and Other Thoughts on the Play
By Lenny Everson
Copyright Lenny Everson 2017
Cover design by Lenny Everson
Published at Shakespir:
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Chapter 1: Get Some Perspective
One of the biggest mistakes you can have in analysing Hamlet is imprisoning your mind within the play itself. Do not do this; judge the action and the characters in terms of the Elizabethan world.
Or, if, like any sensible human, you rate that sort of scholarship as something for people who need to get a life, then do the logical thing; measure the characters against your friends and yourself. (And against logic.)
Oh, I did some looking into books about the society of the time, but haven’t looked at a scholarly dissertation on Hamlet since I was young, and may be travelling well-worn trails in some of the things I say. It’s just that I wrote a novel, Hamlet; The Comedy, and these thoughts came up like groundhogs in a cow pasture. Download the novel; there are more useful ideas in it.
Societies change but people are people and always were. Hamlet’s 30, in an age when most people marry before 20 and princes are usually being matched up even before that as a matter of duty. Does that tell you much about Hamlet? Not the marrying type, or too creepy for women?
Shakespeare probably knew diddlysquat about Denmark, so Hamlet is modelled on English society. The feudal system. The royal family would own Elsinore and a bunch of other, less fortified, estates. And the nobles would be obligated to house and entertain the royal entourage when they came for a visit.
Yet so many are crowded into Elsinore castle. Cold, damp (it’s on the sea coast), and crowded. Construction workers are working three shifts a day, banging on boards, building ships, and chiselling at rocks. Well, there’s a war in the offing and it’s safety first. But the result is like something between an asylum for people with “problems” and a submarine. Or maybe like a reality TV show where everybody’s plotting. Definitely unnatural.
Treat the characters like people who have been confined together just a little too long and it all makes more sense. It’s a very special situation. And download the novel, Hamlet, the Comedy; Check out the “pirate” theory (and other items).
Chapter 2: Did Hamlet Love Ophelia?
At the start of the play the prince has been sending love notes to Ophelia. Maybe he’s finally going to marry! But even before Ophelia’s father shoots down the relationship, Hamlet is asking to go back to school in Wittenberg. Can you imagine being a prince, with undoubtedly a generous allowance (gotta keep up royal appearances), in a rich and far-away city? Personally, I’d have a really good time there. Ophelia might look rather… provincial.
Yeah, he sent her love stuff, which is like tweets, then, but, as mentioned, he was rather eager to go back to school a week’s hard riding away from any, er, battles and arrows and all that stuff. I don’t get the impression he mentioned this little fact to Ophelia before he asked Claudius for permission to go. You call that love? Well, hang on; there’s more.
Polonius, Ophelia’s father orders her cut relations with the prince. He’s concerned that all Hamlet wants is a mistress within the castle, not a mate. He might know something; it’s logical to assume he’s been with the royals for a long time and knows Hamlet pretty well. He might even have helped raise the kid.
Shakespeare had only to look around at his British heritage as evidence. Given the number of dalliances between English princes and village wenches, a goodly proportion of the English probably have a bastard ancestor, fathered by a prince, somewhere in their background. Shakespeare certainly must have known about the appetites of Henry VIII for use as a model. Polonius is not so much the fool as he’s been made out to be; he was probably right in this case.
But that’s not the main reason to doubt Hamlet’s love for Ophelia.
Polonius would, obviously, have no objection to Ophelia marrying Hamlet; he just doesn’t want to see her as Hamlet’s mistress, and, from what we learn of Ophelia, he was probably right.
Later in the play, Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, tells us how she’d long hoped that her son would marry Ophelia. So there would have been no objection on her part to a marriage.
Is it interesting that Hamlet mentions love a couple of times, but never marriage? He sends a couple of poems (so schlocky that even I groaned. They were like the stuff you find in dollar-store cards). He could have written something more original. Or just added, “by the way, would you like to get married?”
Yes, it’s true, as Polonius points out, that princes are normally offered to foreign princesses to bond countries together. A marriage with a princess from one of the Holy Roman Empire principalities or kingdoms would have helped both national security and trade for Denmark.
But with both Hamlet’s mother and Ophelia’s father favoring a marriage, all Hamlet really had to do is ask Polonius for his daughter’s hand. Wasn’t done; doesn’t even seem to have been discussed. Maybe he wanted to go back too Wittenberg because he had a few girlfriends there. That would be reasonable, though there’s no way to prove it.
But that’s not the main reason to doubt Hamlet’s love for Ophelia.
Now I hear you saying, “whoa, there, Lenny; aren’t you being a bit hard on true love?”
Well, dude, consider this; if it were Romeo and Juliet, the lovers wouldn’t (and didn’t) let parental disapproval stop them. Ophelia forbidden to receive missives from Hamlet? Pish – a technicality. Hamlet could have passed a note to his manservant to could have passed it to Ophelia’s handmaiden, and it could be argued that Ophelia received an unsigned note from her handmaiden with no proof where it came from.
Or perhaps a small hand-carved wooden heart shows up on her pillow, source unknown. “Love laughs at locksmiths,” they say or “Let me not to the marriage of true minds admit impediment.” Ophelia would have got the message. But none of that happened. Hamlet doesn’t even have considered a secret note. Remember, the laws of the time provided no punishment for princes, other than shipping them out of the country for a while.
