Saturday, September 27, 2014

V.ii. The Readiness Is All

The Hamlet project has finally reached the play's last scene, though of course, there's so much material to cover, we'll be splitting it in two. The second will deal with the duel, everyone's tragic ending and Fortinbras' arrival. In this first sequence, we'll be covering Hamlet's tales of travel and treachery, Osric's comic relief, and the famous "readiness is all" speech. A sizable chunk, but many adaptations cut into the text mercilessly to save time, so size will vary. The pieces do matter, however, so we'll see over the next few weeks how our understanding of the play is changed when we lose key explanations or the comedy scene that bridges the intense melodrama of Ophelia's funeral and the action-filled, but tragic climax. For now, let us look at the text itself; Shakespeare, as usual, in italics; my observations, as they come to me, in plain text.

SCENE II. A hall in the castle.

HAMLET: So much for this, sir: now shall you see the other;
You do remember all the circumstance?
HORATIO: Remember it, my lord?
HAMLET: Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting,
That would not let me sleep: methought I lay
Worse than the mutines in the bilboes. Rashly,
And praised be rashness for it, let us know,

Hamlet is about to reveal his "rashness" was instrumental in saving his life from England's executioner, and this is key because rashness has not, to date, been his sin. Quite the opposite. It would be fair to say Hamlet was changed by his accidental murder of Polonius - he's been "blooded" - and he meant it when he said "my thoughts be bloody". His readiness - to kill, to revenge, to die - is the unifying theme of this sequence, though Shakespeare (and Hamlet itself, in a way) is rather critical of the stance. Is Hamlet becoming Macbeth?

Our indiscretion sometimes serves us well,
When our deep plots do pall: and that should teach us
There's a divinity that shapes our ends,

Hamlet justifies his actions by citing God's will. Already, this makes them suspect.

Rough-hew them how we will,--
HORATIO: That is most certain.
HAMLET: Up from my cabin,
My sea-gown scarf'd about me, in the dark
Groped I to find out them; had my desire.
Finger'd their packet, and in fine withdrew
To mine own room again; making so bold,
My fears forgetting manners, to unseal
Their grand commission; where I found, Horatio,--
O royal knavery!--an exact command,
Larded with many several sorts of reasons
Importing Denmark's health and England's too,
With, ho! such bugs and goblins in my life,
That, on the supervise, no leisure bated,
No, not to stay the grinding of the axe,
My head should be struck off.
HORATIO: Is't possible?
HAMLET: Here's the commission: read it at more leisure.

Any adaptation that would seek to make Hamlet deluded and paranoid who need to excise this line, which provides proof of Claudius' murderous intent.

But wilt thou hear me how I did proceed?
HORATIO: I beseech you.
HAMLET: Being thus be-netted round with villanies,--
Ere I could make a prologue to my brains,
They had begun the play--I sat me down,
Devised a new commission, wrote it fair:
I once did hold it, as our statists do,
A baseness to write fair and labour'd much
How to forget that learning, but, sir, now
It did me yeoman's service: wilt thou know
The effect of what I wrote?
HORATIO: Ay, good my lord.
HAMLET: An earnest conjuration from the king,
As England was his faithful tributary,
As love between them like the palm might flourish,
As peace should stiff her wheaten garland wear
And stand a comma 'tween their amities,
And many such-like 'As'es of great charge,
That, on the view and knowing of these contents,
Without debatement further, more or less,
He should the bearers put to sudden death,
Not shriving-time allow'd.
HORATIO: How was this seal'd?
HAMLET: Why, even in that was heaven ordinant.
I had my father's signet in my purse,
Which was the model of that Danish seal;
Folded the writ up in form of the other,
Subscribed it, gave't the impression, placed it safely,
The changeling never known. Now, the next day
Was our sea-fight; and what to this was sequent
Thou know'st already.
HORATIO: So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to't.
HAMLET: Why, man, they did make love to this employment;
They are not near my conscience; their defeat
Does by their own insinuation grow:
'Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes
Between the pass and fell incensed points
Of mighty opposites.

