Saturday, May 25, 2013

IV.v. Ophelia's Madness

Scene 5 can be split into two sequences, Ophelia's descent into madness and Laertes' return (though the latter eventually dovetails into the former), so we'll take them separately. Scene 5 is the scene by which we judge all Ophelias and indeed, it is her last. She thereafter only appears in the story of her suicide as told by Gertrude, though of course, films often show us something of that action. Though the difficulty for the actress is obvious, there's also a difficulty for the director because Ophelia's madness manifests as snippets of old folk tunes. What melodies does one use, and how do these change the way we understand and interpret the songs? Before addressing the relevant performances, let's look at the text itself. As usual, the Bard is in italics, and my comments break through unitalicized.

SCENE V. Elsinore. A room in the castle.
Enter QUEEN GERTRUDE, HORATIO, and a Gentleman

QUEEN GERTRUDE: I will not speak with her.

Some time has passed since Polonius' death and Hamlet's exile, enough that the Queen doesn't want to deal with Ophelia anymore. This line is often forgotten because Gertrude does indeed go on to see Ophelia, but it is nonetheless there. Is the Queen annoyed, tired or afraid? That's up to each actress, but there is cause for any or all those feelings.

GENTLEMAN: She is importunate, indeed distract:
Her mood will needs be pitied.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: What would she have?
GENTLEMAN: She speaks much of her father; says she hears
There's tricks i' the world; and hems, and beats her heart;
Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt,
That carry but half sense: her speech is nothing,
Yet the unshaped use of it doth move
The hearers to collection; they aim at it,
And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts;
Which, as her winks, and nods, and gestures yield them,
Indeed would make one think there might be thought,
Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.

There is, in the Gentleman's speech, the mirror of how an audience can, should and does infer meaning in poetry (and in Shakespeare's plays themselves). Ophelia's speech is "nothing", meaningless, and yet the human mind cannot but try to give meaning to it. This is a wonderful preamble to a scene where the audience (and the characters in the scene) are asked to do just that. We will look for poetical meaning, what Ophelia feels about her lover killing her father, but the King and Queen may be looking for something else - Ophelia leaking the very information they tried to keep quiet by sending Hamlet away, or else implying the Royals had something to do with it (something gets back to Laertes, who has that distinct impression when he returns to Elsinore). In fact, Horatio seems to be of the same bent.

HORATIO: 'Twere good she were spoken with; for she may strew
Dangerous conjectures in ill-breeding minds.

Now, I find Horatio's presence very odd. Hamlet is off and away, but he has stayed at Elsinore. Furthermore, he's here thinking about the Royals' PR. That's behavior you'd expect from Rosencrantz&Guildenstern! Since he later receives word from Hamlet, the simplest explanation is that he's under orders from the Prince to stick around, perhaps to take care of Ophelia, certainly to keep an eye on Claudius. Still, ingratiating himself into the Court might speak to a more self-serving agenda, one that finds its fullest expression at the very end when he is left to tell the story. His interest in "spin" in this very line might very well mean he'll embellish or change some details...

QUEEN GERTRUDE: Let her come in.


To my sick soul, as sin's true nature is,
Each toy seems prologue to some great amiss:
So full of artless jealousy is guilt,
It spills itself in fearing to be spilt.

Re-enter HORATIO, with OPHELIA

OPHELIA: Where is the beauteous majesty of Denmark?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: How now, Ophelia!

OPHELIA [Sings]: How should I your true love know
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
And his sandal shoon.

Knowing true love from false seems a pretty obvious reference to Hamlet's betrayal. Gertrude's a bit dense, in denial, or looking for confirmation in her next line:

QUEEN GERTRUDE: Alas, sweet lady, what imports this song?
OPHELIA: Say you? nay, pray you, mark.
[Sings] He is dead and gone, lady,
He is dead and gone;
At his head a grass-green turf,
At his heels a stone.

This one is about her father, clearly, and in the next interrupted line from the song, she sees him in a white shroud. It's a symbol of purity that implies her father wasn't guilty of anything, nor deserving of his fate. It seems the fault all lies on Hamlet's shoulders.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: Nay, but, Ophelia,--
OPHELIA: Pray you, mark.
[Sings] White his shroud as the mountain snow,--


QUEEN GERTRUDE: Alas, look here, my lord.
OPHELIA: [Sings] Larded with sweet flowers
Which bewept to the grave did go
With true-love showers.

Note the connection made between the flowers on her father's grave and those she will hand out in the next sequence, and the garlands that are part of her death scene.

KING CLAUDIUS: How do you, pretty lady?
OPHELIA: Well, God 'ild you! They say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but know not what we may be. God be at your table!

