Le petit bâtard

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William Kowalski

Act 4: Scene 1

The king asks Gertrude for a report on her meeting with Hamlet. She tells of the murder of Polonius. Claudius’ first thought is of himself: “It had been so with us, had we been there.” His second thought attempts to mask this first: “His liberty is full of threats to all…” However, he cannot hide his selfish thoughts for long. He immediately worries that the blame for this murder will fall on his own head, since he allowed Hamlet to go about freely in such a maddened state. Sensing that he will be blamed, he tries to issue a defense: “So much was our love, we would not understand what was most fit…” but this defense rings hollow, especially since Claudius has not manifested any love except for himself and his position.

Gertrude’s concern is more with her son, and she now reveals his state with a description of the way he looked when he hauled away the body: “He weeps for what is done.” It is a sign of awareness, at least, in the prince, as well as a sign of contrition. Claudius, however, will not hear of tears; he insists that Hamlet be sent away at once. Then he asserts that he must somehow use his political skill in extricating himself from the mess that Hamlet has brought upon the state. He calls for the spies, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. He orders them to find Hamlet, secure Polonius’ body and remove it to the chapel.

Claudius then tells Gertrude that they must call upon their wisest friends and manage the spread of the news so that it does not do too great of harm to their names.

Act 4: Scene 2

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern demand Polonius’ body from Hamlet, but he refuses to answer them straightforwardly or tell them where he has put it. Part of the reason he refuses to do so is that he is the son of a king and not one to whom demands should be put by puppets. He insults them in a number of witty ways.

The most interesting comments in this brief scene, however, deal precisely with the corpse. Rosencrantz asks, “What have you done, my lord, with the dead body?” Hamlet replies, “Compounded it with dust, whereto ‘tis kin.” There is an unmistakable Biblical reference in his reply: Genesis 3:19 states, “For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.” That Hamlet’s mind should focus on this line from Scripture at this moment reflects the direction that his thoughts will pursue for the remainder of the drama. Death is one of the Four Last Things of Christian eschatology, the others being Judgment, Hell, and Heaven. Hamlet’s murder of Polonius has brought him face-to-face with the fact of death. His mind, therefore, has reiterated what God Himself has said of death. Again, Hamlet is reflecting, but now, having fallen, he is found looking up and reflecting on a piece of divine revelation.

Yet, his very next line appears to contradict what he himself has just admitted. Rosencrantz argues for the body so that it may be delivered to the chapel. Hamlet states, “Do not believe it.” The obvious implication is that he objects to the rites of the church and holds them to be false and empty. To echo Scripture and to reject it the next minute is evidence of a still divided and conflicted mind.

Nonetheless, Hamlet concludes the meeting with a willingness to see the king.

Act 4: Scene 3

Claudius is still troubled, anxiously going over in his mind the various problems he now faces. Not only must he contend with the death of his advisor, but he also has the populace to consider: Hamlet is a great favorite of the people, and they will likely think more bitterly of his being punished than they will of the murder he has committed. Therefore, Claudius continues to think of ways he might relieve the tension.

Hamlet is brought in to see Claudius. Claudius questions him. Hamlet is still evasive. Rather than direct answers, Hamlet gives long and quite visual narratives on what awaits one’s body in death. As death is the great equalizer, Hamlet observes the lack of distinction between a king and a beggar. Hamlet finally hints at where the body may be found, and attendants are sent to retrieve it.

The king tells Hamlet that the ship for England is ready to sail. Hamlet responds tersely, “Good.” Before leaving, Hamlet says, “Farewell, dear mother.” What is strange is that he says it to Claudius. Claudius objects. Hamlet answers that man and wife are two in one flesh—another reference to Genesis: “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.” Hamlet’s assertion that Claudius is his mother may be understood, in one sense, as a challenge to the king’s authority. It may also be taken as kind of catechesis on Hamlet’s part. A third interpretation might suggest that Hamlet’s seemingly wild utterances are a foreshadowing of the madness about to pour forth from Ophelia. Stranger still is his passive-aggressive behavior. With his demand for blood momentarily sated, he is back to poking fun at Claudius and those around him. A swing back toward aggression, of course, is what Claudius anticipates.

Therefore, Claudius briefly soliloquizes that he has written letters to England stating that Hamlet is to be put to death.

Act 4: Scene 4

Fortinbras arrives in Denmark and sends his captain to the king for permission to cross. Hamlet meets the captain as he, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern move toward the harbor. Hamlet discusses with the captain the objective of Fortinbras’ mission in Poland and discovers that both Poland and Norway (under Fortinbras’ command) are willing to fight and die over a worthless scrap of land that the captain admits is not worth five ducats. This news, coupled with the incidents of late, cause a flood of thoughts in Hamlet. He sends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ahead and delivers a soliloquy in which he measures himself against this army that fights for nothing of any consequence—and yet he, who has a reason to fight, does nothing.

Hamlet closes the soliloquy with the line, “O, from this time forth my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth!” If until this point he has swung wildly from one extreme to the other, now he makes an active effort of the will to maintain the one extreme—the bloody one.

Act 4: Scene 5

This is Ophelia’s mad scene. It opens with Gertrude’s reluctance to attend to Ophelia. The reports are that she speaks and utters nonsense, which calls those nearby to listen solely because of its strange and illogical quality. Horatio suggests that they hear her for themselves before a bad report of her behavior gets out into the public.

Indeed, Ophelia has gone mad. Having allowed her strings to be manipulated by her father, Polonius, she is now without a puppeteer. In other words, with his death the strings of her mind have been cut. The burden of the preceding incidents now takes its toll. She has no father, no brother, no lover, and apparently no friend to which she might have turned.

