Saturday, December 13, 2014

V.ii. Duel and Deaths

It's not without irony that Shakespeare's wordiest play ends on an action scene with some of the most detailed stage directions in the canon. But that makes sense. Hamlet has gone from delaying contemplation to doomed action man. In the fact Act, words give way to action, then to silence, the final stage in Denmark's ongoing entropic decay. Let's look at the text before focusing on the play's various adaptations. The Bard's words in italics, as usual, with my breaking in with commentary in normal script.

Enter KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, LAERTES, Lords, OSRIC, and Attendants with foils, & c

KING CLAUDIUS: Come, Hamlet, come, and take this hand from me.


Notably, Laertes does not give his hand to Hamlet. The King has to do it for him, an early sign that Laertes is his puppet, if only Hamlet could pick up the clues.

HAMLET: Give me your pardon, sir: I've done you wrong;
But pardon't, as you are a gentleman.
This presence knows,
And you must needs have heard, how I am punish'd
With sore distraction. What I have done,
That might your nature, honour and exception
Roughly awake, I here proclaim was madness.
Was't Hamlet wrong'd Laertes? Never Hamlet:
If Hamlet from himself be ta'en away,
And when he's not himself does wrong Laertes,
Then Hamlet does it not, Hamlet denies it.
Who does it, then? His madness: if't be so,
Hamlet is of the faction that is wrong'd;
His madness is poor Hamlet's enemy.
Sir, in this audience,
Let my disclaiming from a purposed evil
Free me so far in your most generous thoughts,
That I have shot mine arrow o'er the house,
And hurt my brother.

A speech that must be examined in the context of each adaptation in the way it relates to the "problem" of whether or not the Prince is mad or feigning madness. Certainly, he didn't kill Polonius (nor drive Ophelia to suicide) on purpose. But can he really disculpate himself of all wrong-doing by citing mental illness? This is as much for the assembled public's sake than it is for Laertes'.

LAERTES: I am satisfied in nature,
Whose motive, in this case, should stir me most
To my revenge: but in my terms of honour
I stand aloof; and will no reconcilement,
Till by some elder masters, of known honour,
I have a voice and precedent of peace,
To keep my name ungored. But till that time,
I do receive your offer'd love like love,
And will not wrong it.

He plans to wrong it. Though some stagings may start to show Laertes' doubt here.

HAMLET: I embrace it freely;
And will this brother's wager frankly play.
Give us the foils. Come on.
LAERTES: Come, one for me.
HAMLET: I'll be your foil, Laertes: in mine ignorance
Your skill shall, like a star i' the darkest night,
Stick fiery off indeed.
LAERTES: You mock me, sir.
HAMLET: No, by this hand.
KING CLAUDIUS: Give them the foils, young Osric. Cousin Hamlet,
You know the wager?
HAMLET: Very well, my lord
Your grace hath laid the odds o' the weaker side.
KING CLAUDIUS: I do not fear it; I have seen you both:
But since he is better'd, we have therefore odds.
LAERTES: This is too heavy, let me see another.
HAMLET: This likes me well. These foils have all a length?

They prepare to play

OSRIC: Ay, my good lord.

A choice can be made to keep Osric in the dark about the royal deception or have him in on it. Is he truly a fool, or something more sinister?

KING CLAUDIUS: Set me the stoops of wine upon that table.
If Hamlet give the first or second hit,
Or quit in answer of the third exchange,
Let all the battlements their ordnance fire:

Claudius sure likes his celebratory cannon fire. Given that Fortinbras' invasion force is bearing down on Elsinore during the duel, there's a particular irony here. Does the cannon fire actually MAKE Fortinbras' forces attack, misunderstanding its purpose? At the very least we have a false battle being fought, with the cannons aimed at the sky. Because Hamlet wins, Denmark loses. Further, Claudius is using weapons for trivial purposes, doomed to lose any military conflict coming (compare to Hamlet Sr., who represents military strength). And a third layer of irony: Claudius has concentrated his aggression inward rather than outward. The battleground ought to be outside, not inside, and this will shock Fortinbras.

The king shall drink to Hamlet's better breath;
And in the cup an union shall he throw,

The "union" is a pearl - the latin for pearl or onion, presumably for their visual similarities - is a pun. The "union" in the cup is poisoned and through that poison, Claudius and Gertrude will be joined in death. It's a play on their marriage born of a poisoned or corrupt act, Claudius' murder of her former husband.

Richer than that which four successive kings
In Denmark's crown have worn. Give me the cups;
And let the kettle to the trumpet speak,
The trumpet to the cannoneer without,
The cannons to the heavens, the heavens to earth,
'Now the king drinks to Hamlet.' Come, begin:
And you, the judges, bear a wary eye.
HAMLET: Come on, sir.
LAERTES: Come, my lord.

They play

HAMLET: Judgment.
OSRIC: A hit, a very palpable hit.
LAERTES: Well; again.
KING CLAUDIUS: Stay; give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is thine;
Here's to thy health.

Trumpets sound, and cannon shot off within

Give him the cup.

