Wednesday, January 9, 2013

RamblingsOn: Shakespeare

There were about 3 different sorts of posts I could do today; I settled on this one.

Shakespeare is, in my opinion, one of the first great authors since the Bible. Granted, his writing is a bit difficult to grasp, since it was mostly plays and poems, but beyond that, the man was brilliant. He practically doubled the extent of English vocabulary, nearly every single one of his plays has layers of plot upon plot upon plot (and yet somehow he manages to keep every single one of them straight and interesting; as a writer I understand the difficulty and hold him in high regard)--not only that, but these plays written by a "washed-up, drunk actor" still attract the attention of stages all around the world and still retain relevance to any culture. Many plays and sonnets are still quoted; the man still has his own festivals! (I'll refrain from any comparison to current music/literary trends of the nature, just so you know)

I had the opportunity to study 15 of Shakespeare's 39 plays in college, and out of those, 2 are undoubtedly my favorite. Here's why:

Why would anybody like a tragedy? I know, this just looks weird. While studying 5 of the Tragedies (namely, King Lear, Julius Caesar, Hamlet, Macbeth, and Othello) I did not expect to enjoy it at all. So much death and grief and insanity! As a matter of fact, after reading Macbeth and Othello in one sitting, I was positive that these were going to be the worst 3 months of my life.

Enter Hamlet.

A brief summary for those who haven't heard of it: Hamlet is the son of the King of Denmark (also named Hamlet). Upon his father's death, he is called back from school for the funeral. As his father's heir, he would probably have ascended his throne--had not his mother decided to marry her late husband's brother. The ghost of King Hamlet appears to his son and reveals that is is his uncle, Claudius who has killed him, and the ghost charges Hamlet with vengeance. Thrown into this mix is Ophelia, the ward of Polonius, the king's trusted advisor. Hamlet and Ophelia are in a relationship, one that had to be long-distance while Hamlet was at school. Competing for Ophelia's affection is Polonius' son Laertes. Anyway, Hamlet, faced with the choice of killing his uncle/step-father and claiming vengeance on his father, or merely ignoring this abomination and continuing as if nothing was wrong, chooses neither action and prefers to stall by "feigning" madness, so that any action on his part might be construed as an unfortunate accident (or perhaps he hopes that Claudius will eventually be found out as a murderer, to save Hamlet the trouble). However, Ophelia is encouraged to break off the relationship with "crazy Hamlet", and Claudius is as suspicious as ever, which means that Hamlet only has one man he can trust (his friend Horatio, who knows the truth about Hamlet's charade). A moment of impulsiveness causes the death of Polonius, which breaks Ophelia's heart so that she kills herself, gives Claudius an excuse to banish Hamlet and hope for his death, and wakens the wrath of Laertes, who wants to avenge both his "sister" and his father. The play culminates in a fencing match between Laertes and Hamlet, which Claudius has rigged to kill Hamlet whether he wins (by toasting him with poisoned wine) or loses (by giving Laertes a poisoned rapier), but Hamlet outsmarts them all and ends up killing Laertes and Claudius with the poisoned rapier before succumbing himself to its effects. (His mother also gets "punished" for her foolish choices because she is the one who ends up drinking the poisoned wine)

I had read a novelized version of the play before, and thought nothing of it (except: gee! What a body count!), but it wasn't till I actually watched the play itself that I realized just how amazing the play was. The characters turned out to be far deeper than the narrative version let on. Amazing how much you can infer/discover about a person merely by paying attention to what they say. In my studies, I became acquainted with the two main issues this play presents: 1) Was Hamlet truly crazy and not faking it? and 2) Did he ever really love Ophelia?

I would say "No" to the first, and "Yes" to the last. Why?

1) I believe Hamlet is too smart to be truly out of his mind. He's spent most of his life studying things like philosophy and history. He's a thinker, not a doer. He's faced with the revelation that his uncle who married his mother within days of his father's funeral was in fact his father's killer; he knows, based on everything he's probably ever read, that "blood for blood" is a matter of course. What is his reaction? He goes through the obligatory "blood oath", of course--but then he sits down and thinks about it! He would rather reason out another way to avenge his father, perhaps one that didn't involve killing his uncle himself, but until he can think of a way, he decides that pretending to be crazy is the way to go.
But is he really crazy? At the height of his insanity, Hamlet kills Polonius and hides his body. When asked where he'd stowed it, how does he answer? Not directly! Oh no, Hamlet is too clever for that. Instead he gives what at first might seem a roundabout and random spiel about how living people might consider some more important than others, but as the Bible says (not the play), "the dead are dead alike." Hamlet proceeds to babble about how the corpse of a king, eaten by worms, who are eaten by birds, can then be consumed by a beggar who eats the bird.

