Act One, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Prince Hamlet of Denmark, son of King Hamlet and Gertrude
Horatio, a student friend of Hamlet
Ghost of King Hamlet
Gertrude, King Hamlet’s widow and Claudius’s wife
Polonius, a lord
Laertes, Polonius’s son
Ophelia, Polonius’s daughter
Reynaldo, Polonius’s servant
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, old friends of Prince Hamlet
Valtemand, Cornelius and Osric, courtiers
Francisco, Barnardo and Marcellus, soldiers
Clowns, a gravedigger and his companion
Fortinbras, prince of Norway
Hard to know precisely. The play was registered to be printed in July of 1602, but on internal evidence it probably comes immediately after Julius Caesar, one version was on the stage by 1600. (There are some who believe that the play was then revised, and perhaps revised again.)
Here’s where it gets complicated. One version of the play (Q1) was printed in 1603, but seems to have been assembled from memory (most likely by an actor playing Marcellus, given that his lines and the scenes in which he’s on stage are the most accurate) and was, since it’s the shortest known version, perhaps performed on the road. Another (Q2) appeared in 1604, longer and more authoritative. And yet another version (F1) is included in the 1623 Folio, possibly revised by Shakespeare. The most respected modern versions are based largely on Q2. (If you’d like to know more about this, let me know and I’ll post more about it later in the week.)
ACT ONE: At Elsinore castle, the ghost of the recently deceased King is confronted by soldiers. At court, Hamlet – in mourning for his father’s death – expresses his disgust that his widowed mother has married his uncle Claudius. Alerted by his friend Horatio, Hamlet meets his father’s ghost, who tells him of his murder by Claudius and demands revenge. Meanwhile, Laertes, who is leaving to study in France, warns his sister Ophelia not to trust the Prince, who has apparently tried to woo her. Their father Polonius agrees.
It seems fitting that Hamlet, a story at least four centuries old by the time Shakespeare got to it, constantly finds itself shuffling between different versions of the past. The play has two Hamlets, not one, yet almost no one seems to remember that fact. Amid the pomp and circumstance of the Danish royal court, still fresh from celebrating the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude, the “inky-cloaked” figure of young Hamlet (How young? We’ll be discussing that soon.) makes a striking contrast; unlike his new father, who proclaims that mourning for the old King Hamlet must be balanced with “remembrance of ourselves.’ Prince Hamlet, in the first of his seven soliloquies in the play, is tormented by thoughts of suicide:
O that this too too sullied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,
Or that the Everlasting had not fixed
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, O God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Like Antonio’s in The Merchant of Venice, Hamlet’s melancholy is, perhaps, a kind of “world-weariness,” but unlike Antonio he goes on to diagnose its cause. Recalling with horror his father’s death and what his mother, later in the play will candidly call her “o’er-hasty marriage,’ Hamlet struggles to unscramble both his emotions and his sense of self. His tone is distracted and broken, but as his thoughts come together it becomes clear that his grappling, at least in part, with memory itself (“But two months dead – nay, not so much, not two,” he exclaims, as if trying to definitively pinpoint the event). He is trapped (as we all are) by the prison of his body, the “too too sullied flesh,” and his anguished question to himself just a few lines later, “Heaven and earth,/Must I remember?”, reveals his urgent but painful struggle to hang on to what remains – especially since everyone else in Elsinore seems to have moved on. Claudius points out to his new son that his grief is “unmanly,’ seemingly urging him to forget that his father ever existed, to “think of us/As of a father.” Gertrude, who demonstrated her capability to forget and move on, argues, “all that lives must die,/Passing through nature to eternity.’ Even Horatio, Hamlet bitterly jokes, has visited the court not to pay respects to the old King, but to see the wedding (and eat the feast) that quickly followed.
Hamlet’s savagely disconsolate voice is all the more striking because it foreshadows what we already know – that the past is in fact very much alive. (Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”) T.S. Eliot once complained that Hamlet’s emotion is “in excess of the facts as they appear,’ but part of the wonder that IS Hamlet (and Hamlet), is the way in which the facts themselves are in such glorious excess. The play’s truly unforgettable opening scene, the eerie appearance of the old King’s ghost on the battlements of Elsinore, seemingly reanimates – in a frighteningly literal sense – something dead and buried. Hamlet’s memories of his “poor father” are so vivid that they have already burst out on stage:
My father – methinks I see my father.
O where, my lord?
In my mind’s eye, Horatio.
I saw him once. A was a goodly king.
A was a man. Take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
My lord, I think I saw him yesternight.
Even over the offhand intimacy of the conversation between Hamlet and his close companion – an intimacy Shakespeare renders by using “a” instead of “he,” a subtle shading that has since disappeared from the language – the Ghost still casts its chill.
And Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost, when it does occur, forces the Prince to keep on remembering. Echoing the Ghost’s urgent (and anguished) promptings to “Remember me,” his son responds, “Remember thee?,”
Ay, thou poor ghost, while memory holds a seat
In this distracted globe. Remember thee?
Yea, from the table of my memory
I’ll wipe away all trivial fond records,
All saws of books, all forms, all pressures past,
That youth and observation copied there,
And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain
Unmixed with baser matter.
Recyling the Ghost’s words, Hamlet then recites them once more (repetition is a verbal tic throughout the play, and one reason among many for its sprawling size), picturing his memory being erased and rewritten by them. “Remembering” is all.
Unfortunately, though, this is where the problems begin. Though Hamlet tries to present his mind as if it were a commonplace book, the point about scrapbooks is that they can’t be erased or rewritten. Despite swearing that “from this time forth/My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” (words that are cut from the Folio text), Hamlet’s brain cannot stop thinking of other things. It is perhaps our hero’s defining problem that he cannot translate his thoughts of remembrance into the actual mechanics of revenge. Though the Ghost casts him in the role of revenger (a role played to perfection by his long-distant ancestor Amleth), it is a part Hamlet knows that he will have great difficulty performing, even as the Ghost disappears:
The time is out of joint. O cursed spite
That ever I was born to set it right!
(One could make the argument, in fact, that Hamlet is trapped in the wrong set of circumstances, the wrong play altogether. As are so many of us.)
A couple of points I’d like to hit on. The first from Logan Pearsall Smith’s book On Reading Shakespeare:
“Few scenes in Shakespeare are more familiar to us than the opening scene of Hamlet, and yet the following analysis, which Dr. Furness quotes in his Variorum edition of the play, from an anonymous writer, gives to the first few lines of the play a new significance:
‘The opening of Hamlet, this writer says, which is alive with excitement, striking contrasts, and the most delicate touches of nature, seems to have been taken by the editors, old and new, for nothing more than an unimpassioned conversation between two sentinels. Twice had Bernardo been encountered on the platform by the Ghost of the King, and he is now for the third time advancing at midnight to the scene of the apparition…In this state of mind he would be startled by every sight and sound…Thus alive to apprehension, he hears advancing footsteps; and the question, ‘Who’s there?’ is, to our ear, the sudden, instinctive exclamation of uncontrollable alarm, not the ordinary challenge between one sentinel and another…Francisco, the sentinel on duty, not recognizing a comrade in the terrified voice which hails him, replied, ‘Nay, answer me; stand and unfold yourself.’ But the moment Bernardo…calls out the watchword, ‘Long live the King!’ in his habitual tones, does the sentinel know his fellow and greet him by his name.’
‘You come most carefully upon your hour,’ Francisco adds, and Bernardo, anxious to repel the notion that he is before his time, replies that the hour has struck, and dismisses the sentinel, whose reply, ‘’Tis bitter cold and I am sick at heart,’ suggests that in the contemplation of his own griefs he had not noticed Bernardo’s ill-concealed agitation. And when Horatio and Marcellus appear, the latter, who had already seen the Ghost, shares Bernardo’s excitement, and is unconscious of the presence of Francisco, and when Francisco bids him good night, he exclaims, like one awakened from a trance, ‘O! farewell, honest soldier.’
And this from the same book:
“Pathos, the power of touching our tender feelings, has always been one of the great gifts of the greatest writers; there is noble pathos in Homer, in Virgil, and in Dante, and again and again in the voices of the most famous novelists the sound of a sob is heard. None of our modern writers dare, however, to touch that string; we are lacking in the sensibility which responds with gratitude to such appeals. Now Shakespeare is certainly the most moving of all writers, the greatest master of pathos the world has ever known. No one can unlock the source of tears and wring the heart as he wrings it; and I must confess that I find the harrowing scenes in Shakespeare, like the scene between Arthur and Hubert in King John, or the slaughter of Macduff’s children, or the deaths of Lear and Desdemona, intolerable – I cannot bear them; and even scenes which are not quite so harrowing: Desdemona’s Willow Song, for instance, or Ophelia’s madness, I find ‘shy-making,’ to use a new-invented phrase.
Perhaps the Elizabethans were made of sterner stuff than we are, and did not mind being hit below the belt; or perhaps they wore their belts lower than we wear them. Or it may be that our inability to enjoy such appeals to the emotions is due to some temporary exasperation of the spirit from which the spirit will recover? Or, I sometimes wonder, may it not be the inevitable effect of modern science on our modern world-outlook? If remorse and agony and vehement passion are regarded no longer as moral, but as pathological phenomena, how can those who so regard them be moved by the pity and terror on which, as Aristotle said, tragedy is based? With the loss of our belief in the responsibility of the free agent, have we lost also the tragic sense of life? We may feel that life is meaningless and hateful, we may be exasperated to desperation by it; but when from our desolate vision of the cosmos we turn to the glowing and highly-coloured world of Shakespeare’s, the poet of Free will, full as it is of moral tragedies and triumphs, of vehement will and ardour and agony, may it not seem a tempest in an inconsiderable cup which is superfluous for us to augment with our tears?”
