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

Monday, February 13, 2006

Hamlet #19 - The Distracted Multitude

(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!).

* * * * * * * * *

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are politely inquiring of Hamlet where he has hidden Polonius' body:

Ros: "Tell us where 'tis, that we may take it thence
And bear it to the chapel."

Ham: "Do not believe it."

Ros: "Believe what?"

Ham: "That I can keep your counsel and not mine own.
Besides, to be demanded of a sponge, what replication
should be made by the son of a king?"

Ros: "Take you me for a sponge, my lord?"

Ham: "Ay, sir, that soaks up the King's countenance
his rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the
king best service in the end. He keeps them, like an
ape, an apple, in the corner of his jaw, first mouthed
to be last swallowed. When he needs what you have
gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you
shall be dry again."

Hamlet has at last lets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern know what he thinks of them. Bardseye suspects that Shakespeare took particular pleasure in the passage, one of many where a virtuous and noble hero ridicules a timeserving sycophantic courtier of the King. But in this speech Shakespeare explains why the courtier himself should question if his own interests are truly being served by serving the King's, since the King will "swallow" him when circumstances favor doing so.

In any case, R&G bring Hamlet to Claudius and Shakespeare next shows us Claudius waiting for Hamlet's arrival:

Clau: "How dangerous it is that this man goes loose!
Yet must not we put the strong law on him.
He's loved of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes…".

Here Shakespeare, an avowed monarchist, gives us a hint of what passed for party politics in an aristocratic age. Claudius' hand against Hamlet is stayed by Hamlet's popularity with the Danish masses. These are the same Danish masses who today are befuddled by Muslim outrage over satiric cartoons that were published in the Danish press. this seemingly intractable social problem (given Denmark's Muslim population) threatens to twist Denmark away from its preferred destiny – the making of superb butter cookies and flatware – and into a social conflict that may extend for decades, just as Hamlet has been pulled by the Ghost away from his preferred destiny of running a country and enjoying Ophelia's feminine allurements. O cursed spite, must the Hamletized Danish now think, that ever they were born to set it right.

Ros: "Where the dead body is bestowed, my lord,
We cannot get from him."

Hamlet, prince or not, is currently being held by guards, and Claudius orders him brought before him:

Clau: "Now, Hamlet, where's Polonius?"

Ham: "At supper."

Clau: "At supper? Where?"

Ham: "Not where he eats, but where 'a is eaten.
A certain convocation of politic worms are e'en
at him…".

When pressed on the issue, Hamlet acknowledges that Claudius can't find him in the next month, "you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby." That line is a particular favorite of Bardseye's. Claudius informs Hamlet (as Hamlet seems already to know, since he has heard about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's sealed letters) that he is to be sent to England. Hamlet is content with this arrangement, hinting to the audience as he answers Claudius that he also understands Claudius' real intentions in sending him away, when Claudius asks him if he knows the ostensible ones:

Ham: "I see a cherub that sees them."

And what are those real intentions? Claudius reveals them in a mini- soliloquy of his own that the letters instruct the English envoys who open and read them to kill Hamlet. The contrast between Claudius' oily out-of-sight hiring of henchmen to do his dirty work and Hamlet's almost erotic anticipation of his own vengeance-taking, with the lighting just right and with Claudius - do you recall the phrase? – drunk, asleep or in his rage.

To be continued....

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