And for the first time since I’ve lived here, a woman next to me asked what I was working on.
Now … I used to be a much more pretentious misanthrope, if you can believe it, so this woman’s breach of subway decorum struck me sideways. As any pretentious misanthrope can tell you, journaling in semi-public areas is a great way to keep your disgust with humanity raging, but it’s also a performance of sorts for that same semi-public. I’ll wager every p.m. secretly wants some hot chick to come up and say:
Wow, you’re deconstructing the fuck out of that text.
I actually met a college girlfriend this way, but ever since then I’ve preferred to journal in private. So when this perfectly nice non-dating prospect asked me what I was working on, I didn’t have a sexy, compact reply. I said something vaguely crazy like:
Oh, ah … You know how things tend to … I’m really fascinated with … repetition?
Like, as an epistemological phenomenon? Or something? Let me show you this
I started to worry that my winter beard, my dark coat, my crackpot drawings and the pothed thesis statement above would frighten her away. But it turns out the woman is a psychologist! She mentioned Freud’s repetition complex and I mentioned repetition-in-Hamlet and how I believed Freud misdiagnosed Hamlet as just Oedipus-by-another-name. In a follow-up e-mail she remarked that, yes, Hamlet did have an Oedipal conflict because he was “jealous of his uncle,” the man who killed his father and married his mom.
Jealous of his uncle. Hmm.
PROVOCATION #2: Last night, I caught up with an old friend of mine over the phone. She’s a great friend because she has absolutely no patience for the ephemeral, la la la, navel-gazing nonsense common to pretentious misanthropes. Her advice for Hamlet-lovers and Hamlet himself would be: “Get the fuck over it.” Because Hamlet has an opinion on everything, he came up in our conversation somehow. We hung up and she went to a coffee shop where some local poet happened to be holding court on … Hamlet! Apparently, his take on the great Dane was similar; he said something to the effect that “Hamlet didn’t realize he was blowing things out of proportion.”
Jealous of his uncle?
Blowing things out of proportion?
Fie on that noise.
If these aren’t opinions you share, they’re definitely ones you’ve heard. The Freudian diagnosis amounts to calling Hamlet a spoiled two-year old – a loquacious man-child who somehow made it to age thirty without thinking twice about the stability of his parents’ marriage. And the coffeehouse poet opinion amounts to calling Hamlet a pussy. Both are wrong, but they’re wrong in a distressing way: they fail to account for the action of the story as it unfolds. Which means they are opinions one can have without ever experiencing the play.
The Freudian diagnosis folds up this 4,000-line 5-act story into a triptych:
Boy want mommy
Man gets mommy instead
Boy hates man
And the “get over it” camp has partisans within the play itself. As the villain Claudius says to Hamlet at the beginning:
'Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father:
But, you must know, your father lost a father;
That father lost, lost his, and the survivor bound
In filial obligation for some term
To do obsequious sorrow: but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness; 'tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool'd: (I, ii)
Or, as the long-winded Polonius says during an actor's heartbreaking monologue:
"This is too long." (II, ii)
Which, again, leads me to believe these are opinions and diagnoses most appealing to people who’ve never contended with the text or listened to an entire performance.
I call it “distressing” because we seem to have no shortages of performances. It’s been one of the most-produced plays for about four hundred years now. A major one comes through DC every couple years and no season in NYC is complete without at least three. So the problem probably isn’t access so much as how we theatre people -- my fellow pretentious misanthropes -- are producing the play.
That’s what I want to talk about here. But the best argument will be a gentle walk through the story. So strap in or check out now, folks …
Papa Hamlet dies during a nap outdoors one June afternoon. By July, his widow Gertrude has married his brother Claudius. In his first state-of-the-union speech, King Claudius addresses the awkwardness of this quick-change:
Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,
The imperial jointress to this warlike state,
Have we, as 'twere with a defeated joy,--
With an auspicious and a dropping eye,
With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,
In equal scale weighing delight and dole,--
Taken to wife: nor have we herein barr'd
Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone
With this affair along. For all, our thanks. (I, ii)
Diplomatic way of putting it.
