Saturday, January 30, 2010

Act I Scene 3

Though Laertes had lines in Scene 2, Scene 3 is our first real introduction the characters of Ophelia and Polonius. In the latter, we have the third image of fatherhood in the play, and if Hamlet and Laertes are to be contrasted, we need to also contrast Polonius with Claudius (also Laertes' other father) and Hamlet Sr. In Scene 3, Shakespeare gives us the second of three fathers counseling their children. Claudius chided Hamlet and asked him to stay in Scene 2 and the Ghost will spur Hamlet to revenge in Scene 4. In Scene 3, Polonius does the reverse for each of his children. He sends Laertes with doting advice, and forbids Ophelia to fulfill her destiny. Though the most "present" father in the play, his influence also tends to be the weakest.

As for Ophelia, is she to be a contrast to Gertrude? There's an interesting inversion in the play where the young hot-blooded girl is kept chase and the more mature, "tamer" woman is a wanton. In the following lines, the relationship between all three members of the Polonius family (and if I speak of inversions, it's that it is an inversed Hamlet family, with the mother dead) are introduced to the reader/viewer. I will cut in when something catches my attention. Shakespeare is the one in italics. Oh, and the brilliant one.

SCENE III. A room in Polonius' house.

LAERTES: My necessaries are embark'd: farewell:
And, sister, as the winds give benefit
And convoy is assistant, do not sleep,
But let me hear from you.
OPHELIA: Do you doubt that?
LAERTES: For Hamlet and the trifling of his favour,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood,
A violet in the youth of primy nature,
Forward, not permanent, sweet, not lasting,
The perfume and suppliance of a minute; No more.

The position of Ophelia in the play is very weak, often thought of as an object manipulated by men, caught between her father's and brother's will, Claudius' schemes and Hamlet's love. The very first time she speaks, she is ignored. Laertes does not actually answer her question, but instead follows his own train of thought and warns her against Hamlet. Note also the use of "violet" here, a flower we return to in Ophelia's madness. The violet is described as impermanent and fleeting, and Ophelia later comes back to this image with the violets that all wilted when her father died. This double use creates a link between the two scene between Ophelia and her brother. Love is fleeting (here) as is life (there), and by implication so is Ophelia's health and sanity. Like the violet, Ophelia is "in the youth of primy nature". She too is "sweet". And like most characters in the play, her life is impermanent.

OPHELIA: No more but so?
LAERTES: Think it no more;
For nature, crescent, does not grow alone
In thews and bulk, but, as this temple waxes,
The inward service of the mind and soul
Grows wide withal. Perhaps he loves you now,
And now no soil nor cautel doth besmirch
The virtue of his will: but you must fear,
His greatness weigh'd, his will is not his own;
For he himself is subject to his birth:
He may not, as unvalued persons do,
Carve for himself; for on his choice depends
The safety and health of this whole state;
And therefore must his choice be circumscribed
Unto the voice and yielding of that body
Whereof he is the head. Then if he says he loves you,
It fits your wisdom so far to believe it
As he in his particular act and place
May give his saying deed; which is no further
Than the main voice of Denmark goes withal.
Then weigh what loss your honour may sustain,
If with too credent ear you list his songs,
Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open
To his unmaster'd importunity.

Laertes invokes Hamlet's royal destiny here. The idea that Hamlet's will is not, ultimately, his own stands in stark opposition to "To thine own self be true" (a line I will come back to in due course). As the play unfolds, Hamlet will continually stop himself short of fulfilling his destiny, whether we're talking about avenging his father or becoming King of Denmark.

Fear it, Ophelia, fear it, my dear sister,
And keep you in the rear of your affection,
Out of the shot and danger of desire.
The chariest maid is prodigal enough,
If she unmask her beauty to the moon:
Virtue itself 'scapes not calumnious strokes:
The canker galls the infants of the spring,
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.

More imagery related to a corrupted natural world, as spring is subverted in Denmark's unweeded garden. The play does tend to show sexuality as a corruptive element. Laertes and Polonius do not wish to see Ophelia stained, and Claudius sleeps in incestuous sheets. Those that obviously had sex before the start of the play are either dead (the Ghost and Ophelia's mother) or doomed to die (Getrude and Polonius). Perhaps they are right to steer Ophelia away from it, and Hamlet is later right to push her to go to a nunnery. She does not, and she dies.

Be wary then; best safety lies in fear:
Youth to itself rebels, though none else near.
OPHELIA: I shall the effect of this good lesson keep,
As watchman to my heart. But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff'd and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

Ophelia's warning about hypocrisy is a recurring theme in the play. We'll soon have the notoriously foolish Polonius impart his wisdom to Laertes, and otherwise have a number of characters lying to Hamlet and to others, feigning to be what they are not.

LAERTES: O, fear me not.
I stay too long: but here my father comes.


A double blessing is a double grace,
Occasion smiles upon a second leave.

POLONIUS : Yet here, Laertes! aboard, aboard, for shame!
The wind sits in the shoulder of your sail,
And you are stay'd for. There; my blessing with thee!

Polonius gets his first proper scene and it's one that highlights his foolishness. He chides his son for being tardy and then sits him down for a long chat. Polonius gets it wrong for the first, but certainly not the last, time. Polonius is written with dramatic irony in mind, and characterized as tedious (at his most benign) or pompous (at his least). The advice that follows was meant to parody the maxim writers of the Elizabethan Age, equivalent to today's slogan-happy self-help books, but Shakespeare comments on the play at the same time.

