Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Subtle Conflict 3

Hamlet: Ha, ha! Are you honest?

You can almost see his head spinning. He's probably pinching himself. Shakespeare again shows his great knowledge of human behavior. Rational people are stunned and perplexed by perverted reactions to things. They strike us as seeing an apple fall UP from a tree would strike us. These are the moments (in encounters with the twisted) when we can't believe our eyes and ears. So, till we catch on to what that person is doing, we are disarmed and offer no reaction, as though "it" isn't really happening.

But one thing is clear to Hamlet: Ophelia's assertion that she has long been carrying his love letters around with her, looking for a chance to give them back, cannot be true. For, she has long refused to let him near her, and she didn't give them back yesterday. She's up to something. Switching to prose, his reply translates to "Are you kidding?" or "You cannot be serious."

Ophelia: My lord?

Cheeky. What part of "Are you honest?" does she not understand?

Ophelia just made the Big Mistake, the one every snake in this pit makes. She mocks inability to understand him. And her mockery is an insult to his intelligence. He's supposed to take this bait and ask her what she's trying to do, calumniate him? Then she will say, "Why would anybody want to calumniate you?" Then he's supposed to accuse Claudius of being out to get him. Then everybody gets to raise the hue and cry that evil Hamlet is calumniating the king.

This is an example of dialog Hamlet responds to by putting on his antic disposition. That is, when he catches somebody being dishonest with him, he yanks the conversation off track to avoid the trap ahead. People dealing treacherously with Hamlet have no right to plain talk from him, and they get none. As Claudius notes, at such times his talk "lacks form a little," but not substance. He puts things in odd ways. He avoids the common idiom and the standard cliches. His diction plays on words. In this thinly veiled language he mocks the mocky-mock by delivering some marvelous ripostes. Before she knows it, the baiter will be the one being baited, and she won't like that.

So, though Hamlet is exceptionally polite and gracious to people of every class, he is about to become his sarcastic opposite. For, just as Jesus of Nazareth condemned always and only the condemners, Hamlet the Dane mocks always and only the mockers.

And so, the subtle conflict in this exchange has advanced the plot and grows the characters. Hamlet began in tenderness and now is at the point of lashing out in deeply hurt anger. Ophelia began in the cloak of decency and now is nakedly mean.

Why is she mean? Because Claudius and her father are watching. She doesn't want them worrying what she thinks like they worry what Hamlet thinks. Sympathy for him wouldn't be self-serving. So, it's open season on Hamlet, and she just does what narcissists do whenever they can get away with it.

The rest of this explosive scene continues at line 103. I'll continue with it on Friday.

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