Thursday, November 21, 2013

IV.vii. Claudius' Seduction

I've decided to split Act IV Scene 7 into two sequences: Claudius' Seduction (of Laertes) and Ophelia's Death. The latter is rather short, but its visual imagery is something adaptations tend to approach in a variety of ways, making it worthy of its own series of analyses. The first sequence is much longer, even more so when one considers the conversation started in Scene 5. The sequence is a mirror of Hamlet's first meeting with the Ghost, in which an older father figure counsels a young man to plot a murder.The extent to which the two scene might be staged to highlight this link rests on the each adaptation's director, and will be one of the elements to look out for over the coming articles. What are the differences between the Ghost's rhetorical approach and the King's? Is the Ghost's less convincing, or is Hamlet's delay his responsibility alone? How does Claudius ensure a different result and what can we infer from his brand of leadership? To begin to answer these questions, lets look at Shakespeare's original text (in italics). I'll break in with my thoughts (in normal script) when appropriate.

SCENE VII. Another room in the castle.

KING CLAUDIUS: Now must your conscience my acquaintance seal,
And you must put me in your heart for friend,
Sith you have heard, and with a knowing ear,
That he which hath your noble father slain
Pursued my life.
LAERTES: It well appears: but tell me
Why you proceeded not against these feats,
So crimeful and so capital in nature,
As by your safety, wisdom, all things else,
You mainly were stirr'd up.
KING CLAUDIUS: O, for two special reasons;
Which may to you, perhaps, seem much unsinew'd,
But yet to me they are strong. The queen his mother
Lives almost by his looks; and for myself--
My virtue or my plague, be it either which--
She's so conjunctive to my life and soul,
That, as the star moves not but in his sphere,
I could not but by her. The other motive,
Why to a public count I might not go,
Is the great love the general gender bear him;
Who, dipping all his faults in their affection,
Would, like the spring that turneth wood to stone,
Convert his gyves to graces; so that my arrows,
Too slightly timber'd for so loud a wind,
Would have reverted to my bow again,
And not where I had aim'd them.

Not only did Hamlet kill Laertes' father and drive his sister insane, he's conveniently not there to defend himself. So it's clever of Claudius to also blame his own inaction in this matter on Hamlet and those who love him. If the King did not take immediate action against the Prince, it's because it would have gone against the Queen and the public's will. Claudius does not take responsibility.

LAERTES:And so have I a noble father lost;
A sister driven into desperate terms,

If this sounds like Hamlet's own "That have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd" (IV.iv), that's because it's meant to be.

Whose worth, if praises may go back again,
Stood challenger on mount of all the age
For her perfections: but my revenge will come.
KING CLAUDIUS: Break not your sleeps for that: you must not think
That we are made of stuff so flat and dull
That we can let our beard be shook with danger
And think it pastime. You shortly shall hear more:
I loved your father, and we love ourself;
And that, I hope, will teach you to imagine--

Let us note here that, at this point, Laertes thinks Hamlet is still alive, though Claudius should believe he is dead at English hands or at least well on his way to be. He's about to reveal his already enacted plan when a messenger cuts him off mid-confession.

Enter a Messenger

How now! what news?
MESSENGER: Letters, my lord, from Hamlet:
This to your majesty; this to the queen.
KING CLAUDIUS: From Hamlet! who brought them?
MESSENGER: Sailors, my lord, they say; I saw them not:
They were given me by Claudio; he received them
Of him that brought them.
KING CLAUDIUS: Laertes, you shall hear them. Leave us.

Exit Messenger

'High and mighty, You shall know I am set naked on your kingdom. To-morrow shall I beg leave to see your kingly eyes: when I shall, first asking your pardon thereunto, recount the occasion of my sudden and more strange return. 'HAMLET.'

Hamlet insults the King by writing his letter in prose, a mode of talk usually reserved for peasants, though also for close friends. The phrasing is that of a loyal, even fawning, subject throwing himself on the King's mercy. Either the King buys this and is a fool, or takes it as scathing sarcasm. It'll be in the playing of it.

What should this mean? Are all the rest come back?
Or is it some abuse, and no such thing?
LAERTES: Know you the hand?
KING CLAUDIUS: 'Tis Hamlets character. 'Naked!
And in a postscript here, he says 'alone.'
Can you advise me?

Another rhetorical tool to draw Laertes in: Claudius, though the man in charge, who has the most information and is by far the most devious, asks for Laertes' advice. The younger man comes up empty (see?), but this has the function of making him more complicit in what will unfold next. Claudius' goal is to make Hamlet's murder LAERTES' idea, thus wiping his hands clean of it.

LAERTES: I'm lost in it, my lord. But let him come;
It warms the very sickness in my heart,
That I shall live and tell him to his teeth,
'Thus didest thou.'
KING CLAUDIUS: If it be so, Laertes--
As how should it be so? how otherwise?--
Will you be ruled by me?
LAERTES: Ay, my lord;
So you will not o'errule me to a peace.
KING CLAUDIUS: To thine own peace. If he be now return'd,
As checking at his voyage, and that he means
No more to undertake it, I will work him
To an exploit, now ripe in my device,
Under the which he shall not choose but fall:
And for his death no wind of blame shall breathe,
But even his mother shall uncharge the practise
And call it accident.
LAERTES: My lord, I will be ruled;
The rather, if you could devise it so
That I might be the organ.

Laertes had one last chance to wipe his own hands clean, but didn't take it. And so, Laertes becomes a willing instrument of Claudius' revenge because he feels it was his idea (to be included). Compare to Hamlet who was forced to swear to an action that proved to be beyond him.

KING CLAUDIUS: It falls right.
The word "falls" falls right indeed.

You have been talk'd of since your travel much,
And that in Hamlet's hearing, for a quality
Wherein, they say, you shine: your sum of parts
Did not together pluck such envy from him
As did that one, and that, in my regard,
Of the unworthiest siege.
LAERTES: What part is that, my lord?
KING CLAUDIUS: A very riband in the cap of youth,
Yet needful too; for youth no less becomes
The light and careless livery that it wears
Than settled age his sables and his weeds,
Importing health and graveness. Two months since,
Here was a gentleman of Normandy:--
I've seen myself, and served against, the French,
And they can well on horseback: but this gallant
Had witchcraft in't; he grew unto his seat;
And to such wondrous doing brought his horse,
As he had been incorpsed and demi-natured
With the brave beast: so far he topp'd my thought,
That I, in forgery of shapes and tricks,
Come short of what he did.
LAERTES: A Norman was't?
LAERTES:Upon my life, Lamond.
KING CLAUDIUS: The very same.
LAERTES: I know him well: he is the brooch indeed
And gem of all the nation.
KING CLAUDIUS: He made confession of you,
And gave you such a masterly report
For art and exercise in your defence
And for your rapier most especially,
That he cried out, 'twould be a sight indeed,
If one could match you: the scrimers of their nation,
He swore, had had neither motion, guard, nor eye,
If you opposed them. Sir, this report of his
Did Hamlet so envenom with his envy
That he could nothing do but wish and beg
Your sudden coming o'er, to play with him.
Now, out of this,--

What is Lamond's function in the play? Here is a never-seen, never-before-mentioned character that apparently captured Hamlet's imagination. The fact Claudius is telling the story makes it suspect. As a rhetorical tool to recruit and control Laertes, it's an example of flattery. Laertes is compared favorably to a great Norman hero (it should be no coincidence that Laertes is a Francophile), and told Hamlet would chomp at the bit to show Laertes how much better a swordsman he is. The calm demeanor with which Hamlet accepts the challenge later belies the attitude Claudius attributes to him here. It might have happened, but Hamlet has grown up since then.

LAERTES: What out of this, my lord?
KING CLAUDIUS: Laertes, was your father dear to you?
Or are you like the painting of a sorrow,
A face without a heart?
LAERTES: Why ask you this?
KING CLAUDIUS: Not that I think you did not love your father;
But that I know love is begun by time;
And that I see, in passages of proof,
Time qualifies the spark and fire of it.
There lives within the very flame of love
A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it;
And nothing is at a like goodness still;
For goodness, growing to a plurisy,
Dies in his own too much: that we would do
We should do when we would; for this 'would' changes
And hath abatements and delays as many
As there are tongues, are hands, are accidents;
And then this 'should' is like a spendthrift sigh,
That hurts by easing. But, to the quick o' the ulcer:--

This is the argument against Hamlet's delay. Had Hamlet heard and followed his advice, Claudius would already be dead. It's also an echo of the "readiness is all" speech. What changed with Hamlet isn't the "would" but the "when". He would escape his dramatic destiny.

