Sunday, 11 March 2012

Hamlet, Prince of Denmark


It's hard to post on Hamlet. What hasn't been said? So I'll just put down some rambling thoughts, some puffs of smoke across this tragic sky. The play feels freshly minted to me, always renewing itself with each read. It's language is a testament to the genius of Shakespeare and our shared humanity with the denizens of centuries long past. But writing about it feels like being enveloped in a cloud of chalky schoolroom dust,  lit by tired sunlight. My ideas dismissed as if they had been expressed in a different language. Some of my ideas were, anyway, little more than reflexive rebellion. "Youth to itself rebels, though none else near."
Pompous Polonius, bastion of middle class respectability. I imagined his advice to Laertes as Shakespeare's venomous sarcasm against the enveloping, suffocation expectations of society, expectations that I found it hard to reconcile with my instinctive feeling that much was rotten in the state of Ireland, and the world. Indeed, this 'moist star" seemed "sick almost to doomsday." Oh that a ghost would appear on the ramparts and show me where the fount of all those poisons pouring into my ears. I still feel some of this, see Shakespeare as something of a punk. Hamlet, the young Henry IV and others surely give lie to the pronouncement that teen rebellion was born in the nineteen-fifties (although Hamlet was pushing thirty!). And of course Johnny Rotten found much inspiration for his 'character' from Will's Richard III.
And then there is Daedelus' reading of Hamlet in Ulysses. He sees it as Shakespeare addressing his wife's infidelity. In this reading Shakespeare is both Hamlet and his father, taking revenge from beyond the grave, famously leaving his wife his "second best bed".
Phrases like "time out of joint" seem too current to have been coined so long ago. And how was he so aware of the plague of manufactured pop? "...there is, sir, an aery of children, little eyases, that cry out on the top of the question, and are most tyrannically clapped for 't: these are now the fashion..."
It's almost as easy to say what Hamlet doesn't deal with. Here be mortality, ambition, politics, love, friendship, mortality, the afterlife, revenge, existentialism and much besides.
The vanity of ambition and action is perfectly parsed in a play in which many see Hamlet's greatest fault as his inaction. But both are bound to make little impression in the end as Hamlet's questions point out.
"Dos't think Alexander looked o' this fashion in the earth?"
"Why may not imagination trace the nobel dust of Alexander, till he find it stopping a bung hole?"
Caesar too is dust
"Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away
O! that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to keep out winter's flaw."
But it is Hamlet's gloss on Fortinbras, who marches to war with Poland that struck me most forcibly, this reading. Although Hamlet aims to take Fortinbras' example ("My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth.") I found myself more sympathetic with Hamlet the procrastinator, the existentialist.
"Witness an army of such mass and charge
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff'd
Makes mouths at the invisible event, 
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg shell. Rightly to be great, 
Is not to stir without great argument, 
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour's at the stake."


Some years ago I wrote an article about Hamlet and film. There have been multiple versions and adaptations. One I missed at the time but struck me forcibly this reading is Orson Welles' Touch of Evil, known around these parts as "The Greatest Film Ever Made", at least on Fridays. In Touch of Evil Hank Quinlan seeks to revenge his wife's murder by catching all murderers. He decides on their guilt by his famous 'hunches' which he feels in his bad leg. Welles, of course, knew Shakespeare intimately and an abbreviated Hamlet was one of his early radio productions. Part 1 & Part 2 are available online.
Compare the final lines of Touch of Evil, above, with Hamlets description of his father
"He was a man, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again."
It's the central tenet though where the parallels are clearest - are the ghost / Quinlan's leg telling the truth? Charlton Heston's Mexican lawyer has much of the pomposity of Polonius. He is more worried by form than content. Diplomacy comes into both. Quinlan, a king in his own county in Texas causes problems when he behaves in the same way in Mexico.
A central tenet of both is how to find a meaning upon which to act. Quinlan fails to catch his wife's killer but never lets another walk free. But then he himself becomes a killer. Hamlet waits so long to kill the king that many others fall around him.
Ok, ok, one vapour trail too many, says you.

And then there is Hamlet the bedsit misanthropist: "use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"
This is the Hamlet who scorns the common man, in his appreciation of art "the groundlings" after all "are capable of nothing but inexplicable dumb shows and noise."
I'm sure he has The Velvet Underground and John Cage on his iPod, or something of the sort.

If Shakespeare is Hamlet, is he not also the Gravedigger, who handles the bones of noble and fool and started his work on the very day that Hamlet was born. A target of the diggers' wit, Hamlet says " the age is grown so picked that the toe of the peasant comes so near the heel of the courtier, he galls his kibe." Shakespeare did not paint a pretty picture of kings and kingship in Hamlet.

There is a real taste of tragedy with Hamlet being very close to Hamnet, the son Shakespeare lost when he was but 11. This may have given an edge to Shakespeare's great tragedies which followed a few years after this untimely death.

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