Act Two, Part One
By Dennis Abrams
Act Two: Hamlet decides to fake madness (or does he?) in order to investigate his father’s death, and the whole court is thrown into confusion – Ophelia is stunned, Polonius thinks it is because Ophelia has rejected him, and the King and Queen hire Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on him. When the news arrives that a company of actors is about to arrive at Elsinore, Hamlet sees an opportunity. He will get them to perform a play, The Mousetrap (no, not the Agatha Christie version), one scene of which closely resembles his father’s murder, and with Horatio, will observe Claudius’s reaction.
Let’s talk about Hamlet and delay for a moment. It seems to me that, whatever the reasons FOR the delay (and those can be interpreted and read in as many ways as there are readers), the bottom line, at least for me, is this: Shakespeare’s most self-consciously complex character simply cannot reduce himself to the simplifications required by his role. Compare him, for example, to Laertes, the play’s other key avenger (along with Fortinbras), who when the time comes coldly vows to ‘cut [Hamlet’s] throat i’th’church’ if necessary to avenge his father Polonius. Hamlet, on the other hand, has the greatest of difficulties negotiating his own scruples. Or at the very least getting out of his own head.
After pausing to make sure that the Ghost’s word is accurate (which raises the question of why?), Hamlet then fluffs (or let’s get away) the opportunity to kill Claudius at his prayers, not wishing to send his father’s killer to heaven. And then, by the time he does achieve his revenge it’s not at his own initiative – events have completely spiraled out of control.
Even its somewhat unmanageable length (at least when it comes to stage and film), Hamlet is dominated by postponement and hesitancy. As critics since the mid-eighteenth century have commented, the issue of Hamlet’s own delay is perhaps the biggest question of all, not least of all because he spends so much of the play ruminating on just what it is to act. (In this, I think, he is at his most modern.) Furiously protesting that, despite being ‘Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,’ he ‘must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words.’ Hamlet continues to debate the issue almost non-stop – and with over 1500 lines, half again as much as Richard III, the Danish prince is, by far, the most talkative character in Shakespeare.
To jump ahead just a bit…in his most famous soliloquy (To be or not to be…), his thoughts are dizzying. They circle constantly around the very idea of stasis. What begins as seemingly rational enquiry into the state of being – “To be, or not to be” evolves into a speculative mediation on the myriad ways in which humans are persuaded out of “action.” Suicide, another form of action, is very much on his mind, but even this “resolution” (escapist though he argues that it is) stumbles and “turns awry,” undone by conscience, by thought. Despite his apparent determination to answer the ‘question,’ Hamlet’s thinking is spasmodic, broken – a new kind of dramatic style for Shakespeare from what we’ve seen in the earlier plays, and, arguably, an entirely new dramatic language. One of Shakespeare’s greatest German advocates (he was very big in Germany fairly early on), August Wilheml Schlegel, called the play a Gedankentranserspiel, a “tragedy of thought,” and that speech, along with many others in the play, demonstrates how true that description might be. Even in its prodigious length and complexity, Hamlet’s most famous (and perhaps the theater’s most famous) soliloquy is a stunning lesson in the way in which thought – even unique and amazing thoughts – can get in the way.
I’ll start digging into Act Two in tomorrow’s post. For today, I’d like to take a look at two very different takes on Hamlet – from the great Romantic critic William Hazlitt, and then from Jan Kott from Cold War Poland, who has a more bleak and political view.
This is that Hamlet the Dane whom we read of in our youth, and whom we may be said almost to remember in our after years; he who made that famous soliloquy on life, who gave the advice to the players, who thought “this goodly frame, the earth,” a sterile promontory, and “this brave o’er-hanging firmament, the air, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire,” “a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours;” whom “man delighted not, nor woman neither;” he who talked with the grave-diggers, and moralised on Yorrick’s skull; the school-fellow of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at Wittenburg; the friend of Horatio; the lover of Ophelia; he that was mad and sent to England; the slow avenger of his father’s death; who lived at the court of Horwendillus five hundred years before we were born, but all whose thoughts we seem to know as well as we do our own, because we have read them in Shakespeare.
