Friday, September 6, 2019

The Prince Who Would Be Poet

Prince Hamlet, having already contemplated suicide due to the cognitive dissonance of seeing his mother move so quickly and pliably from mourning to marriage, encounters the spirit of his father, who informs him not only that he’s been eternally damned to hell for his deeds in life, but that he was murdered by Hamlet’s new step-father and it is the son’s sworn duty to revenge this with blood. Hamlet brushes off this extraordinary experience like so many flies (“Shall I couple hell? Fie” [1-5: 100]) and goes immediately back to hating his mother (“O most pernicious woman!” [1-5: 110]). It’s clear he has no interest in this courtly game of revenge, no particular love of his father or hatred for Claudius. It is all part of the relentless court intrigue that surrounds and imprisons him (“my prison house” [1-5: 19]) throughout the play and gives rise to his own constant voicing of his (well-founded) distrust of the motives of everyone who implores him to play the role more befitting a prince.
The role he’d rather play – and spends the bulk of his time pursuing – is using art – particularly stagecraft – to express the extremity of his circumstances. His witticisms and articulations of truth are a constant through whatever situation he finds himself in. What changes is the reaction of the other characters. In the first act his words are more or less ignored by Polonius as if they are a foreign language, whereas Rosencrantz and Guildenstern express frustration at not understanding his word play, being they are in the service of managing him in whatever devious way proves effective. The audience, in fact, can laugh at how rigid and obtuse these characters are in response to Hamlet’s incisive wit.
As Hamlet’s power to disrupt through the truth of his words emerges as an imagined threat, the same tendency of wit for truth’s sake is seen as "turbulent and dangerous lunacy" [3-1: 4], and the second half of the play is laced with uncorroborated claims by each of the main characters that Hamlet is mad. This, too, is humorous. Contrast, for example, Hamlet’s self-awareness, sense of responsibility for his actions and clear articulation of the moral corruption within the royal court with Ophelia’s descent into gibberish and suicide, how he, not she, is viewed as the one who is insane – nor is he given the same excuse for grief that she receives. For his part, Hamlet takes the accusation in stride, confidently stating, "I essentially am not in madness, / But mad in craft. [3-4: 209-210]" This is the “method [in the] madness” [2-2: 223-224], that even Polonius, obsessed with his delusion that Hamlet is hopelessly in love with his daughter, is forced to recognize when his “plentiful lack of wit” is subtly compared to a “weak ham” [2-2: 215-222].  
Hamlet’s obsession with articulating and staging the emotional truth of his experience comes into focus as the play progresses. The primary emotional experience is, of course, his mother’s perceived betrayal. The prince fashions many responses to the distress he feels, from judging her, himself and the world at large deficient (his so-called melancholy), but he doesn’t “come alive,” so to speak, until Polonius introduces the travelling players to court.
Even the other characters notice his change in disposition when this happens ("there did seem in him a kind of joy to hear of it" [3-1: 19-20]). In contrast to the dour conclusions he draws about human affairs in general, Hamlet tells Guildenstern, after grilling him with detailed questions about the actors and play, "'Sblood, there is something in this [drama] more than natural, if philosophy could find it out. [2-2: 390-391]" He warmly welcomes the play "masters" [2-2: 445], compares the lovers of plays to guiding falconers [2-2: 454], and, with similar generosity, announces to the troupe:
"He that plays the king shall be welcome; his majesty shall have tribute of me; the adventurous knight shall use his foil and target; the lover shall not sigh gratis; the humourous man shall end his part in peace; the clown shall make those laugh whose lungs are tickled o' the sere; and the lady shall say her mind freely, or the blank verse shall halt for't." [2-2: 343-350]
In other words, all that is denied to Hamlet in life is indulged in the play, thus warranting Hamlet’s decisive commitment to reward the troupe.  He also urges patronage on Polonius, for the sake of his own immortality: "Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty," [2-2: 557-559] adding “after your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their [the actors] ill report while you live" [2-2: 551-552].
Hamlet goes well beyond patronage, however. He knows more about the play than the players. He spends inordinate stage time discussing the minutiae of handling actors, adapting from different sources and putting on a proper presentation. He quotes with relish Pyrrhus's lines, which follow an eerily similar trajectory to the vengeance directive his father gave him. Unlike his desultory mope through his own life, he is energized by the possibilities for this dramatic reenactment.  His request to insert a few lines of his own into the Murder of Gonzaga quickly mushrooms into what appears to be much more extensive involvement in the staging.
The thought that this is where his heart actually lies, and not in the world of power vacuums, religious schisms and blood obligations, never seems to occur to anyone, despite what is arguably the most unexpected and remarkable Hamlet soliloquy in the play [2-2: 577-634], in which he admits, begrudgingly and with deep disgrace, that he is a wordsmith rather than a king.
He begins with his envy of how actors can conjure seemingly genuine emotion out of empty literary vessels: “and all for nothing! / For Hecuba! / What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, / That he should weep for her?” [2-2: 584-587] “What would he do,” Hamlet continues, “Had he the motive and the cue for passion / That I have? He would drown the stage with tears / And cleave the general ear with horrid speech, / Make mad the guilty and appal the free, / Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed / The very faculties of eyes and ears” [2-2: 587-593]. The sublime power of staged entertainments (and his emotional state) established, he focuses in on why he can’t himself speak his truth in this manner: his role as potential king (“And can say nothing – no, not for a king” [2-2: 596]). He concludes, however, that no one had forced silence on him, it was his own cowardice (“I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall / To make oppression bitter” [2-2: 604-605]). For this he calls himself, among other epithets, a “remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain” [2-2: 608-609]. But it’s not the cowardice that causes such self-recrimination, it is the unseemliness – even unmanliness – of a would-be king to use poetry instead of statecraft to accomplish his ends, “That I, the son of a dear father murder'd, / Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell, / Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words” [2-2: 612-614].
