Thursday, June 19, 2014

Hamlet’s Ghost - A Postmodern, Postmortem Encounter

The coastal fogs of southern California can trifle with the senses, or so I once believed. But one foggy night in early summer I came to be the wiser.

I was strolling down a sidewalk near Hendry’s beach as has been my habit upon occasion.  It was dark and moonless, the hour late. Sea mist shrouded the land, swirling like wisps of lufted cotton about the orange halogen street lamps, dampening my footfalls. I fancied myself quit alone.

Then through the fog ahead I observed a young man dressed all in Elizabethan garb. Marvelously luminous yet somehow indistinct of form, he gesticulated theatrically and appeared to be declaiming something. Curiosity overcoming fear, I drew nearer and heard what I took to be well-pronounced lines from Shakespeare’s Hamlet.

I made bold to address the apparition. “Who are you, sir? You’re quite an excellent orator.”

The specter gave me a fulsome if somewhat sheepish grin. “I ought be – I’m Hamlet, prince of Denmark. But ev’n I need practice now and again.”

I was completely taken aback. An ordinary ghost was one thing, but Hamlet of theatrical repute?  The Hamlet? 

[Me] “The dickens you say! For starters, Hamlet exists only in the quartos. If that’s not enough, Laertes kills him. And yet you’d have me believe you’re him, declaiming on this beach? 

[Hamlet] I’ve been extant close on five centuries, not only on the page, but also on the stage. This beach is public realm, is it not, so why not here as well?

[Me] Go to! I doubt I’m seeing you at all! You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone…

[Hamlet] 'Swounds, man! You’re reciting from A Christmas Carol. Try to be original!

[Me] (Aside) Such a brittle critic – it may indeed be he! (To Hamlet) Very well, I’ll try but I’m not Christopher Marlowe. Maybe you could at least explain how you came to be here.

[Hamlet] ‘Tis a lengthy tale. In life I was afflicted with an agitated melancholy. Three centuries of the afterlife ‘midst Denmark’s dreary winters did nothing to improve it. Forsooth, I lacked ev’n music to lighten up the mood. “And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest,” was noble Horatio’s last bequest, but no celestial choir did e’er appear.

So close on a hundred years ago I bade farewell to Elsinore and betook myself to Solvang, a town not far from here founded by the Danes where winter is much sweeter – I’m sure you know the place. Sometimes I grow nostalgic and dally at this beach for to haunt a Danish tourist or two – mayhap you’ve noticed how plenteous they be. If ‘tis foggy, I take on corporeal shape – these vapors being a cunning  snare for ghostly vibes. I’faith, when the mist my lively aspect doth portend, I’m the very dog for spooking English majors. 

[Me] (Aside) Still playing the peasant rogue, I see. (To Hamlet) Well, I barely speak Old English, but I’m glad I ran into you. I’ve got a few questions, if I may.

[Hamlet] Don’t expect too much. I’ve looked at life from both sides now and still wot not whether ‘tis better to be or not to be.

[Me] Since I’m not a physicist, we can skip the philosophy. Has the name “Hamlet” ever bothered you? I mean, it makes you sound like a shoat or suckling pig that’s been turned into smoked vittles. Just sayin’…

[Hamlet] Indeed, its always vexed me. Considering the brash speech the Bard puteth in my mouth, you’d think he’d have giv’n me a name with greater pith than “Hamlet” –  Fortinbouche, for instance. He called his own son Hamnet, but did he do ev’n as much for me? Nay!  Fie on’t!  Fie! 

[Me] Now, please don’t get excited. What’s done is done. I didn’t mean to upset you. But be forewarned. The next question may seem just as irksome. Were you diddling Ophelia? Was Claudius? How about Polonius? Inquiring minds have always wanted to know.

[Hamlet] Claudius was a randy rascal who by his wont would fain have foined the lads. Though he tendered her most charitably, his union with my mother was chief for policy. So, too, that lackey, Polonius.  But I’ll say no more on’t for I am a yet gentleman.

[Me] Maybe so, but you didn’t treat Ophelia like one, and after four hundred years I…

[Hamlet] Discretion is the soul of brevity. Move we on.

[Me] Very well. Then tell me what really happens in the play. I mean, what is rotten in Denmark? 

[Hamlet] In sight of all the speculation you might well ask. After my father’s untimely expiry, having received an earful of poisonous rumors, belief took hold of me that uncle Claudius had murdered him, most like by poisoned wine. In the end, of course, ‘twas poisoned wine got Claudius hoisted on his own petard. Naturally, I wanted to kill the blighter and be king myself, but I lacked the mettle to pursue it.

