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.

Thursday, November 14, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - Classics Illustrated

The original
A strange choice from comics makers so focused on the "boys' adventure" elements of the play. This would have been a perfect place to insert a visual flashback with ships and pirate battles. Instead, though the adaptation is often merciless with its cuts, we get the entire letter in what is practically a splash page. In other words, the authors have given a lot of weight to what is essentially a linking scene, but did not use that space to do Hamlet's story justice. The most we get is a sailor with an eye patch. So what effect does this rather poor decision (in terms of medium) have on the story? It may tell us Hamlet's story is at least in part a fabrication, and we might imagine a Machiavellian Hamlet who had a ship loyal to him waiting to take him off his stepfather's. The letter to Horatio would be a smokescreen filled with tall tales in case it was ever intercepted. Perhaps Horatio knows this is coded, perhaps he doesn't, but the image above makes clear he's taking a pirate into Elsinore. Why would he provide access for an outlaw if they weren't part of the same rebel faction loyal to the prince? No, I don't think the adaptation thought it through this much, but the creative team's poor visual choice does evoke staging and interpretation ideas.

The Berkley version omits the letter entirely.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Act IV Scene 4 - Tennant (2009)

An omission on my part, because it was out of normal order and I'd lost track of it, is the scenes that includes the speech "How all occasions do inform against me". Doran introduces it later than usual, where Hamlet's letter would normally be read, as a way to juxtapose its final line "my thoughts be bloody" with Laertes' own bloody thoughts just before Claudius comes in to seduce him into murdering Hamlet.

The modernized staging is interesting, with the camera up above as if Fortinbras and then the Captain are looking up at a helicopter, either dropping men off or taking them in. We're still on the same black, mirrored stage most of the play is filmed in, but with snow on the ground, contrasting with black soil and black sky (once we change angles). Hamlet is out in the cold, in darkness, lost. It gives the scene an eerie, dream-like feel, as if these are spirits come to taunt him in the night. The Captain, with his wry barracks humor, smiling contemptuously at the meaningless war he's been asked to fight. Fortinbras, standing in for the ghost of Hamlet's father, a warlike action man throwing Hamlet's inaction back in his face. Fortinbras waging a war for no real reason is the anti-Hamlet, ALL action and no thought, and is meant to prompt the Danish prince TO action.

But look at what actually happens in the staging of it. Hamlet's first reaction is to sit down and talk! The video diary device introduced earlier is hear used to justify the soliloquy, in which Hamlet perhaps sarcastically calls Fortinbras "delicate and tender", and ends with the entirely ironic "my thoughts be bloody." My THOUGHTS. So while Hamlet seems to be telling us that NOW he will act, he does not actually move beyond thinking of acting.

Thursday, November 7, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - Kline '90

In this extremely simple version of the scene, with a single silent sailor waiting behind Horatio, a mystery just as the contents of the letter, Kline cuts the lines about pirate ships, giving no real account of how Hamlet escaped his escort. The story works without this complication, of course, but makes the scene almost too simple to warrant an article about it. Perhaps that's our chance to discuss the text a little more, and how even a linking scene like this still has a poetry to it. Hamlet story (though here abridged) is about a reversal of fortune, an exile coming home rather than leaving it, and Shakespeare makes reversal a major theme of his short letter. Horatio is asked to COME to Hamlet speedily as if he was running away FROM death, the pursuer gaining the haste of the pursued. Hamlet's words will create silence. And so on. We should then see "these good fellows" as an ironic confirmation that the sailors are the pirates in the preceding story, and could even see a sly joke about Hamlet having much to say about two people who barely have enough content for a single character.

And of course, the greatest reversal of all is that this tiny scene is the pivot at the center of the play, turning the delaying Hamlet into the revenging Hamlet needed to bring the tragedy to a close.

Saturday, November 2, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - Zeffirelli '90

Zeffirelli doesn't use the scene in which Horatio reads Hamlet's letter, going straight from Ophelia's last scene to her suicide. He does use some visual shorthand to present the necessary information, however (though it removes the perhaps unnecessary complication of the pirate attack) in a cut-away to Hamlet just before Laertes arrives in Elsinore.

We see Hamlet skulking about the ship while Rosencrantz&Guildenstern sleep, ferret the King's letter out of their bags and read it (it's a voice-over in Claudius' voice, basically the lines that end with "Do it, England!"). He then switches those letters with new letters of his own writing. He makes the sign of the cross over their prone bodies, crossing them as he crosses them, a visual pun. Seeing it in these terms makes Hamlet quite ruthless. He has the letters sending R&G to their deaths before he even finds the King's letter, making us wonder if he would have had them killed regardless.

And we cut straight from that to R&G getting hauled to an executioner's block, where the axe falls on Michael Maloney's neck (out of frame, thankfully). So in very quick succession, we find out the contents of Horatio's letter (no longer needed) and the fate of R&G (which may cut more dialog down the line). Those are some efficacious chops for both Zeffirelli and Hamlet!

Friday, November 1, 2013 Hamlet's Letter - BBC '80

A most unusual staging, but completely supported by the text. We're in a public space, with plenty of people milling around. Horatio is reading at a table when the two sailors walk in. They look around them, not so much to find the one learned man in all of Elsinore, but to make sure they aren't noticed. The lead sailor has a smile on his face, one that might indicate he knows something others don't, a fact that amuses him. The body language speaks to a covert mission, but then, so does the dialog.

Note for example how Hamlet's name is not spoken. They call him the "ambassador bound for England" instead. Then, they make sure the man they are speaking to is indeed Horatio. When Horatio tries to steps away to read the letter, the sailor grabs his arm, restrains him. He won't let Horatio out of his sight, or perhaps it's the letter he's been told not to lose sight of. It mustn't get into the wrong hands, even by accident. One might imagine the sailors taking back and destroying the missive between scenes. And the letter is complimentary to the messengers, as if Hamlet knew full well it would be read in their presence, ennobling the pirates by calling them "warlike".

As they leave, the camera lingers on gamblers throwing dice. A comment on the situation's precariousness?