Tuesday, April 26, 2011

II.ii. The Players

Though Polonius announcing the Players, their arrival and Hamlet's request to the First Player are usually retained, it is rarer for the First Player to get to do his long speech. This is understandable, since the play is already very long, and the sequence is very much a digression. That said, it exists for a reason, not only as a trigger for Hamlet's next soliloquy, but as a mirror or lesson related to Hamlet's situation. By discussing the text here, and in the next posts, looking at what was kept of it, it is my hope that light will be shed on certain aspects of the play. As usual, Shakespeare's words are in italics.


LORD POLONIUS: Well be with you, gentlemen!
HAMLET: Hark you, Guildenstern; and you too: at each ear a hearer: that great baby you see there is not yet out of his swaddling-clouts.
ROSENCRANTZ: Happily he's the second time come to them; for they say an old man is twice a child.

This banter harks back to and inverts Hamlet's slanders and the idea that the old man would grow younger if, like a crab, he could go backwards. Whether old or young, Polonius is ineffectual. Also in play is the concept of the life cycle from youth to old age and back to youth again, any interruption of which is shown to be unnatural. Consider the murder of Hamlet's father (or indeed, of many of the characters) and Ophelia's madness (in which she returns to childhood before even becoming an adult). Life cycles are often discussed in play, whether it's the king making its way through the guts of a beggar via a worm, or great Alexander returning to the earth. Denmark too is undergoing a cycle from King to King to Fortinbras, albeit a diverted (unnatural) one that replaced Hamlet Jr. with Claudius.

HAMLET: I will prophesy he comes to tell me of the players; mark it. You say right, sir: o' Monday morning; 'twas so indeed.
LORD POLONIUS: My lord, I have news to tell you.
HAMLET: My lord, I have news to tell you.
When Roscius was an actor in Rome,--
LORD POLONIUS: The actors are come hither, my lord.
HAMLET: Buz, buz!
LORD POLONIUS: Upon mine honour,--
HAMLET: Then came each actor on his ass,--
LORD POLONIUS: The best actors in the world, either for tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene individable, or poem unlimited: Seneca cannot be too heavy, nor Plautus too light. For the law of writ and the liberty, these are the only men.

A choice should be made by the director and actor here as to whether Polonius is reading from the Players' promotional materials or if it's his own opinion. Either way, he shows his tediousness by listing all those genres and genre combos.

HAMLET: O Jephthah, judge of Israel, what a treasure hadst thou!
LORD POLONIUS: What a treasure had he, my lord?
'One fair daughter and no more,
The which he loved passing well.'
LORD POLONIUS: [Aside] Still on my daughter.
HAMLET: Am I not i' the right, old Jephthah?
LORD POLONIUS: If you call me Jephthah, my lord, I have a daughter that I love passing well.
HAMLET: Nay, that follows not.
LORD POLONIUS: What follows, then, my lord?
HAMLET: Why, 'As by lot, God wot,' and then, you know, 'It came to pass, as most like it was,'-- the first row of the pious chanson will show you more; for look, where my abridgement comes.

Jephthah is a Biblical character (in the book of Judges) who rashly vowed to sacrifice the first person to come to his door if God allows him to advance his lot in life (becoming chieftain) if he defeats the Ammonites. He does so, but it's his daughter who comes to the door. Unlike Abraham, his hand is not stayed and his daughter is burnt as an offering. Polonius doesn't get the reference, but Hamlet surely does. There is an indication here that Polonius is using Ophelia as a pawn in order to advance (or retain) his position in the eyes of the King. He either knows he's been set up to meet Ophelia later, or refers to Polonius forbidding Ophelia to see the prince (what would the King and Queen THINK?). In any case, Shakespeare makes this little speech a prophetic one, as Ophelia is indeed sacrificed in the course of the play.

Enter four or five Players

You are welcome, masters; welcome, all. I am glad to see thee well. Welcome, good friends. O, my old friend! thy face is valenced since I saw thee last: comest thou to beard me in Denmark? What, my young lady and mistress! By'r lady, your ladyship is nearer to heaven than when I saw you last, by the altitude of a chopine. Pray God, your voice, like a piece of uncurrent gold, be not cracked within the ring. Masters, you are all welcome. We'll e'en to't like French falconers, fly at any thing we see: we'll have a speech straight: come, give us a taste of your quality; come, a passionate speech.

References to the lady's voice cracking point to the Elizabethan rule that no women could be on the stage. Women were thus often played by teenage boys before puberty made their voices change. Hamlet asking for a speech right away is somewhat ironic given his own delayed actions.