HAMLET: I'll play this bout first; set it by awhile. Come.

They play

Another hit; what say you?
LAERTES: A touch, a touch, I do confess.
KING CLAUDIUS: Our son shall win.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: He's fat, and scant of breath.
Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows;
The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.
HAMLET: Good madam!
KING CLAUDIUS: Gertrude, do not drink.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: I will, my lord; I pray you, pardon me.
KING CLAUDIUS: [Aside] It is the poison'd cup: it is too late.

Adaptations are once again interesting to compare in this moment. Some will choose to have Gertrude know full well that she is being poisoned, giving the game away on purpose. In others, she's just a victim. Is she just having fun, or is this an act of defiance to show she's distancing herself from the King (in which case, their shared fate makes her fail). In a scenario where the royals are still very fond of each other, there is an irony in realizing that she's probably given to drink because Claudius, a notorious drinker, has made it a habit for her at court. He loses her because his vice has corrupted her, in addition to his murder plot gone wrong. And does Hamlet suspect? If he does, what is his reaction?

HAMLET: I dare not drink yet, madam; by and by.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Come, let me wipe thy face.
LAERTES: My lord, I'll hit him now.
KING CLAUDIUS: I do not think't.
LAERTES: [Aside] And yet 'tis almost 'gainst my conscience.
HAMLET: Come, for the third, Laertes: you but dally;
I pray you, pass with your best violence;
I am afeard you make a wanton of me.
LAERTES: Say you so? come on.

They play

OSRIC: Nothing, neither way.
LAERTES: Have at you now!

LAERTES wounds HAMLET; then in scuffling, they change rapiers, and HAMLET wounds LAERTES

Thematically, the exchange of foils continues the mirroring of the two boys and their similar situations and agendas. They will share the same fate.

KING CLAUDIUS: Part them; they are incensed.
HAMLET: Nay, come, again.


OSRIC: Look to the queen there, ho!
HORATIO: They bleed on both sides. How is it, my lord?
OSRIC: How is't, Laertes?
LAERTES: Why, as a woodcock to mine own springe, Osric;
I am justly kill'd with mine own treachery.
HAMLET: How does the queen?
KING CLAUDIUS: She swounds to see them bleed.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: No, no, the drink, the drink,--O my dear Hamlet,--
The drink, the drink! I am poison'd.


HAMLET: O villany! Ho! let the door be lock'd:
Treachery! Seek it out.
LAERTES: It is here, Hamlet: Hamlet, thou art slain;
No medicine in the world can do thee good;
In thee there is not half an hour of life;
The treacherous instrument is in thy hand,
Unbated and envenom'd: the foul practise
Hath turn'd itself on me lo, here I lie,
Never to rise again: thy mother's poison'd:
I can no more: the king, the king's to blame.

When comparing the concept of conscience across the various characters who commit murder in the play, Laertes' situation provides an example midway between Hamlet and the King. Claudius has none, even if he tries to fake it. Hamlet finds himself unable to act because of his conscience, and when he does, it's thoughtlessly and he regrets it. The later Hamlet of Act V will kill, but righteously. With Laertes, we have someone whose conscience only activates after it's too late. He needs to be blooded to understand the toll it takes on the murderer. And yet, like Claudius, he refuses moral responsibility. If Hamlet is the thinker and Laertes the man of action, the latter cannot, even in his final moments, truly assimilate - THINK about - what he's done and what that makes him. Soon after he acts, he dies, so he will never ruminate or repent, except superficially.

HAMLET: The point!--envenom'd too!
Then, venom, to thy work.


All: Treason! treason!
KING CLAUDIUS: O, yet defend me, friends; I am but hurt.

But Claudius has no friends in this moment.

HAMLET:Here, thou incestuous, murderous, damned Dane,
Drink off this potion. Is thy union here?
Follow my mother.


LAERTES: He is justly served;
It is a poison temper'd by himself.
Exchange forgiveness with me, noble Hamlet:
Mine and my father's death come not upon thee,
Nor thine on me.


HAMLET: Heaven make thee free of it! I follow thee.
I am dead, Horatio. Wretched queen, adieu!
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,

Hamlet seems to break the fourth wall in this moment, though of course, the Court is present, those same courtiers who did nothing to help Claudius.

Had I but time--as this fell sergeant, death,
Is strict in his arrest--O, I could tell you--
But let it be. Horatio, I am dead;
Thou livest; report me and my cause aright
To the unsatisfied.
HORATIO: Never believe it:
I am more an antique Roman than a Dane:
Here's yet some liquor left.
HAMLET: As thou'rt a man,
Give me the cup: let go; by heaven, I'll have't.
O good Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.

March afar off, and shot within

What warlike noise is this?
OSRIC: Young Fortinbras, with conquest come from Poland,
To the ambassadors of England gives
This warlike volley.

