Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Subtle Conflict 6: Counterattack

In the five previous posts, we've been walking through Act III, scene i of Hamlet, in which conflict between Hamlet and Ophelia mounts. Remember the mood Hamlet was in at the begining of this scene. Remember also that he was debating with himself whether to force the core conflict with Claudius to it's crisis.

Now look at what this meeting with Ophelia has done. Hamlet knows she's been put up to this to spy on him, to get him to say something that will cost him his head. Put yourself in his shoes. How would you feel about your lover trying to trap you like that?

Deeply hurt a moment agon, now he's furious. Hamlet let's her have it. He lays into her with searing double entendre:

Hamlet: God hath given you one face, and you make yourself another. You jig, you amble, and you lisp; you nickname God's creatures and make your wantonness your ignorance.

At face value, he's expressing disgust with her coquetry: She paints on a false face, jiggles, sashays around to show herself off, talks cute baby talk, gives people God made a bad name and makes her wantonness out to be not knowing any better. In other words, she's no "nymph" in his eyes anymore. This could also describe her spiritual conduct: She's a fraud who makes phony faces (i.e., puts on acts), is tricky, sidles (or sidewinds, beats around the bush), talks childishly, gives people God made a bad name and makes her amorality out to be not knowing any better.

He tells her to get out of there, because he's had all he can take.

Hamlet: It hath made me mad!

He's playing on both meanings of the word mad here, and is being extremely sarcastic. Ophelia is silent, presumably because she's taken aback. This is the second time Hamlet has sarcastically responded this way to people treating him like he's crazy. The first time was to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, when he made the crack, "My wit's diseased." They too fell silent.

Why? Presumably because the remark surprises them. But, if they think Hamlet is crazy, why should a remark to that effect surprise them? If these courtiers really thought Hamlet is mad, they wouldn't dare treat him the way they do! Maybe they should stop driving him crazy. Somebody could get hurt.

Yet again, Ophelia she shows great disrespect by disobeying this direct order from the Prince. Unlike most princes, who would have had her hauled off, Hamlet just decides to leave himself. While doing so, he adds...

Hamlet: I say, we will have no more marriages. Those that are married already -- all but one -- shall live; the rest shall keep as they are.

He doesn't dare literally say what he means. But here again he's talking as though he is the king. Clearly speaking for the benefit of Polonius and Claudius, Hamlet uses veiled language. The terms he uses reflect what must be on his mind though.

First, there's the "all-men-are-predators" thing. Okay, then nobody should wed. But Hamlet doesn't use the words wedding or wed. Marriages can mean any close relationships, connections, or alliances, including mere romances or the network of alliances in the court. He must also be marrying the facts: what his mother did to his father and what Ophelia has done to him. At his age, you can bet he is tempted to think all women are like them. Also, at his age, you can bet that he is swearing off love. The we in "we will have no more marriages" can be the royal "we" used by a king or pope (instead of "I") when speaking officially. He must also feel like a fool for thinking any woman would love a prince for the kind of person he is. All Ophelia wanted was a chance to be queen. So, it's no wonder that he couches this statement in these terms.

But through that veil, we can see that he is saying much more.

As for the "marriages" in the network of alliances among the court, they shall stay as they are: everybody has chosen sides, and it's too late to get on his.

In this, his third act of kingship, he utters a thinly veiled promise that somebody whose marriage is on his mind will fall. This is a measured threat, because it shouldn't frighten eavesdropping Polonius that Hamlet will require as many heads as most kings would under the circumstances. Just one. Claudius'.

Hamlet's words echo a Letter of St. Paul (Cor. 7, 25), in which Paul states that Doomsday (Judgement Day) is at hand and that anybody not yet married to (read "in bed with") somebody should "stay as they are." In this context the statement that "all but one shall live" takes on new meaning. On Doomsday the "living" are those who "stand" before the Seat of Justice, and the rest are those who "fall." In this sense, it's a judicial term, as when we say that a fall guy takes the fall for somebody else's crime. So, here again Hamlet is behaving as the true king, by assuming the king's role as the Seat of Justice and highest judge in the land.

Of course Claudius' crime is treason, a capital offense. So the threat is of both trial and death.

When Hamlet is gone, the drama queen erupts again, presumably louder yet this time.

Ophelia: O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!

Now that she's talking behind his back, her "Hamlet-is-crazy" act goes on for 12 lines. But we shall spare ourselves the melodrama in the climax of her Academy-Award performance. Even Claudius and Polonius pay no attention to it as they come out of hiding. They are shaken at Hamlet's assertion of kingly authority and announcement of Doomsday.

Claudius has already decided to get rid of Hamlet, prefacing his remarks with...

Claudius: Love? his affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness.

And so, the subtle conflict in this scene has built into volcanic conflict. A seismic event has occurred. Hamlet has made a decision. He began this scene in a state of uncertainty, debating with himself whether "to be or not to be" (what he is = the real (legal) king of Denmark, obliged by law to bring the usurper to justice). He ends in revolt. He began in tenderness, he ends in apocalyptic fury. In other words, motivated by conflict he has grown from pole to pole. Ready to now, he assumes the seat of justice and is about to put Claudius on trial.

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