Wednesday, April 23, 2014

10 years of teaching Hamlet

I've been meaning to write a blog about Hamlet for a while now, and I was hoping to get to it during my Spring Break (where I have had more "me" time than I've had in a long time). I suppose the ghost of Hamlet's dad must have been trying to send me a sign, as my uncle sent me this link from NPR about Shakespeare's 450th birthday and how the Globe Theater is planning on bringing Hamlet on a world tour. What finally clinched it is that while out on a bike ride this morning, I passed a "Hamlet Drive". The signs (are everywhere. (Shakespeare would appreciate that pun, no doubt.) Plus, I just finished up teaching the play with my seniors right before Spring Break, so it's pretty fresh on my mind.

I've written about the play before, or more specifically, the movie adaptations. You can check that out at this link here and that link there. Plus, here's a write-up about a live performance that I saw. I have a lot of things to say, obviously, and for this one I think that I will hit on a variety of topics and observations that I've had after teaching it for ten years. The best part about the play is that it continues to surprise me, and every year I feel like I'm pointing out stuff that hadn't occurred to me before. Here's what I have to say about the play now. (Warning: I'm writing this with the assumption that anybody reading it is already pretty familiar with the play.)

Claudius kinda sucks, and he might be a bit of a drunk as well.

I was once at a comic book convention and attended a panel for the creators of Kill Shakespeare, a comic book series that brought together many of the playwright's characters in a huge meta-adventure. Hamlet is the main character, so he was a central focus of the discussion at the panel. With the creators was a college professor who taught Shakespeare and offered some expert advice. For the most part, I found her comments to be enlightening, but one of them has really stuck in my craw. She said, in so many words, that the text hints that Claudius, while an evil bastard for killing his brother, may have been a pretty decent ruler.

Say what now?

First of all, I have no idea where one would get that. The character traits that I get from Claudius is that he's a schemer, perhaps a bit of a drunk, and not really engaged with the affairs of state. Hopefully the bit about him being a schemer is self-evident to anybody who reads the play, but where do I get the bit about him being a drunk?

For starters, after trying to console Hamlet in the second scene of the play, he drinks a toast to Hamlet's decision to stay at Elsinore. He's not just enjoying a glass, as his toast-making will echo in the very heavens:
in grace whereof,
No jocund health that Denmark drinks to-day,
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
And the king's rouse the heavens all bruit again,
Re-speaking earthly thunder.
Okay, so the guy's getting his drink on since he just got married. That doesn't make him a drunk necessarily. I guess what makes me believe this is that I take Prince Hamlet as a reliable source when it comes to describing his uncle, and he makes several suggestions that indicate Claudius's rummy disposition. He tells Horatio that "We'll teach you to drink deep ere you depart" and when Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern?) tells him that his uncle is "distempered", Hamlet immediately assumes that it's "With drink, sir?" Plus, there's a whole bit where Hamlet bemoans the drinking game that the king is engaged in. According to him, this tradition makes all of Denmark look bad.
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations:
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements...
Maybe one can be a drunkard and still be a good king, but Claudius doesn't strike me as though he's got his act together. First of all, when told that Fortinbras is going to march his army through Denmark in order to attack Poland, the King's only response is: "It likes us well!" Seriously, dude? Fortinbras originally raised that army to invade Denmark, and now you just trust him to just pass through your country? I think that Kenneth Branagh really improved upon the text when he made Fortinbras's entrance a full-scale invasion, unless there's something about medieval Scandinavian political strategy that I just don't understand.

The guy also doesn't seem to have the people on his side. The whole reason why he doesn't just punish Hamlet directly is because the prince is "loved of the distracted multitude" And then what happens when Laertes comes to town to find out what happened to his father? He's able to storm right into the palace, a huge crowd behind him, all of them chanting  that they want Laertes to be king. Call me crazy, but that doesn't sound like Claudius has the loyalty of his constituents if the son of the adviser can rally the people to his side like that.

Claudius is motivated by an obsessive love for Gertrude

The fact that Claudius doesn't seem to be too engaged in the running of his kingdom indicates that his motivation for killing his brother had more to do with his wanting Gertrude than wanting the kingdom. Sure, becoming king is a nice bonus prize, but it's all about Gertrude, as it's pretty much directly suggested that their "overhasty marriage" within "less than a month" was due to the fact that the "adulterate beast" and the Queen were boinking each other on the side before King Hamlet was "stung by a serpent".

