Saturday, 8 November 2014

Drama and Character in Acts I and II in Shakespeare's "Hamlet"


One quality that is often attributed to great literature is that it stays relevant and therefore transcends time. Ezra Pound described literature as “news that stays news”. Shakespeare’s writing is certainly this. Despite the dramatic changes in time and context, Shakespeare’s observations on the human condition remain true and relevant today, more than four centuries later. Macbeth warns us, amongst other things, of the unremitting and sometimes uncontrollable nature of human ambition; King Lear demonstrates the dangers of a desire for flattery. Hamlet is another play that reveals various features of the human condition. Through his study of Hamlet’s particularly enigmatic and complex character, Shakespeare gives us various insights into human nature and the human mind. In fact, Shakespeare’s rapid and yet profound development of all the play’s characters demonstrates his interest in human character and conduct. His methods of development largely stem from his interest in dramatic situation and the dramatic effectiveness of his scenes. Every conversation in the play reveals something about his character’s idiosyncrasies or particulars, and thus, through this diversity of character, Shakespeare reveals aspects of emotion and thought that are difficult to capture otherwise.

Hamlet’s character is one of the most developed and most intricate in English literature. At the beginning of the play, he is presented as a very sensitive and delicate young man, mourning for his father. However, it is in his first soliloquy that his character is truly examined. He is so hurt and dejected by his father’s death, which he is already suspicious about, that he wishes “the Everlasting has not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter.” This would have been particularly shocking for an Elizabethan audience, since suicide was considered almost sinful in society. He then decries the “weary, stale, flat and unprofitable” world, describing it as “an unweeded garden” possessed by “things rank and gross”. This imagery of decay is repeated over and over again in the play (Marcellus says to Horatio in Act I Scene 4: “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”) Shakespeare is emphasising Hamlet’s despair at the world’s disparities. The amount of time he spends in depicting Hamlet’s gloom implies his enjoyment in exploring an anguished and grief-striken mind. Hamlet goes on to describe how his father, who he compares to Hyperion (a great Titan of whom an Elizabethan audience would almost certainly be aware), was “But two months dead” when Gertrude married Claudius, “a satyr”. Again, an Elizabethan audience would have been shocked by Hamlet’s words, particularly the image of Gertrude wearing the same shoes to her wedding as she wore to King Hamlet’s funeral. His exclamations (“O God…”) and his phrase, “Oh most wicked speed…” suggest his outrage and upset. Again, Shakespeare is clearly interested in exploring the mind of one so desperately afflicted.

However, melancholy is not Hamlet’s only trait. He is also presented by Shakespeare as a very discerning young man, and this intelligence is, in many ways, what leads to his death. It is because Hamlet is intelligent enough to be suspicious of the ghost (it could very well be the devil tricking him, as he says: “The spirit that I have seen / May be the devil…”) that he does not act immediately. Indeed, he is often accused of indecision and cowardice; at one point he even questions his own resolve and asks: “Am I a coward?” and he describes himself as “unpregnant” of his cause. This could, in fact, be Hamlet’s ‘hamartia’ or ‘error of judgement’ – if he had trusted the ghost then perhaps the end of the play would not have been so murderous. Hamlet is also presented as discerning in his suspicion of not only Claudius and Polonius, but also Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom he immediately suspects were sent by his uncle. Furthermore, Shakespeare is intrigued by the trait of indecision, explored in Hamlet’s soliloquy of Act II. He describes himself as

“A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing…"

He is condemning himself for being indecisive and lacking passion in the redemption of his father. This speech follows immediately on from the First Player’s passionate speech about Hecuba and the “burst of clamour that she made” as she watched her husband, King Priam, being killed. This, in itself, demonstrates Shakespeare’s interest in dramatic situation and effectiveness. Indeed, the power and of dramatic situation is demonstrated when the First Player changes colour and “has tears in’s eyes”. Shakespeare is implying that, in certain situations, the passion can be so strong that it should evoke real and intimate emotion in the audience, and in this way he is praising the power of the theatre. Hamlet then compares his own emotion to that of the First Player, who he describes as “in a dream of passion” and with “his whole function suiting / With forms to his conceit.” Hamlet questions how someone without any real reason could portray such emotion: “For Hecuba! / What’s Hecuba to him…?” His emotional exclamations here demonstrate his own anger and upset at his own lack of resolve. He then goes on:
                                                     “What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears…”

