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

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Hamlet and Richard Prior


Hamlet, the doomed Prince of Denmark, provides the best requiem I can think of for a clown. By the time we get to Act V, scene 1, the gravedigger scene, Hamlet's fate is all but sealed. He is a known murderer, in disgrace, with only his royal blood saving him from the status of a fugitive. His own cruelty has driven mad his beloved Ophelia, whose madness has led to her drowning.

Hamlet only learns of her death when he and Horatio come upon a gravedigger busy at his craft. The grave he is digging, of course, is Ophelia's. Naturally, Shakespeare cannot resist the comic opportunities this presents (he even designates the gravedigger as a clown):

Ham: "What man dost thou dig it for?"

Cln: "For no man, sir."

Ham: "What woman, then?"

Cln: "For none, neither."

Ham: "Who is to be buried in't?"

Cln: "One that was a woman, sir, but,
rest her soul, she's dead."

Richard Prior died this week, one of America's great clowns. He was born in the Deep South in the 1940's, the son of a prostitute, and raised in, well, the sort of house that receives gentlemen callers who are hardly gentlemen. It was a childhood that could not really be replicated in later generations when, one way or another, Child Services or some other agency would have stepped in to sever the mother from the child.

Prior's humor looked human misery squarely in the face and chose to respond to it with laughter. In this he reminds us of Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing, described here by Leonato:

Leo: "…She is never sad but when she
sleeps, and not ever sad then; for I have
heard my daughter say she hath often
dreamt of unhappiness and waked herself
with laughing."

But if Prior himself can be compared to Beatrice, a Shakespearean parallel for his humor requires a stroll on the dark side, and only Hamlet will do ("'a" means he; pocky means marked by smallpox; ere means before; scarce hold the laying means too decayed to hold together during burial):

Ham: "How long will a man lie in the earth
ere he rot?"

Cln: "faith, if 'a be not rotten before 'a die –
as we have many pocky corpses nowadays,
that will scarce hold the laying in – 'a will
last you some eight year or nine year.
A tanner will last you nine year.

Ham: "Why he more than another?"

Cln: "Why, sir, his hide is so tanned with his
trade that 'a will keep out water a great while,
and you water is a sore decayer of your
whoreson dead body. (He picks up a skull.)

Like only a handful of American comics; Jonathan Winters, Lily Tomlin, Robin Williams, (add your own favorites here) and the early careers of Whoopi Goldberg and Steve Martin, Prior's humor was revelatory, informing the awareness of a generation. The high genius of comedy is not often enough appreciated, but the scant number of irresistibly funny public personalities is a tribute to the rarefied atmosphere they breathe.

We aren't allowed to see Yorick, Hamlet's favorite comedian, on stage in his prime, what with Hamlet holding his skull in his hands. Still, it's clear that Hamlet, a great lover of performers (see Act II scene II), accorded Yorick the same respect and gratitude that we extend today to Prior (bore means borne, or carried; gorge is stomach; gibes and gambols means joking and jumping; were wont to means were likely to; to this favor...laugh at that means to this end she must come, and not even make-up will cover her skull once dead):

Ham: "(He takes the skull). Alas, poor Yorick!
I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest,
of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his
back a thousand times, and now how abhorred
in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it.
Here hung the lips I have kissed I know not how
oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols,
your songs, your flashes of merriment that were
wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now,
to mock your own grinning? Quite chopfallen?
Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her,
let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must
come. Make her laugh at that."

Well, ok, Hamlet does take the occasion to express his despondency over how reduced Yorick is, and ultimately all of us will be, in death ("Not one now, to mock at your own grinning?"), and that is not necessarily the lesson we would all take from Richard Prior's ending. But it is to be recalled that Hamlet is sick at heart and in mind. And still we feel a greatness in Hamlet that lies in his ability to see clearly the terrible things that are happening to him, and their cost.

Come to think of it, the greatness we feel in Richard Prior consists of much the same.

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