Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Shakespeare's Death of Priam

One of the pleasures of getting on in years is getting to revisit art. How different a work can seem after more living. How much more truthful, inspiring, and unique they can seem. Everyone has, I think, a variety of relationships with art. Some works become thoroughly internalized and part of one's mental furniture, others seem to grow right alongside you. Some we neglect, unfairly, and others we adore. Sometimes a piece we have read or heard many times suddenly strikes us for the first time with its full force. I had that experience the other day when revisiting Hamlet. Specifically I was surprised by the end of the second scene of Act II in which the prince first meets the players. [See eText]

Hamlet, Act II, Scene II

Hamlet greets the players and asks the first of them to play a little scene, "'tws Aenas' tale to Dido; and thereabout of it especially where he speaks of Priam's slaughter:" Hamlet, in trying to cite the line actually plays some of the scene himself.

We should first consider this scene's context within the play. The play-within-a-play feature is of course a famous device and the play Hamlet arranges to test Claudius is quite well-known. Here though is not just an inserted scene but one of radically different style. This difference though seems not to be of form since the scene is not strictly an aside, a dramatic monologue, or an instance of ekphrasis though it shares features of those forms. The difference is instead of style, particularly diction, tone, rhetoric, and syntax. Rather than treating each feature in turn let us look at this act straight through.

Hamlet begins by describing Pyrhhus, the son of Achilles also called Neoptolemus, first as rugged but then as "Hyrcanian." This is interesting in two respects. First it is a dash of the exotic. To the Greeks and Romans Hyrcania, the region surrounding the southern tip of the Caspian Sea (mare Hyrcanum), was distant and exotic, lying at the heart of the Persian Empire. (see Catullus, II.5.) In Aeneid IV Vergil refers to the land's tigers: Caucasus Hyrcanaeque admorunt ubera tigres. This association seems to have fascinated Shakespeare too since he uses it not only here but in Macbeth (III.iv) and Henry VI, Part III (I.iv). It quickly evokes exoticism and savage beastliness. Now quite cleverly Hamlet pauses as if he has misquoted the line and begins again without "Hyrcanian." Shakespeare of course gets the effect of the word anyway but he also seems to be making another point. Now of course this use demonstrates that Hamlet has not only memorized this passage, but has confused it with another, apparently one of equal grandiosity. Alongside his rhetorical ability and wit which we see in his normal speech, it's a very subtle hint about Hamlet's education, mind, and personal world.

Now Pyrrhus is "sable," sable meaning dark but also connoting heraldry since sable is a heraldic color. Shakespeare avoids "dark as night" (which must have been cliché as long as "cold as ice") and instead uses "black as his purpose" but still works in the night, compensating for the cliché by 1) separating it from the object it describes, 2) reversing the order of the phrase, 3) metrically making sure you can quickly bounce through it, 4) and using it as a bridge to the following phrase, which too picks up on the darkness in the "couched in the ominous horse."

Shakespeare continues: his dark figure is even more dismal for what he has already done. He is "total gules" i.e. all red with the "blood of fathers, mothers, and daughters." (Specifically gules is the heraldic term for red.) Shakespeare uses a culinary vocabulary to describe the caked on blood, "bak'd, impasted, roasted." Calling Phyrrus "trick'd" refers not simply to him being adorned with blood but to the process of "tricking" (i.e. prefiguring/sketching/notating) a coat of arms on a surface. We ought read tricking as metonymy for the actual act of painting. This would continue the heraldic theme and link Pyrrhus with his father Achilles, (to whom Priam compares him later in Vergil's account.)

The light from the burning city is "tyrannous and damned" as is the death of Priam, i.e. Priam and his city are being dominated and destroyed. The phrase "Hellish Pyrrhus with his eyes like carbuncles," (i.e. reddish-brown gems) is so covered in blood he is "oversized" contrasts with the gentle "old grandsire Priam." The word order also mirrors the sense as "old gransire Priam" is surrounded by Pyrrhus' seeking: the hellish Pyrrhus old gransire Priam seeks.

Now Hamlet, realizing he has gotten carried away with himself, asks the First Player to continue. The groundling Polonius makes the ridiculous and passionless compliment that the prince spoke well and with "good discretion." The First Player takes over.

