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

Friday, February 24, 2006

Hamlet #25 - The Readiness is All

(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!).

Before veering off toward far greater things, Hamlet takes a moment to acknowledge that he was at fault in his confrontation with Laertes:

Ham: "But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself,
For by the image of my cause I see
The portraiture of his. I'll court his favors."

Shakespeare has established a very careful parallel between Hamlet and Laertes. Each has suffered the murder of a father and the ruin and death of a beloved woman – in fact the same woman for each of them. But where Hamlet is the victim of his own father's murder, he is the perpetrator of Laertes' loss. Clearly Shakespeare is not presenting a story of innocence avenged, for at least by Act V, Hamlet has as much guilty blood on his hands as Claudius. Indeed, if in Hamlet Shakespeare does not quite endorse the idea of original sin, he does endorse the idea of original guilt. And for proof, recall Hamlet's statement to Polonius, that if each person were to be treated as they deserve, "who shall scape whipping?"

The difference between Hamlet and Claudius is not that one should and the other should not escape whipping. The difference is that one has and the other has not succumbed to the corruption that Hamlet sees infecting all the world ("...fie, 'tis an unweeded garden that grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature possess it merely.")

There follows a comic exchange with a courtier named Osric, sent by Laertes to extend to Hamlet a challenge to a duel. Hamlet pokes the same sort of fun at Osric he once did at Polonius, changing his own opinion about the weather to test Osric's (weak) integrity in maintaining his opinion, just as he did with Polonius by musing over the shape of a cloud. Hamlet immediately agrees to the duel, and – with an odd sense of haste in the embrace of fate - the duel itself immediately follows.

With only three pages left to the play, and most of the dialogue tied up in sword selection and dueling etiquette and "O, I am slain!" (actually, no one says that), it is interesting to note what asides Shakespeare permits Hamlet to make with the time remaining. He has Hamlet comments to Horatio about Osric:

Ham: "…"tis a vice to know him. He hath much
land, and fertile. Let a beast be lord of beasts,
and his crib shall stand at the King's mess. "Tis
a chuff, but, as I say, spacious in the possession
of dirt."

Well, this description would probably have fit most of the nobility in Shakespeare's audience – the nobility being the only portion of his audience that mattered. So if Hamlet is being suicidal, Shakespeare is holding hands with him at the cliff's edge. A chuff, by the way, is a boor.

As the king, and Hamlet's unwanted fate, approach, he stiffens his resolve:

Ham: "There is a special providence in the fall
of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it
be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now,
yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no
man of aught he leaves knows, what is 't to leave

No man knows anything of what he leaves. The world we leave itself remains unknown to us. And so what is lost by leaving something we did not in the first place comprehend?

Clau: "Come, Hamlet, come and take this hand from me."

(The King puts Laertes' hand into Hamlet's)

Ham: (To Laertes)
"Give me your pardon, sir, I have done you wrong,
But pardon it as you are a gentleman,
This presence knows,
And you must needs have heard, how I am punished
With a sore distraction. What I have done
That might your nature, honor, and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was 't Hamlet wronged Laertes? Never Hamlet.
If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,
And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it, then? His madness. If 't be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged;
His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy.
Sir, in this audience
Let my disclaiming from a purposed evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts
That I have shot my arrow o'er the house
And hurt my brother."

"Hamlet is of the faction that is wronged? Oh, please. Again, Hamlet's case with Laertes is weak. At worst, he's busted and conjuring an insanity defense, even though he himself admitted to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that "I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw." But then R&G are now quite dead and unable to testify for the prosecution.

But that is at worst. At best, Hamlet truly regrets seeing Laertes hurt, even if he's not exactly bending his knee. After all, if the killer of Hamlet's father had stood before Hamlet, somewhere in Act I or II, and publicly admitted the act, called it madness and recanted its effects, we know Hamlet would have been satisfied. So when our uncorrupted Hamlet does precisely that to Laertes, he expects no less in return.

Laer: "I am satisfied in nature,
Whose motive in this case should stir me most
To my revenge. But in my terms of honor
I stand aloof."

But we know Laertes does not really mean this, since we saw Claudius ensnare him in his own corruption with an underhanded plot involving poisoned fencing foils and wine goblets. In parting from so compromised a world, Hamlet sees little to regret.

To be continued….

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