This changed Hamlet, through his own agency and with symbolic support from the Ghost that spurred him to that action (the ring), becomes directly responsible for the deaths of two old friends, and what's more, shows no remorse for his actions. His justification is that Rosencrantz & Guildenstern were corrupted by their own ambition and how it served the corrupt king of a corrupt Denmark. This idea is also present in Osric and Hamlet's attitude towards the fawning sycophant, but has a corollary left unsaid: If Denmark's corruption spreads to its inhabitants, then Hamlet too has been corrupted, and that corruption is most highlighted when he leaves its shores, as if contrast can only exist out there. There is a sort of irony to the idea that the cleansing sea has actually had the opposite effect on him. Or perhaps we're supposed to understand his self-involvement and delayed action were the signs of his corruption, and he has shed them while away. Specific performances might reveal which path each production chose to take.

HORATIO: Why, what a king is this!
HAMLET: Does it not, think'st thee, stand me now upon--
He that hath kill'd my king and whored my mother,
Popp'd in between the election and my hopes,

A rare reference to Hamlet's right to the throne, and that this is just as good a motive (if not a better one) for deposing or murdering Claudius. Who IS this Hamlet?

Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage--is't not perfect conscience,
To quit him with this arm? and is't not to be damn'd,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?
HORATIO: It must be shortly known to him from England
What is the issue of the business there.
HAMLET: It will be short: the interim is mine;
And a man's life's no more than to say 'One.'
But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself;
For, by the image of my cause, I see
The portraiture of his: I'll court his favours.

Hamlet, at least after having calmed down, does recognize he did Laertes wrong by killing his father, something that seemed absent when they were fighting and arguing over or in Ophelia's grave.

But, sure, the bravery of his grief did put me
Into a towering passion.
HORATIO: Peace! who comes here?

A note on meter. Though Hamlet and Horatio are best friends and have spoken prosaically with one another, the scene began with more courtly verse. Only when Osric arrives to they switch to prose, and then stay in that mode in the final moments. It's surprising that such famous and poetically cadenced words were not written in verse, but this perhaps speaks to the moment's intimacy. But we're getting ahead of ourselves; back to Osric. Though a courtier, he is not of noble birth, and so speaks and is spoken to in prose. You'd think he'd make an attempt at (comically mangled) verse, but he is incapable even of that, which speaks volumes about his worthiness and the debasement of Claudius' court.

OSRIC: Your lordship is right welcome back to Denmark.
HAMLET: I humbly thank you, sir. Dost know this water-fly?
HORATIO: No, my good lord.
HAMLET: Thy state is the more gracious; for 'tis a vice to know him. He hath much land, and fertile: let a beast be lord of beasts, and his crib shall stand at the king's mess: 'tis a chough; but, as I say, spacious in the possession of dirt.

On Hamlet's sustained attack on the state and its corruption, he calls even knowing a corrupt individual like Osric a vice. Osric is not an insider by birth, but by money, as represented by land, which Hamlet calls dirt, taking away its value. We can compare this sycophant to R&G and wonder if Osric can survive the play. Indeed, some adaptations will see to it he is among the number killed. At the very least, he is the last uncreative soul Hamlet will run rhetorical circles around, joining R&G, Polonius and Claudius among those ranks (the Gravedigger won his particular match).

OSRIC: Sweet lord, if your lordship were at leisure, I should impart a thing to you from his majesty.
HAMLET: I will receive it, sir, with all diligence of spirit. Put your bonnet to his right use; 'tis for the head.
OSRIC: I thank your lordship, it is very hot.
HAMLET: No, believe me, 'tis very cold; the wind is northerly.
OSRIC: It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
HAMLET: But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion.
OSRIC: Exceedingly, my lord; it is very sultry,--as 'twere,--I cannot tell how. But, my lord, his majesty bade me signify to you that he has laid a great wager on your head: sir, this is the matter,--
HAMLET: I beseech you, remember--

An amusing demonstration of sycophancy at its most absurd, accepting whatever temperature Hamlet claims on the basis of his royal birth. Osric is a living satire of Claudius' court filled with yes men.

