Friday, May 05, 2006

Subtle Conflict 4: Counterattack

Starting at line 103 (Act III, Scene 1) we continue with this encounter between Hamlet and Ophelia. Now he's angry.

Speaking in prose from now on (instead of verse), Hamlet gives Ophelia a sarcastic dose of her own medicine, playing words. She didn't understand "Are you honest?" so he puts the question another way.

Hamlet: Are you fair?

Ophelia: What means your lordship?

Ouch. She most certainly is! But it would be politically incorrect for her to say that. So, she punts, again pretending she doesn't understand.

Though he might as well be speaking a foreign language to her, Hamlet's next words do make sense to Shakespeare's audience. In fact, they made much more sense to Shakespeare's audience than they do to us. Hamlet says he means that...

Hamlet: That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.

This is a test to see if there's anything between Ophelia's ears. He's playing on the words honesty and beauty, referring to their essence (and root meaning) as "good faith" (moral purity, honor) and "good looks," or "appearances." He says that if she were honest, her honor wouldn't allow her to taint herself to look good (to the king and his court).

Ophelia: Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?

Since beauty and honesty are just words to her — buzzwords — she doesn't get it. So, now the addle-brain honestly doesn't understand him, which is what she deserves for pretending to not understand him.

Hamlet: Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. This was sometime a paradox, but now the time gives it proof.

An easier test. He warns that the power of appearances is greater than the strength of purity and therefore is more apt to corrupt than the strength of purity is apt to withstand this corrupting influence. This philosophy comes from the Grail Legend, which even the illiterate knew and understood: Just as a pure solution is "strong," moral purity is one hundred percent strength — virtue itself, resistance to corruption. That's because the simple, the single-hearted, aren't already "weakened" (i.e., polluted/adulterated) by outside influences and ulterior motives. Sexual purity was viewed as secondary and just analogous to purity itself. Virginity was viewed as just a stronger state of chastity than faithful marriage, not a cleaner one. This philosophy should have been familiar to Ophelia, but she doesn't even recognize it.

Hamlet: I did love you once.

But not anymore. This is a natural thing for him to say and a way to end the conversation. Remember that she has just shoved his love letters and love poems to her back in his face. He stands there with them in his hands, his heart breaking. So he thus denies the accusation that he was lying in them, maintaining that these "perfumy" professions of love were sincere.

Ophelia: Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.

Like all irrational people, she resorts to confusing the issue. Let's cut through the cloudiness.

"Indeed" expresses strong agreement with his statement. But he didn't say he said he loved her; he said he did love her. Does she agree that he loved her and say she believed it? Or does she agree only that he made her think he loved her?

Let's take the first interpretation: She still gives no reason why she should have changed her mind. So she must have rejected his love believing it was true. Then why did she just call his professions of love "perfumy/insincere" and accuse him of being mean? Was she lying then? Or is she lying now?

Now for the second interpretation: "Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so" is a left-handed way of disagreeing with him. In plain English it says, "My lord, you're lying. You never loved me."

So, she sneaks in the accusation that he's a liar under cover of fog.

But he doesn't take the bait.

Hamlet: You should not have believ'd me; for virtue cannot so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of it. I loved you not.

Hamlet sarcastically echoes Laertes, who told Ophelia to disbelieve Hamlet's professions of love, that they were just his hormones trying to deceive her, that Hamlet just wanted to deflower her. Because Hamlet is a young man and all young men are like that.

Here Hamlet sarcastically takes that assertion to its logical conclusion, showing that it contradicts the most fundamental Christian doctrine: If no young man can help but try to deflower women, baptism doesn't work.

According to Christian doctrine, our "old stock" is "fallen human nature." Original Sin left us, by nature, incapable of doing/being good and pleasing God. Baptism "inoculates" fallen human nature with grace, the strength (virtue) to resist temptation and be good.

Somehow coupled with this, the foundation of Christian doctrine, is another fundamental doctrine, that of free will. Known as the heresy of "fatalism," denying free will was considered flagrant misbelief.

Thus Hamlet shows that this belief is heresy. People were burned for minor errors it took a theologian to spot, but this misbelief cracks the very foundation of her professed Christianity. So, who's she to be calling Hamlet insincere? She — standing there with that big prayer book, which a moment ago she was pretending to pray from.

Ophelia: I was the more deceived.

But she just implied that he lied in saying he had loved her. So, this means that now he wasn't lying two seconds ago. Somebody should tell Ophelia that she can't have it both ways: he was either lying two seconds ago when he said "I loved you," or he is lying now when he says, "I loved you not."

No matter how you cut her foggy talk, Ophelia is just a liar blurting whatever seems convenient at the moment, without the slightest regard for whether it's true. She lies so fast and furiously that she can't keep her lies straight and avoid contradicting herself every time she opens her mouth.

She has also flunked a test of the purity/integrity of her mind. Hamlet has done what her father and brother do — tell her what to think. She is such a mental prostitute that he can inseminate her head with any idea he wants. It doesn't even matter if he contradicts himself by saying "I loved you" one minute and "I loved you not" the next. She just flip-flops on demand.

He becomes furious, for a mind like hers had to be put up to this. Now he knows this is a setup and that he is therefore being spied on again. By her father, Polonius, for sure and probably Claudius too. So, he talks like a king.

I'll continue with that on Monday.

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