Hamlet’s Hit Points


A while ago, Robin Laws started posting about Hamlet on this blog, and I thought at the time that was a little strange, but I haven’t generally been led astray by him and so I followed along. What he was proposing was a new way of looking at drama by refocusing on the emotional experience of a piece. I can only speculate as to the origin of this idea in his mind, but it is in keeping with two strands of thought familiar to me at least: interpreting the action in Superhero stories and the shift from task based resolution to conflict based resolution in roleplaying games. Both eschew a conventional cartesian perspective on reality to refocus on a kind of emotional reality.

Hamlet’s Hit Points provides a framework for looking at this emotional reality, basically something that was more-or-less only intuitive previously. This is a clear example of where you can see innovation in one field bleeding across into another, possibly related field. Laws provides a number of different scene types and suggests that the primary frame of reference should be the conflict between “hope” and “fear”. There are other polar oppositions available, but I tend to find his discussion persuasive that these two are fundamental to the emotional impact of a work.

I have posted a lot over the past year about the mechanics of investigation because I think this is an area where historically criticism has been weak. I once again casually point over to the works of Agatha Christie and her dismissal as a major literary force by people for whom the mechanics of the investigation are not interesting.

A lot of close reading, with diagrams of clues, conjectures and conclusions, has convinced me that while Hammett can do this kind of writing, it’s not his main interest or strength. The key to understanding how the works generate their affect, and what the underlying psychology is, does not lie in carefully picking apart the plot.

Amongst other approaches, I have been looking closely at Red Harvest using Laws’ formulation, to see whether that offers more of an explanation than other strategies, such as a traditional detail-oriented close reading or a formula analysis as suggested by Cawelti and Knight. This is a work in progress, so expect a follow-up about the specific conclusions for Red Harvest, but there are some general comments to make.

Analysis of any particular type needs to be systematic. When picking apart some Restoration poetry, you need to go through line-by-line and make a mark beside anything that looks like a figure of speech, beside any references, and you need to be very alert for call-backs to earlier parts of the text. I usually try and explicitly categorise any specific chunk of text with an apparent purpose or target. A second reading pass is then necessary to start tying all the bits together.

Well, that is all good training for any bit of analysis, and is probably why the study of literature is so focused around close readings. This kind of approach relies on a thesis emerging organically from the facts presented – you spot that 6/10 references are biblical and so begin building a case on that basis. So often this process stalls, if nothing much appears out of the first read-through. In order to make some progress, it can be useful to approach the text with a specific thesis pre-selected, and test anything against that first and foremost. This tends to work better with “genre” fiction, and that’s probably one reason why it is less highly regarded by proper literati. We have seen how Chandler imposed his own thesis on Fair Play detective stories and found them wanting.

This could all generally be described as trying to interpret the authorial intent of a work. That may be a “model author” in Eco’s terms, but broadly the idea is that there is an existing quantum of knowledge which it is the reader or viewer’s job to extract. Eco’s equivocation on the point of authorial intent allows you to construct a model author that knows more than the real author did, and so is permissive of a larger number of possible meanings, but still, the meaning is “inherent”

Laws’ “Beat” approach shares the same mechanical skeleton. It is mandatory to closely read a text and break it down into “beats” of action. Where it differs, is that the significance of these beats is the emotional response that they generate. The analysis is therefore automatically personal – it doesn’t matter what the author (or model author) intended, all that matters is how you receive it. It is therefore primarily subjective.

Subjectivity here is not necessarily a problem in terms of synthesizing a “meaning” for a work, because broadly speaking, the emotional response will be similar for most readers within a specific cultural paradigm. Therefore, any conclusions you would draw would be applicable and transferrable inasmuch as you can convey that response – and Laws’ scene classifications give you a handy tool for doing that.

Nor does this subjectivity exclude very detailed textual analysis, because once you have formed a response, you can read the entrails of the section to find what caused that response.

I theorize, guess basically, that this orientation around the subjective experience comes first and foremost from his training as a game designer. In game design, we really only care about the game from inside the fiction, from the point of view of those experiencing it. This was the cause of a lot of the problems we used to have in Old School gaming, where a game-writer would write a cool story, of which the PCs were either observers or tangential. Perhaps that subjectivity should be the subjectivity should be the subject of its own post.

Amongst the many virtues of this analytical tool is that it allows you to regard a work free from its historical context, and reinterpret it as you found it. While the historicizing approaches of erudite critics are interesting and worthwhile and useful in many ways, they do tend to have the net effect of crystalizing meaning and decoupling it from how works are really experienced by people.

Examples are easy and numerous, but picking one of relevance to my study – many studies acknowledge the “back pressure” of film noir on early hardboiled fiction, but virtually nobody explicitly tackles the problems inherent in reading a book second, having seen the famous movie. A historical reading of The Maltese Falcon is fascinating, but in practical terms, we need to ask ourselves what additional benefit we get from reading the novel, having read the book. That’s just a practical matter of the order these works are encountered.

All in all, I think that subjective beat analyses represent a really useful way of approaching texts of any kind, and one which is focused around the living work, as it is experienced, rather than what is effectively a post-mortem.

P.S. I couldn’t help but notice with sadness that Ken Hite missed a trick with his front-cover endorsement of “A critical hit!” Surely the most appropriate riff along those lines would have been “A Palpable Hit!”?

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One Response to Hamlet’s Hit Points

  1. Pingback: Red Harvest: Beat Analysis | My One Contribution To The Internet

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