Act One, Part Two
By Dennis Abrams
First off…how’s everybody doing? Any questions? Problems? Revelations?
I’d like to touch on something that I’ve been pondering ever since I started this project – how is it that we can think about, speculate about, examine the personalities of Shakespeare’s characters in ways that I don’t think we can do for any other writer? They are, when you come down to it, words on a page, yet…they are more real than those of any writer I can think of. Logan Pearsoll Smith talks about this in On Reading Shakespeare:
“There is yet another aspect of Shakespeare’s power in which, among all character creators who followed in his footsteps, her stands alone. The people in the works of other playwrights or novelists, however living, are yet perspicuous beings; we see their motives and understand them in a way we seldom or never understand people in real life. Real people will now and then surprise, and even astonish us with what they say and do; we can never quite predict their future actions; but this element of inexplicability, which at the same time invites and eludes analysis, Shakespeare has given to characters like Falstaff, and Hamlet, and Cleopatra. As Dr. Bradley finely says, ‘they are inexhaustible. You feel that, if they were alive and you spent your whole life with them…they would continue every day to surprise, perplex, and delight you.’ And they remain for us like certain personages in history, like Mary Queen of Scots, like Queen Elizabeth, like Napoleon, the subject of infinite discussion. Our sense of their reality is heightened by our inability to see through them and find any formula to explain them. Of all of these characters the most baffling is Hamlet; and the fact that we cannot explain him, that he seems unable to explain himself, is perhaps what makes this imaginary being seem in a way more real than any real person who ever lived.
This presentation of living, complex, self-subsistent beings was not, of course, an absolutely new invention of Shakespeare’s. And yet when we think of the literature before his ti9me, how few of the characters there depicted seem to posses an independent existence of their own. The Achilles and the Agamemnon of Homer are endowed with the gift of life; Nausicaa is clad in an exquisite immortality, and Ulysses fills the Odyssey with his own vitality. But in my memory of the Greek drama I find ideal types and noble figures, but few or no characters which exist apart from the plays in which they appear, and from whose plots their actions and their characters are deduced.
This self-subsistence, this independence of the work in which they play their parts, is what makes the difference between a type and what we call a ‘character.’ The characters are more complex, more surprising; they are made of a different and more vital substance; no sooner are they brought into existence than they seem to have existed always; and often they seem to be thinking of something else than what ought to concern them in the scenes in which they appear. And when the curtain falls, or the novel ends, they go on living in our imaginations and remain as real to us as our familiar friends.
Although we may find earlier traces of this Promethean power of creating human beings, and note in Chaucer its earliest appearance in our literature, yet its development in Shakespeare is so amazing and incredible that it seems like a great innovation, as something original and almost unknown before.
‘In this part of his performance,’ as Dr. Johnson said, ‘he had none to imitate, but has himself been imitated by all succeeding writers.’ He created a world of his own, and filled it with inhabitants of his own creation: with such a variety, indeed, and multitude of living beings that he has been reproached with making the real world seem almost empty in comparison. Although this power is commonly regarded as Shakespeare’s greatest gift, no one of our critics, as far as I know, with but one exception, has attempted to make a clear distinction between the typical figures of ordinary plays and the living and complex characters of the Shakespearean drama. The exception is that obscure and almost forgotten diplomatist and official of the eighteenth century, Maurice Morgann, who published anonymously, in 1777, one small masterpiece of criticism, an Essay on the Dramatic Character of Sir John Falstaff, in which he deals with this question in a profoundly interesting way. What is the essential difference, he asks between Shakespeare’s characters and the characters of other playwrights? The answer he gives – and I think it is essentially a true one – can be paraphrased as follows. No personage can be put whole into a work of art: the writer only presents the qualities and aspects which he needs for his purpose. In other playwrights, the parts which are seen do not, in fact, exist in their makers’ imagination; they have told us all they know about them, there is nothing more in these figures, as they conceive them, then what we see; and their interiors are, as we may put it, filled, like dolls, with sawdust.
But Shakespeare’s characters, or at least the living ones among them (for many of his personages are merely types), are conceived with such an intensity of imagination that they become living and independent organisms, in which each part depends upon, and implies, the complete person. Although we see them in part only, yet from these glimpses we unconsciously infer the parts we do not see; and when Shakespeare makes them speak or act, as he sometimes does, out of these inferred, but unportrayed, aspects of their nature he produces an astonishing effect of unforeseen, yet inevitable, reality and truth.”
That strikes me as being absolutely correct.
From Marjorie Garber:
“Watching or reading Hamlet for the first time or the twentieth, an observer cannot help being struck, I think, by how much of the play has passed into our common language. Indeed, as many commentators have observed, the experience of Hamlet is almost always that of recognition, of recalling, remembering, or identifying some already-known phrase or image. It could be said that in the context of modern culture – global culture as well as Anglophone culture – one never does encounter Hamlet ‘for the first time.’ Instead the play provides a resonant cultural echo, both forming and reflecting concepts – turns of speech, types of character, philosophical ideas – that seem to preexist any single experience of the play, and at the same time to be disseminated from it.
Nor is it only the great set pieces, the philosophical touchstones, that linger in the imagination: the ‘To be, or not to be’ soliloquy, with its passionate broodings on death and the life after; Hamlet’s advice to the players (‘Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you – tripplingly on the tongue,’ since ‘the purpose of playing’ is to ‘hold as ‘twere the mirror up to mature.’); or the calm assurance, voice in the last act, that the readiness is all, that ‘[t]here’s a divinity that shapes our ends,/Rough-hew them how we will.’ It is not surprising that we remember these passages for their beauty and for their profound ideas. They are among the greatest in the English language. But there are other, more particular and private lines that also seem somehow to have become part of our culture, and for less explainable reasons, lines that seem minor, even trivial. Why should remember ‘Alas, poor Yorick,’ or that ‘[s]omething is rotten in the state of Denmark,’ or that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,/Than are dreamt of in your philosophy,’ or that ‘[t]he lady protests too much, methinks?’ Proper names and specific terms, all – Yorick, Denmark, Horatio, the lady. Yet they are for us something else, something more ‘universal.’ When we hear someone say ‘Alas, poor Yorick,’ we do not think that he or she is speaking of Hamlet’s childhood jester. We know that what is at stake is rather the general case of mortality and the human condition, that reaches but to dust. When we are told that ‘[s]omething is rotten in the state of Denmark’ we do not think first of pollution problems in Scandinavia, but rather of a generally corrupt society or situation, a pervasive decay. That someone, anyone, ‘protests too much’ has become a common way of underscoring her, or his, disingenuousness. Few of those quote or adapt this line will recall that it refers to the Player Queen in ‘The Murder of Gonzago,’ Hamlet’s play-within-the-play.
Hamlet is one of the most peculiar, private, and detailed among all of Shakespeare’s plays. At first glance it does not seem ‘universal’ at all. Fratricide, an incestuous marriage, a prince who pretends to be mad and contemplates death in a spirit of overwhelming melancholy, a young girl who is in fact driven mad, and who, in her madness, drowns herself. What is it about this odd play, derived from older sources…that his mined the play into our consciousness to such a degree? What makes Hamlet with its many textual variants, its First or ‘bad’ Quarto, Second Quarto, and Folio texts, the most famous of all English dramas and the most admired and quoted of literary documents?”
I’ll come back to more of her backgrounding of Hamlet later in the week – but now, her take on Act One:
“The play begins, as it ends, in silence, with a dumb show, here the appearance of the Ghost. Horatio and the sentries serve as chorus, interpreting as best they can what they have seen. Twice the Ghost appears, each time interrupting the spectators’ conversation, and although it seems about to speak it twice stalks off without a word. We cannot know, they cannot know, what to make of this. All of us, on and off the stage, are ‘ mutes or audience’ to this act. Briefly but importantly, the Ghost is succeeded by another figure, also costumed in a significant way. ‘But look,’ says Horatio, ‘the morn in russet mantle clad/Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill.’ It is the sun. The pun on sun/son, sunlight and a father’s son, is reinforced in the next scene by Hamlet’s wry joke, ‘I am too much i’the’sun.’ But this reassuring glimpse of natural light, vividly costumed to the mind’s eye in its ‘russet mantle,’ stands in sharp contrast to the darkness that succeeds it, the darkness that is Denmark, where cries for torches, artificial light, will punctuate and bring to a premature end the play-within-the-play in the great central Mousetrap scene: ‘Give me some light. Away.’
The ‘russet mantle’ of the sun, and the ‘complete steel,’ the medieval armor of the Ghost, introduce as well the crucial question of costume, in this play whose fundamental themes are all related to the very act of acting. Dumb shows, stage lights, curtains, makeup, and costumes. For now Hamlet makes his appearance, in the ‘inky cloak’ that is to be the first of the three costumes he will wear in this play: his inky cloak; his antic disposition, ‘unbraced,’ ‘downgryved’; and his traveler’s sea gown, ‘scarfed’ about him. Again, it is useful to imagine the stage as a visual spectacle, glittering with jewels, torches, and liveried attendants. In the center, the King and queen, splendid in silks and furs; Claudius bejeweled and be-ringed, his head crowned, the very emblem of conspicuous consumption. And to the side, Hamlet, a mute spectator of all this magnificence, startling in black from head to toe. ‘Good Hamlet, cast thy nightly colour off.’ This is the Queen, in quest of domestic peace, almost surely (is she?) unaware of the murder of her former husband by her present one. But Hamlet is quick to reminder her that there is more than one kind of costume, and that to seem a mourner is not necessarily to be one, just as to seem a king may also be a fiction:
Seems, Madam? Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good-mother,
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
Together with all form, moods, shows of grief
That can denote me truly. These indeed ‘seem,’
For they are actions that a man might play;
But I have that within which passeth show –
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
Forms, modes, shapes, trappings. Seem, play, act, show. Fake sighs, and dejected looks. This is the language of acting, and acting is what Hamlet sees all around him – a player king and a player queen, acting at grief, and acting it badly. Claudius out-Heroding Herod, out-Hamleting Hamlet, displaying exactly the kind of excessive, overblown acting against which Hamlet will counsel the visiting players. Herod, a familiar figure from medieval drama, was the theater’s image of a bombastic king, but it is also the case that he, like Claudius, married his brother’s wife. Hamlet’s speech here is in fact a kind of advice to the players, to Claudius and to Gertrude, and it points up the most pernicious kind of illusion, the purpose of which is to cheat and conceal. In a play so consistently attentive to the material details of the stage, such pernicious illusions often take the imagistic form of makeup and face-painting; the unction to ‘skin and film the ulcerous place’; the ‘harlot’s cheek, beautied with plast’ring art.’ And, as Hamlet will say of ‘my lady’ and the skull in the graveyard, ‘let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come.’
In act 1, scene 2, his first appearance in the play, Hamlet is both audience and critic. He sees the performance of Claudius, and in effect he gives it a bad review. It is not convincing. One result of this crucial perception, that all around him people are merely masquerading as mourners, acting grief rather than feeling it, is to make Hamlet reject his own costume. If others can counterfeit grief by merely wearing ‘the trappings and the suits of woe,’ what is to become of real grief? Hamlet’s mourning clothes have become a ‘show,’ despite him, in the politic air of Denmark. He has become unwittingly and unwillingly complicit in Claudius’s display. His ‘customary suits of solemn black,’ the appropriate costume for mourning, are compromised and sullied by the other ‘customs’ that have crept into the Danish court. Thus Hamlet will alter speak of the ‘monster custom,’ of ‘damned custom,’ and Horatio of the ‘custom’ of the gravedigger’s callousness. But his suit of mourning will become a custom more honored in the breach than in the observation, better abandoned than worn, because wearing it aligns him with Danish hypocrisy. He needs a new costume, a new role, to demonstrate the sincerity of his grief and his anger, and he finds that new costume in the ‘antic disposition’ of madness. The allowed fool, or licensed fool, in a royal or noble household was a paid dependant whose social role was both to amuse and instruct, cloaking moral lessons in jokes and mumming. Hamlet the prince now becomes his own household fool, and allows himself to speak the truth.
