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Plots involving the restoration of a True Heir and the concomitant dislodging of a usurper are staples of high fantasy and historical romance. It's usually a given in such stories that the usurper is evil, and that the heir is a good egg. But of course there's no reason why either of these should be the case. True, the usurper is by definition guilty of usurpation, but in other respects they might be a capable, fair-minded ruler and have many private virtues, and they may even have had plausible reasons for usurping in the first place - for example if the previous ruler was a tyrant. As for the heir, it's likely enough that a life spent brooding on what has been taken away from them will have warped their moral sense to an extent. Resentment and desire for revenge are likely to be the hallmarks of any realistically rendered usurpee. But you wouldn't guess that from the literature. And even in history, the vindictiveness of returning kings (e.g. Charles II) tends to get relatively overlooked, perhaps because historians too are seduced by the romance of it all.

Shakespeare has quite a few usurper/usurpee pairings: Macbeth and Malcolm, Frederick and Duke Senior, Claudius and Hamlet, Antonio and Prospero, Richard III and Edward V, Bolingbroke and Richard II. Richard II comes closest to challenging the stereotypes, with Richard and Bolingbroke both having their fair share of faults and virtues, and a relationship best summed up as "It's complicated". Hamlet, as I've frequently maintained, gives us Shakespeare's greatest villain in its title character, which is an interesting variation, and Malcolm at least conducts a thought experiment with Macduff in which he asks whether he would still be worth supporting if his character were worse than Macbeth's - the conclusion being that he would not. But that contingency remains in the realm of the hypothetical.

But it's not to Shakespeare that we should be looking for a serious interrogation of this topos. It's to the republican writers of fantasy and romance, surely? And particularly to those writers who like inverting fantasy cliches for fun. But here's where my lack of reading (and possibly memory) shows up. Where are the stories in which an evil True Heir attempts to take back the throne from a good usurper? I don't think Diana Wynne Jones ever attempted this kind of inversion, exactly - did Terry Pratchett? Did anyone? And if not, why not?
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My dad dragged me to the first performance of Hamlet yesterday. I wish he hadn’t bothered. It was so “blocky”, so full of overacting, and the bald guy playing the ghost looked about as scary as a pancake. The lighting didn’t help, either: in fact it rained. As for the OST, it was drums and trumpets! So 1580s. So predictable. So Chamberlain’s Men.

I came away with a strong, bitter taste of déjà vu. This plot is old. Hell, this exact same story was done – better – a few years ago by Thomas Kyd, and even that was just a warmed over version of The Spanish Tragedy. Now there was a real genre-busting piece! They don’t make them like TST any more. Ophelia, the Bel-Imperia character in Hamlet, doesn’t do much of anything – no stabbing, no poisoning. She’s basically just there for the fan service and to be a wuss.

She and Hamlet had, like, zero backstory, anyway, so how could they ask me to care about them? I’d have liked a Nine Men’s Morris episode or something, where the characters were just hanging out and we got to see a bit more of what they were like before they turned terminally angsty. In this play you only see them in a crisis, and that makes the characters seem – kind of thin, you know? Like they were just invented to move the plot forward? You can’t squeeze a story like this into just five Acts, anyway.

Laertes was bad-ass, though. Definitely my favourite character.

Simon Forman Jr., aged 13 and three fourths.
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Oh, Hamlet. It always comes back you to you.

[personal profile] calimac and I have been having a conversation (interesting to me and I hope to him) about Shakespeare’s historical sense, or lack of it. This post isn’t really a contribution to that discussion, but it grows from it at a tangent.

My feeling about Shakespeare, as I was saying the earlier post, is that he often leaves his settings ambiguous in terms of both time and place. Perhaps he doesn’t care about being specific, or lacking a modern historical sense he doesn’t realize what it would mean to be specific, or perhaps he’s being deliberately unspecific in order to futureproof the present text. These possibilities are neither exhaustive not entirely mutually exclusive, of course, nor does the same answer necessarily apply to every text. Whatever Shakespeare’s intention, however, it’s worth considering the effects that historical and geographical ambiguity may have, beyond an aesthetically pleasing (or not) vagueness. Take Hamlet, for example. The earliest major source is Saxo Grammaticus in the twelfth century. His Amleth is a fairly brutal tale with its roots in Denmark’s pre-Christian past, and manifests a largely pre-Christian attitude to such matters as blood-feud, rape, murder, family obligation, etc. Shakespeare got the story from the longer version by Belleforest, and no doubt other sources such as Kyd’s Hamlet. By the time Shakespeare got his hands on it the story bore the mark of Renaissance, twelfth-century and perhaps pre-Christian ways of thinking, which aren’t altogether compatible - though whether that is more apparent to us than it was to him is a debatable point.

