Friday, May 12, 2006

Subtle Conflict 5: Counterattack

In Act III, scene 1, we left off at the point Hamlet finds that he can make Ophelia think whatever he wants, that she is a mental whore, so to speak, who has no mind of her own.

Then whose mind is behind her suddenly changing her policy and deciding to speak with him today? Thus, Hamlet realizes this encounter with Ophelia is a setup -- an attempt to get him to say something "treasonous" and that he's being spied upon.

Hamlet needs no supernatural perceptiveness to realize this, because spying on prisoners and courtiers in castles was common. Moreover, throughout the story, people have been following Hamlet around like the scribes and pharisees followed Jesus of Nazareth around, and for the same purpose -- to catch him out so they could run back to Claudius and tattle on something he says. For his part, Claudius wants nothing more than an excuse to kill or imprison Hamlet, because Hamlet is obviously plagued by a desire to do justice for the murder of his father the king and the disgrace of his mother the queen.

Not to mention seizing a crown that should have gone to Hamlet. Claudius may well think this is Hamlet's main reason, but we know that, though it is a reason, it is the last one on Hamlet's list. Indeed, if all he cared about was the crown, he would have got it the usual way -- by collecting followers and starting a civil war.

So, from this point on, what Hamlet says is for the benefit of whoever is eavesdropping. He's furious and starts talking like a king. That is, he talks exactly as though he is the king of Denmark.

Why? By law, since Claudius is a usurper, Hamlet is legally the true king and seat of justice, obliged to try Claudius. Every courtier is a member of the king's household, so the king has the authority of a father over them.

In his first act of kingship, Hamlet orders Ophelia to a nunnery, something only the king could do. (Or her real father could do it with the king's permission.)

This is the impeccable judgement of a mind sound as a bell, too sound because it's exceptionally sound: Since she didn't get Hamlet's sarcasm and accepted the rationale that he wanted nothing but to deflower her — just because he is a young man and all young men are like that — a nunnery is where she belongs for safekeeping.

She's to go immediately, and now where's her father?

When she lies, saying that Polonius is at home and Polonius doesn't step forward, Hamlet passes judgement on him in absentia. In this, his second act of kingship, Hamlet decrees that her father is to play the fool only in his own house (Elsinore is the king's house) and stay there. In other words, he banishes Polonius from the court — the fate worse than death for a career politician.

I can imagine the audiences in Shakespeare's day gasping at what Hamlet is doing. I can imagine Claudius' and Polonius' eyes getting big behind the arras.

Ophelia is so shocked and upset by this ominous behavior of Hamlet's that she suddenly decides to pray for him after all. She cries out...

Ophelia: O, help him, you sweet heavens!

Does this give a new meaning to melodrama? Or, again, did we miss something? Is she in a worm hole seeing some anti-Hamlet in an anti-universe acting crazy? Yes, he's angry. But lady, do you always get so shook up over somebody getting angry that you think they're crazy?

In other words, her "Hamlet-is-crazy" act is an outrage. It's gaslighting and calumny. She just imagines that he's crazy because that's the line on him. In other words, her conduct is a mockery, whether she allows herself to realize that or not. Note how diabolical she is: Ophelia, the agent provocateur provokes him and then -- gotcha -- acts like his anger is madness. Anybody in his shoes would have all he could do not to strangle her before she ruins his whole life by yelling stuff like that around there.

But Hamlet's response is again antic: instead of doing what she's tempting him to, he just seethes that, by the way, if she does marry, the dowry he'll provide will be this plague (curse):

Hamlet: Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny.

In other words, no matter how chaste and pure you are, you won't escape getting dirtied by the people around here. Then again he tells her to get lost. By law, she must obey the prince. And this isn't public property, it's his home. But, again she acts like he didn't just give her a direct order to leave him alone.

Hamlet's fuming "plague" expresses his outrage at what she and everybody else is ganging up on him to do — discredit him with calumny. Calumny that's a joke on top of it all. All his years keeping an orderly mind of his own given to great thoughts were just annulled by this woman with a disordered and promiscuous mind that she uses for a garbage can. She just erased them all with a breath of hot air that makes him the one with the disordered mind.

TIME OUT: This farce is a pattern, showing that Shakespeare's great knowledge of human behavior included projection and other psychological defense mechanisms. Hamlet's detractors never hit one of his real faults, which he enumerates as pride, revengefulness, and ambition. Instead, like Ophelia, they smear themselves off on his clean spots — his virtues — by projecting their faults onto him while attributing his virtues to themselves. Another way Shakespeare shows his great knowledge of human behavior is in the obduracy of the courtiers. Nothing ever makes them give up their charade and get real. That's true to life. Only when outsiders arrive on the scene as Fortinbras enters at the end, when the courtiers see the doors and windows of their closed environment opened so the outside world can see what they're doing — only then do they notice they're naked and check back into their senses.

TIME IN: Like a three-year-old, Ophelia replies by acting as though making her lie bigger, yelling it louder, and repeating it one more time somehow makes it the truth. Again she disobeys a direct order by acting as though the prince didn't just order her out of his presence. Again she tries to make things be the way she wants by acting as though they are. That is, again she acts as though Hamlet is the one acting crazy. Presumably louder this time, because his next line makes a crack about the volume.

Ophelia: O heavenly powers, restore him!

But why? She deliberately made him mad. Let's hope God is as stupid as she thinks He is, or she's in big trouble for mocking Him.

Again Hamlet resists the temptation to wring her neck and does the unexpected instead, blowing her off.

Hamlet: I have heard of your prattlings too well. Enough!

In other words, "Shut up!"

We'll finish this volcanic scene in the next post.

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