Slave was I to irresolution and to, to…I’ve ne’er e’er before revealed it…to drug abuse. Ay, I was doing hebenon* – henbane to you – an herb of passing psychedelic potency. God fixed His canon 'gainst self-slaughter but not self-medication.  

Yet I waxed more loopy by the day, and Claudius grew alarmed. Matters took a plunge, and it ended in a blood bath withal.

[Me] (Aside) Wow, tripping on scopolamine in the 14th century! Who’d have guessed it? (To Hamlet) Don’t be too hard on yourself, man. You seem to have learned a lot since you’ve been dead, and after four centuries I’m sure you’ve kicked the habit. 

But where’s the rest of the cast of Hamlet? I read recently that Kronborg castle had been swept for ghosts and nothing much turned up. What’s up with that?

[Hamlet] Most, in imitation of my journey, betook themselves to California.

Ophelia resides at Black Bear Ranch i’th’ north. The hippie movement’s dead, of course, but she’s a flower child original and like to thus remain. She prattles on of worldly venture but doth protest too much, methinks.  A commune’s her best station. ‘Tis much in likeness to a convent save for country pleasures. She’s i’to water sports as well, not to mention leaf of hemp.

Gertrude and Claudius frequent divers haunts in Newport Beach. I attend them at their leisure but do not drink the wine.

Polonius, again the counselor, plies sage advice for Ghost Hunters in Sherman Oaks.

Laertes is in Solvang wherest he ghostwrites by a nom de plume.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain on stage, in service of one Tom Stoppard, a scrivener who by my lights is but a shadow of the Bard, Hyperion to a satyr. 

[Me] Hyperion to a satyr? Now its you who needs to be original. Besides, Stoppard’s not all that bad. 

What about Yorick? I’ve always wished I could have known him better – through the play, I mean.

[Hamlet] He was dramatized as dead, and dead he did remain. What more would you oblige? There’s only so much plot manipulation you can do, you know – try to get that through your skull!

[Me] Lord, but you’re testy all of a sudden! (Aside) Could this be the hebenon talking after all? (To Hamlet) What about your father, Hamlet senior… if dare I ask? 

[Hamlet] Old Hamlet’s show was mere hallucination, a vision of the zeitgeist in martial aspect as it were. The boys and I were doing hebenon one night, and we’d gotten passing high. Horatio spied a talking ghost and then we all began to see it. I set to “conversing” with it – i’faith, conversing with myself. The lads did swear ne’er to reveal that I, Hamlet, prince of Denmark, had been chatting up a spook whilst doing drugs on watch. 

By the by, I sense another presence here, a lissome spirit dwelling within you. Mayhap a tot of brandy? (Hamlet guffaws) 

[Me] (Aside) Forsooth, said spirit doth this conversing much relieve.  (To Hamlet) Courvoisier Napoleon if you must know. But I’m glad to hear that a conversation with a purportedly real ghost wasn’t prologue to that soliloquy about “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns” – pronounced, as it appeared, close upon the heels of commerce with just such a one! To me, that’s always seemed a little out of joint. 

[Hamlet] Ay, that’s been the rub for many Shakespeare fans, but think no more on’t. The scenes with Hamlet pater were but dissipated drug trips, nothing further.

[Me] I shan’t. Thanks for clearing it up.

I have one more question about the text if I may. Some versions of the play say “Oh, that this too, too, sullied flesh…;” others, “…too, too solid flesh…” Which is it?

[Hamlet] Neither. ‘Tis “…too, too, studied flesh…” Mankind’s e’er obsess-ed been with this mortal coil – the corporeal self. You observe it in the arts, from masterpiece to pornograph. The Bard did express it thus – “studied” – yet the word’s been corrupted in translation.

[Me] Boy, how right he was…is! You should visit a modern hospital sometime.

[Hamlet] But soft! It’s nigh time for my departure. Methinks I scent the morning air.

[Me] Nay, tarry awhile. There’s not a cock to crew ‘round here anywhere, and..

[Hamlet] Ev’n so.

[Me] When will you be back then?

[Hamlet] Tomorrow or tomorrow or tomorrow or perhaps the day after – I know not. But don’t wait for Birnam wood to come closing in.

[Me] Hold the phone! Isn’t that from Macbeth?

[Hamlet] And what if it be?  Is’t not thee who fancyeth mixed metaphors withal?

[Me] I’faith, ‘tis as I like it! Nice to meet you, Hamlet. Hope to see you around.

[Exeunt both]

*The first known toxin with the potential to be lethal when applied topically, i.e., to the skin or ear canal, may have been nicotine, originally described in 1828.

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