Hamlet–Act III

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There’s been oodles of scholarship done on the “To be or not to be” speech, so I’m only going to reference it. And later.

Notice we open, again, with a staged meeting–only this isn’t for Laertes and the discovering of virtues and vices, but it’s a staging to figure out what in the dickins in going on with our main man Hamlet. Which reveals nothing, so the King wants to send him to England.

Now, the speech I am interested in is Hamlet’s conversation with the players (told you, I’m not going to let them go for awhile), because it is a reflection on what a play does and how it operates. I’m going to block quote it now, and let it speak for itself.

                            …Suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special o’erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure.(III.ii.19-25)

Earlier, Hamlet also has a line about the players being, “the abstract and brief chronicles of the time” (II.ii.524-525). It’s been awhile since I read Claire Asquith‘s book Shadowplaybut I highly recommend it if you want the “chronicle” of the time, which is much better than I will even try to do here. But there is a rant I want to go on about what this means…

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Onto Claudius’ desire for repentance. There’s a play between inherent character traits and actions going on here–he still has the same vices that brought him to the heinous act of killing his brother, so he cannot be allowed forgiveness for his action. Now, having a vice doesn’t make a person unforgivable–it’s to act upon that vice that makes an action good or bad. I’m not even going to get into the fact that Hamlet won’t kill him because there’s a risk Claudius might go to heaven.

Onto my last point which relates to the players a little bit as well. In the course of conversation with his mother, Hamlet states, “…but heaven hath pleased it so,/To punish me with this and this with me,/That I must be their scourge and minister” (III.iv.175-177). I’m thinking, and this might be over shooting here, that Hamlet might not be in control of his actions as the other characters in this play. The rest are showing “virtue her own feature” primarily by choices made that show the privation of virtue. I spoke earlier about there not being an Oedipus in a Christian understanding of man, but I think I may have been wrong. While the rest of the characters have choice, it seems that Hamlet is operating from something other than himself–he’s fated to commit his actions. They have flaws they can choose to act upon–he has an action he must do.

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I think this explanation may be the cause of Hamlet’s constant rumination on suicide. It’s the only thing that is his choice, if that makes sense. I don’t know how clear my argument is, so I’ll have to think on it a little more.

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Hamlet–Act II

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Polonius opens the act with the “staging” of Laertes’ vices in order to find out if his son is being a good boy in France. Which, if you think about it…”The plays’ the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” (II.ii.606-607)…Is pretty much what Hamlet is doing to Claudius. To present a feigned vice and through that presentation, reveal the truth of whether the person has committed said vice.

It’s different, though, isn’t it? One’s done through gossip, the other through a play. It seems okay to make this falsehood in a play, but not in gossip, right? Is that just a feeling I’m having? Because if we separate the action and the idea, the ideas are the same. And, honestly, I think we should look at what makes the “lie” of fiction different. And I think that’s what Shakespeare may be looking at, too. With this whole…play within a play thing.

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I’m going to be dwelling on the players for a bit, actually. Probably until the fourth act, so bear with me. I have a thousand thoughts, and these are the only vaguely-coherent ones.

Polonius notes that, “Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light” (II.ii.401-402), which is followed by the first player telling at great length the story of Priam’s death and Hecuba’s sadness. There’s a link here. They’re Roman. And Hamlet’s response? “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to her/That he should weep for her?” (II.ii.559-560)

To be brief, I’m wondering if it doesn’t have to do with what I was thinking earlier–that there is something afoot in Shakespeare’s work that he’s going above and beyond the tragedians in the past. That said, I’ve been spending too long dwelling on this act tonight, so I think perhaps tomorrow will reveal more.

Hamlet–Act I

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That’s not a happy face.

To begin with the first line, “Who’s there?” (I.i.1), we open with the subtle fact that the way the Danes understand their identity and recognize one another is through the king. Later, Laertes states to Ophelia–regarding their relationship and how it can only be passing–“…his wil is not his own./For he himself is subject to his birth…for the choice depends/The sanity and health of this whole state” (I.iii.17-18, 20-21). The state of the kingship–and complete disarray  that is Hamlet’s family–is vital to the polis and its relation to itself.

So it’s no surprise to us that we open with watchmen who are awaiting the outbreak of war with Norway. Which brings me to my next point.

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The ghost of the old king is dressed as he was for war with Norway–the war that was won by the hands of Hamlet, when he slew the older Fortinbras–and he is asking Hamlet again  to intercede on his behalf and win a different kind of war. The war against Hamlet’s uncle, the new king, who poisoned not only the king, but the entire heir-system that this country is founded upon.

I’ll get back to the ghost after these messages.

  1. Notice that in scene three, the only characters are Ophelia, Laertes, and Polonius. Family.
  2. The word prodigal is used three times in reference to Hamlet’s emotions to Ophelia. Now, prodigal is an odd word to be used, and to be used three times in one scene. Shakespeare’s got binders full of words, and here he’s using one that brings to mind a little story called “The Prodigal Son.”
  3. Hamlet’s not allowed to go back to school because of his depression. Hmm.

One more thing, and I’ll get back to the ghost, I promise.

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Hamlet has a little monologue I want you to look at a little closer, in case you missed it in the sea of monologues that is this play:

So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth–wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin–
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o’er-leavens
The form of plausive manners, that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery, or fortune’s star,–
Their virtues else–be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo–
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault. (I.iv.23-36)

So, I have this theory. Many of you may not have been lit majors, doomed to only understand literature via Aristotle’s poetics (because a few of your teachers are philosophers only) and haven’t had the term FATAL FLAW shoved into every fiber of your being. My theory is–once Christianity hits the scene, Aristotle’s Poetics are nice, good, true, beautiful–but at this point they’re getting half the picture, because what Christianity does is erase the entire notion of a flaw in your character determining your fate. There is no Oedipus in a Christian world. What is Hamlet’s fatal flaw? Because I can’t find it. And here, Shakespeare is making the tragic figure himself outline what a fatal flaw is and how it operates. Shakespeare. You are too cool for school.

So. I lied. About talking about the ghost. Does he come from hell? I could argue that. Purgatory? I could argue that too. I said all I had to say about the ghost in the beginning. Ha! Fooled you.

Until tomorrow, kids.