Saturday, July 5, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral

The second half of the scene sees the burial party arrive as Hamlet and Horatio watch in secret, but the Prince can't help but reveal himself when a distraught Laertes jumps into his sister's grave. The event is, in a way, the first exchange in their duel, or perhaps the second or even third, if you count their competing for the attentions of the King and Ophelia in Act I. Things to watch out for include how the grave jump is achieved, whether or not directors and actors have managed to keep the melodrama believable, and the reactions of characters who have few lines like the King and Queen. But before diving into our various adaptations, let's look at the text itself (which contains an uncommon amount of stage directions). Shakespeare is in italics, as usual. In normal script, intermittent comments.

Enter Priest, & c. in procession; the Corpse of OPHELIA, LAERTES and Mourners following; KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, their trains, & c

HAMLET: The queen, the courtiers: who is this they follow?
And with such maimed rites? This doth betoken
The corse they follow did with desperate hand
Fordo its own life: 'twas of some estate.
Couch we awhile, and mark.

Retiring with HORATIO

LAERTES: What ceremony else?
HAMLET: That is Laertes,
A very noble youth: mark.
LAERTES: What ceremony else?
First Priest: Her obsequies have been as far enlarged
As we have warrantise: her death was doubtful;
And, but that great command o'ersways the order,
She should in ground unsanctified have lodged
Till the last trumpet: for charitable prayers,
Shards, flints and pebbles should be thrown on her;
Yet here she is allow'd her virgin crants,
Her maiden strewments and the bringing home
Of bell and burial.

Whether we chose to believe in Gertrude's fanciful tale of an "accident" or that Ophelia committed suicide, the Church recognizes the latter as the truth, and only the King's intercession has granted Ophelia this much respect. Note that she's "allowed" her virgin dress, so the priest even calls her maidenhead into question. That's another clue supporting the theory of a pregnant Ophelia.

LAERTES: Must there no more be done?
First Priest: No more be done:
We should profane the service of the dead
To sing a requiem and such rest to her
As to peace-parted souls.
LAERTES: Lay her i' the earth:
And from her fair and unpolluted flesh
May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,
A ministering angel shall my sister be,
When thou liest howling.

If Ophelia's purity is in doubt, Laertes doesn't see it, or refuses to. He imagines her as an angel whose grave will see violets bloom. You'll remember violets as the flowers that withered and died when Polonius did, a symbol of fidelity closely associated with Ophelia. Laertes mentioned the flower to her before leaving for France, and it's the flower she would have wanted to give her brother in her mad state. Laertes imagines this natural manifestation will prove the priest was wrong about her.

HAMLET: What, the fair Ophelia!
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Sweets to the sweet: farewell!

Scattering flowers

I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck'd, sweet maid,
And not have strew'd thy grave.

Act II Scene 2: Gertrude may or may not be surprised Hamlet is courting Ophelia. She seems to support Polonius' stand against such a union. Here, she says she hoped Ophelia might have replaced her as Queen. Kind words said out of grief or to pacify Laertes? Or does she mean them? If she does, it might add to her irritation in the earlier scene, having to suffer her husband's tedious adviser wanting to throw a wrench in her plans, and unable to say anything in front of the King. Dramatically, of course, these words sting the hidden Hamlet and probably help push him to the edge. It also inspires half-treasonous vitriol from Laertes:

LAERTES: O, treble woe
Fall ten times treble on that cursed head,
Whose wicked deed thy most ingenious sense
Deprived thee of! Hold off the earth awhile,
Till I have caught her once more in mine arms:

Leaps into the grave

Laertes famously prefigures his joining his sister in death with this gesture.

Now pile your dust upon the quick and dead,
Till of this flat a mountain you have made,
To o'ertop old Pelion, or the skyish head
Of blue Olympus.

Jumping into a grave with dubious Christian sanctification, Laertes pointedly turns to the pagan idiom.

HAMLET: [Advancing] What is he whose grief
Bears such an emphasis? whose phrase of sorrow
Conjures the wandering stars, and makes them stand
Like wonder-wounded hearers? This is I,
Hamlet the Dane.

Through a twist in the line, Hamlet seems to ask something of Laertes in this speech, until one realizes he's really talking about himself, acting as his own narrator, in effect writing (or "willing") himself back into the action. This reinforces the mirror between the two "adopted sons" of Claudius, and is followed by Hamlet repeating Laertes' action so that he may share his doom.

Leaps into the grave

LAERTES: The devil take thy soul!

They are certainly getting closer and closer TO the devil, both physically and morally.

Grappling with him

HAMLET: Thou pray'st not well.

Even in his grief (and perhaps belying it), Hamlet manifests a sharp wit. Laertes's devilish invocation puts his own soul in peril.