There is a strange legend about a baker's daughter who was transformed into an owl after being stingy to Jesus Christ, which is what Ophelia refers to. It's possible Ophelia blames herself for her father's death (after all, it was his theory that she was the cause of Hamlet's madness), so this allusion of transformation is appropriate. Tragic or extreme events can unlock our true form, just as these have unlocked her madness. More dangerously, she might be implying the King has yet to show his true colors.

KING CLAUDIUS: Conceit upon her father.
OPHELIA: Pray you, let's have no words of this; but when they ask you what it means, say you this:
[Sings] To-morrow is Saint Valentine's day,
All in the morning betime,
And I a maid at your window,
To be your Valentine.
Then up he rose, and donn'd his clothes,
And dupp'd the chamber-door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.

An indication that Hamlet took her maidenhead. She's a maid (a virgin) in the first half of the song, and in the second, her lover is rising from the bed and putting his clothes on, and she leaves, no longer a maid. If staging it so that Ophelia and Hamlet never consummated their relationship, Ophelia could instead be referring to a loss of innocence caused by her father's murder, or else visualizing a reality that might have been had the events of the play not occurred. The next song, however, pretty much seals the deal.

KING CLAUDIUS: Pretty Ophelia!
OPHELIA: Indeed, la, without an oath, I'll make an end on't:
[Sings] By Gis and by Saint Charity,
Alack, and fie for shame!
Young men will do't, if they come to't;
By cock, they are to blame.
Quoth she, before you tumbled me,
You promised me to wed.
So would I ha' done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed.

The meaning is fairly clear. Hamlet has already made love to her on the pretext that he would marry her later anyway. Events prevented the latter from happening, so Ophelia is doubly betrayed, both as a daughter and as a (potential) wife.

KING CLAUDIUS: How long hath she been thus?
OPHELIA: I hope all will be well. We must be patient: but I cannot choose but weep, to think they should lay him i' the cold ground. My brother shall know of it: and so I thank you for your good counsel. Come, my coach! Good night, ladies; good night, sweet ladies; good night, good night.


KING CLAUDIUS: Follow her close; give her good watch,
I pray you.


O, this is the poison of deep grief; it springs
All from her father's death. O Gertrude, Gertrude,

There are too many references to Hamlet in Ophelia's songs for her father's death to be the only cause of her distress. It's actually quite amusing that Polonius spent the better part of the play insisting Hamlet's madness was due to neglected love, while in truth, it was his father's murder that pushed him over the edge. Now, Ophelia's mad and it's Claudius insisting the complete opposite. He thinks her father's murder is to blame, but it may well be that neglected love is the more potent reason behind Ophelia's tears.

When sorrows come, they come not single spies
But in battalions. First, her father slain:

Foreshadowing Fortinbras' attack, possibly? While the King is distracted by single threats like Hamlet (still a threat because his exile has caused the populace to whisper rumors) and Laertes (whose ear these rumors have reached), he misses the bigger danger completely.

Next, your son gone; and he most violent author
Of his own just remove: the people muddied,
Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers,
For good Polonius' death; and we have done but greenly,
In hugger-mugger to inter him: poor Ophelia
Divided from herself and her fair judgment,
Without the which we are pictures, or mere beasts:
Last, and as much containing as all these,
Her brother is in secret come from France;
Feeds on his wonder, keeps himself in clouds,
And wants not buzzers to infect his ear
With pestilent speeches of his father's death;
Wherein necessity, of matter beggar'd,
Will nothing stick our person to arraign
In ear and ear. O my dear Gertrude, this,
Like to a murdering-piece, in many places
Gives me superfluous death.

Here we should address the idea of putting poison in one's ear, which was Claudius' method for murdering Hamlet Sr., and the poetic justice of the King being threatened by metaphorical poison poured in Danish ears. Because the truth of Polonius' death could not be revealed, Claudius fears the rumors (poison) has reached Laertes and may fuel a rebellion. Claudius uses the word "ear" again and again as his anxiety mounts, a sort of veiled confession only we can decode.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Other Hamlets: Kill Shakespeare

What happened to Hamlet on his way to England? The play tells us through a letter to Horatio, but writers Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col, along with artist Andy Belanger, have a different idea. In the 12-issue comics series Kill Shakespeare, they basically use Hamlet's exile as a launching pad for a story in which Hamlet finds his way to the shores of a fable-land where all of Shakespeare's creations co-exist. A prophecy proclaims him the "shadow king" that must one day find the lost creator, William Shakespeare, and two factions try to lay claim to him. On one side, Richard III, Lady MacBeth and Iago, on the other, Falstaff, Juliet and Othello. The first wants to kill Shakespeare and steal his power over creation, the other to convince Will to rid the land of evil.

