“I doubt it is no other but the main –/His father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage.”


Act Two, Part Three

By Dennis Abrams


I want to start by going back to Marjorie Garber discussing Hamlet and delay, if only because it gives me an excuse to post a really amazing film clip:

“Another Victorian critic, E.P. Vining, suggested that the answer to the problem was that Hamlet was really a woman in disguise, and that this accounted for both ‘his’ reluctance to fight and ‘his’ famous delay.  Vining was writing at a time when a good deal of scholarship on gender ambiguity and erotic types was being written, and being read, by such influential figures as Havelock Ellis and Edward Carpenter.  In fact, part of what made Vining believe that the ‘mystery’ of Hamlet was his/her gender was precisely the fact that Shakespeare’s character seemed to behave in ways that some observers in the late nineteenth century regarded as unmanly.  ‘The question may be asked,’ he wrote, ‘whether Shakespeare, having been compelled by the course and exigencies of the drama to gradually modify his original hero into a man with more and more of the feminine element, may not at last have had the thought dawn upon him that this womanly man might be in very deed a woman…?’  Vining’s speculations were influential in the production of a 1920 German silent Hamlet2film version of Hamlet, starring the Danish actress Asta Nielsen.  In the film, the Danish throne can occupied only by a male heir, so the female Hamlet is brought up as a man in order to provide political continuity and to avoid the loss of Danish lands to arch-foe Norway.  The resulting script produced some highly eroticized scenes with a Horatio who does not know Hamlet’s secret, and a deathbed revelation of her true gender.  The part of Hamlet has not infrequently been played by actresses, including Sarah Bernhardt in 1899, and, more recently, Diane Verona in 2000.  “I cannot see Hamlet as a man,’ Bernhardt declared, when asked about her characterization.  ‘The things he says, his impulses, his actions entirely indicate to me that he was a woman.’

To continue her look at Hamlet, delay, and into Act Two:

“Perhaps the most celebrated and influential answers to the question ‘Why does Hamlet delay?’ was offered by Sigmund Freud and by his English disciple and fellow psychologist Ernest Jones.  Freud’s theory of the ‘Oedipus’ complex uses the story of Sophocles’ Oedipus, who literally kills his father and marries his mother (although in both cases he does so unknowingly), as the manifest and mythic version of what Freud tended to regard as a latent desire, best exemplified in his more modern, and repressed, form, in Hamlet.  In The Interpretation of Dreams (1900) he offers a powerful and provocative reading of the Shakespearean character:  ‘Hamlet is able to do anything – except take vengeance on the man who did away with his father and took that father’s place with his mother, the man who shows him the repressed wishes of childhood realized.’  He summarizes his argument about Hamlet in a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess:  ‘How does he explain his irresolution in avenging his father by the murder of his uncle…?  How better than through the torment he suffers from the obscure memory that he himself had contemplated the same deed against his father out of passion for his mother…?’  Claudius has ‘popp’d in between th’election and [his] hopes,’ and also between his mother and himself.  Then why does Hamlet delay in killing this hated rival, Claudius?  Because, Ernest Jones explains in hamlet-12Hamlet and Oedipus (1949), Hamlet recognizes that Claudius has in fact done what he, Hamlet, wished in fantasy to do: murdered his father so as to have his mother.  Thus, says Jones, Hamlet hesitates.  How can he kill Claudius for acting on desires that Hamlet himself has had?  This is what Freud terms, in The Interpretation of Dreams, the ‘secular advance of repression in the emotional life of mankind.’  Freud’s hypothesis – which also inspired a famous production and its film version, Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet – recognizes a key structural component of Shakespeare’s play, the presence of several father figures rather than a single father; the dead (idealized) old Hamlet, a martial warrior; the living, despised Claudius, who is King (and Gertrude’s lover) in Hamlet’s stead; and Polonius, the father as ‘wretched, rash, intruding fool,’ who can be killed by accident or mistake (‘Is it the King?’ Hamlet asks his mother, having stabbed the hidden intruder behind the arras).  As we will continue to see, this technique of ‘splitting,’ producing several versions of a character type split into component aspects, is one of the most effective devices of Hamlet, and will culminate in Hamlet’s dying recognition that all his rivals and friends (Horatio, Laertes, Fortinbras, the First Player) are in some ways aspects of himself.