It is thought that when the play was first staged Shakespeare himself played the part of the Ghost. Shakespeare’s only son, whose name was Hamnet, died in 1596, and Shakespeare’s father, John, died in 1601. The play itself, almost obsessively concerned with the relationships between fathers and sons, seems poised across this barrier. And it is with the Ghost, I think, that one should start in approaching and comprehending the world of the play and the problems of Hamlet. Very often, as we have noted in considering the structure of other plays, Shakespeare uses his opening scenes as a kind of cameo, vignette, or miniature of the larger play that will follow, with characters who play no other role. In Hamlet we have what is possibly the greatest of these opening scenes, because it develops a mood and a tone that chill the spectator to the core. The night itself is chilly, and the sentries are nervous. ‘Who’s there?’ Barnardo’s opening line, ringing out of the darkness, is a challenge not from the sentry on duty but to him, our first hint that the world of the play is inverted, out of joint. From the point of view of a modern or postmodern production, the flung-out line ‘Who’s there?’ seems directed almost primarily at the audience, rather than at any character on the stage. Moreover, the challenge is also a sentry, so that these sentries, instead of repelling invaders, find themselves in the confusion of a civil misunderstanding. The challenge comes not from outside Denmark but from within it. And all of this is established within the first five lines.
‘Who’s there?’ ‘Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.’ Barnardo is told to ‘unfold’ himself, ushering in the cloak-and-costume imagery, and also the imagery of folded paper and writing, which will become so predominant later in the play, and at this point there enter upon the stage the more ‘major’ characters of Horatio and Marcellus. We may expect the audience to share the skepticism and rationalism of Horatio – so far, no boundaries of experience have been broken, and there is something reassuring in the colloquialism of his view of the Ghost: ‘Tush, tush, ‘twill not appear.’ This would be more reassuring, however, if the Ghost did not, almost immediately, make his appearance, dwarfing, with his ‘fair and warlike form,’ all the others upon the stage.
The stage direction says ‘Enter the Ghost,’ but the apparition is not so concretely described by the immediate onlookers. It is instead referred to as ‘this thing,’ ‘this dreadful sight,’ and ‘illusion’ – ‘What has this thing appeared again tonight?’ What else it is remains a question, not an answer, a puzzle that must be solved, and with which even Hamlet will be troubled. Is it ‘a spirit of health or goblin damned?’ We learn little about it in this first glimpse; ‘it is ‘like the King that’s dead,’ it is dressed in armor, and although Horatio asks it again and again to speak, it will not. We may gather from its refusal that this is not the common or garden-variety ghost, which comes to give an omen of the future, or to tell the location of buried treasure – ideas that the bookish Horatio has probably come upon in his studies. ‘Thou art a scholar – speak to it, Horatio,’ says Marcellus. Ghosts were traditionally to be addressed in Latin, thus Horatio’s studies would fit him for the task. The Ghost disappears at the coming of the dawn that banishes all spirits from walking the earth, and the scene closes with Marcellus’s lovely, though fearful, speech:
It faded on the crowing of the cock,
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our saviour’s birth is celebrated
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit can walk abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy tales, nor with hath power to charm,
So hallowed and so gracious is the time.
Similar beliefs about ghosts were articulated in Shakespeare’s great ‘fairy’ play, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, where Puck warns Oberon:
My fairy lord, this must be done with haste,
For night’s swift dragons cut the clouds full fast,
And yonder shines Aurora’s harbinger,
At whose approach ghosts, wand’ring here and there,
Troop home to churchyards: damned spirits all
That in cross-ways and floods have burial
For fear lest day should look their shames upon.
They willfully themselves exiled from light,
And must for aye consort with black-browed night.
Ghosts of this sort were the spectral counterparts of the ‘vagabonds’ or ‘masterless men’ against whom an Elizabethan statue had been proclaimed in 1597, including among them traveling actors. All these dangerous wanderers were regarded as deleterious to the order and safety of the state. Marcellus’s pious pronouncement, the equivalent of crossing oneself against the threat of unimaginable danger from another world, closes the first scene on a note of purity and watchfulness, with the rising of the sun. It is the last we will see of this natural, almost pastoral light, for all that Hamlet will proclaim himself ‘too much i’th’ sun.’ For at this point there enters upon the stage, with much pomp and ceremony, the new King, Claudius of Denmark, accompanied by his queen, Gertrude, and the rest of his retinue.”
To be continued tomorrow…