Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Five Reasons for Hamlet's Delay

My answer to last week's Shakespeare puzzle, “Why does Hamlet delay?,” got so long I had to turn it into a blog-post. This proves that if you read Hamlet enough times you get as wordy as its protagonist. In the end I boiled it all down to these FIVE REASONS HAMLET MUST TAKE HIS SWEET TIME TO AVENGE HIS FATHER’S MURDER:

1.      Mr. Thoughtful. First, let’s consider Hamlet’s claim that he’ll avenge his dad “with wings as swift as meditation.” Shouldn’t this be “with wings as swift as an F-1 bomber’s,”
or, in keeping with the half-medieval moment, “with wings as swift as some really fast eagles’”? (That one would maintain the meter, and the poetry is clearly as good as Shakespeare’s.) But he says “meditation,” something not all that swift, and that signals to us, if Hamlet’s tortured soliloquy in scene 2 hasn’t already, that this is a guy prone to ponder things from various angles before acting, which can take time. This is a guy who was kicked out of the University of Wittenberg for failure to complete his honors thesis, “Applications of the Pythagorean Theorem to Polish Sled Construction,” within the ten-year allotted time-span. This is a guy who's 30 and still lives with his mom. This is a guy -- well, I could go on, and were I Hamlet, I would, but I'll get to the bottom line, which is, there are ample grounds to blame Hamlet’s analytical tendency for his delay. Hamlet himself will do so when he says “the native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” in a speech that proves his point. But, on the other hand, Hamlet’s as hard on himself as he is on everyone else, and numerous other circumstances in the play justify his waiting til act 5. (I mean, besides that the play would be a rip-off if he just went and stabbed Claudius immediately.) These other reasons are:

2.       "Questionable" Ghost.  As one of my readers pointed out, this Ghost needs some looking into (if we can look into a ghost). Hamlet’s friends don’t trust the Ghost at all, and warn him that if he follows it, it might tempt him into madness and suicide, which very nearly does happen. I always tell my students to quote the plays to back up their claims, so here you have it: “What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord? / Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff / . . . And there assume some other horrible form / Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason?” (1.4.77-81). Hamlet seems to think it's a compliment when he calls the Ghost "questionable," but I don't. I think the Ghost is questionable. Even though the Ghost compares himself to an angel (and Claudius to garbage), and even though Horatio hopefully says “Heaven will direct it” as Hamlet chases off after Ghosty (does Horatio mean Heaven will direct the Ghost or will direct “the state of Denmark” to which Marcellus has just referred?), still, despite all this, the fact is that the Ghost isn’t some kind of heavenly messenger. Nor is he from Purgatory, despite his claim that he’s stuck in a place where you stay till all your sins get burned off. Why is this not Purgatory? Because they don’t let you out of Purgatory at night to commission killings. Ask Dante. Also, because Protestant Elizabethan audiences had been taught to consider Purgatory a myth. And playgoers were also used to seeing the hollow under-stage realm into which the Ghost disappears, and from which he then speaks, used to represent a Hell from which painted devils emerged. So Hamlet’s not too far off the mark when he says, at the end of act 2, “The spirit I have seen may be a devil.” It’s reasonable for him to do further detective work on Claudius, and that's what he does with “The Mousetrap.”

3.      Hamlet’s Honor, or, In Search of a Duel. Who wants to be a sneaky revenger sticking a dagger in someone’s back, or poisoning him while he’s asleep, or with a cup or an envenomed foil? Claudius, that’s who. Or Laertes, his shill. Hamlet’s like Claudius in some ways (hmm, how long has this relationship between Gertrude and Claudius been going on? Whose son is Hamlet? Subject of another blog). Both Hamlet and "Uncle" Claudius are cautious and strategic. But Hamlet’s also got the obligation to live up to the legacy of his father -- I mean, his "father" -- whose way was to engage in open, declared combat (like against Old Fortinbras). A sneaky revenger hides his intentions, but an honorable revenger (who also just adores the theater) might stage a little play to warn Claudius, “Guess what! I’m onto you!” It makes the game a little riskier, but it does force an eventual open confrontation between these two “mighty opposites,” Hamlet and his uncle. In fact, much of the language that frames the act five combat between Hamlet and Laertes, Claudius' dupe and proxy, describes a thwarted quest for the kind of judicial combat popular in Germanic (more than in English) realms in the late medieval period, whereby a charge of a capital crime, if unprovable by ordinary legal means, might be "proved' against the accused through an open duel. Act five is one of the parts of the play caught between medieval and Renaissance worlds, like a sketch superimposed on another sketch. Hamlet is challenged to "play" against Laertes in what seems a modern fencing match, even though Laertes, whose dad Hamlet has recently whacked, has ample reason to issue a formal (medieval) challenge (though he might be prevented by Hamlet's royal rank from doing so even if Claudius hadn't talked him into a sneaky poisoning trick). Yet even though the match is explicitly proposed only to settle a bet, the servant who issues the challenge then calls the event "the opposition of [Hamlet's] person in trial," using medieval judicial terms, and Hamlet seems to accept the challenge as such, questioning what weapons will be used, checking them before the combat, and asking Laertes for a formal pardon before they begin. His proffered insanity defense at this moment is, I confess, a little iffy in terms of honor, but it's possible he really does think he was a little bit nuts in act 3, scene 4. We do. He was. In any case, Laertes rejects Hamlet's apology and plea, and the fight takes place, and turns eventually into an explicit conviction and punishment of Claudius' "Treason! treason!," a charge shouted by "All." It's a judicial combat manque, but it's a lot more like a duel of honor than are the usual killings in revenge plays, as I'll show below.

