Friday, January 04, 2008

`They Observe Faraway Worlds'

In Shakespeare, as in life, I’m surrounded by conclusions I fail to draw. I’ve read Hamlet 20 or 25 times, I suppose -- most recently, last week -- but never noticed Claudius is a drunk until Michael Pennington pointed it out in Hamlet: A User’s Guide. This insight proves more useful than endless maunderings about image patterns and gender politics. Perhaps because of his theatrical background, Pennington sees the characters more intensely than those of us bound largely by the text. When Pennington reads the words Hamlet speaks to his mother (a very creepy speech, by the way):

“Not this, by no means, that I bid you do:
Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed…”

he suggests that “bloat” may be an unflattering exaggeration (and a sexual innuendo?), “though he probably shouldn’t be too skinny either; skinny kings don’t inspire confidence.” I’m reminded of the Monty Python bit in which they have a contest to select a suitable nickname for the citizens of Belgium. Third Place: Phlegms. Second Place: Sprouts. And the winner: “Fat Greasy Belgian Bastards.” Pennington writes:

“Alcohol is important to Claudius. He is a man who has murdered to get what he has and prospered without apparent effort: but in fact he is running very fast to keep still, his brain ever more active as he is sucked by his coat-tails into retribution. How does he sustain himself? I think he is a progressive alcoholic who draws creative energy from his habit at the outset; but he is weak over a long distance…”

These words seem especially pertinent as I recently contacted an old acquaintance I haven’t seen in almost 35 years. He was the closet I had to the quintessential “drinking buddy.” We drank together daily, at work, at home and in between, especially in John’s white, destroyer-class Thunderbird, and otherwise had nothing in common. Another old acquaintance told me John recently moved to Houston. I sent him an e-mail, he responded, and we had a long talk on the phone last weekend. John works as a supervisor in a steel plant, and still drinks the rest of the day. I’m amazed and appalled by his stamina. Next year he’ll turn 60. I told him I gave up booze a long time ago, and when I suggested we get together some time for dinner, he was forthright: “Most people change. I don’t change. I’m the same guy you used to know.” It’s not in me to condemn John. His explanation sounded at once apologetic and defiant, and I understand that. So did Zbigniew Herbert in a prose poem, “Drunkards,” as translated by John and Bogdana Carpenter:

“Drunkards are people who drink at one gulp, bottoms up. But they make a face, because at the bottom they see themselves again. Through the neck of the bottle they observe faraway worlds. If they had stronger heads and more taste, they would be astronomers.”

I see in John the drunk as house divided, the grimace of recognition pinpointed by Herbert, that familiar mingling of resignation, grandiosity, defiance and self-reproach -- in short, my own image in a funhouse mirror. Even Claudius is not entirely undeserving of our sympathy. Pennington says he demonstrates “provisional humanity,” though Hamlet calls him a “treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain.” Again, Pennington:

“The poison in the cup and the poison on the untipped sword: how were they ever going to get away with it? It is a piece of recklessness, an addict’s fantasy of short-term gratification.”

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