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Hamlet, The Stamp of One Defect 2

Hamlet, The Stamp of One Defect 2

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Published by Felipe Ortego
Solving the riddle of Hamlet
Solving the riddle of Hamlet

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Published by: Felipe Ortego on Nov 07, 2009
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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By Felipe de Ortego y Gascaor more than 350 years
has been one of the theater's most successful plays. Morehas probably been written about Hamlet, the Prince, than about any other figure inliterature, for the play is enshrouded in a mystery of words about politics, theology, andmorality in Elizabethan England.
It is true that we cannot hope to know what Shakespeare knew or thought. But the moral truththat seems to emerge from Hamlet is that man is oftentimes no more than "a pipe for Fortune'sfinger to sound what stop she please." Hamlet is a tormented man in conflict with Fate, Society,and himself, and is tortured by a nagging malady, "Some vicious mole of nature," that breaksdown the "pales and forts of his reason."Elizabethan men of learning and intellectual curiosity no doubt pondered the phenomena of mental disorders. Cardan's Cornforte, a book of consolation traditionally associated with Hamlet, points out that a man is nothing but his mind: if the mind is discontented, the man is disquietedthough the rest of him be well. Hamlet is such a man, disquieted and melancholic, suffering fromthe stamp of one defect: the impediment of memory.Today, we have discovered that memory is a sensitive, delicate, and still unplumbed functionof the brain. Memory, like a slate, is sometimes wiped out completely or partially, dependingupon the kind of damage to the brain or the intensity of the psychological shock. Psychiatristsindicate that psychological memory blackouts can often be restored in reasonable lengths of time. Some cases, admittedly, remain baffling. My purpose is not to make a medical diagnosis of Hamlet, but rather, to point out that Shakespeare created, in the world of the play, conditions that precipitated a mental strain on Hamlet that he could not endure. Thus, the play is not just thestale plot of a disinherited Prince nor just the muddled controversy about the manifestations of the supernatural, but the intriguing dramatic idea of a man caught on the horns of a supernaturaldilemma and trapped into inertia by the stamp of one defect. It is the dramatic value of the defectthat is important and not the defect itself. I propose therefore to evaluate the dramatic value of Hamlet's impediment and to show how much it accounts for in the play.
The Succession:
Why did Hamlet not succeed to the throne upon his father's death? From Ophelia we learn that atone time he was "Th'-expectancy and rose of the fair state." This is perhaps the most glaringanomaly of the play. It is unlikely that Hamlet was simply disregarded because he was deemedtoo young and unproved in war. Therefore, the facts of the succession must be plumbed to thefull.To be sure, the Denmark of Saxo Grammaticus was a barbarous and primitive country, butwe can almost be assured that Shakespeare did not have the Denmark of Saxo Grammaticus inmind in the play but the Denmark of his own day.The right of succession in feudal Europe fell to the eldest son, or to the eldest daughter (as inthe case of Mary and Elizabeth) where there were no sons to continue and where queens were
From Shakespeare in the Southwest: Some New Directions, Tony J. Stafford, Editor, El Paso: Texas Western Press,1969
 permitted to rule. Only in the event of a failure in the line of succession would the crown pass toa brother. It has been suggested that in Hamlet, Hamlet the Elder ruled jointly with Gertrude because her father, and not his, had been king of Denmark. He was king, therefore, only byvirtue of his marriage to Gertrude. For this reason, the argument continues, the death of Hamletthe Elder did not void the crown but represented only Gertrude's lack of a husband, which sheimmediately took care of by marrying her brother-in-law. This argument accounts for Claudius'calling her the "imperial jointress" of Denmark. On the other hand, another argument suggeststhat Hamlet gives us a clue about the constitution of Denmark when he tells Horatio thatClaudius popped in between the "election" and his hopes. An election suggests some kind of democracy in which, more than likely, the court nobility constituted an electorate council for special purposes, one of these purposes being the election of a monarch in case of lineal fault or contested claims, in the case of an heirless monarch or heir-apparent.There is some question in the play about Claudius' right to the throne, but nevertheless hewas the choice of the electors of the Danish Court. In the first court scene Claudius expresses histhanks to the "electorate" for their approval of him as king and of his marriage to Gertrude, his brother's wife. At the moment there seems to be no doubt about Claudius' right to be king. Butwhy is Hamlet not king? Notwithstanding Denmark's "elective monarchy," it seems contrary tofeudal custom for the Council to have overpassed