bardseyeview

A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Hamlet, Fortenbras and the Border

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We face on our border with Mexico much of what Hamlet's royal family faced with Norway.

Borders are never easy to maintain. The news reports following Katrina included a brief mention that our border guards had been pulled from the Mexican border to assist with the recovery. Congressional authorization for increased guard strength has only partially been executed by our president. Since he's from Texas, President Bush is undoubtedly familiar with the personal virtues of our Mexican neighbors – by all accounts hard-working, religious and family-oriented - and so he may be reluctant to force their removal. Presidente Fox of Mexico, and the Mexican nation at large, are certain to follow American policy closely, measuring options. After all, Mexico cannot look on so much territory which was once Mexican without a wistful sense of longing. A longing that Fortenbras, the young and headstrong leader of Norway, understood.

In Hamlet, Fortenbras seeks to reclaim the lands lost to Denmark in an earlier war, occurring before the play begins. King Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, step-father and king, summarizes:

"Now follows that you know, young Fortenbras,
Holding a weak supposal of our worth,
Or thinking by our late dear brother's death
Our state to be disjoint and out of frame,
Colleagued with the dream of his advantage,
He hath not failed to pester us with message,
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father…".

A weak supposal of our worth. For Fortenbras, let's substitute the broad stream of Mexican society as it regards our society from across a thin strip of neighborly fencing. Nor is there lacking the sense of resentment over lands thought taken and sought to be restored. Horatio explains Mexican, I mean Norwegian, sentiment in Act I, Scene I:

"…Our last king,
Whose image even but now appear'd to us,
Was, as you know, by Fortenbras of Norway,
Thereto pricked on by a most emulate pride,
Dar'd to the combat; in which our valiant Hamlet, -
For so this side of our known world esteem'd him, -
Did slay this Fortenbras;"

It's easy to forget that Hamlet's father killed Fortenbras' father in a prior war. It's easy to forget how the swath of land from Texas to California was once listed on maps as part of Mexico. And it's easy to forget that no matter how virtuous individual Mexicans may be, they remain saturated in a broad culture of poverty and corruption that we cannot expect them to leave behind as they import themselves into America, and that this culture has led them to a fully understandable desperation. Horatio explains:

"…Now sir, young Fortenbras,
of unimproved mettle hot and full,
Hath in the skirts of Norway, here and there,
Shark'd up a list of landless resolutes,
For food and diet, to some enterprise
That has a stomach in't..."

These "landless resolutes, for food and diet" travel thousands of miles to Denmark, I mean America, because their own government over centuries has preferred corruption to growth. These are the most ambitious and most misused of Mexicans, the ones paying graft rather than receiving it, the ones who would push for change within Mexico if they couldn't get out.

Even under Claudius, Denmark's response was better than ours. Horatio's speech about Norway is in answer to Marcellus' question about why he and Bernardo and Francisco have been assigned additional watch duties:

"Why this same strict and most observant watch,
So nightly toils the subject of the land…?"

Things break down later, of course. Denmark's government becomes distracted over domestic, indeed very domestic, concerns. Gertrude's fecklessness, Hamlet's doomed but good faith attempts to confirm his suspicions of his father's murder, the Miers nomination, the leaking of a possibly covert CIA agent's name. The list goes on.

Decades of distraction have opened portions, in fact all, of our country to essentially uncontrolled entry. Our past allegiance to the concept of assimilation, for ourselves and other new Americans, has been weakened by concepts of multi-culturalism. And even though our constitution does not require it, our laws generously permit the children of illegal immigrants automatic citizenship.

Our imaginations flee from the prospect of a Trail-of-Tears forced march back to Mexico. But what will the social reaction be during the next economic downturn, when the labor of these non-citizens becomes not only unneeded, but unwelcome? We are responsible today if we fail to avoid such a predictable reactionary surge before it happens.

Fortenbras found himself in charge at the end of the play, having sensed such weakness, represented by Hamlet's collapse of will:

"O that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew…"

That's not exactly leadership.
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