Act Three, Part Five
By Dennis Abrams
I’d like to continue today with more from John Dover Wilson’s What Happens in Hamlet, starting in particular with the “nunnery scene” which, I think, can present certain difficulties (is Hamlet a misogynist for example) to readers:
“Everything [Hamlet] says, I repeat, for the rest of the [nunnery] scene, is intended for the ears of Claudius and Polonius, whom he knows to be behind the arras. The restored entry at 2.2.159 happily rids us of the traditional stage-business of Polonius exposing himself to the eye of Hamlet and the audience, which has hitherto been the only open to stage-managers of putting any meaning at all into the scene. It is a trick at once crude and inadequate: crude, because the chief councilor of Denmark is neither stupid or clumsy, and to represent him so, as producers are apt to do, is to degrade intrigue to buffoonery; inadequate, because it only tells Hamlet of one, whereas his words clearly lose a great deal of force if he is not known to be conscious of the presence of two. He speaks at both; but he speaks, of course, to Ophelia, while as he speaks he has yet a fourth person constantly in mind, his mother. If this be remembered, and if we also keep in view Hamlet’s habitual lack of self-control once he becomes excited, the dialogue is easy to follow.
I return to it:
Hamlet: Ha, ha! are you honest?
Ophelia: My lord?
Hamlet: Are you fair?
Ophelia: What means your lordship?
Hamlet: That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should admit no discourse to your beauty.
If, that is, you were the chase maiden you pretend to be, you would not allow your beauty to be used as a bait in this fashion. Ophelia, of course, misunderstands and, supposing him to mean that her beauty and his honesty ought not to discourse together, wonderingly enquires: ‘Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than with honesty?’ To which he, twisting her words back to his own meaning, replies:
Ay, truly, for the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd, than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness. This was sometimes a paradox, but now the times gives it proof.
To paraphrase again: ‘physical Beauty is stronger than virtue, and will make use of Virtue herself as her procuress. People used to think this incredible, but your conduct proves its truth.’ He refers to ‘devotion’s visage’ and the ‘pious action’ with which Ophelia has tried to ‘sugar o’er her’ designs upon him. But he is probably also thinking of his mother’s conduct, as is suggested by the talk of ‘our old stock’ that follows. Indeed, from this point onwards, Ophelia becomes identified in his mind with the Frailty whose name is woman, and that in turn leads to thoughts of his own ‘sullied flesh.’ He goes on: ‘I did love you once,’ that is, before my mother took off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
But a son of Gertrude is ‘rank and gross in nature,’ and capable of nothing except lust; so that I did not really love you. ‘Contraception is a blessing,’ but what children could a man like me and a woman like you hope for save a brood of sinners? Better a nunnery!
So far Hamlet’s talk has been in fishmonger-vein, and is meant for the Jephthah behind the arras. But now is the turn for Uncle Claudius. The mention of corrupt stock leads by natural transition to an elaborate confession of criminal propensities on Hamlet’s part which we know to be ridiculous, but which is intended to make the King’s blood run cold. ‘I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious’ is the gist of it. Could any other three epithets be found less appropriate to Hamlet? But Claudius says he is ambitious; and Claudius is a reasonable man. The following, too, sounds terrible:
with more offences at my beck, than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in:
–until we scan it and find that amounts to nothing at all, since the same might be said of any mortal.
At this point Hamlet gives Ophelia her last chance with his sudden ‘Where’s your father?’ She answers with a lie, as it would see to him, though of course she is observing the most ordinary precautions and, as she thinks, humouring a madman. But is this crowning proof of her treachery, I suggest, that provokes the frenzy with which the episode closes. He goes out, perhaps in the hope that the rats may emerge from their hole and that he may catch them in the act of so doing. Twice he rushes from the room and with each return his manner grows more excited. His two final speeches are mainly food for fishmongers, and he concludes by coming very near to calling Ophelia a prostitute to her face. The repeated injunction ‘to a nunnery go’ is significant in this connection, since ‘nunnery’ was in common Elizabethan use a cant term for a house of ill-fame. And that this was the traditional interpretation of Hamlet’s meaning on the seventeenth-century stage is shown by the Der bestrafte Brudermord which makes him say ‘go to a nunnery, but not to a nunnery where two pairs of slippers like at the bed side.’
As he leaves for the last time he throws his uncle one more morsel to chew: ‘I say we will have no mo marriage – those that are married already, all but one, shall live, and the rest shall keep as they are.’ Why, it may be asked, does Hamlet deliberately and recklessly threaten the King in this way? Partly, as I have already suggested, because Hamlet always acts as if he were just on the point of killing his uncle, and partly for reasons which will become clear later. In any event, these threats show that the Prince has thoroughly grasped the hints about ambition dropped by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; and is now posing as the discontented heir thirsting for revenge, a role he will play to remarkable purpose in the next scene.
