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

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Twelfth Night, Fools and Cartoons


In Twelfth Night, Malvolio is a sort of chief servant to Lady Olivia. Embodying a sternness and intolerance that could well serve as a proxy for Islamic Fundamentalism, Malvolio derides Feste, who is Lady Olivia's fool:

Mal: "I marvel your ladyship takes delight in such
a barren rascal. I saw him put down the other day
with an ordinary fool that has no more brain than
a stone. Look you now, he's out of his guard already.
Unless you laugh and minister occasion to him, he
is gagged…."

Feste, as a court fool or jester, had the unique right to speak his mind freely to his Ladyship, which makes it fair to label him Free Expression, just as we have labelled Malvolio Islamic Fundamentalism.

Now, as I'm sure we all agree, free expression lies at the heart, and hopefully at the still-beating heart, of our modern civilization, indeed it is one of the few remaining values about whose importance members of modern democracies, however much we may disagree on taxes, foreign policy, abortion, religion, the environment, guns and gays, can still agree.

Bardseye wishes he could say that Feste equally represents the Free Press, but ironically, and sadly, our Free Press, in its recent refusal to reprint those pesky Muhammad Cartoons, can no longer be said to represent Free Expression. Here's Feste:

Feste: "…Good Madonna, give me leave to prove
you a fool."

Olivia: "Can you do it?"

Feste: "Dexterously, good Madonna."

Olivia: "Make your proof."

Feste: "I must catechize you for it, Madonna.

Good my mouse of virtue, answer me."

Olivia: "Well, sir, for want of other idleness,

I'll bide your proof."

Feste: "Good Madonna, why mourn'st thou?"

Olivia: "Good fool, for my brother's death."

Feste: "I think his soul is in hell, Madonna."

Olivia: "I know his soul is in heaven, fool."

Feste: "The more fool, Madonna, to mourn for your
brother's soul, being in heaven. Take away the fool,

Feste engages in an unbridled and fearless taunting of Olivia, even though she's his boss, in order to shock her out of her mourning for her late brother, which has persisted for seven years. The free speech he speaks can be provocative and unpleasant. Our immediate response may be to think of how much more comfortable might be a society that banned such verbal bad behavior. But as his conversation with Olivia reaches its conclusion we recognize the kindness and sympathy Feste is showing her. She is steeped in sadness, veiled (not, though, in observance of sharia law, Bardseye notes in passing) and her gifts of love and beauty are falling to waste.

Only someone with license to speak truth to power can make her mindful of what is being lost. Just as only the free expression of ideas today, including such noxious ideas as may be embodied in those Muhammad Cartoons (if indeed those ideas are noxious – who knows unless the cartoons are published for our review?), can lift the veil on our reality.

Here Olivia responds to Militant Islam's murderous worldwide rampage against free expression; that is, she responds to Malvolio's rant against Feste:

Olivia: "O, you are sick of self-love, Malvolio, and
taste with a distempered appetite. To be generous,
guiltless, and of free disposition is to take those things
for bird-bolts that you deem cannon bullets. There is
no slander in an allowed fool, though he do nothing
but rail, nor no railing in a known discreet man, though
he do nothing but reprove."

Yes, like Malvolio, radical Islam is indeed sick of self-love, and tastes with a distempered appetite, taking for cannon bullets a set of cartoons (for heaven's sake) that more soberly would be regarded as bird-bolts (and there's a timely reference, considering our US Vice President's recent contretemps with birdshot).

If only our newspapers and TV news shows resembled Feste, as they should, and had the courage to perform their essential function, to present to us relevant information without fear or favor.

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.

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….

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….

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…

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Hamlet #23 - Alas, Poor Yorick!

(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!).

Yet more support for the idea that in this play suicide was much on Shakespeare's mind (happily, he didn't go through with it) comes from the gravediggers' comic chat that opens Act V. The two men, called not gravediggers but clowns in the script, are talking about some woman who drowned, and whether the surrounding circumstances justify her being buried in hallowed ground:

1st Clo: "Give me leave. Here lies the water, good.
Here stands the man; good. If the man go to the water
and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,
mark you that. But if the water come to him and
drown him, he drowns not himself. Argal, he that is
not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life."

In the end the second clown reaches this conclusion:

2nd Clo: "If this had not been a gentlewoman, she
should have been buried out of Christian burial."

The two clowns proceed to trade a series of groan-worthy puns that Bardseye will spare the reader. Hamlet, who is returning from his pirate adventure, and Horatio, who is accompanying him (recall those letters of Hamlet's), happen by. Since they have both been away from the court they are unaware of Ophelia's death. Shakespeare thinks having Hamlet chance across her grave as its being dug is a cute way of informing him. As Hamlet watches, one gravedigger throws a skull up out of the ground (cemeteries were recycled, or rather their contents were, in Merry Olde England):

Ham: "That skull had a tongue in it and could sing once…".

Hamlet gets into a conversation with the first gravedigger, who turns out to be infuriating in his literal-mindedness when Hamlet asks who he's digging the grave for:

Ham: "What man dost thou dig it for?"

1st Clo: "For no man, sir."

Ham: "What woman, then?"

1st Clo: "For none, neither."

Ham: "Who is to be buried in 't?"

1st Clo: "One that was a woman, sir, but, rest her
soul, she's dead."

Shakespeare would have been right at home in Vaudeville, and never more so than in Hamlet. What follows next is Hamlet's famous skull speech, addressed to a skull that the gravedigger has dug up. Being experienced in his trade, the gravedigger is able to identify the skull as that of Yorick, a court jester in Hamlet's youth:

Ham: "Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him Horatio, a fellow
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me
on his back a thousand times, and now how abhorred in
my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung the
lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be
your gibes now? You gambols, your songs. Your flashes
of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?
Not one now, to mock your own grinning? Quite chap-
fallen? Now get you to my lady's chamber and tell her,
let her paint an inch thick, to this favor she must come.
make her laugh at that…".

