Monday, April 24, 2006

Subtle Conflict

Great dramatic writing often builds into volcanic conflict through subtle conflict, because it can be the most powerful.

For example, at the end of Henrik Ibsen's A Doll's House, Nora subtly responds to attacks on her worth with the conflict of stiffening resistance or restrained counterattacks. But her husband keeps abusing her as though she were an object without feelings and doesn't see what's coming. Then — boom — she nukes him.

Shakespeare does the same thing in the conflict between Hamlet and Ophelia in Act III, Scene 1. Through this conflict Hamlet grows from pole to pole emotionally and is thus prepared to take the next step in the story. In other words, this scene makes his conduct later that evening believable. It prepares him emotionally to risk death.

The scene begins with his famous soliloquy, To be or not to be, in which he debates with himself whether to force the conflict with Claudius to its crisis. By the end of this scene he is ready to do just that. He has made a monumental decision. So, he begins in a state of uncertainty, he ends in revolt. He begins his encounter with Ophelia in tenderness, he ends in apocalyptic fury. Hence this peripheral conflict between Hamlet and Ophelia fits seamlessly into the core conflict and advances the plot.

This scene is an excellent example of subtly conflictual dialog. The encounter may be divided into two parts. In the first part (lines 88-102), Hamlet's reactions aren't counterattacks in the usual sense of the word. But they are defensive and therefore conflictual, increasing the conflict's intensity. They stiffen Hamlet's resistance in preparation for action we feel coming. Then, in the second part (lines 103 – 149), he lets Ophelia have it.

Let's analyse the conflict in this scene, line by line, to see how it builds.

First, here's the setup.

Something is really bothering Hamlet. He won't talk about it though and behaves a lot like an angry, rebellious, teenager who doesn't want you to know what he's mad about. Everybody hopes he's going off the deep end, but they fear he's plotting to do King Claudius justice. So, on the pretext of loving concern for Hamlet's well being, Claudius and Queen Gertrude (Hamlet's mother) have recruited two old friends of his, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to get him to confide in them. And then, of course, to betray that confidence.

On the pretext of loving concern for Hamlet's well being, they eagerly took advantage of this chance to become courtiers.

Hamlet greeted them warmly. Though he wouldn't say why, he admitted that all the joy had gone out of his life. But when he saw what they were up to, he went into his sarcastic court-jester mode, where he talks exactly like a court jester, vaguely and with double-meaning and total irreverence. So, their "cover is blown" and they are useless to Claudius. But, in Act III, Scene 1, they report only that they couldn't get Hamlet to open up and will keep trying.

Polonius, full of wishful thinking, wanting to be more useful than Claudius' new spies, and eager to be the bearer of good news, promotes Ophelia's theory that Hamlet is just so madly in love with her he's depressed and going crazy because she dumped him. He tells Claudius and Gertrude they can make Hamlet happy by just giving him back his girlfriend. Between the lines Polonius is diplomatically saying they needn't worry that Hamlet is thinking about avenging his father's murder, his mother's honor, and his own right to the crown. Claudius is sensible and doesn't buy it.

To prove his happy theory, Polonius suggests that they arrange and spy on an "accidental" meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia. So, they prepare the setup, giving Ophelia instructions. She is to accost Hamlet as though inadvertently, while pretending to pray from a prayer book. That was religious custom of the time, to walk in a garden or cloister reading a long daily prayer from a prayer book.

Claudius and Polonius see Hamlet coming and hide behind an arras. Ophelia serves as a decoy by pacing before them while pretending to pray. Hamlet approaches, in his soliloquy ("To be, or not to be"). At line 88, he suddenly comes upon her and abruptly stops debating with himself.

To understand what's between Hamlet and Ophelia, you need to know that the day Claudius took the throne, Ophelia dumped Hamlet. (That makes it pretty obvious why she was involved with the heir-apparant, eh?) Ever since, she has refused to receive Hamlet's letters and has denied him access to her. That is, Polonius' household servants have turned back his letters and have reported that she won't see him.

For all Hamlet knew, this could have been Polonius' doing against Ophelia's will. In fact, for all he knew, Ophelia was in trouble for his sake. So, yesterday, he just barged in on her to see for himself whether she was rejecting him. We have only Ophelia's unreliable account of this encounter, but apparently Hamlet could tell from her very looks that he was unwelcome. She says she was afraid of him. That must have been a sword of sorrow that pierced his heart. Apparently, she even tried to flee as though being attacked, for she says he grabbed her by the wrist. Holding her at arm's length, he studied her face. Finally, so close to the point of tears that he began to tremble, he nodded three times slowly as though coming to some conclusions and "raised a sigh so piteous and profound that it did seem to shatter all his bulk and end his being." Then, without a word, he left, looking back at her as though he'd never see her again.

