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

Monday, January 23, 2006

Hamlet #2 - A Little More Than Kin.


Clau: "Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,

So King Claudius begins the second scene of the play. Claudius is holding court and speaks regally for the nation, acknowledging the grief all feel for Hamlet's death. Of course the Hamlet he is referrring to is our young Hamlet's father, the former king of Denmark, and Claudius' brother. The man whose ghost we met in scene 1. And note how the young Fortenbras' father over in Norway was also named Fortenbras. These repeated names, (and later, repeated murders and wars) will add to the play a sense of eternal recurrence running down the generations, one of the qualities of tragedy; a failure to progress.

Claudius' fine phrase, "our whole kingdom / to be contracted in one brow of woe," is not the end of his sentiment:

Clau: "Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him
Together with remembrance of ourselves."

Discretion, or reason, struggles against our grief and despair, and the resulting alloy, a "wisest sorrow," instructs us to think of the departed "together with remembrance of ourselves." Claudius urges us to keep one eye always on the here and now.

Clau: "Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
Th' imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy –
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with a dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole –
Taken to wife."

How's that? Claudius' description of how, in the midst of grief, he has gone about marrying his late brother's wife sounds so smooth and reasonable that we tend to overlook what he is describing. Gertrude is no Old Testament widow, doomed to poverty if not adopted by marriage into her late husband's family. In fact, Claudius has had to win a certain amount of official approval to pursue the marriage:

Clau: "….Nor have we herein barred
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along."

It's not clear whose better wisdoms were being consulted - presumably the nobility and the church - but considering it was the king who was asking, who would dare refuse? We are left with a newly installed king choosing to marry his brother's widow during the very moment of the nation's grief. A sort of Jackie Kennedy marrying Aristotle Onassis, but even earlier, not two months after JFK's assassination.

The suggestion of a pre-existing love affair between Claudius and Gertrude, or of his long-simmering desire for her, extending back to when she was married to his brother, is inescapable. And if that is what is true, than Claudius' language ("…with a defeated joy – with an auspicious and a dropping eye,…") begins to feel quite false; diplomatic to the point of deception.

In good kingly fashion, Claudius proceeds to discuss the young Fortenbras' war preparations in Norway, and Claudius' own muscular response to them.

And we are now ready to meet Hamlet. Claudius treats his brother's son as one more piece of business to be handled along with, in fact after, handling Laertes, the son of his advisor Polonius. Laertes appears before the king to ask permission to go study in France. Claudius readily grants the request; age granting young manhood the full enjoyment of its youth:

Clau: "Take thy fair hour, Laertes. Time be thine,
And thy best graces spend it at thy will!"

Later in this scene we will see Hamlet's similar request to travel - to Wittenburg - in order to study be refused by Claudius. And now, finally, the new King turns to his nephew Hamlet:

Clau: "But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son –"

Ham: "A little more than kin and less than kind."

Clau: "How is it that the clouds still hang on you?"

Ham: "Not so, my lord. I am too much in the sun."

A little more than kin because Claudius is both Hamlet's uncle and his step-father, and because he refers to Hamlet a bit presumptuously as his son. And less than kind for marrying Hamlet's mother under such questionable circumstances. Too much in the sun means too much in royal (that is, Claudius') favor - here Hamlet is merely being courteous. Just as his mother Gertrude appears now to be merely maternal:

Ger: "Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark,
Do not forever with thy veiled lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust.
Thou know'st 'tis common, all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity."

Ham: "Ay, madam, it is common."

Hamlet is not really being spiteful, his argument is less with his mother than with the human condition itself. The commonness of accepting death, of allowing oneself to merely pass through nature to eternity as though through some oddly scenic digestive system, is simply insufficient for our Hamlet.

To be continued...

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