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

Saturday, January 28, 2006

Hamlet #7 - Doubt that the Stars are Fire


(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 six posts ago - just scroll down and catch up!)

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Shakespeare has now laid out on the chessboard of his imagination the pieces of his Hamlet Game. We have the anguished, hypersensitive Hamlet, the innocent and somewhat passive Ophelia, Polonius the lover of intrigue and indirection, the upright but absent Laertes, the disconsolate Ghost, the presumptuous-toward-Hamlet and accused-by-the-Ghost King Claudius, and the king's overly-dexterous new wife Gertrude. With the pieces lined up on the board, Shakespeare begins that series of scenes of haunting strangeness and disorienting depth that make up the heart of the play.

We begin with Claudius welcoming Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two pawns in the story given appropriately court jester-like names. Claudius has summoned these two boyhood friends of Hamlet to - well, let Claudius tell it:

Clau: "… here in our court
Some little time, so by your companies
To draw him on to pleasure, and to gather
So much as from occasion you may glean,
Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus
That, opened, lies within our remedy."
Ros: "Both your Majesties,
Might, by the sovereign power you have of us,
Put your dread pleasure more into command
Than to entreaty."

Guild: "But we both obey…"

Clau: "Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern."

Gert: "Thanks, Guildenstern and gently Rosencrantz."

In other words, the king can't keep straight which one is which, and the queen corrects him. Similar jokes will follow this benighted pair throughout the play, all the way to their graves. But for the time being court business follows, important because Shakespeare wants to show the larger effects which the family squabble of the play will have on the outer world.

Denmark's ambassadors to Norway return from there with news. You will recall that the king of Norway, an old guy usually referred to as Old Norway, took over his throne after his brother was knocked off by the elder Hamlet (recently promoted to Ghost). While Old Norway is interested in peace, his nephew Fortinbras, the dead Norwegian king's son, is not. The ambassadors inform Claudius that Old Norway…:

Volt: "……sent out to suppress
His nephew's levies, which to him appeared
To be a preparation 'gainst the Polack,
But, better looked into, he truly found
It was against Your Highness, Whereat grieved
That so his sickness, age, and impotence
Was falsely borne in hand, sends out arrests
On Fortinbras, which he, in brief, obeys,
Receives rebuke from Norway, and in fine
Makes vow before his uncle never more
To give th' assay of arms against Your Majesty.
Whereon old Norway, overcome with joy,
Gives him three thousand crowns in annual fee…".

Hello? Sounds like we're at the United Nations, crying tears of joy over the latest promise from Iran, North Korea or the Palestinians to stop all they've been doing and, to quote Austin Powers, behave.

Anyoo, Fortinbras, having already put together his own independent militia (think Al Sadr, think Hamas, think Muslim Brotherhood) has now played his uncle (and the word uncle starts with U.N. – coincidence? I think not) to the tune of 3000 crowns a year.

These high matters of state are suddenly interrupted by Polonius rushing in to announce in his wordy matter (while at the same time assuring the King that "brevity is the soul of wit") that…

Pol: "…your noble son is mad…."

Queen: "More matter, with less art."

Pol: "Madam, I swear I use no art at all.
That he's mad, 'tis true, 'tis true 'tis pity,
And pity 'tis 'tis true – a foolish figure,
But farewell it, for I will use no art."

Polonius eventually gets to the point, producing with a voyeuristic flourish a letter he got from Ophelia that she got from Hamlet, for all the adults to read and analyze:

Pol: "(He reads the letter) 'To the celestial and my
soul's idol, the most beautified Ophelia' – That's an
ill phrase, a vile phrase; 'beautified' is a vile phrase.
But you shall hear. Thus (he reads): In her excellent
white bosom, these, etc.'"

Queen: "Came this from Hamlet to her?"
Pol: "Good madam, stay awhile, I will be faithful. (He reads):

'Doubt that the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.

O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers. I have
not art to reckon my groans. But that I love thee
best, O most best, believe it.'"

When Hamlet says 'numbers,' he is referring to the sullen drudgery of constructing a love poem that rhymes and scans with poetic meter. His always-pressing need for the truth – in this case for Ophelia to know the truth - drives him not to poetry but to prose. This is the opposite of what usually happens in Shakespeare, where a character's deepest expression requires verse to contain it. But while Hamlet may speak Shakespeare's highest poetry, he is only a run-of-the-mill poet when he writes his own.

To be continued....

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