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

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Hamlet #24 - A Divinity That Shapes...

(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 twenty or so posts ago - just scroll down and catch up!).

OK, before we left off (and please forgive Bardseye for a few days' absence, necessitated by work commitments), Hamlet and the gravediggers were yucking it up about Death. Next comes forth a funeral procession that is unwelcome to Hamlet in two ways; it contains Laertes, whose father Hamlet stabbed to death, and it is burying Ophelia, whose death was largely caused by Hamlet's abusive treatment. After Laertes jumps into the grave to profess his grief, Hamlet, possibly feeling upstaged, comes forward to compete in sorrow:

Ham: "What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis, whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wandering stars and makes them stand
Like wonder wounded hearers. This is I
Hamlet the Dane."

Laer: "The devil take thy soul!"
Ham: "I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers
Could not with all their quantity of love
Make up my sum. What will thou do for her?"

This last question is not rhetorical. Hamlet goes on to ask Laertes what he would do to show his grief, and states that he would do the same and more:

Ham: "Woo't drink up easel? Eat a crocodile?
I'll do 't. Dost come here to whine?

To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I…".

Easel is of course poison. This is perhaps not Hamlet's finest moment, but then he doesn't have a lot of cards to play against Laertes. Laertes didn’t kill Hamlet's father and sister, after all. But Shakespeare's ultimate hero is battling with unearthly foes, and it signifies not much if he sometimes comes up short against his earthly ones. The scene does point out that Hamlet is unwilling to back away from anything, not a personal destiny that leads to a heartless dead-end, and certainly not a confrontation with someone whose family he may have incidentally destroyed.

We proceed to the play's final scene, which Bardseye will nickname the gas chamber scene. It starts with Hamlet filling Horatio in on his kidnapping at sea. He was unable to sleep in his cabin, sensing something was amiss:

Ham: "Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well
When our deep plots do pall, and that should learn us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will."

It's rare for Hamlet, and rarer for Shakespeare, to offer more than a passing hat-tip to religion - unless it becomes useful for a plot point. So it is worth noting the Bard's use of the word "divinity" here, even if his usage of it tends more toward "divination" or "destiny" than "deity." Anyhoo, Hamlet steals Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's sealed packet of royal instructions, and opens it to discover a command:

Ham: "…that on the supervise, no leisure bated,
No, not to stay the grinding of the ax,
My head should be struck off."

When Horatio expresses wonder at this, Hamlet hands him the letter itself. But if Hamlet now has the letter, what instructions were R&G left to deliver in England?:

Ham: "…I sat me down,
Devised a new commission, wrote it fair
………………..Wilt thou know
Th' effect of what I wrote?"

Hor: "Ay, my good lord."

Ham: "…that on the view and knowing of these contents
He should those bearers put to sudden death
Not shriving time allowed."

Quite a joke to play on those two Jewishly-named buffoons, huh? I'm sure the Elizbethan audience laughed. Neither Shakespeare nor Hamlet is showing his best side here, since, as bardseye viewers will recall, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern had no idea that the letters they were carrying contained a death sentence for Hamlet. In Hamlet's honor-driven universe, spying behind an arras or obeying a king's command to report on the mental state of the prince are hanging offenses. Or rather, they are hardly offenses at all, for someone who has become practically heedless of the earthly playing field, and more focused on a farther one.

To be continued…

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