“Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,/Th’imperial jointress to this warlike state,”


Act One, Part Three

By Dennis Abrams


I am struck as I read (and reread) Hamlet, just how far Shakespeare had come as a writer, in such a relatively short period of time.  Keep in mind that, assuming that Hamlet was written sometime around 1600-1601, it had only been ten years, more or less, since Shakespeare had written his very first play, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, only years since Henry VI, Part One.  Has any writer ever come so far, so fast?  Frank Kermode, in his book Shakespeare’s Language, quotes T.S. Eliot, who, speaking as a playwright Hamlet-Before-King-Claudius,-Queen-Gertrude-And-Ophelia,-Scene-From-Hamlet-By-William-Shakespeare-1564-1616-C.1900remarked that the first scene in Hamlet is “as well constructed as that of any play ever written.”  He described the opening twenty-two lines of the play as “built of the simplest words in the most homely idiom. Shakespeare had worked for a long time in the theatre, and written a good many plays, before reaching the point where he could write those twenty-two lines…No poet has begun to master dramatic verse until he can write lines, which, like these in Hamlet, are transparent.”

Kermode goes on to describe the dramatic/narrative structure and Shakespeare’s masterful use of pacing (which we haven’t really looked at) of the first scene:  “This is entirely just: the false challenge by Barnardo, the short, anxious speeches, the dark, the cold; the quiet; Francisco’s heartsickness (of which we don’t know, and never will know, the cause:  it belongs to the play rather than to this transient character); the interrupted, unobtrusive, yet somehow solemn beat of pentameters – all this is masterly.  What is no less so is the obliquity of what follows.  We are about to hear about the ‘apparition,’ ‘the dread sight,’ ‘this thing.’  The action of the play seems about to begin; this is, after all, where we expect exposition.  But in fact no exposition occurs.  In answer to Horatio’s confident skepticism Barnardo begins his account of the ‘apparition.’  He does so in what was technically known to rhetoricians and poets as a chronography, a description of a particular time; thus he begins to talk in a way intended to be registered as poetry:

Last night of all,

When yond same star that’s westward from the pole

Had made his course t’illume that part of heaven

Where now it burns, Marcellus and myself,

The bell then beating one –

but at this point his exercise, and the tale we have been led to expect, is interrupted by the entry of the Ghost.  Rapid dialogue ensues:  then Horatio addresses the Ghost in stately terms, but it departs.  The chronography is redundant; the report on how the Ghost appeared “Last night of all” is nullified by its irruption into the present moment.  Barnardo’s speech, its beginning so carefully presented, is abruptly rendered useless as far as narrative is concerned.  But since the Ghost says nothing whatever, our expectations that this coup de theatre will supply the deficiency and set the plot in motion are defeated.  The tension, so elaborately established, is slackened, and the talk takes a different turn.  Horatio explains at some length the current political crisis:  relations with Norway are bad, hence the armaments drive.  Could this be the explanation for the appearance of the dead King?  Possibly:  and Horatio speculates again, reminding his friends that history offers parallels, for instance the dreadful portents that preceded the death of Julius Caesar.”

Kermode observes that the Caesar reference was not included in the Folio version of 1623.  Why?  Could it have been cut out to speed up the play?  Unlikely says Kermode.  “A writer whose purpose was to keep the action moving on could have started the play with Hamlet himself on the battlements, drawn there in much the same way as the skeptical Horatio was.  Instead, we, like the characters, are kept in the dark as to the reason for the Ghost’s visitation, and young Hamlet is not even mentioned is not even mentioned until line 170.  Shakespeare did not use opening scenes for simple exposition – think of Macbeth, a little earlier – and this one, all atmosphere and very oblique, is one of his boldest.”

Kermode then goes on to discuss a passage we’ve discussed in previous posts:

So have I heard and do in part believe it.

But look, the morn in russet mantle clad

Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill.