I’d like to end today’s post with a look at some of the problems inherent in putting together a “correct” text of Hamlet, with this example from Act One, as explained by Marjorie Garber:
“Even without conjectural editing or other acts of critical ingenuity, the editors had to select from among the versions offered by various alternative source texts, quarto or foil, with the intention of choosing the most felicitous or most mellifluous opinion. One celebrated example from Hamlet was the rendering of a key adjective in one of the play’s most famous speeches, Hamlet’s first soliloquy, in act I, scene 2:
O that this too too _____ flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew…
The First and Second Quartos both give ‘sallied.’ The Folio gives ‘solid.’ Editors who do not like ‘solid’ have emended ‘sallied’ to ‘sullied.’ The modern reader thus has a choice of a word that seems to connote immutable physicality (‘too too solid flesh’) or a word that carries the sense of corruption, filth, or wear (‘too too sullied flesh’). ‘Sullied,’ the preference of several modern editors, is not present in any of the original printed texts. Which word did Shakespeare write? Early modern spelling was far from regularized (Shakespeare’s own name is spelled in a variety of ways in the period, from Shakespeare to Shakspere, Shaxspere, and Shaxberd). Even if we knew the answer to the question, that would be only one way of determining the preferred reading, since at this point both ‘solid’ and, to a lesser extent, ‘sullied’ have themselves become recognizable cultural phrases with a secondary ‘authority’ born of long usage. To restore ‘sallied’ would be ‘correct’ if one wished to follow the quartos. But ‘too too sallied flesh’ (perhaps flesh that had traveled too long, or gone out to fight too much, in the past?) would have to compete in the marketplace with ‘sullied’ and the popular favorite, ‘solid.’ It is not that we have no authentic Shakespeare texts, but rather that we have several. From the beginning, ‘Shakespeare’ was Shakespeares.”
Here, Harold Jenkins, the editor of the Arden edition of Hamlet explains why he, along with many other modern editors, chose “sullied.”
“The most debated reading in the play in recent years. Earlier editors, with their preference for F, naturally adopted solid, though Furnivall defended the Q sallied in the sense of ‘assailed’ and Furness recorded the conjecture sullied, which also occurred to Tennyson, and which Dowden though might ‘be right.’ Dover Wilson’s establishment of Q2 as the more authoritative text brought sullied into favour. Seven other Shakespearean instances of the word include two with the a spelling. So whereas Dover Wilson took sallied as a misreading of ‘sullied,’ it is reasonably regarded…as an alternative form. Solid has obvious (too obvious?) aptness in the context and it too has the support of Shakespearean usage…Weiss found it consistent with Shakespearean patterns of associated imagery, and S. Warhaft related it to the essential characteristic of the melancholy humour. Briefly, melancholy is the cold dry humour, and ‘of this coldness and dryness riseth hardness whereof the flesh of melancholy persons is.’ In [one source], melancholy is associated with the congealing of the blood; and ‘of the congealing of the blood’ the flesh, according to Burton, is composed. Melancholy among the humours thus corresponds to earth among the elements, and its remedy is for the excess of earth to melt into water, which in turn may resolve into vapour…But…the significance he attaches to solid is already implicit in flesh. And just to show how one may argue either way, the alchemical transmutation of the baser element (flesh), into the purer (dew) has been held to support sullied. Though ‘too solid flesh’ escapes tautology, sullied enlarges the meaning as solid does not. With the though of c.f. (from the poem in Tottel’s Miscellany beginning ‘The life is long, that loathsomely doth last’) ‘Whereof with Paul let all men wish, and pray To be dissolv’d of this foul fleshy mass’ the suggestion of contamination and self-disgust begins an important dramatic motif. The textual evidence for sullied, moreover, cannot be dismissed. For sallied is less likely to be a corruption of solid than the other way about, and though Q2 may have derived it from Q1, this suggests that solid did not occur in Q2’s manuscript authority…It is sometimes contended that Shakespeare would not use too too with a participle; but OED shows it often used with verbs, and Q1, ‘too much grieu’d and sallied,’ shows that a participle was in the reporter’s recollection. The possibility of an intended play on both words cannot be ruled out; but what happens perhaps is that by a natural mental process the word (sullied), which gives at once the clue to the emotion which the soliloquy will express, brings to mind its near-homonym (solid), which helps to promote the imagery of melt, thaw, resolve, dew.”
Whew. For me, I think “sullied” works perfectly for the reason he states: its suggestion of contamination and self-disgust. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.