HAMLET moves him to put on his hat

OSRIC: Nay, good my lord; for mine ease, in good faith. Sir, here is newly come to court Laertes; believe me, an absolute gentleman, full of most excellent differences, of very soft society and great showing: indeed, to speak feelingly of him, he is the card or calendar of gentry, for you shall find in him the continent of what part a gentleman would see.
HAMLET: Sir, his definement suffers no perdition in you; though, I know, to divide him inventorially would dizzy the arithmetic of memory, and yet but yaw neither, in respect of his quick sail. But, in the verity of extolment, I take him to be a soul of great article; and his infusion of such dearth and rareness, as, to make true diction of him, his semblable is his mirror; and who else would trace him, his umbrage, nothing more.
OSRIC: Your lordship speaks most infallibly of him.
HAMLET: The concernancy, sir? why do we wrap the gentleman in our more rawer breath?
HORATIO: Is't not possible to understand in another tongue? You will do't, sir, really.
HAMLET: What imports the nomination of this gentleman?
OSRIC: Of Laertes?
HORATIO: His purse is empty already; all's golden words are spent.
HAMLET: Of him, sir.
OSRIC: I know you are not ignorant--
HAMLET: I would you did, sir; yet, in faith, if you did, it would not much approve me. Well, sir?
OSRIC: You are not ignorant of what excellence Laertes is--
HAMLET: I dare not confess that, lest I should compare with him in excellence; but, to know a man well, were to know himself.
OSRIC: I mean, sir, for his weapon; but in the imputation laid on him by them, in his meed he's unfellowed.
HAMLET: What's his weapon?
OSRIC: Rapier and dagger.
HAMLET: That's two of his weapons: but, well.
OSRIC: The king, sir, hath wagered with him six Barbary horses: against the which he has imponed, as I take it, six French rapiers and poniards, with their assigns, as girdle, hangers, and so: three of the carriages, in faith, are very dear to fancy, very responsive to the hilts, most delicate carriages, and of very liberal conceit.
HAMLET: What call you the carriages?
HORATIO: I knew you must be edified by the margent ere you had done.
OSRIC: The carriages, sir, are the hangers.
HAMLET: The phrase would be more german to the matter, if we could carry cannon by our sides: I would it might be hangers till then. But, on: six Barbary horses against six French swords, their assigns, and three liberal-conceited carriages; that's the French bet against the Danish. Why is this 'imponed,' as you call it?
OSRIC: The king, sir, hath laid, that in a dozen passes between yourself and him, he shall not exceed you three hits: he hath laid on twelve for nine; and it would come to immediate trial, if your lordship would vouchsafe the answer.
HAMLET: How if I answer 'no'?
OSRIC: I mean, my lord, the opposition of your person in trial.
HAMLET: Sir, I will walk here in the hall: if it please his majesty, 'tis the breathing time of day with me; let the foils be brought, the gentleman willing, and the king hold his purpose, I will win for him an I can; if not, I will gain nothing but my shame and the odd hits.
OSRIC: Shall I re-deliver you e'en so?
HAMLET: To this effect, sir; after what flourish your nature will.
OSRIC: I commend my duty to your lordship.
HAMLET: Yours, yours.


Hamlet agrees to fight one duel, but has just one another, albeit against an unarmed opponent.

He does well to commend it himself; there are no tongues else for's turn.
HORATIO: This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head.
HAMLET: He did comply with his dug, before he sucked it. Thus has he--and many more of the same bevy that I know the dressy age dotes on--only got the tune of the time and outward habit of encounter; a kind of yesty collection, which carries them through and through the most fond and winnowed opinions; and do but blow them to their trial, the bubbles are out.

Enter a Lord
Lord: My lord, his majesty commended him to you by young Osric, who brings back to him that you attend him in the hall: he sends to know if your pleasure hold to play with Laertes, or that you will take longer time.
HAMLET: I am constant to my purpose; they follow the king's pleasure: if his fitness speaks, mine is ready; now or whensoever, provided I be so able as now.
Lord: The king and queen and all are coming down.
HAMLET: In happy time.
Lord: The queen desires you to use some gentle entertainment to Laertes before you fall to play.
HAMLET: She well instructs me.

