There be dragons!

Thursday, February 9, 2006

On Hamlet

One of my students wrote this.

We were discussing Hamlet in my English seminar the other day and my professor began to make the case that Hamlet is merely a power hungry individual who toys with everyone in the play for an egotistical boost and an intellectual advantage. He also turned Ophelia into this ditz who we apparently shouldn't lay any blame on - apparently she's a droid who isn't responsible for her actions because she is at the mercy of her father and the king. Ultimately, the professor classified Hamlet neatly as a modern relativist (based on the "nothing is good or evil but thinking makes it so" line). I think it would be much more fair to say that Hamlet is struggling between the subjective tendencies in Renaissance thought (results of Wittenberg?) and his conception of objective ideals and virtues. What say you?
Here is my answer:

Ophelia is no drone. She's probably one of the most pathetic female characters Shakespeare ever constructed (more than Cordelia from Lear though less than Desdemona in Othello); the victim of her father's clownish intrigues and a genuine love for the young Hamlet. Ophelia is still unbroken by the world. She loves her daddy and brother (though she finds the one a nuisance and the other a lecturer). She has had mild flirtations with Hamlet (though they are only the first buddings of love in a young girl). That's why her "breaking" is so severe. She loses brother, father, lover all in one swoop and sees love as nothing but treachery and horror.
I see nowhere in the text that can justify reading her as a character to be ignored and take great hackle raising at the suggestion. Nor do I see in the text suggestion of the ego-boosting bullhockey that is suggested as an interpretation of the Hamlet character. He does play one character off of another and does use words to manipulate others, but the tension of the play seems lost on anyone who wants to read this as mere power struggle. Hamlet is disenfranchised; heir to the throne, yet his immediate sire has been cacked, he is next in line for cacking. Powerful people want his head.
His own mother has been rolling in the hay with the chief of these thugs thinking no more about the results of her actions than that she is again in love (or lust). "At your age the blood is cooled; it obeys the reason," says H. Would it were so. Humans are no damn good and often do things without any reason at all, save their only desperation and desire. Gertrude is desperate for love and probably desperate to save her own smoothe white neck so she makes the beast with two backs with the man who accedes to the throne. Problem; he's also her brother (as brother in law was considered brother in Renaissance England). That's a problem.
Hamlet, I think, is one of the best drawn Shakespearean characters; a young man so ripped up and twisted about by the "modernity" of the late Renaissance (an age that had fallen into despair not far removed from our own) that he no longer can see goodness as unadulterated with evil. Everything is questioned. Everything is probed. And everything is found to be no more than illusion; an artist's trick to make us happy little gerbils in the cosmic wheel (remember this was the age of intensely brutal wars, court intrigue and the use of perspective in art; a technique designed to deceive the eye into thinking the one dimensional was three dimensional; the unreal was real). He returns home b/c he heres of his father's "untimely death" where he has strong suspicions that "all is not right in the state of Denmark". But Hamlet is already ill-prepared to deal with the Byzantine intrigues he must face (intrigues very similar to those of Elizabethan England); he can't stand the sycophants, the violence of Claudius, the buffoonishness of Patronius, yet he is a player in this strange dance of death which is The court of Denmark. How else is he to survive?
Then comes the ghost. Is he a ghost? Is he a demon? Is he a figment of Hamlet's mind? The guards see him. Horatio does not. He speaks only to Hamlet. Why does he take the form of Hamlet, sr.? Is this the ripping of the veil of reality which Hamlet has so dreaded from his studies at Wittenberg? What comes forth but a creature that commands him to seek blood and yet taint not his soul? How does one do that? How do you seek vengeance and yet remain dispassionate from the world? How do you involve in the world and yet remain aloof?
Too many questions. Words. Words. Words. The cacaphony of questions, conversations, lies and evasions, flatterings, condemnations, plottings, billings and cooings of love... All lose their meaning for Hamlet and he hears nothing but the roaring din of words.
Thus at the very end come two vital moments. One where Hamlet says, just before the duel "we defy augury. There's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be not now yet it will come; if it be not to come yet it is now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all." This magnificent moment where, in the face of struggling with all these questions and doubts, Hamlet realizes that the solution is to make oneself ready for what will happen and then place trust in Providence. This leads to the second powerful statement where Hamlet reaches his epiphany. As he is dying he says, "Horatio, what a wounded name. Absent thyself awhile in felicity and draw thy breath in pain to tell my tell. The rest is silence." He commands Horatio to tell the world about what he has seen. And what he has seen is that the rest of the next world is an end to all that din that makes up human life. Heaven is singing and party and joy; but at base heaven is a deep, undending silence to all the chaos and worry of this life.
Thus the play is one of intense terror, powerful introspection and social critique, and ultimately of great joy. Hamlet finds a way out from his pain by acceptance of the divine will and earns the benediction of Horatio who says, "good night, sweet prince. And may choirs of angels sing thee to thy rest."

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