Friday, July 30, 2010

I.v. Swearing Oaths

The Act will end with a swearing ritual, forcing Hamlet's friends not to reveal what they know of the Ghost's appearance, even as the prince takes on the appearance (whether feigned or not) of a madman. For the play's directors, one of the challenges is the representation of the Ghost moving and speaking from under the stage (meant to represent hell). In a stage presentation, the audience might be aware of the fact the sound comes from the floor, but watching film versions on a television doesn't quite allow for it. Special effects may come in handy, but many choose to simply use voice-over and let Hamlet's words and actions infer that it is coming from the ground. Directors and actors will also have to decide what to make of Hamlet's "wild and whirling words". Is he starting to go mad, or crafting an improvised performance before his friends' eyes (and ours)? One thing is certain. Regardless of whether or not Hamlet is mad or not after seeing the Ghost, the latter must exist. We're reminded once again that Hamlet is not the only one who sees and hears it.

Let's delve deeper into the text itself (in italics):

MARCELLUS HORATIO: [Within] My lord, my lord,--
MARCELLUS: [Within] Lord Hamlet,--
HORATIO: [Within] Heaven secure him!
HAMLET: So be it!
HORATIO: [Within] Hillo, ho, ho, my lord!
HAMLET: Hillo, ho, ho, boy! come, bird, come.

MARCELLUS: How is't, my noble lord?
HORATIO: What news, my lord?
HAMLET: O, wonderful!
HORATIO: Good my lord, tell it.
HAMLET: No; you'll reveal it.
HORATIO: Not I, my lord, by heaven.
MARCELLUS: Nor I, my lord.
HAMLET: How say you, then; would heart of man once think it?
But you'll be secret?
HORATIO MARCELLUS: Ay, by heaven, my lord.
HAMLET: There's ne'er a villain dwelling in all Denmark
But he's an arrant knave.

I've always felt that there was an ambiguity to these lines. Is the knavish villain Claudius? Or it is Hamlet himself? The Ghost has, in a way, created a new villain in Denmark. Part of why Hamlet delays the murder of his uncle is that (and we've often spoken of his puritanism) murder is a sin. Though he was quick to swear revenge, the whole of the play has Hamlet working out how he can commit such an act (and abase himself to the level of Claudius - smiling and being a villain) in spite of his conscience. Even if we do not subscribe to Hamlet actually being mad, there is a dramatic insanity at work where a character cannot reconcile who he is and what he must do. This is dramatized further in the swearing ritual that is to come.

HORATIO: There needs no ghost, my lord, come from the grave
To tell us this.
HAMLET: Why, right; you are i' the right;
And so, without more circumstance at all,
I hold it fit that we shake hands and part:
You, as your business and desire shall point you;
For every man has business and desire,
Such as it is; and for mine own poor part,
Look you, I'll go pray.

Hamlet tries to protect his friends from what he is to become, but they will not allow him to leave without more explanation. It is significant that Hamlet talks about praying here, but pray to what?

HORATIO: These are but wild and whirling words, my lord.
HAMLET: I'm sorry they offend you, heartily;
Yes, 'faith heartily.
HORATIO: There's no offence, my lord.
HAMLET: Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatio,
And much offence too. Touching this vision here,
It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you:

Hamlet at least believes the tale of murder (because it fits his own feelings towards Claudius), but the strange, indecorous way he treats the Ghost in the next lines indicates he does not necessarily trust the Ghost's motives. Hamlet knows that by the action he has sworn to, he has damned his soul. The Ghost is at once his father's spirit AND a goblin damned.

For your desire to know what is between us,
O'ermaster 't as you may. And now, good friends,
As you are friends, scholars and soldiers,
Give me one poor request.
HORATIO: What is't, my lord? we will.
HAMLET: Never make known what you have seen to-night.
HORATIO MARCELLUS: My lord, we will not.
HAMLET: Nay, but swear't.
HORATIO: In faith,
My lord, not I.
MARCELLUS: Nor I, my lord, in faith.
HAMLET: Upon my sword.
MARCELLUS: We have sworn, my lord, already.
HAMLET: Indeed, upon my sword, indeed.
GHOST: [Beneath] Swear.
HAMLET: Ah, ha, boy! say'st thou so? art thou there,

As soon as the Ghost makes its voice known and forces Horatio and Marcellus to swear to silence, Hamlet puts its honesty in doubt, calling it "boy" and ironically, "truepenny". Later it is a "fellow in the cellarage", and an "old mole". Hamlet (and the staging) treats the Ghost as the Devil, and the swearing ritual thus becomes a kind of pact with the Devil. Hamlet is to lose his soul in this (compare to Horatio's invocation of angels upon the prince's death). What we're seeing is a kind of Satanic ritual that pledges Hamlet's life to the underworld.

Come on--you hear this fellow in the cellarage--
Consent to swear.
HORATIO: Propose the oath, my lord.
HAMLET: Never to speak of this that you have seen,
Swear by my sword.
GHOST: [Beneath] Swear.
HAMLET: Hic et ubique? then we'll shift our ground.
Come hither, gentlemen,
And lay your hands again upon my sword:
Never to speak of this that you have heard,
Swear by my sword.
GHOST: [Beneath] Swear.
HAMLET: Well said, old mole! canst work i' the earth so fast?
A worthy pioner! Once more remove, good friends.
HORATIO: O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!
HAMLET: And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. But come;

Some directors prefer "in our philosophy". I've come across both wordings, and we'll have occasion to discuss what difference this makes as we tackle the different adaptations. Horatio is here called a "stranger", which goes with his ignorance of Danish custom in the previous scene. Of course, all of Denmark has now become an alien land, one in which the supernatural is very real, shaking the foundations of Horatio's educated philosophy which denies superstition.

Here, as before, never, so help you mercy,
How strange or odd soe'er I bear myself,
As I perchance hereafter shall think meet
To put an antic disposition on,

Does Hamlet tell them his plan to put on a crazy act, or does he warn them that he's going mad?

That you, at such times seeing me, never shall,
With arms encumber'd thus, or this headshake,
Or by pronouncing of some doubtful phrase,
As 'Well, well, we know,' or 'We could, an if we would,'
Or 'If we list to speak,' or 'There be, an if they might,'
Or such ambiguous giving out, to note
That you know aught of me: this not to do,

It sometimes seems like the play has also sworn this, and will not give a definitive answer. Horatio and Marcellus swear not to tell us the truth of Hamlet (and it's clear that Horatio is told a lot more than what is said in this scene), and so we never really do. If the play is Horatio's telling of it at the very end, there are still missing pieces. He hasn't been freed from his pledge entirely.

So grace and mercy at your most need help you, Swear.
GHOST: [Beneath] Swear.
HAMLET: Rest, rest, perturbed spirit!

They swear.

So, gentlemen,
With all my love I do commend me to you:
And what so poor a man as Hamlet is
May do, to express his love and friending to you,
God willing, shall not lack. Let us go in together;
And still your fingers on your lips, I pray.
The time is out of joint: O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!
Nay, come, let's go together.


In the act's final rhyming couplet, Hamlet fully realizes he is doomed. Time is so out of joint that another line follows the couplet, which breaks Shakespeare's usual form. The next batch of articles will look at how this sequence was adapted for the screen.

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