Covert acts in Hamlet
The word ‘covert’ has a bad press thanks to the CIA. These people have to defend Americans and us against the forces of evil, against people who do not know much less accept our notions of rules of the game. The CIA operatives are left to work in darkness and deceit knowing that they just have to cop it sweet if they get caught – because we decent people cannot be seen to have got our hands dirty in our own defence. You might find some room for hypocrisy there.
Darkness and deceit fill Hamlet with murderous covert acts. Murder and revenge are everywhere, but always covert until the end. Even revenge is covert – until the end. There is obviously some room for hypocrisy here, too.
The deceit begins with the Danish equivalent of the PMO, the Prime Minister’s Office. After Claudius has poisoned his brother King Hamlet, he causes the news to be put out that the king was stung to death by a snake while taking a nap in his orchard. Well, we might nowadays read of a myocardial infarction, but when the ghost of the murdered man tells young Hamlet of the truth, his ‘prophetic soul’ had suspected something like this. The rest of Denmark has however been taken in by this ‘forged process.’
But the level of deceit in Denmark was such that young Hamlet does not trust the ghost. He wants independent evidence. He arranges for a doctored – ‘forged’ if you like – version of a play called The Mousetrap to be put on. He hopes to and does entrap the king by this device.
Hamlet is right into deceit. He feigns (or forges) madness as a kind of cover for his covert inquiries and actions. The king and queen are troubled by this apparent transformation in this highly strung university student. They engage two mates of Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to maintain a covert watch on him. The queen assures them that the king will look after them as spies, but Hamlet is not deceived. He gives them a kind of shirt-front, but they just hang on, like barnacles.
When Hamlet puts on the mask of madness, he is engaging in a form of deceit that causes great and obvious pain to his mother, something that the ghost had forbad him to do point blank. Under cover of the same false madness, Hamlet coldly and cruelly repudiates Ophelia, the young woman he had pledged his love to ‘in honourable fashion’, even while her family were warning her off. This wounded young woman does not know that the madness or rejection are part of an act. She is driven mad and then dies in an apparent suicide. Ophelia is an innocent victim of all this darkness and deceit. Other innocent victims are not so easy to spot in this play.
Polonius, the father of Ophelia and her hypocritical and snaky brother Laertes, is a silly old courtier. He is heavily into surveillance in a land that Hamlet describes as a prison. He arranges with the king to eavesdrop on Hamlet while she is talking to the queen his mother. Gertrude is not told of this surveillance. So, when the old man makes a noise in the background, Gertrude cannot warn Hamlet that there is nothing to worry about. Hamlet runs him through, exulting in a chance to be a man of action, and who knows, he might have taken out the king?
When Claudius tries to explain to Laertes later why Hamlet was not prosecuted for this homicide, he is most unconvincing. If Hamlet had been found guilty of manslaughter, and you had been asked to put in a plea for him in extenuation, the word ‘remorse’ would hardly pass your lips. There was none. The young prince was as cold, cruel and superior to the dead father as he had been to the disintegrating daughter. ‘Thou wretched rash intruding fool, farewell……I’ll lug the guts into a neighbour room.’ It was as if he had shot a beater by mistake on a pheasant shoot, an unfortunate interruption to the better people’s sport.
Now, the king, who is an accomplished murderer just getting into his stride, realises that that dead body might be his. He sets about sending Hamlet to England where he hopes the English will honour his request to kill the anointed heir to the Danish throne – ‘Do it, England.’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern may or may not have been parties to this murderous attempted coup d’etat, but their sometime friend outsmarts them again. (Let’s face it, these two have ‘losers’ written all over their unlovely faces.) Hamlet picks their pocket. He destroys their commission to England and he substitutes a forgery. The commission from the King of Denmark to England now is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are to be put to death forthwith. These poor creatures must have got a very nasty shock as they watched the perfidious English unfold the parchment and then proceed to shoot the messengers. But the conscience of young Hamlet, which is otherwise so sensitive, is not moved by these occasional murders.
Claudius and Laertes go one better with their plot to kill Hamlet. Laertes wants revenge for the death of his father and sister, but he is content to go along with Claudius in a covert scheme to murder Hamlet without inquiring of his co-conspirator what had caused the prior clemency of the king to evaporate – presumably it is because the people are now up in arms for Laertes against Claudius. Laertes will kill Hamlet as if by accident in a duel. To be sure, he poisons his weapon. Then to be trebly sure, Claudius will give Hamlet a poisoned drink.
You do have to wonder about the psychic efficacy of a secret anonymous revenge. And think of the overdrive in wait the PMO – the heir to the throne has accidentally killed the father of his girlfriend who has accidentally committed suicide, and then the brother and son of those two accidental victims has accidentally killed the man responsible.
Well, we know that the plan goes off the rails when the queen drinks the poison and Hamlet kills the king in hot blood for the death of his mother and his father.
But what for me is the grandfather of all these lies comes when Hamlet seeks to reconcile with Laertes. He tells Laertes that he Hamlet has done Laertes wrong, but then he says it was not he Hamlet that did the wrongs but his madness. This is a bare-faced lie, a lie upon a lie. It is a weak and cowardly lie. Nor are we surprised that Laertes is not moved. He says that he is satisfied in nature, ‘but in my terms of honour I stand aloof.’ Laertes is red hot for revenge for the death of his father and sister. In that heat, that we can understand, he descends to darkness and deceit. But his talk of being satisfied in nature, while not in honour is addressed to an unashamed liar who has committed himself to one pole-star in his life:
….Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honor’s at the stake. (4.4.53-56)
What a weasel word ‘honour’ is, and how right it was to use the word ‘aloof’ with it! And what murderous bullshit and pious claptrap from a spoiled prince do we have here? How many millions of people have died because the honor of a prince was at stake? And what place is there for any honour whatsoever among all these characters thrusting about in their own darkness and deceit?
The great A C Bradley published his famous lectures on Shakespearian Tragedy shortly after the death of Queen Victoria. He saw in Hamlet ‘a soul so pure and noble.’ Each of those three words now dies on our lips. Stalin and Hitler ravaged our faith in mankind. And we have given up the abracadabra or Open Sesame theory that says that you just have to find the right key to unlock the secret of a work of art. That childlike view, which used to be put about by psychoanalysts who should have known better, involves arrogance at our end, and downright bloody rudeness at the other. We don’t think that life or letters are so simple, and the people who have the best chance of staying sane are those who are happy to live with some mystery about them.
The prince who moves into the vacuum left by Hamlet and his uncle – and they did not leave much standing – was a man of action that Hamlet had a very rosy view of. Even in death this young man returned the compliment and said that Hamlet was ‘likely to have proved most royal.’ This was comity among Scandinavian royals, but do we agree?
We might now see that Hamlet had some key attributes, as the personnel consultants say, of a high-end CIA operative – a product of the noblesse oblige with a penchant for intellectual analysis and guesswork; a keen observer of the behaviour of others, and a taste for covert action in high affairs of state; a practised capacity for seamless dissimulation (if you must, a seasoned liar); a man who could handle himself in one-on-one armed combat to the death; a capacity coldly to drop someone very close to him if they got in the way of his mission; and, above all, and contrary to a very widely held view about this man, an operative who could override his conscience just like that if the stakes were high enough. Perhaps there was more to this young prince than first meets the eye.