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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Sir Thomas as The Ghost of King Hamlet AND as King Claudius caught in The Mousetrap

In my previous post...

...I set the stage for my argument set forth in the title of this post. And now I will quote for you, with my interspersed commentary, the sequence of passages in Chapters 18 & 19 of Mansfield Park, from the moment of Sir Thomas’s unexpected return from Antigua onward, which cumulative reenact—mostly but not entirely in a burlesqued way-- the Ghost scenes of Act One of Hamlet:

MP, Ch 18, end:

They did begin [rehearsing a scene from Lovers Vows]; and being too much engaged in their own noise to be struck by an unusual noise in the other part of the house, had proceeded some way when the door of the room was thrown open, and Julia, appearing at it, _with a face all aghast_, exclaimed, “My father is come! He is in the hall at this moment.”

[That is Hamlet Act One to a tee, down to the word “aghast”, which meaning, literally, seeing a ghost!]

MP, Ch. 19

How is the consternation of the party to be described? To the greater number it was a moment of absolute horror. Sir Thomas in the house! All felt the instantaneous conviction. Not a hope of imposition or mistake was harboured anywhere. Julia’s looks were an evidence of the fact that made it indisputable; and after the first starts and exclamations, not a word was spoken for half a minute: each with an altered countenance was looking at some other, and almost each was feeling it a stroke the most unwelcome, most ill–timed, most appalling! Mr. Yates might consider it only as a vexatious interruption for the evening, and Mr. Rushworth might imagine it a blessing; but every other heart was sinking under some degree of self–condemnation or undefined alarm, every other heart was suggesting, “What will become of us? what is to be done now?” It was a terrible pause; and terrible to every ear were the corroborating sounds of opening doors and passing footsteps.

[And all of the above is strikingly similar to the gamut of fearful, agitated emotions that Bernardo, Marcellus and Horatio, and then also Hamlet, all experience upon seeing the ghost of King Hamlet “appear” suddenly without warning!]

Julia was the first to move and speak again. Jealousy and bitterness had been suspended: selfishness was lost in the common cause; but at the moment of her appearance, Frederick was listening with looks of devotion to Agatha’s narrative, and pressing her hand to his heart; and as soon as she could notice this, and see that, in spite of the shock of her words, he still kept his station and retained her sister’s hand, her wounded heart swelled again with injury, and looking as red as she had been white before, she turned out of the room, saying, “I need not be afraid of appearing before him.”

[And there is the sharp irony of Julia speaking of not being afraid of “appearing” before the “ghost” of her father!]

... They walked off, utterly heedless of Mr. Rushworth’s repeated question of, “Shall I go too? Had not I better go too? Will not it be right for me to go too?” but they were no sooner through the door than Henry Crawford undertook to answer the anxious inquiry, and, encouraging him by all means to pay his respects to Sir Thomas without delay, sent him after the others with delighted haste.

[Note that as a result of all the others leaving, Fanny is left behind with only Mr. Yates, just as, in Act One Scene Five of Hamlet, Hamlet goes off alone to see the Ghost]

She had been quite overlooked by her cousins; and as her own opinion of her claims on Sir Thomas’s affection was much too humble to give her any idea of classing herself with his children, she was glad to remain behind and gain a little breathing–time. Her agitation and alarm exceeded all that was endured by the rest, by the right of a disposition which not even innocence could keep from suffering. _She was nearly fainting: all her former habitual dread of her uncle was returning_, and with it compassion for him and for almost every one of the party on the development before him, with solicitude on Edmund’s account indescribable.

[And here Fanny is exactly like Hamlet in her dread of seeing an apparition from an “undiscovered country”—but in her case, that is Antigua, not purgatory!]

She had found a seat, where in excessive trembling she was enduring all these fearful thoughts, while the other three, no longer under any restraint, were giving vent to their feelings of vexation, lamenting over such an unlooked–for premature arrival as a most untoward event, and without mercy wishing poor Sir Thomas had been twice as long on his passage, or were still in Antigua.

[And that continues the motif of Antigua as a kind of distant hell!]

[Yates] said, “he preferred remaining where he was, that he might pay his respects to the old gentleman handsomely since he was come; and besides, he did not think it would be fair by the others to have everybody run away.”

[And Yates reminds us here of Horatio in Act One, Scene One, _before_ he sees the Ghost!]

Fanny was just beginning to collect herself, and to feel that if she staid longer behind it might seem disrespectful, when this point was settled, and being commissioned with the brother and sister’s apology, saw them preparing to go as she quitted the room herself to _perform the dreadful duty of appearing before her uncle._

[And one more time, that pun on the word “appear”, as in a ghostly apparition]

Too soon did she find herself at the drawing–room door; and after pausing a moment for what she knew would not come, for a courage which the outside of no door had ever supplied to her, she turned the lock in desperation, and the lights of the drawing–room, and all the collected family, were before her. As she entered, her own name caught her ear. Sir Thomas was at that moment looking round him, and saying, “But where is Fanny? Why do not I see my little Fanny?”—and on perceiving her, came forward with a kindness which astonished and penetrated her, calling her his dear Fanny, kissing her affectionately, and observing with decided pleasure how much she was grown! Fanny knew not how to feel, nor where to look. She was quite oppressed.

