“…Must like a whore unpack my heart with words…”

Hamlet

Act Two, Part Five

By Dennis Abrams

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I was up for awhile last night, continuing my reading of James Shapiro’s A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.  It’s a highly enjoyable book, that combines in a way that I really love historical and cultural context, Shakespeare’s life as an actor and playwright, while showing  how that all impacted the plays he wrote in 1599:  Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, and Hamlet.  (And yes, four masterpieces, most likely written in a one year period.  Astonishing.)  To continue where I left off with Shapiro yesterday:

“What the Chamberlain’s Men did to the wooden frame of the Theatre, Shakespeare did in the old play of Hamlet:  he tore it from its familiar moorings, salvaged its structure, and reassembled something new.  By wrenching this increasingly outdated revenge play into the present, Shakespeare forced his contemporaries to experience what he felt and what his play registers so profoundly:  the world had changed.  Old certainties were gone, even if new ones had not yet taken hold.  The most convincing way of showing this was to ask playgoers to keep both plays in mind at once, to experience a new Hamlet, while memories of the old one, ghostlike still lingered.  Audiences at the Globe soon found themselves like Hamlet, straddling worlds and struggling to reconcile past and present. [MY NOTE:  As you may recall, the original version of Hamlet, author unknown, was a more or less traditional revenge drama.]  There was an added benefit, having to do with the play’s difficulty; familiarity with the plot allowed playgoers to lose themselves in the complexity of thought and the inwardness of the characters without losing track of the action.

The desire to mark the end of one kind of drama and the beginning of another carried over into the internal dynamics of Shakespeare’s playing company.  Spectators at this Hamlet wouldn’t be distracted by a clown.  [MY NOTE:  Of course, in this Hamlet, Hamlet is his own fool, or clown.]  Telling, when the ‘tragedians of the city’ arrive at Elsinore, they are without a clown; even after his departure from the company Will Kemp was still on Shakespeare’ mind.  And Hamlet cannot resist a gratuitous attack on improvisational clowning:

Let those that play your clowns speak no more than is set down for them; for there be of them that will themselves laugh to set on some quantity of barren spectators to laugh too, though in the meantime some necessary question of the play then to be considered.  That’s villainous, and shows a pitiful ambition in the fool that uses it.

While these are Hamlet’s words, judging by the company’s recent history, Shakespeare’s own view was probably not much different.  Shakespeare made sure that in Hamlet the last laugh would be on the Kemp-like clown – and he did so by dividing his role between the new, clownish fool (Robert Armin, who played the Gravedigger), and surprisingly, the tragic protagonist himself, played by Richard Burbage.  In his verbal sparring, his intimate relationship to the audience, his distracting and obscene behavior at the performance of The Mousetrap (where he cracks sexual jokes at Ophelia’s expense and calls himself her ‘only jigmaker’), and his antic performance for much of the play, Hamlet appropriates much of the traditional comic part.

Only after Hamlet has stopped clowning does Shakespeare introduce Armin, creating for him a role that made much of his singing (he breaks into song four times) as well as his celebrated repartee.  And in the Gravedigger’s recollection of Yorick – this ‘same skull, sir, was, sir, Yorick’s skull, the King’d jester’ – Shakespeare also allows Armin a private tribute to Richard Tarlton, the first of the great Elizabethan clowns, who had reputedly chosen the young Armin as his successor.  Armin understood what was expected of him.  As Gravedigger, he never competes with Hamlet for our affection.