4.      Claudius Might Repent. Okay. Early in the play the Ghost has told Hamlet to “avenge” his murder, and there’s no getting away from the fact that this usually means sticking a bodkin into someone. But there’s a little ambiguity in the Ghost’s later instruction that Hamlet “Let not the royal bed of Denmark be / A couch for luxury and damned incest” (which is the Ghost’s, and Hamlet’s, interpretation of Gertrude’s marriage to her brother-in-law. You’ll hardly ever see the phrase “in-law” in Shakespeare, because marriage was considered physically to merge the blood of the spouse with that of the new family. Elizabethans didn’t know about genes and that DNA only merged in offspring). Also, there’s some leeway in the Ghost’s “howsomever thou pursues this act” (that act being the freshening up of Denmark’s royal couch). So, even though Hamlet hates Claudius, he can allow for the possibility that Claudius might voluntarily repent of his deed and subject himself to formal justice, in which case Hamlet wouldn't have to assassinate him. How do I know this? I read the play. Look at what Hamlet says before he puts on “The Mousetrap”: “Hum. I have heard / That guilty creatures sitting at a play / Have, by the very cunning of the scene, / Been struck so to the soul that presently / They have proclaimed their malefactions” (end of 2.2). See? And Claudius very nearly does confess. Consider his agonized soliloquy after seeing his crime represented in Hamlet’s incredibly wordy playlet (Hamlet expanded it). It may seem like Claudius cuts the play off because it’s way too boring, but no. The play makes him feel guilty, so he runs to his chapel and tries to confess his sin. Once there, unfortunately for him but fortunately for the play, he decides confessing is really not worth it.

5. The Revenge Play Ethic. Yes, Hamlet does seem to have gotten murderous again when he comes upon Claudius kneeling and trying to pray. He tells the audience the only reason he’s not stabbing Claudius just now is that he doesn’t want to risk sending him to heaven by murdering him in the middle of this repentance that isn’t actually happening only Hamlet doesn’t know it isn't. But this scruple is fully in keeping with the revenge-play convention. Were Hamlet a conventional revenger, he would engineer for his enemy a punishment that was at least as bad as the original crime and guaranteed to send the victim to hellfire, even if it also damned himself, the revenger. I mean, have you read any of these other early-modern revenge plays? Try Webster's The Duchess of Malfi, where an adulterous wife is poisoned with a prayer-book. Or The White Devil, where two guys disguised as monks suddenly throw off their hoods and stab their enemies in a festive act-five bloodbath. The best is Middleton's The Revenger's Tragedy, where the brother of a ravished woman tricks her rapist into kissing a skull dressed  in a wig and wearing poisoned makeup. The rapist gags and dies. The Revenger's Tragedy has the additional virtue of containing the tragic character with the hands-down, best-ever early-modern stage-play name, "Supervacuo." I was tempted to name my kid this, though I finally went with "Euphorion," which is what Aristotle named his son, and it's turned out to be much more descriptive. But back to Hamlet. My point is that Hamlet is doing what your average revenger would do by refusing to kill Claudius when he's praying. That sort of unspectacular slaying would not satisfy tragic justice nor the depraved Globe audience. But, as I’ve said, Hamlet doesn’t know his own self. He’s a radical tragic figure in that he's not a conventional revenger. He's too honorable to be the sneaky backstabber or poisoner. By taking his time, by waiting, he allows Providence to give him a public moment that's both spectacular (a double revenge on Claudius! Poisoned foil and poisoned drink!) and not the slightest bit sneaky. The undisguised Hamlet kills Claudius in an open forum after Claudius has been publicly accused by the dying Laertes (“The king’s to blame!”) and ample evidence of Claudius’ guilt has been set before all, in the form of various dead bodies strewn over the stage. It’s like one of those crime shows where a bunch of extra people have to die before everyone can agree that the original culprit actually is the real culprit. We knew Claudius was guilty because we heard Claudius’ confessional soliloquy (and that is the only way we knew). But Hamlet didn’t hear that. He had to collect evidence.

Have I convinced you? I hope so, since that's all I've got. Except this (accept this):  the non-philosophical action Hamlet of your dreams. Just click here.

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