[And here we have the sharp satirical humor, that instead of seeing a fearsome ghost in armor, she sees Sir Thomas, in the bosom of his family—what could be more absurd and uncalled for than Fanny’s fear? But then recall Part One of this post, where the grammatical ambiguity of “penetrated” opens the door to a world of domestic horror, and, like Catherine Morland, we find out that Fanny’s fear of her uncle is not irrational at all—_this_ “ghost” is very real, and very ghastly!]

He had never been so kind, so very kind to her in his life. His manner seemed changed, his voice was quick from the agitation of joy; and all that had been awful in his dignity seemed lost in tenderness. He led her nearer the light and looked at her again— inquired particularly after her health, and then, correcting himself, observed that he need not inquire, for her appearance spoke sufficiently on that point. A fine blush having succeeded the previous paleness of her face, he was justified in his belief of her equal improvement in health and beauty. He inquired next after her family, especially William: and his kindness altogether was such as made her reproach herself for loving him so little, and thinking his return a misfortune; and when, on having courage to lift her eyes to his face, _she saw that he was grown thinner, and had the burnt, fagged, worn look of fatigue and a hot climate_, every tender feeling was increased, and she was miserable in considering how much unsuspected vexation was probably ready to burst on him.

[And there is JA’s satire at its savage best—“a hot climate” indeed is a great description of the place where sulphurous fires burn and purge away the sins of the damned!—so no wonder that Sir Thomas appears “burnt, fagged”!]

“Then poor Yates is all alone,” cried Tom. “I will go and fetch him. He will be no bad assistant when it all comes out.”
To the theatre he went, and reached it just in time to witness the first meeting of his father and his friend. Sir Thomas had been a good deal surprised to find candles burning in his room;

[And in the candles burning in Sir Thomas’s room we have JA’s droll version of the torches burning on the ramparts of Elsinore on a dark midnight night!]

The removal of the bookcase from before the billiard–room door struck him especially, but he had scarcely more than time to feel astonished at all this, before there were sounds from the billiard–room to astonish him still farther. Some one was talking there in a very loud accent; he did not know the voice—more than talking—almost hallooing. He stepped to the door, rejoicing at that moment in having the means of immediate communication, and, opening it, _found himself on the stage of a theatre, and opposed to a ranting young man, who appeared likely to knock him down backwards._

[And here we have Marcellus offers to strike the Ghost with his partisan, i.e., his weapon, but this time rendered in burlesque]

At the very moment of Yates perceiving Sir Thomas, and giving perhaps the very best start he had ever given in the whole course of his rehearsals, Tom Bertram entered at the other end of the room; and never had he found greater difficulty in keeping his countenance. His father’s looks of solemnity and amazement on this his first appearance on any stage, and the gradual metamorphosis of the impassioned Baron Wildenheim into the well–bred and easy Mr. Yates, making his bow and apology to Sir Thomas Bertram, was such an exhibition, such a piece of true acting, as he would not have lost upon any account. It would be the last— in all probability—the last scene on that stage; but he was sure there could not be a finer. The house would close with the greatest eclat.

[And finally here we have Tom Bertram, who, like Hamlet, is an amateur playwright and theatre connoisseur who can appreciate a great performance just as Hamlet does with the Players!]


At the very start of this long, two-part post, I gave Jane Austen credit for being the greatest of Shakespearean critics, and now I will explain what I meant—it was only after I realized that both the Mousetrap scene AND the Ghost scenes of Hamlet were both being depicted in Sir Thomas’s return to Mansfield Park from Antigua, that it occurred to me that this was no arbitrary conjunction, but that JA was implicitly, by alluding to both such scenes in Hamlet within the same scene in Mansfield Park, telling us that there is a deep thematic correspondence between those two scenes in Hamlet.

That correspondence can be summarized in a sentence, even though it would take 50 pages to fully do it justice. To wit: in Act One, Hamlet, plagued by his guilty conscience, sees the Ghost of his dead father. In Act Three, Hamlet redirects all that guilt right onto Claudius, by staging the Mousetrap so as to confront Claudius with the murder of the Player King, who, in effect, is ALSO the “ghost” of King Hamlet! He turns the tables on his uncle, making him feel, on his skin, the way Hamlet felt in Act One.

I will have to follow up and find out if any Hamlet critics have ever focused on this deep correspondence and symmetry in the structure of Hamlet.

Cheers, ARNIE

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