Thursday, October 14, 2010

II.i. Ophelia Affrighted

On the heels of Reynaldo's departure comes Ophelia in the second half of Scene 1 (if, indeed, Reynaldo makes an appearance at all in any given version) with a story about Hamlet visiting her closet. Why is this scene told but not shown? Seeing as the actor playing Hamlet is about to come onstage for the longest continuous appearances in all of Shakespeare, was it done for practical reasons? More likely, but just as "practical", the picture painted by Shakespeare would have been considered scandalous on the Elizabethan stage, his pants around his ankles, as it were. In a scene that is already about the trustworthiness of any given point of view, we get a second hand account (a naive spy report from Ophelia) that propels the play exactly where Hamlet means to propel it. It is this account that involves Polonius, and Polonius who involves the King and Queen.

All part of Hamlet's plan? One question directors and actors must ask themselves is whether Ophelia's account is true. It's certainly true for her (though imagine a Hamlet where Ophelia is a willing accomplice, at least, until her father's death), but was Hamlet faking? Did he sacrifice Ophelia's love for his new cause? Is he using her, or was this a heartfelt goodbye? Or both? The text follows in italics, interspersed with my comments.


LORD POLONIUS: How now, Ophelia! what's the matter?
OPHELIA: O, my lord, my lord, I have been so affrighted!
LORD POLONIUS: With what, i' the name of God?
OPHELIA: My lord, as I was sewing in my closet,
Lord Hamlet, with his doublet all unbraced;
No hat upon his head; his stockings foul'd,
Ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ancle;
Pale as his shirt; his knees knocking each other;
And with a look so piteous in purport
As if he had been loosed out of hell
To speak of horrors,--he comes before me.

Here is the portrait I was referring to. Hamlet is a man who very recently has been loosed out of hell, or from the nether realm in which the Ghost exists, placing this scene very soon after Act I. In fact, it is a reaction to Act I's revelations. There, we had Hamlet vow to erase the slate of his memory and here, his clothes and hair are undone, a graphic representation of an unmade man.

LORD POLONIUS: Mad for thy love?

Polonius immediately jumps to this conclusion. It is his first thought on the matter, and it remains the one he supports until his demise. We've already discussed how Polonius is the man who consistently gets it wrong, and here we see how. Rather than looking at all the evidence, he sticks with his first notion and keeps building upon it even when others suggest alternatives. Why IS it his first thought? Guilt about having given his daughter the interdiction may already have been on his mind.

OPHELIA: My lord, I do not know;
But truly, I do fear it.
LORD POLONIUS: What said he?
OPHELIA: He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm;
And, with his other hand thus o'er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stay'd he so;
At last, a little shaking of mine arm
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,

The use of "thus" encourages the actress playing Ophelia to mime Hamlet's actions, in effect merging with him now that he is ironically out of her grasp. It's a mirror between the two lovers, if you will. Both will suffer from madness, both will have their father slain, etc. This early mimic sets up that mirror.

He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being: that done, he lets me go:

These lines, more than any others, point to Hamlet making his goodbyes and in effect putting to rest his old life. A more ruthless Hamlet could still fake this great sigh, of course, but the audience wants to believe Ophelia here, as she has a privileged relationship with Hamlet.

And, with his head over his shoulder turn'd,
He seem'd to find his way without his eyes;
For out o' doors he went without their helps,
And, to the last, bended their light on me.
LORD POLONIUS: Come, go with me: I will go seek the king.
This is the very ecstasy of love,
Whose violent property fordoes itself
And leads the will to desperate undertakings
As oft as any passion under heaven
That does afflict our natures. I am sorry.
What, have you given him any hard words of late?
OPHELIA: No, my good lord, but, as you did command,
I did repel his fetters and denied
His access to me.
LORD POLONIUS: That hath made him mad.

Polonius comes to that conclusion a second time.

I am sorry that with better heed and judgment
I had not quoted him: I fear'd he did but trifle,
And meant to wreck thee; but, beshrew my jealousy!
By heaven, it is as proper to our age
To cast beyond ourselves in our opinions
As it is common for the younger sort
To lack discretion. Come, go we to the king:

Polonius accuses himself of wrong-doing, but at the same time justifies those actions. He meddles, but his children lack discretion. It evens out. He must still do what he does. In fact, he'll next go to the King and Queen and meddle some more. The dramatic irony of Polonius is that while other characters in Shakespeare can overhear themselves speaking, he cannot. Other characters can realize things about themselves and adapt, he learns nothing of the truths he speaks.

This must be known; which, being kept close, might move
More grief to hide than hate to utter love.

Wrong again, Polonius.


Visual media can of course show us what here is merely told, through Ophelia's lens or a more objective third person point of view. We'll look at how that choice, among others, affects the various versions of the play under examination through the next few articles.


snell said...

Once again, an interesting contrast within the the first half Polonius spends much time setting up a misdirection ploy to find out the truth about Laertes; yet right away--immediately!!--he falls for a similar ploy from Hamlet.

Polonius thinks he's so clever in laying his games and schemes, but he lacks the self-awareness to see when the same is being done to him.

Siskoid said...

Another reason to believe it IS a ploy and that Hamlet was not genuinely as demolished as he appeared to be.