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

Friday, February 10, 2006

Hamlet #16 - My Offense is Rank


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

Hamlet, agitated by fresh evidence of his uncle's guilt, and planning to have it out with his mother for jumping into holy bedlock with the guy, says, "Let me be cruel, not unnatural." Bardseye suggests Shakespeare may be allowing Hamlet to plagiarize Brutus in Julius Caesar, who when planning Caesar's assassination said, "Let's be sacrificers but not butchers." Similar, non? Anyhoo, before Shakespeare gives us the ultimate Freudian mother/son confrontation, he shows us Claudius in his office, himself agitated after the Players' play:

Clau: "I like him not, nor stands it safe with us
To let his madness range. Therefore prepare you,
I your commission will forthwith dispatch,
And he to England shall along with you…"

Thus does Claudius plan to rid himself of this meddlesome nephew by sending him to England in the company of his two boyhood chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Shakespeare paints these two characters as openly playing both sides, admitting to Hamlet that his uncle is using them as spies, and then fulfilling in a playfully sinister, Kafkaesque fashion their spying obligations when with Uncle Claudius.

Meanwhile Polonius, never happier than when he is hiding behind an arras – the equivalent of a folding screen (or byoobu, in Japanese, but I digress), arrives to tell the King that:

Pol: "…he's going to his mother's closet,
Behind the arras I'll convey myself
To hear the process…".

Polonius leaves and the King, alone on stage and sensing without knowing (just as Hamlet lacks the final proof that he desperately desires) that his murder of the former king is behind all that is happening, unburdens himself:

Clau: "O, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven,
It hath the primal eldest curse upon 't,
A brother's murder. Pray can I not
Though inclination be as sharp as will;
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And like a man to double business bound
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,"

The double business includes his self preservation, which tends in one direction, and the impulse to atone for his guilt, which tends in another. Shakespeare, perhaps writing under a deadline, then allows Claudius to rip off Lady Macbeth:

Clau: "…What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow?"

Claudius then acknowledged that he can not seek forgiveness for the murder so long as he is "still possessed of those effects for which I did the murder," chief among them his crown and his Queen. He sees clearly his "wretched state," summarized in the cool title of a Clint Eastwood movie - "The Unforgiven."

Ah, but our scriptwriter has inserted a clever twist as the observed of all observers (Ophelia's phrase for Hamlet, you'll recall) reveals himself to be this time not observed but observing. Hamlet emerges from the shadows ('a means he; scanned means considered):

Ham: "Now might I do it pat, now 'a is a-praying,
And now I'll do 't. (He draws his sword.) And so 'a
Goes to heaven,
And so I am revenged. That would be scanned;
A villain kills my father, and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge,
'A took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May…".

In other words, Hamlet doesn't want to kill Claudius right after he has cleansed his soul of his crime, since this may send him to heaven. Hamlet would prefer to kill Claudius "when he is drunk, asleep or in his rage, or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed."

Yes, to our modern ears, Hamlet is beginning to give in to his own stereotype; indecisive, voting for murder before voting against it, or like Dr. Evil, leaving Austin Powers dangling above hungry sharks instead of just shooting him.

But if all Hamlet feels he has left is the manner in which he's going to kill Claudius, he might as well, as is said of another king, in this case Burger King, have it his way.

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