Tuesday, October 25, 2011

A Chip Off The Old Uncle Claudius

Here's a random thought that came to me while waiting for my wife's car at the shop (yes, again - don't buy a VW Routan.)

Of the few things we know about old King Hamlet, we know that he fought Old Fortinbras in honorable one-on-one combat.  True?

Claudius, on the other hand, is a sneaky backstabber who poisons King Hamlet in his sleep, and then later not only tries to pawn off his dirty work on England, but when that fails, he manipulates Laertes into doing it.  Claudius isn't much for facing his enemies.

So, then, where does Hamlet fall on that family tree?

Thinking Claudius to be behind the arras, he doesn't exactly say "Come out and face me," now does he? He blindly runs him through and hopes for the best.

Then, later? When he finds out about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's secret mission to have him killed (a mission they didn't even know about), does he do them in? Nope - a little trickier with the note and he, too, lets England do his dirty work.

It is only in his final rage (panic?) that he murders Claudius in front of everybody.  An unarmed Claudius, mind you.  Granted, Claudius didn't exactly deserve a fair fight after everything he did, but still. You'd like to think that the good guy at least attempts to win a fair fight (I'm thinking Romeo/Tybalt - Romeo didn't sneak up on him, he came straight at him).

Kind of makes you wonder whether Hamlet's more like his dad's brother, than his dad.


kj said...

Interesting thought. I suppose how well-armed (or unarmed) Claudius is would depend heavily on the production. He does call for his friends (his guards?) to defend him. What if a production armed Claudius and surrounded him with ninja warriors through whom Hamlet has to fight in order to get him.


Duane said...

Weren't the ninjas in Branagh's As You Like It?

It does bring up an interesting question - how often (if ever) does Claudius fight back? Part of his character is to be the chessmaster who manipulates others to do his bidding, sure. But wouldn't it be cool if he actually was a physically imposing figure for Hamlet to legitimately fear? So that at the very end, Hamlet actually does have to fight him and not just run him through?

JM said...

"Kind of makes you wonder whether Hamlet's more like his dad's brother, than his dad."

Really Duane? It doesn't make me wonder that at all. In each situation, people want HIM dead--and he knows it. In fact, he's already dead, his mother as well, by Claudius' hand when he stabs him. I think if we examine the situations more closely, Hamlet might be forgiven for not being too too concerned with so much Heraldic protocol.

Duane said...

That doesn't go too far toward explaining his behavior in the bedchamber, or in dispatching R&G.

I don't plan on rethinking the entire character. It's just something that I noticed. The first three people Hamlet kills (counting R&G), he was pretty cold-blooded about it.

Alexi said...

Fascinating question. A lot depends on how you stage him killing Laertes. Quite a bit goes down in one stage direction. Does Hamlet intentionally take the unbated sword from Laertes? Does he know it is envenomed when he stabs his opponent with it. How much of his actions here are motivated by desperation and how much by cunning?

JM said...

The stage direction is: "In scuffling they change rapiers". Fencing habits of the time indicate that Hamlet most probably would have executed a maneuver known as disarm and exchange by "left hand seizure", dropping his dagger and grabbing Laertes' rapier with his left hand, causing Laertes to do the same. Rapiers were more formidable weapons than the epees (foils) used today, which are more easily wrested from or knocked from the hand of the opponent. The epee hadn't yet been invented. Because of the way the rapier was gripped, it was particularly difficult to disarm an opponent. The attempted maneuver was a common one among skilled fencers.
Hamlet has already received notice from the hit on himself, drawing blood, that Laertes' isn't playing fair and probably intends to kill him with an unbated sword.

As Alexi says, the staging is all important. It would have to be purposeful in the case of Hamlet "knowing" the tip was envenomed as well as unbated, though I can't conceive of how that would be conveyed in such a lightning fast way. Chances are that in the original, Hamlet "changes" with him purposefully. But there's no indication in the text that Hamlet knows it's envenomed until Laertes tell him so, after Hamlet has "hit" him with it in return. Hamlet immediately says: "The point envenomed too,/Then venom to thy work". (Hurts the King)

Anonymous said...

One of the most interesting ideas I've heard about Hamlet, even though it might be wishful thinking, is the possibility that Hamlet is Claudius and Gertrude's secret love-child. It adds a delicious unspoken layer to his revenge, because it means he unwillingly commits patricide. And in that light it's fun to compare Hamlet and Claudius.

That said, I think Hamlet's courageous. In the case of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet can't do them in -- he's surrounded by Claudius' henchmen. His letter-tampering is devious but really the only pragmatic move available to him.

As for the Polonius and Claudius killings, Hamlet is never a stickler for honor. His soliloquy about honor during the Fortinbras march, while viewing it in a favorable light, analyzes it at a remove. My point is that I don't think Hamlet would truly see any value in giving his victims a chance to defend themselves. He's also kind of rash and acts out when he's mad, which only makes him less like Claudius who is calculated and prepared.

I'll briefly add that he pursues the Ghost despite Horatio's fears and is also the only person at sea who has the NUTS to board the pirate ship. Go Hamlet!

the ruined maid said...

I love this topic - I've been doing it with my Honors class for a couple of years now (which is how I stumbled here, searching for essay plagiarism). There's a lot of evidence to support a deeper connection between the two (consider: both are men of letters. Claudius's first public act as King is to send a letter to Norway while Hamlet's first impulse after talking to the Ghost is to write a letter, the letters to England, etc.). Both men rely heavily on advisers, they are both willing to sacrifice the women they "love" to kill the other...They even use similar phrasing and imagery.

The oedipal complex makes much more sense if the relationship is closer than merely uncle and nephew!

We also do Freud's theory of projection with the topic - it helps to consider Hamlet's initial hatred of Claudius as a reflection of those qualities (i.e. the ones that are not like his father, the Ghost)he doesn't like in himself.

Anyways, just wanted to say I'm glad I'm not the only one thinking about things like this!

JM said...

"The oedipal complex makes much more sense if the relationship is closer than merely uncle and nephew!"

I find it interesting that re-writing what's there is viewed as somehow a validating support for what is an an invented theory in the first place. It seems to me to be sort of like lots of rococo icing-- without the cake, so to speak.

Does the topic of Ernest Jones' wholesale egotistical projection of Freud's 'projection *theory*', onto the character of Hamlet as though it were gospel, ever come up? :)