Hamlet comes back: what would you undertake,
To show yourself your father's son in deed
More than in words?

Deed and word are opposite, something of the theme of the play. There's probably a thesis about the author's anxiety in there somewhere, for whom words ARE deed, something the play tries to resolve in the "Hamlet as his own author" scheme.

LAERTES: To cut his throat i' the church.
KING CLAUDIUS: No place, indeed, should murder sanctuarize;
Revenge should have no bounds. But, good Laertes,
Will you do this, keep close within your chamber.
Hamlet return'd shall know you are come home:
We'll put on those shall praise your excellence
And set a double varnish on the fame
The Frenchman gave you, bring you in fine together
And wager on your heads: he, being remiss,
Most generous and free from all contriving,
Will not peruse the foils; so that, with ease,
Or with a little shuffling, you may choose
A sword unbated, and in a pass of practise
Requite him for your father.
LAERTES: I will do't:
And, for that purpose, I'll anoint my sword.
I bought an unction of a mountebank,
So mortal that, but dip a knife in it,
Where it draws blood no cataplasm so rare,
Collected from all simples that have virtue
Under the moon, can save the thing from death
That is but scratch'd withal: I'll touch my point
With this contagion, that, if I gall him slightly,
It may be death.
KING CLAUDIUS: Let's further think of this;

Though Laertes believes himself in the right AND is prized to be the better swordsman, he still feels the need to cheat. Unsure he can stick Hamlet like a pig, he opts for a simple, easier, scratch. And then Claudius hedges his bets and produces a back-up plan if even this fails. Well-prepared, or instinctually aware of their own karma (in the dramatic, rather than religious sense)? Or is he just showing off his cleverness by adding one more convolution to the plan, a convolution he will be punished for? This is Hamlet's tragedy, and he will die because of his own hubris, believing himself too good a character to die during a revenge scheme. But it's also Claudius, for he too will die because HIS brand of hubris forces him to use his innate deviousness to make unnecessary preparations that will cause the death of his queen, and Laertes' final betrayal.

Weigh what convenience both of time and means
May fit us to our shape: if this should fail,
And that our drift look through our bad performance,
'Twere better not assay'd: therefore this project
Should have a back or second, that might hold,
If this should blast in proof. Soft! let me see:
We'll make a solemn wager on your cunnings: I ha't.
When in your motion you are hot and dry--
As make your bouts more violent to that end--
And that he calls for drink, I'll have prepared him
A chalice for the nonce, whereon but sipping,
If he by chance escape your venom'd stuck,
Our purpose may hold there.

We'll next see how the various adaptations handled the sequence, whether they played up or down the King's manipulative skills or the similarities between Claudius/Laertes and Ghost/Hamlet.


snell said...

Time qualifies the spark and fire of it.
There lives within the very flame of love
A kind of wick or snuff that will abate it

...should also be contrasted to Claudius' rebuff of Hamlet's grief in I.ii:

but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief;

It seems that Claudius is ready to play the "you're not being manly enough" card whether you you keep grieving or whether you get over it. What a glorious hypocrite!

And of course,

LAERTES: To cut his throat i' the church.
KING CLAUDIUS: No place, indeed, should murder sanctuarize;
Revenge should have no bounds.

is a direct contrast with Hamlet, who did have the chance to literally cut Claudius' throat in a (metaphorical) church and refused to do so. Again, unlike others in Elsinore, Hamlet is able to think beyond the mere revenge to the philosophical/theological implications of the act.

And yes, we could use that forbearance to accuse Hamlet of still more dithering; but the fact that Claudius and Laertes heartily endorse the opposite option at the very least casts a new light on III.iii, and means we have to give some (small?) bit of credit to Hamlet's position.

snell said...

Meanwhile, that ridiculously detailed description of Lamond always struck me as a topical (or perhaps historical) reference to a real person, one presumably well known enough to the audience to be recognized. Why else go to such a long digression?

Siskoid said...

Some excellent points, as usual.

As for Lamond, your theory makes sense, I've just never come across any information about it.