Thursday, April 23, 2015

This is the anniversary of William Shakespeare's birth (assumedly) and death. When I was a sophomore in high school, my English teacher, Miss McPhail, made us learn a passage from Hamlet. Almost everyone chose "To be, or not to be". I, being a complete contrarian, chose "conscience of the king".

Hamlet is distressed because he cannot bring himself to accuse his mother of incest (at the time, a widow marrying her brother-in-law was considered so) nor his uncle of murder. He's playing for time by pretending to be mad, but doesn't know how long he can keep this up as it's affecting the mental health of his fiancee, Ophelia. All of a sudden, at the start of Act 2, Hamlet's college buddies, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern, appear at the castle. Hamlet's father has summoned them, and paid them to whisk Hamlet back to England -- and on the ocean trip there, to kill Hamlet so that Hamlet cannot expose the king's crimes. Hamlet is as yet unaware of their intent to kill him. He's just struggling with what he think is his own cowardice.

As the act comes to an end, chance steps in: The court chamberlain, Polonius, brings in a troupe of actors. They're there ostensibly to perform a Passion play for Lent. Hamlet sends them off with his two buddies. For once, Hamlet is alone with his thoughts. But then, he gets an idea.........................

- - - - -

Now I am alone.
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn'd defeat was made. Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i' the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion!
Fie upon't! foh! About, my brain! I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds
More relative than this: the play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

- Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

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