Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Act 1 Scene 4

Hamlet's decisive fearlessness in this scene contrasts with the ambivalence he shows in the rest of the play, as if by feigning madness, he may have lost himself along the way. If he loses himself in the part, then he does not become this Hamlet again until the last act, after "finding himself" on his sea voyage. Scene 4, in which Hamlet joins Horatio and the soldiers on the platform to verify the Ghost's existence for himself, is made up of two parts: First, Hamlet Wittenbergian railing against the custom of the King's rouse, and second, his seduction by the Ghost, making him leave his friends behind.

For directors, there are a few choices to be made here. How debauched is the rouse? The less extreme it is, the more Hamlet seems intolerant and/or simply hateful of anything Claudius does (which actually helps the case for a mad Hamlet). The presentation of the Ghost may also be problematic. While it is a seductive idea to have him be a figment of Hamlet's imagination, there can be no question that in the text, other people see it. And yet they do not hear its message in Scene 5, so ambiguity may persist, and directors may well find ways to manipulate the play to stage things differently.

The full text follows in italics, with some comments from me interspersed throughout.SCENE IV. The platform.
HAMLET: The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
HORATIO: It is a nipping and an eager air.
HAMLET: What hour now?
HORATIO: I think it lacks of twelve.
HAMLET: No, it is struck.
HORATIO: Indeed? I heard it not: then it draws near the season
Wherein the spirit held his wont to walk.

Once again, images of time being out of joint. Horatio has lost track of the time.

A flourish of trumpets, and ordnance shot off, within

What does this mean, my lord?

This is an odd question coming from Horatio who, up until this moment, seemed to be a fellow Dane. Why does he not know this custom? Is he from elsewhere? Hamlet seems to infer that even other countries are aware of this tradition that has given Denmark a bad reputation. What would be the consequences of a non-Danish Horatio? In some ways, Horatio is a stranger looking in and the "author" of the play. One might even see his ambiguous nationality as the reason for the play's Englishisms. On a more thematic note, it places Horatio outside Denmark's corruptive influence, and in this short exchange, he doesn't seem to feel the cold as strongly as Hamlet. Denmark's hold is not as strong on him as it is for others (his lesser fear of the Ghost being another example).

HAMLET: The king doth wake to-night and takes his rouse,
Keeps wassail, and the swaggering up-spring reels;
And, as he drains his draughts of Rhenish down,
The kettle-drum and trumpet thus bray out
The triumph of his pledge.
HORATIO: Is it a custom?
HAMLET: Ay, marry, is't:
But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honour'd in the breach than the observance.
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and tax'd of other nations:
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform'd at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute.
So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,

The word "mole", later applied to the Ghost traveling in the underworld, is first used here. In both cases, Hamlet evokes the idea of a demon, which may indicate that from the first, he does not trust his father's Ghost entirely.

As, in their birth--wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin--
By the o'ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o'er-leavens
The form of plausive manners, that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature's livery, or fortune's star,--
Their virtues else--be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo--
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault: the dram of eale
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal.

The essence of tragedy is spelled out here. The idea that a character's one defect can and will destroy him is as much as part of this play as it is any of Shakespeare's tragedies (Othello's jealousy, Romeo & Juliet's impatience, etc.). It's entirely too simple to say Hamlet's defect is his indecision, as it is far more ambiguous than that. Various actors and directors have give that indecision different motives over the years, and these motives are the true defect. It may be mistrust, intellectualism, hubris, uncertainty, or something else entirely. This is a large part of what makes Hamlet such a rich play.

Note also the leitmotif of a poisonous cup. Claudius' drunken revels poison his soul (and thus all of Denmark's); the poison pours into Hamlet Sr.'s ear; the poison cup in Act 5. Indeed, even innocent Ophelia is drowned.

HORATIO: Look, my lord, it comes!

Enter Ghost

HAMLET: Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,
Bring with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape
That I will speak to thee: I'll call thee Hamlet,
King, father, royal Dane: O, answer me!
Let me not burst in ignorance; but tell
Why thy canonized bones, hearsed in death,
Have burst their cerements; why the sepulchre,
Wherein we saw thee quietly inurn'd,
Hath oped his ponderous and marble jaws,
To cast thee up again. What may this mean,
That thou, dead corse, again in complete steel
Revisit'st thus the glimpses of the moon,
Making night hideous; and we fools of nature
So horridly to shake our disposition
With thoughts beyond the reaches of our souls?
Say, why is this? wherefore? what should we do?