That last part about paint means to prevaricate, or put on makeup as a way of putting up excuses. "To this favor" means that his lady, as every lady, will however vain come at last to resemble Yorick. Beyond that, Hamlet basically says the same thing he said about the first skull. Bardseye can well see how thrilling an act of stagecraft it would've been to lift a (hopefully fake) skull up before an Elizabethan audience and address it. What tends to go unnoticed in this is how un-Christian Hamlet's musings are. The possibility that Yorick's eternal soul has been redeemed by his faith and virtue in life, rendering his skull an unremarkable relic, falls outside the frame.

Being Jewish, Bardseye probably shouldn't care. In Judaism, living a moral life and maintaining a relationship with G-d through fidelity to the Torah is what is expected. In Judaism, death itself falls outside the frame. But Hamlet hardly means this either. While Hamlet is able to recognize G-d for the purpose of registering his very legitimate complaints, he is both too proud and too separated from G-d (by his murderous intentions) to look to Him for any comfort or consolation.

But after all, Hamlet isn't seeking consolation; he's seeking revenge.

To be continued….

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Hamlet #22 - Garlands Did She Make

(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!).

* * * * * * * *

Laertes is no sooner rumored to be arriving in a vengeful mood from France than he arrives in a vengeful mood from France. Directing his vengeful mood first at Claudius, he says:

Lae: "How came he dead? I'll be not juggled with.
To hell, allegiance! Vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!"

In other words, Laertes, finding himself suddenly dealt a hand similar to Hamlet's, with a dead unavenged father, hardly hesitates to proclaim his murderous intent, if only someone would tell him who to kill. Claudius assures Laertes that he himself is "guiltless," but before he can tell him who is guilty, Shakespeare like a good workaday dramatist has Ophelia step in:

Oph: (sings):
"They bore him barefaced on the bier,
Hey non nonny, nonny, hey nonny,
And in his grave rained many a tear -,"

OK, she's still the same barrel of laughs she was the last time we looked in on her. Laertes of course is appalled, seeing the loss not only of his father but also of his sister's mind. He's certainly been primed to receive Claudius' counsel. But again, Shakespeare instead has Claudius only invites Laertes to return later to hear Claudius' version of events. Why? Basically, Shakespeare has in mind a major plot shift from the royal court to the traveling Hamlet, and he wants to build in a bit of suspense over on the court side of the story.

We are taken, then, to a room where Horatio is approached by two sailors who have a message for him from Hamlet. Hamlet writes:

Ham: "…ere we were two days old at sea, a pirate
of very warlike appointment gave us chase. Finding
ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled
valor, and in the grapple I boarded them. On the
instant they got clear of our ship, so I alone became
their prisoner. They have dealt with me like thieves
of mercy, but they knew what they did: I am to do
a good turn for them. Let the King have the letters
I have sent, and repair thou to me with as much
speed as thou wouldst fly death. I have words to
speak in thine ear will make thee dumb….Rosencrantz
and Guildenstern hold their course for England. Of
them I have much to tell thee."

OK, so now we have a pirate story added to the mix, one in which Hamlet is separated from his two tour guides, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who were carrying a letter that instructed its recipient in England to kill Hamlet. Hamlet instead needs, apparently, to be ransomed, and seems to be asking his step-dad, whom he intends to kill, to come through for him. A full explanation for this, of course, will have to wait. We certainly have to give Shakespeare full marks for building suspense in this instance.

The Bard returns us to Laertes and the King, and this exchange might be the only place in Hamlet that seems to have more words than necessary, so Bardseye will summarize about two pages of dialogue. Reading Shakespeare So You Don't Have To! Claudius persuades Laertes to kill Hamlet. The king suggests that Laertes challenge Hamlet to a fencing match, the implication to be given Hamlet being that this is to assuage Laertes' honor. In fact, Claudius urges Laertes to tip his foil with poison so that any scratch upon Hamlet will kill him.

Lae: "I will do 't,
And for that purpose I'll anoint my sword."

And so does Laertes turn out to be his overly-sneaky father's overly-sneaky son. Just for kicks and giggles, Claudius suggests they add a poisoned refreshment for Hamlet to drink during a break. With handshakes all around, Laertes and Claudius are interrupted by Gertrude, announcing that Laertes' sister has been found drowned:

Que: "There is a willow grows askant the brook,
That shows his hoar leaves in the glassy stream;
Therewith fantastic garlands did she make
Of crowflowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples,
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name,
But our cold maids do dead men's fingers call them.
Thereon the pendent boughs her crownet weeds
Clamb'ring to hang, and envious sliver broke,
When down her weedy trophies and herself
Fell in the weeping brook. Her clothes spread wide,
And mermaidlike awhile they bore her up,
Which time she changed snatches of old lauds,
As one incapable of her own distress,
Or like a creature native and endued
Unto that element. But long it could not be
Till that her garments, heavy with their drink,
Pulled the poor wretch from her melodious lay
To muddy death."

To be continued….

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…..

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Hamlet #20 - My Thoughts be Bloody!

(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!).

* * * * * * * * *

Well who should Hamlet and R&G run across as they venture toward the Danish port but Fortinbras and his somewhat irregular army. We overhear Fortinbras direct one of his underlings to go get the already promised permission of Claudius to cross Denmark on their way to Poland. Homework assignment! Where along the Danish coast would Hamlet and R&G, journeying toward England, be likely to run across Fortinbras, journeying from Norway to Poland? And why did Fortinbras need to cross Norway anyway, instead of just sailing for Slupsk or another town on the Polish coast? Bardseye has read a bit of Shakespearean criticism in his time, but has never seen these issues addressed.