This is sound logic, people. As vulgar as the subject may be, this prime example of college-level inference ("A implies B; B implies C; C implies D; thus A implies D") is present on any math-related standardized test (I should know, I've taken plenty!). Hamlet, even when he is "crazy", can still rationalize as sanely as the college student he is. There are only a handful of lines that Hamlet says that show any kind of impulsiveness at all; he is methodical, emotional, and much too philosophical for his own good. But he isn't crazy at all.
Further proof: look at Ophelia's insanity. She speaks indirectly (without really acknowledging whom she speaks to), she engages in exceedingly improper behavior (like stripping in public and singing loudly obscene songs). There is one who is truly insane. I believe Shakespeare meant for us to notice the difference.

2) It is his love for Ophelia that compounds Hamlet's issue against killing Claudius outright. He could--but then could Ophelia love a murderer? (Granted, it's vengeance, but Hamlet, in all his soliloquies, never quite gives it that sort of justification) While it is true his mother married a murderer, she didn't know it at first. Hamlet's only hope would then be to manufacture his uncle's death without implicating himself--but then he wouldn't be much different from the man he would kill, would he?
The "insanity plea" was made to stall for time around Claudius--but in the heat of the moment, I think Hamlet forgot about Ophelia; then when he remembered, wouldn't it be so much worse?
Hamlet strikes me as an "all-or-nothing" kind of guy. I mean, he could have exacted revenge over a long period of time, he could have secretly done any number of things, all while keeping up appearances for Ophelia's sake. But, as the most famous speech goes, these are all non-options. It's not a matter of living two lives or biding his time till the opportune moment. Hamlet the philosopher boils everything down to 2 options: It is "to be" (living) "or not to be" (dead).
The trouble is, this all-or-nothing guy probably had an all-or-nothing relationship. I imagine Ophelia is the one person in the whole court who knows the most about Hamlet. When he tells her about himself, I don't imagine he holds anything back. Consequently, the insanity might fool Claudius and Polonius and even his mother, but one word from Ophelia would blow the whole thing wide open. The solution? Hamlet sees no choice but to push Ophelia away. So while the others are trying to get her to break things off, she goes to him, hoping that he would still behave like the devoted lover she knew him to be; when he responds in kind, she believes that it must be insanity.
That would only make Hamlet feel worse and worse as time went on, because now he can survive for a while out from under his uncle's scrutiny, but at the same time, he doesn't have Ophelia, either. Perhaps he might desire to truly go crazy, or to die, so that he would no longer feel the agony of love lost--but if he died before avenging his father, wouldn't this be the wrong thing?

Meanwhile, Shakespeare positively stuffs this play with wit and wordplay. "To thine own self be true!" is an ironic platitude from Polonius, who then behaves himself as a sycophant to the powerful, allowing Claudius to do whatever he wished, so long as Polonius did not lose his status. Every one of Hamlet's lines made me recall the scathing logic of my other favorite tragedy character, Cyrano de Bergerac. The difference is that I think Hamlet is the best tragedy mainly because the titular character is not the "bad guy" (as in Macbeth), I've established that he never really goes totally crazy, and even at the end he still has a friend by him (as opposed to King Lear); the titular character is not slain in the first act of the play (as in Julius Caesar), and Hamlet himself is not directly responsible for murdering anyone he truly loves (as Othello is). That's kind of why it's my favorite.

Twelfth Night
Moving on to happier things, this is overall my favorite play. Twins (boy and girl) washed up in different places after a shipwreck live their lives as if the other is dead, the sister masquerades as a boy to get work as a servant to a duke who she falls in love with, but who is himself in love with a woman who refuses him and then falls in love with the "servant-boy" who is really a woman, at the last minute, the brother shows up again and ends up saving the sister from profound embarrassment by being the one this woman marries, while the sister gets the duke. There is also a subplot that I had never heard of before in this play in which the woman's servants team up against her steward (who abuses them and entertains delusions that his mistress could fall in love with him and thus raise his station) to trick him into thinking that she's leaving him love-notes and asking him to "prove his love" by doing all sorts of ridiculous things, a trap he falls for quite willingly, making the lady think he is mad (which the servants also encourage).
Again, the scenarios are hilarious (especially one named Sir Toby, possibly the lady's uncle or some kind of relation), and I will not bore you with much more lengthy discussion beyond this:

No doubt we have heard the quote that comes from this play, "Do not be afraid of greatness... some are born great, some have greatness thrust upon them." In a movie based on this play, She's The Man, a character delivers this quote saying that, "A great coach once told me..."

I laughed out loud. The most ironically misquoted line, I think, in any Shakespeare play. I thought it sounded very motivational and poetic.... till I discovered where it came from.

The line is not one delivered by a wise man to his young, timid charge. It is written in a letter purported to be from the Lady Olivia, to her steward Malvolio--which is the phony letter written by the servants! It's not a motivational quote; it's the punch line to a massive joke. (In light of it's being a love letter, additionally, the phrase "some have greatness thrust upon 'em" takes on a whole new meaning, as well!)

But this is yet another testament to Shakespeare's brilliance: he made a joke centuries ago and people still don't get it!

So yeah, thanks for bearing with me through all this Shakespeare stuff. I kinda really like it a lot. :)