I'm just back from three weeks in Burma/Myanmar (the country so nice, the military dictatorship named it twice!), where electricity is often intermittent and access to internet can sometimes require renting a motorcycle just to drive to a shack with a dial-up connection. So I'm out of the blogging rhythm and find myself wanting to post a poem about a play. (I'm pretty sure that's not how this is supposed to work.)
I'll post more notes on Myanmar later (where I had to invent a fake resume just to get a visa, since reporters are not welcome). But uppermost in my mind this afternoon: in my jetlag-insomnia, I've been re-reading Hamlet and stuff surrounding Hamlet.
Since this year is Greek poet C.P. Cavafy's 150th birthday, here's his deadpan (with some buried glimmers of glee) synopsis of the play. The poem, King Claudius, reminds me of an entry I once read in a theater calendar that described Glengarry Glen Ross as a play about a contest in a real-estate office.
If Cavafy had been a theater-calendar editor, he might've described Hamlet as "an elaborate lie told by an enabler named Horatio to cover up for his mentally ill friend."
* * *
My mind now moves to distant places. I’m walking the streets of Elsinore, through its squares, and I recall the very sad story of that unfortunate king killed by his nephew because of some fanciful suspicions.
In all the homes of the poor he was mourned secretly (they feared Fortinbras). He was a quiet, gentle man, a man who loved peace (his country had suffered much from the wars of his predecessor), he behaved graciously toward everyone, humble and great alike. Never high-handed, he always sought advice in the kingdom’s affairs from serious, experienced people.
Just why his nephew killed him was never precisely explained. The prince suspected him of murder, and the basis of his suspicion was this: walking one night along an ancient battlement he thought he saw a ghost and he had a conversation with this ghost; what he supposedly heard from the ghost were certain accusations against the king.
It must have been a fit of fancy, an optical illusion, (the prince was highly strung in the extreme; while he was studying at Wittenberg, many of his fellow students thought him a maniac).
A few days later he went to his mother’s room to discuss certain family affairs. And suddenly, while he was talking, he lost his self-control, started shouting, screaming that the ghost was there in front of him. But his mother saw nothing at all.
And that same day, for no apparent reason, he killed an old gentleman of the court. Since the prince was due to sail for England in a day or two, the king hustled him off posthaste in order to save him. But the people were so outraged by the monstrous murder that rebels rose up and tried to storm the palace gates, led by the dead man’s son, the noble lord Laertes (a brave young man, also ambitious; in the confusion, some of his friends called out: “Long live King Laertes!”).
Later, once the kingdom had calmed down and the king was lying in his grave, killed by his nephew (the prince, who never went to England but escaped from the ship on his way there), a certain Horatio came forward and tried to exonerate the prince by telling some stories of his own. He said that the voyage to England had been a secret plot, and orders had been given to kill the prince there (but this was never clearly ascertained). He also spoke of poisoned wine, wine poisoned by the king. It’s true that Laertes spoke of this too. But couldn’t he have been lying? Couldn’t he have been mistaken? And when did he say all this? While dying of his wounds, his mind reeling, his talk seemingly babble. As for the poisoned weapons, it was shown later that the poisoning hadn’t been done by the king at all: Laertes had done it by himself. But Horatio, whenever pressed, would produce even the ghost as a witness: the ghost said this and that, the ghost did this and that!
Because of all this, though hearing Horatio out, most people in all conscience pitied the good king, who, with all these ghosts and fairy tales, was unjustly killed and disposed of.
Yet Fortinbras, who profited from it all and gained the throne so easily, gave full attention and great weight to every word Horatio said.