But there’s a kid involved. For him, “mirth in funeral and dirge in marriage” is not a calming metaphor or peaceful, zen-like balance of contradictions – it is a nightmarish perversion. Mom seems so happy to have his father dead. The world seems like “an unweeded garden” but one that still “grows to seed.” The kid, Prince Hamlet, is paralyzed by two traumas: the sudden death of his father and the sudden remarriage of his mother. The first is sad enough any day of the week, but Mom’s swift remarriage looks so fucking eager. It looks like Mom wanted Claudius before she had a chance to marry him. Either that, or she's just indifferent and will take the next man who comes along. Which is worse? These are the only options. The deeper Hamlet loved his parents before these traumas, the more he suffers after them.
The story could stop here so Hamlet could begin the long process of “getting over it,” but his parents, living and dead, keep appealing to his love for them as they make huge demands of him. Remember, the Freudian interpretation requires, as a necessary condition, that Hamlet should be obeying his father’s revenge request from the beginning. After all, he can only be accused of pathological procrastination if he has something he should be doing. But at this point, we haven’t heard from the dead dad, we don’t know about his murder or his demand for revenge.
What to do? Hamlet grasps for a metaphor of his own to capture and thereby arrest his mother’s lust. Like Carrie Bradshaw, she wore these trendy shoes to the funeral and they were still in style when she got married in the next episode? No, that‘s lame. Or: Mom’s eyes were still red with graveside tears when she stepped over the grave and onto a marriage altar? No. No image is adequate because it’s the action that haunts him. The wedding feast was made with leftovers from the wake, for fuck’s sake! And Hamlet’s the only one who finds this disgusting? Everyone keeps telling him to “get over it.” Nothing to be done.
Hamlet’s school friend Horatio appears with a couple sentinels and tells Hamlet that the Ghost of his departed father was seen at the gates, scaring the shit out of the guards. That night, Hamlet goes to see for himself and the Ghost appears again. Hamlet and the Ghost go off to another corner of the wilderness where the Ghost tells Hamlet that his father was killed by the man who now wears his crown, his brother Claudius. Hamlet had a feeling this was the case, but it was a fantasy he never admitted out loud at the time. Now the fantasy has come true: wrongful death. The Ghost tells him to focus on this wrongful death and revenge it.
But … just before the Ghost vanishes, it gives Hamlet second commandment: do not contrive against mom. “Leave her to heaven / and to those thorns that in her bosom lodge / to prick and sting her.” (I, v)
Kill Claudius and leave mom alone. In other words: get over her.
A double-trauma followed by a double-bind. After dad’s death and mom’s remarriage, mom and step-dad say “get over your dead dad!” Then, dead dad tells Hamlet to “get over your mom” and kill Claudius instead. Get over it. An impossible horror followed by an impossible mission.
Paralysis turns into mania: how can Hamlet kill Claudius without hurting his mother, the woman who so clearly desires Claudius? How can Hamlet obey his dead father without simultaneously disobeying him? Dad seems to think Mom was just stolen like a piece of furniture, which says a lot about his feelings for her. But Hamlet knows otherwise. Indeed, mom’s active lust for Claudius was the subject of his first soliloquy and the source of his melancholy. How will killing Claudius fix or change that melancholy? Sure it would be fun and satisfying to kill Claudius, but it’s not enough. And once it’s done … he won’t get to do it again. If only there was a kind of revenge that was better than death …
Hamlet tells his friends that he’s going to pretend to be insane. He doesn’t tell them why because he doesn’t yet know; but he needs their backstage secrecy since they’re the only other witnesses to the Ghost.
Happily (yes, happily), this act of insanity also frees him to tell the absolute truth to his enemies. If the jackass Polonius believes Hamlet’s crazy, then Hamlet can call him a fishmonger to his face and get away with it. Turns out telling the truth is the quickest way to get people to think you’re crazy, so the performance may not be so hard to muster. (How we cringe at actors – like me! – who overplayed the madness of Act II!).
While Hamlet refines his act of madness by telling sane truths, his meets some real actors. They perform a moment from a play he liked: a man stands frozen over his enemy and consequently perishes because he failed to strike first. Hamlet sees himself in this position. So he dismisses everyone and talks to himself. He marvels that an actor can feel so much and speak so passionately for someone they’ve never met, while he, a man beset on all sides by tears and blood, can say nothing. He imagines that the same actor would give a bigger, grander, more tearful performance of Hamlet’s story than he himself is actually giving (another warning to hams like me).
