Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Hamlet Read-Along: Act IV, Scene 7

We start out with Laertes and Claudius having a little heart-to-heart about why Claudius hasn't had Hamlet punished for killing Polonius.  Claudius says it's because Hamlet is too popular with the rest of Denmark.  That idea of being killed by your own machinations comes back again here -- remember the "hoist with his own petard" idea from back in Act III Scene 4?  Claudius brings it up again here when he says, "my arrows, Too slightly timbered for so loud a wind, Would have reverted to my bow again, But not where I have aimed them" (21-24).

So then a messenger brings the letter from Hamlet announcing his arrival.  Hamlet's being very snarky even in letter form, calling Claudius "High and mighty" (42).  I don't know about you, but to me that feels bolder than how he's addressed Claudius before this.  He's been cheeky with Polonius and others, yes, but always a bit wary around Claudius.  But now it's almost like he's thumbing his nose to Claudius.  The Hamlet who returns from his brief exile is rather different than the one who left, and we'll explore that a lot in the last two scenes, but I think already here we can see that he's done with what my dad would call "mousing around."  He's coming back, and he's going to tell Claudius how and why.  But he doesn't tell him yet -- he lets Claudius wonder and worry for a while.  Claudius has to be freaking out inwardly, don't you think?  Wondering if Hamlet knows he'd told England to kill him.  

And so Claudius hatches a plan to have Laertes kill Hamlet.  He says that no one would suspect it was intentional, but I'm pretty sure that if anyone did cry foul, he'd disavow all knowledge of it and heap the blame on Laertes.  Really, Laertes is getting used for Claudius' purposes just like his sister Ophelia, and grrrrrrr, that makes me mad.  Laertes is so eager to avenge his father's death that he's only too happy to fall in with the king's machinations.  In fact, he offers to improve on Claudius' whole "oops, one of these swords was accidentally uncovered and deadly" plan by smearing a deadly poison on it.  I really wonder what Laertes was planning to do with that poison -- I figure he'd bought it on his way back from Paris, and was planning to... poison Hamlet with it somehow?  Not sure he'd have thought it through much, actually, as he strikes me as much more of a "pantser" than a "plotter."  

Well, as Gielgud puts it, "Claudius is a professional poisoner, and as soon as Laertes mentions it, we should see him already planning to go one better" (John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet, p. 71).  An unbated sword smeared in poison isn't enough -- Claudius has to one-up Laertes and plan to put poison in a cup of wine too.  Yeesh, poor Hamlet hasn't got a chance, has he?

And not only is Claudius a "professional poisoner," he's a skillful liar too.  First, he says "revenge should have no bounds" (126) when he obviously thinks Hamlet's vengeance needs to be stopped.  And then he says that Hamlet is "free from all contriving" (133), when Hamlet is obviously a very suspicious fellow and he knows it.  But Laertes falls for all of it.

Then we get the sad news that Ophelia has drowned.  My copy says that willows were commonly associated with mourning and forsaken love, so that fits very nicely with Ophelia's story, huh?  I do sometimes wonder why Gertrude goes into such detail about how Ophelia drowned -- it almost feels like she witnessed it.  Certainly someone did, to know that her clothes held her up a while.  Who watched Ophelia drown and didn't help her????  This is really my biggest question or problem with this whole play -- that someone saw Ophelia drown and just let her.  Could they not get to her?  Who saw it?  I think Horatio is gone by now, off to meet up with Hamlet, so who was watching over Ophelia and just let her go drown herself?  This can be our Possible Discussion Question for the day.

Favorite Lines:

"And you must put me in your heart for friend" (2).

"It warms the very sickness in my heart" (53).

"To cut his throat i' th' church" (124)  (This is my favorite Laertes line.)

"One woe doth tread upon another's heel,
So fast they follow" (160-61).

"Too much of water hast thou, poor Ophelia,
And therefore I forbid my tears" (182-83).

