Act Four, Part Three
By Dennis Abrams
One point I’d like to make right off the bat: We’ve talked a lot about Shakespeare’s use of “doubling” throughout Hamlet – but I don’t think the Hamlet/Ophelia doubling has been discussed.
It occurred to me last night: Hamlet’s father was murdered, he was ordered to say away from his love Ophelia (let’s assume, as I think is the case, that he did, at least at on point, love her), he nearly went mad as a result, and considered, albeit briefly, suicide. Ophelia was ordered to stay away from her love, Hamlet, her father was murdered, she did go mad as a result, and ended up dead (whether by suicide or not is…debatable.)
“Having ‘acted’ – having killed Polonius – Hamlet is sent on the emblematic journey toward England, and on the journey he will act again, more deliberately this time, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, another pair of players, who desired to ‘play upon’ him (3.2.335), but whom he now casts in a play of his own. En route to England, he will tell Horatio, he found the sealed commission they carried to the English king, asking for his death:
Being thus benetted round with villanies –
Ere I could make a prologue to my brains,
They had begun the play…
By that point Hamlet is totally in command of the language of playing, as well as of the play his mind conceives. He changes Claudius’s script, writing out a commission for the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, signing it with the name of the King, and sealing it with his father’s signet ring, now in some sense rightfully his. He becomes what we could well call a ghostwriter, writing his anonymous script in the name of the Ghost, and for the revenge the Ghost has sought. A signet is both a seal and an official ‘signature.’ We may notice that Hamlet is also a skilled scribe or scrivener, who does not hold it, ‘as our statists [politicians] do,/A baseness to write fair,’ and is thus able to substitute his own handwritten text for that originally supplied and ordained by the King. This act of ghost writing is structurally parallel to his earlier substitution of the ‘dozen or sixteen lines’ in the Mousetrap play, making it more pointed and pertinent to the situation in the Danish court. (Critic’s attempts to locate and identify those ‘dozen or sixteen lines’ have made for a diverting wild goose chase across the centuries; see my essay ‘MacGuffin Shakespeare’ for a fuller account of this amusing phenomenon. ‘Dozen or sixteen,’ we should not, is a proverbial, not a specific, phase, meaning ‘some lines’ rather than literally twelve to sixteen, so any amount of creative counting, or accounting, will fail of its object, rather like the ‘ducdame’ joke in As You Like It, where the gullible audience is the butt of Jaques’ wit.)
What has happened to Hamlet? How has he changed by entering into the world of serious ‘play?’ As we have already seen, he has changed in costume, moving from his ‘inky cloak’ (an earlier intimation of his future career of substitute lines and commissions) to his madman’s disarray before Ophelia, to his third costume, his traveler’s sea-gown, potentially an emblem of more existential journeys and voyagers as well as of his own, highly specific and enforced, travel from Denmark toward England. Hamlet has also changed in language and the way he deploys it. The witty, punning, self-protective Hamlet of the opening scenes was also a monologuist, a speaker in soliloquies. The Hamlet film made by Laurence Olivier established a tradition, much copied, of filming or performing the soliloquies in the play with a voice-over, the actor on screen not moving his lips, so that the effect is one of voiced thought, of an intense and overwhelming consciousness, echoing the Hamlet of the Romantics, as much a ‘universal’ philosopher as an action hero in an early modern revenge tragedy. The major soliloquies, one in each of the first four acts (‘O, that this too too sullied flesh would melt’; ‘O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!’; ‘To be, or not to be’’ ‘How all occasions do inform against me/And spur my dull revenge!’ are interior monologues, syntactically elaborate, full of self-questioning. The ‘rogue and peasant slave’ soliloquy contains ten questions and nine interpolations, while ‘To be, or not to be’ is almost entirely composed of questions, conditionals, infinitives, and passive constructions: ‘To be, or not to be’; ‘To die, to sleep’ But by the fifth act, after the voyage to England, there are no more soliloquies. Hamlet now talks to others rather than to himself or to the audience, and his language is suddenly full of active verbs, verbs of ‘doing.’
Up from my cabin,
My sea-gown scarfed about me in the dark,
Groped I to find out them, had my desire,
Fingered their packet, and in fine withdrew
To mine own room again, making so bold,
My fears forgetting manners, to unseal
Their grand commission….
