Thursday, September 3, 2009

Hamlet: ".....the rest is silence"

Perhaps Hamlet is a self portrait. He embodies a vast power of intellect and seeking spirit . He grapples with life in it's totality so far as is given to mortals or as the bard might have done. He recognizes the mystery as mystery.

Paralleling the immensities revealed by modern knowledge is the immensity of our own personal drama of life as it unfolds once we break the chord and jump out. Our life has it's own mountains and canyons, volcanoes and rivers, if we turn the telescope inwards. Art is self examination, other lives  a revalation of self-possibilty.

Hamlet feels puny in comparison with the mission which is placed on his unwilling and young shoulders.Darkness enfolds him becoming deeper at each step: the father's murder, the mother's marriage and then the appearance of the ghost with it's stern, uncompromisable , distasteful, confusing and difficult injunction. The stench of unwholesome deeds permeates the play.

He desperately tries to wriggle out of a ghastly and impossible situation, his mind propelled into a trajectory of rationalization, to shut his eyes as we all try to do when confronted with something which is too big or too unpleasant for us to handle. Why me, he asks? What did I do to deserve this? Maybe it just isn't true!

He is a young man deeply in love with a "beauteous Ophelia" and he feels life being snatched from him in his prime, a kind of premature old age or at least adulthood, "dispatched", as the ghost mourns, of life, queen and crown. In a sense it is not the late king but Hamlet himself who feels murdered in his prime.

But then we see him growing from scene to scene as he wrestles with the situation, including suicidal impulses as they very naturally surface. We see him break his shell and then growing from a fledgling to a bird in self assured flight. Tagore says that birds are "twice born"--first in their limited shells and finally in the freedom of the open sky. The inherent unequalness of people to the challenges of life is demonstrated by the frequency of suicide and the way they disintegrate in the face of sickness, failure and loss. As the Old Man River laments, he is tired of livin' and feared of dyin'. Life at times seems just too big for us to handle .

We try to escape from the verities by establishing routines. Like the oracle of the Ghost, the play within the play is the psychological turning point. The verification of the supernatural revelation leads to an internal crystallization of Hamlet's determination. Dithering is on the way out. He is on the verge of executing the praying Claudius and minutes later accidentally kills Polonius, mistaking him for Claudius. Hamlet is now emerging beyond vacillation . He has already in effect done the deed once, albeit impulsively.

A certain philosopher says mountains are not created by the piling of dust particles, as the proverb goes, but in cataclysms of volcanic eruption. Our own growth at the life level would also seem to be in quantum jumps, moments of extraordinary exertion in which we transcend our own limits. The first step in the fulfillment of the sacred duty imposed on Hamlet has been taken and hereafter, events hurtle in quick succession to the denouement.

The scene at Ophelia's burial is another turning point as the death of one whom he authentically loves and cherishes snaps any remaining lingering links of attachment. He is a grown man now who exists single-mindedly for the task assigned to him. In the discussion with the gravediggers and his contemplation of the skull of Yorrick the jester, his childhood companion, he understands the brevity of life and learns not to begrudge it when the time comes----"the readiness is all".

He is ready at last, not just to wreck vengeance, but to stake himself completely in the act, which perhaps is the whole point, rather than killing  from behind in the act of prayer or stabbing  through the draperies. This would be more in line with Laertes' and Claudius' way of thinking, who are mere  politicians living by considerations of profit and loss, rather than "honor". Laertes' project is vendetta, not justice.

The storm inside Hamlet is now still, his inner transformation has come full circle, and it is a committed if not seasoned warrior who sets out on what he senses and is "ready" to accept as the final journey. The comic interlude in the form of the farcical invitation to a contest of swordsmanship is appropriate since it celebrates Hamlet's spiritual flowering and coming of age.

But yet the most important part of the journey has just started. "But thou wouldst not think how ill all's here about my heart", he tells his friend, for he senses that the game may not be a game, and the primordial terror which every soldier experiences as he marches into battle is upon him. The next half hour or two is the decisive climax of one man's existence, where he conducts himself creditably even unto giving his vote for the succession to Fortinbras, giving instructions to his friend and addressing Claudius directly for the first time with words to match his feelings. But then finally...the rest is silence. He is on the borderland.

Hamlet is no weakling, as some may claim. His weakness, such as it is, is a very human one. Rather he represents the potential for the heroic with which all men and women are endowed, the capacity to summon forth from within the resources to confront any situation . Human beings have a capacity to change, to grow . It is this spiritual germination and flowering of a human being towards his own unique victory and fulfillment is what I believe Shakespeare to have portrayed in this Elizabethan play. Hamlet is a drama of self transcendence and victory which in that sense is less deserving of the tragic label than some of the other plays. The misfortunes which befall him are exactly what he needs to play out the drama of his destiny to it's logical conclusion.


Pankaj said...

beautiful commentary. makes me want to read hamlet after all these years!

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