And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.

For example, here. Hamlet will struggle with this for most of the play, trying to understand the true "proportion" his thoughts and actions.

Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;

How does this relate to the bond between Laertes and Hamlet? Though they have a falling out, their souls are in the end bound together, following each other closely to the afterlife.

But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch'd, unfledged comrade. Beware

And is this a reference to the Laertes-Claudius partnership? The dangling "Beware" is as much for this as for the next line.

Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear't that the opposed may beware of thee.

"Beware of entrance to a quarrel", the exact event that leads to Laertes' undoing.

Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man's censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express'd in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine own self be true,

There we have it. Each of Shakespeare's great plays, I find, has a line hidden in it that expresses its theme. And I say hidden because it seems to come early and in a context that doesn't draw attention to it. For example, in Romeo and Juliet, it's "they stumble that run fast". In Hamlet, it's "To thine own self be true". This is the advice that Hamlet does not follow and that causes the tragedy.

And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!
LAERTES: Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord.
POLONIUS: The time invites you; go; your servants tend.
LAERTES: Farewell, Ophelia; and remember well
What I have said to you.
OPHELIA: 'Tis in my memory lock'd,
And you yourself shall keep the key of it.
LAERTES: Farewell.


POLONIUS: What is't, Ophelia, be hath said to you?
OPHELIA: So please you, something touching the Lord Hamlet.
POLONIUS: Marry, well bethought:
'Tis told me, he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you; and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous:
If it be so, as so 'tis put on me,
And that in way of caution, I must tell you,
You do not understand yourself so clearly
As it behoves my daughter and your honour.
What is between you? give me up the truth.
OPHELIA: He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders
Of his affection to me.
POLONIUS: Affection! pooh! you speak like a green girl,
Unsifted in such perilous circumstance.
Do you believe his tenders, as you call them?
OPHELIA: I do not know, my lord, what I should think.
POLONIUS: Marry, I'll teach you: think yourself a baby;
That you have ta'en these tenders for true pay,
Which are not sterling. Tender yourself more dearly;
Or--not to crack the wind of the poor phrase,
Running it thus--you'll tender me a fool.
OPHELIA: My lord, he hath importuned me with love
In honourable fashion.
POLONIUS: Ay, fashion you may call it; go to, go to.
OPHELIA: And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord,
With almost all the holy vows of heaven.
POLONIUS: Ay, springes to catch woodcocks. I do know,

Yet another image of nature subverted. A couple of things jump out in the wake of Polonius' speech to Laertes. For one thing, Polonius is a hypocryte. Having told Laertes to be true to himself, he forbids the same to Ophelia. He once again sets himself up to "get it wrong" by instigating the factor he will later believe is the cause of Hamlet's madness. His portrayal of Hamlet as a sexual predator is also contradicted by the rest of the play (though directors coud choose to play this differently).

When the blood burns, how prodigal the soul
Lends the tongue vows: these blazes, daughter,
Giving more light than heat, extinct in both,
Even in their promise, as it is a-making,
You must not take for fire. From this time
Be somewhat scanter of your maiden presence;
Set your entreatments at a higher rate
Than a command to parley. For Lord Hamlet,
Believe so much in him, that he is young
And with a larger tether may he walk
Than may be given you: in few, Ophelia,
Do not believe his vows; for they are brokers,
Not of that dye which their investments show,
But mere implorators of unholy suits,
Breathing like sanctified and pious bawds,
The better to beguile. This is for all:
I would not, in plain terms, from this time forth,
Have you so slander any moment leisure,
As to give words or talk with the Lord Hamlet.
Look to't, I charge you: come your ways.
OPHELIA: I shall obey, my lord.


Polonius is a lot harsher than Laertes. Where the brother didn't doubt that Hamlet loved her NOW, the father is convinced he never has. Both of them worry a great deal about Ophelia's virginity (which today adds to the unnaturalness of the play, but was a fairly common concern back in the day), but we have to wonder why. As the play will show, Gertrude had earmarked Ophelia to be Hamlet's wife, and certainly the Polonius family was closely tied to Hamlet's. If there's a concept of having to marry another country's princess to forge an alliance, it's not mentioned in the play. It does not seem to be a way to resolve the conflict with Norway, which is populated only with male characters. We're left with more questions. HAS there been something going on and so, Ophelia is lying? Polonius' command that she should not even SPEAK with Hamlet... Is that because he worries Hamlet will turn her against him and Claudius? What does he know about Claudius' ascension that we don't? Or is he simply worried that Hamlet's mental instability will cause problems for her? In a less sinister vein, having lost a wife, does he simply not want to lose the daughter that is taking care of him in his old age?

Directors will sometimes try to give us a clue as to his motivation. Something to watch.

1 comment:

snell said...

I also like how "to thine own self be true" completely contradicts the previous advice Polonius had given the same speech. Give thy thoughts no tongue, and give few your voice? Bind your friends to your soul...but don't loan them money! The apparel proclaims the man, so dress for success (but not too much)? His entire speech is "appearance is more important than reality," yet he sums it up with the moral be true to yourself.

Ironically, it is Hamlet who will take most of this advice, play acting and dressing a part while keeping his true thoughts and voice hidden.

"Apparel of proclaims the man" can also be contrasted to Hamlet's first scene, where every seems to think if he just changes his clothes, he'll be a happy camper...