Hamlet: Spies, Spies and More Spies

It is a wise father that knows his own child.
(The Merchant of Venice Act 2. Scene 2.)

And now on to Act 2. Here a spy. There a spy. Everywhere a spy spy. R&G spy. Ophelia spies. Gertrude spies. Claudius spies. Polonius spies, and we know how that turned out. Not good. Even Hamlet does a bit of spying.

Hamlet should get used to it. He’s a royal, the son and the nephew of aking. Royals are always spied upon. Just ask Elizabeth I. But she, like most rulers, is both the spyee as well as the spyer. She may not do it herself. She has minions whose business it is to spy.

Why do I bring up all this spy business up? Act 2 opens with Polonius asking a servant, Reynaldo, to take off for Paris and spy on Laertes. Either Polonius knows his son well or he doesn’t know his son well. It must be important for him to find out. Otherwise he wouldn’t spend a pretty penny to spy on Laertes.

Perhaps Laertes will spend all his money gambling and whoring and getting himself in a real pickle. It will cost Polonius all the money and goodwill he can muster, money and goodwill he has spent a lifetime collecting. Polonius wasn’t always an important official. He was born a poor farm boy who had ambition. He was a regular Danish Horatio Alger.

Polonius wants to make sure that his boy is worthy to be his heir. Otherwise he will have to do the unthinkable and will his fortune to Ophelia.

Just as Act 1 established that there was something rotten in Denmark, Act 2 establishes that nobody trusts anybody. Soon we will see that suspicion turns into suspicion run amok..

“So, Reynaldo,” Polonius stands above Reynaldo. “You go off to Paris. Check out what my son is doing. Then come back and let his father know what dynamite he is playing with.”

“But, Sir,” Reynaldo always calls Polonius Sir, “Laertes is a good kid. He’ll sow his wild oats, then come back home and be your loyal son.”

“The kid wants to be the next Van Gogh. That’s all he talks about.”

“Yes, Sir. But what’s wrong with that?”

“You know how Van Gogh turned out. A missing ear he cut off his own self and poorer than a church mouse.”

“He might turn out to be the next Hans Holbein. Then he could paint the king’s portrait and the queen’s too. And even the prince’s.”

“Not him,” Polonius says.

“Sir?”

“Just take my word for it. The prince isn’t going to be around long enough to have his portrait painted.”

Hamlet Interval 3: What if

Some rise by sin, and some by virtue fall. (Measure for Measure Act II, Scene I).

Act 1 Interlude. There were only two women at Elsinore. One Hamlet’s mom, Gertrude, and Ophelia who was verboten to date him, Hamlet just didn’t have a girlfriend. No female for some whoppee, none for hanky panky. What if there had been women in the Castle in addition to Gertrude and Ophelia? Here are some suggestions and what these women might say:

Lady Macbeth: You do your Uncle in or I will do you in.

Rosalind (from As You Like It): Let’s go have some fun. You do Tootsie and I will do Yentil.

Beatrice (from Much Ado About Nothing): I’m sorry but I will not marry you. I am not into guys who wear black. Or green. Or blue. Or orange. But you might look nice in purple.

Annie Hall: I don’t care whether you kill your uncle, but you gotta kill that spider.

Emma (from Emma by Jane Austen): Have I got the right gal for you.

Scarlett: Tomorrow is another day to kill your Uncle.

Ana (from Fifty Shades of Grey): So you have a dungeon here in Elsinore?

Martha Stewart: This castle could use some redecorating.

Mary Poppins: Can you say supercalifragilisticexpialidocious? If you can, then take a spoonful of sugar and the medicine of revenge will go down. Poof. No more Claudius.

Princess Leia from Star Wars: Use the Force to take Claudius out.

Mommy Dearest: Look, Hamlet, if you don’t do the job, I am going to have to use the coat hanger.

Hermione Granger (from Harry Potter): I’m telling you that Snape is Claudius.

Clarice Starling (from Silence of the Lambs) I will not eat Claudius’ liver with or without fava beans.

Jane Eyre: Why is everybody always saying to me, “To eeyre is Jane”?

Annie Savoy (from Bull Durham): Hamlet, I have just the thing for you. Baseball. You could be a .390 batter if you tried. You certainly have the arm for it.

Holly Golightly (from Breakfast at Tiffany’s): You don’t have any problems that cab money and a trip to Tiffany’s can’t solve, Hamlet.

Mrs. Lovett (from Sweeny Todd): Hamlet, I have the perfect thing to cheer you up. A lovely meat pie.

