Foul Deeds Will Rise

Hamlet, Act III: Scenes 1-4

  • To be, or not to be — that is the question:
  • Get thee to a nunnery
  • The lady doth protest too much, methinks
  • O shame, where is thy blush?
  • I must be cruel only to be kind

Payback is a bitch. And in Act III, the paybacks have begun.

“Foul deeds will rise” harkens back to the concluding lines from Act I, Scene 2:

HAMLET: Foul deeds will rise

Though all the earth o’erwhelm them to men’s eyes.

I had wondered before about the nature of Hamlet’s “madness” which keeps interweaving with such hard logic. It was only in the third act that an awareness finally hit me: this is how a man acts who ceases to give credence to the normal boundaries of propriety.

Indeed, for Hamlet, the egregious deeds committed by his uncle and own mother have torn asunder all the assumptions about people he may have once took for granted. His madness makes perfect sense, in fact, in a world that’s morally upside down. The king, marriage, even motherhood are no longer to be trusted.

An earlier, hyper-Romantic Hamlet may have written:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;

Doubt that the sun doth move;

Doubt truth to be a liar;

But never doubt I love.

But now, all bets are off:

HAMLET: To be honest, as this world goes, is to be one man picked out of ten thousand.

Everyone, save Horatio and Ophelia, would seem to have an ulterior motive or purpose. It makes so much more sense now, the counsel Polonius and Laertes give Ophelia about mistrusting Hamlet’s intentions. These are two men who know only themselves and the dastardly ways of the world. How could they let an innocent girl trust the profferings of a young buck like Hamlet?

Hamlet makes a point to note a lesson learned. Namely, that evil is capable of the sweetest smile. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, once his schoolyard friends, have become the king’s pawns. Loyalty, like fidelity and friendship — can be bought.

What then can be trusted? How might a man discern these truths and not split in half from that awareness? What goodness is there left to believe in?

Thus, Hamlet may seem mad to others, but in fact, he has merely come unbound. There is a savage wit to his wordplay now which is jarring and breathtaking to behold. When he teases Ophelia with sexual banter, you can see her moral compass spinning. Hamlet, to her, is showing spirit and being a cad. She does not realize how far he’s now coloring outside the lines.

The image that suddenly popped into my mind is of the Joker hanging upside down outside a window, mocking helpless Batman who wishes to keep playing in a world of light and shadow. Joker knows that the distinctions are merely conveniences and that true freedom lies in the anarchy of the realization that we all contain good and evil within us.

In fact, Hamlet is all too aware of his own sinful nature. As he tells Ophelia:

HAMLET: I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better had my mother not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.

Unlike every other character in the play, Hamlet has a keen awareness of his moral failings. It this very sensitivity which has made him much freer than all the rest. Freer from the social roles and trappings that people fall into. But also panged by outrage at the way those around him flaunt good behavior when it suits them.

Unlike his own mother and uncle, Hamlet is perfectly willing to suffer the penalty for his misdeeds. When he unwittingly kills Polonius, who had hid himself behind a tapestry to overheer yet another conversation, he knows that he will have to pay with his life — but doesn’t care. Partly, it’s true, because he no longer values his life. But also because he accepts that actions have consequences.

Hamlet is, by nature, the most inward character in the play. What others call brooding is in fact probing the motives that underly his actions. Is it better to be or not to be? How many ever ask themselves that question?

When Hamlet subjects his uncle and mother to the “Moustrap,” it is to awaken with them the pangs of consciousness which plague him every moment of every waking day. How can they have committed such a heinous crime and carried on as if nothing happened? Even after the play, when Hamlet appeals to her in her bedchambers, his detached mother asks:
QUEEN: Ay, me, what act

That roars so loud and thunders in the index?

Hamlet may seem cold-hearted, but he knows that he has to be cruel to be kind in order to awaken a moral accountability within her. He pleads with her to stop sleeping in the profane bed she had made for herself. To repent. To start somewhere!

The king has begun to suffer the slings and arrows of his guilt. But even then, he prays only with a hard-hearted calculation that in the end will only buy him a little more time. Hamlet walks in and can’t kill him in his one act of semi-reverence, for to do so would mean to grant him a luxury denied to his own father. Having died in the act of semi-repentence, Cornelius would have his soul fly up to heaven while Hamlet’s father’s ghost roasted in the fires of purgatory, having died before confession and being annointed in the sacraments of the last rights.

Get thee to a nunnery, indeed. Is this a Catholic play or what?

Advertisements

2 Responses to “Foul Deeds Will Rise”

  1. Linda OReilly Says:

    Arnold’s Hamlet is priceless. Thanks for that.

    Your insights are wonderful.
    Poor young Hamlet, searching for himself and his dead father and the mother he once knew.

    “Everyone, save Horatio and Ophelia, would seem to have an ulterior motive or purpose. It makes so much more sense now, the counsel Polonius and Laertes give Ophelia about mistrusting Hamlet’s intentions. These are two men who know only themselves and the dastardly ways of the world. How could they let an innocent girl trust the profferings of a young buck like Hamlet?
    Hamlet makes a point to note a lesson learned. Namely, that evil is capable of the sweetest smile.”
    “Thus, Hamlet may seem mad to others, but in fact, he has merely come unbound.”

    The veil of illusion was lifted brutally and publicly for Hamlet. Suddenly EVERYONE had feet of clay.
    Bereavement on so many levels.

    On another note:
    I’ve always thought that Gertrude took it on the chin more than any other. In isolated Elsinore, where was she to go? Where was she to hide after Claudius killed her husband and commanded her to marry him?
    Gertrude and Ophelia were both doomed after Claudius took the crown.

    • I’m still trying to understand what role Gertrude played in the murder. The Mousetrap is not an exact parallel, and Shakespeare leaves the prior act as backstory. It appears her greatest sin is to hop into bed with the man who murdered her husband only two months prior. When Hamlet grills her on her lack of guilt, she can’t even think what she has done wrong.

      In that sense, mom is a lot like Ophelia, which is why, I think, Hamlet pulls away from her. She’s beautiful, yes, but she’s completely oblivious to the ways of the world, including her own brother and father. He just can’t go that simple anymore. Did he love her? Yes. Does he love her still? Not more than his own sins and inner turmoil can bear.

      In a Romantic version of this play, he might save Ophelia from the slings and arrows of life. But in his now cynical worldview, even a consciousness as white as snow cannot escape moral culpability and the consequences of the whore of fortune.

      Thus, the only option for a girl like her is to “get thee to a nunnery.” Society has turned black for Hamlet. The best to be, if you’re to remain in it, is Horatio — striking a balance between reason and passion, a test Hamlet fails when he murders Polonius because he no longer cares.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: