Sunday, July 5, 2009

Hamlet And The Art Of Letting Go

Every now and again I find myself drawn back to the works of Shakespeare, he is possibly the only author whose stories I can read over and over again. Most recently I found myself tossing up between Hamlet and Macbeth, two tragedies whose principal characters hold special places in my imagination. In all I have never been able to identify with Macbeth as well as I have with Hamlet so I decided to give my attention to the prince of Denmark.

The story opens in castle Elsinore, the night is dark and still. The guards talk about the ghost of the dead king who keeps appearing in the castle, they convince Horatio to tell Hamlet, his best friend and the dead kings son, of the apparition and bid him to come. When Hamlet finds the ghost it speaks to him: claiming to be Hamlet's father and telling him that his brother Claudius murdered him by pouring poison into his ear while he slept. The ghost implores Hamlet to avenge his death and Hamlet, despite doubts of the reliability of the information, agrees. He decides to pretend to have gone mad in order to hide his intentions. In each of my previous readings I had never really reflected on this scene, but this time my mind paused to analyze what it was that I had just read and what courses of action were open to Hamlet at this point. For the first time I was struck with the futility of Hamlet's quest, nothing he could do would bring his father back to life, there was nothing to gain by exacting vengeance on Claudius.Claudius, Hamlet's uncle, and Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, were married shortly after the old king's death and busy with the affairs of the kingdom they send for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet's old schoolmates, in an effort to investigate the cause of Hamlet's recent strange behavior. Perceptive, and now very paranoid, young Hamlet quickly discerns that his friends are here by orders of the king. The kings closest advisor, Polonius, has two children: a daughter, Ophelia, who Hamlet has been courting and a son, Laertes, who is returning to France. Before he leaves Laertes and his father both warn Ophelia that they do not trust Hamlet's intentions for her. When Ophelia reports to her father that recently Hamlet had rushed into her room and silently stood staring at her Polonius decides that Hamlet has been driven mad by love. Informing the king and queen of his thoery the three plot to have Ophelia spy on him. In spite of Laertes feelings on the matter Hamlet truly seems to love Ophelia, but recognizing the poisonous path that his life has taken he decides to sever their ties. He accomplishes this by verbally assaulting her, going so far as to tell her that she should go join a nunery. Reading this I was struck by the fact that Hamlet seems to recognize that little good can come of his actions, yet rather than letting go of his anger toward Claudius he scorns the love of his life, giving himself more fully over to his quest for revenge.
When a troop of actors comes to town Hamlet sees his chance to discover the validity of the ghosts claims. He talks to the players and convinces them to put on a play in which a king's ambitious brother pours poison into his ear while he sleeps. The play is presented in court and when Claudius sees this scene he leaps from his chair in shocked outrage and storms from the room. Recognizing his nephew's hand in the evenings events Claudius decides to send Hamlet and his two schoolmates to England with a sealed order requesting that Hamlet be killed upon his arrival.
Gertrude summons Hamlet to her chamber to demand an explanation but on his way to see her Hamlet comes upon the king as he prays. His initial reaction is to slay the king while he is defenseless, but Hamlet worries that the Claudius would go to heaven if he is slain in the midst of his piety. Leaving the king unmollested Hamlet arrives at his mother's room. Rather than letting go of his anger with Claudius Hamlet has allowed it to fester in his heart and he looses his composure, accusing his mother of cheating on his father even before his untimely demise. Polonius is hidden behind a drapery to listen to the proceedings but at the tumult in the room he fears that Hamlet's rage will lead him to murder the queen and he cries out for help. Thinking that Claudius has somehow made his way into the room Hamlet stabs the drapery, effectively ending Polonius's life. When the hidden mans identity is discovered Hamlet further reveals how far he has allowed his spite to rot inside of him by insulting the dead man and showing no remorse. Turning back to his mother Hamlet again sees the ghost of his father who implores Hamlet to be merciful with Gertrude but reiterats the need for Claudis to pay for his deeds. Gertrude, who of course sees no ghost, takes this to be proof that Hamlet is hallucinating and is indeed off his rocker.
