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

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Hamlet #11 - To Be, or Not to Be


(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!).

* * * * * * * * * *

Act Three opens with Claudius interrogating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two boyhood or college friends of Hamlet's. R&G have already confessed to Hamlet that they were sent for by Claudius,. This didn't prevent our large-hearted if inwardly despairing hero from confiding in them, even though he must've known the two would later report to the king:

Clau: "And can you by no drift of conference
Get from him why he puts on this confusion…"

Ros: "He does confess he feels himself distracted,
But from what cause 'a will by no means speak."
Queen: "Did you assay him to any pastime?"

Ros: "Madam, it so fell out that certain players
We o'erraught on the way. Of these we told him.
And there did seem in him a kind of joy
To hear of it…".

Like parents learning that their trench coat-wearing adolescent son has taken an interest in model rocketry, the King and Queen are pleased to see Hamlet responding to the theater. But Claudius can't stop spying, and asks Ophelia to stay and everyone else to leave so that he can spy on Hamlet and his former girlfriend. (The idea of permitting Ophelia to say she didn't mean it and take him back, though, doesn't seem to occur to anyone):

Queen: "And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish
That your good beauties be the happy cause
Of Hamlet's wildness. So shall I hope your virtues
Will bring him to his wonted ways again."

Oph: "Madam, I wish it may."

(And wonted here means usual). Before leaving, Polonius, preferring falsity as always (and despite being the man who said, "To thine own self be true"), instructs his daughter to pretend to be reading a book in order to "color your loneliness." He goes on to say that with "pious action we do sugar o'er the devil himself." And this little throwaway line prompts a sudden aside – a comment made to the audience but not to any other character - from Claudius:

Clau: (aside) "O, 'tis true!
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!
The harlot's cheek, beautied with plastering art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word.
O heavy burden!"

With this key passage Shakespeare informs the reader that the king really did do it. He killed his own brother by pouring poison into his ear when he was resting in his garden. A quiet nap turned into a dirt nap. Claudius says that his deed now feels to him like a prostitute's ugly cheek, and his "painted" (false) words feel to him like the make-up slathered on that harlot's ugly cheek ("plastering art"). Why Claudius assumes all harlots' cheeks are ugly escapes Bardseye, unless he is referring metaphorically to the moral ugliness of prostitution.

We may wish to speculate over why Shakespeare waits until the start of Act III to tell us this, or indeed why he decides to tell us at all. Bardseye's feeling is that Shakespeare is focusing far more on Hamlet than on the king, and that he tells us now in order to remove a distraction.

Shakespeare believes in the legitimacy of royal descent, which is destroyed by Claudius' regicide, and which therefore would justify Hamlet's killing of Claudius – morally if not legally. But again, Shakespeare's main interest in is Hamlet himself, and in the psychology of someone - well, someone extraordinary - who is haunted even after his father's death by that father's call to revenge. Telling us Claudius' stage-whispered confession just helps the audience put aside our own speculation as to whether Claudius really did it or not, allowing us to better focus on how Hamlet handles the same question.

Anyhoo, the King and Polonius withdraw behind yet another screen, leaving Ophelia on stage. Hamlet wanders in. At first he seems not to see her, and given what's on his mind, it's easy to see why he might not:

Ham: To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep –
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. – Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia. Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered."

* * * * * * * * * * *
"To be" speech glossary:

The rub – an obstacle (literally, an obstacle in a game of bowls)
Coil – turmoil
Contumely – insolent abuse
Disprized – unvalued
Quietus – quitting of life
Bodkin – dagger
Fardels – burdens
Bourn – frontier

Orisons - prayers

To be continued.....

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home

Subscribe with Bloglines