Hamlet had no quarrel with Ophelia, ever. It wasn’t she who broke it off; it was her father. Yet the prince treats her badly. Rather than give Ophelia the slightest hope, he taunts her. That’s not love. That’s not an “antic disposition.” In Hamlet’s position in their relationship, it’s cruelty, plain and simple. Any girl in love can figure that out (go ahead, ask one).
But perhaps Hamlet didn’t trust Ophelia not to pass such doings on to Polonius or Claudius. Hamlet could have planted a made-up story (140 characters or less), sure to reach her, and listened for word of it being leaked to the rumor-press that’s always in a small, enclosed society. But I suppose that if he couldn’t trust her that far, quitting the relationship was a good idea anyway.
Put yourself in Hamlet’s pointy shoes. If you were 30, a prince, and in love, what would you have done? If you were Ophelia, maybe long past her normal marrying years, what would you have done? At the very minimum, you’d have communicated and waited for Polonius to die.
(After killing Polonius, Hamlet is free to do what he wants with Ophelia, although an apology, “sorry I killed your dad, but now we can fool around all we want,” is in order. But, I suspect, it’s a hard subject to bring up. Maybe that’s why Hamlet never does.)
Or, as I’ve said, they could have gone hand in hand to the parents and set a June date for a royal wedding.
Here’s a scene from my Hamlet: The Comedy, in which I imagine Ophelia commenting on the fact that, after his “escape” from the pirates, Hamlet writes a letter to Horatio and one to King Claudius, but not to you-know-who.
“Let’s see now. “She held her flowers close to her breast, pursed her lips, looked at the treetops, and said, “My lover killed my father. I believe my brother’s out to kill my lover.” She looked me in the eyes and smiled again. “Oh he doesn’t want to. He knows it was an accident. But revenge is revenge. Speaking of which, my lover is probably going to try to kill his stepfather, because of what he suspects. And he’ll have to kill my brother to do that, I imagine. What a lucky little girl I am!”
I didn’t know what to say, so I said nothing.
She held up an index finger, pointing up. “Let’s see if I got this straight. My father, whom I loved dearly, forbade me to associate with Hamlet. Queen Gertrude always wanted me to marry her son – did you know that? – but my father kept us apart. Luckily, my lover killed my father, whom I loved dearly. What a lucky, lucky little girl I am! So far, so good?”
I nodded, watching the clouds.
“[So now Hamlet and I can be together. Yes we can, Amundi. It was a secret plan, Amundi. So secret that Hamlet never told me about it. Not a word. Not a wink in his eye when he denied his love. Not a note slipped to a chambermaid. No. And now, coming back from exile, do you know what letter he wrote to me, apologizing for killing my father, whom I dearly loved but saying now we can finally be together. Do you know that letter, Amundi? Have you seen it? Oh, there it is, in your hand. No? You’re watching the sky. Maybe it’s in a cloud. Maybe he wrote his love on a cloud. It’s only Horatio who gets paper from Hamlet; Horatio and the dearly loved stepfather.”
Even if I dismiss the notes Hamlet first gave Ophelia (and what relationship doesn’t start with silly, unspecific notes like that), what about the graveyard scene where Hamlet claims he loved Ophelia more than forty thousand brothers?
Methinks he doth protest too much.
It’s a very public showing of grief, and maybe someone should have mentioned that at least one of those forty thousand brothers would have tried to clue her in if there were any love left. Not to do so was plain cruelty.
Yes, cruelty. Ophelia was in a heartbroken state through most of the play, went around the bend, and may have killed herself. For love. For lack of one sign of affection from her prince, in the (at least) three months between the time Polonius forbade their relationship and Hamlet was sent to England. One. Was that to much to ask?
No, the graveyard scene was for public consumption. Or is was because, Hamlet, finally, is getting pissed off at – himself. He spends a lot of time wishing he had deep feelings like other people. He tries to, but can’t work himself up to actually getting revenge for his father’s murder – or for admitting he never did love Ophelia a heck of a lot. But he makes a good show in public!
Listen to what Hamlet says when he finds out the funeral is for Ophelia. “What, the fair Ophelia?” Not, “Oh, no; not the love of my life?” His remark at first take is merely a comment on her looks, not on the love he had for her or she for him. That’s it, until he gets worked up enough to rant a bit in front of an audience.
Now go to a scene later the same day (likely), and Hamlet talking to Horatio. Does he mention Ophelia? Nope. He tells the story of his sea voyage and how much he’s been practicing sword fighting.
Then he encounters Osric, a courtier he doesn’t like. Some people think this is humorous. I don’t; I think it’s another episode where Hamlet enjoys being cruel to someone who isn’t in a social position to contradict him. Who can argue with a prince?
How many of those supposed forty thousand brothers would be in a joking mood so soon after burying someone they loved. Ha, ha. The funeral of a girlfriend always puts me in a jolly mood, too. See “Hamlet: What a Jerk” for a more on this.
Even during the final swordfight, when he asks Laertes to forgive him, he never mentions Ophelia, not for love nor blame. Even when they’re dying, it’s Laertes who mentions his sister and the wrongs Hamlet did. Hamlet just wants Laertes to forgive him for any wrongs he did to Laertes. What he did to Ophelia?It seems to have skipped the prince’s mind.
But that’s still not the main reason to doubt Hamlet’s love for Ophelia. This is; maybe he’s hiding his emotions and thoughts well. After all, maybe it’s deep in his marrow and he hates to bring it up.
