Thursday, January 16, 2014

The king is dead, a rooster crows. An excerpt from "Mona in the Desert"

The following very long chunk of text is the first couple of pages of Chapter 14 from my work-in-progress, MONA IN THE DESERT. I'm not sure why I'm putting it up here except that, for a variety of reasons, this section amuses me. There is a lot of stuff going on in the novel at this point and this excerpt, while seemingly a mere digression by the narrator and unrelated to any of the action, is...well, important. But mostly amusing to me.

I have mentioned that I wrote a book treating of misreadings of Shakespeare. My editor and I agree that it’s a good book and I recommend it as often as I can, as I have strong opinions on the subject of Shakespeare. There are many readers—from casual fans to hoary old academics—who labor over the plays in search of clues to Shakespeare’s alleged involvement in conspiracies, adulteries and religious intrigues. Doctoral theses and mimeographed chapbooks in the thousands are produced by crackpot followers of various enthusiasms who claim, for example, that the allusions to Virgil in the big soliloquy in Act III of the Scottish play signify Shakespeare’s knowledge of the plot by Presbyterians to assassinate King James, a plot foiled only after the king sat through “Macbeth” and was thereby tipped off. My reader is assured that not only was there no such plot against the life of King James, the presence of Virgil’s fingerprints on Shakespeare’s blank verse is a sign of nothing more than the playwright having read The Aeneid’s siege of Latinum while drafting his own scenes that put Macbeth behind walls, in arms. The proposed real-life intrigues hinted at within Shakespeare’s pages are not there. Certainly Shakespeare’s prose is made richer by the inclusion of bits of stuff tangential to the plots and themes, but to follow these bits of spice off the pages and through either history books or the wake of some fantastic political hobby-horse is to be taken on a merry chase that leads nowhere. One can count all the mentions of gloves and fingers in the thirty-six canonical plays, and then divide that number by the fact that Shakespeare’s father was a glover, and one can then present the sum as evidence of whatever theory one likes. If you do this, however, your news is not true, and you run an enormous risk of exposing your enthusiastic foolishness to ridicule. Really it’s a terrific book that I wrote and I urge you to find a copy. The year my book came out, I met—at an academic conference in Wales—a professor of literature who presented a lecture in which he claimed that “Hamlet” was a puzzle, like one of Nabokov’s novels. His primary Nabokovian touchstone was Pale Fire, I recall. After the lecture I found the closest pub and midway through my first pint, the Welsh professor of literature pulled up the stool next to mine and demanded praise for his ideas. If you track down all the clues in Pale Fire, I told him, you learn only that the whole thing is a novel, a work of fiction written by a Russian author. The puzzle, I said, reveals its exterior, not a new and hidden knowledge. My colleague was speechless so I finished the pint, signaled the barman to pour another, and launched myself once more into the breach against the professor: If you read Shakespeare closely, I said, you come face to face with the ghost of a bright Englishman who had a strong imagination and a gift for language and character. There’s no hidden mystery; there’s no puzzle. Neither William Shakespeare nor Prince Hamlet is Charles Kinbote, I said, and Horatio is not Botkin neither. The genius of the work is right there in plain sight. There’s plenty enough to see, too much there already to try to make more of it, to fail to see the beauty of the plays already visible. The Welshman and I came briefly to blows after a few more pints and a good deal of shouting. I was not invited to the conference the next year, and there were some scathing reviews of my book in the months after my encounter with the professor.

It might be helpful to my reader, since I so frequently mention the work, if I briefly outline the plot of “Hamlet.” The play is a mystery story masquerading as typical Elizabethan revenge drama. The action opens at midnight, on a rampart outside the Danish castle at Elsinore. The king, who always appears dressed in shining armor, walks like a ghost through the play’s many nights, always gone at first light. The king is recently returned from one of his endless wars, soon to embark upon another. It is Christmastime, when families gather together, but the royal family hardly know one another. The king, the husband and father, is rarely at home. His wife and son know him mostly by his reputation. The king sees his own shadow cast upon a castle wall and makes that speech so admired by Carlyle, “Do I not shine, in crowned sovereignty, over you all, as the noblest, gentlest, yet strongest of rallying-signs, indestructible?”

