Sunday, October 20, 2013 Hamlet's Letter

Scene 6 is a brief moment that acts as "Meanwhile..." and tells us just what happened to Hamlet after he left Denmark. A dramatic necessity, it allows the prince's story to unfold without adding a complicated action set piece involving two ships. Of course, in movies, that can be shown, and some adaptations have gone through that trouble, replacing or enhancing this scene with visuals. We'll see who did and if it added something over the course of the next articles. For now, let's look at the text itself.

SCENE VI. Another room in the castle.

Enter HORATIO and a Servant
HORATIO: What are they that would speak with me?
SERVANT: Sailors, sir: they say they have letters for you.
HORATIO: Let them come in.

Exit Servant

I do not know from what part of the world
I should be greeted, if not from Lord Hamlet.

Enter Sailors

FIRST SAILOR: God bless you, sir.
HORATIO: Let him bless thee too.
FIRST SAILOR: He shall, sir, an't please him. There's a letter for you, sir; it comes from the ambassador that was bound for England; if your name be Horatio, as I am let to know it is.
HORATIO: [Reads] 'Horatio, when thou shalt have overlooked this, give these fellows some means to the king: they have letters for him. Ere we were two days old at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase. Finding ourselves too slow of sail, we put on a compelled valour, and in the grapple I boarded them: on the instant they got clear of our ship; so I alone became their prisoner. They have dealt with me like thieves of mercy: but they knew what they did; I am to do a good turn for them. Let the king have the letters I have sent; and repair thou to me with as much speed as thou wouldst fly death. I have words to speak in thine ear will make thee dumb; yet are they much too light for the bore of the matter. These good fellows will bring thee where I am. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hold their course for England: of them I have much to tell thee. Farewell. 'He that thou knowest thine, HAMLET.'
Come, I will make you way for these your letters;
And do't the speedier, that you may direct me
To him from whom you brought them.


I'll note three things. First, how brazen Hamlet is to also send letters to the King. He is not returning to Denmark under cover of darkness to assassinate Claudius in his sleep. He's giving him fair warning, challenging him. But we'll see how that plays out in that other letter and leave it be for now.

Second, while getting captured by pirates effectively separates him from Rosencrantz&Guildensten and allows him to escape his English fate, the idea that the knew what they were doing and asked a favor of him is an odd loose end. What was this favor, and why isn't it mentioned again? A contrivance then, and easy enough to explain. He would have made his noble birth known and promised to pay some ransom. It's still strange, and if the letter wasn't addressed to Horatio, we might wonder if he's lying. Or is he covering his bases in case someone else spies the letter? After all, he does make allusions to other events he doesn't want to discuss on paper. This is left unresolved, just as it isn't clear how long Hamlet was gone from the realm. Personally, I like to think his incredible charisma made him the pirates' liege lord and that he plans to use them in a potential civil war, then reward them with lands and titles. Indeed, are these sailors delivering his letters some of those same pirates?

Lastly, let's note that while Horatio keeps speaking in verse, Hamlet's letter is written in prose. On the one hand, it's part of the friendly familiarity he owes Horatio, while Horatio himself is maintaining an aloof distance between himself and the more common sailors. But might it also indicate some kind of naturalization of Hamlet while in pirate hands? Has he gone native and gotten used to a more common vernacular? And perhaps more germane to the plot, has his time with them hardened him and made him more of an action man, one that can finally take his revenge on Claudius?


snell said...

Still waiting for the modern adaptation where Horatio just gets a series of odd tweets from Hamlet...

Siskoid said...

Don't tempt fate.