We have noticed that the play is built on the comparison and contrast of various kinds of illusion:  the apparently real illusion of the Ghost, verified by the evidence of Hamlet’s eyes and ears, and by the apparent truth of his report; the patently false illusion that is the common language of the Claudius court, ambition and lust hypocritically pretending to be sympathy and mourning; and the deliberately fictive illusion of the players, the part of the play that is about its own materials, acting and playing.  As he does so often, the First Clown, the gravedigger, speaks (like all wise fools in Shakespeare) more truly than ne knows, when he ties together the several meanings of the word ‘act.’  ‘[A]n act hath three branches,’ he says, ‘it is to act, to do, to perform.’  What is the difference between acting and doing?  Why can Hamlet in the early scene, before his sea voyage to England, ‘perform’ – dramatize – but not ‘do’ – not murder and revenge?  Why, instead of running his sword through Claudius in Act I, does he choose instead to follow Polonius’s procedure, and ‘by indirections find directions out?’  Why does he arrange the elaborate stratagem of The Mousetrap to terrify the King, and fright him, as he says, with false fire?”

We’ve now seen, I think, as many reasons and theories for the infamous “delay” as there are critics and readers.  For me, the one (at least so far, based on my previous readings and where I am currently) that rings the most “true” is the one raised by Tony Tanner in my post from January 11, where he says, “…Hamlet’s mind, his ‘conscience’, becomes a meeting-place, a battlefield, a forcing house, a breeding ground, for the different codes, value systems, religions, cosmologies which (with all due recognition for the prior influence of the Greek and Jewish traditions) formed the modern European mind – ancient heroism, Roman paganism, and Christian reformation.  And monarchial feudalism.”  (I thoroughly respond, at least emotionally, to Jan Kott’s take as well, but I’m not sure that what he’s reading/seeing is the same play that Shakespeare wrote.  I’m also much enjoying Garber’s reading of the play as well…and Blooms’…)

Back to Garber:

Hamlet as a play is from the first concerned with playing, and the play offers its spectators not only a series of nested plays, but a series of nested audiences.  We watch the sentries watching the Ghost.  We watch Claudius and Polonius, the fathers, hidden behind a tapestry curtain, watching Ophelia ‘loosed’ to Hamlet in the lobby (3.1)  We watch Polonius, again concealed behind a tapestry, watching Hamlet talking to his mother in her closet (3.4).  In the Mousetrap scene (3.2) we watch Hamlet watching Claudius watch the Player King and Player Queen.  The audience of Hamlet never knows, securely, whether it is actor, spectator, or eavesdropper.  Thus, for example, Claudius’s opening speech to his court seems straightforward enough, but it soon becomes clear that he is acting a part, the part of bereaved brother and loving father.  He is, in fact, himself a Player King, a man who is King in fiction, and by usurpation.  The King is a thing of nothing, as Hamlet will say, under the guise of his own assumed madness, a ‘play’ of his own. And likewise Gertrude is a Player Queen, hiding from the guilty knowledge that she may suspect but prefers not to admit, even to herself.  If we are not sure of these deceptions within deceptions, we have the voice of Hamlet in the first court scene to remind the audience that there is an ‘outside’ to such complicit fictions.  ‘Seems, madam?…I know not ‘seems.’’

If we look closely we will see that the entire play is structured as a series of scenes each of which is a play-within-the-play.  It is no accident that a recognition of the transforming power of fiction and illusion will help Hamlet to objectify his feelings about life, that ‘fiction’ will help him to discover ‘fact.’  He is able to move in the course of the play from a melancholy passivity and contemplation, rather like Orsino’s in Twelfth Night, to something more like action, by attaining a sense of crucial detachment that allows him to think, do, and play, as well as feel.  He is able to move away from the soliloquies, which dominate the first four acts – and which are rightly reckoned among the humanistic beauties of the play – to the active verbs of the final act, which contains no soliloquy, perhaps because there is no longer any need for one.  The players and the plays function as a therapeutic displacement for Hamlet, providing spaces in which he can work out his problems.  One more citation from Freud, this time not focused on Shakespeare or on Hamlet but on the general case of memory, may help to make this structural point clear:  ‘[H]e cannot escape from this compulsion to repeat; and in the end we understand that this is his way of remembering.’

The characteristic Shakespearean triple pattern (court-country-court) always includes a return from the enchanted place, whether that place is called a green world, a second world, a place of ‘antistructure’ or of carnival.  The middle place is often identified with imagination, art, wonder, and dream (if the play is a comedy or romance), or with wilderness, danger, and madness (if the play is a tragedy).  In almost all cases it brings with it an element of disguise and of (temporary) social leveling.  There is always a return from this middle place, at least for most of the characters in the play; but those who return often return transformed.  People do not come out of the Forest of Arden, or the Athenian wood, or the ‘heath’ in King Lear or Macbeth (or the Egypt of Antony and Cleopatra) the same as they went in.  Hamlet, too, contains a structure of journey and return.  In fact it contains two such structures, one before the other.  The first is an existential journey into the alternative world of the players, while the second is a literal journey to England (where ‘the men are as made as he.’)

The scene with the players is prefaced, yet again, by a fragment of a play, this time not a dumb show but a rehearsal in progress, as Polonius instructs Reynaldo how best to spy on Laertes.  ‘Take you, as ‘twere, some distant knowledge of him,/And thus: ‘I know his act2scene1-polonius-reynaldofather and his friends,/And in part him.’”  Polonius is both playwright and director, though he occasionally forgets his own lines.  ‘[W]hat was I bout to say? By the mass, I was about to say something.’  The whole scene is yet another evidence of the constant and deceitful playacting in Denmark.  Polonius’s confidence in his son, loudly voiced to his face, is now exposed as a sham.  The father will send a spy to check on his son’s behavior.  It is this scene that is balanced, with superb effect, buy the first news of Hamlet’s antic disposition, announced to us through the familiar Shakespearean device of the ‘unscene,’ a vivid event that takes place offstage and is reported – in this case by the guileless Ophelia:

Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced,

No hat upon his head, his stockings fouled,

Ungartedred, and down-gyved to his ankle,

Pale as his shirt, his knees knocking each other…

Ophelia is a naïve and completely believable witness who brings this offstage scene to vivid life.  She is one of the few Shakespearean women who can never break away from the sway of a parent.  In her innocent account of Hamlet’s appearance in her room we have a vision, not so much of one man’s madness as of the real madness of the world, the madness of the human condition.  In contrast to Polonius’s insinuating script, which must be memorized, and his tedious, far from brief, ‘words, words, words’ (‘More matter with less art,’ the exasperated Queen will implore him.)  Ophelia’s description of the antic Hamlet seems more like another dumb show, a silent apparition:

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.

In its way this is very much like the mysterious first appearance of the Ghost:  pale, silent, beckoning, waving his arms, disappearing into darkness.  [MY NOTE:  That’s a great observation…I’d never thought about that.]  Hamlet has in effect become a ghost.  And Ophelia’s report of his demeanor is enough of an ‘inexplicable dumb show’ to generate misinterpretations.  ‘This is the very ecstasy of love,’ concludes Polonius.  Stereotypical lovers, at least in literature, did indeed sometimes prevent themselves in this kind of disarray – Rosalind describes such a lover in very similar terms in As You Like It – and Claudius is of course eager to agree with this diagnosis.  But Gertrude has other suspicions: ‘I doubt it is no other but the main –/His father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage.’