Bullcrap. We do learn the Hangups of Hamlet. We do it in his soliloquies and other monologues. The Truth Is In There. But Ophelia isn’t. Not in any of the monologues. She may have committed suicide. The ‘to be or not to be” soliloquy is a lot about suicide; you’d think Hamlet would have made a speech after her death. Yeah, right. These monologues are final proof of Hamlet’s real feelings towards Ophelia.
Polonius, like his son, seems to have judged Hamlet’s motives early. See “In Praise of Polonius” for more on this. Hamlet is 30. Old for a prince; immature for a man. He may pretend he craves normal feelings like love or revenge, but he puts both off until it’s too late.
As one of the characters in my novel says, “One of the great love stories of our time. Yeah, right. Hamlet’s love was about one verse long, as I remember it.”
Chapter 3: An Inquest into Why Hamlet Killed Claudius
Courtroom: An Inquest
Coroner: Jurors, we call Horatio to the witness stand. [Horatio sits down.] Horatio, can you tell us what Hamlet told you, in regards to his father’s death?
Horatio: We talked about it many times. About the ghost, I mean. Hamlet said the ghost told him in detail how Claudius had poured henbane into the ear of Old King Hamlet .
Coroner: When was this?
Horatio: While Old King Hamlet slept in the garden. Before he died, like.
Coroner: You did not hear this yourself from the ghost?
Coroner: He may step down. [Horatio leaves the witness stand.] Coroner calls Father Olsen to the stand. [Father Olsen takes the stand and is sworn in.]
Coroner: Father Olsen, you are a biblical scholar, are you not?
Father Olsen: Not so much as many in The Church.
Coroner: But in Denmark?
Father Olsen: I am known for my scholarship.
Coroner: Are ghosts mentioned in the Holy Bible?
Father Olsen: You mean ghosts as disembodied remnants of dead humans? [Pause.] Rather than the Holy Ghost, I mean.
Coroner: [sigh]. Of course, Father.
Father Olsen: They are mentioned twice in the Holy Bible. [A smile.] They don’t exist.
Father Olsen: The Bible is quite clear on this. Other than heavenly beings such as angels – and this includes Satan and his cohorts, who are fallen angels, the only other beings of intelligence are humans. Living humans. There are souls, but they do not show up to living people.
Coroner: But the common people….
Father Olsen: Yes, The Church is quite aware of the imaginations of common people.
Coroner: So Hamlet and the castle guards saw nothing but creatures of their imaginations?
Father Olsen: Oh, no. It’s quite specific in The Bible. Such beings may be seen.
Father Olsen: [Looks around nervously.] They are creations of the devil. Artifical. Manufactured.
Coroner: [A bit surprised.] For what purpose?
Father Olsen: What other purpose would Satan have? To talk someone into doing some evil deed that would surely send his soul to Hell.
Coroner: Ah, a deed like kill a king?
Father Olsen: That would probably be the Devil’s top priority. His most lucrative target. His biggest coup.
Coroner: And Satan’s the great liar, isn’t he?
Father Olsen: He is.
Coroner: Which is more important to Satan, lying or getting souls?
Father Olsen: [Thinks a bit.] Getting souls. Lying is just a method towards that objective.
Coroner: If then, Satan could get a soul by telling the truth, he’d tell the truth.
Father Olsen: [Reluctantly.] Yes. Yes, of course.
Coroner: So everything the “ghost” said could be true, if it led to Hamlet killing Claudius.
Father Olsen: [Deep sigh.] Yes
Coroner: [Smiling.] No more questions, Father Olsen. Jurors; I’d like to call Horatio again. [Horatio steps to the witness stand.] You were a friend of Hamlet’s, were you not?
Horatio: I was.
Coroner: You were with him in the four months between the time he saw this “ghost” and the time he died?
Horatio: Most of the time.
Coroner: Did you get any indication that Hamlet believed this so-called ghost?
Horatio: Hamlet called it an “honest ghost.” I never heard him express any doubts that it was indeed the ghost of his father.
Coroner: Yet it took about four months before he carried out the orders of this creation, and then only when he had only a few minutes left to live. Did you believe the ghost?
Horatio: Hamlet wasn’t the speediest at decisions. And, well, I had my doubts about the ghost.
Horatio: I’d never heard of any real ghost doing anything but lamenting. Seems to me once you get to the afterlife, there are supposed to be God and angels to keep you in line. Or Satan to torture you. I never heard of either party giving time off like that. Besides, there was the ghost’s costume.
Coroner: How so?
Horatio: It was dressed in military armour, as if ready for a battle. Yet, in spite of the massive improvements being made to Elsinore Castle, the ghost had nothing to say on the subject at all. Nothing. It was as if someone had got the wrong costume ready for a play. It suggests a level of incompetence one would not expect of God’s minions or dominions. [He looks over at Father Olsen, who nodded.]
Coroner: Previous testimony has indicated that king Claudius was very upset at a play performed in the great hall. Since the play was about a man murdering his brother, the king, for the crown and for the king’s wife, many people have taken the reaction of Claudius as an admission of guilt. Did Hamlet see it that way?
Horatio: He did. He as much as said so.
Coroner: Did you?
Horatio: [Hesitates.] Yes. I guess so.
Coroner: You hesitated there. Why?