Hamlet is a name; his speeches and sayings but the idle coinage of the poet’s brain. What then, are they not real? They are as real as our own thoughts. Their reality is in the reader’s mind. It is we who are Hamlet. This play has a prophetic truth, which is above that of history. Whoever has become thoughtful and melancholy through his own mishaps or those of others; whoever has borne about with him the clouded brow of reflection, and thought himself “too much i’ th’ sun;” whoever has seen the golden lamp of day dimmed by envious mists rising in his own breast, and could find in the world before him only a dull blank with nothing left remarkable in it; whoever has known “the pangs of despised love, the insolence of office, or the spurns which patient merit of the unworthy takes;” he who has felt his mind sink within him, and sadness cling to his heart like a malady, who has had his hopes blighted and his youth staggered by the apparitions of strange things; who cannot well be at ease, while he sees evil hovering near him like a spectre; whose powers of action have been eaten up by thought, he to whom the universe seems infinite, and himself nothing; whose bitterness of soul makes him careless of consequences, and who goes to a play as his best resource is to shove off, to a second remove, the evils of life by a mock representation of them – this is the true Hamlet.
We have been so used to this tragedy that we hardly know how to criticise it any more than we should know how to describe our own faces. But we must make such observations as we can. It is the one of Shakespeare’s plays that we think of the oftenest, because it abounds most in striking reflections on human life, and because the distresses of Hamlet are transferred, by the turn of his mind, to the general account of humanity. Whatever happens to him we apply to ourselves, because he applies it so himself as a means of general reasoning. He is a great moraliser; and what makes him worth attending to is, that he moralises on his own feelings and experience. He is not a common-place pedant. If ‘Lear’ is distinguished by the greatest depths of passion, ‘Hamlet’ is the most remarkable for the ingenuity, originality, and unstudied development of character. Shakespeare had more magnanimity than any other poet, and he has shown more of it in this play than in any other. There is no attempt to force an interest: everything is left for time and circumstances to unfold. The attention is excited without effort, the incidents succeed each other as matters of course, the characters think and speak and act just as they might do if left entirely to themselves. There is no set purpose, no straining at a point. The observations are suggested by the passing scene – the gusts of passion come and go like sounds of music borne on the wind. The whole play is an exact transcript of what might be supposed to have taken place at the court of Denmark, at the remote period of time fixed upon, before the modern refinements in morals and manners were heard of. It would have been interesting enough to have been admitted as a bystander in such a scene, at such a time, to have heard and witnessed something of what was going on. But here we are more than spectators. We have not only “the outward pageants and the signs of grief;” but “we have that within which passes show.” We read the thoughts of the heart, we catch the passions living as they rise. Other dramatic writers give us very fine versions and paraphrases of nature; but Shakespeare, together with his own comments, gives us the original text, that we may judge for ourselves. This is a very great advantage.
The character of Hamlet stands quite by itself. It is not a character marked by strength of will or even of passion, but by refinement of thought and sentiment. Hamlet is as little of the hero as a man can well be : but he is a young and princely novice, full of high enthusiasm and quick sensibility – the sport of circumstances, questioning with fortune and refining on his own feelings, and forced from the natural bias of his disposition by the strangeness of his situation. He seems incapable of deliberate action, and is only hurried into extremities on the spur of the occasion, when he has no time to reflect, as in the scene where he kills Polonius, and again, where he alters the letters which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are taking with them to England, purporting his death. At other times, when he is most bound to act, he remains puzzled, undecided, and sceptical, dallies with his purposes, till the occasion is lost, and finds out some pretence to relapse into indolence and thoughtfulness again. For this reason he refuses to kill the King when he is at his prayers, and by a refinement in malice, which is in truth only an excuse for his own want of resolution, defers his revenge to a more fatal opportunity, when he shall be engaged in some act “that has no relish of salvation in it.”