Alice (in Wonderland): You haven’t seen a cat, have you? We went out on a blind date, then he disappeared. He did have a nice smile.

Eliza Doolittle (from My Fair Lady): Aw garn, I never see’d a castle before.

Guinevere (from Camelot): Hamlet, do you want to join my Round Table?

Daisy Buchanan (from The Great Gatsby): Honestly, Hamlet, Tom knows everything. He may even know where Claudius put the poison. Now could you pass the tea please?

Ripley (from Alien): Your uncle has something growing inside of him, Hamlet.

Lieutenant Uhura (from Star Trek): Beam me up, Captain Hamlet.

Shakira: Just shake those hips, Hamlet.

Jenifer Lopez: You look so bootylicious, Hamlet. We make such a bootylicious couple, don’t you think?

Beyonce: I saw you in the elevator, Hamlet, with Ophelia of all people.

Taylor Swift: Just shake it off, Hamlet. Shake it off.

Mylie Cyrus: I could twerk Claudius dead. I have great aim. And I will just wham him with my wrecking ball.

Lady Gaga: Hamlet, we are going to have to do something about those clothes.

Marge Gunderson (from Fargo): Oh, geez.

Mae West: Why don’t you come up and see me sometime, Big Boy?

Unfortunately none of these were available. Only Gertrude, only Ophelia.

Which pretty much left Ophelia by herself. Gertrude had Claudius. Hamlet had Horatio. Polonius had his scheming and Laertes had Paris. Ophelia had no one. She was alone. Quite alone.

To Gatsby or not to Gatsby, that is the question

Most writers want to be somebody else. Joseph Heller wanted to be Groucho Marx. Norman Mailer wanted to be Ernest Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway wanted to be God. But that job was taken. So he became Ernest Hemingway instead. Mark Twain did not want to be Edgar Allan Poe, though Sam Clemens did imbibe from time to time. He had way too much Mississippi River in him to be anybody other than Tom Sawyer. After all, Tom could tell a whopper with the best of ’em. That’s a fact.

Thing is that Shirley Jackson wanted to be Edgar Allan Poe and H. P. Lovecraft. Flannery O’Connor wanted to be a saint. They both just about made it. Jonathan Franzen wants to be John Updike. John Updike wanted to be Henry Green and Proust while J. D. Salinger wanted to be Scott Fitzgerald.

Scott Fitzgerald wanted to be Zelda’s husband. Jay Gatsby had a lot of Fitzgerald in him, especially his desire for Daisy Buchanan. Thing is Fitz was that he was as much Nick Carroway as he was Jay Gatsby. Seems to me that Nick went east to become Herman Melville and go after the great American novel, the “Moby Dick” of the twentieth century. As John Lovitz used to say, “Could happen.” Nick managed to gather the material when he arrived East. Jay Gatsby was Captain Ahab and Daisy Buchanan was the whale. Daisy always wore white and her palace in East Egg was white.

The point of all this is that few things are as they seem on the surface. As my granny used to say, “It just ain’t so. You got to dig deeper, Boy, to get to the marrow of the thing.” And, as far as I am concerned, “The Great Gatsby” is not Jay Gatsby’s story. The character arc points elsewhere and that elsewhere is straight at Nick Carroway. Nick is the one who changes in the novel. From beginning to end, Gatsby is after Daisy. As he floats facedown and dead in the pool, he still believes he can have Daisy.

The movie folks don’t seem to get it. They continue to make movies, doing a Somerset Maugham where the Narrator Nick is barely a character and making Gatsby the protagonist. All through the novel, it’s Nick the reader sees change. It is Nick, the country bumpkin, who comes to the big bad city to make his fortune. It is Nick who gets the Daisy treatment. It is Nick who is impressed with Gatsby and all his parties. It is Nick whom Tom Buchanan confides in about his trysts with Myrtle Wilson. It is Nick who is sadder but wiser at the end of the novel.

If the focus is going to be on Gatsby, then what we get is a character study with a plot thrown in at Act 3. And one thing is for sure. Character studies do not good movies make. By the end of the novel, it’s obvious that Gatsby has been scratching at the wrong door all along. But Gatsby never gets it.

Why would Daisy give up everything for Gatsby? Things like a husband who got his wealth the legitimate way. He inherited it. Jay Gatsby got his the nouveau riche way. He gambled for it. Plus Tom Buchanan treats Daisy like a princess. Daisy is no Jordan Baker. She has enough self-understanding to know that she is fragile. It won’t take much to break her. Plus she and Tom have a child together. Old Gatz forgot that. For a mother, a child trumps a dream any day.