18 comments:

  1. I posted this comment elsewhere in response to a Hamlet posting, but it might be helpful here as well:

    Whenever I read Shakespeare's plays, I take time to remind myself that we are not the intended audience (being readers in the 21st century). These are presentational (not representational/realistic) plays intended for audiences in Southwark more than 400 years ago. So, I remind myself: do not get hung up on realism but surrender instead to theatrical presentation. Postscript: My love of reading Shakespeare remains undiminished after more than half a century of encounters.

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    1. RT, it's true that we're not quite used to this style of theater. However, being a writer myself, I'm continually fascinated by the choices other writers make, and I like to ponder how and why they wrote things they way they did. It's not at all a criticism of the writing, merely me spending extra thinking time on a particular aspect.

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    2. I'd add that if you read older critics/commentators such as Johnson or Smeaton or Hazlitt, etc., they explore presentation, but also dig deeper into the psyches of the characters. They even deconstruct the meter of the plays. Did Shakespeare's audiences do the latter? Probably not, but even so, it doesn't mean that it's not valuable in further understanding the play. As for representation/reality, I'd have to argue that Shakespeare's plays were often taken from stories ..... some were true and perhaps some questionable, but nevertheless, they have their own type of reality.

      Even with Shakespeare's audiences, I can't imagine that they simply absorbed the presentation and thought nothing of the "whys" or "wherefores".

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    3. I think any stage play is going to need more suspension of disbelief than a movie, simply because we are all perfectly well aware that we are sitting in one chair through the whole production, and the things set up on stage are representative, not necessarily "real." In some ways, they're "hyper-real" instead, and for a brief time are more important to us than the things of our lives.

      Things that happen off-stage have to get reported somehow, but the choices a writer makes in how to report those are what fascinates me. What do those choices say about the character, about their relationship to what happened, and about the people they're relating it to?

      But I love deconstructing literature, like taking the back off a clock to see all the workings inside and what they all do. It doesn't mean I don't also enjoy reading a story or play or poem for its own sake too -- far from it! Now that I'm no longer in college and required to do this for classes, I only peek inside works that truly interest me.

      And yes, I'm pretty sure there were people in Shakespeare's day who were thinking deeply about his plays. To write such intricate, beautiful plays, he obviously had to have studied the works of others, and I can't imagine he was the only one doing so.

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  2. Well - I'm just glad if we can absolve Horatio from carelessness. In my wip, I have 2 or 3 ladies in waiting flitting about her,but inattentive once Horatio stops watching them. Why doesn't Laertes follow her? He could have gotten her back home safely.
    ~Kelda



















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    1. Kelda, I really don't think Horatio is to blame for Ophelia's death, other than maybe not sending for Laertes to take his place.

      As for Laertes, I think he was so stricken by Ophelia's pitiful state that perhaps he can't even bear to be near her, so left her to another's care so he could focus on his rage. I don't condone his negligence of his sister, but I think I can understand it.

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  3. Hi! Even though I haven't been commenting regularly lately, I have been reading the play and your posts on the scenes.

    I know hate is a strong word, but I almost hate Claudius. Poor Laertes. His father has died, now his sister has died, and is unknowingly being used by Claudius.

    I wondered why nobody had helped Ophelia as they watched her drown. Gertrude described the scene with a lot of details, which made me wonder if she herself had watched Ophelia. For some reason I really liked Ophelia. The play doesn't seem the same without her. I read the next scene and my heart is broken for Hamlet and Laertes.

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    1. Ekaterina, I'm glad you're still with us :-) I know everyone is really busy this time of year (including me), so I'm just taking it very slowly and not expecting lots of comments.

      Claudius is a bad, naughty, evil man. I quite loathe how he uses Laertes and Ophelia and Gertrude for his own purposes. I hate that such people exist in the world for real -- I wish they were all fictional.

      I wonder if Gertrude was up in some high part of the castle and saw what happened from a window, but couldn't get out to help? I don't know. But I really like Ophelia too, she's young and pure and sweet without being air-headed and annoying.