This might be from Romeo and Juliet, except that the first line reminds us of Horatio’s now vestigial skepticism; the shift into another kind of language might seem absurd were it not that we have been thoroughly prepared for it.  It is indeed a fine instance of Eliot’s point: the dramatic poet must have this range.  We move without discomfort from the qualified skepticism to the grander style of the chronology, and then, equally without embarrassment, the verse returns to business:  ‘Break we our watch up.’  Horatio now proposes that they tell ‘young Hamlet’ what has been happening.  (This is the first mention of the hero, when the play has been in progress for about ten minutes.)  Meanwhile, the doubling and antithetical phrases continue as an undertone:  ‘This spirit, dumb to us, will speak to him.’  ‘As needful in our loves, fitting our duty.’”

Keep this in mind as you read the play:  “The language of Hamlet continually varies in this and similar ways.  It is dominated to an extent without parallel in the canon by one particular rhetorical device:  it is obsessed with doubles of all kinds, and notably by its use of the figure known as hendiadys.  This means, literally, one-through-two, and can be illustrated by some common expressions such as ‘law and order’ or ‘house and home.’ …The play has many doublings…My purpose in drawing attention to hendiadys is largely to show that in the rhetoric of Hamlet there may be a strain, virtually unnoticed, of a kind of compulsion that reflects the great and obvious topics, adultery and incest, deep preoccupations given external representation.”

I’ll go deeper into this idea of “doublings” as we continue.


To continue with Marjorie Garber’s Shakespeare After All:

“Claudius’s opening speech, beginning the play’s second scene, offers the greatest possible contrast to the dignified and mysterious silence of the Ghost.  His speech is a model of policy, a masterly reduction of language to formal public utterance. [MY NOTE:  Again, claudius 1noting Shakespeare’s use of language and rhetoric to help define character.]  Its very first word is the politician’s ‘though’ – a conditional hedge:

Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death

The memory be green, and that is us befitted

To bear our hearts in grief and our whole kingdom

To be contracted in one brow of woe,

Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature

That we with wisest sorrow think on him

Together with remembrance of ourselves.

[MY NOTE:  Compare that with anyone else’s speech we’ve heard so far.]

Claudius’s main clause refers not to ‘our dear brother’ or his death, but to ‘ourselves,’ that is, himself – the royal ‘we.’  His elegantly turned sentence gestures toward grief but quickly comes back to the real subject, himself, before he reverts to the smooth language of politics:

Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,

Th’imperial jointress to this warlike state,

Have we as ‘twere with a defeated joy,

With one auspicious and one dropping eye,

With mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage,

In equal scale weighing delight and dole,

Taken to wife…

The words flow on, smoothly, decoratively.  Yet when we stop to think about it, there is a serious and troublesome peculiarity about the concept of our ‘sometime sister, now our queen.’  The audience of Shakespeare’s time would certainly have recalled the difficulties that arose when Queen Elizabeth’s father, Henry VIII, sought to divorce his first wife, Catherine of Aragon, who had briefly been married to his older brother, Prince Arthur, in 1501.  Arthur died six months after the weeding, and in 1509, when he succeeded to the throne on the death of his father, Henry VII, Henry VIII married the Spanish princess.  When, in 1533, Henry sought annulment of the marriage in order to marry the pregnant Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother, the grounds for his petition were found in a passage in Leviticus that said a marriage between a man and his brother’s wife was incestuous (‘And if a man shall lie with his brother’s wife, it is an unclean thing, he has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.’  Although Catherine and Henry had a daughter, the future Queen Mary, they had no son, and Henry took this, conveniently, as proof that the biblical injunction had been broken.  In any case, an audience in England around 1600 would not have forgotten the critical events that had brought their present monarch, circuitously, to the throne.  Twentieth-century criticism concerned with the ‘incest motif’ in Hamlet, and influenced by Freud, often singles out the relationship between Hamlet and his mother.  But in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Claudius’s easy phrase ‘our sometime sister, now our queen’ would have been at least as provocative, and at least as potentially disturbing.  Nor is it simple to imagine the other chiastic couplings of his first speech – ‘a disturbed joy,’ ‘one auspicious and one dropping eye,’ ‘with mirth in funeral and with dirge in marriage’ – nor ‘my cousin Hamlet, and my son.’  [MY NOTE:  The doublings…]  We are in part seduced into accepting an association between ‘mirth’ and ‘dirge,’ not because the connection between the two is admirable or logical, but because they nearly rhyme.  Can everything be right in such a state, where language contradicts itself so effortlessly, so cosmetically, and where the majesty of the King’s public utterance crushes together, almost undetected by his courtly listeners, a comic funeral and a tragic marriage?

