Home > 2021 > Reading Hamlet During Times of Covid-19 | Radhakanta Barik
by Prof Radhakanta Barik (retd)
This article attempts at understanding politics by rereading the play Hamlet by Shakespeare which is his most political play. During 16th century a modern play got written by him with doubts in individual mind and giving autonomy to an individual. The play revolves around the illegitimate monarchy because of the involvement of the King and Queen in crimes leading to the murder of the legitimate ruler. We will discuss the story in the present article.
In the play, Hamlet is the central figure. There are some important characters related to Hamlet. He refuses to align with the monarchy although he is called Prince of Denmark. His uncle turned into the king of Denmark and got married to his own mother. After death of his own father in a suspicious circumstance, he and his friend both started investigating the case. Horatio and Hamlet are friends both support each other in each action specifically doing some research work. I heard the story in a club of Bhubaneswar about how the Prince of Denmark can work independently without Horatio. This is about a civil servant friend sitting and drinking where an elderly gentleman Mr Mitra came to him and recounted this. The context is the year 2000 when Naveen Patnaik became the Chief Minister and this civil servant known to his father needed to be placed as the Secretary to the Chief Minister. In other words stories of Hamlet are popular in public conversation in the small city of Bhubaneswar and Cuttack and Balesore and Sambalpur. Furthermore as a child I saw an Odiya play staged by the Yatra group on Hamlet without naming it. As a child I remember the first scene of the yatra where the Hamlet’s uncle after killing his brother running to the stage with blood in his hands and telling the story to the Queen. It is not an unknown story in Odisha and as in Bengal all the plays of Shakespeare got staged by Utpal Dutt and some of them I got a chance to see. In the National School of Drama (NSD) of Delhi, one used to see Shakespeare’s plays by young students but unfortunately, I have not seen Hamlet.
The text centres on Hamlet but it is interesting to note here that he has never made a monologue. On all occasions he is in a dialogic mood which is a dialectical method where the character’s autonomy is guaranteed only by speaking to so many people. He is the first public intellectual in Shakespeare as it is told by the King that ’public supports him’. This brings out the truth that Hamlet stands for public. He goes out of the influence of monarchy and speaks for all. He does not desire to be the King although he is known as the Prince of Denmark. He speaks out loudly against the royalty. "royal people commit crimes. These are villains around us."He as an intellectual puts his opinion based on proper inquiry. His father’s murder he wants to prove it by going three ways: One by talking to the ghost of his father but he is not convinced of it. He goes further by creating a play within the play and as the play is getting staged on murder of a King and the real King and Queen feel nervous and they leave the chair. Third he talks to a person who is in charge of grave yard and brings a skull to prove the point. Hamlet as a scholar takes the challenge of conducting research into crime and passion. He maintains a distance from his mother and uncle for conducting research into their involvement in the crime. This makes him a third person for analyzing the problem. He turns into an objective observer of the situation.
Hamlet redefines the beauty which is linked with honesty and integrity. There is nothing beautiful in appearance. This is a critical point in understanding aesthetics. “If you are honest and fair, it has no link with beauty. ---- honesty must translate into beauty. ”Two important modern values have been appreciated here. This is essential for creating public administration. Lack of honesty is the real reason of cancerous growth in a society. Honesty and integrity are two important social values of modern world specifically Europe which work through public administration. This is where the public administration gets separated from the monarchy. Feudal lineage allows any corrupt royal person to be a part of powerful state which Hamlet raises a question regarding them. The same thing is beauty that only women born in royal families are beautiful which is absolutely wrong. Here Hamlet gives a new definition of beauty. His concept of state is separated from monarchy which becomes a new thing in political science discourse.
Hamlet is a critic of feudal system and monarchy is the core of feudal system. In answering to a question by a friend “Why do you have less ambition? “He answered, ”I count myself a King of infinite space.” This is a subtle criticism of the monarchy and he himself was not interested to be a part of such corrupt system. He looks concept of power the way people dream. A dream is a part of sub-consciousness where the intention of human beings comes out. Those who carry evil designs find these embedded in their dreams. “Dreams are linked with ambition and dream itself is a shadow,” says Hamlet. He admits that his dreams are a part of beggars’ bodies and monarchs are the beggars’ shadows. By observing the Kings and Queens and other royal persons he is very much critical of these people. “ To me, man delights me not nor women neither.”
