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

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Hamlet #21 - Antiquity Forgot

(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!).

Readers who find Shakespeare obscure will point to Ophelia's weirdness in Act IV scene 5 to support their position. She is indeed a bundle of non sequitors and odd snatches of poetry:

Oph: (sings):
"Young men will do 't, if they come to 't;
By Cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, 'Before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.'"

Come to think of it, her language is not at all obscure. More like pornographic. And it answers as well the question of whether she slept with Hamlet. You bet she did. But as always with Shakespearean bawdiness, along with the frank pleasure the Bard takes in sensuality and erotic humor, a higher moral purpose is being served. Ophelia's excessively open sexuality has led to dire consequences. Basically, she bet on the wrong horse, a horse with too ponderous a rider (the Ghost). Had she not invested so much of herself in her love for Hamlet, she would not have been dragged down with him into madness.

Oph: "We must be patient, but I cannot choose
but weep to think they would lay him i' the cold
ground. My brother shall know if it. And so I
thank you for your good counsel. Come my coach!
Good night, ladies…".

Who's that being laid in the ground? Oh, yeah, her father, killed somewhat mistakenly by Hamlet in a tragic quail-hunting accident in southern Texas. Here we see shades not only of recent shooting accidents by vice presidents, but also of Romeo's murder of Tybalt, Juliet's cousin, which drove Juliet not to madness but to an act of desperation with similar results. When Ophelia says (to the King and Queen) that her brother shall know of it, she means Laertes at school will learn of the murder and return seeking revenge, possibly on the whole benighted royal family, which is beginning to look like the Kennedys or the Clintons in the sense of what happens to people who get too close to it.

Anyhoo, Ophelia wanders off, and Claudius next mentions that Laertes has indeed learned of his father's murder and "in secret comes from France." We may ask just how secret is a secret meant to be kept from Claudius when Claudius himself announces it. But that is Shakespeare's Kafkaesque point. Anti-NSA surveillance Bardseye readers would be justified in seeing an unmistakable subtext in Hamlet that is critical of excessive surveillance. (Bardseye himself applauds the NSA, America's far more competent version of Polonius, which has kept us free from attack for nearly four years).

Shouldn't we be getting back to Hamlet?

Here comes a messenger, with a fascinating message about Laertes:

"Mes: "Save yourself, my lord!
The ocean, overpeering of his list,
Eats not the flats with more impetuous haste
Than young Laertes, in a riotous head,
O'erbears your officers. The rabble call him lord,
And, as the world were now but to begin,
Antiquity forgot, custom not known,
The ratifiers and props of every word,
They cry, 'Choose we! Laertes shall be king!'

Caps, hands, and tongues applaud it to the clouds,
'Laertes shall be king, Laertes king!'"

Bardseye will suggest that in this intellectually provocative passage Shakespeare is in a sense anticipating democracy and showing what (little) he thinks of it. The rabble seek to choose their own leader. It is a time of crisis, with Norway threatening and Denmark's own King distracted. So the people would seem to have some sense.

But Shakespeare's comment – it seems more his than the messenger's – is "Antiquity forgot, custom not known." In other words, how stable can any popular accession be if that popularity may at any moment be withdrawn? Of course, Shakespeare hadn't heard of limited terms of office, re-election, loyal opposition, term limits, constitutional limits on executive power, and other stuff like that. So Bardseye will cut him some slack.

To be continued…..

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