Thursday, June 03, 2010

Hamlet, part 4 - Who's there?

If you haven't recently read (or seen) Hamlet, might I recommend my summary of the play that I wrote last year?

Last year, my third Hamlet post was entitled "Who's there?", and in it I examined the many faces of so very many of the characters, and also asked you to consider who was hiding for some of the scenes. For example, Polonius is a notorious hider - both in the "To be or not to be" scene and in Gertrude's bedchamber, when he gets run through (or shot, depending on the production), but there are other incidences of people being there, but out of sight. Having just re-read that post, I realize there's some overlap with today's selection, but to my way of thinking, the focus this time is more on the nature of the characters mentioned.

The play opens with a night watchman saying "Who's there?", which is a fine way of announcing at least one of the major themes of this play. Because this play is truly about who's there – who are these characters, really?


Claudius is king – but that doesn't make him a good (or bad) guy.

At first, he sounds like he's running the country well – staving off young Fortinbras, negotiating with England, taking an interest in the welfare of his subjects (including Laertes and Hamlet). We're not sure he's entirely wrong about Hamlet being too mopey, even.

But who is Claudius? He's the younger brother who killed off the king in order to wear the crown and bed his sister-in-law, Gertrude. In fact, it's not clear which of those two objectives was more important to him. He becomes more politically invested in keeping the crown as the play goes on, which is evidenced by his communications with Polonius, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, the letter to England (on which Hamlet later reports), and even his comments to Gertrude after she tells Laertes about Ophelia's death.

Claudius himself seems uncertain who he is, in his prayer scene in Act 3, scene 3, where he wonders whether he can be forgiven by God while still keeping his ill-gotten gains. And although he seems to desperately want to retain his crown and queen, he obviously drops the ball when it comes to keeping tabs on what Fortinbras is up to, since he comes marching in at the end of the play (or at least in some productions of the play), having invaded Denmark, basically. So in the end, he's not even that good at being king, really.


Hamlet the King was a man of action. He's firmly established as such in the first act, where he's described as a valiant warrior. Hamlet the Prince is eventually revealed to be an excellent fencer, but he is otherwise not really a man of action; rather, he's a thinking man – a scholar, a philosopher.

When his father's ghost charges him with avenging his murder by killing Claudius, thoughtful Prince Hamlet is being asked to assume his father's action role, which is not something that sits easily with him. In keeping with his philosophical nature, it takes a while for him to figure out who he is – and whether he can be a guy who acts to kill Uncle Claudius.

So, is Hamlet a good guy or a bad guy?

To determine who's there – a good or bad guy – you need to look at the totality of Hamlet's reality, and depending on where you stand when you see or read this play, your conclusion might differ from mine – or from yours on a different day, even. Because Hamlet is a fully-fleshed out, complex character, not a cardboard cut-out. Not only that, he's an especially compelling character - one who, like Falstaff, Shakespeare had to kill off because the character was taking over, essentially. Or so says Harold Bloom in Hamlet Poem Unlimited, where he opines "It is Hamlet's Triumph over Shakespeare...that the prince implicitly persuades us he knows more than his creator does...Hamlet longs for a mighty opposite, and discovers he has to be his own."

There's a question as to who Hamlet is with respect to the female characters in particular. Is he Gertrude's subservient son or is he her supervisor? Her advisor? Her judge? If he loves Gertrude, is it normal filial devotion or something Oedipal? ("Oedipus, shmoedipus. I love you, Mommy.")

These sorts of questions exist in particular with Ophelia. Is he a true lover, or was he merely dallying? Given his extreme reaction to her death, I conclude that he actually loved Ophelia, despite being so upset with women in general (as a result of his mother's adulterous fornication) and with Ophelia in particular (for cutting him off and refusing to see him, then doing her father's dirty work to see what's up with him – which he is on to, by the way) earlier in the play. In fact, it's notable (I think) that his next (short) soliloquy - "if it be now, 'tis not to come . . . " comes after Ophelia's death. Whereas he had already resolved to kill Claudius, he is now completely fine with the notion of being killed himself in the process. I think that having lost Ophelia helps him to put this last piece in place, which takes us to the fencing match and the death of everyone but Horatio (more or less).

In the scene just after Hamlet's most famous soliloquy, "To be or not to be", Hamlet runs into Ophelia. He says, variously, that he loved her and that he did not. Who is there? On the one hand, you have Hamlet who loves and respects Ophelia, telling her to get to a nunnery (by which he means a convent) for her own protection, while revealing his self-loathing or vision of himself as a sinner:
. . ."why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a nunnery. "

Hamlet figures out that he's being observed by Polonius, at which point he becomes completely disgusted with Ophelia (presumably for taking part in the deception), and he essentially calls her a whore. So when he repeats his exhortation telling her to get to a nunnery, he's no longer telling her to go to a convent where she'll be safe from men; instead, he's telling her to go to a brothel where she can service them.

"If thou dost marry, I'll give thee this plague for thy dowry: be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny. Get thee to a nunnery, go: farewell. Or, if thou wilt needs marry, marry a fool; for wise men know well enough what monsters you make of them. To a nunnery, go, and quickly too. Farewell."
His references to plague and calumny are to venereal disease. His reference to married men and monsters has to do with cuckoldry, and the final "and quickly too" is a double entrendre involving on the one hand, an exhortation to Ophelia to travel with speed and a play on the words "quick lie", which means just what you might think.


Who's there? Friends or foes? Loyal subjects or grabby sycophants? We're told that they are old school friends of Hamlet's, who are summoned from Wittenberg (where poor Hamlet was prevented from returning) to spy on Hamlet and report back to the King. When they leave for England with Hamlet and a sealed order, do they know (or at least suspect) that it contains an order for their "friend's" death? Did they truly deserve to die for having "made love to" their occupation?

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