Besides she’s pretty happy in the cocoon her husband has made for her. He may be an s.o.b. but he’s the kind of s.o.b. who will give her the security Gatsby will never give her. The Gatz has beaucoup cash now. But her family warned her about the Panic of 1907. “Here today gone tomorrow,” her daddy wisely pointed out to the darling of his eye.

So where does this leave the film maker? With an older, but wiser, Nick Carroway. Mature enough to know that maybe, just maybe, he can make a life with Jordan Baker while he writes that “Moby Dick” of a novel he’s been meaning to write.

I know. That’s not in the novel. But who knows? It could be in the movie.

Do you have a favorite novel or a favorite writer?

Hamlet Interlude 2: Gertrude

The course of true love never did run smooth. (A Midsummer Night’s Dream Act 1 Scene 1.)

Act 1 Interlude.Of all the characters in “Hamlet”, it is Gertrude we feel we have to defend. We know that Gertrude was no Juliet. She was no Rosalind or Viola. She was no Kate. She was definitely no Lady Macbeth.

Of the over 4000 lines, Gertrude had only 155. That was not many lines compared to the beaucoup lines Claudius and Hamlet get. Even Laertes had more to say than she did, and he was off in Paris doing whatever. Yet, like her son, we make her carry a heavy load. As big as Claudius and Ophelia. Almost as big as Hamlet. We make her out to be a schemer. We make her out to be a co-conspirator. We make her out to be a slut. She was none of them.

Since she is not around to speak up for herself, she ends up getting the blame for a crime she may not have committed. One thing is for sure. Gertrude was a survivor. She lived in an age when a woman needed a husband. Especially if that woman was a royal. Women were the property of their fathers, their brothers, their husbands, their kings, even their sons. Perhaps she was an Eleanor of Aquitaine who knew how to make the best of a situation.

Back in Gertie’s Ham Senior days, it was possible she was feeling unloved by Hubby.  He was out of town a lot. She was feeling unbeautiful too. She was losing that figure that made her the belle of the ball when she was younger.

There was a good chance she had a bit of Guinevere in her. Claudius, the king’s younger brother, showed up and he was her Lancelot. Started wooing her with candy and flowers. She had never paid much attention to him before. After all, he was five years younger than she was. When he left the court for parts unknown, he was a scrawny kid with no grace at all.

Then he returned. He was all shiny and new in that knightly outfit of his, his long brown hair cascading over his shoulders, those dark eyes speaking of his admiration for her. (Don’t you just love that word “cascading”?) Claudius danced the light fantastic with her and made it feel like walking on air. Unlike Ham Senior, who was such a klutz. Every second or third step he made ended up on her footsies.

Every time Claudius walked into a room, her heart went pitter-pat faster and faster. She started having dreams about the happiness she would feel if Claudius were her husband and king instead of Ham Senior. If there was a guy in the room who could get a girl’s chastity belt unzipped, it was Claude.

Then she came up with a plan. Or did she? We shall never know. Shakespeare wasn’t talking.

We do know that Lady Macbeth had no children. She could only be ambitious for herself and her husband. Maybe Gertie was ambitious for her son. Maybe that was why she married Claudius. She didn’t want him to marry someone else. That someone else might produce an heir to the throne and replace her son. Seems to me that this was her plan, her way to make sure Junior got the throne when Claudius died.

One other thing. There were only two women, Gertrude and Ophelia, in the castle. Which left few dating options. So I guess that was why Gertrude was Obvious Choice Numero Uno for Claudius.

He could have gone with Ophelia. Polonius would have liked that. But Gertrude had already made it clear that she was the one for him. She had the Queen job down, she knew how to dress well and stink pretty, and Claudius was taking no chances. He wanted the King job. He wanted it bad. Gertrude was just the person that would secure that throne for him.

Besides his heart belonged to Gertrude back in his Lancelot days. Now that he was Arthur, she was his Gwen.

Hamlet Interlude 1: It’s good to be the king

Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown. Henry IV Part 2. Act 3. Scene 1.

Hamlet Act 1 Interlude. We’ve all thunk the words, “It’s good to be the king.” Perhaps that was what Claudius was thunking. Ham Senior’d ride into the castle courtyard on his big, black stallion, returning from battle victorious over his adversary, Fortinbras Senior, blood still on his sword. All the women drooled over him. Even before he could shake the dust, they were ripping his their bodices off, wanting to have their way with him.

It is at moments like these that Claudius should have reflected on the words of Richard 3 on the Battle of Bosworth Field, “My kingdom for a whore.” Why Richard wanted a prostitute at that particular moment even scholars cannot guess. What motivates a king to say what a king says at any time is often beyond logic.