Enter the queen with Horatio, the protagonist of the play, a bright young fellow who has been recommended to the queen as a suitable tutor to the crown prince, who is the Hamlet of the play’s title. Hamlet is also bright but he is an indifferent student, requiring assistance with his Latin and Greek. Horatio is introduced to the king and delivers a shocking aside to the audience. “This man, this king, who spent my childhood making war upon Europe’s crowned heads, hath left me fatherless, hath left my mother’s bed empty.” He utters a blasphemous oath, repelled by the sight of the old warrior embracing the queen. Then Horatio turns smiling to the royal couple, bows and scrapes as they exeunt, the king to prepare his generals for “a soon assault against warlike Norway.” Horatio stands alone onstage, in the very spot where we first saw the king. Now comes the first big soliloquy of the play, as Horatio swears to “sweep through this royal house like the angel of death. There will be no lamb’s blood on the lintel, no Passover. There will be an end, and nothing more. An end for all of them.” Horatio has come to Elsinore to destroy the royal family. It’s a chilling moment, the little man alone on the battlement, shaking a fist at the light that shines from the king’s chamber. We are unsure about this character but we feel perhaps that the king has at some point caused the death of Horatio’s father. We are wrong about that.

The play is a mess. Samuel Johnson was correct to note that Shakespeare showed no regard “to the unities of time and place.” It’s unclear how much time passes between scenes, or precisely where many scenes take place. Certainly the stable scene in Act III is a dream had by Hamlet, as Myers pointed out in his 1917 monograph.

Act II opens with a brief speech by the queen, the reading of a letter from the king, who is away at war again. The queen, in her loneliness, secretly takes comfort in the arms of Claudius, half-brother to the king. Meanwhile Horatio involves himself in the conspiracy of Fortinbras, a young nobleman whose ancestral lands in Polish Kashubia were seized by the king some years before the play opens. It is clear that Horatio and Fortinbras have met often with a group of revolutionaries led by Count Ulfeldt of Copenhagen. The revolutionaries, confusingly enough, refer to themselves as “the Swiss Guard.” Fortinbras thinks at first only to redeem the lost estates in Kashubia, but Horatio edges the young hothead into something farther. “Is this all you would do?” Horatio asks. “You would allow this thief to steal away and sit fat and happy unto old age upon this throne, while your legacy rots, untitled and unrecognized, under the common earth? Such other ambition, my lord, does not overtake you?” The meaning of this passage, of the word “legacy,” is made immediately clear when we learn—in the second of the play’s many surprises—that Horatio and Fortinbras are half-brothers. The next shock is delivered when Fortinbras refers to Prince Hamlet as “our younger third half,” or half-brother. The men are sons of the same man, though only Hamlet is legitimate, recognized by the king, the father of all three.

Shakespeare never explains this mystery, only intimating that Horatio and Fortinbras were sired during the king’s youth as he sallied forth to conquer new territories. Who is the mother of Horatio? Who is the mother of Fortinbras? We will never know. Harold Bloom calls this “the Horatio Puzzle,” and many solutions have been offered. I won’t bore my reader with excursions down those blind alleys.

In Act III, Horatio discovers the adultery between Claudius and Queen Gertrude. Horatio is fond of Claudius and his admiration only increases when he learns how the king is being cuckolded. Horatio dances with joy and then offers, in an elliptical speech—supposedly about styles of furniture and quite funny—to help Claudius get rid of the king. “For cannot the monarch’s brother fit into the throne?” He will offer to do it “with these very hands.” There is a delicious moment in this scene where Claudius removes a portrait of the king from a gilt frame, and then stands behind the empty frame to put himself in the king’s place.

Horatio also finds time to involve himself in the tempestuous relationship between Hamlet and Ophelia. Remember that the tutor has sworn to destroy the whole royal family, no matter his just-concluded pact with Claudius. Horatio will ruin the love story because “the prince’s blood runs with the same poison as his father’s.” It is a lovely irony that Horatio fails to see this poison coursing through his own veins. I forget how he finds it out, but Horatio happens to know that Ophelia has been “used” by the king before young Hamlet got to her. Ophelia is, quoth Horatio, “polluted, a pretty sewer hole to receive the filthy seed of the filthy king and his filthy son.” We never learn Horatio’s opinion of his own mother. Indeed, she is not mentioned once in the play.