So, when is Shakespeare’s Hamlet set? If we seek a definitive answer, we’ll be disappointed. The court looks like a sixteenth-century court in many ways, and Hamlet, like a good Renaissance prince (but very unlike a twelfth-century one), has gone to Germany to get himself a university education. He fences with foils, too, the very model of a modern Prince of Denmark. On the other hand, the Danish king has authority over the King of England, which seems to throw the date back into Viking days. Also, the King is elected rather than succeeding by right of succession – again, a throwback to the days of Amleth. (Despite this, I’ve read in many an essay that Claudius has usurped the throne that should be Hamlet’s by right, so perhaps the play isn’t as clear about this as it might be, or perhaps my students are seeing what they want to.) One could multiply examples: the short answer is that the play is set both in the early medieval period and in the sixteenth-century. Or, if you prefer, in neither, or in some atemporal story-zone. Whatever.

This gets really interesting, though, when you think about the moral universe of Hamlet. If you consider his most notable predecessor as a revenge protagonist, Hieronymo from The Spanish Tragedy, one really striking difference is that Hieronymo is oppressed by (amongst other things) the morality of taking revenge. As a Christian, he knows that God has claimed vengeance for himself – what’s a body to do? What’s remarkable about Hamlet is that, despite wittering for Wittenberg on almost every other subject under the sun, he never once questions the morality of taking revenge. (Again, I’ve seen many essays that claim the contrary, but they just assume he must, I think.) It’s true that Hamlet worries about suicide from a Christian perspective, and it’s true that he gets exercised about whether Claudius is really responsible for murdering his father, but his duty to take bloody revenge should Claudius prove guilty is one thing he neither doubts or questions, even though he appears to be living in a Christian court and has a father apparently suffering in Purgatory. It’s as if Shakespeare took the mind of a Renaissance Christian humanist and grafted onto it a piece of unreconstructed blood-feud morality (or unthinkingly adopted such a juxtaposition from his heterogeneous sources, if you would rather deny him conscious historical awareness). And of course the two don’t fit, even as they are made inextricable in Hamlet and in the ambiguous setting of the play. This is vagueness of the kind I was discussing before, but in addition it’s a way of conveying meaning. Perhaps it’s why Hamlet has bad dreams.
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This is well worth a look - Hamlet in 198 programmes and films (but less than 15 minutes):

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Amazing how many times you can read a much-loved text, and still miss the obvious. I refer of course to the opening paragraphs of The Wind in the Willows:

THE Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little home. First with brooms, then with dusters; then on ladders and steps and chairs, with a brush and a pail of whitewash; till he had dust in his throat and eyes, and splashes of whitewash all over his black fur, and an aching back and weary arms. Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing. It was small wonder, then, that he suddenly flung down his brush on the floor, said `Bother!' and `O blow!' and also `Hang spring-cleaning!' and bolted out of the house without even waiting to put on his coat. Something up above was calling him imperiously, and he made for the steep little tunnel which answered in his case to the gravelled carriage-drive owned by animals whose residences are nearer to the sun and air. So he scraped and scratched and scrabbled and scrooged and then he scrooged again and scrabbled and scratched and scraped, working busily with his little paws and muttering to himself, `Up we go! Up we go!' till at last, pop! his snout came out into the sunlight, and he found himself rolling in the warm grass of a great meadow.

`This is fine!' he said to himself. `This is better than whitewashing!' The sunshine struck hot on his fur, soft breezes caressed his heated brow, and after the seclusion of the cellarage he had lived in so long the carol of happy birds fell on his dulled hearing almost like a shout. Jumping off all his four legs at once, in the joy of living and the delight of spring without its cleaning, he pursued his way across the meadow till he reached the hedge on the further side.