In a sense, one of the key points the story is tending toward arrives right here, in a speech not usually emphasized in productions – although Branagh's Hamlet does recognize it. After all, the careful creation of Fortinbras, laid out in Act I, as identical to Hamlet in being the nephew of a king and son of a slain king, and moreover a king slain by Hamlet's slain king of a father before he was slain, was not done by accident. Fortinbras is Hamlet's shadowing double, like that little French archaeologist in Raiders of the Lost Ark who shadows Harrison Ford, or Quilty to Humbert Humbert for those of you who are Lolita fans, or, um, um. Well, bardseye can't think of any more, and invites his readers to think for him.

Hamlet takes aside a captain of Fortinbras' army, who informs him that the land they are journeying to fight for is puny:

Cap:" Truly to speak, and with no addition,
We go to gain a little patch of ground
That hath in it no profit but the name…".

What is interesting to Bardseye in the speech is the acknowledgement of the valor and bravery of ordinary men. The commoners of Fortinbras' army, described by Horatio in Act I as "lawless resolutes," have managed to do what reason, philosophy and personal outrage could not. They have hardened Hamlet's will with the example of their own.

Ham: "Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puffed
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell."

Hamlet without the revelation of his father's murder would undoubtedly have been a prince of some ambition. He looks wistfully at Fortinbras, who can still persuade himself of the importance of so small a thing as a war. Hamlet, after all, has his eyes set on regicide. But he has needed this final push to resolve himself to it:

Ham: "…Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor's at the stake. How stand I, then,
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep, while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That for a fantasy and trick of fame
Go to their graves like beds…".

He is at last embarrassed, and perhaps inspired, into action by something that Shakespeare usually offers the slightest of his attention; the common man.

Ham: "…O, from this time forth
My thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!"

To be continued.....

Monday, February 13, 2006

Hamlet #19 - The Distracted Multitude

(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!).

* * * * * * * * *

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are politely inquiring of Hamlet where he has hidden Polonius' body:

Ros: "Tell us where 'tis, that we may take it thence
And bear it to the chapel."

Ham: "Do not believe it."

Ros: "Believe what?"

Ham: "That I can keep your counsel and not mine own.
Besides, to be demanded of a sponge, what replication
should be made by the son of a king?"

Ros: "Take you me for a sponge, my lord?"

Ham: "Ay, sir, that soaks up the King's countenance
his rewards, his authorities. But such officers do the
king best service in the end. He keeps them, like an
ape, an apple, in the corner of his jaw, first mouthed
to be last swallowed. When he needs what you have
gleaned, it is but squeezing you, and, sponge, you
shall be dry again."

Hamlet has at last lets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern know what he thinks of them. Bardseye suspects that Shakespeare took particular pleasure in the passage, one of many where a virtuous and noble hero ridicules a timeserving sycophantic courtier of the King. But in this speech Shakespeare explains why the courtier himself should question if his own interests are truly being served by serving the King's, since the King will "swallow" him when circumstances favor doing so.

In any case, R&G bring Hamlet to Claudius and Shakespeare next shows us Claudius waiting for Hamlet's arrival:

Clau: "How dangerous it is that this man goes loose!
Yet must not we put the strong law on him.
He's loved of the distracted multitude,
Who like not in their judgment, but their eyes…".

Here Shakespeare, an avowed monarchist, gives us a hint of what passed for party politics in an aristocratic age. Claudius' hand against Hamlet is stayed by Hamlet's popularity with the Danish masses. These are the same Danish masses who today are befuddled by Muslim outrage over satiric cartoons that were published in the Danish press. this seemingly intractable social problem (given Denmark's Muslim population) threatens to twist Denmark away from its preferred destiny – the making of superb butter cookies and flatware – and into a social conflict that may extend for decades, just as Hamlet has been pulled by the Ghost away from his preferred destiny of running a country and enjoying Ophelia's feminine allurements. O cursed spite, must the Hamletized Danish now think, that ever they were born to set it right.

Ros: "Where the dead body is bestowed, my lord,
We cannot get from him."

Hamlet, prince or not, is currently being held by guards, and Claudius orders him brought before him:

Clau: "Now, Hamlet, where's Polonius?"

Ham: "At supper."

Clau: "At supper? Where?"

Ham: "Not where he eats, but where 'a is eaten.
A certain convocation of politic worms are e'en
at him…".

When pressed on the issue, Hamlet acknowledges that Claudius can't find him in the next month, "you shall nose him as you go up the stairs into the lobby." That line is a particular favorite of Bardseye's. Claudius informs Hamlet (as Hamlet seems already to know, since he has heard about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's sealed letters) that he is to be sent to England. Hamlet is content with this arrangement, hinting to the audience as he answers Claudius that he also understands Claudius' real intentions in sending him away, when Claudius asks him if he knows the ostensible ones:

Ham: "I see a cherub that sees them."

And what are those real intentions? Claudius reveals them in a mini- soliloquy of his own that the letters instruct the English envoys who open and read them to kill Hamlet. The contrast between Claudius' oily out-of-sight hiring of henchmen to do his dirty work and Hamlet's almost erotic anticipation of his own vengeance-taking, with the lighting just right and with Claudius - do you recall the phrase? – drunk, asleep or in his rage.

To be continued....

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Hamlet #18 - The Worser Part of It

(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!).

