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.

For Hamlet’s plot till now, see Hamlet So Far.

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.

Fun With Claudius and Gertrude

For Hamlet’s plot till now, see Hamlet So Far.

Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more,
Men were deceivers ever,
One foot in sea and one on shore,
To one thing constant never.
Then sigh not so, but let them go,
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey, nonny nonny.
Sing no more ditties, sing no mo
Of dumps so dull and heavy.
The fraud of men was ever so,
Since summer first was leavy.
Then sigh not so, but let them go
And be you blithe and bonny,
Converting all your sounds of woe
Into Hey, nonny nonny.
Much Ado About Nothing Act 2. Scene 3.

Oops. That’s the wrong play. This is a much darker play than that. It’s a “Hamlet”.

Act 1. Scene 2. Claudius and Gertrude, their Royalnesses, descended the Staircase of the Stars. To the spectators below, they seemed to be floating. They weren’t. They were wearing the latest in shoewear, camouflage slippers, designed by Dr. John Dee himself. They were all the rage among the royals of Europe. They didn’t come cheap but they were well worth it. They made a Royal royal and a King kingly.

As the two progress their way down the Staircase, they pass Gallery of the Danes, portraits on the wall of past kings, all ancestors of Claudius. Beginning at the top, Hamlet- the Really-Old, the founder of the Hamlet royal lineage. You know, the word “lineage” is akin to “laundry”? Dirty laundry in the case of royalty, of course. ‘Cause some of the Royals on the Wall were real doozies. Their reps had to be washed and dried a number of times by the royal spin doctors. But no matter how clean their reps became, there were old timers who never forgot.

For instance, Hamlet the Really-Old became known as the king who lived to be as old as Methuselah. Actually he was very old when he came to the throne. Mostly his subjects called him Hamlet the Pincher. He liked to pinch his subjects bottoms.

Next was Hamlet the Not-so-old. He was only six months old when he inherited the throne. But he didn’t live to be six months and a day. Some say it was poison. Some say the plague. All anyone knows for sure was that it was not the colic.

Then came the Mutt and Jeffs of the family. Hamlet the Tall and Hamlet the Short. Bet you can’t guess which was Mutt and which was Jeff. After their long reigns, there was Hamlet the Medium-sized. He was a roly poly sort of fellow who had so many wives he beat Henry VIII on two fronts, weight and wives. As soon as he married a maiden, he misplaced her. Three hundred years later, the Royal Guards are still looking for lost wives. Henry could take party lessons from Hamlet the Medium-sized as well.

Hamlet the Lecher was no better. No virgin in the kingdom was safe. A new position was created by the town councils throughout the land. The Devirginizer. Bet you can guess what the guy did. Unfortunately, that left the farmer’s daughters unsafe.

Down the line came Hamlet’s daddy’s daddy, Old Smutmouth I. The name says it all. Finally there was Daddy Hamlet, the recent king and brother to the current king. Nary a Claudius in the bunch. The now-king would be Claudius I.

Actually Claudius’ name did not start out as Claudius. Shakespeare gave the new king a new name. One that fit his dignity. After all, Claudius was a Roman patrician name. One thing was for sure. Feng, the name Claudius’ father had given him, would never ever do.

With a name like Feng, Claudius had an absolutely horrible childhood. “Here, Feng. Here, boy,” all the other kids shouted at him. They treated him like a dog. Dog biscuits and bones kept showing up in his school locker.

On top of that, there were the Feng Shui jokes. At fifteen, Claudius took off for parts unknown. During that time, he took the advice, “When in Rome, do what the Romans do.” So he did. Like a good Roman, he changed his name.

That was all in the past. On this day of his royal ascendage, he descended the stairs with Queen Gertrude at his side. Claudius was happy. The eyes of his dead ancestors followed him from their portraits. Look at him. A king’s crown was the best revenge.

Gertrude was happy too. Phew. A close one. She ended up queen when she could have ended up queen mother. She knew a thing or two about statecraft. Besides she knew where all the bodies were buried.

Gertrude had not loved Daddy Hamlet when she married him. She was fourteen, and like Juliet, she loved another. But she didn’t have the courage to run away from home and wed her Romeo. Daddy Hamlet was fifteen years her elder. At twenty-nine, he had already killed off two wives. Both of them had died in childbirth.

He needed an heir, and he needed one badly. There was no way that he was about to let his younger brother, Feng, take the throne. With a name like Feng, nobody would respect him.

Gertrude seemed like an excellent choice. She was young and had a lot of childbearing years ahead of her. Besides, she was sexier than all get out. So a deal was made with her father, Michael of the Rus. When she arrived at court, Daddy Hamlet got down to business. After several tries, wallah. A son. No matter that Gertrude wanted to name the boy, Michael. He was dubbed Hamlet.

Unfortunately, her childbearing was over. Hamlet had been a difficult birth and the barbers said no more babies. “The barbers?” you ask. In those days, doctors didn’t know much. They were in the dark ages when it came to medicine. So they weren’t consulted that often. On the side, they had a barber business. It worked out real well. They would give a haircut and a pill all at the same time. Two for the price of one, so to speak.

After that, Daddy Hamlet was off fighting the Cossacks, the Poles, the Swedes, the Germans and anybody else he could think of. While he was away, Gertrude had to wear that damned chastity belt. She might not get a chance to pee, except for once in a blue moon when he was home. On top of that, she only got a chance to make whoopee once a year. She was a woman with needs. And Big Daddy wasn’t supplying them. When they did make whoopee, he was a wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am kind of guy. She didn’t call him Brutus for no good reason either.

One Sunday afternoon Claudius showed up at court. She took one look at him and suddenly they were like Lancelot and Guinevere. Though she was under lock and key, they figured out a way to get down. The pièce de résistance was when Claudius sneaked the key from around Big Daddy’s neck. Thank God, the king was a sound sleeper.

It was her lucky day when Big Daddy finally died from snake bite. Okay, there weren’t snakes on Elsinore Island. Maybe he brought one back from his distant wars. And it was late October and chilly when the snake bit him in the garden. Not good weather for snakes. Still, could happen.

When Claudius proposed, it was the happiest day of her life. She immediately, and with that sigh of relief people are always referring to, said yes. After all, he could have gone with a lot younger woman. Like Alice of Stuttgart or Denise the Greek or Lucretia Borgia. The sluts. At least, Claudius knew where Gertrude had been. Her reading “The Princess” by Machiavelli had paid off well. No other woman’s child would inherit the throne. It would be her son. All in all, things had worked out very well.

The feet of Claudius and Gertrude touched down on the Throne Room floor.

“Your Majesty,” his subjects praised Claudius.

“Your Magnanimousness, please,” the king corrected them.

Yes, Your Magnanimousness.”

Gertrude gritted her teeth and thought, “Oh, here we go again.”