But then Hamlet overhears himself in the echo of his loud self-reproach. He realizes he can put his mom and stepdad through the same fit of self-laceration … by having their secret story performed before them in public. He begins repurposing an old revenge story to this end. He re-names it The Mousetrap.
Cats don’t just kill mice, they torture them. Torture. That’s the only action adequate to the revenge Hamlet seeks. It wouldn’t be enough for Hamlet to kill Claudius or Gertrude, he must expose them both, humiliate them, put them at odds with themselves. No death, no physical pain can compete with the agony of a soul consuming itself, turned inside-out. More than the wrongful death of his father, this is what Hamlet suffers and wants Gertrude and Claudius to suffer in return.
The Mousetrap works. Or, rather, it works to Hamlet’s satisfaction. Mom’s re-marriage and Claudius’s murder of dad are re-staged with disturbing accuracy … right down to the type of murder weapon. When Claudius makes a fearful retreat from the playhouse, Hamlet sees a flesh-and-blood confirmation of his ghost-dad’s testimony. Even better, he has succeeded in torturing Claudius into a spasm of conscience. Hamlet will never hear it, but Claudius immediately rushes to prayer, where he confesses what he’s done. Now that Claudius has been tortured and made to suffer guilt, Hamlet has confirmation and satisfaction enough to finish him off and confront his mother, too.
It’s not easy to kill a king. They usually have well-armed dudes hanging about and they’re not subject to formal legal action, you know. Even if Hamlet could take Claudius to court, he would have no proof, none, except the testimony of a ghost (inadmissible, hearsay) and then that one time he did this guilty look thing at this play that was going on. It’s not enough for any earthly court room, but it’s enough for Hamlet. At this point, we’re a little ahead of Hamlet, so it’s more than enough justification for the audience. And whaddyaknow, here’s the guilty man alone, unguarded, at prayer! Perfect opportunity!
Dad was killed before he had a chance to make the reckoning Claudius is now trying to make. Dad’s ghost is stuck in some wretched purgation for god-knows-how-long. If Claudius repents and goes to heaven, he will be better off. Hamlet wants the torture to continue in perpetuity. This situation has already exceeded any earthly legal system and now it exceeds the same for supernatural justice, too. Claudius deserves to die, but he should die when he’s in the middle of some act of villainy so “that his soul may be as damn’d and black / as hell whereto it goes.” (III, iii)
Mom summons Hamlet so she can school him on his playhouse pranks. Hamlet turns her accusations back on her:
HAMLET: Now mother what’s the matter?
GERTRUDE: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
HAMLET: Mother, you have my father much offended.
GERTRUDE: Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
HAMLET: Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.
GERTRUDE: Why, how now Hamlet!
HAMLET: What’s the matter now?
GERTRUDE: Have you forgot me?
HAMLET: No, by the rood, not so.
You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife.
And -- would it were not so! -- you are my mother.
Finally, the disgust Hamlet felt from the beginning can come out here. Hamlet owes nothing to Gertrude except the truth. (He was watching her reaction to The Mousetrap, too.)
His violent accusations frighten her. She shrieks for help. Another voice shouts from behind the curtain:
“What ho! Help! Help! Help!”
Here’s his second chance to kill. It must be Claudius, helpless and blind, caught in an act of villainy – or, at least, not an act of redemption. Right here, with mom watching, to boot! Bonus! Hamlet can fulfill his dad’s request while fulfilling the moral terms he just offered in the previous scene. All this and he doesn’t have to face the man he’s killing. Who could resist?
Hamlet stabs the curtain and kills the unseen man.
He discovers it was his ex-girlfriend’s father, Polonius.
Hamlet “gets over it” rather quickly – the meddling eavesdropper just got a fitting death – and he resumes his verbal assault on mom, insulting Claudius all the way.
O Hamlet, speak no more:
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul;
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.
And then ... as if there weren’t too many dramatic reversals in this one act ... the motherfucking Ghost reappears.