It was only when looking at these paragraphs today for quite another purpose that I was struck by the significance of the word "cellarage". It's a relatively unusual lexical choice, but I knew I'd met it recently, and in connection with moles, too. Of course! --

Ghost cries under the stage.
Ghost. Swear.
Ham. Aha boy, say'st thou so? Art thou there, truepenny?
Come on! You hear this fellow in the cellarage.
Consent to swear.
...
Ham. Well said, old mole! Canst work i' th' earth so fast?
A worthy pioner!


The longer I looked, the more the parallels rained down upon me. You will notice, of course, that the Ghost of Old Hamlet commands the soldiers to swear; and the first thing we see Grahame's Mole do is swear: "Bother!", "O blow!" and "Hang spring-cleaning!" Mere coincidence, perhaps? More importantly, spring-cleaning is a powerful metaphor for purgatory. Here, souls with fur as black as their own sins are engaged in Sisyphean torment, forced to whitewash their own sepulchres from the inside in a ghastly parody of their former lives, choking on dust and tortured with what Grahame so rightly calls "divine discontent". Yet their torture has a positive aspect too, for spring cleaning - that is to say, cleansing one's soul in readiness to spring forth at the Resurrection - will fit them ultimately to receive God's grace. Ask not what is the "Something Above" that calls to Mole so "imperiously": ask rather, Who.

At this point I feel I have already made an unanswerable case, but for any stiff-necked readers out there, let us note what happens when the ghost of old Hamlet emerges onto the battlements of Elsinore. He is immediately questioned by Horatio:

Hor. What art thou that usurp'st this time of night
Together with that fair and warlike form
In which the majesty of buried Denmark
Did sometimes march? By heaven I charge thee speak!
Mar. It is offended.
Ber. See, it stalks away!
Hor. Stay! Speak, speak! I charge thee speak!
Exit Ghost.
Mar. 'Tis gone and will not answer.


Equally, when Mole emerges from his tunnel, he is at once challenged by a sentry in the form of an elderly rabbit, who demands sixpence for the use of the private road - only to get a very similar brush off:

He was bowled over in an instant by the impatient and contemptuous Mole, who trotted along the side of the hedge chaffing the other rabbits as they peeped hurriedly from their holes to see what the row was about.


Given all this, there can be very little doubt that The Wind in the Willows was one of Shakespeare's major sources for Hamlet, and that Grahame must stand alongside Grammaticus in future Arden editions. The concern of both texts with the theme of usurpation is but one of many profitable avenues of research that I look forward to seeing younger scholars explore.

It is, alas, not to Shakespeare's credit that he made a clumsy attempt to deflect attention from his debt in the opening lines of the play. "Have you had a quiet guard?" Bernardo asks his fellow sentry. Francisco - evidently anxious to forestall the expectation that creatures of the woodland and riverbank will play a major role in the action - replies, "Not a mouse stirring."

That, I believe, is what is known as protesting too much.
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Oh boy, am I glad to be shot of Hamlet for another year. Not Hamlet, mind - I do like the play, for all its manifold faults - but Hamlet himself. Today we were concentrating on Act 5, which shows the bratty prince acting badly from beginning to end. Viz:

1) Hamlet bores for Denmark on the unheard-of notion that people die at the end of their lives, and that no matter how powerful or jolly they are, they'll eventually be reduced to skulls and dust. Horatio humours him with many 'You don't say?'s, but is looking at his watch the while. Hamlet is in danger of making Polonius look like Dorothy Parker here - if he hadn't already done so with his embarrassing 'advice to the players', so redolent of Prince Charles lecturing architects on the art of building design.

2) In passing, he mentions that he's engineered the murders of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ("no shriving time allowed"), whose major fault seems to be that they obeyed the king's summons to come to Elsinore, and his request to try and find out what was upsetting Hamlet. Capital crimes indeed.

3) Within two seconds of realizing that Ophelia is dead - primarily as a result of his own actions - Hamlet is shouting at her grieving brother and fighting him. His reason? He dislikes Laertes' extravagant diction! (Or, more accurately, the fact that for once Hamlet isn't the centre of attention.)

