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Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Shakespeare & Hamlet's Sea of Troubles


HAMLET
To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

What does Hamlet's "sea of troubles" mean?

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet

Earlier in the play, in Act 1 Scene 4, Horatio warns Hamlet not to follow the Ghost, since the Ghost might make Hamlet go crazy, and lead him over the cliff to drown in the sea:

HORATIO
What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,
Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o'er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness?

But Horatio doesn't stop there. He also says:

HORATIO
think of it:
The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.

He is saying that the sea itself makes people desperate, and perhaps suicidal, when they look at the large sea, and they hear the roar of the waves.

So, right away, in the very first act, Shakespeare is introducing the idea that Hamlet might go mad, and be tempted to commit suicide.

And Shakespeare is connecting that idea to the image of the sea.

Later, Shakespeare reinforces this idea in the "To be, or not to be" speech, with the "sea of troubles" -- which appears in Act 3 Scene 1.

Ophelia by John Everett Millais

In Act 5 Scene 7, we learn that Ophelia has drowned. It is unclear if she committed suicide or not. It is possible that it was an accidental death. What is clear from Act 5 Scene 5 is that Ophelia had gone mad.

What is also clear is that Shakespeare is establishing a link between suicide, death by drowning and madness.

Why?

Perhaps the answer lies in the very next scene, Act 5 Scene 1, with the gravediggers.

They debate whether Ophelia should have a Christian burial, since she committed suicide. 

The First Gravedigger makes a case that if a man goes into the water, he has committed suicide.

But if the water comes to him and drowns him, then he did not commit suicide.

Here is a brief video of the scene, with Mark Hadfield as the First Gravedigger:



FIRST GRAVEDIGGER
Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here
stands the man; good; if the man go to this water,
and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he
goes,--mark you that; but if the water come to him
and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he
that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.

It would seem that Shakespeare is familiar with the law as it regards suicide -- or as it was known as "felo de se" -- "felon of himself."

If a person committed suicide, they were committing a crime against themselves.

Shakespeare's First Gravedigger is making an odd argument that a man could be the victim of the water itself -- coming to him!

As is often the case, Shakespeare's fools and clowns speak some kind of fundamental truth -- they have a message.

So what is the message here?

Was Ophelia a felon to herself? Or was she the victim of a crime? And if she is the victim, who are the criminals?

In her case, there is no one criminal. It would seem that there were many people, including Hamlet, who are guilty for driving her to madness and death.

Hamlet decides not to commit suicide during his "To be, or not to be" speech. But he does die by the end of the play. 

Hamlet's final duel

Was Hamlet's death self-inflicted, was he a felon to himself? Or was he the victim of a crime?

It is clear that there are many who conspire against Hamlet during the course of the play: Claudius, Laertes, Osric, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Polonius. Even his own mother!

All of these conspirators were like a "sea of troubles" which came to him and drowned him.

It is clear that Hamlet is the victim of a crime.

And Hamlet was never mad, he pretended to be mad.

What I find fascinating about this conclusion is that it is not the same conclusion historians have drawn for the man who inspired Shakespeare to write Hamlet.

The man for whom Shakespeare primarily wrote Hamlet was Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex.

Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex

Essex was Queen Elizabeth's "favourite" at court, and he suffered many slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, until he led a rebellion against the Queen's Court and was executed for treason.

Historians would have you believe that Essex was guilty of the crime, and that he was figuratively a felon to himself. It was all his fault. 

And historians would have you believe that if Essex was not mad, he was at least so emotionally unstable that it helped to destroy him.

Shakespeare wrote Hamlet for many reasons, not the least of which was to serve as a record of who Essex really was, and what really happened to him.

It would have been impossible for Shakespeare to write a play entitled "The Most Lamentable Tragedy of Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex" in which the real true story of his downfall and execution was depicted.

So Shakespeare wrote Hamlet instead.

And just as Shakespeare's Hamlet character is not a felon to himself, only pretended to be mad, and was ultimately murdered by many conspirators -- so too we should consider that Essex took up arms against a sea of troubles.

But the sea came to him and drowned him first.

I invite you to read more about Shakespeare, Essex and Hamlet here on my blog and in my version of the Hamlet play -- to learn the true story behind these men and events.

Cheers,




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