The eighteenth-century biographer Nicolas Rowe reported that the only role he was able to learn that Shakespeare played was ‘the Ghost in his own Hamlet.’  So that when the Ghost tells Hamlet, ‘Remember me,’ it was likely to have been Shakespeare himself who spoke these words to Richard Burbage.  Burbage would remember.  His success was closely tied to Shakespeare’s.  At the beginning of the 1590s he had not yet come into his own and was still being case in messenger parts.  Within a few years, Shakespeare would fashion breakthrough roles for him in Richard III and Romeo, but it was Hamlet that defined 215-Richard_Burbage_Portrait_at_Dulwich_Picture_galleryBurbage’s greatness for contemporaries.  An anonymous eulogist, recalling Burbage shortly after his death in 1619, remembers his finest roles (Hamlet foremost) and speaks with particular fondness of the scene in which Burbage, as Hamlet, leaped into Ophelia’s grave (unless, that is, the passage describes Burbage’s Romeo):

young Hamlet, old Hieronimo,

Kind Lear, the grieved Moor, and more beside

That lived in him have now for ever died.

Oft have I seen him leap into the grave,

Suiting the person which he seemed to  have

Of a sad lover with so true an eye

That there, I would have sworn, he meant to die.

The euologists description of Burbage’s style closely corresponds to what Burbage – as Hamlet – himself recommends to the Players:  ‘Suit the action to the word, the word to the action,’ and ‘you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.’

How did his speech become him, and his pace,

Suit with his speech, and every action grace

Them both alike, whilst not a word did fall

Without just weight, to ballast it withal.

Shakespeare also wrote Burbage’s response to ‘Remember me,’ lines that double as a private reflection on what the two men hoped to create together at the new playhouse:  ‘Remember thee,/Ay, thou poor ghost, whiles memory holds a seat/In this distracted globe.’

Shakepeare’s break with the past was tempered by the ambivalence that had characterized his responses to the death of chivalry, the loss of Arden, and the fading of Catholicism.  Even as he was rendering the old style of revenge play obsolete, Shakespeare found room in the play for a last nostalgic glance at it in the dramatic speech that Hamlet ‘chiefly loved.’  The old-fashioned speech describes how Achilles’ son Pyrrhus kills a king and unhesitatingly avenges his father’s death.  Hamlet knows the lines by heart and recites them excitedly:

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.

By the end of the seventeenth century, admirers of Shakespeare no longer understood what he was doing here and decided he was either writing quite badly [MY NOTE:  Or, as Bloom said, deliberately badly] or lazily recycling old material.  The dramatist John Dryden’s verdict was harsh:  ‘Would not a man have thought that the poet had been bound prentice to a wheelwright for his first rant?’  A generation later, Alexander Pope floated the idea that Hamlet ‘seemed to commend this play to expose the bombast of it’ – but even he wasn’t convinced that Shakespeare had written the speech.  Not until the late eighteenth century did Edmond Malone first suggest that Shakespeare was trying to sound old-fashioned.  You can feel in these lines the hold that this kind of revenge drama once had on Shakespeare as well as his appreciation of a moral clarity that was no longer credible.  It’s one of the keys to understanding what makes Hamlet so distinctive:  even as he paints over an earlier work of art, Shakespeare allows traces of what’s been whitewashed to remain visible.

[MY NOTE:  I find this a very interesting way of looking at it, and perhaps a way to make sense of some of the play’s ambiguities.  Your thoughts on this?  Oh, and while I’m in a “note” – the editor of the Arden edition of Hamlet had this to say about the speech:  “…the speech in Shakespeare has to stand out from the drama which surround it and which is already removed from ordinary life and this…demands a style which rises above normal theatrical elevation as the latter does above natural speech.  This is the simple justification of the hyperbole and high-astounding terms.  It is not necessarily incompatible with an element of parody, but the speech stands in too close a relationship to the tragedy which contains it for ridicule to be accepted as a dominant note.  Its style, as well as being proper to its kind (as tragedy-within-tragedy), is inseparable from its content and from its purpose in the whole dramatic composition.  Extravagance in the language reflects a high excess in the subject.”]