4) Within a couple more seconds he says (the first and only time he expresses such a sentiment), 'I loved Ophelia'. After that it's all about him and how much more he can grieve than Laertes. '40,000 brothers' love' wouldn't equal his, insists this enemy of hyperbole. (At no point in the play is Ophelia alluded to again by either of them - even when they are forgiving each other for various other misdeeds.)

5) He takes time out to practise his favourite hobby of humiliating people who aren't in a position to answer back. Osric is an acceptable substitute for Polonius in this regard.

6) He denies his responsibility for killing Polonius by telling Laertes that he was mad at the time. (That, we remember, was the scene in which he told his mother: "My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time, / And makes as healthful music: it is not madness / That I have utter’d: bring me to the test, / And I the matter will re-word; which madness / Would gambol from.") Hmm.

7) Finally, when he is already mortally wounded, he does what he should have done at the end of Act I and kills Claudius. But even then he forgets his Princess Bride so far as to omit any mention of the fact that Claudius killed his father, concentrating instead on his supposed incest with Gertrude (at least in Q2, our copytext: in F he calls him 'murderous' but doesn't specify his victim). The whole thing is a mess, with bodies good and bad falling everywhere, and any sense of satisfied justice being wholly dissipated.

8) At the end of the play he argues for Fortinbras to become King. This passing of Denmark to a foreign power was what his own father had fought old Norway to prevent, and what the Danish army was guarding against at the start of the play - but Hamlet gives his country away, just because he likes Fortinbras's abs.

In sum, he is a self-centred, entitled, manipulative, untrustworthy, prevaricating, callous, incompetent little shit.

Now, bring on Paradise Lost!
steepholm: (Default)
Oh boy, am I glad to be shot of Hamlet for another year. Not Hamlet, mind - I do like the play, for all its manifold faults - but Hamlet himself. Today we were concentrating on Act 5, which shows the bratty prince acting badly from beginning to end. Viz:

1) Hamlet bores for Denmark on the unheard-of notion that people die at the end of their lives, and that no matter how powerful or jolly they are, they'll eventually be reduced to skulls and dust. Horatio humours him with many 'You don't say?'s, but is looking at his watch the while. Hamlet is in danger of making Polonius look like Dorothy Parker here - if he hadn't already done so with his embarrassing 'advice to the players', so redolent of Prince Charles lecturing architects on the art of building design.

2) In passing, he mentions that he's engineered the murders of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ("no shriving time allowed"), whose major fault seems to be that they obeyed the king's summons to come to Elsinore, and his request to try and find out what was upsetting Hamlet. Capital crimes indeed.

3) Within two seconds of realizing that Ophelia is dead - primarily as a result of his own actions - Hamlet is shouting at her grieving brother and fighting him. His reason? He dislikes Laertes' extravagant diction! (Or, more accurately, the fact that for once Hamlet isn't the centre of attention.)

4) Within a couple more seconds he says (the first and only time he expresses such a sentiment), 'I loved Ophelia'. After that it's all about him and how much more he can grieve than Laertes. '40,000 brothers' love' wouldn't equal his, insists this enemy of hyperbole. (At no point in the play is Ophelia alluded to again by either of them - even when they are forgiving each other for various other misdeeds.)

5) He takes time out to practise his favourite hobby of humiliating people who aren't in a position to answer back. Osric is an acceptable substitute for Polonius in this regard.

6) He denies his responsibility for killing Polonius by telling Laertes that he was mad at the time. (That, we remember, was the scene in which he told his mother: "My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time, / And makes as healthful music: it is not madness / That I have utter’d: bring me to the test, / And I the matter will re-word; which madness / Would gambol from.") Hmm.

7) Finally, when he is already mortally wounded, he does what he should have done at the end of Act I and kills Claudius. But even then he forgets his Princess Bride so far as to omit any mention of the fact that Claudius killed his father, concentrating instead on his supposed incest with Gertrude (at least in Q2, our copytext: in F he calls him 'murderous' but doesn't specify his victim). The whole thing is a mess, with bodies good and bad falling everywhere, and any sense of satisfied justice being wholly dissipated.