Hamlet adds further that human being is like other animals but the difference comes because man is reasonable. Getting reasonable does not make him noble as he does not act very often. ‘to be or not be’ is the real question before a man. When man acts with reason he turns into a god. Man is the beauty of the world and turns into a paragon of animals. He pleads for the “sovereignty of reason” rather than the rule of human beings. Hamlet looks at the world as unreasonable which is going to end with the rule of reason. Human beings can not be whimsical as their actions need to be reasonable. Hamlet a rationalist gets opposition from Polanius another important character in the play. Polonius is a part of the royal lineage. He is a regular liar whom one says: truthful to lies. He is an "old man with a grey beard, faces wrinkled, their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum and he has plentiful lack of wit together with most weak hans. You are like a cruel going backward." Hamlet puts him as ’tedious old fools" It is Polonius characterizes Hamlet as a mad guy. There is a conflict between a reasonable and truthful person vs a regular liar with a lot of machinations in his mind. He plans to make his daughter and son have an entry into the royal palace. His daughter needs to work out her plans to get married to the Prince of Denmark and his son to be the king. His son is the bastard child of the king itself. His politics is linked with the royal palace which opposes Hamlet’s politics of common men. Polonius a character has a lot of similarities with the present-day ruler in India and his son and daughter are like Ambani and Adani.
Polonius advises his son to ‘be careful of your moves. There is something for you from the present king. Please do not speak your thoughts.” His son needs to be careful of his words and moves and plans are there for getting something special from the king. Hamlet speaks of Polonius as “smile make you villain.” He is of opinion that man of few words makes one’s moves ahead. “Brevity is the soul of wit. ”Polonius is an interesting character who works for himself and his family. His daughter falls in love with Prince Hamlet who wants his advice. He advises her to be slow in her move towards Hamlet. They are young who should not be trusted. Hamlet’s letters are to be shown to the king by which he may know her affairs with his stepson. All these conspiracies and machinations are to make his children parts of the monarchy. PM Modi plans everything for ’ham do and hamara do’. It is for Modi and Shah whose works benefit two corporates like Ambani and Adani.
Polonius talks a lot without having any substance. As Hamlet tells: “Words, Words, Words” which fits into Modi’s Mann Ki Bat. He takes a decision in the middle of night which is known as” It is very witching time in night”. Each decision affects people negatively be the demonetisation resulted in -2 of GDP and Lock Down resulted in destroying the economy and making workers pushed out of the cities and started walking with their children. He does not feel the pain of the suffering of people. Hypocrites are defined as ‘words without thought. ”Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight. Ears without sight – Ears without hands and eyes. Smelling without all”. Modi does not see the world around him and people are dying without hospital beds, Oxygen and ventilator. He does not see the pathos of suffering people. He does not listen to the cries of orphans who lost their parents in covid 19. It could have prevented to some extent with a proper vaccination plan but he does not have any till the intervention of the Supreme Court. He does not have any feelings for them. There is no arrangement for these orphans or people who lose their bread earners. He has messed up the vaccination plan to protect people. There is budgetary provision for it and he lacks ears without sight which compels him not to spend this money for the vaccination project. In his Man ki Bat on 8th of May speaks of vaccination policy, after millions of people died of corona.
Conflict between Hamlet vs Polonius can be described between reason and unreason comes to an end. Hamlet’s sword kills Polonius. Hamlet’s mother wants to know from him about Polonius. He answers that Polonius is “ at supper, not where he eats but where it is eaten. Certain worms are over him… You turn fat by dealing this stuff.” This explains the irrationality and unreasonable thinking that comes to end. This brings a non-functional mind which makes one fat. Worms enter into mind eat those reasonable thinking. Stupidity can work as worms and eat the mind. Stupidity has been multiplied during Modi’s time as science and medicine have been pushed to the margin by bringing Ram Dev to the center of thinking. He talks of inventing medicine for covid and he abuses the medicine. Modi talks of plastic surgery in ancient times. All these are a part of stupidity which has increased its installment in the time of Covid 19.