Everyone is an actor and a director.  Polonius proudly acknowledges that he ‘played once i’th’ university.’  ‘I did enact Julius Caesar,’ he ways.  ‘I was killed I’th’ capitol.’  This is probably Shakespeare’s joke about his company, for Julius Caesar was written and staged in the same years as Hamlet, and the actor who played Polonius could well have been seen by the same audience on another afternoon in the role of Caesar.  But there is dramatic irony as well as an in-joke here, for ultimately Polonius will suffer a bathetic version of Caesar’s death by stabbing.  Polonius cases Hamlet in two of his own plays, the ‘loosing’ of Ophelia in the lobby in act 3, scene 1 (watched, as we have noted, by Claudius and Polonius), and the episode in Gertrude’s closet in act 3, scene 4, in which again he positions himself as a hidden spectator.  Notice that Shakespeare places these two corrupt and cynical ‘plays’ on either side of Hamlet’s Mousetrap in act 3, scene 2.

The victim of social actors, Hamlet becomes one.  He sees that the world around him is peopled by pretenders, that only those who know they are actors are ‘real.’  It is for that reason extremely appropriate for the players to appear, as if on cue.  They have been hamlet48-2-2e-2conjured out of Hamlet’s own imagination.  The syllogism works something like this:  Hamlet realizes that he is an actor, and that everyone in Elsinore is playing a role; the players arrive at the court and are announced.  And they will disappear in the same way, when their job is done.  With the arrival of the players, the function of illusion in the play begins to shift.  Hamlet begins to use it, and to use the players and their repertoire, to investigate his own society – as well as himself.

Before coming to the great play scene, however, it will be helpful, I think, to say a word about the play, or fragment of a play, that precedes The Mousetrap because the older play is very much part of Hamlet’s quest for answers.  In act 2, scene 2, he asks the First Player to recite a speech from ‘Aeneas’ tale to Dido,’ a speech that had apparently impressed him so much that he is able to recite much of it from memory.  (Memory, and verbal memorization, are among the knowledge arts of the play, alongside reading and ‘writing fair,’ like a secretary or a scribe.)  The play is about the fall of Troy, long thought by the English to be the source of their own civilization (one name for London was New Troy, or Hamlet by William Shakespeare‘Troynovant’).  Aeneas, taking refuge with Dido in Carthage after fleeing the burning city, tells her the story of its fall.  In Hamlet Troy seems very like the way Denmark is said to have been during the reign of old Hamlet – a golden age, brave, heroic, and warlike.  ‘[R]everend Priam,’ the old Trojan king, seems in some ways to resemble an idealized old Hamlet, but on the other hand the desperate and grieving Hecuba, Priam’s wife, running barefoot up and down, is sharply contrasted to Gertrude, who married again so quickly after her husband’s death that ‘[t]he funeral baked meats/Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.’  Pyrrhus, an avenger dressed in black (‘he whose sable arms, /Black as his purpose…’), first pauses with his sword in the air, and then acts, avenging the death of his father.  In short, Troy emerges from this speech, one Hamlet so fondly remembers, as a picture of what might have been, what should have been, an epic ideal.  Like Hamlet’s parting glance at Ophelia, looking over his shoulder, bending his eyes on her – and like the message from the Ghost, ‘List, Hamlet, list, O list!’ – this is for Hamlet a look backward, at a different kind of world, a lost world.  Here at the play’s midpoint is his last glance backward, and it accomplishes something crucial for both the character and the play.  Through the players, though fiction, he finds not only emotion – a way of engaging and accessing his own suppressed and unarticulated feelings – but also what he so badly needs and longs for:  action.  He is ready to catch the conscience of the King – in a play. ‘Action’ and ‘passion’ are two sides of the same coin, here not so much opposites as counterparts of each other.”



More tomorrow…

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