There be dragons!

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Still More on Hamlet


I guess it seems like if we are to place such an emphasis on her innocence and lack of knowledge of the world, then how do we hold her accountable for her actions in the work?
Innocent people can wreak havoc by their mere innocence. Shakespeare seems to have had a problem with pure innocence even while he lamented its vulnerability. The innocents of the world need protecting, are a hobble to those who protect them, often do not know the very damage that they cause. I think this last is very apparent in the denial scene.
For example, her denial of Hamlet - what do we do with that? Do we dismiss it as merely the struggle she faces in owing loyalty to her father's wishes? Or is she culpable for destroying Hamlet's trust in her and their relationship?
Both. She doesn't realize that her denial of Hamlet is going to be received as severely as it is or that her own father is capable of dangerous politics. She is obedient to him to try to win his love, but loses the love and friendship of Hamlet as consequence. She's culpable to the degree that she chooses her fool father over the madman (who even she seems to think is mad).
I'm confused about the nunnery scene: Hamlet moves from debating with himself to recognizing Ophelia and having a moment of joy. He puts back on a mask of jollity calling her "nymph" and joking that she is divine....Why is this joy a mask? It seems like he is seeking out that peace he used to be able to find in Ophelia - the line following "nymph" seems to be sincere. I can't recall anywhere else in the play where Hamlet reveals that much of himself to a character...he bears his soul to the audience alone, and maybe he confides a little in Horatio (especially at the end of the work, although before that it seems to be mere details of his plot against Claudius). But it seems that Ophelia is the only one Hamlet trusts at this point, and after she returns the letters he realizes that even this trust in her has been corrupted. And then the mask of madness and words appears.
Unfortunately, the mask of madness and words exists from the outset. Part of what Shakespeare is conveying throughout the play is that what we (the audience) percieve to be real (the bearing of Hamlet's soul in the soliloquoys, the love btwn Hamlet and Ophelia, the duel at the end of the play) is itself a mask; it's a play put on by actors who do not express their feelings, who do not fall in love, who do not fight and die. This level of interpretation is complex b/c it involves the interaction btwn the audience and the truth through the story portrayed by the actors using words. That's a lot of levels to get through to see what's "really" happening. The big question raised, then, is "when do we humans ever 'take off the mask'?" Are we ever fair? Are we ever honest? Even in our prayers, our thoughts, our reflections in private we wear a mask of images and ideas that can obscure who we are and what we truly think. Pray can become rote; thoughts can become guarded; reflections can become bent. Our very existence as humans is itself a conundrum b/c we cannot interact with anything (even God) without the panoply of words; and (as the deconstructionist point out) words themselves are by their nature deceptive. If we stick with the story alone and skip over the problems of human nature and the whole thing being a big lie portrayed by professional liars, concentrate on the story and characters alone, we are still stuck with the problem that Hamlet wrestles with; all words are a mask. The minute he opens his mouth he is putting on a show or front or character, even to Ophelia, and what he thought before was honesty was in fact only a facade. What motivates him? Joy? Desire? Humor? Friendship? Longing? Sexuality? Even the seeming honest expression of joy at her presence becomes a tool for manipulation and getting his way "Nymph in thy orisons be all my sins remembered" = a tease which is calculated to delight the one who gives him joy.
C.S.Lewis treats of this inability to get beyond the mask in his fiction work "Until We Have Faces." So too does Walker Percy in "The Message in the Bottle" and Michael Edwards in "Towards a Christian Poetics." Always between us and others we have the word which acts like a mask. It conjures in the mind of another ideas, emotions, images which we want to be there. The risk which anyone aware of this activity runs is btwn becoming manipulative like a dragon or sorcerer and becoming a steward of the free choice in others (like a wizard). The mask of words, the limitations of the physical world, or inescapable; we are always something at their mercy. But if we are able to discover what we are about we stand more of a chance of lessening that helplessness and using words to benefit; either our own benefit or the benefit of the good.
This is what Hamlet really seems to be struggling with throughout the play. Now that he's "seen behind the curtain" words have lost their meaning; the mask cannot be removed, but all has become mask. He is then faced with wizardry (to be) or dragonishness (not to be). Words have connection to being but what is that connection? when we use words are we participating in or denying being? And does all conversation now bereft of real meaning become a cacaphony of words, words, words? There are glimpses of hope through the darkness of this play (the flash of romance btwn H & O, the humor of the players, the ending of the work) but mostly it is a dark and terrifying work in which all the world has become a "pestilential congregation of vapors," Denmark has become "a prison," love has become "stewing in the incestuous sheets," and Hamlet, the only one who seems to have seen beyond this world, teeters on the brink of suicide. That's pretty grim.
What then does one make of the Fortinbras speech. "From this time forth, my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth." It's a frequently overlooked soliloquoy but I marvel at it. I think the realization that so many men are going to die for nothing seems to prompt Hamlet out of his quandary. Maybe our lot in this world is only to die? Maybe our lot in this world is to try and accomplish something before we die? Maybe our lot in this world is to have "bloody thoughts" only? Or maybe this speech sends Hamlet into a deeper darkness which seeks to enact its will on others and not just himself. he then stands in peril of tremendous disaster. And what could possibly prompt him to say, then, "We defy augury..." and "...the rest is silence." Does something happen btwn the Fortinbras speech and the defy augury speech that changes him?

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