church, Lent is the season to deny oneself of physical pleasures such as smoking, sex, drinking, eating of a certain food, as a means to purge the body and bring the spirit closer to God. Being such a rough period for most the church, many began to store up before the season on the guilty pleasures. The members began to indulge themselves before the season with all the smoking, sex, drinking, and eating the body could handle. The thought was that if you indulged yourself on the item to an extreme, then it would be easier to give it up the pleasure when the time came. Over time, the Church made the virtue a necessity and referred to it as a carnival. Feast of Fools it was called and the States have a modern version with the celebration of Mardi Gras. Bakhtin has a theory that the carnivalesque used in literature can be linked to the behavior that takes place in pop-culture carnivals. The social classes mingle in order to enjoy the fleshly pleasures. Heaven and Hell mingle as does fact and fantasy. Michael Bristol's article, "'Funeral bak'd-meats': Carnival and the Carnivalesque in Hamlet." uses Bakhtin's made up term to describe Hamlet in a way that you may or may not agree with.
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Bristol uses the scene in Hamlet when the country is grieving the old king, yet celebrating the new king to describe a carnivalesque gesture. While Claudius performs such an appealing act with the carnival like festive, Hamlet rejects the manipulations of Claudius. He can not understand the how people can celebrate and mourn at the same time. Hamlet, himself is not carnivalesque at this time in the play while others around him are.
Bristol then begins to discuss the "'funeral bak'd meats . . . [which] furnish[ed] the marriage tables'" (356). From there he thinks that Hamlet slowly begins his fall into carnivalesque once he has killed for the first time. Later, Hamlet describes his victim Polonius, as being at the dinner table in a carnivalesque manner. Bristol continues the discussion of the slaughter of Polonius, focusing on worm imagery as a key point of the meat/food imagery previously mentioned. Through worms, the carnivalesque becomes almost cyclical; a worm eats a dead king, a fish eats the worm, and a beggar eats the worm that fed upon the kings.
Bristol then discusses the gravedigger scene, and perhaps his best argument. Bristol believes the clowns, or grave-diggers, of this scene give voice to the fullest and most accurate meaning of carnival because they themselves represent the "practical consciousness of the common people" (359). The idea that a king can be worm meat is laughable, and shows that the class of a person can be taken away. Also the idea that the poor working class buries the king is a carnivalesque gesture.
Bristol also claims that Hamlet uses carnival to move against Claudius. He even compares Hamlet and Claudius as "two murderous clowns attempting to gain strategic advantage over the other" (350). Bristol then claims that Claudius' attempts to control the action, such as exiling Hamlet are futile, because "Carnival cannot be controlled 'from above'"(356).
I feel that I must agree with a few of the points made from Bristol. Starting with the funeral and the marriage; I do believe that it was a carnivalesque gesture. Claudius in my opinion was simply trying to take the glory away from the old king. In politics the easiest way to take people's minds off the tragedy is to bring out the best in a bad situation. A marriage with a big festival was a deceitful way of doing just that. The way the people were easily distracted away from mourning proved to me that the theory of the carnival in pop culture held to be true. We go to carnivals to feast on food, excitement, games, rides, and everyone pays the same price. When you lose at a game you simply forget about it and move on to something else that holds your attention. I found this to be a similar situation with the wedding of Claudius and Gertrude.
I do not believe that Hamlet turned carnivalesque only after killing Polonius. I think Hamlet began his fall once the ghost of his father told him the truth about Claudius. Before the truth came out, Hamlet was obviously upset over the death of his father, but he didn't venture to make a mockery of his mothers wedding and set out to seek revenge upon Claudius. Once the truth came out Hamlet had changed for good. His views and his outlook on life had changed, and the people in his live were no longer held to the same level they once were. When Hamlet killed Polonius it was not linked to carnivalesque in my opinion. Hamlet was seeking revenge, and he meant to kill Claudius. Had he killed the right person, you wouldn't have the dramatic ending the play gives. Instead when Hamlet killed Polonius, the play shifted slightly to show how everything in one person's life intermingles and affects not only you. I do however; think that the way Claudius went about trying to capture Hamlet for the murder was a carnivalesque motion. It almost seemed as though the kingdom didn't care what Hamlet tried preaching, but just wanted to seek to destroy who the king had told them to. It was a party or a carnival if you will.
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When Bristol made reference with the worm food, it was not only entertaining, but I felt his argument was legit. I can not say I fully agree with it, however. I have two different opinions about the statement made. One is that I would agree with him because in reality when you die, you are worm meat and your social class would not mean anything to the worms. The statement alone is very much carnivalized. The second of my opinions would be that perhaps Hamlet is immune to death as so many in that period of time were. Maybe Hamlet was just accepting death.
The gravedigger scene I will agree was carnivalesque. Two poor men burying someone of high importance just tells the story of how in the end it really doesn't matter who or what you did, we are all equal in the end. Also the thought of getting to have a Christian burial when it was obvious you weren't adhering to Christian morals is in its own way carnivalesque. It pokes fun of the people who are the true hypocrites, even in death.
The idea that Hamlet uses carnival to go up against Claudius is an obvious gesture in my opinion. Hamlet almost makes a mockery of Claudius. Hamlet also intends to show the whole kingdom what kind of a person Claudius really is by his actions. When Hamlet directs the play for the kingdom, he shadows the death of his father and the marriage of the Claudius. The play was surely a carnivalesque gesture. This in my opinion is the first action Hamlet took to being carnivalesque.
While Bristol makes some very compelling arguments, I tend to not agree with him fully. I like the idea that was presented; however, I feel that it was poorly presented. Like many things you read, it's always left to opinion. Not everyone will always agree with your opinion. Hamlet to me was about human emotions. While it had the humor in it that could be carnivalesque, I don not see the intention of the play being is such a way. The way Bristol came about his ideas was that Hamlet was written for the Marxist followers. I don't see how the two Marxism and Carnivalesque go hand in hand with one another, but I do see how you can relate the two back to Hamlet separately. Overall, however, the theory of carnivalesque was very intriguing to me. The idea that you can go to a carnival and see all classes of people react and interact the same as one another is a clever observation.
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