Just as in his lapse into madness, Hamlet maligns the idea of sacramental marriage, so too in her madness does Ophelia sing of love unhallowed by sacrament. The two, kept apart by the meddlesome Polonius, now reflect one another. Again, the link is Polonius; a pest in life, he proves to be an obstacle in death, as well.

Claudius is troubled by Ophelia’s madness and aptly states, “Poor Ophelia, divided from herself and her fair judgment, without the which we are pictures of mere beasts…” Claudius’ observation strikes at the heart of the problem of drama: Each character divided within himself shows a range of action from the rational to the brutal. Claudius, in a sense, has triggered this conflict by murdering his brother; Hamlet has sunk to it, killing Polonius and inviting bloody thoughts; Ophelia is affected by it; and Laertes is about to become incensed by it. Yet, as Hamlet struggles to realize, the conflict was there long before any of them came to existence.

Claudius, meanwhile, fears the arrival of Laertes, whom he rightly suspects will want blood for his father’s murder. Indeed, a messenger arrives with news that Laertes has returned from France and is in a greater rage than ever any ocean was. Already the populace calls him “lord” and cries out their desire to see him crowned. Claudius now has to contend with the possibility of a dangerous revolt. Gertrude only has time to cry out that the people are mistaken, that their cries are counterproductive, when Laertes breaks down the doors.

Claudius confronts Laertes like a man, and Laertes, in turn, shows such wrath and passion that he seems the very opposite of Hamlet. Laertes is fiery, while Hamlet is reflective; Laertes is fully inclined to avenge his father’s death and needs no prompting, whereas Hamlet is ponderous and even when prompted attempts to discern the spirit doing the prompting. Then again, there is no hiding the fact that Polonius was murdered. The cause of King Hamlet’s death has been kept secret, essentially necessitating circumspection in Hamlet. At any rate, one may juxtapose the two approaches to revenge, and the readiness of the youth of Denmark to doubt, suspect and challenge the man at its helm. Laertes boldly cries, “To hell, allegiance!” in the face of the king. Hamlet stands off and cuts with witty remarks.

Thus, Claudius can attempt to get rid of Hamlet (though even this attempt shall fail). Against Laertes, however, he knows he has no ready defense. Therefore, Claudius begins to tell that Hamlet is responsible for Polonius’ slaughter. (He will readily hand over the prince if it means saving his own skin). Before he can finish, however, he is interrupted by the return of Ophelia. Her mad scene continues. Laertes’ wrath returns anew. As soon as Ophelia leaves, Claudius jumps at Laertes and begins the politician’s part: He asks for a kind of trial, in which he will show that he is guiltless for Polonius’ death. If his arguments fail to sway Laertes and his friends, Claudius says that he will forfeit his kingdom to the young man. Such a plea on the part of king does much to diminish his stance. Laertes accepts the king’s offer, saying only that the manner of his father’s burial (in secret, without any noble rite) itself cries out for justice.

Act 4: Scene 6

Horatio receives a letter from a sailor. The letter is signed by Hamlet, and with it are more letters meant for the king. Horatio reads Hamlet’s message. It describes how Hamlet’s ship was overtaken by pirates, how Hamlet boarded the pirate ship alone as their hostage, how he promised them some favor in return for his ransom, and how he wants Horatio to send on the accompanying letters to Claudius. The message also notes that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stayed aboard the ship bound for England and how Hamlet has much to say of the fate that awaits them.

Horatio does as requested and asks the sailor to take him to the man who sent him.

Act 4: Scene 7

The king attempts to pacify Laertes by explaining why he hid the death of Polonius and let Hamlet go unpunished. First, he tries to steer blame to Gertrude, who (he claims) “lives almost by his looks,” as though were Claudius to punish Hamlet, the queen herself would die. The second reason he gives is that the public loves Hamlet and would not abide by any ruling against him. Laertes laments that he has lost a noble father and a sister to madness, who before the loss of her wit was the most perfect girl of her age. True to form, Laertes is given to exaggeration. It is plain that he did not know his father. His judgment of Ophelia, however, rings at least a little closer to the truth.

The letters from Hamlet arrive: One for Claudius and one for Gertrude. The one for Claudius is humorously addressed to “High and mighty,” a sarcastic reference to the king. It is a curious note, in which Hamlet volunteers the information of his return and explains that he is defenseless and that he wishes an audience with the king so that he might apologize and ask his pardon. Claudius reads the note aloud, and neither he nor Laertes knows what to make of it. Once again, Hamlet has baffled everyone. It is very likely the case that what he has written is true. Hamlet may mock, deride, and descend into brutality, but he has not yet practiced deception.

Still, Laertes wants to confront Hamlet with his crime. Claudius, ever the deceiver, hatches a plan whereby Laertes might have his revenge and they might pass off Hamlet’s death as an accident: The two young men will face one another in a fencing duel. Laertes will poison the tip of his foil and use it to slay Hamlet. Claudius adds that he will prepare a poisoned chalice of wine in case Hamlet manages to avoid being struck by Laertes. The queen enters, putting an end to their talk of conspiracy.

Gertrude announces that Ophelia has drowned. Ophelia, attempting to hang crowns made of weeds and garlands made of flowers on the limbs of a willow overhanging a brook, fell into the water when a branch gave way. Unaware of the danger she was in, she floated awhile, singing her rhymes, until her clothes became so heavily soaked that they pulled her under.

Laertes attempts to keep from crying but cannot. He leaves the room. Claudius confesses his exasperation to Gertrude and is greatly annoyed by her news, which is likely to cause Laertes to fall into another rage.

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