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

Monday, February 27, 2006

Hamlet #27 - Good Night, Sweet Prince

(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. Time to wrap up Hamlet, but it's more like mop up what with Laertes, Queen Gertrude and Hamlet himself poisoned and Claudius poisoned and stabbed. The good thing about being poisoned, though, is that it gives the dying hero the opportunity to express some parting thoughts:

Ham: "I am dead, Horatio. Wretched Queen, adieu!
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time – as this fell sergeant, Death,
Is strict in his arrest – O, I could tell you –
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead;
Thou livest. Report me and my cause…".

Hamlet is unable to resist one last kick at his mother's corpse, but then the entire play details how Hamlet's full adult maturity was snatched from his grasp by an unwanted destiny which he felt honor-bound to embrace. Had he become king, as Shakespeare's other famous prince, Prince Hal, managed to do, we can wonder whether Hamlet would have undergone a transformation similar to Hal's.

Prince Hal, wayward and pranksterish in two Shakespeare plays (Henry IV Part One and Part Two), becomes a solemn and wise leader of England in a third (Henry V). He also turns on his closest friend Falstaff for wise but heartless political reasons. We can sense that Hamlet could never do such a thing to Horatio. But then, Hamlet could never mature past his mother's fecklessness, either. For Shakespeare, the final metamorphosis to full adult authority carries an inescapable element of cold-heartedness. Hamlet escapes this fate by dying.

The remainder of Hamlet's parting speech is directed at "you that look pale and tremble…". This refers to the attendants at the Danish court on stage, but we can well imagine the actor playing Hamlet turning to the actual Elizabethan audience and including them. Hamlet abhors people who merely watch. Even as he himself becomes our foremost Man of Inaction, he calls us to action; specifically, he calls on us to resist the corruption of our souls, even at the price of death.

Horatio: "Never believe it,
I am more an antique Roman than a Dane.
Here's yet some liquor left."

(He attempts to drink from the poisoned cup. Hamlet
prevents him.)

Ham: "…If thou didst even hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain
To tell my story."

If there's any normal, decent person in the play we can identify with (beside the gravedigger), it's Horatio. So by speaking to him Hamlet is speaking to us - again. He requests that we live, even if life is something that remains unknowable ("Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is 't to leave betimes?") and even though death, which Hamlet terms "felicity," calls to us as a release from this "harsh world," this "prison."

And what reason does Hamlet give for Horatio, and by implication for the rest of us, to live? His reason is to "tell (his) story." Of course, by now Hamlet's story has become a cautionary tale, with the caution being against letting some blood oath or obligation tear you away from what should be a destiny of your own choosing.

Anyhoo, the sound of cannon fire (actually a military salute) announces the arrival of Fortinbras, who has been victorious against Poland, and who is on his way back to Norway. Hamlet in his dying breath foresees that "the' election lights on Fortinbras." Since everyone in the Danish royal line has been killed, an election will be needed to select the next king and Hamlet can sense that the aristocracy will choose Fortinbras as a now proven leader in war. Hamlet then dies.

(He dies.)

Hor: "Now cracks a noble heart. Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!"

Fortinbras waltzes is, expecting to be received at court by a fellow royal, but coming instead upon a scene out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which was actually a better movie than many realize. Anyway, Fortinbras says a bunch of stuff that really amounts to rolling the credits and the play ends. But one helpful final comment of Horatio's, as they're bearing all the bodies away and in the course of Horatio announcing how he'd like some time to fill everyone in on what really happened, is this:

Hor: "…So shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on th' inventors' heads."

And so the curtain falls on Bardseye's View of Hamlet. Tomorrow we will return to our regularly scheduled programming - the bizarre, hallucinatory essays that jam Shakespeare and current events together in preposterous and irresistible ways, and by which your humble correspondent passes the free time of his evenings. Adieu for now.

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