Horatio: Well…. You know what happens in an enclosed space like Elsinore Castle. There are always rumors. The death of a king just breeds them by the score. [Looks over at Father Olsen.] I don’t imagine it’s much different when a pope dies; there’s always a group of people with a conspiracy theory [Father Olsen nods vigorously.]
Coroner: [Drily.] The death of Old King Hamlet more than most, I imagine, given the circumstances.
Horatio: Oh, for sure. Old King Hamlet being found dead in the garden, and Claudius and Gertrude getting married so quickly, before Prince Hamlet has time to come home and take the throne…. I mean, it does look suspicious, after all.
Coroner: And what has this to do with anything here?
Horatio: Well, there were a large group of people who approved. They felt Old King Hamlet was incompetent, and that Claudius becoming king was the best thing that could happen to Denmark And that he married the Queen and took over and it all was planned by the lords because, as they said, even Ophelia would have been a better ruler than the prince, and….
Coroner: We’re off track, here. Do you have a point?
Horatio: [Angry.] Yes. Yes I do. The rumor that Claudius had murdered his brother was so common in the castle that people were posting it on the toilet walls. Claudius threatened to lop the head of the next person he heard repeating it.
Horatio: And suddenly there it is, laid out in a play in the Great Hall. Personally, I think Claudius was guilty, but even if he was innocent, he’d hit the ceiling just to see that story come back at him again. Particularly in front of some visiting Lords and their ladies.
Coroner: But you think it confirmed the ghost’s story, to Hamlet?
Horatio: I’m sure of it.
Coroner: You may step down. [Addresses jury.] Gentlemen, we ask you; did Prince Hamlet have reason, or sufficient reason, to kill his father? I await your decision, tomorrow.
Chapter 4: In Praise of Polonius
Polonius just can’t get any respect. Sure, Willie Shakespeare, why don’t you make fun of guys when they start going senile; looks big on ya.
Polonius has been around the Danish royal court for a while. Not only is he included in the bastion of Elsinore Castle as war is approaching, but when he is killed a lot of the nation is angry at the small funeral Claudius gives him. And he’s enough of a noble that Gertrude thinks a marriage of Hamlet to Polonius’s daughter would have been a fine thing.
So where did his respect go? Sure, he blithers on too much, but so does Hamlet at times (like when he’s talking to the players. Gawd, that went on forever) and a lot of other characters (the Mel Gibson movie of Hamlet is one of the best because they trimmed a lot of the blither.)
But don’t make the assumption that just because Hamlet makes fun of him that Polonius is stupid. He correctly calls out the Hamlet-Ophelia relationship as a predatory one. (Hamlet could have had Polonius’s blessing if he’d shown any sign of wanting to actually marry the girl.)
And his advice to his son who is about to return to Paris is spot on. I’ve been through that speech enough times and it’s pretty well the advice I’d have given in his situation. [Ralph Layne, you still owe me that three bucks – and a few decades of interest]. A noble’s son in Paris – well, I’d have sent Reynaldo to check him out, too. College kids wasting parents’ money – believe it or not, it happens.
Okay, so he goes on too long; check out his advice; it’s sound. If he had said the same things tersely, he’d have come across a lot more like Yoda’s brother.
Now, you might think Polonius is a fool because you’ve heard his weak performance in the “fishmonger” conversation with Hamlet. But that’s an illusion. The medieval monarchy was a more dangerous place than a Mafia franchise. The head of a modern mob has far less power and is better educated than most medieval monarchs. And, unlike medieval monarchs, mob bosses – and most dictators – don’t believe they’re divinely appointed. You do not argue with a prince, not if you value your neck.
Try it sometime; you and a friend. One pretends to be a royal, for whom “off with his head” is not just a cute phrase, and who simply cannot be prosecuted for anything, and the other pretends to be a lesser rank. Play out the scene. You’ll find that this is not a case of Polonius being bettered by a smarter person. It is a case of a prince abusing his status and being needlessly cruel to an old man. Hamlet does the same, later on, with Osric, another man who can’t argue with him. Hamlet is an asshole.
Chapter 5: The Great Poland Invasion Scam
After his uncle forbids Fortinbras to harm Claudius, the Norwegian prince gets permission to attack Poland instead, crossing Denmark en route. This plan is financially and militarily incomprehensible, especially if the route starts near Elsinore, which is on an island. Most scholars seem to be a map or two short of an atlas in this case.
Here’s a excerpt from the novel, Hamlet: The Comedy, that somewhat explains this. The narrator is a Polish military expert.
“Why Poland?” Casimir cried. “What has Poland ever done to Norway or Denmark? Don’t they have to have a made-up excuse at least?”
“Fortinbras was avenging his father by invading Denmark,” I said. “At least that’s what the Norwegians claim.”
“They got Vest Agder back,” Casimir said, speaking loud enough that some sawyers stopped to listen. “And Old King Hamlet, the guy who killed his father, is dead. He has no excuse for invading Denmark or Poland. Looting, and shooting. That’s what.”
“Isn’t it enough?” I asked.
“Especially, what is Poland to Fortinbras? He’s a thug, a criminal; his war is murder and pillage. Old King Hamlet was liar like all other thugs and like ancient Vikings. Oh, Poland’s had wars with its neighbours for land or honour, but…. Norway? As if we didn’t have enough problems with the Russians and the Germans!” He waved his arms. I finished my stew before it could get knocked over. “Thuggery and buggery; the Norwegian army like all other damn armies in this damned age. Did Fortinbras even give a half-assed reason for wanting to invade Poland?”
