Friday, June 4, 2010
Reading the Classics with Paul- Hamlet Part 2
This week's reading was enormous in scope, although not so much in length (I think the average week in Jane Eyre had a much higher page count.) Contained in it was not only some of the most famous passages in the English language, but tremendous depth of emotion, incalculable layers of meaning, and, needless to say, way more information than we'll be able to unpack in a meager blog post. Faced with such predicaments, let us forge ahead, eh what?
We begin this week with Claudius' astute observation (and about a 400 year precursor to McLuhan) that Hamlet is "putting on" lunacy. Naturally, given Shakespeare's strict economy of direction outside of dialogue, there has been centuries of scholarly debate and onstage explorations of the nature of Hamlet's madness. Has he really gone mad to some extent? Is he faking it entirely? Or is it somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between? Personally, I am of the camp that Hamlet is exploiting his distress over the current state of his life to control events in the only way he sees possible. In other words, he is using his crazy effectively.
And so we reach some of the most famous words in the English language aside from the most current McDonald's jingles. To Laurie's great distress, I came mooing this soliloquy from off of the porch into the house when I reached it in my reading. This "should I kill myself or no" soliloquy is one of the earlier establishments of one of my great questions about Hamlet's character. Is doubt his great sin? I scribbled that in the margin as he's setting up the play within the play. I know I'm not original in posing this question. Of course, if Hamlet had walked back to the castle from his meeting with the ghost in Act I, picked up the nearest rock, and used it to bash in Claudius' head immediately, we would have a rather brutish one-act play on our hands. Exciting maybe, but hardly worth fifty smackers and nothing worth reporting to Foursquare over. You'd be home in time for Letterman's monologue. In this, I appreciate the realism in Hamlet's desire for knowledge, his weighing of ethical dillemmas, his uncertainty of who all comprise villainy. Is Hamlet really a hero or a proto-anti-hero?
Perhaps not a good question to be asking right now as we watch him effectively rape and destroy the psyche of Ophelia. One could (and again, some have. Very few perspectives on this play haven't been explored by now) make the argument that Hamlet is, in his own twisted way, trying to save Ophelia by instructing her to "be not a breeder of sinners." His worldview is so bleak at this point that this is his way of trying to help. One may have to play it that way as one has to retain audience sympathy for two and a half more acts. I'm not sure I buy that personally. It's even worse, as the text might suggest, that Hamlet is putting this whole scene on knowing that he's being watched ("Where is your father?") as he doesn't let poor Ophelia in on the stunt. The character of Ophelia breaks my heart. She is the archetype of the Doomed Innocent. If this were a slasher film (see Act V) I think this would be the scene where Hamlet earns the wages he receives at the end of the play. Unfortunately for the sake of a just universe, Ophelia does not deserve this.
Immediately after, we see a return of Businessman Claudius (much like his first appearance at court) in which he sets down the events and even catches something Polonius misses. He sees that Hamlet is not, in his estimation given what he's just witnessed, suffering on account of love, which is especially troubling to the guilt-ridden Claudius. Claudius may have great anxiety about what really is bothering Hamlet. Claudius may be fat, but he's not stupid.
Hamlet further makes a grotesque ass of himself with Ophelia at the play with some of the bawdier lines in the text. As an aside, I was further endeared to Polonius with his dopey description of his own acting years, which Hamlet parries with a hefty bit of foreshadowing over his future relationship to Polonius. The play does indeed catch the conscience of the king and as the players remove their masks, Hamlet begins to remove some of his own. He tips his hand of disgust to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He employs musical instruments to express his disappointment with them.
For scene III, it may be helpful to look for a moment at a facet of the life of Shakespeare. Yale's eminent Humanities professor Harold Bloom in his book Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, startlingly asserts that James Joyce, in the library scene from Ulysses, is the first to note that Hamlet may be a projection of Shakespeare's son who died... whose name was Hamnet. I took off my glasses, rubbed my eyes, put them back on and re-read that. He seems to really be suggesting that in 300 years no one thought "hey, that's funny! The prince is named Hamlet and Shakespeare's son was named Hamnet!"
I do, however, agree with Bloom that Hamlet may be an idealization of the son of Shakespeare who never made it to adulthood. It may be significant that there is some evidence that in the early Globe productions of Hamlet, Shakespeare himself played the part of the Ghost. Bloom also suggests (and I agree) that Falstaff, especially in Henry IV Parts I & II, and his relationship to Hal may be a projection of Shakespeare himself. Falstaff was Shakespeare's most loved and famous character in his own day and Bloom suggests that Falstaff's relationship to Hal may be similar to Shakespeare's relationship to the Mr. W.H. to whom the Sonnets are dedicated.
Also in significant biographical detail, and one I would suggest is more overt and clearly applicable, is that a young woman drowned herself in the Avon in Stratford when William Shakespeare was a child. She was said to have been despairing over lost love. Her name was Kate Hamnet.
A quick word about Claudius praying: We do get a glimpse into the brain of Claudius and he is wracked with guilt, but not to the point where he is willing to do right (which, I suppose, would not only entail losing all of the spoils of his murder, but most like also to be put to death himself for the crime of regicide.) We can point to this scene as one point where Hamlet distinctly dithers. I think we all caught that Claudius is not absolved for his sins and Hamlet would not be sending him to Heaven by killing him right there and then. Heck, even Claudius knows this from the text of his speech! But Hamlet still doesn't do it.
Although, the assertion about Joyce and the Hamnet thing does serve to remind us that modern psychology is... well, modern. It's easy to forget with scenes like the one with Gertrude here, that an Oedipal Complex was not a known concept when Shakespeare wrote it. Almost immediately, Hamlet confuses Polonius for the king and now has no problem stabbing away. Hamlet echos our own thoughts in that Polonius' only real sin was overextending his own cleverness. Hamlet mirrors in tone his earlier scene with Ophelia with his own mother. I daresay one wouldn't want to be a woman in Hamlet's world, although I would argue that the play itself is very sympathetic to Ophelia and even to Gertrude to some extent. The Ghost certainly is.
You'll note the quick progression of scenes now in Act IV as we build toward the climax.
Hamlet is getting openly defiant to everyone (which is another of his major flaws. In not knowing who precisely his enemies are, he treats everyone as if they very well may be.) Skipping ahead, Laertes returns with conclusive evidence that The People are also not satisfied with Claudius. Claudius talks him down and, right on cue (hopefully) Ophelia enters to drive the point home.
The sailors deliver letters to Horatio and Claudius. Hamlet is coming back naked. Claudius and Laertes lay out their plan which we will see played out in Act V. Which we will read this next week!