The language here has become more than language.  It is now part of the play’s plot, communicating to the audience in the theater – and to certain listeners onstage – something opposite from what we are apparently being told.  If we listen closely, and detect the strain that holds ‘mirth’ and ‘funeral’ together, we will sense that there is something wrong as surely as we did when we stood in imagination with the shivering sentries to watch the silent figure of the Ghost, in a kind of dumb show.  For the appearance of the Ghost in the first scene is a dumb show, a ‘prologue to the omen coming on,’ a silent, gesturing apparition that invites or demands interpretation.  This is the first of several dumb shows in Hamlet.  Others, as we’ll see, will include Ophelia’s account of Hamlet’s visit to her chamber, and the literal dumb show that prefaces the crucial Mousetrap play in the third act.  But in his first appearance as the speaking King, Claudius, displays at least as much eloquence as the gesturing Ghost.  For the moment, at least, he is in control of language, making it jump through hoops, cease to mean what it should.  Hamlet will have much reason to distrust ‘[w]words, words, words’ – or what Claudius himself, in a humbler moment will call ‘my most painted word.’  The world in which this kind of Claudius-language governs is a topsy-turvy, inverted world – in the Ghost’s phrase, ‘most foul, strange, and unnatural.’  It even approaches blasphemy, when we hear, for example, that every time the King drinks, the cannons will blaze away, and ‘the King’s rouse the heavens shall bruit again,/Re-speaking earthly thunder.’  Properly, thunder is heavenly, not earthly, but in this figure the King, not the gods, is the origin, and the skies can only ‘re-speak,’ or echo, what he says and does.  By the time Claudius falls to his knees to plead with those heavens, the split between his language and the meaning it cloaks is already too great.  ‘My words fly up,’ he will acknowledge, ‘my thoughts remain below.’  The Denmark of this play is a place of inversion and perversion, and there is no greater clue to that fact than the tenor and rhetoric of its language.

This split between words and thought, words and meaning, is essential to the way Hamlet works.  When the everyday language of human beings cannot be trusted, the only ‘safe’ language is deliberate fiction, plays and lies.  The only safe world is the world of the imagination, not the corrupt and uncontrollable world of politics.  And all of this Shakespeare sets out for us in the architecture of his first act, as we hear the various voices of characters we have not met before, and learn about them through the plot of language.  Thus the third scene of this remarkable third act produces yet another father and another son, this time the old counselor Polonius and his son Laertes, and again, as with Claudius and the reluctant Hamlet, the audience has a chance to hear fatherly advice.  Indeed, the whole of the first act is built on the advice of fathers to sons, fathers to children [MY NOTE:  I’d never thought about it in those terms before]; and it culminates with the awful revelations of Hamlet’s father, the ghost, confirming what we have already begun to suspect:  that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark.

