Friday, May 25, 2007

A Closer Look at "Honest(y)"

The word appears so often and is arguably the central motif in Hamlet. As such, it becomes one of the most rewarding things to meditate on, especially if you believe that making the struggle for honesty central to your life's pursuit is what is truly behind the notion of pursuit of enlightenment or true love or heaven or whatever your ultimate is.

Sometimes in the play, the word has more than one meaning -- for instance in the nunnery scene when Hamlet asks Ofelia whether she's honest, the word means both chaste and truthful and as such they talk past each other, another kind of an escaped truth.

But mostly it is used as a way of exploring our willful human tendency to think of lying as casual or benign or an acceptable means to an end -- how this comprises the first biggest lie we tend to tolerate -- the lie to ourselves -- and how from there it just gets easier. The play relentlessly looks at how not facing up to the rottenness in the state of things affects every aspect of our existence until that impurity is purged and burnt away. (This is also why Corambis's admonishment, "To thine own self be true" must be given due respect by Leartes and Ofelia. It makes Shakespeare's central point and keeps Corambis from being a complete buffoon, which would obfuscate Ofelia and Leartes' grief at his death.)

One of Shakespeare's most stinging commentaries on this question of honesty, as Annie O also points out, is making Hamlet's choice for putting on an "antic disposition" simply to be honest, because to be totally honest in a so-called civilized society is to be insane. But that's just the beginning.

The entire play is comprised of one lie, deception, spying or eavesdropping episode, betrayal and denial after another. And it is the abandonment of honesty that does these characters in -- in some cases because lying comes too easily (R&G, Corambis, Leartes, Gertred, King), in the most devastating case because lying to the one you love is simply impossible to live with (Ofelia) and, then, in Hamlet's case... because it's... what?... Well, there is centuries of scholarship exploring that question. But maybe it has to do with erring too righteously on the other end of that spectrum.

There is a wonderful chapter in Kenneth Chan's book, Quintessence of Dust: The Mystical Meaning of Hamlet that explores the theme of fundamental self-deception in the play. He delineates three kinds of lies:

• Our lack of honesty in facing up to the truth.
• Our tendency to artificially beautify reality in order to conceal the truth.
• Our tendency to be false to others because of our failure in being true to ourselves.
A revelation to me was how Chan explains Hamlet writing down, "That one may smile and smile and be a villain" as an example of the second point above:
"In the midst of Hamlet's intense emotional distress, upon being informed of his father's murder, he suddenly has the need to write down the line "That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain," and actually does so. This noticeably jolts the flow of the action. This strange action of Hamlet is, however, deliberately designed to alert us to the recurring motif: our propensity to artificially beautify things to conceal its rotten core, here represented by the King's amiable smiling appearance that actually conceals a murderer."
A darker example is the reference to Ofelia's make-up in the nunnery and graveyard scenes: "Now go to my lady's chamber and bid her paint herself an inch think, to this she must come."

Which brings me to the most prominent self-deception that Shakespeare explores in Hamlet. This being, as Chan points out,
"our lack of honesty in facing up to the inevitability of death, and to the profound truths in life. Throughout the play, we are constantly assailed with harsh references to death and its inevitability. No other play by Shakespeare comes remotely close to Hamlet in its endless and remorseless references to death. It is as though Shakespeare is subjecting us to a form of shock treatment designed to shake us out of our denial of its truth."
The Ghost scenes, None lives on earth but he is born to die, To be or not to be, Ofelia's drowning (she denies she's in trouble), the graveyard scene, and on.

It's as though he were saying that our failure to face our mortality head on is at the root of all our other deceits.

4 comments:

Jason said...

"One may smile and smile and be a villain." I think it's a moment of necessary exploration/thought for Hamlet, in the midst of this emotional rush, post ghost - because he has just seen what he'd like to think is his father -though the ghost doesnt say he's his father, he says he's his father's ghost - semantics, but worth noting...Hamlet asks "and shall i couple hell?" he's not exactly sure what he has seen - so the "one may smile.." is sooo important to him at that moment because he has had the wool pulled from his eyes, had his suspicions confirmed (o my prophetic soul) - but by what - angel or devil? and his path has been shown to him (though not one he wants to be on - "o cursed spite..") and along that road he now knows it is necessary for him to keep in mind that appearances can be deceiving -mom, claudius, ophelia, corambis all - including the ghost's.

gaby said...

I never truly 'heard' the "o my prophetic soul" before. So in that case who or what the Ghost is -- devil or angel -- actually does remain suspicious to Hamlet but irrelevant because he always suspected his uncle of murdering his father anyway and once he proves it (and clearly he feels the need to confirm the Ghost's accusation) with the play-within-the-play, the Ghost's 'true identity' doesn't really matter anymore.

Jason said...

ahh - but what if the ghost is a "devil...and out of my weakness and my melacncholy...doth seek to damn me" by getting Hamlet to o'erhastily commit not just murder - but regicide? i think this is why this play (and this version) is so ridiculously addictive to performers (some of us at least...or perhaps it's the ones with an inclining towards OCD), because the more you reason things out and look for cause effect direct lines between information action motivation etc...the more profound and difficult the questions and answers become...to me at least....

gaby said...

D'oh. Yes... but... That IS why he verifies the info, albeit by staging theater (which tells you right there that our Hammy is one taco short of a combination platter). But then again, the whole thing could well be a Luciferian mega-plot, because, really, if you think about it, "Lights! I will to bed," ain't exactly hard evidence he's getting from the King. And there you might well have Hammy's tragic flaw after all and why he has to die. Uhhh! Guess this is what Annie means by 'unsolvable.' OCD indeed!