Wednesday, December 15, 2010

II.ii. Brevity

The next relevant section of Act II's second act is Polonius' theory about Hamlet as he relates it to the King and Queen. What "To be or not to be" is to Hamlet, this speech is to Polonius, and crucially, it represents the conspiratorial beginnings of a thread that will lead to Polonius' own demise. That Polonius is wrong about the cause of Hamlet's madness goes without saying, but in and of itself does not constitute wrong-doing. Polonius' sin is that he feels the need to prove his theory by covert means. Just as he sent a spy to his son, so will he use his daughter to help him spy on Hamlet. In classical tragedy, hubris is the flaw that usually leads to a character's doom. In Polonius' case, hubris is definitely in play. He even offers to have his head cut off if he is proven wrong, which one would never do unless infected with arrogant self-confidence. Let us look at the text (in italics, as usual) a little more closely:

LORD POLONIUS: My liege, and madam, to expostulate
What majesty should be, what duty is,
Why day is day, night night, and time is time,
Were nothing but to waste night, day and time.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes,
I will be brief: your noble son is mad:
Mad call I it; for, to define true madness,
What is't but to be nothing else but mad?
But let that go.

There are several ironies embedded in Polonius' words, and not just the ones he puts there himself. Polonius, of course, does not realize that he is being tedious even in proclaiming brevity. Shakespeare's own ironic streak is also at play. He knows that his play is over-long and that in a sense, it attempts to contain the whole of the world. Hamlet himself will go on at length about various subjects including mortality, theater and humanity, almost reveling in his intellect's ability to apprehend all things. Shakespeare "wastes time", knows it and mocks it. Polonius also claims that madness cannot be defined, which the play also fails to do in Hamlet's case. There is no doubt that Ophelia goes mad, but does her prince? Shakespeare never overtly tell us. Hamlet is said to be mad and so that must be true for the characters who believe it to be true. In fiction, some things must be taken at face value or not at all, like the madness central to the intrigue.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: More matter, with less art.

You'll note that Claudius defers to her in this conversation, again pointing to the idea that it's principally part of her agenda. While Claudius lets Polonius ramble, she is far less patient with him. In a way, this fuels the competition between Polonius and Gertrude as the former's theory contradicts the latter's. Does Polonius feel the need to prove himself exactly because he gets opposition to the King's other great adviser?

LORD POLONIUS: Madam, I swear I use no art at all.
That he is mad, 'tis true: 'tis true 'tis pity;
And pity 'tis 'tis true: a foolish figure;
But farewell it, for I will use no art.

More dramatic irony: Polonius cannot help to use "art" to say he will use none.

Mad let us grant him, then: and now remains
That we find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say, the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by cause:
Thus it remains, and the remainder thus. Perpend.
I have a daughter--have while she is mine--
Who, in her duty and obedience, mark,
Hath given me this: now gather, and surmise.
[Reads] 'To the celestial and my soul's idol, the most
beautified Ophelia,'--
That's an ill phrase, a vile phrase; 'beautified' is
a vile phrase: but you shall hear. Thus:
[Reads] 'In her excellent white bosom, these, & c.'

It will be interesting to compare how Hamlet's letter is used by different directors. In the text, it is read by Polonius, but different filmed versions have allowed others to read it, or have played with the idea that Polonius has taken it, not been given it. This detail changes how we perceive both Polonius and Ophelia. Note also the use of "beautified", as relating to the later line about God giving women one face and their making themselves another, one of Shakespeare's frequent rails against vanity. Why is Shakespeare drawing our attention to this word by making Polonius snag onto it? Should we see sarcasm in Hamlet's poem, and would that not indicate when it was actually written (see my next note).

QUEEN GERTRUDE: Came this from Hamlet to her?
LORD POLONIUS: Good madam, stay awhile; I will be faithful.
[Reads] 'Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.
'O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers;
I have not art to reckon my groans: but that
I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.
'Thine evermore most dear lady, whilst
this machine is to him, HAMLET.'

The letter represents one of few glimpses into the happy life of Hamlet before the momentous events of the play. Who was he before his father died (or at least, before he learned his father was murdered)? The play's timeline being what it is (i.e. vague), the letter could still have been written after some of these events, changing its meaning. If written much later, it could seem like a testament to his love for Ophelia no matter what he later says (though she may not have understood the message)­. His actions after Act I are to call everything into doubt because he has been lied to by his uncle. What else is a lie? The play on the word "doubt" here is crucial. There is also more than a little fatalism in the last two lines. Could this letter have been left for her during his last visit to her closet? And is it thus coded with the things he dares not say out loud?

This, in obedience, hath my daughter shown me,
And more above, hath his solicitings,
As they fell out by time, by means and place,
All given to mine ear.
KING CLAUDIUS: But how hath she
Received his love?
LORD POLONIUS: What do you think of me?
KING CLAUDIUS: As of a man faithful and honourable.
LORD POLONIUS: I would fain prove so. But what might you think,
When I had seen this hot love on the wing--
As I perceived it, I must tell you that,
Before my daughter told me--what might you,

Another example of Polonius trying to save face by proudly claiming that he saw what was going on between Hamlet and Ophelia before he was told of it. The Player Queen is not the only character who "protests too much" - Polonius is obsessed with not being perceived as a foolish old man. His foolishness is not in his blindness, but in his misinterpretation of other characters' intentions.

