Monday, April 16, 2007

On desperation, or what makes the closet scene rock

"The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation... But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things." H.D. Thoreau

Let's say I'm right and Gertred has willed the blinders on herself, desperately wanting to deny that anything is wrong, that she has done anything wrong, that her husband is dead and that her family as she knew it is no more (and that she is aging, but I'll save that savage beast for another post... maybe). Then what makes the scene such perfect drama is that she and Hamlet are at complete cross purposes.

Once the Ghost that came unbidden reveals the truth to Hamlet, he's a dead man. There is no escaping it. As prince, he is the only one who can revenge the death of the king. It's his duty. But it'll be treason because you can't depose a ghost as a witness in court. "Oh cursed spite that I was born to set it right." So Hamlet now spends what's left of his young life trying to figure out how to live and die a good man. He has just seen a ghost suffering unspeakably because his soul is not at rest. What does it take to muster the courage to act if the act is killing? But, more, he desperately needs to know why he, personally, has to kill the king - not as prince, not as revenge for his father's death, not because his religion tells him killing is bad - but why he needs to do it. Nothing less than his soul is at stake.

And to find that out he demands Truth from everyone - from R&G, from Claudius, from Ophelia, from himself -- how many times he uses the word 'honest'! And from his mother.

So the whole closet scene, after Polonius/Corambis' death, is the fierce battle between two desperate and thus tremendously powerful people trying to get what they need. The deeper the measure of desperation, the more explosive the scene will be.

Beyond that, it's a family drama and we all know the powder keg those can be. Hamlet, his mother and the Ghost of Hamlet's father (the latter two in one, in our case). The measure of love for each other among the three... again, the deeper the endowment, the more exhilirating the end when they all emerge cleansed and united on the other side.

In this scene is where the first quarto is truly an exquisitely simple thing of beauty. Hamlet is always in search of wisdom, but from here on out, because she hears of the murder for the first time, there is also complete clarity for Gertred: "Hamlet, I vow by that majesty That knows our thoughts and looks into our hearts. I will conceal, consent, and do my best, What stratagems soe'er thou shalt devise." There is no subtext in Shakespeare. Her mission is clear from there on out.

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