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A surprising insight

April 29, 2010

So last night, thanks to a tip from Sue, I was watching PBS again. Two nights in a row, strange. This time it was to see a performance of Hamlet starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. Stranger still that I should see Hamlet performed by Doctor Who and Captain Picard, eh?

Interesting how I had missed something in a particular scene up till now, and Stewart managed to show it to me. At the end of Act 3, Scene 3, Hamlet has a chance to kill Claudius but fails to do so, as he catches Claudius in the act of praying. Thinking he would send his father’s killer straight to heaven, sins forgiven from prayer, he opts to wait (and adds to the body count).

In other performances I had missed something here; Claudius is trying, failing to pray — failing to repent.

But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? ‘Forgive me my foul murder’?
That cannot be; since I am still possess’d
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon’d and retain the offence?

And so he forces himself to kneel, as if angels could compel him to repentance; and this is how Hamlet finds him. Mistaken, he misses the opportunity. But I think it was Stewart’s sinister half-smile as he speaks the scene closed that made me see it. What a smile!

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

Perhaps in the other times I’ve watched this, the emphasis was changed, or lost — all on Claudius’ sense of guilt, nothing on his essential failure here. I’ve heard all the words spoken before, several times, but it’s a great performance that shows the meaning I’d been missing. The program lives up to its name. And Claudius certainly lives up to Hamlet’s proclamation from the first act:

O villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!
My tables—meet it is I set it down
That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark.

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