Thursday, May 22, 2003
by Lenka Reznicek [permalink] 
Thoughts on William Shakespeare’s Hamlet

Note to reader: while this isn't a true blog post, this is an example of one of our weekly writing assignments for The Philosophy of Human Nature, and demonstrates that I am often quite full of..ahem, hot air.

I’ll have to admit up front that I haven’t had the world’s greatest exposure to Shakespeare; up to this point I’ve only read Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar. After watching the in-class presentation of the BBC’s Hamlet (with a young Derek Jacobi, whom I’ve seen many a time as Brother Cadfael on PBS) I realized what a pleasantly synergistic experience it is to have read and watched a Shakespeare play – and how the subtle nuances of the author’s art are best observed after the viewer has done both.

I found it quite amazing how many lines from Hamlet have found their way into the canon of common usage: not only the oft-quoted "To be or not to be…", but phrases such as "shuffle off this mortal coil," "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune," "to sleep, perchance to dream," "the undiscovered country" – how this single work of an Elizabethan playwright has trickled down centuries later into the collective consciousness of the English-speaking world (and then some!)

Prince Hamlet, if not truly mad, appears at least highly obsessive; though he is an intellectual at heart his convictions change nearly moment by moment, and the inner conflict caused by the vision of his father’s ghost drives him to distraction, utterly alienating those he loves. Complicating matters is the fact that Claudius and Gertrude want Prince Hamlet to abandon his studies at Wittenburg to become a full-time royal courtier – you can imagine the resentment such an order would stir in a young man even today, if his parent and new step-parent asked him to abandon his work or studies, his search for individuation – essentially asking him to remain a homebound child.

In Prince Hamlet’s suspicion and anger over Claudius’ untimely marriage to his mother following King Hamlet’s death, I can see some Oedipal/incestuous overtones and rivalry over Queen Gertrude (evidenced in Prince Hamlet’s rather unseemly behavior towards his mother after the "baited" performance of "The Mousetrap") – while Hamlet makes a great issue over the "incestuous" nature of his mother’s marriage to Claudius, I would think that this as a matter of degree. While strict Levitical interpretation of Biblical law would prohibit such an arrangement, I’ve always understood that some degree of intra-familial marriage was common in monarchies to preserve the "integrity of the royal bloodline".

Though Hamlet’s avenging drive is powerful, like himself, it lacks focus. When Prince Hamlet’s passions are aroused to a murderous pitch in Gertrude’s "closet" he lashes out impetuously at the curtains, killing eavesdropping Polonius by accident. In the end, death comes to many through Hamlet’s actions, even though the intended target was Claudius.

Another parallel is the use of poison as a plot device – and how toxic human intentions can act as poison surely as any philter. King Hamlet was murdered as he slept by the administration of liquid poison into his ear, and both Prince Hamlet and Gertrude die by poisoning as well, orchestrated by Claudius: Hamlet by poisoned sword in a duel with Laertes, Gertrude by accidental ingestion of the same poison intended as a failsafe, should Hamlet survive the duel. An irony: while Hamlet pondered suicide ("to be or not to be…") but believed it too sinful in the eyes of God to carry out, Ophelia - the sole “innocent” of the drama - ends up taking her own life and concluding her short life in mortal sin.

Reading the plot, I was impressed by the sense of "cinematic resonance," symmetry and contrast Shakespeare used: the father-son pairs of King and Prince Hamlet, King and Prince Fortinbras [a play on the French words for "strong" and "arm" perhaps?] and Polonius and Laertes, each son avenging his father’s death in his own way. When diagrammed, the pattern of "filial revenge duty" almost appears like an endless Celtic knot or karmic Wheel of Life, with each player’s fate entwined with another’s. While Hamlet is in one sense a classic tragedy, it also illustrates that virtually no one is truly "innocent," and the evil do get what is coming in one way or another.

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