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

Saturday, February 25, 2006

Hamlet #26 - Venom, Do Thy Work

(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!).

* * * * * * *

Ham: "Come on, sir."

Laertes: "Come, my lord."

(They play. Hamlet scores a hit.)

Ham: "One."

Laertes: "No."

Ham: "Judgment."

Osric: A hit, a very palpable hit."

Hamlet and Laertes have begun their duel. It's not as fair a duel as could be hoped for. Laertes' foil is tipped with poison. The referee proved himself in an earlier scene to be as bendable as a straw in the wind. Hamlet seeks judgment, but who is to provide it?

It may seem flippant to place a mere game at the center of the final scene of our civilization's central tragedy (unless the Book of Job is our central tragedy). But fencing is a demonstration of honor, a civilized demonstration, whereby Laertes' wounded honor may be avenged without further taking of life. In a similar way, the game-like rules of war serve the civilized purpose of protecting civilians by declaring them out of bounds, and in Shakespeare's day the game-like rule of the divine right of kings protected society by placing the king's crimes beyond earthly justice, acting as a circuit breaker for an otherwise endless cycle of political violence. But in Hamlet, the rules aren't being followed:

Clau: "Stay, give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is
thine." (He drinks, and throws a pearl in Hamlet's
.) "Here's to thy health. Give him the cup."

The pearl being also poisoned. The duel continues for a while, until the Queen offers Hamlet her handkerchief to wipe his brow, and then raises a goblet to drink to her son's "fortune."

Clau: "Gertrude, do not drink."

Que: "I will, my lord, I pray you pardon me." (She drinks.)

By now the fencing score is 2-0 in Hamlet's favor. Laertes whispers to the king:

Laer: "My lord, I'll hit him now."

Clau: "I do not think 't."

In other words, you numbskull, I doubt you're good enough. A nice moment of humor before Hamlet's lifeblood is mortally corrupted by a scratch:

Laer: "Have at you now!" (Laertes wounds Hamlet; then,
in scuffling, they change rapiers, and Hamlet wounds

Clau: "Part them, they are incensed."

Ham: "Nay, come again."
Osric: "Look to the Queen there, ho!"

(The Queen falls.)

Laertes sees what has happened, and acknowledges, "I am justly killed with mine own treachery." Hamlet asks after his mother and the king, who knows that he has just caused his wife's death, says:

Clau: "She swoons to see them bleed."

Que: "No, no, the drink, the drink – O my dear Hamlet –
The drink, the drink! I am poisoned." (She dies.)

Well, that wasn't a good moment for Claudius. Hamlet, thinking clearly as always (asleep is to awake as awake is to Hamlet), orders the doors locked against Claudius' escape. It's worth noting at this point that Claudius, king or not, would seem to be fair game, since he has been caught red-handed trying to kill the prince of the realm. Moreover Hamlet has in his possession Claudius' royal instructions to have him, Hamlet, killed upon his arrival in England (the letters Hamlet stole from Rosecrantz and Guildenstern when sailing for England). So he could probably get away with murder, if this were that sort of play.

But what does Hamlet in is Laertes' foil, which was tipped with poison as a result of Claudius' success in corrupting Laertes:

Laer: "…Hamlet, thou art slain.
No med'cine in the world can do thee good;
In thee there is not half an hour's life.
The treacherous instrument is in thy hand,
Unbated and envenomed. The foul practice
Hath turned itself on me. Lo, here I lie,
Neer to rise again. Thy mother's poisoned.
I can no more. The King, the King's to blame."

Ham: "The point envenomed too? Then, venom,
To thy work." (He stabs the King.)

All: "Treason! Treason!"

Well, considering that Queen Elizabeth could well have been in the audience as the play was being performed, Shakespeare had better have the assembly cry "Treason!" Hamlet's act of revenge – if it still is revenge; the Ghost is long gone and by now seems hardly to be on Hamlet's mind – is committed only after Hamlet himself has one foot in the grave or, as Hamlet might see it, one foot tentatively liberated from the prison of Denmark. True, Hamlet then forces Claudius to drink the rest of the poison ("Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane, drink off this potion. Is thy union here? Follow my mother."), but with so many overlapping reasons, his act hardly seems less than natural.

To be continued….

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