Old Priam is "striking too short" at the Greeks with his old sword which is "rebellious to his arms" and "repugnant to command." In contrast Pyrrhus is so enraged he swings wide and misses, but Priam falls from the "whiff and wind" and the ferocity of the swing. You can take "whiff and wind" as pleonastic or whiff literally meaning the stench coming off his sword. Shakespeare here personifies the Trojan citadel, "Ilium," which itself reacts to Pyrrhus' blow by collapsing (as in a last-ditch effort) to stop the intruder. While it only "takes prisoner Pyrrhus' ear" it catches him amidst his blow, his sword "declining on the milky head of reverend Priam" and he pauses. He stands there as if painted, "neutral to his will and matter," i.e. balanced (and thus still) between what he wants to do and what he can do. Shakespeare follows with classic (or clichéd) references to the calm before the storm and the silence of death. 

Yet even with those not-so-fresh images this scene of Pyrrhus' power paused in hurling Priam's deathblow amidst the flaming ruins of falling Troy achieves a dreadful grandeur. It is as if Shakespeare has drawn a relief for us of this clash from a long-lost epoch. The following analogy has a particularly classical ring:
And never did the Cyclops' hammers fall
On Mars' armor, forged for proof eterne,
With less remorse than Pyrrhus' bleeding sword 
Now falls on Priam.
The aside about the quality of Mars' armor, the personification (remorseless hammers) and transferred epithet (bleeding sword) and conclusion in the present tense make this passage especially vivid. Now he aspostrophizes to Fortune and the gods, pleading that they stop the deed. Break "all the spokes and fellies" refers to the notion of the rota fortunae, or wheel of fortune, and the changefulness of fate. Hamlet will again consider fortune in the very next act when he says, "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. . ." Shakespeare also uses the image in Henry V, Act 3 Scene VI (a cruel trick of fate and a turn of silly Fortune's wildly spinning wheel) and throughout Macbeth in the form of the doomed Thane's rise and fall. Shakespeare will continue the theme shortly in Hamlet.

At the height of the scene's poignancy Shakespeare now, in brilliant fashion, has Polonius interrupt complaining, "This is too long." Hamlet deftly rebukes him for his lack of taste and sensitivity, "He's for a jig, or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps." The player continues with "the mobled queen" and Polonius notes that he approves of the turn of phrase, still missing the point of the performance.

Shakespeare now paints despairing portrait of Priam's wife, Hecuba. Her head, once crowned, is now mobled (wrapped or muffled) with a clout (rag) and as she runs barefoot up and down she "threatens" the flames with "bisson rheum," or blinding teary-discharge. The archaism of the phrase suggests more of an uncontrollable outpouring than a weeping over some intellectualized matter. Shakespeare calls her "overteemed" and thus sets up a contrast between her and Priam, who are naturally at the ebb of their power and vitality, and Pyrrhus, who is unnaturally engorged ("o'ersized with gore") with strength. The sight, we are told, would cause anyone to cry treason at the cruelty of Fortune:
But if the Gods themselves did see her then,
When she saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport
In mincing with his sword her husbands limbs,
The instant burst of clamor that she made,
Unless things mortal move them not at all,
Would have made milche the burning eyes of heaven,
And passion in the gods."
This climax is perhaps the most simple, and moving, part of the speech, enlarged and made more grand only by the two asides, (When she saw. . . limbs, and unless things. . . not at all.) Anyone, the poet says, should be moved by such a pitiful sight. Except for Polonius, who instead of getting caught up in the speech disapproves of how emotional the player has become, and now we come to our point which Hamlet states shortly thereafter when everyone else leaves. "All for nothing! For Hecuba!" he says. This man has worked himself to tears with pity for a stranger from history and here Hamlet, whose father was murdered and mother stained and kingdom robbed, can say and do nothing. Hamlet in fury and frustration lets loose a torrent of insults against himself before the scene ends with his plot to "catch the conscience of the king."

