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

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Hamlet #4 - To Thine Own Self Be True!


(Note: Bardseye is currently doing Hamlet, and taking a break from our usual hallucinatory Shakespearean commentary on current events. If you're entering the theater late, Hamlet: Act I, Scene I started four posts ago - just scroll down and catch up.)

Hor: "My lord, I came to see your father's funeral."

Ham: "I prithee, do not mock me, fellow student,
I think it was to see my mother's wedding."

Hor: "Indeed my lord, it followed hard upon."

Ham: "Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.
Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven
Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!"

Our scene has begun with some famous lines expressing Hamlet's pained sarcasm over the odd, over-hasty marriage that hovers above his thoughts. Hamlet goes on:

Ham: "My father – Methinks I see my father."

Hor: "Where, my lord?"

Ham: "In my mind's eye, Horatio."

Hor: "I saw him once. 'A was a goodly king."

Ham: "A was a man, Take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again."

Hor: "My lord, I thought I saw him yesternight."

"'A" is a casual way to say "he," by the way. It's worth noting that, for all Hamlet's love for his father, he is able to seem him clearly ("He was a man, take him for all in all"). Hamlet's clear-sightedness is more a burden than a blessing when you consider what it is that he is given to see. Anyhoo, with Horatio's sober report of a supernatural occurrence ("I thought I saw him yesternight") the play's story is now set in motion. Hamlet agrees to join the watch that night:

Ham: If it assume my noble father's person,
I'll speak to it though hell itself should gape
And bid me hold my peace…."

Now that Shakespeare has generated a little suspense, he generates anticipation by giving us not Hamlet and the Ghost but Ophelia and her brother Laertes. They are brother and sister, the children of the royal counselor Polonius, and Ophelia is additionally the object of Hamlet's romantic attention. As we meet Polonius' children Laertes, like any number of exchange students each September, is packing up - in his case for France - and saying goodbye to his family. Somewhat like his father later on, Laertes admonishes his sister to be careful about getting too close to Hamlet:

Laer: "Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain
If with too credent ear you list his songs.
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmastered importunity,
Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister…".

Oph: "I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart…."

But Ophelia hardly forgets to return the compliment to her brother, who after all is a young and single man journeying to France:

Oph: "…But good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,
Whiles like a puffed and reckless libertine
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads…".

This sibling ribaldry ends when dad – Polonius – arrives to offer his own parting advise in yet another now-famous speech:

Pol: "Neither a borrower nor a lender be,
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulleth edge of husbandry.
This above all, to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man…".

This excerpt is less than a third of the total speech, which is charming throughout, and would do honor to any good father addressing his son, or daughter. But in Shakespeare fine words are hardly the warrant of a fine man, and it will be useful to note whether Polonius will later remain true to his own advise.

With Laertes embarked, Polonius lays into his daughter for getting too chummy with Hamlet:

Pol: "Affection? Pooh! You speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?"

Oph: "I do not know, my lord, what I should think."

Pol: "Marry, I will teach you. Think yourself a baby
That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay
Which are not sterling….
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth
Have you so slander any moment leisure
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet…".

Oph: "I shall obey, my lord."

So as Polonius informs his daughter that he will not only teach her, but teach her what to think, and as Hamlet stands oppressed by the feminine example of his mother's (to use Hamlet's own word) dexterity in marrying his uncle, we are left to wonder at what these two lovers will be left to make of the world, and of each other.

To be continued…


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