“Now might I do it pat now he is praying;
And now I’ll do ‘t; – and so he goes to heaven;
And so am I reveng’d? – that would be scanned:
A villain kills my father; and for that
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge …
Up sword; and know thou a more horrid hent,
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage.” 2
He is the prince of philosophical speculators; and because he cannot have his revenge perfect, according to the most refined idea his wish can form, he declines it altogether. So he scruples to trust the suggestions of the ghost, contrives the scene of the play to have surer proof of his uncle’s guilt, and then rests satisfied with this confirmation of his suspicions, and the success of his experiment, instead of acting upon it. Yet he is sensible of his own weakness, taxes himself with it, and tries to reason himself out of it:
“How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast; no more.
Sure he that made us with such a large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unus’d. Now whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th’ event, –
A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom,
And ever three parts coward, – I do not know
Why yet I live to say, This thing’s to do;
Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means
To do ‘t. Examples, gross as earth, exhort me:
Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puff’d,
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument;
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw,
 When honour’s at the stake. How stand I, then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while, to my shame, I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? – O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth. ”
Still he does nothing; and this very speculation on his own infirmity only affords him another occasion for indulging it. It is not from any want of attachment to his father or of abhorrence of his murder that Hamlet is thus dilatory; but it is more to his taste to indulge his imagination in reflecting upon the enormity of the crime and refining on his schemes of vengeance, than to put them into immediate practice. His ruling passion is to think, not to act: and any vague pretext that flatters this propensity instantly diverts him from his previous purposes.”
And now Jan Kott, from the essay “Hamlet of the Mid-Century” from Shakespeare our Contemporary:
“The Hamlet produced in Cracow a few weeks after the XXth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party lasted exactly three hours. It was light and clear, tense and sharp, modern and consistent, limited to one issue only. It was a political drama par excellence. ‘Something is rotten in the state of Denmark’ was the first chord of Hamlet’s new meaning. And then the dead sound of the words ‘Denmark’s a prison,’ three times repeated. Finally the magnificent churchyard scene, with the gravedigger’s dialogue rid of metaphysics, brutal and unequivocal. Gravediggers know for whom they dig graves. ‘The gallows is built stronger than the church,’ they say.
‘Watch’ and ‘enquire’ were the words most commonly heard from the stage. In this performance everybody, without exception, was being constantly watched. Polonius, minister to the royal murderer, sends a man to France even after his own son. Was Shakespeare a genius for our time? Let us listen to the minister:
Enquire me first what Danskers are in Paris;
And how, and who, what means, and where they keep,
By this encompassment and drift of question
That they do know my son, come you more nearer
Than your particular demands will touch it.
At Elsinore castle someone is hidden behind every curtain. The good minister does not even trust the Queen. Let us listen to him again:
‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother,
Since nature makes them partial, should o’ehear
The speech, of vantage.
Everything at Elsinore has been corroded by fear; marriage, love and friendship. Shakespeare, indeed, must have experienced terrible things at the time of Essex’s plot and execution…Let us listen to the King talking to Hamlet’s young friends:
….I entreat you both
That, being of so young days brought up with him,
And since no neighbour’d to his youth and haviour,
That you vouchsafe your rest here in our court
Some little time; so by your companies
To draw him on to pleasure, and to gather
Whether aught to us unknown afflicts him thus
That, open’d, lies within our remedy.
The murderous uncle keeps a watchful eye on Hamlet. Why does he not want him to leave Denmark? His presence at court is inconvenient, reminding everybody of what they would like to forget. Perhaps he suspects something? Would it not be better not to issue him a passport and keep him at hand? Or does the King wish to get rid of Hamlet as soon as possible, but give way to the Queen, who wants to have her son near her? And the Queen? What does she think about it all? Does she feel guilty? What does the Queen know? She has been through passion, murder and silence. She had to suppress everything inside her. One can sense a volcano under her superficial poise.
