Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Poisoned Kingdom

One reason Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark has maintained its popularity for over 400 years is that most of us see ourselves in the characters of that play, especially in Hamlet himself. This young man is too contemplative or too rash, too cautious or too reckless, too loving or too cruel. In other words, he is a character full of conflicts and so are we.

Early in the drama, Hamlet’s father’s ghost appears to him and tells him his Uncle Claudius, who now wears the crown and has married Hamlet’s mother, the queen, murdered him. The ghost gives some details: he was taking his customary nap in the garden when his murderous brother came and poured a potent poison into his ear, thereby killing him before he could repent of his sins. So, the ghost is doomed to wander about at night as a spirit until his unabsolved sins are purged. He commands Hamlet to avenge his murder and Hamlet vows to do so quickly.

But he begins equivocating, much as we all do when we are faced with a difficult task. His thought process leads him to the conclusion that the apparition may not have been his father at all, but the devil, trying to trick him into killing an innocent man. He must, he feels, figure out whether or not that was really his father’s spirit and, when a troupe of actors shows up, he persuades the actors to put on an old play that he changes to resemble the poisoning the ghost described. He will secretly watch Claudius and if he reacts badly, showing guilt, Hamlet will know the ghost was indeed his father’s spirit. At the performance, Claudius reacts very badly and Hamlet is sure he has to kill the king.

His first opportunity to do so is when Claudius is praying. He reasons this way: so I kill him now while he is praying and he dies and goes to Heaven while my father roams about in agony. No, I’ll wait and catch him in his sins and send him to Hell. The next opportunity comes when he assumes the movement behind a curtain is Claudius and he rashly plunges his sword into it, killing not Claudius, but his girlfriend’s father, the old snoop Polonius. So, Hamlet is either too slow to act or too rash.

Such complications abound and intensify as this poisoned kingdom is depicted in the play. Hamlet’s equivocation is his eventual undoing, by a poisoned sword, no less.
In a sense, we all live in a poisoned kingdom and we are all conflicted people. Our motivations may be much less complicated than Hamlet’s, but we see in ourselves the same tendency to think too much sometimes and to act too swiftly at other times. In my worldview, the metaphorical poison that entered our kingdom was plucked off a tree at the urging of a serpent. The fact that we have choices in our poisoned kingdom often makes us prone to either rashness or contemplative inaction. That’s what being human is all about and that’s why Shakespeare’s magnum opus remains popular to this day.

1 comment:

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