After Hamlet’s final departure, Ophelia is given twelve lines of lamentation over his fallen state, before the espials steal warily from their hiding place, a circumspection natural after his repeated exits, but surely enough to warn us that Polonius, with whom caution is almost a disease, could never have revealed his presence to Hamlet, as the traditional stage practice [MY NOTE: This book was first published in 1935] makes him do. The discussion of what they have heard shows that their points of view have in no way converged. Claudius scornfully dismisses the forlorn love theory; nor does he think that melancholy has yet developed into utter madness. But Hamlet has said enough to prove himself to be in a very dangerous frame of mind; too dangerous to remain any longer near the royal person:
He shall with speed to England,
For the demand of our neglected tribute.
Haply the seas, and countries different,
With variable objects, shall expel
This something-settled matter in his heart,
Whereon his brains still beating puts him thus
From fashion of himself.
At present Claudius thinks of England as a health-resort; it is only after the play scene that he sees it as a grave. Polonius agrees with the scheme but cannot subscribe to his royal master’s diagnosis of the disease. ‘But yet I do believe,’ he mutters while assenting to the projected voyage,
The origin and commencement of his grief
Sprung from neglected love;
and he urges that the theory shall be put to one more test before the voyage takes place. This obstinate clinging to his own opinion is to have, we shall find, important dramatic consequences in the play scene which now follows.
The play scene is the central point of Hamlet. It is the climax and crisis of the whole drama. Yet it remains almost wholly unintelligible to the modern reader and playgoer. Three points alone are clear: that Hamlet treats Ophelia in a very offensive manner, that the dialogue between the Player King and Queen has direct reference to the second marriage of Gertrude, and that the speech of the murderer leaves Claudius ‘marvellous distempered.’ For the rest, the dumb-show is usually omitted on our stage, the Gonzago-play seems long-winded and tedious, most of Hamlet’s comments are delivered as the more or less incomprehensible ravings of pretended madness, and the actor who represents him is obliged to sustain the interest of the audience by the vulgar trick of wriggling across the boards to Claudius’s feet like a snake. In short, everything is done to belittle and slur over the cryptic utterances of the Prince, and to concentrate the whole attention of the spectators upon two faces, those of Hamlet and Claudius. These faces play an important part in the scene, and Shakespeare undoubtedly intended us to watch them carefully. But to make them the only thing worthy of notice, as is done in the modern theater, is to reduce an incomparable piece of dramatic literature to the level of pantomime.
I would ask those who think they understand the play scene to read over Shakespeare’s pages again, and then to find answers to the following questions: How is it that the players bring with them to Elsinore a drama which reproduces in minute detail all the circumstances of the King’s crime? What is the dramatic purpose of the long conversation between Hamlet and the First Player immediately before the play begins? Why is the play preceded by a dumb-show? Why does not Claudius show any signs of discomfiture at this dumb-show, which is a more complete representation of the circumstances of the murder than the play which follows it? What is Hamlet’s object in making the murderer the nephew and not the brother of the king? Why should the courtiers, who know nothing of the real poisoning, assume later that Hamlet has behaved outrageously to his uncle and even threatened him with death? These are questions which vitally affect the scene as a whole, and without a satisfactory answer to each of them it is impossible even to know what is happening. A few, on minor points, may be added by way of showing how far we are as yet in appreciating this, the most exciting episode in Shakespeare’s greatest drama. What is the exact significance of Hamlet’s ‘I eat the air, promise-crammed?’ Why does he lead Polonius on to speak of the assassination of Julius Caesar? To whom and what does ‘miching mallecho’ refer? For what reason does Shakespeare introduce the Prologue, with his ridiculous jingling posy? Why does Hamlet preface the speech of the murderer with that extraordinary remark, ‘The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge’?
Here are eleven queries about a scene of some 180 lines in length, and not a single one of them can be answered with any certainty on the accepted reading of the play. Is Shakespeare, a bungler, a slipshod dramatist, who leaves loose ends and banal obscurities thickly scattered over the central scene of his most famous drama? Previous chapters have shown that apparent obscurities may be explained and elucidated through the recovery of elements in the plot which have been lost or forgotten. Owing to its crucial character and its central position, the play scene is the point at which all the threads of the plot may be expected to meet. An examination, therefore, of the play scene should not merely confirm the clues already discovered but bring fresh ones to light.
