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

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Hamlet #1 - Sweaty Haste


Hamlet opens at night, in fact at midnight, as two Danish border guards explain to Horatio, Hamlet's trusted friend and the only completely virtuous character in the play, what they have seen in recent nights:

Marcellus: "Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight twice seen of us.
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night…".

Of course you can't watch minutes, since time is as invisible as Horatio thinks the ghost is, but if you raise those kinds of objections, you'll miss the fun Shakespeare has to offer. With the bard, minutes are visible, ideas can be touched, colors tasted, and ghosts can walk the night:

Mar: "Peace! Break thee off! Look where it comes again!"
Hor: "What art thou that usurp'st this time of night,
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometime march? By heaven, I charge thee, speak!"

Horatio accuses the ghost of usurping the night. True, the night can't exactly be usurped, but its quiet can be stolen by a noisy ghost, and it's more fun to stretch for a word like usurp than settle for mere accuracy. Moreover, later we will learn that the entire play is about how Hamlet's uncle may have usurped the throne of Denmark by killing his own brother, Hamlet's father, who resembles the ghost, or whom the ghost resembles. So Shakespeare does have his additional reasons for saying usurp'st.

Horatio adds that the ghost is usurping not only the night, but "the fair and warlike form / in which the majesty of buried Denmark / did sometime march." He could have just said, you look like the dead king. But that would lose for us the importance of that dead king, Hamlet Senior, who Horatio describes as having embodied the majesty of the country, now lost.

The ghost disappears and Horatio decides to tell Hamlet what he has seen, but Shakespeare needs to do a little backfilling first, so he has Marcellus ask Horatio why the number of border guards has been increased recently, and…:

Mar: "And why such daily cast of brazen cannon
And foreign mart for implements of war,
Why such impress of shipwrights, whose sore task
Does not divide the Sunday from the week
What might be toward, that this sweaty haste
Doth make the night joint-laborer with the day?"

What's with all these war preparations, pursued 24/7 and in sweaty haste? Horatio explains that Fortenbras, son of the slain king of Norway, is putting together an army to recover lands that Hamlet's father won, or won back, from Norway in a prior war, a war in which Hamlet's father slew Fortenbras' father, setting the stage for a recurrence, or a rematch.

Please note that Norway went to its slain king's brother "Old Norway," not his son Fortenbras, and Denmark went to its dead king's brother Claudius, not his son Hamlet. The uncles rule while the sons - well, each follows a different course. Here's some irresistible language Horatio uses to explain how this young Fortenbras…:

Hor: "Hath in the skirts of Norway here and there
Sharked up a list of lawless resolutes
For food and diet to some enterprise
That hath a stomach in 't,…".

Fortenbras has put together an army composed of criminal riff-raff, drawn from the "skirts" of Norway – the hidden corners of his nation; men who are fighting not for a noble cause but for food and diet; that is, out of poverty and desperation.

Amidst this atmosphere of external threat, the appearance of the late king's ghost bodes ill, and Shakespeare has the educated Horatio draw a parallel to the events preceding the fall of Julius Caesar, when signs and portents of his coming murder were visible in Rome:

Hor: "A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets;
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun, and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune's empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse…".

A nice little Halloween effect. That moist star by the way is in fact the moon, which influences Neptune's empire through the tides. The ghost comes again, and is just about to speak when the cock crows, signaling dawn:

Ber: "It was about to speak when the cock crew."

Hor: "And then it started like a guilty thing
Upon a fearful summons…".

Hamlet, the play, extends its fearful summons to you, fair bardseye viewer, as in the coming weeks, whenever current events fail to inspire, your humble hierophant (explainer of mysteries – a very cool word), will pursue this guided tour of that master of misery, that earl of equivocation, that ambassador of ambiguity, the Prince of Denmark.

Here's a link to the recommendable Joe's Cafe.

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