These lines make up a wonderful horror poem. Note how Hamlet cannot yet determine if the Ghost is angel or demon, something perhaps never truly resolved in his mind.

Ghost beckons HAMLET

HORATIO: It beckons you to go away with it,
As if it some impartment did desire
To you alone.
MARCELLUS: Look, with what courteous action
It waves you to a more removed ground:
But do not go with it.
HORATIO: No, by no means.
HAMLET: It will not speak; then I will follow it.
HORATIO: Do not, my lord.
HAMLET: Why, what should be the fear?
I do not set my life in a pin's fee;
And for my soul, what can it do to that,
Being a thing immortal as itself?
It waves me forth again: I'll follow it.
HORATIO: What if it tempt you toward the flood, my lord,

Again the idea of drowning.

Or to the dreadful summit of the cliff
That beetles o'er his base into the sea,
And there assume some other horrible form,
Which might deprive your sovereignty of reason
And draw you into madness? think of it:

Is this where Hamlet gets the idea for his feigned madness? Or is it that he is actually drawn into madness, just as Horatio foretold here?

The very place puts toys of desperation,
Without more motive, into every brain
That looks so many fathoms to the sea
And hears it roar beneath.
HAMLET: It waves me still.

Even unconsciously, Hamlet remains a punster. He is "waved" toward the "sea".

Go on; I'll follow thee.
MARCELLUS: You shall not go, my lord.
HAMLET: Hold off your hands.
HORATIO: Be ruled; you shall not go.
HAMLET: My fate cries out,
And makes each petty artery in this body
As hardy as the Nemean lion's nerve.
Still am I call'd. Unhand me, gentlemen.
By heaven, I'll make a ghost of him that lets me!
I say, away! Go on; I'll follow thee.

Exeunt Ghost and HAMLET

HORATIO: He waxes desperate with imagination.
MARCELLUS: Let's follow; 'tis not fit thus to obey him.
HORATIO: Have after. To what issue will this come?
MARCELLUS: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
HORATIO: Heaven will direct it.
MARCELLUS: Nay, let's follow him.


Horatio's call for Heaven to direct it is contradicted by the more intuitive Marcellus ("Nay"). Shakespeare lays on another layer of ambiguity, ever making us question whether the Ghost is true to its word or not. One answer, of course, is that the Ghost is telling the truth AND spurs Hamlet to ruinous revenge against the laws of God. If Hamlet is more puritanical than the countrymen around him, then it may be that murder, even to revenge a father, is antithetical to him. It may be the reason he delays his action for so long, often questioning the Ghost's morality. And the text does make Claudius guilty of regicide, but also sets a high price for revenge. What is madness, but an inability to reconcile two contrary impulses?


snell said...

I find Hamlet's discussion of how all Danes' reputations are tarnished to be an interesting contrast to Polonius' upcoming conversation with Reynaldo, where Polonius urges the servant to cast (mild) aspersions on Laertes' character. Hamlet's afraid of being "cleped" a drunkard, while Polonius says, "Oh, go ahead, tell people he drinks. It's no biggie, and might prove useful."

As to Horatio being unaware of the wassail & cannons custom, perhaps it is because he is a commoner, and not familiar with the court. The conversation plays very much like a college-aged guy visiting his roommate's home, seeing an odd custom or behavior, and going, "Dude, why are people doing X?" and the "embarrassed" host student replying, "Dude, everybody here is so lame. Sorry, bro." He's showing off for his friend AND using it as an excuse to show how superior he is to everyone.

snell said...

Here's a 6 month late question: Hamlet speaks of the wassailing/cannons as a long-time custom (as it must be, to have had word of it reach far nations and ruin Danes' reputations).

So did Hamlet Sr. participate in this type of revelry? Did Ha,let disapprove then?

Siskoid said...

Nice question. There's every indication that Hamlet sees his father through rose-colored glasses. If this custom is tied to weddings, then Hamlet would not have been present for his father's. Even if it isn't, the man was off to the wars most of the time. Senior is likely to have indulged, but Hamlet only sees it as a character defect in Claudius.