In the closing years of Elizabeth’s reign, as in the play, heroic action had become increasingly hard to believe in.  And things probably seemed worse than they actually were when Shakespeare was writing Hamlet in the autumn of 1599.  Londoners, barely recovered from the murky armada threat and Essex’s ill-fated expedition, felt this plainly enough by mid-November, as noted earlier, when the preacher who had dared to speak ‘of the misgovernment in Ireland’ in ‘open pulpit’ before thousands of spectators at St. Paul’s 469px-Robert_Devereux,_2nd_Earl_of_Essex_by_Marcus_Gheeraerts_the_Youngerwas silenced.  Many thousands more saw it at Whitehall’s tiltyard later that week, where the exclusion of Essex and his Irish knights made this celebration of martial valor seem more artificial than the pasteboard shields the knights carried to the tilt.  Shakespeare and others in the capital would have found the degree to which politics was being played out in public unprecendented.  So ‘many scandalous libels’ began circulating in ‘the court, city, and country’ this autumn that the government felt forced to counter by publicly embarassing Essex in open hearings of the Star Chamber.  Francis Woodward couldn’t believe it and went to see for himself.  He writes to Robert Sidney of ‘throng and press’ of Londoners who elbowed him at these proceedings, a crowd ‘so mighty that I was driven so far back that I could not hear what they said.’  Henry Wotton, who followed Essex to Ireland and served as his secretary, wrote to his friend John Donne in London that while it was true that Ireland was suffering from ‘a stronger disease,’ Courts,’ he bitter concluded, ‘are upon earth the vainest places.’  That’s as much as Wotton dared put on paper.  ‘I will say no more, and yet peradventure I have said a great deal unto you.’  Shakespeare, like many others unsettled by the political climate this autumn, probably shared Rowland Whyte’s sense that ‘it is a world to be, to see the humors of the time.’  It was one thing for Shakespeare to have reflected upon the limits of heroic action and the culture of honor in Henry the Fifth and Julius Caesar earlier in the year – plays that couldn’t and wouldn’t be chosen to be performed at court this Christmas for that very reason.  It was all the more striking that he would choose such a moment to update a story of a corrupt court (before whom a seditious play is performed), problematic succession, the threat of invasion, and the dangers of a coup.

[For those of you interested on the influence of Essex and contemporary politics on Hamlet and Hamlet click here.]

….

‘Now I am alone,’ Hamlet says with relief, after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Players, and Polonius leave him act 2.  But he’s not:  we are still there to hear him ‘unpack’ his ‘heart with words’ in a way that no character in literature had done before.  One of the mysteries of Hamlet is how Shakespeare, who a half year earlier couldn’t quite manage it in Julius Caesar (really?), discovered how to write such compelling soliloquies:

O, that this too too sallied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon ‘gaisnt self-slaughter.  O God, God,

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on’t, ah fie, ‘tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely.

[MY NOTE:  Note that Shapiro goes for “sallied” rather than “sullied” or “solid” in the first line.]

The sense of inwardness that Shakespeare creates by allowing us to hear a character as intelligent as Hamlet wrestle with his thoughts is something that no dramatist had yet achieved.  He had written memorable soliloquies from early on in his career, but as powerful as these were, even they fall short of the intense self-awareness we find in Hamlet’s.  The breakthrough is one that Shakespeare might have arrived at sooner or later, but it as given tremendous impetus at the time that he was writing Hamlet by his interest in a new literary form, the essay.

English writers did not discover Montaigne until the late 1590s.  In his late thirties Montaigne had withdrawn from a world torn by religious wars to read, reflect, and write – and had taken the unprecedented step of making himself the subject in a new literary form, the personal essay.  The first two volumes of Montaigne’s Essays were published in Michel-eyquem-de-montaigne_1France in 1580.  Shakespeare could easily have turned to the essay at earlier points in his career – his French was good enough to read Montaigne in the original – but he didn’t.  Only at the end of the century, a cultural moment marked by a high degree of skepticism and a deepening interest in how subjective experience could be expressed, did Montaigne begin to speak to Shakespeare and other English writers with great immediacy.”

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More on this tomorrow…

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