Richard should have asked for a horse instead. If he wanted a good ride, that would be the best way to go, don’t you think? That way he could’ve gotten out of Dodge real fast. The tides of war were going against him. There was a new sheriff in town and his name was Henry. It was indeed the winter of Richard’s discontent.

One thing was for sure. Richard was no Henry 4. He was more of his namesake Richard 2 than he cared to think. Unlike Henry 5, he could not rally his troops on Saint Crispin’s Day. It was no where near that feast day when he said the “my whore” line, being it was August and all.

So he asked for a prostitute at an inappropriate time. Unfortunately there was no Falstaff to procure one for him. Guess that is what happens when you take on a Tudor. England had asked, “Tu dor or not Tu dor.” And they had decided Tudor would be just fine.

Shakespeare knew a thing about kings. He could easily paraphrase the actor in an ad who said, “I’m not a doctor. I just play one on tv.” In other words, “I’m not a king. I just play one at the Globe.” Don’t forget that Mel Brooks’ Louis 16 stole from Shakespeare when he said, “It’s good to be the king.”

Not.

It was never good to be the king. It drove George 3 mad. If not madness, there was always regicide. And I am not talking Reggie from the Archie comics either. I’m talking guillotine regicide here. Too many kings had lost their heads too many times. If not their heads, other parts of their bodies. Just look at what happened to Nicky 2 in Russia.

One thing was sure. It wasn’t about to happen to Elizabeth Numero Uno, known by one and all as Elizabeth Regina, E.R. Not if she had anything to do with it. She came by her suspicions rightly. She was not forgetting what had happened to her mommy and she was not about to let it happen to her. There were all those English Catholics plotting, and their plots were plotting. They kept saying, “You’re illegitimate.” Of course, she was illegitimate. English rulers all the way back to 1066 and further were illegitimate in one way or another.

E.R.’s strategy: A smell of treason and off with their heads. A lot of folks feel sorry for Mary, Queen of Scots, but don’t. It was her own darn fault. She had lousy taste in men. Even though Mary was caged up like a little birdie, she just couldn’t leave well enough alone. She did her canary impression and sang her head off. Her head literally dropped into the basket.

E.R. knew her history. She knew that her granddaddy poached the crown from Richard 3 who had done his share of poaching. Henry 7 may not have known how to speak poetically. By all accounts he was a plain speaking guy. His son would do that for him. But Seven sure knew how to get a throne. Kick some Richard 3 butt.

Claudius had done what kings always did. He regicided for his throne. Thing was that he didn’t remember his English History 101. He repeated the same mistake Richard 3 did. Richard did a Hansel-and-Gretel and pushed the Princes-in-the-Tower into the oven, then he had them for lunch. What Richard forgot was that there is always a Henry waiting in the wings. Or a Fortinbras. And with some poison claret too.

In Shakespeare’s day, kings mattered. They mattered a lot. The king determined whether the country prospered or suffered. A king was placed on the throne by God and only God could remove him. This was back when folks believed in God, and they knew that you didn’t want to mess with God. You might grow warts or something worse. So, God help you if you de-throned a king. Without a very good reason. And I am talking really good here.

This is why Hamlet hesitated. Hamlet knew he better have a damned good reason to remove Uncle Claudius from the throne. He must be absolutely sure Uncle Claudius murdered his dad. Once he determined Claudius was an assassin, Hamlet not only had the right, he had the responsibility to execute the king.

Shakespeare tackled this question with “Richard II” and his history plays. So he was back in familiar territory. The question he hadn’t answered satisfactorily was what kind of person had the right to do the deed.

If you remember, Bolinbroke had a darned good reason. Richard II stole his inheritance. Yet there were those who never accepted Henry IV as king. They believed what Nixon said in the David Frost interviews. “If the president says it is legal, it is legal.” King Richard II had said the theft was legal.

So what does all this have to do with Hamlet? Elizabeth I, the ruler of Merry Olde England, had enough people try to detach her head that the question was on everybody’s mind. Elizabeth 1 woke up everyday, thinking, “Whose head am I going to have to chop off today?” Her daddy hadn’t raised a fool.

So why did Claudius do it? Why did he murder Ham’s dad? Maybe he fell head over for Gertrude. He returned from Wherever-Claudius-was-returning-from and saw Gertrude. He was beside himself. It doesn’t really matter if that is what happened. He dood the deed. Claudius not only homicided and regicided. He done fratricided. Even Macbeth didn’t go that far. The king was not Mac’s brother. For Claudius, there would be karmic consequences.