“And with a look so piteous in purport/As if he had been loosed out of hell/To speak of horrors, he comes before me.”


Act Two, Part Two

By Dennis Abrams


How’s everybody doing on their reading?  Is the pace OK?  Too fast?  Too slow?  I read the first scene last night, will move on to the scene two tonight.  There’s a couple of things from the first scene I want touch on.  First, Polonius sending Reynaldo out to spy on Laertes immediately brought to mind Kott’s view of a paranoid political Hamlet.  At least for me.

And second, as we follow Hamlet putting on his “antic disposition,” Ophelia’s description of Hamlet’s dress to her father bears notice, as in this from John Dover Wilson’s What Happens in Hamlet:

“Another aspect of the ‘antic disposition’ not sufficiently reckoned with by modern commentators [MY NOTE:  1935] in its expression in Hamlet’s costume.  Ophelia tells us that before his madness Hamlet had been

The glass of fashion and the mould of form;

and though we never see him except in mourning, his black doublet was no doubt rich enough and the points of his hose well tied in the Privy Council scene at the beginning of the play.  In the second scene of act 2, however, we hear from Claudius that

nor th’exterior nor the inward man

Resembles that it was;

and this merely confirms the description given of him by Ophelia in the previous scene, as he appears suddenly before her in her closet,

with her doublet all unbraced,

No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,

Ungart’red, and down-gyved to his ankle,

Pale as his shirt.

I shall have more to say about this episode…but as far as concerns Hamlet’s disorderly attire, I cannot do better than to quote the words of Professor J.Q. Adams, who is the first I think to perceive its true significance.  He writes:

‘This slovenliness in costume has usually been interpreted as the pose of a forlorn lover.  It is true that literary artists of the seventeenth century sometimes represented a disappointed lover as adopting a melancholy pose accompanied by a certain carelessness in dress.  But Hamlet’s physical appearance cannot be explained on this score.  He has ‘no hat upon his head;’ the sad lover is invariably represented with his hat plucked low over his eyes.  Hamlet’s doublet is ‘all’ – that is, entirely – unfastened, a most indelicate form of dishabille.  His stockings ware downfallen to his ankles; since man’s stockings reached to or above the knee, Hamlet was thus bare-legged.  And the stockings are actually ‘fouled,’ which takes away the fine sentimentality of the lover-pose.  Most significant of all, perhaps, is the allusion to his shirt.  This part of a man’s costume was not supposed to be visible; yet Hamlet appears in public in his shirt; it is almost as though, as we should say to-day, he HamletImageappeared in his undershirt.  [MY NOTE:  Modernize this as you see fit.]  None of these things can be explained on the score of the sentimental, lovesick youth.’

He then goes on to cite the well-known lines from Diaphantus (1604), a poem by Anthony Scoloker, the hero of which

Puts off his clothes, his shirt he only wears,

Much like mad Hamlet;

lines which clearly preserve for us the contemporary stage-effect of Burbadge’s impersonation.  He also quotes a passage from The Revenger’s Tragedy (c. 1607), a play obviously inspired in part by Hamlet, which runs:

Surely we are all made people, and they

Whom we think mad are not: we mistake those;

‘Tis we are mad in sense, they but in clothes.

And he concludes that ‘Hamlet’s madness, as it impressed the audience of the globe, was hamlet-michael-sheen-youn-007conspicuously a madness ‘in clothes.’”



To continue with Jan Kott:


“Let us have a look at the scenario in order to find out what parts it contains, knowing that they will be played by modern characters.  Hamlet, envisaged as a scenario, is the story of three young boys and one girl.  The boys are of the same age.  They are called Hamlet, Laertes, Fortinbras.  The girl is younger, and her name is Ophelia.  They are all involved in a bloody political and family drama.  As a result, three of them will die; the fourth will, more or less by chance, become the King of Denmark.

I have deliberately written that they are involved in a drama.  For none of them has chosen his part; it is imposed on them from outside, having been conceived in the scenario.  The scenario has to be played to the end, no matter who Hamlet, Ophelia, and other characters are.  I am not concerned at the moment with the question of what the scenario itself is supposed to be.  It may be the mechanism of history, fate, human condition, depending on how we want to envisage HamletHamlet is a drama of imposed situations, and here lies the key to modern interpretations of the play.

The King, the Queen, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been clearly defined by their situations.  It may be a tragic situation, as in the case of the queen; or grotesque as in the case of Polonius.  But character and situation are closely connected.  Claudius does not play the part of a murderer and a king. He is the murderer and the King.  Polonius does not play the part of a despotic father and a king’s councilor.  He isthe despotic father and the King’s councilor.

