Incestuous Beast

Ay, that incestuous, that adulterate beast.

Act 1.5.42

This excerpt occurs right after Horatio has showed Hamlet the existence of the ghost and Hamlet insists on following it despite his friend’s admonitions against it. It precedes the Hamlet’s insistence that Horatio and Marcellus swear upon his sword. It occurs right before he anounces to Horatio that he is to take on an “antic disposition.”

In this excerpt his character changes six times. It opens with a disgusted and contemptful tone that discredits Claudius’ perfidious nature. A sadder tone then takes over, that identifies the “falling off” and regrets that Gertrude would “decline upon a wretch whose natural giftes were poor to those” of his own. A reflective tone then merges with this beginning with “By virtue….” The tone then becomes more agitated, painful, and  stressed and the tempo increases with “But soft. Methinks I hear the morning air.” The dominant painful tone emphasises the pain that the King went through and readily helps us achieve cartharsis.The tone then becomes more reflective of past events but remains as intense – indeed the intensity of the painful tone culminates to a climax of agony in “O horrible, O horrible, most horrible.” The tone, then becomes much more fatherly as he advises his son not to blame his mother. This tone expresses his love for his mother and his deep forgiving capabilities.

Unlike the Prince, Hamlet Sr. Forgives Gertrude’s fickleness and instead accredits Claudius of “Traiterous gifts.” This is important since it places the former King in the light of wisdom. He is seen as a man who parses matters objectively and finds the real problem. In his personification of virtue, vice, and lust his reflective character is brought to light since he generalizes on how virtue and vice are immutable, even when they come into contact with one another. The source of Hamlet’s own intellectual habits are thus established. When he says that he was “Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin, / Unhouseled, dis-appoited, unaneled, / No reck’ning made, but sent to my account / With all my imperfections on my head.” We establish that he is far from being a perfectly moral king. He was thus a realistic King – an opportunist of sorts that manipulated events to make them favrouable to the state of Denmark. But this must not be confused with being an evil king since the deep regrett and the melancholy and tone of agony expresses his basic loving character. His advice to leave Gertrude to Heaven is important because it mirrors his loving and deeply forgiving character.

Most of this excerpt is written in iambic pentameter, but it is loosely so. Line 44, and 49 for example are not written in the penameter, they have 11 syllables and the number of syllables are shorter at the end of each stanza. The first few lines are not written in the iambus, which reflects or mirrors his own contempt for Claudius. Each culmination point is broken with commas or exclamation mark or hypens. “That have the power so to seduce.”  The opening lines are where the rythm is most disjointed and the subject is Claudius. So both the Prince and the former king are particularly sensitive about the subject.  When the intesity of his agony reaches a pinnacle the disjointedness of the rythm is felt again. This disjointedness is an invaulable tool that Shakespeare uses to emphasise the agitation in the character’s mind and to stimulate our own emotions. “O horrible, O Horrible, most Horrible.” (You can just feel it.)

The Excerpt is divided up into four stanzas. In the first he reveals his aversion to Claudius and emphasises his virtues compared to those of Claudius. In the second he makes a generalization on how Virtue and Vice are unmovable in spite of their existence side by side. In the Third Stanza he reveals how he was murdered.  In the Fourth he reflects on how horribly he was murdered and he gives advice to his son and bids him adieu. It is important that the first stanza stimulates Hamlet’s emotion since he is particularly sensitive about his mother’s sexual capriciousness.

The theme of Perfidy and Appearance vs. Reality is brought up in the first Stanza. The former King feels betrayed by Claudius’ treacherous gifts that “have the power so to seduce.” The theme of perfidy is a strong and recurrent theme that dominates much of the plot. It is appearant in Claudius’ letter to England to have Hamlet beheaded, and in Laertes and Claudius’ plot to kill Hamlet in the fencing match at the end of the play. The image of the “seeming-virtuous queen” evokes the theme of Appearance vs. Reality that hamlet brings up in his first soliloquy and that is a theme recurrent throughout the play. It occurs again in “Though lewdnes court it in a shape of heaven.”

The passage, contains images of rankness that emphasise Claudius’ foul nature. Again Claudius is seen as a thing or a “beast.” Earlier we will remember that was like “Hyperion to a satyr.” And later Hamlet will say that “the king is a thing.” The powerful and rank image of the “leperous distillment” that “swift as quicksilver” curds the “thin and wholesome blood” like acid dropped into milk forcefully evokes the brutality with which he was murdred. The “lazar-like” and vile and loathsome crust that covers his smooth body expands on this idea and serves as a prelude to the climax of “O Horrible…” These images have further importance in developing the theme of rankness.

By Tariq Khan