“O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…”


Act Two, Part Four

By Dennis Abrams


I’m caught up on Act Two now, and while reading Scene ii, I was struck by how many lines I already knew, and by how much was being said throughout the scene:

The interchangeability of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as indicated by:

King:  Thanks, Rosencrantz and gentle Guildenstern

Queen:  Thanks, Guildenstern and gentle Rosencrantz.

The King’s line to the Norwegian ambassadors, Go to your rest, at night we’ll feast together, which led to Dr. Samuel Johnson’s remark, “The King’s intemperance is never suffered to be forgotten.”

01GertrudePoloniusGertrude and Polonius’s conversation:


My liege and madam, to expostulate

What majesty should be, what duty is,

Why day is day, night night, and time is time,

Were nothing but to waste night, day, and time.

Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,

And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,

I will be brief.  Your noble son is mad.

Mad call I it, for to define true madness,

What is’t but to be nothing else but mad?

But let that go.


More matter with less art.

Polonius’s speech cannot, I think, be confused with anyone else’s.  And…it’s funny.

Denmark’s a prison.

One of my favorite lines in the play:

O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…


I am but made north-north-west.  When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

And Polonius’s listing of the actors…

…either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited.

This exchange between Polonius and Hamlet:

Polonius:  My lord, I will use them according to their desert.

Hamlet:  God’s bodkin, man, much better.  Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping?

And the source of this site’s name:

The play’s the thing,

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.

And of course, the soliloquy, O what a rogue and peasant slave am I!,  with a brief take  from Harold Bloom:

Burton Rogue“Hamlet sets the stage, so that the actor Richard Burbage can out-act Will Shakespeare, as the audience rightly expects.  The First Player has come apart, ‘for Hecuba,’ and Hamlet spurs himself on to a more extraordinary performance:

What’s Hecuba to him, or he to her,

That he should weep for her?  What would he do

Had he the motive and the cue for passion

That I have?  He would drown the stage with tears,

And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,

Make made the guilty and appal the free,

Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed

The very faculties of eyes and ears.

So histrionic is all of Hamlet that we need to develop our auditory consciousness to a new pitch, if we catch the prince’s precise accent here.  Where all is theatricality, our grounds for judgment must shift.  Hamlet’s hyperboles mock theater itself, in ‘drown the stage with tears.’  The soliloquy allows Burbage to transcend Marlowe’s roaring actor, Alleyn, who had played Tamburlaine the Great and the Jewish Machiavel, Barabas:

Yet I,

A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak

Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,

And can say nothing – no, not for a king,

Upon whose property and most dear life

A damn’d defeat was made.  Am I a coward?

Who calls me villain, breaks my pate across,

Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face,

Tweaks me by the nose, gives me the lie i’th’ throat

As deep as to the lungs – who does me this?


‘Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be

But I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall

To make oppression bitter, or ere this

I should ha’ fatted all the region kites

With this slave’s offal.  Bloody, bawdy villain!

Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindles villain!

hamlet-scoundrelWhen Hamlet is not whipping himself up, he imagines physical abuse from a censorious alter ego, but he is highly aware of his playacting.  Once an intricate melder of language and the self, the prince has begun to disjoin them.  His heavy irony is defensive, but cannot veil his conviction that his words whore him:

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,

That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,

Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,

Must like a whore unpack my heart with words

And fall a-cursing like a very drab,

A scullion!  Fie upon’t! Foh!.

What he intimates is larger and more lasting than his momentary self-disgust.  If you can unpack your heart with words, than what you express is already dead within you.  With no faith left in language or the self, and no transcendental allegiances, Hamlet nevertheless retains a conviction in the truth-inducings of theater:

About, my brains.  Hum – I have heard

That guilty creatures sitting at a play

Have, by the very cunning of the scene,

Been struck so to the soul that presently

They have proclaim’d their malefactions.

For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak

With most miraculous organ.  I’ll have those players

Play something like the murder of my father

Before mine uncle.  I’ll observe his looks;

I’ll tent him to the quick.  If a do blench,

I know my course.  The spirit that I have seen

May be a devil, and the devil hath power

T’assume a pleasing shape, yea, and perhaps,

Out of my weakness and my melancholy,

As he is very potent with such spirits,

Abuses me to damn me.  I’ll have grounds

More relative than this.  The play’s the thing

Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King.

Since Hamlet has already requested the Player King to play The Murder of Gonzago, with revisions by the prince himself, his ‘About, my brains’ is redundant.  But as his own best audience, Hamlet wants to play it again [MY NOTE:  And this goes along with Garber and Tanner’s discussion of “doubling”] exalting ‘the very cunning of the scene.’  It is doubtful that he thinks his father’s spirit to be a devil, but he wants the play.  ‘The play’s the thing’ itself, his true vocation.”


And I’d like to go back to continue Bloom’s look at the idea of plays within plays within plays…

“We will not leave the world of players and plays until Hamlet stands poised, sword in hand, above the kneeling and praying Claudius (Act III, scene iii, 70-96).  By then, the prince has been perspectivized for us as being only the most substantial shadow on a stage of shadows.  We are so mastered by Shakespeare (as we should be) that we rarely stop to reflect upon how bizarre Hamlet’s story has become.  Is it still a drama?  Isn’t Hamlet himself no more or less ghostly than his father?  So powerfully has Hamlet impressed his creator, as well as ourselves, that he is asked to survive a veritable apocalypse of theatricalities, heaped upon one another.  After the hilarity of gossip on the Poets’ War between Shakespeare and Jonson, we are given Hamlet-as-Shakespeare, admonishing and instructing the Globe’s actors, and then we go on to not one but two plays-within-plays, both travesties of blood-melodrama.  The first has no title, but the second has two, The Murder of Gonzago and The Mousetrap.  The untitled bloody farce could be called The Slaughter of Priam, with the Lamentation of Hecuba, and it is of a poetic badness not to believed:

The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,

Black as his purpose, did the night resemble

When he lay couched in the ominous horse,

Hath now this dread and black complexion smear’d

With heraldry more dismal.  Head to foot

Now is he total gules, horridly trick’d

With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,

Bak’d and impasted with the parching streets,

That lend a tyrannous and damned light

To their lord’s murder.  Roasted in wrath and fire,

And thus o’ersized with coagulate gore,

With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus

Old grandsire Priam seeks.

