09 February 2006

Hamlet: Why Shakespeare rocks!

Well, continuing the theme of most wondersful Shakesperean masterpieces (which as far ad I'm aware of, only three people read), I will now be approaching the next cool Hamlet speech:

O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba! What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears.
Yet I, A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn'd defeat was made. Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i' the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this? Ha!
'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion!

Hamlet Act II, scene 2

So, in case you're wondering, Hamlet's just met the Player King (bigshot actor), who's just delievered a very moving speech about Queen Hecuba and her feelings of loss following the murder of her Husband Priam. And this is what starts Hamlet off: How could an actor cry such tears, look so sad over people that mean nothing to him? What would they be like if they had Hamlet's motives for vengeance? That's when Hamlet does what he does best and goes psychoanalytical: "So why am I angry?"

He starts looking inwardly. "Who calls me coward?" After a few musings, he comes to the conclusion that he is a coward. Otherwise, he would have taken action long before and done terrible things to Claudius's corpse. Cheerful fellow. And then he goes ballistic again. The last nine lines are all about raw anger against Claudius, and helplessness. He vents, does a tantrum, and then examines himself critically. "I'm all talk." He says...in much better words than that.

Why do I love this speech so much?

From one angle, it's a great exploration of self-consciousness. Actors, in a play, talking about actors and plays. There's a very....I don't know what to call it....metaexistential quality to it. Im not sure that's even a real word, but it sounds impressive,at least.

The other bit is that this is the first real idea we get about what Hamlet is like: A reluctant hero. He doesn't want to do anything rash. He's determined to be sure of Claudius's treachery before he acts against him.

But why?

Well, I think it's because he's real. A truly real, natural, three-dimensional character. There's so much complexity in him, you can believe that he's an actual person. The conflict, the uncertainty, the frailty, the disbelief...Hamlet as a person is perhaps the most natural figment of anyone's imagination I've ever been exposed to.

In this character, Shakespeare takes internal conflict to a new level, without overdoing it, just. Personally, I think he could have done with a bit more pushing, but then again, that may not have worked and I trust that a writer of his calibre knew what he was doing.

The final lines of the speech, although not really dramatic, are included in the end. What he decides there is to entrap Caludius through a re-enactment of his father's murder, hoping to make him confess, or at least indicate that he did murder the old king.

Fie upon't! foh! About, my brain!
I have heard That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds
More relative than this: the play 's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

Thus endeht Part II. Stay tuned for Part III, which features the most famous line in theatre history: To be or not to be.

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