We must ask now, why this particular scene? We could have had a slightly different speech with seemingly similar effect. For example, if Hamlet had found himself moved at the scene he could have asked, "Why can I be moved by this fiction and not by my own misfortune?" Hamlet speaks approvingly of this piece, that it is more handsome than subtle, modest, without affection, and of honest method. It is of course quite embellished and florid, driven more by imagery and description than deep probing into the psychology of the character, a contrast which seems perhaps untrue until the depths of Hamlet's introspection in the following speech sharpens the contrast.

Perhaps Shakespeare's point in imitating this style is the same as his choice of material,  its distance. Surely the style is moving in some respect, but it is so formal and elaborate it becomes removed and less intimate. Still, though, the player is moved. We know this style was still popular in the dramas of the Admiral's Men, the second most popular troupe (to Shakespeare's own) in London so it was not quite alien and it was certainly well-known through Marlowe's Dido's Lament and Vergil himself. Let us look at these works and then consider anew Shakespeare's point in re-writing the story as he does.

Marlowe's scene emphasizes the theme of fortune:
Achilles' son, remember what I was,
Father of fifty sons, but they are slain,
Lord of my fortune, but my fortunes turned,
King of this City, but my Troy is fired,
And now am neither father, Lord, nor King:
. . .
Jove's marble statue began to bend the brow
As loathing Pyrrhus for this wicked act.
Here Hecuba in a frantic and futile gesture throws herself between her husband and his attacker before she is quickly and easily tossed aside. Also, Priam here pleads with Pyrrhus.

Vergil's account is by far the most graphic, emphasizing the violence and cruelty of Pyrrhus. Priam's son Polites is rushing to his parents with Pyrrhus hot on his heels and is run through just as he gets there. The scene is frenetic and vivid in Vergil. From Book II:
saucius. Illum ardens infesto vulnere Pyrrhus
insequitur, iam iamque manu tenet et premit hasta. 530
Ut tandem ante oculos evasit et ora parentum
concidit ac multo vitam cum sanguine fudit.
Priam rises in outrage, castigating Pyrrhus that his father Achilles treated him better, for while he desecrated Hector's corpse in rage, he honored the suppliant's rights, returned the body, and let Priam return home. Priam then hurls a spear at Pyrrhus which he easily dodges before his cruel reply:
Cui Pyrrhus: 'Referes ergo haec et nuntius ibis
Pelidae genitori. Illi mea tristia facta
degeneremque Neoptolemum narrare memento.
Nunc morere.' 550
Shakespeare's seems now a sort of pasticcio, but one in which he shifts the focus away to Hecuba, famous for her suffering. In fact Shakespeare mentions her in in Cymbeline, Act II, Scene II:
Pisanio, All curses madded Hecuba gave the Greeks,
And mine to boot, be darted on thee!
and in The Rape of Lucretia. . .
To this well-painted piece is Lucrece come,
To find a face where all distress is stell'd.
Many she sees where cares have carved some,
But none where all distress and dolour dwell'd,
Till she despairing Hecuba beheld,
Staring on Priam's wounds with her old eyes,
Which bleeding under Pyrrhus' proud foot lies.
Yet one still wonders why Shakespeare shifted the focus to Hecuba. He does not at all draw on the part in Vergil's telling in which the old king, impotent as he was, rose in anger to throw that spear at Pyrrhus. That scene surely has a parallelism to Hamlet's situation. Yet that would not have worked as well since Priam was a great king of old. Instead, here this humble player has enough command of himself to grow pale and tearful and choked up over nothing, over Hecuba. Hamlet has not failed to live up to the example of Priam, which would be understandable, but up to the player, which makes him still more distraught: Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!

Additionally, Shakespeare instead of making the speech about Priam as Marlowe does, uses his fall to build to the higher climax of his wife's despair. The outburst of the address to Fortune and the gods accomplishes this amplification, as in fact do Polonius' foolish interruptions.

This little speech, which seems often to get cut in abridged productions, is a most clever and carefully constructed piece, its style and substance both constructed to fit the needs of the larger drama in which it sits. It is dense with description, imagery, and classical figurative devices and while it begins with two traditional themes (arms, and specifically heraldry, and men) its focus takes an unexpected turn. Finally the end to which Shakespeare puts the speech is simply inspired.

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