It's a fun exercise, more approachable than League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, though more contained than Fables, its two most obvious antecedents. McCreery and Del Col make a lot of references to the Shakespearean canon, not just with the characters, but in tropes (there's a play, cross-dressing, a tempest on the horizon), details (place names are in-jokes, Hamlet and Juliet speak through a chink in a wall, some of the action takes place on Twelfth Night), and dialog (many lines are referenced). It certainly keeps readers who know their Shakespeare interested. But they also don't mind fiddling with the stories so they can interact regardless of their fates in the original plays.

Of course, we're here to talk about Hamlet specifically, and there are some interesting changes made to his particular tale that can inform a new staging of the play. Elsinore is translated as Helsingor, and its king dies a month ago. Since then, Hamlet's mother has wed the king's brother and events have quickly spun out of control. Hamlet, believing he is killing Claudius on behalf of his ghostly father, accidentally murders Polonius...
The writers make certain choices that change the tenor of the play. For one thing, it takes three days for Hamlet to admit his crime and return the body to Polonius' family. You shall indeed "nose him". Second, this weighs far more heavily on Hamlet than in the play, and his exile is more or less voluntary. Though Claudius officially sends him away and decrees he shall never return on pain of death, Hamlet's guilt is a major motivator. As he prepares to leave, he says goodbye to his father's tomb and feels as if he's been set free. This is not the Hamlet whose thoughts are bloody, so the comic becomes his journey to his eventual return, changed and ready, to Denmark's shores. In fact, when he is visited by other spirits (attempting to draw him to the land of Shakespeare), he protests again and again that he is no killer.

An important difference in the comic is that Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Hamlet's true friends.
They expose Claudius' plot and suggest Hamlet raise an army to regain his throne. But Hamlet accepts his punishment for the murder of Polonius and finds himself unworthy of the Danish crown. If there is a parallel with Act IV Scene 4, it's that Rosencrantz shows Hamlet how to make a difficult choice by betraying Claudius. But fate (or rather, the forces who want to control the "shadow king") intervene and leads pirates to Hamlet's ship. His friends are killed in the melee and he is cast away on alien shores. This is all part of issue 1's introduction, and from there the story proceeds apace.

Issue 7 is another important issue for Hamlet scholars. A dark troupe of players throw Hamlet on the stage in an effort to manipulate him and force him to play a part in The Murder of Gonzago. It's not clear if he also had the play presented before the Royal couple before killing Polonius, but he presumably did. He plays the role of the assassin, forcing him to connect his own murder with that of Claudius. Up to this point, Hamlet has been unwilling to accept his destiny, a mirror of his reticence to do the same in Helsingor, so forces are pushing him to confront his demons. He runs into a Hall of Mirrors where he does just that.
There he confesses his murder to Juliet, a five-fold crime in his eyes because it struck more than just Polonius. Ophelia and Laertes lost a father, Gertrude lost a son (he believes Gertrude now sees him as an abomination), and Hamlet is the last victim, having forsaken his own self as penance. He also explores his feeling towards his father, a cold and distance man of violence who was so paranoid as to wage war on all his neighbors until only internal threats were left, a man suspicious of his brother, yes, but also of his own son. Hamlet Sr. is painted as a Richard III, someone who might well have done away with Claudius and Hamlet if he feared, rightly or wrongly, they coveted the throne. Did Claudius only kill his brother in preventative self defense? Or is Hamlet only justifying, once again, why he hasn't killed Claudius in his father's name? Hamlet comes out of the experience ready to be a hero, but no to go back home.

The idea that Hamlet is the only character that can find Shakespeare is a perfectly legitimate one, even an obvious one. He is the character that perhaps most escaped his author's control. Hamlet's delays in the play are an overt attempt to stymie the play's inevitable tragedy. Hamlet does not want to die and forces his author to keep him alive and interesting. When we finally encounter Will in the final act, he admits to having given his characters free will, a Judeo-Christian allegory sure, but also commentary on how alive his characters seem. After his first few plays, imitating the "cartoons" of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare found a way to make his characters truly life-like, able to hear themselves speak and change in response to their own thoughts. In the world of Kill Shakespeare, it's caused a civil war, strife in the land at the hands of the more evil characters, but also the chance for redemption.

Though the series ends at issue 12, Hamlet does not return to Helsingor. Not yet. A new series, subtitled The Tide of Blood, has since begun publishing, continuing Hamlet's story. We shall have to return to this book again one day...