8) At the end of the play he argues for Fortinbras to become King. This passing of Denmark to a foreign power was what his own father had fought old Norway to prevent, and what the Danish army was guarding against at the start of the play - but Hamlet gives his country away, just because he likes Fortinbras's abs.

In sum, he is a self-centred, entitled, manipulative, untrustworthy, prevaricating, callous, incompetent little shit.

Now, bring on Paradise Lost!
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Okay, I admit it's hard to see it holding the stage at the Globe, but one can dream.

The Tragedy of Claudius, Prince of Denmark

Since raw youth hath young Claudius been mocked full sore by his contumelious elder brother, the Prince Hamlet, for his honest love of Rhenish and his "Handles of Cupid". He hath borne all patiently, even the loss of his true love Gertrude (“I take her from you merely for that I can, Claudikins”). Once crowned King, Hamlet maketh his brother the butt of all the court, and feedeth jests to Yorick at all occasions. Even Claudius’ nephew, the king’s son, is taught to lisp: “Behold the lardy prince!”

At the last, visiting an apothecary for a cure against the gout, Claudius spieth a bottle with the words “Ear Poison.” Might this be the answer to his orisons...?

Fat Hamlet

Apr. 2nd, 2007 09:49 pm
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I’m not a regular theatre-goer, but I’ve been to quite a few productions of Hamlet over the years. I don’t recall seeing one where the protagonist was noticeably overweight, though. (Kenneth Branagh has the potential but he never quite realises it.) It’s a shame because, the more I read that play, the more convinced I am that Hamlet’s insecurity about his body-image lies at the heart of it.

In the opening act, for example, he’s recently arrived from Wittenberg. He looks distinctly podgy and out of shape, having spent far too much time sitting at his desk reading - with the inevitable accompaniment of wurst and lager - and none at all marching over worthless tracts of land, like Fortinbras (whose name translates as ‘Well-toned Bicep’). And doesn’t he just hate himself for it? ‘Oh that this too too solid flesh would melt!’

Hamlet is out of condition and he knows it. Of course, he makes some desultory attempts to amend the situation, but surely he protests too much. ‘Since he went into France, I have been in continual practise.’ Yeah, right! We were there, Hamlet – remember? Your only ‘practice’ was turning Polonius into a kebab.

His mother isn’t deceived, either. She knows in the last scene that Hamlet is still ‘fat, and scant of breath,’ and even offers him her napkin to wipe away his all-too-obvious sweat. Mothers, eh? Always showing you up.

Crucially, Hamlet projects his disgust outwards as well as inwards. What a downer he has on Danish drinking habits! ‘A custom more honoured in the breach than the observance,’ he says, all niminy-piminy, before rambling on about how a wonderfully noble character (his own, perhaps?) can be brought low by a single bad habit. That degree of prudery is a sure sign of ill-disguised self-loathing. He abuses Ophelia because he cannot believe that anyone would truly love a butterball like him. Surely she must be laughing behind his back.

But the main focus of this disgust is his uncle, with whom he identifies strongly. No, no, it’s nothing to do with Oedipus - it’s because they share the same body type. Yes, the Rhenish-swilling Claudius is clearly the ‘fat king’ in Hamlet’s little homily on worms. When Hamlet looks at Claudius he sees himself in thirty years’ time, and it’s not a pretty sight. Even when he pictures Claudius in bed with his mother, it’s the body-heat and rolls of fat he focuses on (‘the rank sweat of an enseamed bed’), as much as the idea of incest. No wonder he intends to feed the region kites with Claudius’ offal – there’s a lot of it! He wants to hide the evidence by putting him on the slim-fast Prometheus diet.

By contrast, Old Hamlet (like Fortinbras and Laertes, as I see them) was naturally slim and muscular. Hamlet even carries pictures of the two brothers, like the Before and After pictures in a slimming advert – just to torment himself.

Hmm. I wonder if Burton has anything to say about body image and melancholia? There’s a great story in Timothy Bright’s 1586 book on the subject about a man who was morbidly obsessed with the size of his nose, but that’s not quite the same.

Enough of that. But, so, anyway – why have I never seen a porky Hamlet? Or rather, which is the fattest Prince of Denmark ever to grace the stage? And what’s Bacon got to do with it?

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