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

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Hamlet #17 - How Now, A Rat?

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

Ham: "Now, Mother, what's the matter?"

Que: "Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended."

Ham: "Mother, you have my father much offended."

Que: "Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue."

Ham: "Go, go , you question with a wicked tongue."

Right from the start, Gertrude attempts to require Hamlet to recognize Claudius as his father. Hamlet, emboldened perhaps by desperation, and by his outrage over her quick remarriage, is just as assertive. Seeing that he's not buying what she's selling, she switches tactics:

Que: "Have you forgot me?"

Ham: "......................No, by the rood, not so;
You are the Queen, your husband's brother's wife,
And – would it were not so! – you are my mother."

Que: "Nay, then, I'll set those to you that can speak."

Ham: "Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you."

Que: "What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me? Help, ho!"

Pol (behind the arras): "What ho! Help!"

Ham (drawing): "How now, a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!"

(He thrusts his rapier through the arras).

Hamlet has apparently grabbed his mother in order to force her to confront herself. Many productions of the play will have Hamlet holding a mirror to Gertrude's face. This request that she look at herself so frightens Gertrude that she accuses Hamlet of murderous intent, and in a sense he does seek to murder the wayward and deluded self-image she must have of herself. And just as Gertrude cries out not to be shown to herself, Polonius, hearing but not seeing, calls for help.

Hamlet thinks – to the extent he is thinking at all – that it must be Claudius behind the arras. And he would be happy to kill Claudius when in the squalid act of spying on his step-son, as he proves by stabbing whatever "rat" it is behind the Curtain #1.

Time and again in Hamlet, huge repercussions depend on strokes of bad luck or, nobility or not, low class family behavior. Hamlet's life is turned around by a murder echoing down from the prior generation. His mother's slovenly remarriage – about which he is also powerless - shames him. And not to say that he had it coming, but what business did Polonius have listening in on his chat with his mother?

Pol: "I am slain!"

Que: "O me, what hast thou done?"

Ham: "Nay, I know not. Is it the King?"

Well, ok, maybe Hamlet is not as crazy as he's acting. After all, what better way – indeed what only way – to kill the king and also retain your own freedom and right to the succession than by killing him by accident? But alas, when Hamlet uncovers the arras, he sees Polonius:

Ham: "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better…".

"Thy better" means your boss, Claudius.

Bleeding corpse or not, Hamlet would like to complete his conversation with his mother. And in an exchange that would be familiar (except for the corpse on the floor) to any of the tens of millions of modern families that have had to accommodate a step-parent, he begins taunting her with a comparison of her first husband's virtues and her second husband's vices:

Ham: "This was your husband. Look you now what follows;
Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?"

Hamlet finally starts to get to her. "Hamlet," she cries, "speak no more. Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul…". But just as he is on the verge of persuading her to foreswear her marriage, the Ghost enters, or Hamlet believes he does, and Hamlet begins speaking to him:

Ham: "A king of shreds and patches, -
Save me, and hover o'er me with your wings,
You heavenly guards! What would your gracious figure?"

Que: "Alas, he's mad!"

We have to ask what the Ghost can be thinking, since his appearance makes Hamlet look like a loon in front of his mother, weakening his ability to persuade her of what the Ghost would like to see her persuaded:

Ghost: "…This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose
But look, amazement on thy mother sits,
O, step between her and her fighting soul…".

Well, before Hamlet can do that, he and his mother have the usual "Can't you see it?" and "No I can't" exchange common to ghost stories, and which Shakespeare copies even from himself in Macbeth:

Ham: "How is it with you, lady?"
Que: "Alas, how is 't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy,
And with th' incorporal air do hold discourse?"

To be continued…

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