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.

 

King Henry IV, Part II–Acts I & II

Hello! Long time, no see. Let’s cut to the chase and dive into part two!

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The first act begins and ends with a similar theme. (Now, let’s look at “theme” as if we were looking at a piece of music–it’s a vein running through a piece.) That of course being hope. We open the play with Rumour, who raises up a hope so high in Northumberland, only for him to be brought so low by the truth. We could say that this raising of hopes is done merely for he sake of dramatic flair, but I think there is a particular reason Northumberland has his hopes raised, only to find out his son is dead and the rebellion at Shrewsbury defeated.

I see a strange confession in thine eye:
Thou shakest thy head and hold’st it fear or sin
To speak a truth. If he be slain, say so;
The tongue offends not that reports his death:
And he doth sin that doth belie the dead,
Not he which says the dead is not alive.
Yet the first bringer of unwelcome news
Hath but a losing office, and his tongue
Sounds ever after as a sullen bell,
Remember’d tolling a departing friend. (I.i.)

I suppose the reason I find the hopefulness that opens the play interesting, is that it would have gone on to be interesting regardless of if “rumour” had reared her ugly head or not. However, it might explain Northumberland’s later actions, so I’ll let the opening rest for now.

The act wraps up, though, commenting that it shouldn’t hurt to hope in success in the continued rebellion against the king, though the Archbishop’s forces are substantially weak without the aid of Northumberland. This however is a more, I suppose, “practical” hope. It is the hope that comes with planning, and then we get a long speech about the war being planned as a house. And what is this war for, but for the sake of a place to call home.

Which leads me to my last comment about the first act, so I can cover a little more of the second. Falstaff says something in his rambling that I found extremely interesting. It’s his comment on the English identity. While I don’t usually take my identity advice from a man who’s identity lies in his stomach, it’s a little different with the confusing figure of Falstaff. “There is not a/dangerous action can peep out his head but I am/thrust upon it: well, I cannot last ever: but it/was alway yet the trick of our English nation, if/they have a good thing, to make it too common.” I’ll just leave that one for thought, because I’m not quite sure what to do with it.

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Coming into the second act, the concentration is mostly on the old gang of Hal’s. Hal’s conversation with the page is exploding with Christian allusions (you can say they’re all over, but there are points where that is the only language Shakespeare uses, and this is one of those points), references to Ephesians, the old church, parish heifers–and the following quotation is how this conversation ends. Please, tell me what it smells like…

From a God to a bull? a heavy decension! it was
Jove’s case. From a prince to a prentice? a low
transformation! that shall be mine; for in every
thing the purpose must weigh with the folly.(II.ii.)

Hmm, high to low, god to sacrificial animal…doesn’t sound familiar?

Then, we have a completely different tone in the next scene. Pistol is throwing every curse of ancient Greece upon Doll. And when Falstaff kicks him out? She sings his praises, comparing him to every Greek hero that has ever done anything heroic–Well, that’s a lie. She actually compares him to the ancient heroes of Troy.

Until tomorrow.

King John–Act V

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King John repents to the bishop as an attempt to keep peace with France, who has led most of his allies into revolt. Always a man of business, this John. And he dies as he lived–working on state matters.

Aside from King John’s disconnect from the spiritual life (and that “kill the kid” incident, which I think was a spur of the moment act of fear) I don’t see him as a particular villain. I was expecting to see a more notorious picture painted of him, and given the feelings about the Catholic Church when Shakespeare is writing, he seems to be a kind of fated-to-doom character.

Oh, and since I brought up the Church, the day that the war sets on in the beginning is the beginning of the Triduum (the three day solemnity/celebration of Easter) which paints a very interesting picture. You know, with all the war and marriage and death.

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I was surprised that the Bastard Phillip turns out to be a legitimate servant to his king. I bring this up, because the last lines are spoken by him. “This England never did, nor never shall,/Lie at the proud foot of a conqueror,/But when it first did help to wound itself” (V.vii.112-114). I’m leaving this really as food for thought. England shall not be conquered, unless it is by the mistakes she makes herself. Hmm. At the end of a history play (and my knowledge of English history is not extremely extensive prior to, well, really the Victorian era–but I’m reading this to attempt to make up for that…as well as this) these three lines left me pondering on how this is pertinent to a kind of “English understanding of being English.” Perhaps my friends across the pond may be of service?