There he found the ‘exact command’ that, so soon as I t was read (‘on the supervise’), ‘no leisure bated/No, not to stay the grinding of the axe/My head should be struck off.’ In the importunacy of this haste he turns to his own devices, substituting, as we have seen, the names (and thus the heads) of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for his own. Hamlet performs this ‘head trick’ in a way quite similar to that in Measure for Measure, a play
written in the same years, where the head of the hero, Claudio, is spared by the substitution of the head of ‘[o]ne Ragusine, a most notorious pirate,’ who has just conveniently died of a fever. (The preoccupation with pirates in three plays of this period, Twelfth Night, Hamlet, and Measure for Measure, is worth noting. Pirates were a fact of seagoing life in early modern England and Europe. They are also mentioned by Shylock, a resident of the maritime commercial city of Venice; in some early English history plays; and in the other Shakespeare ‘sea’ plays, Antony and Cleopatra and Pericles.”
And this from Harold Bloom, from Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, “The Impostume”
“On his way to England, conveyed by the doomed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet encounters the captain from Fortinbras’s army who has the task of informing Claudius that the Norwegian force is marching across Denmark (with permission) in order to have at the Poles. The expedition is to gain a worthless plot of ground, and prompts Hamlet to a wonderful outburst:
Two thousand souls and twenty thousand ducats
Will not debate the question of this straw!
This is the impostume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause
Why the man dies.
An abscess or cyst that breaks inwardly: at once this is societal, and an event in Hamlet’s consciousness. G.K. Chesterton liked to say that Chaucer’s irony was too large to be seen. Hamlet’s irony is visible (not because it lacks immensity), but it is too varied to be categorized as rhetorical irony. His soliloquy spurred by the impostume is the last time we hear Hamlet in Act IV, and already he has intimations of the different stance he will assume in Act V. Of his seven soliloquies, this is the most complex:
How all occasions to inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge. What is a man
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unus’d. Now whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th’event –
A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward – I do not know
Why yet I live to say this thing’s to do,
Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means
To do’t. Examples gross as earth exhort me,
Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit, with divine ambition puff’d,
Makes mouths at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure
To all that fortune, death, and danger dare,
Even for an eggshell. Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake. How stand I then,
That have a father kill’d, a mother stain’d,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep, while to my shame I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts to be bloody or be nothing worth.
When he returns from the sea, his thoughts will be anything but bloody. Yet he is no longer bloody-minded here, despite his self-exhortings. Are we not at the precise moment where his theatricalism and his inwardness break from each other? Vastly intelligent, far beyond us – if we are not, say, Freud or Wittgenstein – Hamlet cannot believe that the proper use of his cap ability and godlike reason is to perform a revenge killing. In truth, he has no desire to cut down Claudius, which is not an action that requires Hamletian powers of awareness. The disproportion between agent and act could have been masked only by theatricalism, and honor is not mask enough to convert an eggshell, like Claudius, into a great argument. Hamlet’s impostume is the absurdity of accommodating his greatness to the rotten state of Denmark. Prince Hal, breaking from Falstaff, becomes Henry IV’s avenger, only in the sense that conquering France masks Henry IV”s murder and usurpation of his cousin, Richard II. Hamlet is not Hal: only fusing Falstaff and Hal together could you achieve some version of Hamlet, and perhaps that is what Shakespeare had some thought of doing. But Shakespeare’s theatrical defense against Hamlet’s unlimitedness has begun to waver, and will be overwhelmed in Act V.
Is The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, Shakespeare’s impostume? The break into inwardness was unsurpassable, and made possible Iago, Othello, Lear, Edmund, Edgar, Macbeth, Cleopatra, Antony, an eightfold whose paths to the abyss were charted by Hamlet, death’s ambassador to us. G. Wilson Knight first called Hamlet the embassy of death, and once remarked to me that he himself could confront the play only because of his strong belief in immortality. We do not know what Shakespeare believed about the soul’s survival. Before Act V, Hamlet is confident of his soul’s immortality, but I think he is different after his return from the sea, and I suspect he courts annihilation. When the impostume breaks, the man dies, and perhaps the soul with him, for in Hamlet consciousness and the soul have become one.”
This strikes me as an absolutely correct reading, and something to keep in mind as we begin reading Act V.
Your thoughts as we leave the Hamlet of Acts 1-4 behind?