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

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Hamlet #12 - Get Thee to a Nunnery


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

* * * * * * * * *

Hamlet has just finished expressing in timeless prose his eloquent argument in favor of, well, despair. If we choose to be, rather than not to be, we will only (to quote Emperor Hirohito) endure the unendurable, an dour motive is only a sense of dread over the undiscovered country of death. This dread puzzles the will as the native hue of our (well, his, Hamlet's) resolve is sicklied o'er by the pale cast of thought – specifically the thought that if he does what he would do - kill the king - he will die for it.

Hamlet then turns to Ophelia with the most gracious comment a man might make to a woman: In thy orisons – in your prayers - be all sins remembered.

Oph: "Good my lord,
How does your honor for this many a day?"

Ham: "I humbly thank you, well, well, well."

Oph: My lord, I have remembrances of yours,
That I have longed long to redeliver.
I pray you, now receive them."

(She offers tokens).

Ham: "No, not I, I never gave you aught."

Oph: "My honored lord, you know right well you did,
And with them words of so sweet breath composed
As made the things more rich. Their perfume lost,
Take these again, for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
There, my lord."

How many million breakups could have used language of this grace and dignity when it came time to return - their perfume lost - rings, letters, compromising photos? Exactly what unkindness Hamlet visited on Ophelia is unclear, aside from his disheveled, wordless encounter with her described in Act II, scene 1. We could pass off this lack of motive for her returning his gifts by concluding that she's just one of those girls who won't cut a guy a little slack. But given all the heavy-handed influence landing on her head from her father and the King himself, it seems more likely that she's been reduced to doing their bidding. You can almost see the strings. And so can Hamlet:

Ham: "Ha, ha! Are you honest?"

Oph: "My lord?"

Hamlet proceeds to express his opinion that beauty will transform a woman's honesty into "a bawd" (a compromised woman), but that honesty will rarely transform a woman's beauty into "his likeness," the likeness of honesty. He then says:

Ham: "…I did love you once."

Oph: "Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so."

Ham: "You should not have believed me, for virtue
cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish
of it."

Our old stock means our fallen, sinful human condition, that virtue can only partially graft (the old meaning of inoculate) itself onto. This entire heartbreaking scene reads to Bardseye like a photographic negative of a love scene from Romeo and Juliet.

Ham: "I loved you not."

Oph: "I was the more deceived."

Ham: "Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou
be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent
honest, but yet I could accuse myself of such
things that it were better my mother had not borne
me; I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with
more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to
put them in, imagination to give them shape, or
time to act them in. What should such fellows as
I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are
arrant knaves all, believe none of us. Go thy ways
to a nunnery..."

Ophelia does not say, as she might, why are you telling me all this, if you just told me that you never loved me? And we are left to wonder why a man so bent on honesty would apparently lie to his recent ex-girlfriend. But Hamlet responds honestly only to those who are themselves honest, and so far that short list includes only Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (and even those last two were merely honest about being dishonest). In one sense, he is acting as any jilted young man would act, humiliated by the return of his love letters. But Hamlet draws broader conclusions from the situation, seeing an inevitable marbling of dishonesty in the prime sirloin of all human conduct (great image, bardseye!); his own, Ophelia's and certainly Polonius':

Ham: "Where's your father?"

Oph: "At home, my lord."

Ham: "Let the doors be shut upon him, that he
may play the fool nowhere but in 's own house.

Hamlet next rails against marriage in general, again advising Ophelia to enter a nunnery, and thereby end the eternal recurrence of human heartbreak which is all Hamlet can make of the future:

Ham: "I say we will have no more marriage.
Those that are married already - all but one -
shall live...".

Hamlet seems to mean Claudius as the "one" that shall not live. But in fact, things will work out a bit differently.

To be continued...

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