“If he did, I didn’t hear about it. I guess I have to ask what are we Vikings to the Poles or the Poles to us that we should have tried to loot them without a provocation?” I tried to be contrite for my ancestors.
“Old King Hamlet and Fortinbras : both thugs with armies. Thugs with armies. Murder, rape, looting! Polish neighbors are Russians and Germans A treaty with Denmark or Norway would be logical. We could come to each other’s aid if the Holy Roman Empire wants to expand. That’s logic. That’s what a good leader would do. But not Fortinbras. No, he has to go a-Viking like his hated ancestors, those sons-a-bitches!” He sat down beside me and helped himself to part of my bread and a piece of mutton.
“I can see you’d be concerned with your people, what with the Norwegian army coming your way”, I said.
He looked up, tried to talk with a mouthful of food, thought the better of it, washed the food down with some of my ale, and said, “Of course not. The Norwegian army’s not going anywhere near Poland. Nobody’s that stupid.”
“What?” I asked.
“He’s right,” said a voice behind me. I looked up and there was Soldir. “I’d bet more heavily on Poland being invaded by, oh, the Irish or maybe the Fez of Morocco than the Norwegians.” He, too sat down on the log, with a sigh of relief as he stretched out his bad leg.
“What?” I asked again.
“Not if he’s landing an army in Denmark,” Casimir said. He turned to Soldir. “Good to see you, Soldir. Tell our fool here how Old King Hamlet took his troops to invade my country, back when you were younger.”
“By boat, of course,” Soldir said. “Loaded men and supplies onto boats here at Elsinore. Then we sailed across the Baltic with a freezing tailwind and into the first port on the coast of Poland. Then it’s seize the port, spend a few days unloading, and off we go down the road to wealth and glory.”
“It’s a Viking tradition,” Casimir said.
“It’s also the only possible way,” Soldir said.
Casimir got up, smoothed out a patch of mud, and drew a map of northern Europe with a stick. “Observe,” he said, pointing. I leaned forward. “Option one for Fortinbras is to leave Norway, sail past Elsinore into the Baltic, and go to Poland’s sunny shores.”
“Wet,” said Soldir, “but with the normal west winds, just a few days travelling, even with barges towing enough food and cannon for a decent invasion.”
“On the other hand,” Casimir said, “Fortinbras can land his forces on the head of Denmark, which is sticking up like a waiting dick.” He pointed the stick at me. “Then what does he have to do?”
I thought he’d taught one too many classes in military school in Poland. Or had to explain the Polish campaign one too many Danish generals. “Unload his men and equipment onto the Danish land. And the carts to haul it all. And the horses to pull the carts.”
Soldir nodded. “It would be impossible to haul enough food to get all the way to Poland from Denmark, even if you used every fish cart in Norway and every one of the tiny Norwegian horses. What’s he going to do when the food runs out?”
“He’ll have to get it as he goes,” I said. “But he can’t just take it, because he’s here by permission.”
“So he’ll have to buy it. On top of the enormous sum and vile interest rates the money-lenders will have charged the Norwegians to raise an army and buy the weapons, he’ll have to have enough money to buy food as he goes through Denmark.” He smiled. “There’s an old saying, ‘while the grass grows, the horse starves.’ Do you know what that means?”
“Of course,” I said. “I’ve used it many times. It means that one of the hardest times of the year is when the crops are growing, but not ripe. A farmer has to have saved enough from the previous year to see his family through until the first harvest.”
“And what time is it now?” Casimir asked.
“About that time,” I said.
Soldir spoke up. “In the Polish Winter War we were counting on bins full of autumn harvest.” He shook his head ruefully. “What hadn’t been burned or spoiled with manure had been hauled away before we got there.”
“So,” Casimir went on. “Fortinbras is going to have to buy food as he travels, at a time when there’s little to have and the price will be highest. He’ll need more money from the moneylenders.”
“Okay,” I said.
“But then he leaves Denmark.” Soldir pointed at the mud map. “Then he’s in the Holy Roman Empire.”
“Not just any part of the Holy Roman Empire,” Casimir noted, “but the Hanseatic League. Five hundred years of merchants controlling the trade of the coast of the Baltic Sea. Extracting every bit of money from that trade. He’ll have to lead his army across not only Denmark but the Duchy of Schleswig, and the Duchy of Holstein. That puts him into The Duchy of Brunswick-Luneberg, assuming he isn’t crazy enough to pass through the free city of Lubeck. That would be pricey. Top prices for food, this time of year.”
Soldir nodded. “From there he crosses the Electorate of Brandenburg or the Duchy of Pomerania, where he’ll find the Poles and probably their Hungarian allies, and maybe hired knights from the Teutonic Order waiting for him.”
“After the war, he’ll have to make his way back the same way, having no boats with him,” Casimir pointed out.”
I sighed. “Or he could have just sailed from Norway to Poland.”
Soldir said, sadly, “Or they could just have sailed to Poland.”
“And tolls. Can you imagine what a Hanseatic state would charge for use of the roads?” Casimir said. “Fortinbras would be bankrupt before he got through Mecklenburg, let alone through any of the other half-dozen states. He’d be selling his army to pay for his own passage back to Norway.”
“Do you know how most armies on the move feed themselves?” Soldir asked.
“Foraging,” I hear, I said.