Or my dear majesty your queen here, think,
If I had play'd the desk or table-book,
Or given my heart a winking, mute and dumb,
Or look'd upon this love with idle sight;
What might you think? No, I went round to work,

An odd contradiction here as Polonius supposes the Queen would have disapproved of the Hamlet-Ophelia match and she doesn't correct him. Yet, after Ophelia's death, she says she expected them to marry with her blessing. This scene puts the lie to her later words, though the impropriety may be lost to modern eyes, i.e. the match was not the problem, only that the wooing was conducted outside official channels and permissions.

And my young mistress thus I did bespeak:
'Lord Hamlet is a prince, out of thy star;
This must not be:' and then I precepts gave her,
That she should lock herself from his resort,
Admit no messengers, receive no tokens.
Which done, she took the fruits of my advice;
And he, repulsed--a short tale to make--

This tale has been anything but short.

Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves,
And all we mourn for.
KING CLAUDIUS: Do you think 'tis this?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: It may be, very like.
LORD POLONIUS: Hath there been such a time--I'd fain know that--
That I have positively said 'Tis so,'
When it proved otherwise?
KING CLAUDIUS: Not that I know.

One of the King's most foolhearty traits is his blind trust in Polonius, who in fact is proven wrong on almost every point during the play.

LORD POLONIUS: [Pointing to his head and shoulder] Take this from this, if this be otherwise:
If circumstances lead me, I will find
Where truth is hid, though it were hid indeed
Within the centre.
KING CLAUDIUS: How may we try it further?
LORD POLONIUS: You know, sometimes he walks four hours together
Here in the lobby.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: So he does indeed.
LORD POLONIUS: At such a time I'll loose my daughter to him:
Be you and I behind an arras then;
Mark the encounter: if he love her not
And be not from his reason fall'n thereon,
Let me be no assistant for a state,
But keep a farm and carters.

Shakespeare laces the play with insinuations that the current regime is not fit to rule in various ways. One of these is overt comparisons to common professions such as farming here, and later those of fishmongers and beggars.

KING CLAUDIUS: We will try it.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: But, look, where sadly the poor wretch comes reading.
LORD POLONIUS: Away, I do beseech you, both away:
I'll board him presently.
[Exeunt KING CLAUDIUS, QUEEN GERTRUDE, and Attendants]

With apologies for all these outward flourishes...


snell said...

When Polonius asks "Have I ever been wrong?", Claudius' "Not that I know" also serves as a reminder of how briefly he's been King. Despite having lusted after the throne, he doesn't have the years experience Hamlet Sr did with these people and situations...he's a new executive in his first few weeks on the job, and has given too much credence to the company brown-noser.

Of course, just like with Hamlet's lament about wassailing, this begs the question--how was Polonius with Hamlet Sr.? Did the old King give him this long a leash? Despite his flaws, was he the most trusted adviser to Hamlet Sr? Maybe old Hamlet knew how to get Polonius to the point more promptly, how big a grain of salt to take him with, how to handle him?

Or...was Polonius as prominent in the Hamlet administration as he is here? All of his lectures to his children on status and propriety do sound rather like someone who's just climbed to a new position and is desperately afraid of being embarrassed, like the time Marge Simpson was trying to get a membership at the Springfield Country Club. Maybe, in the wake of Hamlet Sr's death, Claudius shook things up a bit, and Polonius is as new at his position as Claudius is at his...

Siskoid said...

My own interpretation has always been that Polonius is Claudius' man and was nowhere as prominent in Hamlet Sr.' Court. But then, if he wasn't "prime minister", who was? The only answer I can think of is Claudius himself. Brother to the King and running things while he's out to the wars, eventually falls for the Queen and wants to run the show for himself. I might also like one of the Ambassadors for this, knocked down and sent off to another country, which is why I like them to be aloof with Claudius (as in the BBC version, initially).

Either way, the text doesn't say, and you do well to point it out.

If I tend to assume Polonius climbed with Claudius, it's because there are hints. He's a political animal, and would have seen the wind turn and gone along with it. Claudius seems very close to Polonius' family. Hamlet never treats Polonius as a traitor the way he does his mother. But I'll keep an eye out for other evidence.

snell said...

Of course, if Polonius did come with Claudius, we have to ask--how much did Polonius know about the murder of Hamlet Sr.?? Probably nothing--for all his "political skill" and "let's hide and listen" tactics, he's pretty naive. But even that illuminates his character, as a man who foolishly hitches his wagon to a murderer and adulterer...

John Kenneth Fisher said...

On that topic, I've oft felt that the only explanation for Claudius' unearned (at least from what we see) loyalty and faith in Polonius is that Polonius must have, in some way, been instrumental in the ascension of Claudius over Hamlet to the throne. He need not know of the murder, (or even he could have CHOSEN not to know,) but simply greased the right palms, pointed Claudius to the right people in the court to talk to, and made sure the news of the death might have been delayed as much as possible on its way to Wittenberg.

The only downside here is that this plays to Polonius as shrewder than we usually see him played (and frankly, I like the Davies-style take more than Briars-style,) but this can still be balanced. He need not be 100% now if he still has a career of knowing who's who and accumulating debts and favors to lean back on.