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

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Hamlet #5 - In the Porches of My Ears!


(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.)

Hamlet and Horatio are shivering in the cold, sharing the frozen monotony of the guards on their night shift. A flourish of trumpets sounds in the castle behind them. Hamlet, using a bunch of frustratingly antiquated words (wassail; upspring; Rhenish down) explains that the king is partying through the night:

Hor: "Is it a custom?"

Ham: "Ay, marry, is 't.
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honored in the breach than the observance…".

If Shakespeare sometimes uses phrases that have by now become long-familiar, and here two in the same sentence (to the manner born; more honored in the breach), it is usually because he invented them. Hamlet proceeds to describe how the character of a generally virtuous person, if he indulges a moderately-sized fault in his nature, may "take corruption from that particular fault."

Ham: "…..The dram of evil
Doth all the noble substance often dout…".

Yes, these occasional defunct words in Shakespeare (dout means blot out), are a stumbling block. But speed bumps don't keep us from visiting shopping malls. And neither should a few words that might as well be Klingon keep us from the Bard. Anyhoo, the Ghost shows up and here's what Hamlet says to him:

"Ham: "Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damned,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou com'st in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee. I'll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal dane. O, answer me!...".

Even by the end of the play, the question of whether the Ghost brought airs from heaven or blasts from hell goes unanswered. What he did bring was – to quote the heroine from Kill Bill – unfinished business:

Gho: "I am thy father's spirit,
Doomed for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away….".

Ham: "OK. Fine. Whatever. Get to the point. It's cold out here."

Bardseye is just kidding. Let's continue:

Gho: "If thou didst ever thy dear father love – "

Ham: "O God!"

Gho: "Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder."

Ham: "Murder?"

Gho: "What are you, deaf? I just said that."

Again, just kidding. Let's continue:

Gho: "Murder most foul…
……………..Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leprous distilment, whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
Thus was I, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched,
Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,
No reckoning made, but sent to my account
With all my imperfections on my head.
O horrible! O, horrible, most horrible!
If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not.
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest."

Bardseye recalls the first time he read this speech, at perhaps too tender an age, when for a moment I thought the Ghost was saying that Claudius killed more birds than anyone else, since he didst "murder most foul." (Foul - Fowl? Get it? Actually it's an old joke). Anyhoo, laugh all we like, this and other language from Hamlet, once you have read it once, simply does not leave you. In my case, the phrases, "porches of my ears" and "with all my imperfections on my head," have remained with me from the moment I read them, evoked whenever poisoning or confession would come up in other contexts.

That last criticism that the Ghost lays at his living brother, for killing him without giving him a chance to confess his sins (presumably, it would have been more gentlemanly for Claudius to slaughter the elder Hamlet as he leaves the confessional) will come up again later. For now, Hamlet orders the guards and Horatio to swear they will tell no one what they have seen. Then, like sportscasters as the credits roll after the Super Bowl (less than a fortnight to go!), Hamlet and Horatio do a wrap-up:

Hor: "O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!"

Ham: "It's been Pittsburgh's year all along!"

No, again, just kidding. Bardseye does not know what has gotten into him tonight.

Ham: "And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.
The time is out of joint. O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right!"

Those last two lines, in Bardseye's view, are as close as any come to summarizing the heart of the play.

To be continued….

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