It is different with Hamlet.  He is more than the heir to the throne who tries to revenge himself for the murder of his father.  The situation does not define Hamlet, or at any rate does not define him beyond doubt.  The situation has been imposed on him.  Hamlet accepts it, but at the same time revolts against it.  He accepts the part, but is beyond and above it.

In his student days Hamlet had read a great deal of Montaigne.  It is with Montaigne’s book in his hand that he chases the medieval ghost on the terraces of Elsinore castle.  The ghost has hardly disappeared when Hamlet writes on the book’s margin that ‘one may smile, and smile, and be a villain.’  Shakespeare has thrust the most attentive of Montaigne’s readers back into the feudal world.  He has also set a mousetrap for him.

‘Poor boy with a book in his hand…’  Thus was Hamlet described in 1904 by Stanislaw Wyspianski, painter, dramatist, designer, whom Gordon Craig used to call the most universal artist of the theatre.  Wyspianski made the Polish Hamlet walk round the Renaissance galleries of Cracow’s Royal Castle.  The scenario of history imposed a duty on the Polish Hamlet at the turn of the century to struggle for the nation’s liberation.  That particular Hamlet used to read Polish romantic poets and Nietzsche.  He experienced his powerlessness as a personal failure.

Every Hamlet has a book in his hand. What book does the modern Hamlet read?  Hamlet in the Cracow production of late autumn, 1956, read only newspapers.  He shouted that ‘Denmark’s a prison,’ and wanted to improve the world.  He was a rebellious ideologist, and Hamlet_zeffirellilived only for action.  Hamlet in the Warsaw production of 1959 was full of doubts again; and again was the ‘sad boy with a book in his hand…’  We can easily visualize him in black sweater and blue jeans.  The book he is holding is not by Montaigne, but by Sartre, Camus or Kafka.  He studied in Paris, or Brussels, or even – like the real Hamlet – in Wittenberg.  He returned to Poland three or four years ago.  He very much doubts that the world can be reduced to a few simple statements.  Occasionally he is tormented by thoughts of the fundamental absurdity of existence.

This latest, the most modern of Hamlets, returned to the country at a moment of tension.  Father’s ghost demands revenge. Friends expect him to fight for succession to the throne.  He wants to go away again.  He cannot.  Everybody involves him in politics.  He has been trapped into finding himself in a compulsory situation, a situation he does not want but which has been thrust upon him.  He is looking for inner freedom, and does not want to commit himself.  At least he accepts the choice imposed on him; but only in the sphere of action.  He is committed but only in what he does not in what he thinks.  He knows that all action is clear-cut, but he refuses to let his thought be thus limited.  He does not want practice to be equated with theory.

He is inwardly starved.  He considers life to be a lost cause from the outset.  He would rather be excused from this big game, but remains loyal to its rules.  He knows that ‘though man doe not do what he wants, he is responsible for his life.’  And that ‘it does not matter what has been made of us; what matters is what we ourselves make of what has been made of us.’  Sometimes he thinks himself an existentialist; at other times – just a Marxist who has revolted.  But he knows that ‘death transforms life into destiny.’  He has read Malraux’s Condition humaine.

This attitude of the modern Hamlet is a defence of his inner freedom.  This Hamlet fears, most of all, a clear-cut definition.  But act he must.  Ophelia may have a hair-do like Leonardo’s Lady with a weasel, or her hair may be let down loose; she may wear a pigtail, or a pony-tail.  But she, too, knows that life is a hopeless business from the start.  So she does not want to play her game with life at too high a stake.  It is the events that compel her to overplay.  Her boyfriend has been involved in high politics.  She has slept with him.  But she is a daughter of a minister of the crown; an obedient daughter.  She agrees to her conversations with Hamlet being overheard by her father.  Maybe she wants to save Hamlet.  But she falls into the trap herself.  The events have driven her into a blind alley from which there is on way out.  An ordinary girl, who loved her boy, has been given by the scenario of history a tragic part.”


And since I’m going to try to keep these posts shorter, I’m going to conclude with just a bit from Harold Bloom.  First, on Ophelia:

“We first encounter Ophelia in a familial context, with her departing brother Laertes and her father Polonius alike warning her not to yield her person to Hamlet.  ‘I shall obey, my lord,’ she gently says to her father, and so her tragedy already is in place.  Shakespeare, act2scene1-ophelia-poloniuswhose art is elliptical, even in this richest and most various of his plays, does not dramatize the scene between Hamlet and Ophelia where the prince first experiments with putting on an antic disposition on, but allows Ophelia to narrate:

He took me by the wrist and held me hard,

Then goes he to the length of all his arm,

And with his other hand thus o’er his brow

He falls to such perusal of my face

As a would draw it.  Long stay’d he so.