Hamlet in the succession and elected his uncleinstead. And what about Gertrude? How much did she influence the electorate in Claudius' favor  by marrying him? In the first court scene she addresses Hamlet, saying,... cast thy nighted color off,And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark.Do not for ever with thy vailed lidsSeek for thy noble father in the dust,which can only mean that Hamlet's condition was regarded as stemming from grief for hisfather's death and not from disappointment in not succeeding to the throne. Even Claudiusadvises Hamlet to throw off his unprevailing woe. Neither Gertrude nor the rest of the court, for that matter, show any sign of recognizing Hamlet as the rightful successor. He was entitled to thecrown by right of primogeniture, but he was supplanted in this right by Claudius. Why? Claudiuscertainly does not feel guilty about it; nor does Gertrude at the moment feel guilty about beinghis wife. That it is an "incestuous" marriage does not seem to have bothered the electorate. Is it possible that perhaps the electorate may have chosen Claudius as king because Hamlet was insome way incapable of assuming the crown? Or did Claudius influence or intimidate theelectorate somehow, considering the "rotten" state of Denmark? It seems likely that Hamlet'sfather would have naturally designated his son, and not Claudius, had the election been normal.As it was, young Fortinbras was already pressing for certain concessions since the death of Hamlet the Elder, and the country, therefore, would require a "capable" monarch. The "joint"monarchy of Claudius and Gertrude would provide this stability. As Hamlet the Elder's brother,Claudius was certainly more than qualified to head the government.Hamlet has a moral and legal claim to the throne and it is hard to dismiss it lightly with theidea of some "elective" process, his age, or lack of military prowess. If we are dealing here witha Danish feudal code, there is all the more reason for wondering about Hamlet's lack of advancement. From the text, however, we must assume that initially Hamlet accepted his non-succession as a matter of course since he applied for permission to return to Wittenberg. But17
Claudius assures him thatFor your intentIn going back to school in Wittenberg,It is most retrograde to our desire;And we beseech you, bend you to remainHere, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.And Gertrude pleads:Let not thy mother lose her prayers, Hamlet:I pray thee, stay with us; go not to Wittenberg.They both think the best place for Hamlet, bereaved and melancholic, is Elsinore. PerhapsClaudius's reason may be that he fears Hamlet's influence with the people. But in Gertrude's pleawe sense a certain curious maternal urgency suggesting that by keeping her son at home shemight be better able to look after him. We note that throughout all this, Hamlet is docile. PerhapsWittenberg was nothing more than a cloister for her "afflicted" son. And it does seem strange for a thirty year-old Prince to be still in school, for as Salvador de Madariaga says, "a thirty-year-oldstudent-prince would be a somewhat strange bird at any university." At this point, we may agreethat there must have been indeed something rotten in Denmark and postulate that Hamlet's re- jection as a ruler may have had something to do with Hamlet himself.
What is Your Affair in Elsinore?
When Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo enter to tell Hamlet about the ghost, he seems startled tosee Horatio: "— Or I do forget myself!" Hamlet says. Then Hamlet asks, "And what make youfrom Wittenberg, Horatio? Marcellus?" But Marcellus replies, "My good lord!" which may meanthat he thought Hamlet should know why Horatio is in Elsinore. Then Hamlet repeats himself,"But what, in faith, make you from Wittenberg?" Horatio replies, "A truant disposition, good mylord." The pun there is on the word "truant" which might equally be applied to mean Horatio istruant in staying away from the University or Hamlet's truant mind. Again Hamlet asks, "Butwhat is your affair. in Elsinore?" Horatio tells him something he seems to have forgotten, "Mylord, I came to see your father's funeral."The discrepancy in Hamlet's behavior here is exceptionally glaring. The only alternative inthe world of the play to explain Hamlet's surprise at seeing Horatio is that Horatio has justarrived at Elsinore and that this is the first time he has seen Hamlet. But this is not so, as Horatioexplains, reminding Hamlet that the reason he is in Elsinore is for Hamlet's father's funeral. Theobvious inference is that he has been there all the time. Why is Hamlet unaware of Horatio's presence and purpose in Elsinore? We know that Horatio and Hamlet are both Wittenbergstudents. And I do not think it unreasonable to assume that they both may have journeyedtogether from Wittenberg to Elsinore for the funeral. Furthermore, it has been two months sincethe funeral and, allowing that perhaps Horatio and Hamlet did not come to Elsinore together, itseems more than reasonable that both "friends" would have met long before now. Court protocolwould certainly have brought them together since the funeral. Besides, when Horatio decides to18

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