We shall do well to start with a collection of problems which may be described as technical – problems that affect the construction of the play as a whole, and lead us into the workshop of the master-craftsman himself. Chief among these is the parallelism between the Gonzago-play and the circumstances of Claudius’s crime. It is curiously detailed and precise. The garden scene, the afternoon nap, the nature of the drug, the method of the poisoning, the wooing of the queen, the seizure of the crown: all are duplicated. The Ghost’s story and the Gonzago story are one, except in three apparently trivial particulars: the place of action is in the one case Elsinore and in the other Vienna; Baptista, unlike Gertrude, is not guilty of adultery; and Lucianus is the nephew, not the brother, of the king. Now it is surely clear that this coincidence is deliberate and purely structural; the two inner plots, so strangely alike, are two main pillars of the play, which run into a great arch and meet in the play scene; remove them, or disturb their balance by alternations, and the whole drama would come toppling down. That the parallelism is fundamental, and has no bearing on the characters and the dramatic plot, is proved by the fact that we were not intended to dwell upon it at all. Once we begin to do so, we are faced with the fact that the players arrive at Elsinore with an item in their repertory which embodies a detailed account of the assassination of King Hamlet, an account which must have been written before that crime actually took place. And yet three centuries of spectators and readers have found no difficulty in swallowing the coincidence; they have been conscious of it, otherwise the play scene would have lost the last shred of its meaning, but they have seen nothing strange or incredible int.
How it was all contrived will be seen if we run over the references to the Gonzago-play before the play scene. They are strikingly meager. The idea of having a play was a sudden inspiration on Hamlet’s part; as ever, when he acts, he acts on impulse. He knows nothing of the advent of the players at court until Rosencrantz informs him at 2.2.320; and they enter shortly after in the course of the same scene. The First Player, at Hamlet’s invitation, then recites the Pyrrhus speech; and it is during that this recitation that the Gonzago scheme takes root in Hamlet’s brain, for, as the rest of the actors go out with Polonius, the Prince stops the First Player; asks him if he can play The Murder of Gonzago; tells him to have it ready by ‘to-morrow night;’ and bids him ‘study a speech of some dozen of sixteen lines’ which he will in the meantime ‘set down and insert in’t.’ The working of Hamlet’s mind during all this is made clear by the ‘rogue and peasant slave’ soliloquy which follows. What could not the actor effect, he asks,
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.
And later we have the scheme revealed in the words:
I’ll have these 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.
In the following scene the King and Queen hear of the projected play and promise to attend; while, at the opening of the next scene after that, we find the stage all ready for the play, and Hamlet giving the First Player his final directions how his inserted speech should be spoken. The players then go out to dress for the performance; and Hamlet has his conversation with Horatio, in the course of which he informs him
There is a play to-night before the king,
One scene of it comes near the circumstance
Which I have told you of my father’s death,
and bids him, when he sees that act afoot,
Observe my uncle – if his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen.
Immediately after this the play scene itself begins.
Thus, before the play scene opens, the audience in the theatre knows nothing of the interlude except that it is called The Murder of Gonzago, that it is ‘something like the murder’ of the late king, and that Hamlet himself has inserted a short speech in it, which will presumably make the likeness still clearer. Obviously we are here confronted with a piece of dramaturgy. The idea of having a play within the play, we can imagine Shakespeare saying to himself, is attended with certain difficulties. To serve its dramatic purpose, the actors’ play must come as close as possible to the situation at the Danish court; for not only has Hamlet to catch the King’s conscience, but I have to catch and rivet the attention of my audience. ‘Something like’ will not do at all; it must be identical or, at least, differing only in such a way as will indicate that it is another story, without impairing the overwhelming dramatic effect of its similarity upon the minds of Claudius and my spectators. But if the differences are small, as they must be for the scene to effects its purpose, might not the audience begin asking themselves how it comes about that the actors should have a play, the plot of which is to all intents identical with what had taken place at Elsinore? To avoid such questions it will be necessary to cover up my tracks, to throw them off the scent. They shall be told that the Gonzago story is ‘something like the murder’ of the late king, that ‘one scene of it comes near the circumstance’ of the actual poisoning, that Hamlet has adapted it; but they shall know nothing more about the matter until they see the play itself. Thus they will be prepared for similarity, part of which they will assume due to Hamlet’s adaption, while in the excitement of the play scene itself, when the almost complete identity of the two plots breaks upon them for the first time, their minds will be far too busy with other things to be enquiring where the actors got the play from.”
Are you enjoying Wilson’s analysis on this section of the play? If so, I’ll continue with it tomorrow…