* * * * * * *

We don't know if it's Polonius' bleeding corpse on the floor, her son's one-sided conversation with her first husband's ghost (visible to Hamlet but not to her) or Hamlet's relentless accusations, but Gertrude finally does repent of her second marriage:

Que: "O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain."

Ham: "O, throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half.
Good night, but go not to my uncle's bed…".

Even disbelievers in Freud's gossipy mythology must find something Freudian in this. For those who still doubt, here's more:

Ham: "Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed
Pinch wanton on your cheek, call you his mouse,
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damned fingers…".

Hamlet drags Polonius' body into the next room, even as he reveals that he knows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have sealed letters from the King that they are to take to England along with Hamlet for some trumped up embassy:

Ham: "There's letters sealed, and my two school fellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fanged…".

And so the plot thickens. And Bardseye would like to particularly suggest that the contents of those sealed letters of the King now in R&G's possession be borne in mind.

Polonius' somewhat accidental murder is an odd twist in a classic, in fact the classic, tragedy, which is supposed to unwind in a stately inevitable procession leading toward our hero's foreordained demise. Instead we get the wrong guy's guts slathered on the carpet and an unseemly fixation on the part of our hero on his mother's sex life. If Hamlet is so concerned about stopping Gertrude from sleeping with Claudius, why doesn't he just amble down the hall and slip his rapier into the intended royal guts? He's already in a heap of trouble anyway.

If the loose ends are a little less than satisfying for Agatha Christie fans, who want the pattern to unfold, they do reflect the inner life of a man whose threads are unraveling:

We can see how good a job Hamlet has done of turning his mother away from Claudius in the very next scene:

King: "What, Gertrude? How does Hamlet?"

Que: "Mad as the sea and wind when both contend
Which is the mightier. In his lawless fit,
Behind the arras hearing something stir,
Whips out his rapier, cries, "A rat, a rat!"
And in this brainish apprehension kills
The unseen good old man."

Thanks a lot, mom. Claudius realizes it would have been him, had he been behind Curtain #1. Like a Southern Sheriff telling the Brando-esque rebel, "Don't let the sun rise on you in this county, son," Claudius resolves that:

Clau: "The sun no sooner shall the mountains touch
But we will ship him hence…".

At the same time, he resolves to "countenance and excuse" the crime, giving as his reason that it will be laid more upon him for failing to restrain Hamlet than on Hamlet himself. Shakespeare perhaps has Claudius make this decision to leave open to Hamlet the possibility of a compromise with Claudius, though we know in advance that Hamlet himself could never countenance that.

To Be Continued…….

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Hamlet #17 - How Now, A Rat?

(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!).

Ham: "Now, Mother, what's the matter?"

Que: "Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended."

Ham: "Mother, you have my father much offended."

Que: "Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue."

Ham: "Go, go , you question with a wicked tongue."

Right from the start, Gertrude attempts to require Hamlet to recognize Claudius as his father. Hamlet, emboldened perhaps by desperation, and by his outrage over her quick remarriage, is just as assertive. Seeing that he's not buying what she's selling, she switches tactics:

Que: "Have you forgot me?"

Ham: "......................No, by the rood, not so;
You are the Queen, your husband's brother's wife,
And – would it were not so! – you are my mother."

Que: "Nay, then, I'll set those to you that can speak."

Ham: "Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you."

Que: "What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me? Help, ho!"

Pol (behind the arras): "What ho! Help!"

Ham (drawing): "How now, a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead!"

(He thrusts his rapier through the arras).

Hamlet has apparently grabbed his mother in order to force her to confront herself. Many productions of the play will have Hamlet holding a mirror to Gertrude's face. This request that she look at herself so frightens Gertrude that she accuses Hamlet of murderous intent, and in a sense he does seek to murder the wayward and deluded self-image she must have of herself. And just as Gertrude cries out not to be shown to herself, Polonius, hearing but not seeing, calls for help.

Hamlet thinks – to the extent he is thinking at all – that it must be Claudius behind the arras. And he would be happy to kill Claudius when in the squalid act of spying on his step-son, as he proves by stabbing whatever "rat" it is behind the Curtain #1.

Time and again in Hamlet, huge repercussions depend on strokes of bad luck or, nobility or not, low class family behavior. Hamlet's life is turned around by a murder echoing down from the prior generation. His mother's slovenly remarriage – about which he is also powerless - shames him. And not to say that he had it coming, but what business did Polonius have listening in on his chat with his mother?

Pol: "I am slain!"

Que: "O me, what hast thou done?"

Ham: "Nay, I know not. Is it the King?"

Well, ok, maybe Hamlet is not as crazy as he's acting. After all, what better way – indeed what only way – to kill the king and also retain your own freedom and right to the succession than by killing him by accident? But alas, when Hamlet uncovers the arras, he sees Polonius:

Ham: "Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better…".

"Thy better" means your boss, Claudius.

Bleeding corpse or not, Hamlet would like to complete his conversation with his mother. And in an exchange that would be familiar (except for the corpse on the floor) to any of the tens of millions of modern families that have had to accommodate a step-parent, he begins taunting her with a comparison of her first husband's virtues and her second husband's vices:

Ham: "This was your husband. Look you now what follows;
Here is your husband, like a mildewed ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?"

Hamlet finally starts to get to her. "Hamlet," she cries, "speak no more. Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul…". But just as he is on the verge of persuading her to foreswear her marriage, the Ghost enters, or Hamlet believes he does, and Hamlet begins speaking to him:

Ham: "A king of shreds and patches, -
Save me, and hover o'er me with your wings,
You heavenly guards! What would your gracious figure?"

Que: "Alas, he's mad!"

