Notes on Hamlet

26 Nov

Shallow reading and the skewed perspective of modern sensibility, with its ‘psychological’ bias have blurred several aspects of Shakespeare’s great play. I will here show how the play itself makes clear, explicitly clear the way Shakespeare intends us to understand Hamlet’s dynamic relationship with Ophelia, — which continues to be grossly misunderstood, partly for trendy political reasons — and the character of Gertrude, sensual, unthinking, obtusely insightful, which has a decisive impact on the events of the play.
Though most of the play and most of its action is generated by Claudius and Polonius’ attempts to discover the cause of Hamlet’s “distemper” (melancholy), Gertrude intuits it from the first. “I think it is no other but his father’s death and our o’er hasty marriage” she tells Claudius (Act II.ii.59-60).  There it is: the answer, but Polonius the horny and intrusive old voyeur (who will find that “to be too busy is some danger”) is certain it is Hamlet’s love for Ophelia. But the love is genuine and in an utterly corrupt and decaying state the Prince’s only tie to hope) and when Polonius interdicts it via the too compliant Ophelia (contrast her with Cordelia who is “young…and true” and perhaps a bit too proud and ‘by the book,’ like her father) it indeed adds another layer to Hamlet’s bitterness and “edge.” Polonius and the King involve Ophelia in their lives and manipulation which leads to Hamlet lying back to her (telling her “I never loved you” and “I never gave you any” tenders of my love, when they both know they did, just as Hamlet knows that Ophelia, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his ‘friends’ are spying on him and lying to him on behalf of the King and Polonius. When he asks here, seemingly out of nowhere, “where is your father” and she replies, “at home” he knows she has lent herself to their plot and he begins bitterly and tellingly lying back to her, culminating with erotic barbs like “shall I lie in your lap.” For as Hamlet knows, she being proffered by “a fishmonger,” Polonius will lead to her being “a good sun-kissing carrion,” a dead dog breeding maggots). The brutal images reflect the atmosphere of moral, sexual, familial and temporal rot in Denmark in which the rise of Claudius is attended by war preparations that “do not divide the Sabbath from the week.”

Gertrude could have circumvented all the action and tragedy of the play had she insisted on her knowledge but she was too busy exchanging love strokes and drinking with Claudius. In Avt V, scene one, after the grimly comic obsrevations of the grave-diggers and Hamlet’s even more pointed conversation with them, when through Hamlet and Horatio we watch the funeral of Ophelia, we hear Gertrude exclaim, now, far too late that it had always been her wish to see Ophelia and Hamlet married, “I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife” (5.1.255-9, Folger Library edition of Hamlet). Had this wish been made known, the interference and displaced jealousy of Polonius, and Laertes would have been blunted, Hamlet’s position as heir would have been strengthened and there would have been no tragedy. But the point, that is always missed in this play, is that Gertrude has a sense of what is wrong and what could be right yet is too lost in her appetities for Claudius and drink, too much living a series of discontinuous moments to get outside herself and effect change. Her suggestibility does, however, along with her love for Hamlet, enable him to get her to begin the path of contrition and repentance thus, for Shakespeare’s audience, saving her soul, probably (she will join her husband in Purgatory’s fires) rather than losing it along with her life to the poisoned “union” of Claudius.

The essence of Hamlet’s relationship with Ophelia, a young lady of high rank resident at court, and the subsequent rapid descent of the play toward its climax is exposed in Act III, scene i and following. It begins with King Claudius, Hamlet’s unctuous, grandiose uncle who is “a little more than kin and less than kind,” that is, Hamlet’s verse brilliantly implies, a hollow negation of identity, the ‘nothing’ space between the ‘n’ and the ‘d’ in “kind” in conference with Gertrude and their chief counselor Polonius, Ophelia’s father and a voyeuristic meddler in the affairs of young people. Polonious, Hamlet piercingly comments, is “a fishmonger” like a bawd dangling his daughter before the Prince in an attempt to “pluck out the heart of [his] mystery” which, Polonius blindly believes is tied up with his love for Ophelia, a genuine love Polonius short-circuits, thus hastening the descent of the play to confrontation and tragedy. The meddling of the counselor, whose curious and unhealthy relationship with the royal couple and the State is expressed in a tellingly inverted parallel regarding the “hand” and “mouth” of Denmark makes him a “Jepthah” figure and makes Ophelia “a sweet-kissing carrion” who conceives death when she might have conceived Hamlet’s life and heir. It all is part of the “unweeded garden” filled with things “rank and gross in nature” akin to “honeying and making love over the nasty sty.” The morbidity of Denmark, the disjointed frame it is Hamlet’s impossible task to re-align (as Edgar strives to save his father, Lear and Britain, — and himself) culminates in the graveyard scene which begins in mordant wit, hovers on gloomy equivocation lighted by wit, and ends with Hamlet and Laertes, who has “bought an unction of a mountebank” wrestling in the pit of Ophelia’s grave. Just so, his corrupt and despairing “father-mother” will “follow [his] queen” after swallowing his own “union” with all its rot upon his conscience.

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