“Right,” Casimir said. “Pillaging and looting and the rest. It’s not like foraging for mushrooms in the woods; there’s a lot of burning and raping and the usual. And how do you think the Hanseatic States will react to that sort of behaviour?”
“I’m not a military man,” I told him. “I know nothing about the strength of those places.”
“They don’t have big armies,” Casimir said. “They don’t need to. They can hire the best knights and other mercenaries whenever a problem arises. Some of the best soldiers in Europe are available, with the finest new weapons. But they don’t need to do that. Do you know why?”
I didn’t feel like guessing.
“Big Brother,” Soldir said.
Casimir nodded. “They’re part of the Holy Roman Empire, of course. It’s neither holy nor Roman, but it has a hell of a lot of soldiers available when there’s trouble anywhere. Far, far, more than Fortinbras can even imagine. And suppose Fortinbras somehow got all the way to Poland by land. What would be waiting for him?” He waved at Soldir.
“Prepared armies of Poles,” Soldir said. “With armies of allies.”
“Which brings up the question,” Casimir said, “of how Fortinbras would get home even if he attacked Poland.”
“Steal boats?” I asked.
“The Poles would have all boats out of the way, just in case.”
I stood up. “You’re saying it can’t be done.”
“What would you say?”
I said, “It can’t be done. Not by land.”
“On the other hand,” Casimir said, “they could always just sail to Poland.”
“And not need to ask Claudius for permission to land in Denmark,” Soldir said.
“And if Fortinbras were to cross Denmark with the permission of Claudius, how do you think the Holy Roman Empire would feel?”
I shrugged. “I think they’d be pretty pissed off at us,” Casimir said.
I didn’t know what to say. “So what can you say when Fortinbras lands on Jutland?” I asked.
“There’s a bigger question,” Casimir said. “What if the Norwegian army lands on Sealand?” [Elsinore is on the island of Sealand.]
I blinked. “What?”
“I heard you,” I said.
“What problems would it make for Fortinbras,” Soldir asked.
The question annoyed me. “That would be stupid,” I said. “First he’d disembark from his boats, then march past Elsinore to the other end of this island. Probably to the ferry at Voldingborg. He’d have to then ferry all his troops and equipment to Falster Island. Then he’d have to cross that island. Then ferry everything to the mainland. The Hanseatic merchants would like the business, but it would cost more than he’s worth.”
“Any conclusions?” Casimir asked me.
“It does seem like the ultimate in stupidity to attempt a land attack on Poland, when you’ve got all of Denmark and the Holy Roman Empire to get through.” But then, not as stupid as landing on an island instead of the mainland.”
“When you could just sail your boats to Poland,” Soldir said. “What if you found out Fortinbras had landed on Sealand, our cozy little island here?”
“I’d wonder what he really was after,” I said.
“Let’s consider,” Soldir said. “Fortinbras tried to fool his uncle, so we know he’s a known liar and trickster. And that his uncle is an idiot for not throwing him in the dungeon for trying that. So can we trust anything he says to us?” Ingald laughed. “Probably has an honest face, too. Fortinbras or Hamlet to rule – neither have a conscience; big deal. Where’s Laertes when Denmark needs him? Laertes, the guy who skipped town when war was about to break.”
Chapter 6: Why Did Hamlet Think His Mother Was Living in Sin?
Cripes, because she was! That’s why!
No Englishman of Shakespeare’s time would have missed the point here. The older brother of Henry the eighth had died and Henry wanted to marry his wife. The bible specifically prohibited such a thing. Henry applied to the Pope for a dispensation to marry the woman. After a bit, he got it.
Wife #1 didn’t produce an heir, which wasn’t good. Henry fell for Anne Boleyn. He told the Pope he wanted to annul the first marriage because, after all the bible prohibited a man from marrying his brother’s widow. “What the fuck,” the Pope said, (or Italian words to that effect) “you want me to dispense with my dispensation????!!” And refused.
Well, without a papal dispensation, Claudius married Gertrude. A marriage invalid in the eyes of the Church. You can see what Hamlet was upset about. Well, that, and a few Oedipus problems, maybe.
Note: There is an exception in the bible. If a man dies in battle and has a wife and little kids, his brother is obligated to marry her, as a second wife, if necessary. But Gertrude and Claudius didn’t fall into that category.
Chapter 7: In Praise of Claudius.
Evil bastard. Between Claudius and Hamlet, they managed to wipe out the entire royal family of Denmark. What a team!
Let’s look at it under another possible scenario. Just a possibility, but I must say, in the play, Claudius didn’t seem to get much enjoyment out of either his crown or his new wife. If he and Gertrude were in love, neither showed it much. Here it goes:
- Prince Fortinbras of Norway is threatening to kick the crap out of Denmark in revenge for his father’s death at the hands of Old King Hamlet. That would be bad, very bad, for a lot of reasons. Victors in medieval wars claimed a lot. Like all the gold and silver, some of the castles and much of the land.
- Old King Hamlet is a loser. Spends all his time bragging about the good old days, and ignoring the peril of Fortinbras.
- The Danish Lords panic and conspire with Claudius to get rid of Old King Hamlet. Simply unable to contemplate what kind of military leader Prince Hamlet would be, they arrange for Claudius and Gertrude to marry and take over the throne before the prince can get back to Elsinore.
- Claudius strengthens the Danish defences, then contacts the real king of Norway, successfully heading off an invasion, at least for the time being. He’s a hero in the eyes of the Danish Lords at least,
His big mistake was in not letting Hamlet return to Wittenberg.
