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

Sunday, January 29, 2006

Hamlet #8 - Madness, Yet there's Method


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

* * * * * * *

When we left off, Polonius was sucking up to his boss Claudius and her wife Gertrude, King and Queen, even as he proclaimed that Gertrude's son Hamlet was mad, the cause being his own daughter Ophelia's rejection of him. On this last point Polonius is not done repeating himself:

Pol: "And my young mistress thus I did bespeak:
'Lord Hamlet is a prince out of thy star,
This must not be.' And then I prescripts gave her,
That she should lock herself from his resort,
And he, repelled – a short tale to make –
Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness
Thence to a lightness, and by this declension
Into the madness wherein now he raves…".

As always with Polonius and Claudius, when confronting a problem, the solution is surveillance:

Clau: "How may we try it further?"

Pol: "You know sometimes he walks four hours together
Here in the lobby."

Clau: So he does indeed."

Pol: "
At such a time I'll loose my daughter to him,
Be you and I behind an arras then,
Mark the encounter….".

Even as the plan is hatched Hamlet, as though baiting those who would bait him, saunters by - ("Enter Hamlet, reading a book") – and Polonius ushers the King and Queen off to their hiding place:

Pol: "How does my good lord Hamlet?"

Ham: "Well, God-a-mercy."

Pol: "Do you know me, my lord?"

Ham: "Excellent well, you are a fishmonger."

Pol: "Not I, my lord."

Ham: "Then I would you were so honest a man."
Have you a daughter?"

Pol: "I have, my lord."

Ham: "Let her not walk I' the sun. Conception is
a blessing, but as your daughter may conceive,
friend, look to 't."

Hamlet warns Polonius not to let his daughter get pregnant, even though Hamlet himself is the man who might, uh, bring this about. But once Hamlet has hinted at a recognition of Polonius' daughter - even as he either fails or pretends to fail to recognize Polonius himself - he moves beyond the issues that involve only himself (Ophelia; the Ghost's request) and gives us first a bit of vaudeville, and then a critique of Literature:

Pol: "What do you read, my lord?"

Ham: "Words, words, words."

Pol: "What is the matter, my lord?"

Ham: "Between who?" (Bah dah Boom! - bardseye)

Pol: "I mean, the matter that you read, my lord."

Ham: "Slanders, sir, for the satirical rogue says

here that old men have gray beards, that their
faces are wrinkled, their eyes purging, thick
amber and plum-tree gum, and that they have
a plentiful lack of wit, together with most weak
hams. All which, sir, though I most powerfully
and potently believe, yet I hold it not honesty
to have it thus set down, for yourself, sir, shall
grow old as I am, if like a crab you could go

Pol: (aside) "Though this be madness, yet there's
method in it."

Most new Hamlet readers let their eyes slide over these weird speeches, preferring to stumble from one famous scene to the next as though feeling for familiar furniture on the way to the bathroom in the dark. At the risk of stubbing our toes, let's look at this weirdness.

Hamlet is reading a satirical story, whose writer (the rogue) is ridiculing old people. Hamlet admits that everything the writer writes is true, "yet I hold it not honesty to have it thus set down." But how can an accurate if unkind description of the elderly be "not honesty"? Hamlet seems to be hinting that truth separated from compassion is in some sense dishonest (perhaps about our human nature).

The strangeness continues with Hamlet's next statement, that "yourself, sir, shall grow old as I am, if like a crab you could go backward." Substitute "young" for "old" and this would make sense, with Polonius moving backwards into youth. But Hamlet calls himself old and Polonius – what? If Polonius is young, going backwards would only make him younger.

But if Hamlet has grown old through weariness and the pain of seeing things clearly, then Polonius, going backwards to reverse the long progress of his moral corruption, would arrive at a state as painful, if also as pure, as Hamlet's, a state that seems to have rendered Hamlet "old" before his time.

Well, Bardseye's interpretation may be a stretch, but Shakespeare invites each reader to come up with their own sense of what these and other of the eeriest words of Hamlet are intended to convey. What does seem clear is that Hamlet is able to see the hopelessness of his situation without flinching, if not always without complaining.

And Hamlet's situation is hopeless. Fidelity to his father's memory requires him to kill a king, an unforgivable act even for a prince, unforgivable whether or not Claudius did in fact kill Hamlet's father - since kings then answered only to G-d for their crimes. And besides Horatio, Hamlet sees no honest and honorable men around him who would at least understand such an act and Hamlet's grief over losing what he will lose by performing it.

Pol: "Will you walk out of the air, my lord?"

Ham: "Into my grave."

Pol: "Indeed, that's out of the air."

To be continued....

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