      The next scene is SO HARD. :-(

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    2. Oh Ekaterina, you are so kind! I like Laertes about as much as I like Claudius in this scene. He is acting without reason --- he's first willing to kill Claudius (he's obviously made no effort to find out what truly happened) and hardly without effort, he is able to be convinced that he needs to kill Hamlet. And he doesn't honourably challenge him to a duel, or have a fair swordfight, he is going to kill him covertly and underhandedly. Honestly, I don't think he's better than anyone else in this play.

      As for Claudius, my older commentary does not place him as wholly bad. However, I find historically that people often had more grace and understanding for others, whereas now we tend to like to label in extremes. I often wonder if we're losing the ability to read the nuances in people's characters. In any case, when I have more time, I'll try to post a quote from it. It's quite interesting.

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    3. It's hard for me to dislike Laertes because I would probably feel just as wracked with pain and grief if all of my family died. I'm guessing that I would not want revenge, but pain does a lot of crazy things to a person's soul. I know that Laertes is not being very nice in this scene, but he's just come home for his father's death and then his beloved sister dies. He is in grief and he is feeling a great deal of pain, which would cause him to act without reason. I almost think of him like Hamlet because both of their fathers died and they want revenge.

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    4. Good points, Ekaterina. I sympathize with Laertes grief, certainly, but not his methods. If he was truly honourable there would be other ways to deal with his father's murderer. Yet he's ready to bring a revolution to Denmark, rather than miss his chance at revenge. While his emotions are justified, his actions aren't much better than those of other questionable characters. I like Hamlet much better because he, at least, seems not to want to extract revenge in the way he feels compelled to, and he does measure the truth, by effectively putting Claudius on trial first. Laertes rushes at the first person who might be guilty and then is just as glad to move on to somebody else as long as he gets to kill someone. Not a noble revenge at all.

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    5. (Ekaterina and Cleopatra, I LOVE this discussion you're having! I really dig it when read-along participants engage each other like this. I think you both have perfectly valid readings and reactions to Laertes, and while I'm pretty sympathetic to him myself, I get very frustrated by his hot-headed heedlessness.)

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  4. I have no idea whether they put wreaths on graves at that time, but I thought it was very poignant that Ophelia was making these wreaths, before her death, that would end up as adornments for her grave. I also wondered if her weaving these "death shrouds" were a symbolism of her aloneness ...? With her father dead, her brother focused on revenge, and her madness isolating her further, she is truly alone.

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    1. Cleopatra, I did read somewhere while prepping for this read-along that one interpretation of Ophelia's flower-bestowing in the earlier scene is that she had gathered flowers for her father's grave, and here hands them out to people expecting them to help her decorate Polonius' grave. And that she then was trying to collect more flowers for his grave when she drowned. But I also like your idea that she basically gathered decorations for her own grave, unwittingly.

      Ophelia gets ignored, overlooked, and used throughout the whole play, and only after she is dead does anyone start telling other people how much they valued her. I think I said this earlier, but for me, Ophelia's story is by far the most tragic in the whole play.

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  5. That didn't occur to me, that someone must have seen her down and didn't do anything about it. I suppose that if it was a lady, she wouldn't have helped for fear of downing herself... but that doesn't seem likely if she was crazy. Sad. The sadness is starting....

    The king's very good at planning murder.

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    1. Sarah, yes, I suppose a woman also in a big, bulky dress might fear she would drown while trying to save Ophelia -- that's a good point.

      Claudius definitely seems to have a taste for plots and murders.

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  6. Claudius is truly a master manipulator and Laertes blinded by grief and revenge goes right into the trap.
    And poor Ophelia! I knew she would die but I was still really sad when it happened. And a very detailed account Gertrude gave - yes, someone must have seen it. It's only a guess but maybe someone could see Ophelia from the castle but was too far away to reach her in time.

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    1. Rose, that's also possible, that Gertrude was up high in the castle, saw Ophelia's plight and sent someone to help, but they didn't get there soon enough.

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