For the first time, the whole family is in the same room again.
Mom, dad, son.
I cannot describe what follows with the same breezy abbreviation above. This is the keystone scene of the play. Everything leads up to and tumbles out from scene.
Save me, and hover o'er me with your wings,
You heavenly guards! What would your gracious figure?
Alas, he's mad!
Do you not come your tardy son to chide,
That, lapsed in time and passion, lets go by
The important acting of your dread command? O, say!
Do not forget: this visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
But, look, amazement on thy mother sits:
O, step between her and her fighting soul:
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works:
Speak to her, Hamlet.
How is it with you, lady?
Alas, how is't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience. Whereon do you look?
On him, on him! Look you, how pale he glares!
His form and cause conjoin'd, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable. Do not look upon me;
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects: then what I have to do
Will want true colour; tears perchance for blood.
To whom do you speak this?
Do you see nothing there?
Nothing at all; yet all that is I see.
Nor did you nothing hear?
No, nothing but ourselves.
Why, look you there! look, how it steals away!
My father, in his habit as he lived!
Look, where he goes, even now, out at the portal!
This the very coinage of your brain:
This bodiless creation ecstasy
Is very cunning in.
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. Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that mattering unction to your soul,
That not your trespass, but my madness speaks:
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen. Confess yourself to heaven;
Repent what's past; avoid what is to come;
And do not spread the compost on the weeds,
To make them ranker. Forgive me this my virtue;
For in the fatness of these pursy times
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg,
Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good.
O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.
O, throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half.
Good night: but go not to mine uncle's bed;
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either [ ] the devil, or throw him out
With wondrous potency. Once more, good night:
And when you are desirous to be bless'd,
I'll blessing beg of you. For this same lord,
Pointing to POLONIUS
I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.
I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So, again, good night.
I must be cruel, only to be kind:
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.
One word more, good lady.
What shall I do?
Not this, by no means, that I bid you do:
Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed;
Pinch wanton on your cheek; call you his mouse;
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damn'd fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out,
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft. 'Twere good you let him know;
For who, that's but a queen, fair, sober, wise,
Would from a paddock, from a bat, a gib,
Such dear concernings hide? who would do so?
No, in despite of sense and secrecy,
Unpeg the basket on the house's top.
Let the birds fly, and, like the famous ape,
To try conclusions, in the basket creep,
And break your own neck down.
Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,
And breath of life, I have no life to breathe
What thou hast said to me.
One of the reasons I find repetition so fascinating w/r/t Hamlet: this simple pattern-seeking exercise starts to integrate large portions of a long, sprawling story. In the scene above, Hamlet keeps repeating “Good night.” This should be an exit line, right? It’s an ending that fails to end. Instead, the ending line only breaks the scene open again. Between iterations of “good night,” Hamlet
1) asks his mother to repent (good night), then
2) ask her to not sleep with Claudius and even gives her some abstinence education! (good night), and finally
3) tell her that she should sleep with Claudius, but when he’s all hot and heavy, she should tell him that Hamlet is not mad, but mad in craft.
She says she will not.
Hamlet drags off and hides the corpse of Polonius.
Then he is ejected from the kingdom, possibly forever.
All repetition ceases.
At this point in the story (III, iv), Hamlet’s familial, inner-conflict has ended. I’ve completely left out the Fortinbras and Ophelia storylines -- the first because it’s an easily detachable one (and a repetition of the foreground plotline!) and the second because Ophelia deserves a huge blog post of her own. I’ve come to wonder why productions often cut Fortinbras, but still leave in the Ophelia storyline. Most productions treat her as an annoying distraction anyway, so why not be done with it and spare us another shrill madness scene or melodramatic nunnery scene? I don’t want to cut the Ophelia storyline -- I think it could be a fruitful place to center a future production. I do feel she’s kicked to the side in most versions, like another Rosencrantz but with breasts.
To end with Freud, then. If the Freudian version holds, Hamlet would exhibit a repetition formation with Claudius, no? But Hamlet only repeats when he’s dealing with dad (“Swear!”), his girlfriend (“To a nunnery, go!”) and finally mom (“Good night.”). Claudius and Hamlet only have about 20 minutes on stage together and each time Hamlet insults him to his face. Then he kills him twice over.
