Sunday, October 4, 2009

I.ii. Enter Hamlet

The next section of Act I Scene 2 that will be examined includes Hamlet's parents discussing his father's death with him and his first soliloquy. The character we meet is unlike any other in the play and showcases well Shakespeare's ability to give each character its own voice. We've had the simple, folksy soldiers, Horatio and his histories, the ironical Claudius... And while they all used some manner of word play, Hamlet's first two lines are puns. We'll discover a character here that has mastered language so completely, that everything is wordplay and allusion to him. His is a metaphorical world, and "all the world's a stage" is perhaps its central metaphor.CLAUDIUS: But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son,--
HAMLET [Aside]: A little more than kin, and less than kind.
CLAUDIUS: How is it that the clouds still hang on you?
HAMLET: Not so, my lord; I am too much i' the sun.

Finally, Claudius notices Hamlet. While you may take this to mean "most important for last", directors have a great many choices in how they reveal Hamlet's presence. Has he made himself elusive or has he been in plain sight all along? What is Claudius' attitude towards him? Body language and staging says a lot about just why he was saved for last and what their relationship is at the start of the play.

GERTRUDE: Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted colour off,
And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.
Do not for ever with thy vailed lids
Seek for thy noble father in the dust:
Thou know'st 'tis common; all that lives must die,
Passing through nature to eternity.
HAMLET: Ay, madam, it is common.

Getrude's first lines, but I'm always more interested in Hamlet's response. There's yet another play on words with "common", but I think I'll keep my comment for the Branagh version which made me first realize it.

GERTRUDE: If it be,
Why seems it so particular with thee?
HAMLET: Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not 'seems.'
'Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected 'havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

Hamlet's first real speech and one of my favorites. This is where the theme of Stage/World really takes off, culminating in the bodies being placed on a literal stage where Horatio will tell/perform the tale. Hamlet comments "actions that a man might play", and the actor playing the part is literally doing that. Or is he? Shakespeare may have been the first proponent of "the method", asking his actor to go inside himself and have that something "which passeth show". In a very real sense, Hamlet is a meditation on theater itself. As far as the story goes, they are also damning words aimed at Claudius who IS feigning grief.

CLAUDIUS: 'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool'd:
For what we know must be and is as common
As any the most vulgar thing to sense,
Why should we in our peevish opposition
Take it to heart? Fie! 'tis a fault to heaven,
A fault against the dead, a fault to nature,
To reason most absurd: whose common theme
Is death of fathers, and who still hath cried,
From the first corpse till he that died to-day,
'This must be so.' We pray you, throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father: for let the world take note,
You are the most immediate to our throne;

Another example of Claudius' charismatic ability to turn an argument on its head. Here he puts Hamlet in the wrong and makes the grand announcement that the prince is next in line for the throne. It's all for the audience, once again corralling them to his side with honeyed words. It also shows his natural pragmatism: Dead is dead, you have to move on, and in any case, you're next in line and that's all that counts, right?

And with no less nobility of love
Than that which dearest father bears his son,
Do I impart toward you. For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire:
And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.
GERTRUDE: Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet:
I pray thee, stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.

In the Comments section, Snell made a remark that should really be included in the main body of the blog:
"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 situation where rash, unchristian behavior might be called for."

A great new filter for me to play with, thanks Snell.

HAMLET: I shall in all my best obey you, madam.
KING CLAUDIUS: Why, 'tis a loving and a fair reply:

As soon as Hamlet agrees to Gertrude's request, Claudius washes his hands of it and is happy with the outcome. He doesn't get it, or at least wants to close the matter before his audience gets weary. He knows to finish a conversation when he's on its winning side.

Be as ourself in Denmark. Madam, come;
This gentle and unforced accord of Hamlet
Sits smiling to my heart: in grace whereof,
No jocund health that Denmark drinks to-day,
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
And the king's rouse the heavens all bruit again,
Re-speaking earthly thunder. Come away.
Exeunt all but H
AMLETNow begins Hamlet's first soliloquy:

HAMLET: O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother

And if you didn't already, now you know where my blog title came from. I felt it was the perfect line to appropriate since we were going to discuss adaptations. If the text is the purest form of the play (or its Hyperion), then any adapation is something of an imperfect Satyr. I don't really believe that, though some critic (like Harold Bloom) seem to resent every possible staging. The reason is simple: The text can yield all manner of interpretation, while a particular staging has to select its own interpretation and is therefore less open and bountiful.

That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month--
Let me not think on't--Frailty, thy name is woman!--
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
Like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she--
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn'd longer--married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:

Hamlet's fourth classical allusion in this speech is an interesting one. If Hercules is known for his "Twelve Labours", and Hamlet considers himself far removed from Hercules, it prefigures his lack of action in the rest of the play.

Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.

The next series of articles will discuss how this part of the scene is used in various adaptations, as well as Hamlet's casting.

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