We have to ask what the Ghost can be thinking, since his appearance makes Hamlet look like a loon in front of his mother, weakening his ability to persuade her of what the Ghost would like to see her persuaded:

Ghost: "…This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose
But look, amazement on thy mother sits,
O, step between her and her fighting soul…".

Well, before Hamlet can do that, he and his mother have the usual "Can't you see it?" and "No I can't" exchange common to ghost stories, and which Shakespeare copies even from himself in Macbeth:

Ham: "How is it with you, lady?"
Que: "Alas, how is 't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy,
And with th' incorporal air do hold discourse?"

To be continued…

Friday, February 10, 2006

Hamlet #16 - My Offense is Rank


(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 twelve posts ago - just scroll down and catch up!).

Hamlet, agitated by fresh evidence of his uncle's guilt, and planning to have it out with his mother for jumping into holy bedlock with the guy, says, "Let me be cruel, not unnatural." Bardseye suggests Shakespeare may be allowing Hamlet to plagiarize Brutus in Julius Caesar, who when planning Caesar's assassination said, "Let's be sacrificers but not butchers." Similar, non? Anyhoo, before Shakespeare gives us the ultimate Freudian mother/son confrontation, he shows us Claudius in his office, himself agitated after the Players' play:

Clau: "I like him not, nor stands it safe with us
To let his madness range. Therefore prepare you,
I your commission will forthwith dispatch,
And he to England shall along with you…"

Thus does Claudius plan to rid himself of this meddlesome nephew by sending him to England in the company of his two boyhood chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Shakespeare paints these two characters as openly playing both sides, admitting to Hamlet that his uncle is using them as spies, and then fulfilling in a playfully sinister, Kafkaesque fashion their spying obligations when with Uncle Claudius.

Meanwhile Polonius, never happier than when he is hiding behind an arras – the equivalent of a folding screen (or byoobu, in Japanese, but I digress), arrives to tell the King that:

Pol: "…he's going to his mother's closet,
Behind the arras I'll convey myself
To hear the process…".

Polonius leaves and the King, alone on stage and sensing without knowing (just as Hamlet lacks the final proof that he desperately desires) that his murder of the former king is behind all that is happening, unburdens himself:

Clau: "O, my offense is rank! It smells to heaven,
It hath the primal eldest curse upon 't,
A brother's murder. Pray can I not
Though inclination be as sharp as will;
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent,
And like a man to double business bound
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,"

The double business includes his self preservation, which tends in one direction, and the impulse to atone for his guilt, which tends in another. Shakespeare, perhaps writing under a deadline, then allows Claudius to rip off Lady Macbeth:

Clau: "…What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow?"

Claudius then acknowledged that he can not seek forgiveness for the murder so long as he is "still possessed of those effects for which I did the murder," chief among them his crown and his Queen. He sees clearly his "wretched state," summarized in the cool title of a Clint Eastwood movie - "The Unforgiven."

Ah, but our scriptwriter has inserted a clever twist as the observed of all observers (Ophelia's phrase for Hamlet, you'll recall) reveals himself to be this time not observed but observing. Hamlet emerges from the shadows ('a means he; scanned means considered):

Ham: "Now might I do it pat, now 'a is a-praying,
And now I'll do 't. (He draws his sword.) And so 'a
Goes to heaven,
And so I am revenged. That would be scanned;
A villain kills my father, and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge,
'A took my father grossly, full of bread,
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May…".

In other words, Hamlet doesn't want to kill Claudius right after he has cleansed his soul of his crime, since this may send him to heaven. Hamlet would prefer to kill Claudius "when he is drunk, asleep or in his rage, or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed."

Yes, to our modern ears, Hamlet is beginning to give in to his own stereotype; indecisive, voting for murder before voting against it, or like Dr. Evil, leaving Austin Powers dangling above hungry sharks instead of just shooting him.

But if all Hamlet feels he has left is the manner in which he's going to kill Claudius, he might as well, as is said of another king, in this case Burger King, have it his way.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Hamlet #15 - Very Like a Whale

(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 twelve posts ago - just scroll down and catch up!).

Oph: "The King rises."

Ham: "What, frighted with false fire?"

Queen: "How fares my lord?"

Pol: "Give o'er the play."

(Exit all but Hamlet and Horatio)
Ham: "O good Horatio. I'll take the ghost's word
for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?"

Hor: "Very well, my lord."

The king, Claudius, has arisen in the middle of the play, just as the Players were reenacting the murder of a king in the manner described by Hamlet Sr.'s Ghost. This is now enough evidence to persuade Hamlet of his uncle's guilt. And how does Hamlet react?

Ham: "Aha! Come, some music! Come, the recorders:
'For if the King like not the comedy,
Why they, belike, he likes it not perdy.'"
Come, some music."

Guild: "Good my lord, vouchsafe me a word with you."

Ham: "Sir, a whole history."Guild: "The King, sir –"

Ham: "Ay, sir, what of him?"

Hamlet is giddy and seemingly out of control. Underneath, we sense a molten outrage at war with a great, expansive and generous nature. An nature he recognizes that he will have to abandon. Guildenstern has been sent by the Queen with a message for this whirling Hamlet:

Guild: "Good my lord, put your discourse into
some frame and start not so wildly…"

Ham: "I am tame, sir. Pronounce."Guild: "The Queen….hath sent me to you."

Ham: "You are welcome."Guild: "Nay, good my lord….If it shall please you
To make me a wholesome answer, I will do your
Mother's commandment….".

Ham: "Sir, I cannot."

Ros: "What, my lord?"