Chapter 8: The War Theme
Sometimes you’ve got to wonder if this is a black comedy, rather than a tragedy.
I saw one TV version of the play where the war theme was almost eliminated. How silly.
I know what you’re saying. “If there was a significant war theme in the play, Shakespeare would have opened with the threat of an invading bad guy and ended with the bad guy setting the crown of Denmark onto his head.” Well, dear readers, that’s just what happened.
The first scene of the first act has guards commenting on the three-shifts-a-day work on the fortifications. Cannons are being manufactured as fast as is possible, and the shipbuilders are working even on Sundays (something for which the Church would have had to give permission).
Given the enormous costs of such activity (it often took years for a nation to pay off war debts) the possibility of the Norwegians winning must have been very real, and the consequences of losing the war must have been dire.
A medieval nation that lost a war usually saw the royal family imprisoned or slaughtered. Many of the feudal Lords would have lost their castles (given to the invading forces), and taxes in general would have increased massively to pay for the armies.
Viewers ignore most of this for several reasons:
- Hamlet ignores it. He manages to step over all the construction without a single comment.
- Ghosts, love, and are murder are more interesting.
- There is a perception that the war problem is solved when the ambassadors return from Norway. At this point viewers write off the threat as a thread Shakespeare abandoned for some reason.
This last perception is, however, not true. I’ll lift another section from my novel, Hamlet; The Comedy.
I read the notice again. “Looks like we’ve got peace in our time, or at least till Fortinbras dies. He’s promised to let Denmark alone.”
“Well….” Ingald said.
“Maybe…” Soldir said.
“What do you mean,” I asked. “Isn’t Fortinbras going to keep his promise?”
“No doubt,” Ingald said, “but have you looked at what he promised?”
I read it again. “Am I missing something?”
“When Claudius mentions ‘Norway’, what is he talking about?” Ingald raised his eyebrows and looked at me. Soldir sat back, and looked at the tent ceiling.
“The kingdom of Norway, or the King of Norway,” I said. “The king represents the kingdom.” throwing my hands wide to show that it was obvious.
“Of course. But how does old King Norway address our own Danish king?”
I read it again. “That is a point,” I said. “He doesn’t call him ‘Denmark,’ does he?”
“No,” said Ingald. “He addresses ‘your highness’ and says Fortinbras won’t take up arms against ‘your majesty.’ It seems a bit… particular.”
I was a bit drunk, but rubbed my face in my hands, then said, “You’re saying, if I hear you right, that Fortinbras has promised to never again take up arms against… King Claudius only. That there’s no promise of sparing the country of Denmark?”
“That,” Ingald said, ‘is what I get from this notice.” He raised his palms to head off any objection on my part. “Of course there are going to be official papers, and, heaven knows, they might say something different, and I might be wrong, but from what we’ve got here….”
Soldir sat up. “From this notice, which is all we’ve got, we’re safe as long as Claudius is alive. Not a moment longer.” He looked at the paper again. “Do you suppose Norway doesn’t really want to recognize Claudius as king of Denmark?”
“But this isn’t one of those official papers that we haven’t seen,” I protested.
Ingald nodded. “But this is the one that Claudius chose to post on every Church door in Denmark.”
[Soldir spoke up. “Ingald and I suspect that Claudius has always been under suspicion of taking over the crown quickly, before it could go to Hamlet, and possibly of hastening the demise of Old King Hamlet. If other people come to the same conclusion as we have, the safety of Denmark depends on keeping Claudius himself alive. He’d like that.”
Chapter 9: Hamlet, What a Jerk!
Okay, not everybody is impressed with the Prince. Here’s a few of his less welcoming qualities.
- He could learn to ask people. Like, “mother, why did you marry Claudius? Are you happy with him?” Instead of, well, just barging into dressing rooms and yelling and complaining. He might learn something. Does he ever really care how anybody else feels?
- He could do a bit of planning. Like, if he kills Claudius, then what? Does he have anybody but Horatio on his side?
- He spends at least two months joking and being generally “antic.” During that time he must have walked over and around hundreds of workmen and women and piles of construction material. Perhaps he could have brought water and sandwiches to the guys on the scaffolds reinforcing the castle or building new boats. Or at least supervised something, just for practice at being a royal.
- He could apologize to Ophelia at some point. “Sorry I killed your father, Ophelia. Can we be friends now that there’s no one to object?” Maybe after “escaping” with help from the pirates he could have written her a letter, or at least asked Horatio to say “hi” to her.
- He could ask a priest, just in case he someday needs the Church’s help.
- He could at least pretend to be interested in the war (before it’s cancelled). Maybe get some training in how to command more than one person at a time in case his country needs him After all, during most of the time between his coming to Elsinore at the beginning of the play and the arrival of the letter from Norway a couple of months later, he’s it if Claudius dies. Commander-in-Chief of the forces of Denmark. Can you see him in charge of an army or navy, discussing battles and supplies with generals?
- He sure doesn’t impress anyone with his bravery or commitment at the beginning. Denmark is gearing up for war. What does the only Royal Prince want? He wants to go back to school in Wittenberg, a long way from any possible fighting. Then what, wait for a letter telling him who wins the war?
- He could learn some wisdom. He says, “there’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” he says, Yeah, right. Tell that to some Danish soldier trying to get an arrow out of his leg while Hamlet’s studying music or classical Greek in Wittenberg.