Not only is Shakespeare demonstrating the importance of dramatic effectiveness and passion in a speech, he is also exploring even further Hamlet’s indecisive character. Hamlet feels as if he is being childish and ‘unmasculine’ in his anxiety and uncertainty, and indeed he questions who “Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face, / Tweaks me by th’nose…” both things one might do to a disobedient child. He describes how he is “pigeon-livered” (lacking courage) and “lack[s] gall / To make oppression bitter.” He then attempts to emulate the unrestrained passion of the First Player (“Bloody, bawdy villain!”) as he feels he ought to, but then realises there is no use in it:

                                              “This is most brave,
That I,…
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
A scullion!”

The harshness of his words here clearly shows his anger at himself for attempting to replace action with speech. He then turns to more practical things (“About, my brains.”) and discusses his plan, but even then he is torn and confused. Shakespeare, through this soliloquy, demonstrates his interest in both dramatic effectiveness and the intricacies of human character.

Claudius is one of the other highly developed characters of the play, and his first speech adequately demonstrates his manipulative and uncaring nature. He scorns Hamlet for mourning so extremely for his father, and attempts to present a positive outlook despite the recent death of the King. Indeed, his speech is so rhetorically perfected and full of crafted oppositions (“a defeated joy, / With one auspicious and one dropping eye…”) that it appears incredibly insincere. Moreover, the swiftness with which he turns to political business (“… for all, our thanks. / Now follows that you know: young Fortinbras…” again suggests his insincerity. Through this very manipulative and effective speech Shakespeare is able to demonstrate Claudius’s untrustworthiness and insensitivity to Hamlet, whose father has just died. This insensitivity is then reiterated later in the scene when Claudius questions Hamlet: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” and blames Hamlet for “obsequious sorrow”, “impious stubbornness” and “unmanly grief”. Through Claudius’s use of repeated negative phrasing and his suggestion that Hamlet’s mourning is “most incorrect to heaven”, Shakespeare again indicates Claudius’s cruel character. Here, Shakespeare demonstrates his interest in deception; Claudius’s speech is actually, at points, very convincing, particularly in his use of claims like:

“And with no less nobility of love
Than that which dearest father bears his son,
Do I impart to you.”

He also asks Hamlet to remain “Here in the cheer and comfort of our eye, / Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.” This seems a somewhat kind-hearted request at first, but it soon becomes clear that Claudius hopes to control young Hamlet. The alliteration of the ‘c’ sound in the above quotation serves to present Claudius’s claim as rather scathing and perhaps deceptive. Shakespeare was keen to confuse our sympathies and make us feel uncertain; however, our overall impression of Claudius from this speech is certainly one of insensitivity and manipulation. This is seen again in his request of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (also presented as cruel and easily persuaded for aligning themselves with Claudius and deceiving the tragic hero), Hamlet’s closest friends, to spy on Hamlet and trick him. He says to them, calculatingly: “The need we have to use you did provoke our hasty sending.” By comparing Claudius’s intentions with those of Gertrude (she innocently wants to know what has happened to her “too much changed son”), Shakespeare effectively elaborates on Claudius’s cruel personality. Thus, Shakespeare demonstrates his interest in the human character.

