Monday, January 4, 2010

Hamlet takes a break from avenging his father’s murder in order to stage a play. Hamlet directs three players that the purpose of playing is to mimic reality exactly (if flatly) and hold “the mirror up to nature.” But Hamlet himself does not want to be a mirror as much as he wants to be real. In his first speech Hamlet insists he is much more than a flat representation of a person, “Tis not alone my inky cloak…” etc., etc., “These indeed seem for they are actions that a man might play:/ But I have that within which passes show.”

This is where what Hamlet calls his “antic disposition” comes in.

When Hamlet the character is acting, he is playing an actor, and not the other way round. This is when Hamlet is happiest. It cannot, however, be all the time because Hamlet also has, (within the context of the play), very real reasons to be upset: Claudius’s murder of his father, and grabbing of crown and queen. Thus there are also times when Hamlet must display these emotions. That’s when the actor plays him, and these are the moments Hamlet is least happy.

Thus, Hamlet is revolted by the other characters in the play, (those who are more than mere servants), because their existence and actions, he knows, will inevitably cause him to have to stop play-acting.

The “mighty opposites” that Hamlet says Guildenstern and Rosencrantz have come between are not Hamlet and Claudius, but Hamlet’s determination to be self-determined, and the inescapable fact that he is a character written by another man. Hamlet’s old friends tried to kill him off-stage, thus hijacking the end of the play from both character and author. They deserved their fate.

And make no mistake, Hamlet is a fatalistic play, and necessarily, because as Hamlet is so unhappily aware—characters don’t determine their actions, their authors do. This also gives Hamlet a large moral license.

The play ends with Hamlet resigned to this situation, “Let be." But while Hamlet is still raging he tries to convince us that our situation in reality is no different from an actor’s in a play. In a speech we are supposed to believe was written by Hamlet, the “Mousetrap” King says, “Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.” This is a trick. Taken at face value these words should exonerate, if not Claudius, at the very least Gertrude. That’s something Hamlet is clearly unwilling to do, as he continues to chide Gertrude and guilt Claudius, even as the Mousetrap play within the play goes on.

Shakespeare, who is, of course, Hamlet’s author, and also the author of what Hamlet authors, allows his character to make this mistake between words and deed, even as Hamlet fusts about word and deed. Hamlet cannot possibly know this because he is a character in a play--but reality is not so oppressive, we can be constant.

There are, of course, forces outside our control that act (hahaha) on us, but if these, possibly, partially, remove our ends from us, they also color our thoughts. The awareness is all. And on the most important point, morality, we are not hapless characters, but our own authors. Nothing, I mean nothing, outside of lunacy (which is an internal situation and not an external one) removes from us our moral obligations. We don’t, of course, have to choose morality (if we did our ends would not be our own, and it would not be something to strive for).

That outside forces act on us, does not remove this choice--for example, someone tries to stab you with a knife, you struggle and in the struggle you take that person’s life. This is a situation where you life, but not your soul, is at stake. Hamlet controls not what he does, thus we forgive him his huge moral failings. Even after his cruelty to Ophelia and slaying of Polonius, he is still our hero. This would not work for a real person who treated real people this way. We are freer than Hamlet, thus we are more bound.