Monday, April 22, 2013
Hamlet, Onset Personality Attributes and the Literary Threshold
Some are singularly somber, scarred by a darkly particular past, others are freshly-unlined and exuberant, naive and idealistic; all, however, spring into the narrative fully-formed like Minerva from the brow of Jupiter, encased in their acquired armor made necessary from the slings and arrows of an outrageous fortune to which we, the reader, have yet to become acquainted. While these whips and scorns of time might belong to an obscurely undefined past, that fictional character has, in some way, been shaped by them: the weight of past experience etched within their physiognomy, formed in furrows between the brows or in the whitened whiskers of a balding mane. Each character emerges from the literary darkness in the full-timbered resonance of complicated three-dimensionality, and perhaps there is just as much to be designated, decided and mulled over in the precursor: in the preceding narrative of this particular character's life prior to their arrival on the doorstep of one's novel. Or perhaps I am plagued by procrastination and will ponder and pontificate on all that precedes the palpable process of putting pen to paper! Say it is not so!
In the meaningful formulation of a fictional individual, one must not only ruminate upon the manner in which they develop throughout the written narrative, but the complicated matrix of their personality at the onset. This process comprises extricating the elements that have unduly influenced them, the encumbrances that weigh them down; postulating some notion of childhood, of the geographical, political and social milieu that comprised this early time of youth, the instilled parental perspective and predispositions; the hiccups of young adulthood and the obdurate opinions of the old - until the character is fixed, like an insect in amber, pinioned in a literary freeze-frame, formulated at a specific chronological age. Just as the players within Hamlet cover a gamut of lifespan, from the doddering Polonius to the youthful Laertes, each comes to the game with a complex set of assumptions and life experiences that quintessentially define their particular personality, proclivities and the manner in which they interact with others. This is where the preliminary authorial work lies: in the back-narrative, the initial formulation that establishes character credibility.
Hamlet is, from the onset, much troubled: afflicted with his father's demise and his mother's precipitous marriage he finds the world a 'weary, stale, flat and unprofitable' place. Having 'lost all [his] mirth, forgone all custom of exercises,' and clad 'in nighted color' Hamlet is but a shadow of his former self; his attire a deliberate criticism of the colorful court who assume 'the trappings and suits of woe.' Ophelia refers to this lighter past of courtier, soldier, scholar and lover: a prince with a tendency to deep rumination and intensity of thought, but one traversing his designated path of seeming complacent happiness - before the smiling villain succumbed to his own ambitions for Crown and Queen. Very early into the play, as Hamlet barely crosses the literary threshold, we become aware of the particular transformation that has immediately preceded his arrival: this melancholic disposition, (prior to ghostly revelations of murder and mayhem) this agitated reflection upon his father's death and his mother's 'o'erhasty marriage.'
As the play proceeds Hamlet's tension heightens and spirals, his despondency transmuted into the agonized rage of a son denied both father and throne with all matter bent to revenge: 'I'll wipe away all trivial, fond records, all saws of books, all forms, all pressures past, that youth and observation copied there, and thy commandment all alone shall live within the book and volume of my brain, unmixed with baser matter.' These trivialities, this baser matter, that hitherto occupied Hamlet's mind might be fairly construed to be the quotidian occupations of any particular Danish princeling, the engagements of mirth and exercise from which he now abstains. The distance traversed from the 'expectancy and rose of the fair state, the glass of fashion and the mold of form, th' observed of all observers' is all the more dramatic to those unaware of Hamlet's deliberate intent, of his assumed 'antic disposition' which evades and perplexes the scrutiny of the capricious court. The quintessential dramatic tension contained within the fictional frame of Hamlet is born in the inevitable juxtaposition between what he is now (an admixture of dark melancholy and tortured fury inflicted on self as well as others) and what he was before (mirthfully engaged in princely pursuits sheltered by the cheerful triumvirate of an intact nuclear family.)
Before they even traverse the literary landscape the characters are multifaceted complications; only after the formulation of which can one then propel them through the action with a clear understanding of how these back-narratives will predispose them to certain responses, how the intricacies of interactions with others will color their forward action. Little of this might be revealed to the reader; there is, after all, a certain amount of uneasy ambiguity that encompasses Gertrude's marriage of unseemly haste. What prompted this alliance? Can she be subsequently implicated in the death of Hamlet's father? Is she much maligned by Hamlet's hostility or is she receiving her just deserts?
Perhaps Shakespeare had, within the confines of his creative cranium, the answers to these questions. He is, after all, the omnipotent deity of this fictional world: the 'divinity' that Hamlet declares 'shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we will.' Whether the Bard chooses to reveal these literary undercurrents is another thing. Just as we, the writer, must hold all the cards, shuffling and jostling within our grasp, only a select few are displayed on the table, the rest remain shrouded within the mists of the authorial mind. But I think it critical that these character attributes are formulated (whether or not they are demonstrated or utilized within the subsequent narrative they still comprise the quintessential particulars of that fictional individual) - and it is this precursor construct, this pre-formulated familiarity that breathes vitality into the character that navigates their way through the subsequent pages of one's novel.
Yet as I wade and mire through drier treatises of American intellectualism (engaged as I am in research for my next novel), through the whys and wherefores of western expansionism, and the knotted entanglements of slavery and cotton, I increasingly find that my characters have already experienced much that is interesting before they even deign to grace my narrative: a Parisian physician devastated by the 1848 Revolution and circumscribed by the conservative medical establishment seeks a new start in the Land of Opportunity; a young Chinese girl lured to the New World under false pretenses and forced into prostitution; a garrulous miner bemoaning hard times and hard prices, hankering after the heady egalitarianism of gold-rush days; a fiery female journalist seeking to forge a literary path for herself in what is still yet a male-dominated frontier.
These characters are shadowy remnants still, partially-formed ideas of themselves, skeletal and shallow, awaiting the literary brush that will define the flesh and provide the thrum and quiver of life-bestowed. But as brilliantly evidenced by Shakespeare's Hamlet, I am intrigued by the juxtaposition of what went before and, fashioned within the literary maelstrom of plot and heated forward-action, what comes after; how this piece of work which is man is contorted and shaped by the subsequent narrative, by the house that is one's novel, and how he emerges at the end of it as something else entirely. For myself, however, the humble architect of this particular abode, I merely hold open the door, beckon the weary travelers across the threshold, echoing as I do so Hamlet's greeting to the actors: 'You are welcome. masters; welcome all!'