Hamlet, Sarcastic Classics

Hamlet – Act I, Scene V

 

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This week’s header comic is by Kate Beaton, of Hark, a Vargrant! who is wonderful and I recommend you check out right now.

Now they’re alone, Hamlet demands to know just what the ghost is playing at and it reveals itself to be his father…or so he says. If you take the text at face value then sure, but as I said in the last post Elizabethan audiences knew not to just trust when strange ghosts told you they were your father. Mr. Ghosty claims he’s stuck suffering in Purgatory and wants vengeance on the scoundrel that murdered him.

Murder? This is news to Hamlet. High death rates and lack of medical knowledge meant that it wasn’t particularly surprising when old Hamlet Sr. croaked, even though he’d been apparently healthy just before. It also meant that poisoning was much easier to get away with, and that’s exactly what the ghost claims killed him. As for who carried out this “Murder most foul”, the ghost points the finger at his own brother. Apparently – emphasis on apparently – Claudius seduced Gertrude, then dripped poison in Hamlet Sr.’s ear while he slept, claiming “my life, my crown, and my queen all at once”. Worst of all, because he was murdered Hamlet Sr. didn’t have a chance to repent of his sins or recieve last rites so he’s stuck in Purgatory, which by all accounts is not a Nice Place.

A brief history aside: at the time Denmark’s monarch was not dictated by hereditary succession like the English crown was, but was chosen by Parliament (interestingly known at the time as their ‘Thing’). They usually stuck with the traditional way of the first born son succeeding their father, but if a preferable alternative was available they could diverge from this. There are lines throughout the play that suggest that Hamlet Sr. had indicated that the country should pass to Gertrude when he died (she’s described as “the imperial jointress to this warlike state”) and because this is Ye Olde Olden Days when women were obviously too weak and stupid to own things they would pass on to any future husbands she may have i.e. Claudius. Add the fact that Hamlet was out of the country at University when his father died and it would seem reasonable for the ‘Thing’ to decide that Claudius was a good choice for the new king. All very convenient for Claudius, is it not?

It’s also very convenient for Hamlet, who is the President of the Anti-Claudius Club. If you’re a supporter of the Mad Hamlet theory then the man you resent for stepping into your father’s shoes, marrying your mother and trying to play Dad also turning out to be a conniving murderous snake seems a little too opportune. That said, it is worth noting that Claudius did actually murder his brother (spoiler alert), so it’s possible that Hamlet is just an unusually good judge of character.

Dawn arrives and the ghost vanishes, leaving Hamlet with instructions to avenge him. Hamlet swears to do so, and gets off to an interesting start when his first step is to write down in his little notebo that “one may smile, and smile, and be a villain”. Clearly he’s new to this whole revenge thing.

Horatio and Marcellus arrive and ask what happened with the ghost, but Hamlet isn’t much more forthcoming than ‘bad people are bad’ and then makes them swear not to tell anyone what they’ve seen. They do, but Hamlet is weirdly insistent that they swear on his sword. Then begins a weird almost slapstick sequence where the voice of the ghost follows them around from under the stage, although interestingly the others don’t seem to be able to hear it. Ghostly powers of telepathy or a sign of a cracked mind? You decide.

The friends are obviously concerned by this odd behaviour, and Hamlet muses that playing crazy might be a useful trick to have up his sleeve. Clearly we’re in for crazy shenanigans in the future. Tune in next time on this wacky family drama!

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