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

Monday, January 30, 2006

Hamlet #9 - What a Piece of Work is Man!


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

* * * * * * * * *

Pol: "My honorable lord, I will most humbly take
my leave of you."

Ham: "You cannot, sir, take from me anything that
I will more willingly part withal, except my life,
except my life, except my life."

Well, like much of Hamlet, that's strange, depressive and manic. Hamlet's dismissive sarcasm, appropriate to a prince of the realm, would be arrogant if it were being wielded by a less philosophical character. But our prince seems more interested in amusing himself than insulting Polonius. In any case, Hamlet's spirits are revived by the welcome arrival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ("Good lads, how do you both?"), two former schoolmates. The value Hamlet places on friendship can withstand even his own despair:

Ham: "Good lads, how do you both?"

Ros: "As the indifferent children of the earth."

Guild: "Happy in that we are not overhappy.
On fortune's cap we are not the very button."

Ham: "Nor the soles of her shoes?"

Ros: "Neither, my lord."

Ham: "Then you must live about her waist, or in
The middle of her favors?"

Guild: "Faith, her privates, we."

The three friends construct the most charming, if slightly masculine, characterization of R&G's place in the world. Neither the button on Lady Fortune's cap nor the soles of her shoes, they find themselves lodged, um, precisely in between. In an era of nobles, peasants and guild members, R&G seem to represent that novel, modern thing, the middle class. (In the bard's time, they would have been lesser nobility, the closest approximation).

Hamlet next asks his friends why Lady Fortune has so frowned upon them as to send them to the "prison" of Denmark.

Ros: "We think not so, my lord."

Ham: ""Why then 'tis none to you, for there is
nothing either good or bad but thinking makes
it so. To me it is a prison."

Ros: "Why then your ambition makes it one.
'Tis too narrow for your mind."

Ham: "O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell
and count myself a king of infinite space, were
it not that I have bad dreams."

Seeing his nation as a prison, Hamlet next describes his ambition within it as "a shadow's shadow." But if he has surrendered his drive to prevail, he has not given up using the eyes in his head. Indeed, with Polonius and Claudius around, Hamlet seems to have eyes even in the back of his head:

Ham: "….Were you not sent for? Is it your own
inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come, come,
Deal justly with me…".

Guild: "What should we say, my lord?"

Guildenstern's answer betrays that he is not at liberty to speak. Hamlet pursues the matter and at length Guildenstern fesses up, though doing so is a crime against the king. Even though these two men are would-be spies, who, even discovered, will undoubtedly still relay what they learn from Hamlet to the King, Hamlet finds himself confiding in them. He confesses that he has lost all his mirth and that even "the most excellent canopy, the air," is for him a "foul, pestilent congregation of vapors." But then he says this:

Ham: "What a piece of work is man! How noble
in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and
moving how express and admirable, in action how
like an angel, in apprehension how like a god!
The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!
And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?..."

Time and again with Hamlet, you see his fellow-feeling and generosity of spirit persist even as his own connection with the world drains away. It is almost as if the less of a stake he retains in the world, the more clearly he can appreciate its wonders.

To be continued….

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