Ophelia herself is driven mad by grief for her slain father and her inability to let go the pain of Hamlet's emotional betrayal. When Laertes returns from France it takes little work on Claudius's part to convince him that Hamlet is the source of all the pain their family has suffered. Word soon comes that Hamlet did not die on his journey to England and that he is heading home, he later reveals to Horatio that he changed the orders to have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern put to death instead. Claudius sees that he will have to get his hands dirty, so he persuades Laertes to challenge Hamlet to a duel in which Laertes swordtip will be poisoned. Not one to leave things to chance the king decides to serve Hamlet poisoned wine at the duel, just in case. Finally we learn that Ophelia, unable to get past her twice broken heart, has drown herself.
Returning home Hamlet and Horatio come upon a pair of gravediggers who banter back and forth with him before breaking the news of Ophelia's suicide. Her funeral procession arrives with Laertes at the lead and upon seeing Hamlet his anger boils over and he attacks the prince. The fight is broken up but just like his sister Laertes is unable to let go of his pain and move on with his life. Seeing Hamlet as the well from which his misery springs Laertes challanges him to a duel. In the fight Laertes is able to slice Hamlet with his poisoned blade however Hamlet wrests the sword from his hands and stabs him back. In celebration of the sportsmanship Gertrude drinks from the poisoned wine Claudius set out for Hamlet. As the poison courses through his system Laertes reconciles with Hamlet and reveals the plot of the king. Weakened by the poison himself, Hamlet stabs Claudius with the poisoned sabre and recognizing the way the wine ends Gertrude's life he pours the remainder down the kings throat. In his final moments Hamlet names the leader of an invading army as his heir and when the army arives Horatio recounts Hamlet's story to him and the man has Hamlet's body taken away in honor.
Always before I have been able to identify with Hamlet's plight, with his struggle to make due with the hand dealt him. However reading it this time I see the tragedy of Hamlet not in the hopeless situation he found himself, but in the inability of the characters to cope with the pain they suffer and their universal failure to let go of their pain, to forgive and to move on with their lives. Had Laertes confronted Hamlet verbally, as one man who has lost his father to another, rather than with a poisoned sword the reconciliation they found in death could have spared both of their lives. Had Claudius sought forgiveness for his crimes rather than attempting to protect himself by ending Hamlet's life Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would not have been sent to their deaths and he would not have had to watch his wife die because of the poison meant for Hamlet. Had Ophelia moved on after being scorned by Hamlet she may have been able to cope with her fathers death and found comfort in her brothers love, sparing her the terrible release she sought in death.
And finally, had Hamlet been able to let go of the pain of his uncles betrayl he could have confronted his mother regarding her faithfulness to his father without flying into a rage, sparing Polonius his untimely demise and Laertes and Ophelia the pain it would bring. When he saw the pain his path would lead to, if he had turned away from the darkness rather than embracing it he would not have felt the need to distance himself from Ophelia; would not have obsessed over bringing an end to Claudius's life, giving the king no reason to have him sent to his death, saving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, nor any reason to poison him, saving Laertes and Gertrude and, ultimately, himself. It seems to me that the message built into Hamlet is not simply the hopelessness and despair brought about through lies and betrayal, but an overwhelming lesson in the need for us to let go of our pain, to forgive others for their poor decisions and mistakes, and to move on with our lives focusing on tommorrow rather than dwelling on the wounds of the past.


Dawson said...

Woah! In all of my readings of Hamlet, my favorite of Shakespeare's works, I can honestly say that I have never looked at the story in quite this light. Always before I have seen Hamlet as a character that, in spite of several tactless mistakes, a man would do well to emulate. His passion for life, his dogged pursuit of justice, his quick wits and intelligence, his penchant for reflection on philosophical matters...

Reading your review of the story I have to wonder how it is that this interpretation of the events has so long eluded me. The logical format you put forth makes it seem like, not only are your thoughts on the matter accurate, but they may well be precisely the lesson that Shakespeare was attempting to convey to humankind everywhere.