It is then he concocts the plan to reproduce in the staged play the circumstances of his father’s murder, if only to wrest some form of emotional justice from the overwhelming pathos of the situation (“For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak / With most miraculous organ” [2-2: 622-623]).  With the players of the real-life deed experiencing its mimetic reproduction, “I'll have grounds [stability as well as legal pretext] / More relative than this [the command of his father’s possibly tainted spirit]: the play's the thing / Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king" [2-2: 633-634].
In that context, Hamlet queries, seemingly at random, the meaning of life and death in his “to be or not to be” soliloquy. This is arguably the central play within the play, where Hamlet, freed of guilt for his poetic wit because it now has some practical purpose in the affairs of state, can unburden his gift. What follows is a fuller and more dramatic recapitulation of the dark truths he had been nursing up to that point, seemingly uncorked for no other purpose than the free expression of the emotions created by a world that gives no quarter to our human sense of right and wrong and provides no answers to our endless quests for meaning.  
His speech is interrupted by Ophelia, who is perplexed by her belief, based on his "words of so sweet breath composed / As made the things more rich" [3-1: 107-108], that he loved her. He continues in his truth-telling mode, correctly painting her as a tool of her scheming, ruthless father, and scolding her for all manner of feminine manipulation, and himself for falling prey to it. This poetic madness, the madness of truth-telling, prompts her to note “"Oh what a noble mind is here o’erthrown" [3-1: 164]. She changes her mind after the play is staged, however, remarking on Hamlet’s brilliant words, among other compliments, “"You are as good as a chorus, my lord" [3-2: 269].
Other reactions to the staged entertainment are even more instructive. Hamlet himself, at the pivotal moment when the Player Queen admits she killed her first husband, says "wormwood" twice [3-2: 204].  Wormwood was referenced in Romeo and Juliet as a way to wean children off their mother's nipple [1-3], suggesting the play's catharsis promises release from his mother’s control. 
Similarly, the Player King is portrayed with compassion and fairness for the difficulty of his position [3-2: 209-238], indicating Hamlet the maker of plays can understand and forgive through the transference of art far more readily than he can in “real life.” 
Horatio confirms the royal look of guilt in the show’s aftermath, but Hamlet seems more concerned with whether the intended audience liked it: "For some must watch, while some must sleep: / So runs the world away" [3-2: 299-300]. In fact, far from being incriminated for revenge as the courtier plotline would have one believe, both real sovereigns display the usual arrogance of play-goers. Queen Gertrude concludes, "The lady doth protest too much" [3-2: 254], in other words, the drama is overwrought, unrealistic. Claudius is only marginally more tuned to the subversion, in that Hamlet easily distracts him by denouncing the "knavish piece of work" [3-2: 264] (contrived by an “arrant knave,” himself).
A truer picture emerges later, when word comes from his mother: "your behavior hath struck her into amazement and admiration" [3-2: 344-345]. The show was indeed impressive, how it showed a mirror to life. This culminates in the “closet” scene [3-4: 11-117], where he literally shows his mother a mirror with his words. This results in a real admission of the truth of what has happened, and some acknowledgement of its emotional cost as the son finally finds, in the approval of his mother for his artistic efforts, the ability to express himself to her.
Claudius similarly feels the import of the play’s message, as he prays repentance and curses his compromised position. Hamlet finds the overheard prayer satisfying enough, for it shows the true suffering of the king. He wants no part of revenging a father whose sins were exposed "grossly, full of bread; / With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May" [3-4: 85-86]. Why should he be condemned, Hamlet reasons, while the murderer goes to heaven? Claudius obliquely seconds this by concluding, "My words fly up, my thoughts remain below: Words without thoughts never to heaven go" [3-4: 102-103]. The clear implication is that words – not the prayers or machinations of kings – are what provide immortality to a soul.
Hamlet affirms this idea when he speaks to Horatio – while holding “immortal” skulls – on the futility of life's ambitions. He extends the lack of legacy from Yorick, his old truth-telling jester (who he seems to regard as a representation of himself) to the remote emperors Caesar and Alexander. He gives lambs and calves special privileges, however, for providing parchment on which to write [5-1: 116-118], as if words are, once again, more immortal than even the most well-intentioned deeds.
It is Horatio, Hamlet’s last honest man, that he tasks with telling his story, to confer the only immortality left among the doomed:                     
"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?" [5-2: 34-41]

The irony imbedded inside Hamlet is that it would be considered beneath a noble, much less a prince, to sully himself with popular entertainments, yet it is this prince, through his words and Horatio’s account, who lives on, not the closed and treacherous world of kings he had spent so much time chronicling and trying to escape from. The human spirit, the true and beautiful response, lives forever. As does Hamlet himself.