Saturday, May 24, 2014

Bound and determined: Hamlet, Prospero, and the puzzled will (Part Three)

Calisthenics for the will: Keeping 'out of the shot and danger of desire'

The Argument: “Desiring this man’s [Prospero’s] art and that man’s [Hamlet’s] scope” [Sonnet 29], the poet-playwright Shakespeare (known familiarly as “Will” and never indifferent to punning) doubts that either of his famous creatures suffices to establish the independence of human action.

"O, you must wear your rue with a difference."
                                 -- Ophelia to Queen Gertrude ("Hamlet," Act IV, Scene 5)

Early in "Hamlet," the Prince is eager to see whether what may feel like a determined course can be altered by force of will.  Rising to the fore in this scrutiny is an abundance of sexual disgust.

Why does sex preoccupy him so? I think Hamlet’s doubts about our command of will explain it.  He is at one with the view of St. Augustine, summarized like this by Bertrand Russell: “What makes the ascetic dislike sex is its independence of the will. Virtue demands a complete control of the will over the body, but such control does not suffice to make the sexual act possible. The sexual act, therefore, seems incompatible with a properly virtuous life.”

In "The Tempest," the Augustinian caveat seizes Prospero as well. He warns Prince Ferdinand against giving vent to lust before the solemnization of his union with Miranda, and repeats the warning fiercely not long afterward — despite the upright Ferdinand's immediate promise not to assail the virtue of the wizard's daughter. Prospero's need to control cannot countenance even secret fantasies of ungovernable desire.

Augustine saw lust's independence of Christian will.
To warriors of the will like Hamlet and Prospero, the abyss opens up where lust is involved. Looking down into it is irresistible.

If the adultery that resulted in his father’s murder were enough, why would Hamlet earlier have harangued the virginal Ophelia mercilessly, then subjected her to flippant bawdry as the court gathers to watch the visiting troupe’s play?  Yet he has roaringly commanded the demure woman to enter a convent. (I’m among those who believe the scene’s context makes the Elizabethan slang meaning of “nunnery” as “whorehouse” unlikely.)

And in the Closet Scene, indifferent to the fact that he has just killed Polonius by accident, Hamlet reviles Gertrude in vivid moralistic terms for her weak sensuality. When she moans “thou has cleft my heart in twain,” Hamlet’s imperative to “throw away the worser part of it” evokes Jesus’ hard saying: “If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee.” (One-third of an omniscient Godhead in Christian theology, Jesus is also the avatar of a ferocious free will, charged with rejecting sin and seeking salvation. It’s a contradiction so mammoth even Hamlet can barely acknowledge it.)

He is so focused on his mom-bashing lecture that the Ghost reappears to remind him of his “blunted purpose” — the mission of revenge that Hamlet no longer believes in. When he can bring himself to recall the body behind the arras, he speaks dismissively of it, except for this: “For this same lord, I do repent, but heaven hath pleas’d it so / To punish me with this, and this with me, / That I must be their scourge and minister.  I will bestow him, and will serve well the death I gave him.”

Serve it with the King’s death, or with his own? It’s almost a matter of indifference now. When all are dying in the final scene, Hamlet kills Claudius last before succumbing himself. In his culture, regicide is the ultimate challenge to the way things are supposed to be. Hypocritically, the usurping monarch  has earlier calmed Gertrude, fearful of Laertes' rumored insurrection (Act IV), with this reassurance: "There's such divinity doth hedge a king / That treason can but peep to what it would, / Acts little of his will."

Caught up in the death-dealing final scene and acting little of his will, Hamlet has failed to "pluck out the heart of [his] mystery,” which his creator implies is all mankind’s.  Where does our freedom lie, when even the most clear-headed act may be the product of a mistaken assumption of personal autonomy?

The Prince imputes so much to nature or to heaven as determinants that his own thoughts and acts are famously given over to “a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.” Something rough-hewn is not botched or ineptly made, it should be remembered, but rather sketched out, planned or inchoate.

The more conventionally pious Horatio expresses a similar view much earlier, on the battlements of Elsinore. To Marcellus’ “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark" — the second-most famous line in the play (after “To be, or not to be”) — Horatio prophetically says: “Heaven will direct it.”

Dr. Johnson wrote, likely in astonishment, that “Hamlet is through the whole play rather an instrument than an agent.” The iron hand of foreordainment descends upon all the characters, but the Prince is the only one with the wit and imagination to resist it. Johnson goes on to marvel at Hamlet’s weak will after the play-within-a-play reveals the King’s guilt on both counts — adultery and murder.

It’s significant that, as fervent a Christian as Johnson was, he recognized Hamlet’s reluctance to kill the King at prayer as an excuse for non-action. Christian scruples never bother Hamlet elsewhere in the play, so why should they here? His spiritual depth bears an uneasy relationship to conventional religion. When he interrupts the Ghost's revelations to cry, "O my prophetic soul!" he is really saying, in amazement: "O my imagination!"

That considerable faculty has too much to process in Hamlet's encounter with his martially attired
For Wallace Stevens, imagination brings the universe down to earth.
father, who imparts terrifying information and instructions on how to proceed. Hamlet Senior's posthumous sufferings cannot even be spoken of, he warns. On this side of mortality, how is the Prince to weigh the truth of any of this? The poet Wallace Stevens, in his essay "Imagination as Value," may be helpful here: "If the imagination is the faculty by which we import the unreal into what is real, its value is the way of thinking by which we project the idea of God into the idea of man."

If such a willed projection is indeed Hamlet's, its daring scope bumps quickly against necessary limits in a predetermined universe. Sex is the joker in the vulnerable hand human beings are forced to play. Laertes had spoken more truly than he knew when he warned Ophelia about her strange lover: “His will is not his own.”

In "The Tempest," Prospero has no reason to suppose his will is not his own, or that it is anything but absolute. True, his capable servant Ariel shows some initiative and a feeling for the liberty the sprite is desperate for, but it's of the fulfilling kind under the rule of a master "whose service is perfect freedom," in the happy phrase of the Book of Common Prayer.

The deposed duke's complete authority on the island has not made him happy, however. As Ferdinand, forced to fetch and haul wood to show himself worthy of Miranda and motivated by true love rather than concupiscence, says of his future father-in-law: "He's composed of harshness."

Emerson speaks with his usual gnomic authority, applicable to both Prospero and Hamlet, when he says: “Character teaches above our wills.”

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