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Act IV, Scene 4 - Classics Illustrated

The original adaptation omits this scene entirely, but the Berkley version doesn't, though by staging the action just as Hamlet's party leaves Elsinore does have a variety of effects.
First, it puts Fortinbras' army very close to the Danish throne, and reinforces the idea that Claudius is a fool to trust Norway. We're looking at a huge army within a stone's throw of what looks like a largely undefended castle, overgrown with weeds and surrounded by crumbling walls. Denmark is on the wane, and artist Tom Mandrake represents this visually. Another change is that the Captain's lines seem to have been given to one of Hamlet's guards, which justifies the cursory information given when you cut most of the Captain's lines.
Removing the Captain's lines about the futility of this particular battle means Hamlet's condemnation of it as a "trick of fame" is really a condemnation of all war. He doesn't need to know the details of the Norway-Poland engagement to know many men will die and for what? Their leader's glory and some patch of land? This tells us something about Hamlet's relationship to his father, reputedly a great warrior. He's an academic and as the play has made clear to date, a man more of words than actions. He sees something of his father in Fortinbras, and that compels him to finally act, but he's also critical of the type of action. Even in a speech about finally committing to action, there is still a resistance, an attempt to justify why HE might act when others' violence is so distasteful to him. To become one's father, or to forge one's own way, is in many ways Hamlet's dilemma.

Mandrake's active pose in the last panel does a good job of visually representing that leap into a new mode of being for our Prince.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Act IV, Scene 4 - The Banquet

The Banquet (sold in America as Legend of the Black Scorpion) must be the only version of Hamlet that includes snow ninjas. While the story is often very different from the play's, the Prince's exile definitely evokes Hamlet's own, as he is escorted on horseback through a snowy plain. As in the play, he spies an army from afar, and it is a mirror of himself on that other road. No Fortinbras, but a fake Prince who will act as tribute to the country standing in for England while he is assassinated by his own escort, here, now. In other words, what if Claudius, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern were far more treacherous than they appeared? The Prince is rescued by the timely intervention of, yes, snow ninjas burrowing from beneath and killing the murderous escort with their crossbows. It is a wuxia film, after all.

The rescue party is led by the Laertes figure working on the orders of the Queen who, more villainous in this story than in the play, is holding his sister hostage. He is also ordered to then tell the King that the entire party was silenced, escort and all. This "Laertes" has no real love for "Hamlet" and in a scene that takes the place of the IV.4 soliloquy, he dares tell the Prince his course for revenge will cost many lives before it is over, and that he puts "Ophelia", "Polonius", everyone in danger so long as political machinations continue to center upon him. Better everyone believe he is dead. For the Prince, this acts as a wake-up call, that his readiness to die should not be his readiness that the people he loves die. When he returns, in spite of Laertes' admonitions, it will be to end it once and for all, but it will be too late for many of the characters.

What I find very interesting about these important changes made to the story is that they don't in any way diminish the drama, but rather give viable alternatives to the events and motivations found in the play. When one isn't tied down to the text (and a Chinese version - or any translation - wouldn't be), one can better experiment with the Bard's structure. It may even be possible to do it within the confines of the text as written. Imagine a Laertes who colludes with Hamlet during his exile. A Laertes that returns to Denmark to cause trouble and prepare the way for Hamlet, possibly depose Claudius in his name. One who believes Claudius responsible for Polonius' death (has Hamlet lied to him?). But it all goes wrong when Claudius denies the charges, when Ophelia walks in completely mad, and when finally, she commits suicide. Hamlet returns to find Ophelia dead and Laertes a surprise enemy. It could give the Hamlet/Laertes relationship an additional layer of complexity.

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Act IV, Scene 4 - Slings & Arrows

In the play inside the show, Luke Kirby's Jack Crew is getting into the "home stretch", as this is the last of six soliloquies. What we see of it in the montage is a simple close-up, but it shows how Jack, an insecure Hollywood actor, has become much more confident by this point in the performance, which can also be said of Hamlet. Meta-textually, one might very well see how the actor on stage would get an energy boost from knowing his exile (long-over due break) was coming next. The story structure must play into the mood of the actor.

But that's not the only meta-textual trick Slings & Arrows plays on its audience. As Jack/Hamlet speaks his words, his director Geoffrey is reminded to get his mentor's skull for the Yorick scene, and has to make a mad dash for it. As he does, we stay in touch with Hamlet through the backstage P.A. system, and the mention of a "delicate and tender prince" seems to give Geoffrey that association. If Fortinbras is a mirror held up to Hamlet, and Hamlet is an actor/director, taking on various roles and instructing the Players on how to act, can Fortinbras be any different? And in that context, the futile enterprise, the "egg shell", of his war with Poland IS, in a sense, the act of putting on a play. So much goes into the endeavor, and yet, each performance is ephemeral.

The juxtaposition made here makes Hamlet chide himself for not giving his all when the actor who plays him obviously is. He is himself the First Player, able to conjure emotions out of thin air for a world imaginary. Hamlet keeps breaking the fourth wall and running into itself.