The guy may be a villain and an "arrant knave", but he does love Gertrude with all his black heart. Another reason he gave for not punishing Hamlet directly was that:
...The queen his mother
Lives almost by his looks; and for myself--
My virtue or my plague, be it either which--
She's so conjunctive to my life and soul,
That, as the star moves not but in his sphere,
I could not but by her...
So, he's not going to do anything to upset her. Having her is one thing though, but having to share her love? Oh no. He's not going to have that. The fact is that he was scheming to kill Prince Hamlet all along. One might make the mistake of thinking that Claudius was only planning on killing Hamlet after the death of Polonius. The plan, for those who don't quite remember, was to have Hamlet's companions deliver a sealed letter to the King of England. The contents of the letter ordered the King to have Hamlet's head cut off.

Now we know that Claudius was planning on sending Hamlet to England before Polonius's death because he revealed that much to Polonius himself during the scene where the two of them spied on Hamlet and Ophelia's "get thee to a nunnery" scene. Also, immediately after the death of Polonius, Hamlet explains to his mother that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were going to be bringing "sealed letters". Unless Claudius wrote up a new letter between finding out that Polonius was dead and sending Hamlet packing, which is unlikely considering the rapid pace from those two points, he was planning on getting rid of his nephew all along.

Some folks might argue that he only schemed Hamlet's death after Hamlet started acting all crazy, but we know from the beginning that he wanted to keep Hamlet close by.
...For your intent
In going back to school in Wittenberg,
It is most retrograde to our desire:
And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.
Is it really such a stretch to think that he wanted to keep him close so he could have him killed? This is the guy who killed his own brother, isn't it? Claudius is a guy who had to have the Gertrude all to himself, and he wasn't willing to share it in any sense of the word.

That ghost is a ghost.

When it comes to some of Shakespeare's other ghosts, one could make the argument that we're only supposed to take them as a figment of the character's imagination. In the case of Banquo's ghost in Macbeth or Caesar's in Julius Caesar, they could be the product of Macbeth's and Brutus's (respectively) fevered imaginations, and it would serve the same purpose if it was a literal ghost. In the case of Hamlet though, Shakespeare wants us to take that ghost for exactly what it appears to be.

The first indicator is that the ghost's appearance is confirmed by Horatio, a "scholar" and a skeptic who thinks that it will not appear, but when it comes along again, Horatio declares:
Before my God, I might not this believe
Without the sensible and true avouch
Of mine own eyes.
We also can trust Horatio because Hamlet praises him to his face:
 ...Give me that man
That is not passion's slave, and I will wear him
In my heart's core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.
This, coupled with the fact that what the ghost reveals bears itself out, is Shakespeare's way of letting us know that we should just go with the flow. Sure, it's only Hamlet who sees his father's spirit in that scene in his mother's bedroom, but why would it be a real ghost throughout and just in his head that one time?

Hamlet is an introvert

He gives long speeches, which in a Shakespeare play indicates that he's got a lot of thoughts in his head. Plus, he can't stand nosy, intruding people like Polonius, Rosencrantz, and Guildenstern. As Shakespeare used to say: "'Nuff said."

Hamlet's character arc is about accepting life and finding the will to live

When we first meet him, he wishes that his "solid flesh would thaw, melt, and resolve itself into a dew" or that God hadn't made a "no killing yourself" rule. When he gets the mission to avenge his father, he is given a purpose, and even though he doesn't act, he is moved to question himself and explore the deepest questions that remain with humankind to this day: How can you know when it's time to stop thinking and time to start acting? Why do we keep ourselves alive when we can so easily end it all? What is the meaning of it all when we're all just going to wind up as a pile of bones?

Hamlet wants to die at the beginning of the play, and by the end, he's fighting to live. More importantly, his journey has enabled him to accept that end with dignity and heroism.

It gets better with age.

At 30, I was able to understand it in a way that I couldn't when I was first introduced to it at 20 while in college. Now that I'm 40, I feel that I get it in a way that my 30-year-old self missed. Here's hoping that I'll be able to write an addendum when I'm 50. Also, if you think that I'm totally off-base with any of this, please share your thoughts.

It's boring.

Hella boring.

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