Ophelia, too, has been drawn into the big game. They listen into her conversations, ask questions, read her letters. It is true that she gives them up herself. She is at the same time part of the Mechanism, and its victim. Politics hangs here over every feeling, and there is no getting away from it. All the characters are poisoned by it. The only subject of their conversations is politics. It is a kind of madness.
Hamlet loves Ophelia. But he knows he is being watched; moreover – he has more important matters to attend to. Love is gradually fading away. There is no room for it in this world. Hamlet’s dramatic cry: ‘Get thee to a nunnery!’ is address not to Ophelia alone, but also to those who are overhearing the two lovers. It is to confirm their impression of his alleged madness. But for Hamlet and for Ophelia it means that in the world where murder holds sway, there is no room for love.
Hamlet was performed in Cracow, in 1956, unequivocally and with a terrifying clarity. Doubtless it was a simplified Hamlet. But it is equally certain that this interpretation was so suggestive that when I reached for the text after the performance, I saw in it only a drama of political crime. To the classic question, whether Hamlet’s madness is real or feigned, the Cracow production gave the following reply: Hamlet feigns madness, he puts on, in cold blood, a mask of madness in order to perform a coup d’état; Hamlet is made, because politics is itself madness, when it destroys all feeling and affection.
I have nothing against such an interpretation. And I do not regret all the other Hamlets: the moralist, unable to draw a clear-cut line between good and evil; the intellectual, unable to find a sufficient reason for action; the philosopher, to whom the world’s existence is a matter of doubt.
I prefer the youth, deeply involved in politics, rid of illusions, sarcastic, passionate and brutal. A young rebel who has about him something of the charm of James Dean. His passion sometimes seems childish. No doubt he is more primitive than all previous Hamlets. Action, not reflection, is his forte. He is wild and drunk with indignation. The Polish Hamlet after the XXth Party Congress. One of many. He does not yet experience deep moral doubts, but he is not a simpleton. He wants to know if his father has really been murdered. He cannot fully trust the Ghost, or any ghosts for that matter. He looks for more convincing evidence, and that is why he arranges a psychological test by stating the crime that has been committed. He loathes the world, and that is why he sacrifices Ophelia. But he does not flinch from a coup d’etat. He knows, however, that a coup is a difficult order. He considers all pros and cons. He is a born conspirator. ‘To be’ means for him to revenge his father and to assassinate the King; while ‘not to be’ means – to give up the fight.”
Hamlet is like a sponge. Unless it is produced in a stylized or antiquarian fashion, it immediately absorbs all the problems of our time. It is the strangest play ever written, by its very imperfections. Hamlet is a great scenario, in which every character has a more or less tragic and cruel part to play, and has magnificent things to say. Every character has an irrevocable task to fulfill, a task imposed by the author. This scenario is independent of the characters; it has been devised earlier. It defines the situations, as well as the mutual relations of the characters; it dictates their words and gestures. But it does not say who the characters are. It is something external in relation to them. And that is why the scenario of Hamlet can be played by different sorts of characters.
An actor always enters a ready part, written not only for him. In this respect Hamlet does not, of course, differ from other plays. At the first rehearsal the actors sit at a table. ‘You will be the king,’ says the producer. ‘You will be Ophelia, and you will be Laertes. We shall now read the play.’ So far so good. But in the play itself similar things happen. Hamlet, Laertes, Ophelia also have to play parts imposed on them, parts against which they revolt. They are actors in a drama they do not always wholly understand, in which they have become involved. The scenario dictates actions of the dramatis personae, but does not dictate motives underlying the action, i.e., the psychology. This is true of life, as well as of the theater.