Hamlet professes to admire this, and repeats it from memory, having experienced it at the supposed single performance of the play from which it is extracted, a play that never Hamlet3existed.  Since Shakespeare’s own Troilus and Cressida ‘was never acted, or if it was, not above once,’ Hamlet is treating us to another Shakespearean in-joke.  Whatever the account of Priam’s slaughter parodies, it is not Troilus and Cressida but some imaginary play Christopher Marlowe never survived to write.  The First Player, or Player King, almost certainly the actor Will Shakespeare, then takes over, and gives us the rest of Pyrrhus’s butchery of Priam, followed by Queen Hecuba’s lament for her husband.  Even as Marlovian parody, this surely would have irritated the Globe audience had Shakespeare not, with delicious irony, had Polonius protest, ‘This is too long,’ and Hamlet chide Polonius, ‘It shall to the barber’s with your beard.’  Still funnier, after Hamlet urges the First Player to continue on with Hecuba, both the prince and the councilor of state force a pause after the line ‘But who – ah, woe! – had seen the mobbled queen –.’  Presumably a Shakespearean coinage, ‘mobbled’ must mean that the poor lady had her face muffled.  Hamlet, pretending to relish the touch, repeats, ‘The mobbled queen,’ and Polonius renders aesthetic judgment:  ‘That’s good.’  Thus encouraged, the First Player gives us a third swatch of verbiage, which allows Will the actor to turn red with passion and weep, doubtless captivating the Globe.”


And to finish, from James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599, which is think gives an excellent look at the explosion of Shakespeare’s use of language in Hamlet, as well as a better explanation of “hendiadys” than those I posted previously:

“There are many ways of being original.  Inventing a plot from scratch is only one of them and never held much appeal for Shakespeare.  Aside from the soliloquies, much of Shakespeare’s creativity went into the play’s verbal texture.  In writing Hamlet, Shakespeare found himself using and inventing more words than he had ever done before.  His vocabulary, even when compared to those of other great dramatists, was already exceptional. The roughly four thousand lines in the play ended up requiring nearly the same number of different words (for comparison’s sake, Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and The Jew of Malta each used about half that number).  Even the 14,000 or so different words or compounds that Shakespeare had already employed in his plays (by the end of his career that figure would reach about 18,000) proved insufficient.  According to Alfred Hart, who painstakingly counted when and how Shakespeare introduced each word into his work, Shakespeare introduced around 600 words in Hamlet that he had never used before, two thirds of which he would never use again.  This is an extraordinary number (King Lear, with 350, is the only one that comes close; in the spare Julius Caesar only 70 words appear that Shakespeare had not previously used. Hamlet, then, didn’t sound like anything playgoers had ever heard before and must at times have been taxing to follow, for by Hart’s count there are 170 words or phrases that Shakespeare coined or employed in new ways while writing the play.

It isn’t just the words he chose but how he used them that make the language of Hamlet so challenging.  Shakespeare clearly wanted audiences to work hard, and one of the ways he made them do so was by employing an odd verbal trick called hendiadys.  Though the term may be strange, example of it – ‘law and order,’ ‘house and home,’ or the Shakespearean jforbesrobertsonhamlet‘sound and fury’ are familiar enough.  Hendiadys literally means ‘one by means of two’ a single idea conveyed through a pairing of nouns linked by ‘and.’  When conjoined in this way, the nouns begin to oscillate, seeming to qualify each other as much as the term each individually modifies.  Whether he is exclaiming ‘Angels and ministers of grace defend us,’ declaring that actors are ‘the abstract and brief chronicles of the time,’ speaking of the ‘book and volume of my brain,’ or complaining of ‘a fantasy and trick of fame,’ Hamlet often speaks in this way.  The more you think about hendiadys, the more they induce a kind of mental vertigo.  Take for example Hamlet’s description of ‘the book and volume of my brain.’  (1.5.103).  It’s easy to get the gist of what he’s saying, and the phrase would pass unremarked in the course of a performance.  But does he me mean ‘book-like volume’ of my mind?  Or ‘big book of my mind?’  Part of the problem here is that the words bleed into each other – ‘volume’ of course is another word for ‘book’ but also means ‘space.’  The destabilizing effect of how these words play off each other is slightly and temporarily unnerving.  It’s only on reflection, which is of course Hamlet’s problem, that we trip.

It’s very hard to write in hendiadys; almost no other English writer did so very often before or after Shakespeare – and neither did he much before 1599.  Something happened in that year – beginning with Henry the Fifth and As You Like It and continuing for five years or so past Hamlet through the great run of plays that included Othello, Measure for Measure, Lear, and Macbeth, after which hendiadys pretty much disappear again – that led Shakespeare to invoke this figure almost compulsively.  But nowhere is its presence felt more than in Hamlet, where there are sixty-six of them, or one every sixty lines – and that’s counting conservatively.  Othello, with twenty-eight has the next highest count.  There’s a kind of collective desperation to all the hendiadys in Hamlet – a striving for meaning that both recedes and multiplies as well as an acknowledgement of how necessary and impossible it is to suture things together – that suits the mood of the play perfectly.”




More tomorrow.

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