Ham: "Make you a wholesome answer, my wit's

When Guildenstern persists in his request that Hamlet reveal the cause of his "distemper," Hamlet asks Guildenstern to play a recorder. Guildenstern refuses, saying he lacks the skill, prompting this:

Ham: "You would play upon me, you would seem
to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart
of my mystery, you would sound me from my
lowest notes to the top of my compass, and there
is much music, much excellent music, in this little

Presumably because Hamlet has not been brought to the Queen fast enough, Polonius shows up to repeat the request. Of course, Polonius is not one of Hamlet's favorite people:

Ham: "Do you see yonder cloud that almost in the
shape of a camel?"

Pol: "By the Mass and 'tis, like a camel indeed."

Ham: "Methinks it is like a weasel."

Pol: "It is backed like a weasel."

Ham: "Or like a whale."

Pol: "Very like a whale."

Ham: "Then I will come to my mother by and by…".

Exasperated, everyone leaves except Hamlet and, hopefully, the audience in the Globe Theater. It is a tribute to English society around the years 1600 that they responded, or be willing to try to respond, to a play of such strangeness, psychology and depth. While we moderns may rightfully commend ourselves for our advances in science, technology and equal rights, it's hard to resist the conclusion that we have moved backwards in the seriousness and adult nature of our arts. Whoops! A digression.

Anyhoo, Mom's angry, though it is fair to ask why. All Hamlet appears guilty of is excessive high spirits during a play. Queen Gertrude does not know that it was Hamlet who inserted the lines that preyed on the King's guilty conscience – if that even can be considered a fault, since an innocent Claudius's conscience would not have been preyed upon. But soft, for Hamlet is about to round off this hallucinatory scene (you will need to know that Nero killed his mother Agrippina) with a soliloquy:

Ham: ""Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world. Now could I drink hot blood
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on. Soft, now to my mother,
O heart, lose not thy nature! Let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom.
Let me be cruel, not unnatural;
I will speak daggers to her, but use none.
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites…".

To be continued…..

Monday, February 06, 2006

Hamlet #14 - Doth Protest Too Much


(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 twelve posts ago - just scroll down and catch up!).

* * * * * * * * *

Queen: "Come hither, my dear Hamlet, sit by me."

Hamlet: "No, good mother, here's metal more attractive."

Pol (to the King): "O, ho, do you mark that?"

Ham: "Lady, shall I sit in your lap?"

(Lying down at Ophelia's feet).

Oph: "No, my lord."

Ham: "I mean, my head upon your lap?"

Oph: "Ay, my lord."

Ham: "Do you think I meant country matters?"

"Country matters" was an Elizabethan expression for sex. Bardseye would blush far too painfully to disclose the exact etymology, or word history, of this phrase. It's just too filthy. Email me or leave an inquiring comment and I'll tell you. But, you know, not in front of the kids.

Oph: "I think nothing, my lord."

Ham: "There's a fair thought to lie between maids' legs."

Oph: "What is, my lord?"

Ham: "Nothing."

Oph: "You are merry, my lord."

Ham: "Who, I?"

Oph: "Ay, my lord."

Ham: "O God, your only jig maker. What should a
man do but be merry? For look you how cheerfully
my mother looks, and my father died within 's two

Whoops! Is Hamlet becoming one of those guys who brings up the details of his last doctor's visit, or worse yet the resentment he feels towards his mother, when on a date? The short answer is yes. The slightly longer answer is that Shakespeare is showing how Hamlet's family drama is corroding his relationship with Ophelia, and his ability to trust and respect women generally.

The dirty jokes Hamlet tells are undeniably funny, but Shakespeare connects them to his increasing mania and desperation. Hamlet now feels tightening around him the cursed destiny imposed by his father's Ghost, even as his capacity for personal happiness is blighted by the low conduct of his mother. But something too much of Bardseye in this:

The trumpets sound…..

Enter a King and a Queen, the Queen embracing him
and he her. …He lies him down upon a bank of flowers.
……. Anon comes in another man, takes off his crown,
kisses it, pours poison in the sleeper's ears….. The Queen
returns, finds the King dead…..The poisoner woos the
Queen with gifts… the end she accepts love."

Obviously, the players are re-enacting the murder of Hamlet Senior as alleged by the Ghost, somewhat in the way a cable TV station reenacted the Michael Jackson trial each evening as it was occurring. Of course, we recall that Hamlet added lines, not directions for a pantomime, in order to catch the conscience of the King. In Kenneth Branagh's exemplary movie version of Hamlet, he has those lines performed by Charlton Heston, acclaimed movie star and former president of the National Rifle Association.

Heston is portraying the 1st Player, who is portraying a Player King, whose inserted lines portray King Claudius' murder (not that the 1st Player knows this). The majority of Heston's character's speech is that of a dying Player King persuading his Queen to love again after his death. Shakespeare mimics a more austere form of classical poetry for this speech. This style is done half tongue-in-cheek, but at the same time includes some of Shakespeare's most compelling verse (aye means ever):

Pl. King: "The world is not for aye, nor 'tis not strange
That even our loves should with our fortunes change;
For 'tis a question left us yet to prove,
Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love.
But, orderly to end where I begun,
Our wills and fates do so contrary run
That our devices still are overthrown
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own,
So think thou wilt no second husband wed,
But die thy thoughts when thy first lord is dead."

The Player Queen protests her undying loyalty to her dying husband, of course, before leaving him to enjoy – wait for it – a nap. In the audience (the one on stage), Hamlet turns to his mother:

Ham: "Madam, how like you this play?

Queen: "The lady doth protest too much, methinks."

Ham: "O, but she'll keep her word!"

Hamlet goes on to explain the action in detail, impressing Ophelia with his enthusiasm fo the theater:

Oph: "You are keen, my lord, you are keen."

Ham: "It would cost you a groaning to take off
mine edge."