King and Queen are the people who rule over Denmark. “your land is the vice of kings.”He is involved in the murder of his brother and married the king’s wife and decided to be the king.” As Hamlet put it “He has killed the king and whored my mother.” He does not mourn the death of his brother,’ it is unmanly grief’ and it is unschooled mind’s understanding. She does not have a mourning period. It is passion and infatuation that make her marry after the death of her husband. This is where Hamlet says ’Women: Frailty thy name is women.” Modi as the Chief Minister created riots which resulted in the deaths of two thousand people. His cabinet colleague Haren Pandeya walking in the morning disappeared in suspicious circumstances. Many officers and many people are in jail today just because they want to tell the truth. But the truth is buried under power. Modern power is more vicious than medieval authority where the king gets killed and even the ghosts tell the truth. Ghosts stand for people and although people know the truth. They speak out in friends’ circle and it remains as a part of gossip.
The King of Denmark encourages the son of Polonius to kill Hamlet. He conspires with him to kill in such a manner others may not have doubt, He encourages Laertes to get ready for sword fighting. Furthermore, he encourages him to poison Hamlet which others may not create doubts in the minds of the public. He advises Laertes to kill Hamlet with the poisoning of drinks in a church which may not create doubts. These conspiracies are required by the ruling political class in suspicious circumstances as Justice Loya died who was looking the case against Amit Shah.
“You like a crab, you like go backward.“ This brings the truth of the Modi regime. The story of seventy years of growth and development has got ruined because of the nature of crab taking the country backward. As India had 10 plus growth rate during the UPA time today it has come down -10 percentages under the Modi government functioning like a crab taking a country backward. In a true sense, he works like a crab taking the economy and society backward.
One scene deals with Hamlet’s father’s death. “While the scene is getting staged. Please observe my uncle. If he is guilty then he would feel disturbed. " This is the play within the play Hamlet to prove a point whether his uncle is innocent or guilty. After seeing the play his uncle the king got up from the chair and felt disturbed. This story has a parallel in the life of Modi while he was interviewed by Karan Thapar regarding his role in Gujarat riots he got up and left the interview. His feeling disturbed regarding the question is like King’s story.
Hamlet stands for reason. In the 16th century idea of the sovereignty of reason perhaps is an impossible thing. Hamlet as tragedy killed all but this idea of reason survives. The madness of Hamlet is reasonable thinking taking over the society to fight against obscurantist and superstitious thinking in a society like ours. They are ruling today where monks are a powerful group in doing politics with others. The present PM Modi supports these actors. But the idea of reason and scientific temper is taking over civil society. It is growing like the madness of Hamlet which is going to replace these rulers.
Modi government is dead against the exposition of black deeds of the state. The retired civil servants have been trying to write about the faltering of the administration because the rule of law has got violated. They have already written five to six letters speaking truth to the chair. This is like a civil servant in the state of Denmark saying: ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” They are being charged under the new law which can act against those retired people.
Hamlet is a tragedy where all the main characters end their lives but the truth gets hidden behind their ashes. Truth as reasonable thinking with facts remains fresh which does not die with the deaths of these people. Idea is a living force. It turns into rhetoric which gets repeated. This thrives in. Mahabharata a tragedy but not in a true sense a tragedy where one group wins over the other. The idea of truth is not there. It is getting personified with the survivors who haunt us after so many hundred years whereas truth in Hamlet turns into a living idea in the age of enlightenment. Rationalism is fighting against the forces standing for superstition in India. Reading Hamlet is relevant in India for understanding its politics and human tragedy caused by covid 19.
(Hamlet Prince of Denmark, a part of The Pelican Shakespeare, General editor Alfred Harbage)