Exit Lord

There's a certain redundancy in Osric being followed by an unnamed Lord about the same subject. On stage, it heralds the arrival of the King, the Queen and Laertes, and makes the climax seem to arrive sooner than in most film productions. No sooner does Hamlet say he is ever ready that this readiness is put to the test, perhaps a mirror to R&G's execution with "no shriving time allowed". Hamlet too goes to his execution.

HORATIO: You will lose this wager, my lord.
HAMLET: I do not think so: since he went into France, I have been in continual practise: I shall win at the odds. But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart: but it is no matter.
HORATIO: Nay, good my lord,--
HAMLET: It is but foolery; but it is such a kind of gain-giving, as would perhaps trouble a woman.
HORATIO: If your mind dislike any thing, obey it: I will forestall their repair hither, and say you are not fit.
HAMLET: Not a whit, we defy augury: there's a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is't to leave betimes?

It's clear Hamlet isn't happy about what's about to happen, what must happen and what could happen, but he is ready for it. Though he accepts responsibility for his existence and everything it may mean (to himself, to others, to the metaphysical universe), he remains the doomed existentialist we knew from the first four acts of the play. The potential meaninglessness of one's life cannot be escaped or hidden from. He means to face it with dignity and complete his arc as the character in a revenge tragedy (which I'll meta-textually claim he was always aware of) for in the end, that is all he can do. Hamlet will leave this world only after accepting the rules that govern it.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Other Hamlets: Dirtbag Hamlet

You may or may not find "Dirtbag Hamlet" amusing (the complete story HERE, text Mallory Ortberg, pictures Matt Lubchansky), a take on Hamlet that casts him as a modern teenage dirtbag. As satire of either Shakespeare or modern youth, it's pretty blunt, but does it highlight interesting truths about the play itself?

What works, I think, is the simplification of the character to the point where he is just an irreverent, jaded youth. He doesn't avenge his father's death because he rejects all authority, even the truth's. This Hamlet will not be ruled by anything. In fact, he rejects: The King's authority, the notion Hamlet Sr. was his father, his relationship to Ophelia, and the dignity of his own death. Nothing is sacred. And to the real, scripted Hamlet, this is sometimes true, so the take is legitimate. For example, the strip distills Hamlet's relationship to his mother thus:

GERTRUDE walks down the hallway. Enter HAMLET, skateboarding.
(HAMLET skates backwards) UUUUUUTT

Take away Hamlet's banquet of words, and you weaken the play and the character considerably - that's not in dispute - but you do get at the essence of the character. Or at least, a certain take on the character.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - French Rock Opera

Johnny Hallyday's song for this sequence relates to Hamlet's great feats of love, outdoing a Laertes that is absent from the music itself. But it doesn't use Hamlet's lines per se. Instead, the three stanzas hark back to other moments in the play, unifying them in the theme of love, and confusing that theme with that of revenge. Before we get into it, I will post the original French lyrics, and my usual doggerel English translation.

Je l'aimais / Il est fou
Je prendrai un couteau d’acier
Et j’irai dans la forêt
Le jour, la nuit, sans m’arrêter
Sur tout les arbres je graverai
Je l’aimais, je l’aimais, je l’aimais

Je prendrai un bateau d’acier
Et j’irai sur l’océan
Je chercherai des ouragans
Et face au vent je crierai
Je l’aimais, je l’aimais, je l’aimais

Je prendrai un casque d’acier
Et j’irai chercher bataille
Et au milieu de la mitraille
En mourant je hurlerai
Je l’aimais, je l’aimais, je l’aimais

I Love Her / He is Mad
I will take a steel knife
And I will go in the forest
Day and night, without stopping
On every tree I will carve
I loved her, I loved her, I loved her

I will take a steel ship
And I will go on on the ocean
I will look for hurricanes
And facing the wind, I will shout
I loved her, I loved her, I loved her

I will take a steel helmet
And I will look for a battle
And in the middle of the shooting
While I die, I will scream
I loved her, I loved her, I loved her

Sheathing each image in steel may imply the presence of Laertes and presage the duel to come, or may function as a veiled threat to Claudius' person, also present, but it equally represents the violence done to Ophelia. The knife carving love notes on trees is the same that killed her father, and the tree a symbol of her death, its broken branch a herald of her drowning. In the second stanza, Hamlet takes us back to his sea voyage (the steel ship an anachronism, but also a metaphor for a ship of war/piracy), suicidal and unable to be heard, which was his condition before he left Denmark. The third takes us to Fortinbras' army converging on Denmark, then forward to his duel with Laertes and his death. Hallyday's adaptation changes Hamlet's motivation quite clearly. He is not motivated by revenge - the play is about a man who cannot take action on that impulse alone - but by love. He's saying Hamlet's resolve only comes when Ophelia is dead. The woman he came back for, and without whom he has nothing to live for. Everything that came before was merely family drama, investigation, and bitterness at having been jilted by Ophelia at her own family's request.

As he protests his love for her again and again (the last line repeated over and over), the chorus chimes in with "Il est fou" ("He is mad"), repeated from the song Je suis fou/I Am Mad from way back in Act I Scene 5, when the Ghost made him swear an oath. So here we have the final osmosis between revenge and love as the cause of his madness passes from one to the other.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Classics Illustrated

The original
Though this adaptation condenses a lot of sequences it believes won't interest the young boys its producers evidently think are the target audience, the funeral gets more than three pages of large panels. Perhaps they felt that audience would respond well to two guys fist-fighting in an open grave.
One strange element is that they have Hamlet running up to the burial party as soon as he realizes the body is Ophelia's, which means everyone is essentially ignoring him until he jumps into the grave. Of course, the way the flowers fall from Gertrude's hand, it may be a case of wonky perspective:
This might be an intriguing staging notion that would lend sincerity to Laertes' plight, in his grief oblivious to his nemesis' presence, while everyone else is just stunned speechless.

The Berkley version
This adaptation covers the same ground in half the space, but restores a lot of the dialog (but not the fantastical list of tasks Hamlet is prepared to undertake). The words are there, but the visuals are sacrificed. For example, Gertrude's "sweets to the sweet" line asks the reader to already know what's supposed to be going on:
There are no flowers, and the words are spoken before Ophelia's corpse is even set down. This robs the adaptation of Ophelia's symbolic leitmotif and the line of its usual sense. Perhaps it can be salvaged if we interpret the "sweets" to be kind words rather than flowers. Also strange is the exclusion of the priest's judgment, considering Laertes still tells him (or someone) that he'll lie howling. The big cut, however, is Laertes' leap into Ophelia's grave, which sets the adaptation well apart from what seemed like the original Classics Illustrated's whole reason for being. The two boys still fight, but are quickly separated. In the rush to get out of the scene, no sooner is Hamlet out of earshot that he's already telling Horatio about Rosencrantz & Guildenstern.

So one adaptation is too decontracted, the other too rushed.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Act IV Scene 4 - A Midwinter's Dream

Another IV.iv omission on my part because again, an adaptation chose to feature it out of order. The "how all occasions do inform me" scene comes after IV.v (Ophelia's madness and Laertes' return) rather than before it. While normally, this helps make Hamlet's journey a more involved one with a "meanwhile" transition, as it were, here it is more a question of balancing a montage's tone. In a Midwinter's Dream, the play goes by in less than four minutes - including some behind the scenes comedy - so after violence (Laertes' return) and laughs (behind the scenes), a few lines from IV.iv, with Hamlet wrapped in mist and an audience wrapped in silent attention, reminds us of the play's stakes, both on and off the stage.Though the oddballs putting on the play sometimes take it to a place of parody, here we're told that it does, nevertheless, WORK.

The lines are "What is a man, If his chief good and market of his time Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more", a just reminder that culture - play-making, play-acting and play-going - is where Man distinguishes himself from the animals. That is protagonist Joe's belief and intent in the film, and in a way, it's also Shakespeare's, contrasting violence and intellectualism in Hamlet's world.