In Act I... in his first utterance of the play... Hamlet says he is, "...less than kind,"
regarding his uncle Claudius. In Act II, informed of Claudius' regicide by his father's
ghost and furious with his own slowness to act, he rages, "... remorseless, treacherous,
lecherous, kindless villain!" The devise is called chiastic inversion, an X or chi-shaped
reversal of two end terms (here less and kind). Between these two speeches,
Shakespeare alerts us to this devise by simpler examples, as when Claudius mistakes
Hamlet's two school chums. "Thanks Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern, "he says,
and Gertrude has to correct him. "Thanks Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz," she
says, inverting the names. So one effect of chiastic inversion is to blur the distinction
between the two terms. The two chums' identities are blurred here, and there is little to
distinguish them thereafter. And the foolish Polonius babbles chiastic inversion nonsense
to comic effect:
That he is mad, 'tis true; 'tis true 'tis pity;
And pity 'tis 'tis true: a foolish figure; ...
And now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say, the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by cause:
Thus it remains, and the remainder thus.
But if Hamlet says he is, "less than kind," and later says Claudius is "kindless," the
chiastic inversion is stunning, suggesting the opposite of Hamlet's conscious belief that
the two are different kinds of men. Unconsciously he implies they are alike.
Unconscious and eerie inferences of their likeness occur throughout the play, but this
one clinches it. And it is key to solving the problem of Hamlet's inaction, which he
himself cannot solve.
I'm on hands and knees unraveling this mystery to a row of Big-Boy tomato plants as I
weed around them in my garden. My wife sees my lips moving from the kitchen window
and hopes the neighbors won't. The fat, red Big-Boys seem peacefully receptive...
unlike some of my students ten years ago who couldn't see why any of this was
important or interesting at all. Butternut squashes down the garden row are more
medievalist than my Elizabethan Big-Boys. Always in their proper places when I arrive,
the plump gourds beneath their leafy umbrellas love to hear how Chaucer chastened
chauvinist males, scarifying them with his monstrous Wife of Bath. The lesson lasts
several sessions, but squashes have the whole summer semester after all. They
expand attentively as the story unfolds.
Retirement is a blessing. I tell my wren family in their tiny birdhouse above the garden
of the amazing rhyme scheme in the Keats' Grecian Urn ode, and they share with me a
magical rhyme scheme of their own. Hummingbirds checking in at my patio feeder...
"the mail from Tunis, probably"... don't mind if "The Yellow Rose of Texas" meter
persists. They know "Cochineal" beats yellow any day. A poem I wrote once about bird
feeding in Minnesota... chickadees, nuthatches, and siskins... ends this way:
I am a ... bird feeder,
Caught in a colder clime,
No buntings... painted or indigo...
In my birch or pine.
I share what spirits I'm allowed,
When woods are wrapped in snows,
With these... God's winged people...
And shoo away the crows.
My far flung family cares little for what I'm doing now. Why should they? Life is
complicated enough these days. Poetry is little help. They're glad I'm not a burden. My
wife? God bless her. She teaches Rhetoric and Technical Writing at the U... a Wife of
Math... so too has little time for poetry. She prefers my breaded catfish, if you know
what I mean. And what I mean is breaded catfish.