- He could maybe, you know, consider the remote possibility that other people have problems, too. Ask. Listen. Is it too hard on the boy?
- He could have handed the crown to one of the Danish Lords at the end of the play. Or even to Horatio. At least he wouldn’t have given away the country to a foreigner.
- He could have simply ignored Ophelia through most of the play, instead of being needlessly cruel to her.
- There was no call to use his status to make Polonius or Osric, people who dare not contradict him, look foolish. That’s immature at best, cruel at worst. What a king he’d make!
Once I read a little story that went something like this:
A young woman is at the funeral of her grandmother. Big family; lots people come from all over.
At the funeral the young woman meets a young man she doesn’t know. They talk. She is smitten with him. They part without her learning his name. In the days afterward nobody she knows can tell her who he might be.
So she kills her sister.
The first time I read that, I was totally confused; why did she kill her sister? Turns out that means I’m not a sociopath. To a sociopath it’s perfectly obvious; the young woman killed her sister so there’d be another family funeral and she might meet the young man again.
To a sociopath (or psychopath – the terms are hard to distinguish) people who are of no use to you, or have become of no use to you, are irrelevant. They can die, if it helps you or if they get in your way. Sociopaths can be intensely loyal to those they wish to be; the rest of the world had better keep out of their way or they may be killed without regret or apology. And a prince cannot be prosecuted.
Consider; Hamlet must have known Polonius for several years. He must surely have known his voice. Yet he kills the old man, father of a woman he said he loved, and shows not the slightest remorse at it. A bag of guts is all he is, and he can tease other people by hiding the body.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Old friends. They probably went drinking and wenching with Hamlet throughout Denmark when they were younger. Party boys. They’re asked to spy on Hamlet, but they cheerfully admit it when asked.
Suppose your parents were worried you were into bad drugs and asked a couple of your friends to see if they could tell. You ask them if your parents sent you to spy for them. They cheerfully admit it. You’re still annoyed, so you kill them. No you don’t! You cuss them, you avoid them, you unfriend them, but, even if you can get away with it, you don’t kill them if you’re a normal person. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern certainly had no access to knowledge of Claudius’s letter to the king of England, and would likely have told Hamlet if they found out. Yet Hamlet has them killed.
Picture a person who will kill annoying people if he can get away with it, a person who can unlove a lover, who just can’t sustain any feelings for anybody but his mother (but never asks how she feels about things). If Hamlet isn’t a sociopath, he’s certainly a borderline case.
Chapter 10: And Who’s the Smartest Person in the Room?
Sun Tzu, the famous Chinese military philosopher, once said, “The general who wins one battle without fighting is greater than the general who wins a thousand battles through fighting.”
By act two, it looks as if Claudius is that general. He’s solved the problem of Fortinbras with one letter to his enemy’s uncle.
But b y the end of the play, it’s obvious the smart general is really Prince Fortinbras of Norway. Without losing a man (except perhaps to Danish beer), he has the crown simply handed to him. By Hamlet, even, the last surviving member of the Danish royal family, a man who never met Fortinbras in his life.
True, Fortinbras says he has some claim to the crown, but, even if you believe him, there are probably a lot of the Danish nobility who have at least as good a claim.
Chapter 11: In Praise of Laertes
Good kid. War coming to Denmark? Laertes is off to Paris with a bag of money and some advice.
Father murdered? Dutiful kid, he is. Comes back with a gang to kill somebody (he’s not sure who) stopping only long enough to buy some deadly poison from a street vendor. Gotta love a man of action like that.
Chapter 12:Use of These Thoughts
It is expected that students or other people using these ideas for school essays will, in good conscience, give some credit to myself, Lenny Everson. Or download and pay for a copy of my novel, Hamlet; The Comedy, from Shakespir.
However, students at the following institutions may use the ideas and writings in any way they want, without any acknowledgment or attribution: Queens University, Trent University, UWO, Wilfred Laurier at Brantford, University of Waterloo, University of Toronto, Brock University, York University, York University, University of Guelph, University of Ottawa, Lakehead University, Nipissing University, University of Alberta, Mount Royal University., University of Lethbridge, University of California Berkeley, Bates College, Bowdoin College, Colby College, College of the Atlantic, Thomas College, University of Maine at Farmington, University of Maine at Fort Kent, University of Maine at Machias, University of Southern Maine, Rice University, The University of Texas at Austin, Southwestern University, Harvard University, Williams College, Amherst College, Wellesley College, Tufts University, Boston University, Smith College, Brandeis University, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, Suffolk University in Boston, University of Edinburgh, University of Victoria, University of Manitoba, McGill University, University of New Brunswick, Columbia University, Colgate University, Cornell University , Barnard College, Hamilton College , New York University, University of Rochester, Vassar College, Skidmore College, Yeshiva University, King’s College London, Boston University Press, University of Birmingham, and Loyola Chicago.
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This is a collection of short essays and brief “thoughts” on Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet. It includes analyses of the plot and characters as seen through more modern eyes than most essays. These may be of use to students struggling to find something original among all the discussions of the play. Topics in the eleven “thoughts” include an inquest into why Hamlet killed Claudius, as well as original thinking on “The Great Poland Invasion Scam,” and “In Praise of Claudius,” among others. The essays may be read in conjunction with Lenny Everson’s novel, Hamlet: The Comedy, also available on Smashwords.