So where’s the jealousy, again? Where’s the pathological procrastination? Hamlet’s story may have Oedipal components, but his paralysis only lasts as long as Act One, his procrastination is done by Act Two, he’s gone overboard and tried to out-God God in Act Three, and then he’s booted from the court for killing the wrong man in a righteous way. So it’s not that Freud is incorrect; he’s only correct as far as he chooses to go.
The death of Polonius -- the blind stab at the curtain -- transfers the bulk of Hamlet’s inner-conflict … to Ophelia. The fatherless Hamlet has rejected the motherless Ophelia … and then he kills her dad, too. Hamlet the character/story/name/word has become shorthand in our culture for madness and suicide. But Ophelia is the only one who goes irreparably mad and successfully commits suicide. This is another reason she deserves her own post and her own production.
Hamlet cannot be judged in court and should not be pathologized via Freud because Hamlet is his own psychoanalyst -- just as he is his own Falstaff. If he deserves any judgment ... if one wishes to draw a tragic example from his story ... we could posit that his growth and liberation didn’t have to cause Ophelia’s degeneration and suicide. But how could it be otherwise?
HAMLET: Dead for a ducat ddddddddddddude? Whoa, wait. Polonius?
HAMLET: Is that you?
POLONIUS: Yes, don’t hurt me, please.
HAMLET: My bad.
Or so the Family Guy version might have it.
In many revenge stories, the exiled hero teams up with an outside force to re-take the corrupted foreground and emerge triumphant. Following that formula, Hamlet would team up with Fortinbras, claim the crown, and … become the first enlightened despot or something. Go on to have some mod Scandanavian chill out club where people smoke weed, talk about the meaning of existence, and invent iPods. I don’t know. The point is that Hamlet breaks this formula and decides to return home, alone. He even writes ahead to Claudius to tell him that he’s coming back alone.
He doesn’t know Ophelia has killed herself, but he does know that Laertes will be gunning for a fight over his father, the dead Polonius. He makes as gracious a plea as possible:
Free me thus far in your most generous thoughts
That I have shot my arrow o’er the house,
And hurt my brother.
Laertes cheats in the duel and fatally wounds Hamlet, but he then asks for forgiveness from Hamlet and receives it. Laertes tells Hamlet that the king is to the blame. Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned rapier and then force-feeds him the goblet of poisoned wine. Claudius dies. Gertrude was accidentally poisoned. Laertes dies. Hamlet has moments to live. All he mourns at the end of his life is a lack of time and a wounded name.
Addressing us directly:
You that look pale and tremble at this chance,
That are but mutes or audience to this act,
Had I but time--as this fell sergeant, death,
Is strict in his arrest--O, I could tell you--
But let it be.
The Freudian take on those events says Hamlet could only kill Claudius when he knew he, Hamlet, was dying as well. Because the Freudian version places its emphasis on Claudius, linking him to Hamlet as a surrogate Oedipal fantasy figure, it neglects the prior and deeper emotional conflict regarding the Gertrude’s behavior. The play gets its emotional, purposive thrust from a grand displacement between the formal revenge genre structure and the suppressed suffering for Gertrude’s behavior. Hamlet’s actions are better understood as a revolution or oscillation between his parents’ alternating demands – not as a pathological repression of Oedipal urges. Like each of us, Hamlet must somehow reconcile the space between his parents, even after they do horrible things and demand horrible things of him.
Freud remains an indispensible thinker and a joy to read. To be generous, we may say that Hamlet was merely four hundred years ahead of Freud. His dizzying epic journey of the psyche exceeds Freudian coordinates by turning them outward. Oedipus refuses to know his true condition -- and this refusal hastens its fulfillment. Oedipus blinds himself as punishment; Hamlet commits a tragic action while blind. By contrast, Hamlet knows his true condition “not poorly, but too well.” Or rather, he knows it so well that he cannot outlive his defining trauma.
This is why we sense such a strange loss when Hamlet dies. Oedipus suffers to purify himself and to provide catharsis for the audience. Hamlet dies … and after 4.5 hours with him, we’re somehow bummed we don’t get to hear him talk anymore.