At least, a little shaking of mine arm,

And thrice his head thus waving up and down,

He rais’d a sigh so piteous and profound

As it did seem to shatter all his bulk

And end his being.  That done, he lets me go,

And with his head over his shoulder turn’d

He seem’d to find his way without his eyes,

For out o’doors he went without their helps,

And to the last bended their light on me.

What emerges clearly is that Hamlet is playacting, and that Ophelia already is the prime victim of his dissembling.  John Ruskin, meditating upon Shakespeare’s names, sensitively commented:

‘Ophelia, ‘serviceableness,’ the true lost wife of Hamlet, is marked by having a Greek name by that of her brother, Laertes; and its signification is once exquisitely alluded to in that brother’s last word of her, where her gentle preciousness is opposed to the uselessness of the churlish clergy – ‘a ministering angel shall my sister be, when thou liest howling.’”


I’d also like to point that I THINK the description of Hamlet’s backwards look at Ophelia is meant to evoke the look that Orpheus gave to Eurydice, the look that condemns her to a life in hell.


And finally, from Bloom introducing the idea of plays within plays within plays:

Hamlet probably was acted at the Globe during 1600, but it was for Shakespeare a highly volatile text, and in 1601 he seems to have expanded its ironic commentary on the Wars of the Theaters that he had with his rival/friend Ben Jonson.  And yet even this Poet’s War is only a portion of the maelstrom that constitutes the sequence that goes from Act II, Scene ii, line 315, through Act III, Scene ii, line 288.  For almost a thousand lines, a fourth of the play, Shakespeare cuts a gap into his representation of reality, or imitation of an action.  The Globe’s audiences, on afternoons in 1601, evidently were sophisticated enough to accept an art that capriciously abandons the illusions of stage representation and then picks them up again.

Since I think that this freedom to forsake our legitimate expectations is central to Hamlet (and to Hamlet), I will elaborate upon Shakespeare’s elliptical art, which I do not find illuminated by the term ‘metatheater.’  Hegel remarkably said that Shakespeare’s greatest characters were ‘free artists of themselves.’  Hamlet ought to be the freest, but Shakespeare prevents this, in order to maintain his own freedom to make at least this one play a ‘poem unlimited.’

Why does Hamlet return to Elsinore after his sea adventure?  Certainly it is not to complete his baffled revenge, now as defunct as the Ghost, or the son’s memory of the father.  Orson Welles had the happy fantasy that Hamlet goes to England, abandoning Denmark forever, and ages into Sir John Falstaff.  This is akin to my own favorite fantasy, in which Falstaff declines to die of a broken heart, and finds himself again in the Forest of Arden, crunching Jaques and Touchstone in contests of wit and happily substituting Rosalind as adopted daughter for the murderously bad foster son Prince Hal.

But Shakespeare does not indulge fantasies; Hamlet and Falstaff must die.  As a compensation, we are offered, at least in Hamlet, perspectives that keep reminding us we sit in a theater, intensely conscious that Hamlet, despite his brilliance, is only is creator’s puppet.  The function of the gap Shakespeare cuts into Hamlet is to keep Hobgoblin running off with the garland of Apollo.  Faulconbridge in King John, and Shylock, had walked off with their plays.  Mercutio had been killed by Shakespeare les he did the same.  To say of Falstaff that he makes off with the two parts of Henry IV would be weak understatement.  Shakespeare had promised to bring Falstaff to France in Henry V, and sensibly thought better of it, killing the great wit to the gorgeous funeral music of Mistress Quickly’s elegiac Cockney prose.  No one, not even Shakespeare, could curtail Hamlet’s largeness of being, but Shakespeare had the audacity to keep Hamlet under some control by immersing us in plays within plays within plays.”

More tomorrow.

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4 Responses to “And with a look so piteous in purport/As if he had been loosed out of hell/To speak of horrors, he comes before me.”

  1. GGG says:


    It is going a little fast for me. It seems like you’ve been posting more frequently? I enjoy reading the posts, but it seems like it’s a little faster–or maybe I am a lot slower this week!

  2. GGG says:

    I really like reading the posts, but I think that is too much posting? It makes me feel like I am getting really far behind…. i think I like the old schedule better because it gave time to read the play and to read the posts, which are always great. Just my vote, but will try to keep up.

    • GGG: Sorry…my thought on Hamlet was that because there was so much material, that it might be better to do shorter posts on a daily basis…just to spread it out. Let’s see how it works for Hamlet, and then, I’ll adjust when we get to the other major tragedies. Dennis

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