Bardseye finds himself yet again blushing to acknowledge that Hamlet's comment is exactly as dirty as it sounds. Yes, it is true that Bardseye could skip the dirty bits and spare himself and his readers a good deal of blushing in our shared stroll through Hamlet.

But where would the fun be in that?

To be continued…..

Friday, February 03, 2006

Hamlet #13 - Speak the Speech


(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 ten posts ago - just scroll down and catch up!).

* * * * * * * * * *

Oph: "O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
The glass of fashion and the mold of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched
That sucked the honey of his music vows
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason
Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh…".

Shakespeare needs to impress on the audience that Hamlet wasn't always, to use his own words, "mad north-north-west." Ophelia is in the best position to do this, since she knew him so well, and perhaps intimately, before his circumstances began to so weigh on him.

We need next to recall that the king and Polonius, in the Bard's rather Kafkaesque Denmark, were watching Hamlet and Ophelia's exchange. The king emerges, perhaps with ruffled dignity, from his hiding place:

Clau: "………There's something in his soul,
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood,
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger; which for to prevent,
I have in quick determination
Thus set it down, he shall with speed to England
For the demand of our neglected tribute…".

Pol: "It shall do well…".

And so our detective story becomes a double one, as Claudius, seeing volatility and sensing danger from Hamlet (even if he cannot know the cause) begins to self-protectively distance himself from him.

We are just about midway through the play, and Shakespeare may have concluded that he has taxed his audience quite enough, and that they, and we, need a break. And so he gives us a big dose of the other Hamlet, the large-hearted and generous one, here eagerly extending his hospitality, and along with it a makeshift acting lesson, to the players, those visitors to the court who by their occupation can temporarily escape their identities as Hamlet can only dream of:

Ham: "Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced
it to you, trippingly on the tongue. But if you mouth it,
as many of our players do, I had as life the town crier
spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with
your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent,
tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion,
you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give
it smoothness. O, it offends me to the soul to hear a
robustious periwig-pated fellow tear a passion to tatters,
to very rags, to split the ears of the groundlings, who
for the most part are capable of nothing but inexplicable
dumb shows and noise…".

The groundlings were the commoners ushered into a portion of the Globe Theater that lacked chairs. To this day the English working class (the very concept of class, as well, being English) enjoy watching soccer, which they misname football, while standing. Bardseye assumes they have internalized the mistreatment of their ancestors at the Globe. One can imagine the original groundlings' "robustious" response to being directly insulted by Hamlet as "capable of nothing but dumb-shows and noise."

1st Player: "I warrant your honor."

Ham: "Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the
action, with this special observance; that you overstep not
the modesty of nature…".

He goes on like this basically forever, interrupted only when audience for the Players' play, and our play-within-a-play, begin showing up. Horatio is among them. Aching for friendship, Hamlet takes him aside:

Ham: "Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish her election,
Sh' hath sealed thee for herself, for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that Fortune's buffets and reward
Hast ta'en with equal thanks; and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commeddled
That they are not a pipe to Fortune's finger
To sound what stop she pleases. Give me that man
Who is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee. – Something too much of this. –"

Even Hamlet knows he has gone a bit overboard, but he is starving for honest company, which every other character in the play has in one way or another fallen short of providing him. He goes on to confide in Horatio that he has inserted lines in the play which mimic the murder, or alleged murder, of which the Ghost described being the victim. Hamlet wants Horatio to be an unbiased arbitrator in observing Claudius' reaction when this scene is played, before he will regard the case against Claudius as sufficient to act upon.

To be continued….

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Hamlet #12 - Get Thee to a Nunnery


(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 ten posts ago - just scroll down and catch up!).

* * * * * * * * *

Hamlet has just finished expressing in timeless prose his eloquent argument in favor of, well, despair. If we choose to be, rather than not to be, we will only (to quote Emperor Hirohito) endure the unendurable, an dour motive is only a sense of dread over the undiscovered country of death. This dread puzzles the will as the native hue of our (well, his, Hamlet's) resolve is sicklied o'er by the pale cast of thought – specifically the thought that if he does what he would do - kill the king - he will die for it.

Hamlet then turns to Ophelia with the most gracious comment a man might make to a woman: In thy orisons – in your prayers - be all sins remembered.

Oph: "Good my lord,
How does your honor for this many a day?"

Ham: "I humbly thank you, well, well, well."

Oph: My lord, I have remembrances of yours,
That I have longed long to redeliver.
I pray you, now receive them."

(She offers tokens).

Ham: "No, not I, I never gave you aught."

Oph: "My honored lord, you know right well you did,
And with them words of so sweet breath composed
As made the things more rich. Their perfume lost,
Take these again, for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
There, my lord."

How many million breakups could have used language of this grace and dignity when it came time to return - their perfume lost - rings, letters, compromising photos? Exactly what unkindness Hamlet visited on Ophelia is unclear, aside from his disheveled, wordless encounter with her described in Act II, scene 1. We could pass off this lack of motive for her returning his gifts by concluding that she's just one of those girls who won't cut a guy a little slack. But given all the heavy-handed influence landing on her head from her father and the King himself, it seems more likely that she's been reduced to doing their bidding. You can almost see the strings. And so can Hamlet:

Ham: "Ha, ha! Are you honest?"

Oph: "My lord?"

Hamlet proceeds to express his opinion that beauty will transform a woman's honesty into "a bawd" (a compromised woman), but that honesty will rarely transform a woman's beauty into "his likeness," the likeness of honesty. He then says:

Ham: "…I did love you once."

Oph: "Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so."

Ham: "You should not have believed me, for virtue
cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish
of it."

