Le Vagabond

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Leïla Sebbar

Soldiers guard the castle walls of Elsinore. The threat of war with Norway looms. A ghost appears in the likeness of the recently deceased King Hamlet, astounding those standing watch at Elsinore. The soldiers, accompanied by Prince Hamlet’s friend Horatio, tell the prince of what they have seen.

Hamlet is excited by the information. He is suspicious of his father’s death and does not approve of his mother’s wedding to his uncle Claudius. The incestuous nature of the marriage is bad enough, but the fact that it has occurred so quickly following the death of King Hamlet has caused young Hamlet to criticize them both and withdraw himself from their society and confidence.

Polonius, the king’s advisor, does not trust Hamlet; nor does Claudius. Polonius also objects to his daughter Ophelia’s engagement to Hamlet. Polonius instructs Ophelia to reject Hamlet’s suit of love. After the ghost appears to Hamlet, tells him that his father was murdered by Claudius, and urges him to avenge his death, Hamlet tries to see Ophelia. She is obedient to her father, however, and refuses Hamlet even though she loves him and believes he is honorable. Her rejection removes from Hamlet a source of support and confidence.

Hamlet’s inner turmoil is matched by the turmoil at the court of Elsinore. He vows to avenge his father, but as he reflects on the intention behind the action, he struggles to discern the spirit of the thing—whether it is good or bad. Being constantly under the surveillance of Polonius, Claudius, and the two spies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern does not help him maintain his composure. Ophelia’s rejection ignites an outburst in him that undermines his own stability. He questions not only the purpose of his mission but also the purpose of life.

As the conflict worsens, a company of actors arrives from town. Their profession is to reflect reality through drama, and Hamlet is momentarily revitalized by their arrival. He uses them to help him determine whether Claudius is guilty. Instead of discerning the spirit guiding him, however, he crudely and rashly lashes out like a madman and slays Polonius. Polonius’ death by Hamlet’s hand throws Ophelia into a state of madness. Laertes, Polonius’ son, returns from France to avenge Polonius’ death. Ophelia drowns in a mad revelry. Claudius barely manages to subdue Laertes’ wrath; the two devise a plan whereby Laertes can kill Hamlet and make it seem like an accident. (Claudius asserts that it must seem like an accident because his mother and the Danes love the prince too much to countenance a direct punishment).

Hamlet, meanwhile, has been sent to England under the watch of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They bear with them a commission in which Hamlet has been condemned to die. Hamlet alters the commission, exchanging his name for theirs, escapes on a pirate ship, and returns to Denmark to confront Claudius. He reconnects with Horatio, meditates on death with the help of a gravedigger, boldly asserts himself at the funeral of Ophelia, and at last reclaims his sense of honor and nobility. He agrees to a fencing match with Laertes but apologizes for his misdeeds before the duel begins. Laertes uses a poisoned-tip foil to slay Hamlet and is stabbed by the same foil during a tussle in which the foils are exchanged. Gertrude drinks poisoned wine intended for Hamlet’s consumption. Laertes confesses all to Hamlet, who straightaway stabs the king with the poisoned foil and forces the remainder of the poisoned wine down Claudius’ throat. As Hamlet dies, he orders Horatio to live and tell his story so that no confusion would remain about the treachery in the court of Denmark. Norway’s nephew, Fortinbras, arrives and assumes control of the state.

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