It is usually understood that Norway is Denmark's aggressor, but that's because we're not inclined to share Claudius and Polonius' naive jubilation at the news from Norway. The play works better if it's sarcastic about this storyline, with a weak Denmark giving Norway free passage and opening its borders to a snake. But textually, if we believe everyone and their evaluation, there's nothing to indicate this is so. Fortinbras had fallen out with his uncle, but is reconciled. He takes a plot of land in Poland. His army doesn't molest Hamlet, and here shoots at England's ambassadors, not Elsinore. That Fortinbras then takes the throne is not necessarily sinister, he's part of a larger royal family and might actually be in line for the throne once everyone else is dead ("rights of memory"), and is sorry to see the carnage inside Elsinore's walls. Hamlet makes him his heir (as another mirror of the Prince) in any case:

HAMLET: O, I die, Horatio;
The potent poison quite o'er-crows my spirit:
I cannot live to hear the news from England;
But I do prophesy the election lights
On Fortinbras: he has my dying voice;
So tell him, with the occurrents, more and less,
Which have solicited. The rest is silence.


HORATIO: Now cracks a noble heart. Good night sweet prince:
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!
Why does the drum come hither?

Though Horatio calls himself a Roman more than a Christian, he sends his friend off with Christian iconography. It is naive or perhaps ironic that Hamlet's fate would be imagined in the hands of angels after his hand-wringing about the undiscovered country and being drawn into Hell by the Ghost of his father, himself trapped between two worlds. Notably, though the Ghost has been avenged, we do not see it (at least in the text) react or be freed. Perhaps revenge doesn't fix a damned thing. (And yes, that's a pun.)

March within

Enter FORTINBRAS, the English Ambassadors, and others

PRINCE FORTINBRAS: Where is this sight?
HORATIO: What is it ye would see?
If aught of woe or wonder, cease your search.
PRINCE FORTINBRAS: This quarry cries on havoc. O proud death,
What feast is toward in thine eternal cell,
That thou so many princes at a shot
So bloodily hast struck?
First Ambassador: The sight is dismal;
And our affairs from England come too late:
The ears are senseless that should give us hearing,
To tell him his commandment is fulfill'd,
That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead:
Where should we have our thanks?
HORATIO: Not from his mouth,
Had it the ability of life to thank you:
He never gave commandment for their death.
But since, so jump upon this bloody question,
You from the Polack wars, and you from England,
Are here arrived give order that these bodies
High on a stage be placed to the view;
And let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,
Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall'n on the inventors' reads: all this can I
Truly deliver.

Horatio acts as prologue after the fact, and the idea that the bodies/characters would be set on a stage during this telling metaphorically restarts the play from the beginning. Has any staging ever thought of starting with this speech and going back in time? And in so doing, have the audience question the narrator's reliability? Does Horatio embellish, justify his friend's actions, demonize the King, add a layer informed by his Classical studies, invent where he can't possibly know, or give second-hand testimony? If so, what does that mean? Did Horatio experience the Ur-Hamlet original source, and become the author of Shakespeare's Hamlet?

PRINCE FORTINBRAS: Let us haste to hear it,
And call the noblest to the audience.
For me, with sorrow I embrace my fortune:
I have some rights of memory in this kingdom,
Which now to claim my vantage doth invite me.
HORATIO: Of that I shall have also cause to speak,
And from his mouth whose voice will draw on more;
But let this same be presently perform'd,
Even while men's minds are wild; lest more mischance
On plots and errors, happen.
PRINCE FORTINBRAS: Let four captains
Bear Hamlet, like a soldier, to the stage;
For he was likely, had he been put on,
To have proved most royally: and, for his passage,
The soldiers' music and the rites of war
Speak loudly for him.

Is soldier's music appropriate for Hamlet, or is it a final irony? You might say it is, since he had become, in the end, a man of action. But it was his father who was the soldier, and the image of Hamlet we have in our minds is not the warrior, but the philosopher who, for most of the play, rejected action and saw no point in war for its own sake.

Take up the bodies: such a sight as this
Becomes the field, but here shows much amiss.
Go, bid the soldiers shoot.

A dead march. Exeunt, bearing off the dead bodies; after which a peal of ordnance is shot off

A long final sequence. We'll have much to discuss in the coming weeks.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Other Hamlets: What Shakespeare Says About Coca-Cola

Not content with co-opting Santa Claus, Coca-Cola tried to appropriate Shakespeare in a 1928 ad campaign that used famous lines from the plays to describe their product. They poached 10 plays this way, including Hamlet. The line they selected was Ophelia's description of Hamlet before he went made in the Nunnery scene (Act II scene 2):

"The glass of fashion and the mould of form, the observed of all observers."

The ad copy is pretty hilarious: "Maybe Mr. Shakespeare didn't always know just what he was writing about. We can't ask him now. We can only take what he wrote for what it is, and in penning the above he must have had Coca-Cola in mind."

Yes, that must be it. Since Ophelia goes on to say all of this is now overthrown, we can only surmise that the ad copy writers didn't always know what THEY were writing about, and this is obviously a reference to Classic Coke as it relates to New Coke.

There might be an essay in how Hamlet was used as a marketing tool through the ages...