Our old stock means our fallen, sinful human condition, that virtue can only partially graft (the old meaning of inoculate) itself onto. This entire heartbreaking scene reads to Bardseye like a photographic negative of a love scene from Romeo and Juliet.

Ham: "I loved you not."

Oph: "I was the more deceived."

Ham: "Get thee to a nunnery. Why wouldst thou
be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent
honest, but yet I could accuse myself of such
things that it were better my mother had not borne
me; I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with
more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to
put them in, imagination to give them shape, or
time to act them in. What should such fellows as
I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are
arrant knaves all, believe none of us. Go thy ways
to a nunnery..."

Ophelia does not say, as she might, why are you telling me all this, if you just told me that you never loved me? And we are left to wonder why a man so bent on honesty would apparently lie to his recent ex-girlfriend. But Hamlet responds honestly only to those who are themselves honest, and so far that short list includes only Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (and even those last two were merely honest about being dishonest). In one sense, he is acting as any jilted young man would act, humiliated by the return of his love letters. But Hamlet draws broader conclusions from the situation, seeing an inevitable marbling of dishonesty in the prime sirloin of all human conduct (great image, bardseye!); his own, Ophelia's and certainly Polonius':

Ham: "Where's your father?"

Oph: "At home, my lord."

Ham: "Let the doors be shut upon him, that he
may play the fool nowhere but in 's own house.

Hamlet next rails against marriage in general, again advising Ophelia to enter a nunnery, and thereby end the eternal recurrence of human heartbreak which is all Hamlet can make of the future:

Ham: "I say we will have no more marriage.
Those that are married already - all but one -
shall live...".

Hamlet seems to mean Claudius as the "one" that shall not live. But in fact, things will work out a bit differently.

To be continued...

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Hamlet #11 - To Be, or Not to Be


(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 eight posts ago - just scroll down and catch up!).

* * * * * * * * * *

Act Three opens with Claudius interrogating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two boyhood or college friends of Hamlet's. R&G have already confessed to Hamlet that they were sent for by Claudius,. This didn't prevent our large-hearted if inwardly despairing hero from confiding in them, even though he must've known the two would later report to the king:

Clau: "And can you by no drift of conference
Get from him why he puts on this confusion…"

Ros: "He does confess he feels himself distracted,
But from what cause 'a will by no means speak."
Queen: "Did you assay him to any pastime?"

Ros: "Madam, it so fell out that certain players
We o'erraught on the way. Of these we told him.
And there did seem in him a kind of joy
To hear of it…".

Like parents learning that their trench coat-wearing adolescent son has taken an interest in model rocketry, the King and Queen are pleased to see Hamlet responding to the theater. But Claudius can't stop spying, and asks Ophelia to stay and everyone else to leave so that he can spy on Hamlet and his former girlfriend. (The idea of permitting Ophelia to say she didn't mean it and take him back, though, doesn't seem to occur to anyone):

Queen: "And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish
That your good beauties be the happy cause
Of Hamlet's wildness. So shall I hope your virtues
Will bring him to his wonted ways again."

Oph: "Madam, I wish it may."

(And wonted here means usual). Before leaving, Polonius, preferring falsity as always (and despite being the man who said, "To thine own self be true"), instructs his daughter to pretend to be reading a book in order to "color your loneliness." He goes on to say that with "pious action we do sugar o'er the devil himself." And this little throwaway line prompts a sudden aside – a comment made to the audience but not to any other character - from Claudius:

Clau: (aside) "O, 'tis true!
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!
The harlot's cheek, beautied with plastering art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word.
O heavy burden!"

With this key passage Shakespeare informs the reader that the king really did do it. He killed his own brother by pouring poison into his ear when he was resting in his garden. A quiet nap turned into a dirt nap. Claudius says that his deed now feels to him like a prostitute's ugly cheek, and his "painted" (false) words feel to him like the make-up slathered on that harlot's ugly cheek ("plastering art"). Why Claudius assumes all harlots' cheeks are ugly escapes Bardseye, unless he is referring metaphorically to the moral ugliness of prostitution.

We may wish to speculate over why Shakespeare waits until the start of Act III to tell us this, or indeed why he decides to tell us at all. Bardseye's feeling is that Shakespeare is focusing far more on Hamlet than on the king, and that he tells us now in order to remove a distraction.

Shakespeare believes in the legitimacy of royal descent, which is destroyed by Claudius' regicide, and which therefore would justify Hamlet's killing of Claudius – morally if not legally. But again, Shakespeare's main interest in is Hamlet himself, and in the psychology of someone - well, someone extraordinary - who is haunted even after his father's death by that father's call to revenge. Telling us Claudius' stage-whispered confession just helps the audience put aside our own speculation as to whether Claudius really did it or not, allowing us to better focus on how Hamlet handles the same question.

Anyhoo, the King and Polonius withdraw behind yet another screen, leaving Ophelia on stage. Hamlet wanders in. At first he seems not to see her, and given what's on his mind, it's easy to see why he might not:

Ham: To be, or not to be, that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles
And by opposing end them. To die, to sleep –
No more – and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wished. To die, to sleep;
To sleep, perchance to dream. Ay, there the rub,
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause. There's the respect
That makes calamity of so long life.
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,
The pangs of disprized love, the law's delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of th' unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscovered country from whose bourn
No traveler returns, puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. – Soft you now,
The fair Ophelia. Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered."

* * * * * * * * * * *
"To be" speech glossary:

The rub – an obstacle (literally, an obstacle in a game of bowls)
Coil – turmoil
Contumely – insolent abuse
Disprized – unvalued
Quietus – quitting of life
Bodkin – dagger
Fardels – burdens
Bourn – frontier

Orisons - prayers

To be continued.....
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