Thursday, August 20, 2009

I.ii. The Wedding Banquet

One of the challenges of doing a project like this is that some scenes are incredibly long. So I've decided to cut of them into pieces for both theme and manageability. Act I Scene 2 will be split into three: The Wedding Banquet (everything before Hamlet is named), Enter: Hamlet (through the end of his speech), and Ghost Stories (from Horatio's entrance to the end of the scene). The next batch of essays will only look at the first of these sections, holding off Hamlet's first lines until the next part. Versions of the play that have done away with Scene 1 will usually start with the banquet. How does that affect our understanding of the play?

This is also the introduction of a number of important characters - Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Laertes - so I expect to spend quite some time discussing casting. It should also be our introduction to the interior of Elsinore, which of course affects staging. But let's look at the text before doing anything else (Shakespeare's in italics, as usual).

SCENE II. A room of state in the castle.

KING CLAUDIUS: Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death
The memory be green, and that it us befitted
To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom
To be contracted in one brow of woe,
Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature
That we with wisest sorrow think on him,
Together with remembrance of ourselves.
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
The imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,--
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,--
Taken to wife: nor have we herein barr'd
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along. For all, our thanks.

Claudius is a practical man who presents himself as someone who gets on with things. This is an important point to make about the character not only because he uses his pragmatism to convince the court of his ascendence to the throne (and one could imagine a pre-Hamlet scene in which he used his brand of logic to explain why he'd make a better King than Hamlet Jr.), but because it may well be how he could follow through on a fratricide. It also makes him the perfect nemesis for Hamlet, with an attitude that stands in stark opposition to the lead's excessively intellectual ambivalence. Claudius is King because he acts. Hamlet isn't because he doesn't.

Now follows, that you know, young Fortinbras,
Holding a weak supposal of our worth,
Or thinking by our late dear brother's death
Our state to be disjoint and out of frame,
Colleagued with the dream of his advantage,
He hath not fail'd to pester us with message,
Importing the surrender of those lands
Lost by his father, with all bonds of law,
To our most valiant brother. So much for him.
Now for ourself and for this time of meeting:
Thus much the business is: we have here writ
To Norway, uncle of young Fortinbras,--
Who, impotent and bed-rid, scarcely hears
Of this his nephew's purpose,--to suppress
His further gait herein; in that the levies,
The lists and full proportions, are all made
Out of his subject: and we here dispatch
You, good Cornelius, and you, Voltimand,
For bearers of this greeting to old Norway;
Giving to you no further personal power
To business with the king, more than the scope
Of these delated articles allow.
Farewell, and let your haste commend your duty.
CORNELIUS VOLTIMAND: In that and all things will we show our duty.
KING CLAUDIUS: We doubt it nothing: heartily farewell.

If Scene 1 was slashed in any great measure, then so will this speech which pertains to the outside world. I may still work to set up Fortinbras for the end, but seems completely useless without the Norwegian sublot. In the full play, it sets up Claudius' arrogance and the eventual loss of what his brother had won.

And now, Laertes, what's the news with you?
You told us of some suit; what is't, Laertes?
You cannot speak of reason to the Dane,
And loose your voice: what wouldst thou beg, Laertes,
That shall not be my offer, not thy asking?
The head is not more native to the heart,
The hand more instrumental to the mouth,
Than is the throne of Denmark to thy father.
What wouldst thou have, Laertes?
LAERTES: My dread lord,
Your leave and favour to return to France;
From whence though willingly I came to Denmark,
To show my duty in your coronation,
Yet now, I must confess, that duty done,
My thoughts and wishes bend again toward France
And bow them to your gracious leave and pardon.
KING CLAUDIUS: Have you your father's leave? What says Polonius?
LORD POLONIUS: He hath, my lord, wrung from me my slow leave
By laboursome petition, and at last
Upon his will I seal'd my hard consent:
I do beseech you, give him leave to go.
KING CLAUDIUS: Take thy fair hour, Laertes; time be thine,
And thy best graces spend it at thy will!

It is noteworthy that Claudius should address Laertes' wishes before those of Hamlet. Hamlet may be next in line, but Claudius plainly puts Laertes first. This opposes Laertes and Hamlet from their first shared scene, and this will obviously carry through to the end, with Claudius acting as adoptive father to Laertes. In effect, Hamlet and Laertes are brothers, both related to the King, one by blood and the other by politics. Polonius (and thus his family) were apparently better connected to Claudius than to Hamlet Sr. (who being gone to the wars, may not have been so well attended), and has been promoted to a place of influence in this new regime. By giving Laertes favor here, Claudius shows his true colors as a political animal first. The irony, of course, is that had Polonius been more patient and thrown his support with filial rights, his daughter might well have become queen.

Another point I'd like to make about the Hamlet-Laertes rivalry is that while Hamlet studies in nearby Wittenberg, Laertes spends his time in France. That Claudius shows preference to a "son" that has been corrupted by another country, in effect prefers the Frenchman to the Dane, speaks to the weakened state he is now the head of. The country has been usurped by a pretender who does not even love it, but would corrupt it just as a debauched country has corrupted Laertes. (This is not my opinion of France, but it is Polonius', if we go by later scenes where he treats his son's soul as being in mortal danger over there.)

I'm making points here that I don't feel were particularly made by any of the film versions, though we'll see how they play out with the "filter" in place. Perhaps I never noticed because I hadn't really thought of it before. These are relatively recent realizations, once again showing how this play opens up to me in new ways every time I read or see it.

1 comment:

snell said...

A further contrast twixt Wittenberg and France: Wittenberg wasn't just a university town, but in Shakespeare's day was probably even better known as home of Martin Luther and the Reformation.

That adds, I think, to the Christain/pagan schism we discussed earlier. And, perhaps, it explains why Hamlet comes across as more Christian (even prudish) than the rest of Danish nobility. Only Hamlet considers the wedding to be incestuous; he gives an almost Puritan anti-wassailing speech; he won't kill Claudius while the King is praying because he fears Claudius will go to heaven, where Laertes would kill Hamlet "in a church," afterlife be damned.

Those are just a few examples. And, perhaps, it explains Hamlet's reluctance to act before all the data is in, as the play becomes the struggles of the prince to be Christian in a pagan (or at least not devout)court, in a sitaution where rash, unchristian behavior might be called for.