Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Revenge Hamlet!

Hamlet’s Dad from Hell
a terrific misreading
by Lonely Christopher

The villain of Hamlet is the ghost: a spectral dad beckoning his entire family to murder. Hamlet basically: a supernatural revenge thriller where some fancy-costumed royalty frown and yell in a haunted castle before they all kill each other. Every bad thing happens in the play because of the ghost, who is already menacing some poor sentinels at the very outset. Admittedly, the ghost (who undeniably exists, that is he’s not hallucinated, according to the play’s dramatic logic) happened to become so phantomy because he was murdered. Withal, the regicidal villain (his bro, ouch) forthwith assumed his victim’s crown and wife. Unfortunately for undead Old Hamlet, he was a prayer shy of heaven thus imprisoned as a disappointed wraith. Still, to apply a worn axiom, two wrongs don’t make a right. Demanding his melancholy son to perform unspecified revenge (hint: probably stabbing) has no nutritional value outside restoring nominal moral order to the court. (Restoring morality when nobody realizes the crime even happened would mean, for most involved, having to create the problem in order to solve it.) The ghost doesn’t think about the consequences and doesn’t want Hamlet to tarry either. His spooky instructions aren’t very helpful (not to mention delivered with Satanic theatrics that end up traumatizing his son) --- and even if Hamlet had immediately followed through in deposing Claudius (in such a way that was recognized as just by all), the political result would probably include being conquered by Norway. Claudius had to poison his own brother to achieve the crown, but he was diplomatically competent enough to do so in such a way that nobody suspected his crime; he also seemed to be expertly managing/resolving the threat of foreign invasion --- Hamlet doesn’t have very mature problem solving skills and, considering his mental illness withal (that is, melancholia not his fake antic disposition), his future as a leader is suspect. We know Old Hamlet was brave in combat, but if he was as reckless alive as dead, maybe Denmark ended up better off with Claudius. After “stealing” the vacant throne from Hamlet by being elected, Claudius is a little worried about further hurting his sensitive nephew’s feelings (hence telling him to drop out of school the better to be monitored at home), but otherwise he treats Hamlet like a stepfather who just wants to be liked. Meanwhile, Hamlet’s real dad is back from hell (okay, purgatory), lurking around battlements, and haunting his son screeching terrible, unfounded accusations and demands for revenge. Horatio warns that the ghost might be a disguised devil --- the kind that has fun driving melancholiacs to madness before pushing them off cliffs (it was a different time). Even if the ghost is honest that doesn’t stop him from causing a far bloodier end than a crazy leap off a cliff. Some claim that this is a play about skepticism. Olivier famously introduced his film version as a story about a man who couldn’t make up his mind. The thematic scope is larger, though, because Hamlet agonizes over more than critical indecision. The problem is so much more enormous than helping a ghost --- the problem is the nature of the ghost attack itself. When dad visits him from his nether-universe of negation, Hamlet’s brain comes unstuck from the dramatic context of this royal thriller and everything problematizes doing anything (he’s dissociated). Hamlet dearly hopes, once shuffled off this mortal coil, the rest is silence --- after his transfiguration into a failure hero, all the mental torture, and having caused the death of almost everybody around him (including two women he loved), there better be a universe of nothing but silence waiting because the joke just keeps getting worse if he ends up burning with dad in purgatory. We’ve Old Hamlet’s posthumous bad parenting to thank for the mess that makes up the play (without the ghost the action would be limited to Hamlet moping around Elsinore whining about how slutty his mom is); the revenge hungry spook is the foundational conceit of the narrative progression. Hamlet goes kind of crazy (offstage and hatless) over the problem of the ghost’s nature and purpose. He wonders if the figure of his father is a spirit of health or goblin damned. The former doesn’t really fit, considering the suicide mission the ghost pushes Hamlet into; whether demon or dead king the apparition has no concern for Hamlet’s wellbeing --- he wants to be remembered, damn it, and avenged! --- and only pokes his floaty head into the action once more to threaten to spank Hamlet for wasting time in killing more of the court (he’s not too happy about the boy slapping his mother around, either, more evidence of his selective morality). If he just slept on it another night maybe the ghost would have given Hamlet different advice: “I’m upset your uncle killed me for my wife and crown --- not to mention before my sins were forgiven, so I’m a damn ghost purging my misdeeds in flame most of the day --- but since we didn’t get to talk before brain-melting distilment was poured in my ear porches, I just want you to know I love ya. I realize you expected to be my heir when I died, but don’t let it get you down; first of all, the king is elected by popular vote, so you would have had to campaign (no fun), and also you’re still a teenager and way more interested in demonology and theater than international politics --- maybe one day, kid. And hey: I know she let us down, but take care of your mom, that slut, and be nice to your girlfriend because she’s fragile --- oh, and stay in school. Also, no big deal, but please at some point kill your uncle. Eye for an eye, right? But only when you feel ready.” Oh well! Old Hamlet wasn’t the only problem father of the play. Fortinbras’ dad was irresponsible enough to get killed (by Old Hamlet no less) in a macho land gamble and Polonius messed his daughter the fuck up and paid a spy to follow his son while spreading rumors he likes prostitutes. These hapless children, following Hamlet’s example, idolized their fathers even when doing so played directly into harm that the fathers were usually responsible for. Polonius is a real jerk to Ophelia (at least way overprotective), but she continues to love him so much that when he’s killed she goes crazy, falls out of a tree, and drowns. Fittingly, the bloodbath finale begins with a showdown between two kids with dead dads, both after bloody revenge. At that point Hamlet’s heart isn’t even in it anymore; he just wants to get it over with already. And: everyone dies. Except Horatio, he survives everybody and, coincidentally, never mentions his father the whole play.

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