The identity and personality of the king is often asked after, however. The question, “Who is the king?” is posed twenty-seven times in the course of five acts, and is asked about three different men who all take up the same crown, one after another.

Act IV is when the bloodbath begins. In his essays about England, Voltaire said of Shakespeare that “there are such beautiful scenes, such great and at the same time so terrible pieces widespread in his monstrous farces which go by the name of tragedies.” The last hour of “Hamlet” is a collection of “great and terrible pieces.” The king returns, victorious, clad in shining armor, walking like a ghost through the castle after dark. Think of that brief scene where he encounters Horatio on the lonely rampart, and mistakes his bastard son for the prince. The monarch is intoxicated, having made “the king’s rouse” all night long with a cask of Rhenish. He is unsteady on his feet. Horatio pushes him off the high rampart, crying out, “I too have dreamt of my father, father!” The king is dead, a rooster crows. Claudius takes the crown for himself. Hamlet is set against his uncle and mother through Horatio’s sly innuendo, his actions and speech so similar to that of Iago that it’s already been too much commented upon to merit my further attention here. Horatio convinces the emotionally unstable Ophelia to break off her dalliance with Hamlet if he will not declare his love publically. The happy tutor whispers into his charge’s ear the truth about Ophelia and the late king. My reader will recall the white-hot scene in the chapel.
Oph: I was given no choice!
Ham: O, you wanton! You were better to let him kill you than to violate you.
Oph: Such words as these come easily to one standing aside the battle, my lord.
Ham: I have never forgone my own morals, lady.
Oph: Because like your father, you have none!
Ophelia is devastated by this turn of fortune. Her father, Lord Polonius, attempts to take Hamlet to task for abusing his daughter. For his pains, the old man gets a rapier through the guts. Ophelia, as we all know, goes extravagantly mad. Shakespeare is at his finest in Ophelia’s mad scenes, giving her colorful metaphors for the betrayal she cannot openly declare. She chats with the corpse of Polonius, who lies in state within the castle.
Oph: I cannot howsomever admit of it, that you are guilty of these warrants, father, and now gone forever. I know my lady is mistaken, certes; though she speaks kindly she wore blue to match her eyes and when my lady wears blue she doth mistake her of the facts. Long have I bethought myself to remind the queen to wrap in yellow or crimson when speaking to any purpose but I do forget me and so my lady is mistook and I must speak to her of the blue. Blue eyes, blue skies, the ocean blue and bluebirds too. They are mistaked and my eyes are green which puts me in the right and you have gone away. Ah, the columbine yet bloom, and none in blue. The columbine is always true.
At Polonius’ funeral, Ophelia ignores the priest and addresses Horatio throughout the burial.
Oph: He lies in the grave, as the moon lies in the west. She is all blue like the sky. The moon lies deceived, and doth deceive. I would the moon wore white, or yellow as butter bright. His beard is white as snow. All flaxen was his head. He is gone, he is gone, and we castaways moan ’neath a blue-clad moon. God have mercy on his soul, I pray God.
Act V is when the stage is cleared of most of the remaining cast. First, Polonius is buried by moonlight, as above noted. In quick succession Ophelia drowns herself, Gertrude is murdered by Horatio (he smothers her with a pillow in her closet and then juggles three rotten apples while extemporizing on the faded passions of middle-aged matriarchs), and then the revolutionaries lay siege to Elsinore. Hamlet walks the battlements at midnight to view the surrounding rebel army. He nearly stumbles upon Horatio in whispered conference with Fortinbras, but his half-brothers spot him first and hide in the shadows while the prince ponders, ponderously, suicide. Fortinbras enters the castle and kills Claudius in the throne room, and Hamlet is, at long last, knifed in the back by Horatio. Literally. Fortinbras becomes king of Denmark. Horatio becomes lord chamberlain. The king has been replaced by a false father (Claudius), who is replaced by an upstart bastard. The murderous Horatio, the engine of all the theatrical discontent, is transformed from servant to nobleman. Prince Hamlet, the youngest of the half-brothers, is the tragic hero of the piece. Why is it that youngest sons are forever given sympathetic treatment by mothers and playwrights? But there the play ends, the curtain falling on an abattoir. I have not even hinted at the subplot involving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: Claudius (now king) sends Hamlet on a voyage to the Faroe Islands with those two murderous henchmen. Hamlet returns suddenly without them. “These good souls met God face-to-face in a stormy sea,” the prince reports. He wrings out his hat, spilling seawater onto the floor of the throne room and then declares that he must wash his hands.