I prithee, take thy fingers from my throat;
For, though I am not splenitive and rash,
Yet have I something in me dangerous,
Which let thy wiseness fear: hold off thy hand.

This speech mirrors the one Hamlet offered Laertes' sister ("I could accuse me of such things...). Is he still making empty threats, or will he let the beast out?

KING CLAUDIUS: Pluck them asunder.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Hamlet, Hamlet!
All: Gentlemen,--
HORATIO: Good my lord, be quiet.

The Attendants part them, and they come out of the grave

HAMLET: Why I will fight with him upon this theme
Until my eyelids will no longer wag.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: O my son, what theme?
HAMLET: I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?
KING CLAUDIUS: O, he is mad, Laertes.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: For love of God, forbear him.
HAMLET: 'Swounds, show me what thou'lt do:
Woo't weep? woo't fight? woo't fast? woo't tear thyself?
Woo't drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I'll do't. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou'lt mouth,
I'll rant as well as thou.

The duel continues. Hamlet's lines are meant to put Laertes down, but are also a rather poignant treatise on the futility of grief. He rattles on a list of impossible feats before admitting the best they can do is rant. His grief for his father is revisited, and he finds he must once again unpack his heart with words which do not equal what he's actually feeling. But he does ask "what will you do?", and the focus on action is notable. Hamlet means to soon transition from words to action.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: This is mere madness:
And thus awhile the fit will work on him;
Anon, as patient as the female dove,
When that her golden couplets are disclosed,
His silence will sit drooping.

Question: Hamlet's letter to his mother. What did it contain? We're never told. How surprised is she to see him here? Does she really believe him mad at this point? Is she covering for him? Clues may be found in specific performances. Her metaphor of a dove waiting for her eggs to hatch is either prescient or a knowing prediction, and could even be code between mother and son. She could be reminding him of his plans and warning him not to sabotage them with this show of emotion. Of course, Claudius and Laertes are hatching plans of their own.

HAMLET: Hear you, sir;
What is the reason that you use me thus?
I loved you ever: but it is no matter;
Let Hercules himself do what he may,
The cat will mew and dog will have his day.


KING CLAUDIUS: I pray you, good Horatio, wait upon him.



Strengthen your patience in our last night's speech;
We'll put the matter to the present push.
Good Gertrude, set some watch over your son.
This grave shall have a living monument:
An hour of quiet shortly shall we see;
Till then, in patience our proceeding be.


Ever the expert politician and manipulator, Claudius makes Laertes, Gertrude and even Horatio members of his team in the way he speaks. Little does he know none will be loyal to him in the end.


snell said...

Please allow me a brief remark on what difference the edition you use can make.

When I first read the play in high school, we used the Signet Classics edition, which used the Second Quarto as the basis for its text. And in that version...there is no Priest!!

The Quarto identifies the character as "Doct.", which the Signet editor emended to "Doctor of Divinity." So I was fairly surprised when I read it again in college, in a different edition, and suddenly it was a priest!!

Leaving aside any question of which is "right" (or how you would portray a Dr. Of Divinity on stage), the apparent swapping of one role really got my mind flowing. Consider:

**Making it a Doctor Of Divinity rather than a Priest emphasizes how questionable Ophelia's death was--even the King couldn't get an actual priest to perform the rites.

**Laertes' insult of "churlish priest" becomes a jibe at the gentleman because he is not an actual priest.

**Using a Doctor Of Divinity instead of a priest repeats the "letter of the law, not the spirit" theme of Claudius attempted in his prayer without true repentance scene. If you can't find a priest to sanctify the rites, find someone who can, at least technically. Try to follow the form, even if it's not sanctified. But it won't work, spiritually...

**Which, of course, begs the question of why there was no priest in the chapel when Claudius went to pray (nor anywhere in the play until this scene, if you decide he's a priest). Where are the clergy? Did they leave Elsinore, refusing to implicitly endorse the wassailing and incestuous marriage? Did Claudius (or Gertrude) kick them out for their constant nagging...and he hired a Doctor Of Divinity to help the Royal Court meet at least the forms of some religious functions?

No priest at affairs of state, or in the chapel, but one suddenly appears for a questionable funeral? Having an on-call Doctor Of Divinity might seem to fit the circumstances better.

**And if the marriage was as objectionable as Hamlet says, would the priests have even performed it? Or did Claudius and Gertrude have to use a Doctor Of Divinity for that, as well? Let's not forget the lengths Henry VIII had to go to for his marriages, and the controversy; those were still fresh memories to Elizabethan audiences, and perhaps this is a subtle echo. Are the royal couple actually married, legally, in the eyes of the Church?

Yeah, yeah, I know, a lot of speculation and wool-gathering for a difference of one word. Still, it is an important word, and you can see where my views on the religious themes of the play got their start.

Siskoid said...

Very interesting!