Friday, November 20, 2009

Hamlet-Related Poem by C. P. Cavafy

Cavafy, C. P. “King Claudius.” C. P. Cavafy: Collected Poems. Trans. Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard. Ed. George Savidis. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992. 183-86. Print.

You'll need the weekend to ponder this thrilling poem, which was written by C. P. Cavafy in 1899.

Some people have Cavafy presented to them. For me, he was a happy accident. I stumbled upon his "Ithaka," which is a remarkable poem, through a lengthy set of circumstances with which I won't trouble you. After reading several volumes with titles like "Selected Works"—and even the 1961 Complete Poems of Cavafy, which turned out to be another "Selected Works" volume—I found "King Claudius," one of his unpublished works, in a collection translated by Edmund Keeley and Philip Sherrard (which I've since found in a revised edition that makes several minor changes to the translation that improve it substantially). The poem is one of defamiliarization, looking at the story of Hamlet from an outsider's perspective:
King Claudius

My mind now moves to distant places.
I’m walking the streets of Elsinore,
through its squares, and I recall
the very sad story
of that unfortunate king
killed by his nephew
because of some fanciful suspicions.

In all the homes of the poor
he was mourned secretly
(they feared Fortinbras).
A quiet, gentle man,
a man who loved peace
(his country had suffered much
from the wars of his predecessor),
he behaved graciously toward everyone,
humble and great alike,
Never high-handed, he always sought advice
in the kingdom’s affairs
from serious, experienced people.

Just why his nephew killed him
was never precisely explained.
The prince suspected him of murder,
and the basis of his suspicion was this:
walking one night along an ancient battlement
he thought he saw a ghost
and he had a conversation with this ghost;
what he supposedly heard from the ghost
were certain accusations against the king.

It must have been a fit of fancy,
an optical illusion,
(the prince was nervous in the extreme;
while he was studying at Wittenberg
many of his fellow students thought him a maniac).

A few days later he went
to his mother’s room to discuss
certain family affairs. And suddenly,
while he was talking, he lost his self-control,
started shouting, screaming
that the ghost was there in front of him.
But his mother saw nothing at all.

And that same day, for no apparent reason,
he killed an old gentleman of the court.
Since the prince was due to sail for England
in a day or two,
the king hustled him off posthaste
in order to save him.
But the people were so outraged
by the monstrous murder
that rebels rose up
and tried to storm the palace gates,
led by the dead man’s son,
the noble lord Laertes
(a brave young man. also ambitious;
in the confusion, some of his friends called out:
“Long live King Laertes!”).

Later, once the kingdom had calmed down
and the king was lying in his grave,
killed by his nephew (the prince,
who never went to England
but escaped from the ship on his way there),
a certain Horatio came forward
and tried to exonerate the prince
by telling some stories of his own.
He said that the voyage to England
had been a secret plot, and orders
had been given to kill the prince there
(but this was never clearly ascertained).
He also spoke of poisoned wine,
wine poisoned by the king.
It’s true that Laertes spoke of this too.
But couldn’t he have been lying?
Couldn’t he have been mistaken?
And when did he say all this?
While dying of his wounds, his mind reeling,
his talk seemingly babble.
As for the poisoned weapons,
it was shown later that the poisoning
hadn’t been done by the king at all:
Laertes had done it by himself.
But Horatio, whenever pressed,
would produce even the ghost as a witness:
the ghost said this and that,
the ghost did this and that!

Because of all this, though hearing Horatio out,
most people in all conscience
pitied the good king,
who, with all these ghosts and fairy tales,
was unjustly killed and disposed of.

Yet Fortinbras, who profited from it all
and gained the throne so easily,
gave full attention and great weight
to every word Horatio said.
Among the marvels of this poem are lines 25 to 27 (each of which ends with the skeptical word “ghost”) and the re-appearance (re-apparition?) of the ghost in lines 39 and (like an old tale worn thin) in lines 81 to 83 and 97. The (possible) chronological discrepancy that has Polonius killed after Hamlet sees the ghost while he's confronting Gertrude is just the sort of thing that happens when events are re-told by outsiders. Polonius is boiled down to the “serious, experienced peeople” of line 19. Additionally intriguing is the fact that Ophelia is left out entirely! And the final quatrain—well, I'll leave you to ponder its meaning!

Derek Jacobi, a King Claudius you can believe in!

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Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare. 2nd ed. Gen. ed. G. Blakemore Evans. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
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