A secret organization is preparing an action. The plan has been carefully worked out: place, time-table, direction of retreat. Then the parts have to be distributed. You will stand on that corner and raise your handkerchief when you see the grey car. You will go to Z. and bring of case with grenades to the house No. 12. You will shoot in direction W. and escape in direction M. The tasks have been allotted, the parts taught. Even gestures have been defined. But the evening before, the boy who is to shoot in direction W. could have read Rimbaud or drunk vodka or both. The girl who is to bring grenades may be having an unhappy love affair, or may be a good-time girl, or possibly both. The plan of action will not be altered because of that. The scenario remains unchanged.
Hamlet can be summarized in a number of ways: as an historical chronicle, as a thriller, or as a philosophical drama. They probably will be three different plays, though all three have been written by Shakespeare. But if the summary is fair, scenarios of the three plays will be the same. Except that every time there will be a different Ophelia, or Hamlet, or Laertes. The parts are the same, but performed by different actors.
Let us have a look at the scenario. For, after all, Shakespeare had written, or rather re-written, an old scenario, and the parts in it. But he did not distribute the parts. This has been done anew in every age. Every age has its own Poloniuses, Fortinbrases, Hamlets, and Ophelias. Before they enter the stage, they have to go to dressing rooms. But let them not stay there too long. They may put on huge wigs, shave off their moustaches, or stick on beards, put on medieval-looking tights, or throw Byronic capes over their shoulders; they may play in armour or in tails. This does not really make much difference, on condition that their make-up is not overdone; for they must have modern faces. Otherwise they would perform a costume piece, instead of Hamlet.
Bertold Brecht wrote in his Little Organum for the Theatre:
‘…The theater should always be mindful of the needs of its time. Let us take, as an example, the old play of Hamlet. I believe that in view of the bloody and gloomy times in which I am writing this, in view of the criminal ruling classes and general despair of reason,…the story of this play may be read thus: It is a time of war. Hamlet’s father, the king of Denmark, had, in a victorious war of plunder, killed the king of Norway. While the latter’s son, Fortinbras, is preparing himself for the new war, the king of Denmark is also killed, by his brother. The brothers of the dead kings, having become kings themselves conclude peace with each other. Norwegian troops, on their way to a war of plunder against Poland, have been permitted to cross Danish territory. Just at this time, the warlike father’s ghost asks young Hamlet to revenge the crime committed on himself. After some hesitation as to whether he should add one bloody deed to another, Hamlet – willing even to go into exile – meets at the sea shore young Fortinbras and his troops on their way to Poland. Following his example he turns back, and, in a scene of barbaric slaughter, kills his uncle, his mother, and himself, leaving Denmark to the Norwegians. Thus we observe how, in these circumstances, the young man, already somewhat stout, badly misuses his new knowledge acquired at Wittenberg university. This knowledge gets in the way when it comes to resolving conflicts of the feudal world. His reason is impractical when faced with irrational reality. He falls a tragic victim to the discrepancy between his reasoning and his action.’
Brecht was writing his Little Organumin the years of the Second World War. No wonder that in Shakespeare’s tragedy he saw, above all, armies devastating the country, wars of aggression, the powerlessness of reason. Hamlet’s personal drama, or Ophelia’s misfortunes were made insignificant by the events of history. Brecht was sensitive to the politics in Hamlet. He was more interested in the sequences of historical conflict than in the depths of the Prince of Denmark’s soul. The point of departure of Polish productions of Hamlet in 1956 and 1959 was very similar, however they might have differed from Brecht’s concepts. Hamlet was a political play in 1956, and remained such in 1959, although the Prince of Denmark became by then a much more complex personality and passed through new experiences.”
A Hamlet and a Hamlet for every age.
For those interested in reading more about the history of Hamlet in Poland, click here.
In 1965, the RSC did a production of Hamlet, directed by Peter Hall and starring David Warner and Glenda Jackson that was much influenced by Kott. See photos and read more about it here.
This last clip, although from Act One, is fairly historic: Burton and Gielgud.
More tomorrow. Enjoy Act Two