So today Hamlet doesn't expect Ophelia to talk with him. Here, they're in the castle halls, not behind closed doors. Doubtless, he is afraid of her. For, if she should again start acting as though she fears he's going to attack her, others would see and think terrible things of him. So, we can assume that he gives her a wide berth. Besides, one who respects God doesn't butt in on her private conversation with Him.

Presumably, when Ophelia sees Hamlet, she lowers her prayer book and looks at him to get him to speak. He just asks her to put in a good word for him. Specifically, he asks her to pray that God forgive all his sins.

Hamlet: Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins rememb'red.

Sweet. Humble. Polite. But, as you might guess, this wasn't an everyday greeting. This request would come only from someone suffering painful remorse for "mortal" sin or someone in danger of death.

Back then, it was customary to address this request to young, innocent girls and others thought holy, because the pure are supposed to have great pull with God as intercessors. So, Hamlet's request praises Ophelia as both sexually pure (a nymph, a young girl) and morally pure (sincere).

Ophelia: Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?

Never has so much been done with so few words. Notice how shockingly inappropriate they are. "Many a day?" What happened to their meeting of yesterday? She acts as though it didn't happen. "My good lord?" What's the "good" in there for? That isn't how women address men they fear are likely to attack them. Besides, how would you feel if you met somebody you loved praying, asked that she pray also for your salvation, and got this back: "Hi. Long time no see. How's it going?"

This is a perfect example of subtle, but ballistically conflictual, dialog. Ophelia annihilates Hamlet's line with this reply to it. She acts as though he didn't say it. She acts as though she's saying lines from a different script.

Since professors, actors, and directors usually flub this scene, it doesn't state the obvious to say that people don't ask you to pray for their salvation unless something is dreadfully wrong and that any sentient, decent human being replies, "Why of course I will pray for you, Hamlet. But why? What's wrong?"

By the same token, praying people don't suddenly perk up, forget God's there, and say, "Hi. Long time no see. How are ya?" to somebody walking by. Ophelia's reply is therefore so inappropriate it should make us want to pinch ourselves.

The innappropriatness of her reactions means that we can't tell what she thinks or what's going on from Ophelia's lines.

How can she ignore Hamlet's sweet request to pray that God forgive his sins? And how can she do so while in the act of talking to God? That's enough to make an atheist gasp. Nobody who believes there might be a God would dare do that. Yet Ophelia does it offhandedly.

Why does she do it? Behind the arras, Claudius must be in agony. Since this setup is to get Hamlet talking about what's wrong, he wants her to say, "Why of course I will pray for you, Hamlet. But why? What's wrong?"

Disregarding Hamlet's request is as far as Ophelia can get from Christian love. It's inexcusable even were Hamlet her mortal enemy instead of the man who loves her. Moreover, Hamlet has just let her know he's in a terrible state and she replies by asking how he's doing? Not that Ophelia would know a joke if she told it, but that's mockery.

Of course Shakespeare's audience knows that she also mocks praying to God, because she's only pretending to pray. Less fear of God one cannot have. So, Ophelia isn't as holy as she's busy making herself look.

Only the self-absorbed are so devoid of empathy/humanity that Hamlet's words wouldn't access it. Presumably, they are background noise to be tuned-out, because Ophelia thinks it's all about her. Asking Hamlet what's wrong would put the spotlight on him instead. So she tries to author both sides of the conversation. Hamlet is madly in love with her and going crazy because she dumped him: Anything but that fiction doesn't belong in the world according to Ophelia and gets deleted from her pretending.

That's because Laertes and Polonius injured her pride by telling her Hamlet didn't love her and just wanted to seduce her. Her ego is proving them wrong in this show for those behind the arras.

And there's no better way to prove Hamlet loves her than by demonstrating how easily she can hurt him. Her words are callous and insulting. Her cute reply is a distancing one that stiff-arms Hamlet by addressing him, as though he were a mere acquaintance, with the formal salutation of "my good lord" (appropriate in public or for a stranger). It's decidedly impersonal and offensively inappropriate for lovers and other intimates in private. In fact, it sounds like a disingenuous insult.

Moreover, she's mocking a false reality by acting as though everything is fine around there. As though no storm clouds are gathering. As though Hamlet doesn't have the executioner's axe hovering over his head. In other words, she's acting out a fantasy. Like a child playing "Pretend," she's in another world where none of this is happening, a world in her head. Yet she expects Hamlet to play along. (That's known as projective identification.)

Furthermore, she doesn't ask how he is, she asks how his honor is. Yet she knows that the prince's honor is being trampled. In fact, the moment he was marked for dishonor, she dumped him. This is ironic diction that hurts.

And so, a scene that begins in reverent tenderness...

Hamlet: Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins rememb'red.

Ophelia: Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day? turned on its head. More in the next post.

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Blogger Simon said...

Good old Shakey. Didn't really get into it at school. But started reading his plays when I became a screenwriter. It's all there, forget the screenwriter manuals.

5:21 AM  

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