‘I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my back…’
‘Nymph, in thy orisons, be all my sins remembered…’
You might say many things about Hamlet. That, in a way, he is the archetype of an alienated, even adolescent consciousness. That he is on the cusp of modern self-awareness, beyond religious absolutes, that haunting paradox of thought and action, the never ending ripple effect of consequences. Armed from the start with a knowledge that he cannot even speak about – ‘But break my heart, for I must hold my tongue.’ One thing is clear, that while partly being a ‘sweet Prince’ and enormous idealist, he also becomes a figure of black tragedy, in the incestuous little court of Denmark. The paradox in turning the spotlight on him as the cause, is that real evil has already taken place, in the murder of a father, and in life’s great and cynical ‘move on’. ‘ Thrift, thrift, Horatio, the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage table..‘ He is also a Master at castigating himself, as much as others. He both ‘beats himself up’ and sets enormously high standards. In that he sometimes becomes an enemy to normal life. There was a book I was given to read at school, studying Hamlet, called ‘Poison, Play and Dual’, a brilliant examination of a masterpiece’s many elements, I would recommend to anyone.
But Hamlet’s supreme sphere is the inner world of man and woman, even the awareness of how it is rotting his own soul, and turning everything to meaninglessness. Wilde might call it the cost of everything and the value of nothing. It’s why the play within the play becomes the ‘mousetrap’ to ‘catch the conscious of a king’, and so justify a real act of justice, that he has only intuited in his metaphysical dealings with a ghost – ‘oh my prophetic soul’– but does not want at all, perhaps knowing the fatal consequences of the revenger’s path, and all those blood soaked revengers tragedies too, that used to put bums on seats. Yet still Hamlet cannot act, except to trip up betraying and manipulating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, prefering events to drive him towards the fatal conclusion. Perhaps that becomes Hamlet’s real ‘bad’, swept up in whirly-gig of things, and seeing ‘providence in the fall of a shadow’. Trying to touch some greater human meaning and justification too. It certainly makes him the companion of the most enormous metaphysical awareness, and the grinning skull of Yorick too. Death haunts the play, and only for the floundering individual is the rest ever ‘silence’ in life. Enter martial Fortinbras. Hamlet’s huge shadows always remind me of the Knight in Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, playing chess with Death. In his supposedly heroic journey, the only winners are the loving gypsy couple, in their caravan, who simply duck and get on with being alive.
The role of the women in it all too is very sad. Devoted and innocent Ophelia, driven to madness by Hamlet’s viciousness, and slaying of her father. A figure who might have saved him, but who he can only embrace in death. His mother, touching incest and marrying his father’s brother. They are Oedipal themes also touched on in King Lear, with its many blindings, and its bad male love and enfolding tyranny. Ophelia is not as advanced as loyal Cordelia, who expresses all the true virtues of responsible and balanced love, both for Lear and herself – ‘What must Cordelia do, love and be silent?’ But cut off from positive relationships with women, deprived of the ideal of a father that is somewhat in question too, and aware of his own sins, Hamlet finds himself in a place he cannot cope with, where ‘the world is out of joint, oh cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right!‘. But that is the consciousness and scope of a Prince too, that the whole world is somehow on his shoulders. Who would want his kind of tragedy, no one at all, but it is those great works of tragedy and consciousness that provide us with a ‘mirror up to nature’ and also those vital acts of catharsis, in touching pity and terror, that make written art truly important. Especially in such an enormously democratic age, that has seen so much world suffering, it no longer really believes in the validity of individual tragedy at all, or the fall. But inside the mind too that fall can happen to every one of us.