Good Night, Sweet Prince

Hamlet, Act V: Scene 2

  • Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

It is wise that Shakespeare saved the climax of the play till the bitter end. He must have realized that without Hamlet, the whole enterprise would turn to dust. Aside from being the lead character in this eponymous drama, he is the heart and soul — the moral center — of all that whirls around him. (Good to steer clear of the German director’s cut, methinks.)

I was surprised at how completely I’d forgotten the concluding scene — and how little I was looking forward to it. This is not my first encounter with Hamlet, though it has been awhile.

We typically remember the big setpiece finale and lose much of the details leading up to it. But in this case, I’d conveniently dropped the dubious swordplay from my memory. I wonder why.

This go-round, however, I was surprisingly reminded of the end of the Odyssey, for some unknown reason, a trick perhaps of my own metaphorical mind — the scene where Odysseus and Telemachus (and Athena) set a trap for all the rapscallions and weasels who have crashed the pad and harassed poor Penelope while the master was away.

Maybe it’s the vengeance theme, maybe it’s the scheming, maybe it’s all the carnage that concludes the epic journey that brings us to the end. I won’t harp on the comparisons because they are in all likelihood meaningless in regards to Hamlet. I simply note them in passing, in case others might have thought of them too.

By the end, I had come to feel sorry for Gertrude. Ever since Hamlet confronted her in her room (and Polonius bit the big one by yelling from behind the tapestry), she has softened somehow. She never fails to call Hamlet sweet and dear, to gently defend him in front of Claudius. We are never told if she has stayed away from the defiled marriage bed and made confession, as Hamlet advised. But her sorrow at the graveyard touched me. Minus Claudius’ treachery, she might have become a doting grandmother and a much-needed guide for her inexperienced daughter-in-law.

When she drinks from the poisoned cup, it certainly seems like suicide to me. Claudius makes a half-assed attempt to warn her away, only to have her defy him in the boldest language she’s used anywhere before:

QUEEN: The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.

HAMLET: Good madam!

KING: Gertrude, do not drink.

QUEEN: I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me.

Pardon her for drinking? Or pardon her from checking out from all this vile underhandedness?

Carouses is an intriguing word here. A double-entendre, perhaps? It might be a modern shading to associate too strongly this “carousing” with her previous licentiousness. I can’t be certain if she’s mocking her prior behavior, or indicating that she’s doing the dirty work herself so Hamlet doesn’t have to.

I’m reading too much into it, maybe. But with Shakespeare, there’s a rule like Occam’s razor or Anselm’s ontological proof of God: if a more complex, more all-encompassing reading of a line exists, Shakespeare probably had it in mind.

Whether she knows it or not, however, Gertrude kills herself, doubling the suicides by women who are bystanders by and large to the mayhem caused by men. She is joined with Ophelia in the manner of her demise, the same way the fates of Laertes and Hamlet intertwine to symbolically do them in. Both kill the other at a game gone awry; both forgive while comprehending the motivations that drive the other to do what he has to do.

I laugh, however, at Shakespeare’s sly insertion of the word “almost” in Laertes’s line:

LAERTES: And yet it is almost against my conscience.

But almost it is, for if it were more he would withdraw from the plan and confess there and then. But Laertes, sadly, is a man of almosts — it ought to be his epitaph. For earlier, at the graveyard, he basically said the same: Hamlet, I love you, but. Let me get advice on how I can clean up my honor and save face before I truly forgive. Ick.

He is the son of Polonius, true. Politik runs in the family. Thus, I fail to fully accept his last-second bid to Hamlet that they let bygones be bygones, diverting all blame to Claudius who masterminded the nefarious hatchings and schemings. A greater soul might have pulled the plug from the bunghole at any time.

Which begs the question, why doesn’t Hamlet? He tells Horatio that he has not such a good feeling about the clear setup his dear uncle has arranged for him. It’s such a fraud, a con, a ruse, an obvious bating; Shakespeare emphasises this by having messengers appear to Hamlet twice: ya sure you’re coming, there, fella? The king would love to see you there!

But at this crucial turning point, Hamlet makes memorable reply:

HAMLET: Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

So even though Claudius has never given him reason to trust anything he’s ever done before… even directly after the little ship voyage that went awry… he still bucks up for what lies ahead — even when his intuition bids him do otherwise. It begs the question if we should have trusted him when he said he didn’t care a jot if his James Bond maneuver on the boat sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths.

Nothing good comes from evil.

I hadn’t thought of it before, but a Dante-esque quality pervades the punishments people suffer in Shakespeare for their sins: Polonius stabbed behind the tapestry while engaged in the idiotic spying he loves so much, Ophelia a sad and quiet suicide by madness and drowning, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern executed from a twisted order, Laertes the victim of his own rigged game, Gertrude a willing participant in the poisoned vice directed at Hamlet by her husband, Hamlet by the man who seeks revenge for the murder of his own father.

And of course Claudius, by the dipped sword that Hamlet unwittingly used to slay Laertes; then, sensing that maybe that alone would not be enough to account for such criminal behavior by a king, Hamlet forces him to drink from the cup that was meant for him, the grog that killed his mother, his father’s betrothed, his uncle’s wife, the queen.

Man, that’s good. That’s way, way, way beyond good.

You can shrug away Shakespeare’s brilliance. Call him a misogynist and evict him from the canon — if a canon exists any longer. But to deny Shakespeare’s mastery is to spray graffiti in the Sistine Chapel, to piss on the score of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

For every crap movie with a Deus ex machina (look it up) ending, for every half-baked story like Wicked that pulls a happy ending out of its ass, for every dunder-headed sequel that gets foisted on a witless audience, for all the times when you suffer through a story when X doesn’t combine with Y to add up to Z — there’s Shakespeare. Or Hamlet, anyway. I can’t presume about the rest.

This is plot and character taken to their highest levels. Where the sum of the parts equals more than the products multiplied. When meaning is logarithmic, exponential. When you have to stand back and say, wow. So that’s what genius looks like. If we denigrate that, we deserve what we get. You can’t maul the Master, henpeck him from the pantheon and think you’ve done your school, your university, your life a favor.

Hamlet is the read of a lifetime. A book that steadies you from the garbage masquerading as news these days — or any days. From Tiger Woods and his legion of mistresses. From politics as usual. From little league coaches who play their son at a position he doesn’t belong, let him hit cleanup while the rightful slugger sits on the bench.

You might say, what good does reading the classics do? How can Shakespeare help me get on with my life? Well, think of all the metaphors this one play — just this one — gives you as you open the door and set out into the world. Will you be a Claudius? A Gertrude? A Polonius? A Horatio? Or do you aspire to be a Hamlet? Do you dare so much?

Shakespeare is a universe, Mr. Bloom. An I’ve only finished this one damned play!

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