Saturday, August 3, 2013

IV.v. Laertes Returns

The second half of Act IV, Scene 5 sees Laertes return from France, in open rebellion against the King, with the support of the people who would crown HIM king. Laertes is fulfilling his role in the drama as an alternative to Hamlet. He too is a princely (if not of royal blood) young man with a father slain, intent on getting vengeance on the man responsible. But just as happened to Hamlet, this vengeance will be postponed. Hamlet's need to be sure of Claudius' guilt will be replayed in small by Laertes who, this time, will find Claudius NOT guilty. In a later scene, Claudius will turn into the Ghost and counsel Laertes to take revenge on the real murderer, Hamlet himself. The sequence also includes Ophelia's last appearance in the play (though many adaptations have show her suicide), as she walks back on stage to see her brother. Over the next few articles, we'll see how each adaptation has molded this sequence, and what effect both Claudius and Ophelia have on Laertes. First, we look at the text itself, in italics as usual, with my comments breaking in in normal script.

A noise within

QUEEN GERTRUDE: Alack, what noise is this?
KING CLAUDIUS: Where are my Switzers? Let them guard the door.

Enter another Gentleman

What is the matter?

GENTLEMAN: Save yourself, my lord:
The ocean, overpeering of his list,
Eats not the flats with more impetuous haste

Another link to Hamlet is this ocean metaphor. When Hamlet returns, it'll be by sea, whereas Laertes surely comes from France by land. Perhaps the audience would think, for a brief moment, that Hamlet has returned in force.

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!'
QUEEN GERTRUDE: How cheerfully on the false trail they cry!
O, this is counter, you false Danish dogs!

It's notable that Gertrude is angry at this rebellion and could indicate that she's thrown in with Claudius after all, but one should remember that Claudius only became King through his alliance with her. Deposing Claudius means deposing Gertrude, and ultimately, Hamlet. No matter Claudius' worth, no Monarch is going to welcome the actions of rebels.

KING CLAUDIUS: The doors are broke.

Noise within

Enter LAERTES, armed; Danes following

LAERTES: Where is this king? Sirs, stand you all without.
DANES: No, let's come in.
LAERTES: I pray you, give me leave.
DANES: We will, we will.

They retire without the door

Though Laertes has many men, he's not really there to stage a coup. His quest is a personal one, and he leaves his troops behind to confront and accuse the King. Again, this mirrors Hamlet's actions as a prince not particularly interested in claiming the usurped throne for himself. Revenge is more important that reparation.

LAERTES: I thank you: keep the door. O thou vile king,
Give me my father!
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Calmly, good Laertes.
LAERTES: That drop of blood that's calm proclaims me bastard,
Cries cuckold to my father, brands the harlot
Even here, between the chaste unsmirched brow
Of my true mother.

A lot like Hamlet's own vows, Laertes says calming down, inaction and reflection in this case, are anathema to his very being. And in a later scene, he'll assure Claudius that he would eat Hamlet's heart in the church so constant is his need for revenge. And yet, in both cases, he does calm himself, his mood is changed (twice by Ophelia, and ultimately by Hamlet himself).

KING CLAUDIUS: What is the cause, Laertes,
That thy rebellion looks so giant-like?
Let him go, Gertrude; do not fear our person:
There's such divinity doth hedge a king,
That treason can but peep to what it would,
Acts little of his will. Tell me, Laertes,
Why thou art thus incensed. Let him go, Gertrude.
Speak, man.
LAERTES: Where is my father?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: But not by him.

This, more than her anger at the rebels, puts Gertrude on Claudius' side. She's only saying the truth when she says he didn't kill Polonius, but is seen physically restraining Laertes as he tries to reach the King. Again, this may be a question of preventing the crown from falling into a commoner's hands, but it's hard to see anything other than a wife protecting her husband here. It does depend on staging and performance, and I hope to see some fruitful variety among the adaptations.

KING CLAUDIUS: Let him demand his fill.
LAERTES: How came he dead? I'll not be juggled with:
To hell, allegiance! vows, to the blackest devil!
Conscience and grace, to the profoundest pit!
I dare damnation. To this point I stand,
That both the worlds I give to negligence,
Let come what comes; only I'll be revenged
Most thoroughly for my father.
KING CLAUDIUS: Who shall stay you?
LAERTES: My will, not all the world:
And for my means, I'll husband them so well,
They shall go far with little.
KING CLAUDIUS: Good Laertes,
If you desire to know the certainty
Of your dear father's death, is't writ in your revenge,
That, swoopstake, you will draw both friend and foe,
Winner and loser?
LAERTES: None but his enemies.
KING CLAUDIUS: Will you know them then?
LAERTES: To his good friends thus wide I'll ope my arms;
And like the kind life-rendering pelican,
Repast them with my blood.
KING CLAUDIUS: Why, now you speak
Like a good child and a true gentleman.
That I am guiltless of your father's death,
And am most sensible in grief for it,
It shall as level to your judgment pierce
As day does to your eye.

Claudius gives a lesson in persuasion throughout the sequence, asking questions to Laertes whose answers open the door to the way out, all the while playing the innocent and valorous man. The political animal is out.

DANES: [Within] Let her come in.
LAERTES: How now! what noise is that?

Re-enter OPHELIA

O heat, dry up my brains! tears seven times salt,
Burn out the sense and virtue of mine eye!
By heaven, thy madness shall be paid by weight,
Till our scale turn the beam. O rose of May!
Dear maid, kind sister, sweet Ophelia!
O heavens! is't possible, a young maid's wits
Should be as mortal as an old man's life?

Hamlet proved far more than those two things mortal with his single blow, as we can find it responsible for all the deaths at the end of the play, as well as Denmark falling to Fortinbras with the entire line of succession dead.

Nature is fine in love, and where 'tis fine,
It sends some precious instance of itself
After the thing it loves.
OPHELIA: [Sings] They bore him barefaced on the bier;
Hey non nonny, nonny, hey nonny;
And in his grave rain'd many a tear:--
Fare you well, my dove!
LAERTES: Hadst thou thy wits, and didst persuade revenge,
It could not move thus.
OPHELIA: [Sings] You must sing a-down a-down,
An you call him a-down-a.
O, how the wheel becomes it! It is the false steward, that stole his master's daughter.
LAERTES: This nothing's more than matter.

While Ophelia's speech is laced with that the other characters consider complete non sequiturs, neither does Laertes respond directly to anything she says. Both are entirely disconnected from their sibling, both are holding parallel conversations. This is emotionally true of their situation, but more importantly, it continues the pattern of Ophelia being defined by men. What Laertes does here is the same he's always done, which is describe Ophelia as she is or as he thinks she should be. His sadness in part stems from the idea that he can no longer control her, though it would be unkind of anyone but his critics to say so.

OPHELIA: There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray, love, remember: and there is pansies. That's for thoughts.
LAERTES: A document in madness, thoughts and remembrance fitted.
OPHELIA: There's fennel for you, and columbines: there's rue for you; and here's some for me: we may call it herb-grace o' Sundays: O you must wear your rue with a difference. There's a daisy: I would give you some violets, but they withered all when my father died: they say he made a good end,--

Each flower has a meaning in local English lore, of course, and Ophelia is intimately tied to flowers in the manner of her death (she too withers). So rosemary is remembrance, pansies are thoughtfulness (in French, we call them pensées, which literally means thoughts), fennel for flattery, columbine for male adultery and ingratitude, rue for adultery and genuine repentance of all transgressions for women and everlasting suffering, daisies for innocence, and violets for fidelity. Note how it isn't always clear from the text who she gives each flower to, allowing the director and actors to modulate Ophelia's message, though of course, modern audiences will not get the hidden meanings unless Ophelia reveals them (which she sometimes does). Laertes obviously gets remembrance and thoughts, as is asked to remember her and their family as it used to be. This is in many ways her suicide note. Fennel might well go to Claudius, the flatterer, and the same character receives columbines, the sign of male adultery. So rue must go to Gertrude, though she takes some too, both women linked by suffering and the crimes of men. Proponents of the theory that Ophelia was pregnant should be aware that rue was used in abortions. The daisy (innocence) doesn't seem to go anywhere, it's been lost. As for violets, fidelity and loyalty have died along with her father. As we've seen already, she blames the Royals for her hardships.

[Sings] For bonny sweet Robin is all my joy.
LAERTES: Thought and affliction, passion, hell itself,
She turns to favour and to prettiness.
OPHELIA: [Sings] And will he not come again?
And will he not come again?
No, no, he is dead:
Go to thy death-bed:
He never will come again.
His beard was as white as snow,
All flaxen was his poll:
He is gone, he is gone,
And we cast away moan:
God ha' mercy on his soul!
And of all Christian souls, I pray God. God be wi' ye.


LAERTES: Do you see this, O God?
KING CLAUDIUS: Laertes, I must commune with your grief,
Or you deny me right. Go but apart,
Make choice of whom your wisest friends you will.
And they shall hear and judge 'twixt you and me:
If by direct or by collateral hand
They find us touch'd, we will our kingdom give,
Our crown, our life, and all that we can ours,
To you in satisfaction; but if not,
Be you content to lend your patience to us,
And we shall jointly labour with your soul
To give it due content.
LAERTES: Let this be so;
His means of death, his obscure funeral--
No trophy, sword, nor hatchment o'er his bones,
No noble rite nor formal ostentation--
Cry to be heard, as 'twere from heaven to earth,
That I must call't in question.
KING CLAUDIUS: So you shall;
And where the offence is let the great axe fall.
I pray you, go with me.


Ophelia exits and Claudius ruthlessly exploits Laertes' vulnerability by returning to arguments of his innocence. And yet, Ophelia just delivered a coded message about the Royals' improprieties. But Laertes doesn't have all the information that would link his father's death to a sequence of events that go back at least to Hamlet Sr.'s. Not as worthy as Hamlet, Laertes will not try things further or uncover the truth until it's too late.


snell said...

And Laertes, to further contrast, is willing to "dare damnation." Unlike Hamlet, who feared a trick by a spirit "to damn" him.

Granted, Hamlet talked to a ghost, so fear of supernatural shenanigans was a valid concern, whereas Laertes is just breast-beating to show off his great pain and loyalty--surely his concern of damnation (after a return from the flesh pits of Paris) isn't terribly sincere.

Yet whereas Hamlet's concerns are sometimes portrayed as dithering and rationalizing of procrastination, the comparison with Laertes--whose lust for revenge allows himself to be turned into a guided missile for someone else's sinister plans--does put Hamlet's (in)action in a somewhat better light.

Siskoid said...

That's a great observation Snell!