Polonius’s language is not so much the language of policy as it is the language of platitude and homily, the language of aphorism and adage, the language of other people’s ‘wisdom.’  Many of his bromides can be found in collections of proverbial wisdom from the period, and a good number have found their way into political speeches by U.S. legislatures read into the Congressional Record.  The ‘wisdom’ of Polonius offers perhaps the best instance – other than the utterances of Machiavellian Iago – of words from Shakespeare taken out of jean-simmons-felix-aylmer-and-terence-morgan-perform-as-ophelia-polonius-and-laertes-in-hamlet-_i-G-60-6027-YCJB100Zcontext, what I have called ‘Bartlett’s Familiar Shakespeare.’ Sayings like ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be’ or [T]apparel oft proclaims the man’ or ‘This above all,/To thine own self be true’ seem to have a certain moral or ethical force when considered in the abstract, but uttered onstage by a dramatic character who has been interpreted in every mode from hapless wise counselor to doddering old fool, these same words begin to coruscate with inadvertent irony.  Certainly Laertes, a man who loves his father, takes Polonius’s advice, affectionately, with a grain of salt.  Claudius decorated his language with sounding phrases that plastered over and concealed his harsher meanings.  Polonius reduces himself to the even more anodyne level of the completely impersonal and banal word. The advice may be wiser than the speaker.  Modern quoters cite ‘Shakespeare’ at their peril when they are actually, and recognizably, quoting Shakespearean characters carefully crafted to be at variance with their own language.  One of this playwright’s most substantial achievements is that, whenever he cites truisms or platitudes, he puts them in the mouths of suspect speakers, something that the ‘Bartletts’ – or, now, the Internet – approach to quotation entirely fails to acknowledge, with the result that the irony turns back upon the quoter.  If every critic and philosopher wants to find a smack of Hamlet in himself, no one wants to ‘be’ Polonius…

The family tableau quickly reveals its darker side.  Applying his own rather suspicious standards to others, Polonius warns his daughter Ophelia about the untrustworthiness of Hamlet’s words – ‘his vows…are brokers’ – and forbids her, significantly, to talk to him in the future:  ‘Lord Hamlet is a prince out of they star.’  Laertes has the same opinion.  Hamlet ‘may not,’ he advises his sister, ‘as unvalued persons do/Carve for himself.’  They warn her against seduction and unchastity, sowing the dramatic seeds for her later breakdown into madness.  Indeed, the play repeatedly associates the ‘rotten’ thing that male characters need to be on guard against with women and female sexuality.  Hamlet’s bitter and despairing instruction to Ophelia, ‘Get thee to a nunnery,’ incorporates the two apparently opposite meanings of the word, for in Elizabethan slang a ‘nunnery’ was a brothel.  This fear of the power of women and of their excessive capacity for desire at times produces an almost paranoid level of surveillance, in Polonius’s case not only over his daughter, Ophelia (whom he will ‘loose’ to Hamlet in the lobby as if Hamlet were a stallion and Ophelia a mare, as he and Claudius overlook the scene), but also over his son.  For no sooner has Laertes departed for Paris than Polonius sends spies after him, instructed to offer up slanderous accusations of Laertes’ drinking, swearing, and ‘drabbing’ (visiting whores) to see if they yield similar gossip and confidences.  Such a technique, to ‘by indirections find directions out’ and by a ‘bait of falsehood’ catch a ‘carp of truth,’ was a not unfamiliar one employed by the Elizabethan spy network…Used by a father against his son, and immediately after the genial imparting of moral advice in the guise of a farewell, this cynical proceeding contrasts both with  Claudius’s manifest and grandiose duplicity and with the anguished truth-telling between father and son, old Hamlet and young Hamlet, that will occupy the stage in the scene to follow.”

More tomorrow…


So, how’s your reading coming?  Is there anything I can post that might help that I’m not posting?  Any questions?  Comments?  Don’t be shy…let us know!

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3 Responses to “Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen,/Th’imperial jointress to this warlike state,”

  1. GGG says:

    Dennis, I thought that was Russell Crowe at first in the photo of Claudius. Maybe Shakespeare is next after Les Mis?

    Typo: Henry VIII’s first wife was Prince Arthur? Made me giggle anyway.

    Reading the first three acts I can really see what Bradley was talking about as far as the difference in the style of language. The language itself seems heavier and more muscular.

    Of course the language is still remarkable. Each act had several lines that are part of our culture–does Hamlet win the most most famous lines contest? I just started reading it this week and I was surprised at how familiar it all was, even though it was college when I last actually read the play.

    The point above about father and son pairs is really interesting–maybe the universal dynamics between parents and children is part of why this play resonates with us so immediately.

    I’m excited to watch the David Tennant version. He is a hero with my kids because of Doctor Who!

  2. GGG says:

    Oops, meant to say each scene, not each act.

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