Shakespeare is clearly also interested in silly and foolish characters, and this interest is shown by his detailed creation of Polonius’s character. Polonius is, from the outset, aligned with Claudius in that he is cruel, unfeeling and dangerous; however, Polonius is also incredibly silly and aggravating. Indeed, his speeches throughout the play are characterised by stupidity, confusion and empty rhetoric. He also seems arrogant and pleased with himself. Although he appears briefly in Scene 2, we first get to know his character in Scene 3. The platitudinous, proverbial advice that Polonius gives to his son, Laertes, immediately reveals his silliness and enjoyment of his own voice: “Neither a borrower or a lender be,” and “to thine own self be true.” He is also seen as rather controlling and cruel in his speech to his daughter, in which he tells her: “Affection? Puh! You speak like a green girl…” and his scornful repetition of her use of the word “tender” shows his cruelty. He gives her a number of orders (“Do not believe his vows,” and “I charge you”), and yet he gives little reason for these orders, taking full advantage of his patriarchal authority. Indeed, the explanations he does give are so convoluted and filled with imagery that they are almost incomprehensible; for example: “These blazes daughter, / Giving more light than heat…” This is seen again when he harshly tells Ophelia that his rejection of Hamlet “hath made him mad”. It is as if he is blaming her for following his advice, rather than consoling her. Through this scene, Ophelia’s character is also revealed as rather submissive, and thus we pity her and dislike Polonius all the more. This father-to-child cruelty (part of the overall theme of spying) is a reflection of Claudius’s cruelty to Hamlet, as is Polonius’s attempt to spy on Laertes. Polonius, without any fear of blackening Laertes’s character (Reynaldo even says “My lord, that would dishonour him”), unfeelingly tells Reynaldo to “breathe his faults” in order to find out if he is acting poorly in Paris. Again, his silliness is effectively made clear when he asks, midway through his speech, “what was I about to say?” Through Polonius’s request of Reynaldo, Shakespeare is able to show not only his silliness, but also his dangerous cruelty and meddling nature. Finally, Polonius’s silliness is seen in his conversation with Claudius and Gertrude about Hamlet’s madness. The majority of Polonius’s speech is superfluous and rhetorical rubbish (“Why day is day, night night, and time is time…”), and indeed he takes a very long time to arrive at the reason of Hamlet’s madness. His speech is so dramatized and rhetorical that Gertrude tells him: “More matter with less art.” He even dramatizes the conversation that he had with Ophelia, making it clear that he enjoys holding the centre of attention. He is seen as arrogant in his seemingly bemused questioning: “What do you think of me?” and his saying “she took the fruits of my advice.” Ironically, he says his story is “a short tale to make”. It is no wonder, then, and indeed the audience is rather pleased that Hamlet ridicules him, calling him a “fishmonger” (the basest profession) and mocking him for his age and silliness. Thus, Shakespeare presents Polonius’s complex character through not only his own convoluted and silly speech, but also through Hamlet and Gertrude’s attitudes towards him. This skilled use of speech to reveal personality shows Shakespeare’s interest in dramatic situation.

The play’s other characters also demonstrate Shakespeare’s interest in both dramatic situation and character. The two scenes that are particularly effective are Scenes 1, 4 and 5, which all feature the ghost. The play’s opening scene is especially fearful in its sense of uncertainty. Indeed, it begins with the question: “Who’s there?” and is characterised by a tense and anxious atmosphere, exaggerated by the appearance of the ghost and Horatio’s exclamations: “Stay! Speak, speak, I charge thee speak!” This scene is particularly effective because, unlike the characters in the play, the audience can see all that is happening on stage. The play also begins in medias res, and thus it is the speech’s job to set the scene of a winter’s night (since the play would have been performed in daylight), as well as give the context of the play itself (i.e. that the king has just died). The ghost himself is presented as particularly ominous, saying nothing and simply continuing his “martial stalk”. Indeed, his ghostliness and fearfulness is emphasised when Barnardo and Horatio both say: “’Tis here,” suggesting that the ghost is supernaturally vanishing and appearing in various places. Moreover Horatio’s comment ominously prophesises the later happenings of the play: “This bodes some strange eruption to our state.” Horatio is presented as an intelligent and discerning character, and indeed his desire to speak to the ghost (he repeats “Speak to me”) implies his desire to help Denmark and thus avoid the predicted omen. Marcellus’s asking Horatio to speak to the ghost because he is a scholar is Shakespeare’s way of subtly yet effectively showing his personality.

Shakespeare’s interest in the human character is evident from his imaginative creation of such enigmatic and not always straightforward figures. Hamlet is the play’s hero, but he is also indecisive and therefore flawed. Claudius is seemingly kind and loving, but is actually manipulative and cruel. Polonius, although similarly cruel and dangerous, is a really rather funny character. The play’s other characters, particularly Ophelia, Gertrude and Laertes, are also intriguing in their traits and personalities, and again Shakespeare’s fascination with the human condition is evident. However, without his skilled use of speech and dramatic situation, these enigmatic and interesting characters would not have been effectively depicted. It is only through his lexical choice, his use of passionate soliloquys, speeches, asides, and subtle remarks that he can adequately present these characters. Thus, not only is Shakespeare’s interest in character evident, his interest in dramatic situation is also undeniably clear. It is this combination of a skilled use of language and a fascination with the human mind that has made Shakespeare’s plays so permanent. It is for these reasons that he is still relevant today.

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