I tell my reader all of this for two reasons: first, my book on Shakespeare deserves a wider audience than it’s had; second, I warn my reader against misinterpretation of this very text I’m writing now. The letter in my aunt’s handbag, for example, is not a metaphor for hidden knowledge. It’s nothing more than a letter from Roberto Jogales, though Desdemona O’Hurleighy thought of this letter, as she walked south along the highway in her tight blue dress, as a lethal weapon, capable of slaying Rubhiana Jogales if it came to that. My reader, I stress, should remain aware that the lethal weapon is just a love letter. Roberto frequently wrote love letters to Mona during their year-long courtship. My aunt didn’t save any of these letters; there is no locked trunk in a basement anywhere, filled with heartfelt correspondence. My mother, when she fled my father to live for a while with Sean on the ocean shore, left behind the vast collection of letters she and Ernie had written during his years abroad. When Ernie moved out of the house, my mother reports, his half of the collection went with him. He denies having taken them, and he goes a step farther. There were no letters, he told me a few years ago. That’s a family myth. You and your mother always tell stories about the past, but they’re only stories, Frankie. Half of the events you two talk about never even happened. I don’t press the matter with the old man.

Edited to add: I am tempted to delete all of this excerpt, because I find myself radically rewriting it already. It turns out--and this doesn't surprise me--that I hadn't yet figured out what I wanted to do with this idea, the idea of having my narrator give a pocket synopsis of "Hamlet" that actually describes a different story than the one Shakespeare tells. Now that I've actually stumbled upon what it is that I should be doing with this material, I see how I was striking at the wrong mark with the attempt above. This passage comes quite late in the narrative, and is intended to show the reader, more or less, what is going on in the narrative he's been reading. Which means that this "Hamlet" faux synopsis should point more strongly back toward the narrative of which it is a part, which is what I've been making it do. Is that all vague? Well, it will make sense in a hundred years or so when the book is actually, maybe, published. We'll see. Why does anyone read this blog anyway? Why do I write these pieces about books I write? I have no idea. It's a funny old world. Anyway, don't look for these passages in the final version of Mona in the Desert, because they won't be there, at least not in this form.


  1. Beautiful, Mr. B. I like that feeling of getting to go so deeply into a character's mind. The voice is a great blend of humor, intelligence, and restraint emotion.

  2. I'm just not sure about this one so it's taking a lot of work and I think I'll be revising for a long time, but thanks. The rooster is for you; the monarch is for Michelle.

  3. I liked the line about the rooster! My next book will be called platypus. I'm testing the extent of your love.

  4. My wife just asked me what it was that I was reading. I said, "Words, words, words." I hope you do not mind my answer. She was confused.

  5. "words, words, words?" That's the tab at the top of this page!

    I thought I was done with Hamlet, but he keeps following me around and I keep coming up with alternative story lines for him. The broody Henry James "Hamlet" is one that I hope I write someday, at least as a short story. It's set in 1910 or so, in upstate New York. There is no murder in that one.

  6. I like the idea of a book of stories, all about alternative Hamlets... which reminds me that I have not found your book yet. I shall clean the house like mad next week, and then it shall be found. If not, I shall give up and read it on the computer, though I don't like that at all!

  7. Yeah, the Wall Street Hamlet, the Dr Zhivago Hamlet, the Cervantes Hamlet, the Dickens Hamlet, the Chekhov Hamlet, the Nabokov Hamlet, the O'Connor Hamlet, the Gordimer Hamlet, the Murikami Hamlet, the Hammett Hamlet, the Angela Carter Hamlet etc. What larks, Pip!

    I could put a paper-and-ink copy of my novel into the mail for you.

  8. I am getting closer--found Jeff Sypeck's gargoyle book a while back, And I might've ordered them the same week. Unless I have forgotten (which I also might've!)

  9. No, don't send me one. I have it here somewhere! Just have been so busy with wrestling, ferrying, etc. that I haven't found it yet. But will...

  10. Oh, and go give Tim some blogger security advice! He's in panic mode!