Alas, Poor Hamlet

My friend Trudy and I have started watching Shakespeare together once a month. This month’s selection was the David Tennant “Hamlet” (which we had to divide in half).

A few thoughts on my umpteenth viewing of this fantastic play:

1)  A person should never think too much about his or her parents’ marriage. Because, really, it’s not something that bears thinking about. Just assume that there were things you didn’t know and leave it there.

Hamlet, of course, can’t just leave it. To him, his father was a paragon and his mother is faithless; but let’s face it, this is the opinion of a young man who worshiped his father and assumed that everyone else did too. Hamlet never considers for a moment that there might be some qualities his mother sees in Claudius that his father lacked (vigor? sexual prowess? a spirit of fun?), nor does it cross his mind that the affair might have begun prior to his father’s death, even though every sign points in that direction. Instead, Hamlet continues to believe that his mother is weak-willed and was seduced after the fact by his uncle. Oh, Hamlet, this and your dealings with Ophelia prove you have no clue what goes on in a woman’s heart.

2) No one besides Horatio really likes Hamlet all that much. Looking at the play from a very English perspective, we expect Hamlet to follow his father onto to the throne under basic principles of feudal law and primogeniture. After all, wasn’t that what all the hubbub was about in Richard II? But in the world of Hamlet’s Denmark, Viking precepts have carried down and a king must also receive the support and acclaim of his people before he can be seated on his throne. This idea of acclaim prevented a weak king from being put in place simply by reason of blood. So what must have happened prior to the action of the play is that, when old Hamlet died, Claudius had more support than Hamlet did, and so he got the crown. We see this again later in the play, when Laertes returns from Paris in a frenzy, blaming Claudius for his father’s death. He storms the palace with a mob at his back, with the mob chanting for him: “Laertes shall be king!” We never see a crowd rallying behind Hamlet, trying to make him king.

3) Laertes is Hamlet’s foil, but Fortinbras is his mirror. The story of Fortinbras is a subtle sub-plot, told primarily in speeches about what is happening off-stage, and therefore, it is usually lost on most people. In addition, because it is mostly going on off-stage, productions usually cut a lot of those speeches, so when Fortinbras suddenly shows up at the end and says, “Hey, too bad everyone’s dead. Denmark is mine now,” it’s usually a bit of a surprise. Who the hell is this guy and what is he doing here?

But Fortinbras is a critical mirror for Hamlet’s character. Like Hamlet, he lost his father suddenly and recently. Like Hamlet, his uncle took the throne that he might otherwise have gained. Unlike Hamlet, he did not take any of this quietly. Fortinbras’ father was killed by Hamlet’s father, and so young Fortinbras immediately set out to make war on Denmark. When evil usurping uncle Claudius sent a request to evil usurping uncle Norway (he doesn’t have any other name) to make young Fortinbras stop, Norway complied, so Fortinbras turned his attention to another victim:  Poland. For that, he had to cross Denmark and asked for safe passage, which Claudius granted. In a scene which is almost never performed, Hamlet sees Fortinbras and his army crossing Denmark and indulges in more agonizing self-criticism:  I need to be more like him; I need to be active; he has no reason to fight with Poland and yet off he goes, but still I cannot act. The safe passage is, of course, the reason why Fortinbras has every right to be in Denmark when the royal family self-destructs and enables him to swoop in and claim Denmark for himself, which was all he wanted from the beginning. In contrast, Hamlet, who apparently had every reason in the world to do one simple, focused act, has managed to do nothing for weeks, and then, beginning with the execution of two college pals, to bring about the death of nearly everyone he ever loved.

Shakespeare was a master of writing brilliant plays with unlikeable people at the center.

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