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

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Hamlet #3 - Incestuous Sheets!


Hamlet's mom, who has just married his uncle, asks Hamlet why he seems so particularly sad about his father's death:

Ham: "Seems, madam? Nay, it is. I know not "seems."
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
But I have that within which passes show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe."

(Suits here means presentations).

The reality of Hamlet's grief, and of Hamlet generally, and how that reality plays out for someone surrounded by so many smooth survivalists, is a major theme of the play. In reply, Claudius starts out with an oily compliment of how "sweet and commendable" is Hamlet's demonstration of grief, but he goes on to criticize Hamlet's sorrow as unseemly in its excess:

Clau: …but to persevere
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness. 'Tis unmanly grief,
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
Fie, 'tis a fault to heaven
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
………..We pray you, throw to earth
This unprevailing woe and think of us
As of a father; ………..
……………………….your intent
in going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire..".

Ger: "Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet.
I pray you, stay with us, go not to Wittenberg."

Ham: "I shall in all my best obey you, madam."

Clau: "Why, 'tis a loving and a fair reply."

Any number of adolescents or young adults, facing off with a step-parent over lingering loyalty and regard for the parent who has been lost, will recognize this exchange. Claudius manages to combine an insult to Hamlet's manhood - for his unmanly grief - with a presumptuous assertion of himself as a substitute father, all the while presenting himself as Mr. Reasonable, before bringing in the big gun of Hamlet's mother to seal the deal. Hamlet's quiet desire to go lick his wounds in Wittenberg (a suitably German city, dour and philosophical) is efficiently crushed.

Claudius, Gertrude and the attending courtiers depart, leaving Hamlet alone on stage to mumble to himself – or exclaim to the heavens – the first of his many famous soliloquies:

Ham: "O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on 't, ah fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely….".

The "To be or not to be" speech is not the only time Hamlet addresses suicide – he does so right from the start. Adolescent (or slightly post-adolescent) angst and hyper-sensitivity is central to Hamlet's nature. The world is an unweeded garden that grows to seed. Untended, it has been taken over by things rank and gross in nature. Lust might be one example - such as the lust for one's brother's wife, and another might be the lust for power. But let's let Hamlet himself reveal what's bugging him:

Ham: "….That it should come to this!
But two months dead – nay, not so much, not two.
So excellent a king, that was to this
Hyperion to a satyr, so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth,
Must I remember! Why, she would hang on him
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on, and yet within a month –
Let me not think on 't. Frailty, thy name is woman!

The violence that this hasty, imprudent marriage has done to Hamlet's mind is very real. He not only loses respect for his mother (and of course his uncle), but begins to doubt his mother's prior love for his father. Hamlet's ability to trust in any woman's love is compromised as a result, and his later mistreatment of Ophelia is the corrupted harvest that will follow.

Ham: "….O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not, it cannot come to good."

True enough.

To be continued…
- - - - - -
P.S.: Bardseye will of course interrupt our Hamlet tour whenever events in the public sphere prove too outrageous to resist Shakespearean commentary. But for the time being I have decided to enjoy a break from producing the daily enjambment of Shakespeare and the news that has become my practice. I will certainly return to it, refreshed, after polishing off Hamlet. Bardseyeview is, for me, the hobby of a lifetime.

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