FIRST PLAYER: What speech, my lord?
I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted; or, if it was, not above once;

It's almost like Shakespeare is talking to modern directors, knowing this part of the play will, more often than not, be cut for time.

for the play, I remember, pleased not the million; 'twas caviare to the general: but it was--as I received it, and others, whose judgments in such matters cried in the top of mine--an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning. I remember, one said there were no sallets in the lines to make the matter savoury, nor no matter in the phrase that might indict the author of affectation; but called it an honest method, as wholesome as sweet, and by very much more handsome than fine. One speech in it I chiefly loved: 'twas Aeneas' tale to Dido; and thereabout of it especially, where he speaks of Priam's slaughter: if it live in your memory, begin at this line: let me see, let me see--
'The rugged Pyrrhus, like the Hyrcanian beast,'--
it is not so:--it begins with Pyrrhus:--
'The rugged Pyrrhus, he whose sable arms,
Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
When he lay couched in the ominous horse,
Hath now this dread and black complexion smear'd
With heraldry more dismal; head to foot
Now is he total gules; horridly trick'd
With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
Baked and impasted with the parching streets,
That lend a tyrannous and damned light
To their lord's murder: roasted in wrath and fire,
And thus o'er-sized with coagulate gore,
With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
Old grandsire Priam seeks.'
So, proceed you.

It seems Hamlet's "thoughts be bloody" long before he utters that particular phrase. In this tale from Virgil's Aeneid, he finds allusion to his own situation, i.e. the murder of his lord, though the citizenry is far more outraged at the turn of events than Denmark's. As we'll see, this is not the last idealization of the situation contained in the speech.

LORD POLONIUS: 'Fore God, my lord, well spoken, with good accent and good discretion.
FIRST PLAYER: 'Anon he finds him
Striking too short at Greeks; his antique sword,
Rebellious to his arm, lies where it falls,
Repugnant to command: unequal match'd,
Pyrrhus at Priam drives; in rage strikes wide;
But with the whiff and wind of his fell sword
The unnerved father falls. Then senseless Ilium,
Seeming to feel this blow, with flaming top
Stoops to his base, and with a hideous crash
Takes prisoner Pyrrhus' ear: for, lo! his sword,
Which was declining on the milky head
Of reverend Priam, seem'd i' the air to stick:
So, as a painted tyrant, Pyrrhus stood,
And like a neutral to his will and matter,
Did nothing.

The question here is whether Hamlet is "with" Priam the victim-king, or with Pyrrhus the avenger. Like Pyrrhus, Hamlet is stuck in a moment in time, unable to act, though for him, being "painted" takes almost the whole of the play. If Pyrrhus is Claudius however, it becomes completely appropriate to give the usurper ("painted tyrant" has a double-meaning of falsehood) a moment of doubt when reenacting the murder (if such a thing is shown in flashback). Despite this hesitation, Pyrrhus then savagely strikes down Priam, again a mix of Hamlet's own idealized revenge and Claudius' unnaturally violent fratricide. Therein may lie Hamlet's dilemma: Can he do what he accuses Claudius of having done (a violent regicide).

But, as we often see, against some storm,
A silence in the heavens, the rack stand still,
The bold winds speechless and the orb below
As hush as death, anon the dreadful thunder
Doth rend the region, so, after Pyrrhus' pause,
Aroused vengeance sets him new a-work;
And never did the Cyclops' hammers fall
On Mars's armour forged for proof eterne
With less remorse than Pyrrhus' bleeding sword
Now falls on Priam.
Out, out, thou strumpet, Fortune! All you gods,

This is the second mention of Fortune specifically as a strumpet, which should be a clue to the audience that Hamlet's situation is linked to this speech. Though the content is largely about murder (note Priam's defenselessness), there is the idea of a tragic destiny as well ringing through both plays (Hamlet itself and this "rarely performed" Aeneic play).

In general synod 'take away her power;
Break all the spokes and fellies from her wheel,
And bowl the round nave down the hill of heaven,
As low as to the fiends!'
LORD POLONIUS: This is too long.
HAMLET: It shall to the barber's, with your beard. Prithee, say on: he's for a jig or a tale of bawdry, or he sleeps: say on: come to Hecuba.

Shakespeare seems to know his problem play's problems and seeks to detract critics by acknowledging them in the text. Polonius says here what many in the audience must have thought. What is this digression and why is it taking so long. This pause gives comic relief to the sequence, and manages to poke fun at the author while at the same time brooking no criticism. Hamlet's reply puts Polonius, and those audience members, in their place.

FIRST PLAYER: 'But who, O, who had seen the mobled queen--'
HAMLET: 'The mobled queen?'
LORD POLONIUS: That's good; 'mobled queen' is good.
FIRST PLAYER: 'Run barefoot up and down, threatening the flames
With bisson rheum; a clout upon that head
Where late the diadem stood, and for a robe,
About her lank and all o'er-teemed loins,
A blanket, in the alarm of fear caught up;
Who this had seen, with tongue in venom steep'd,
'Gainst Fortune's state would treason have pronounced:
But if the gods themselves did see her then
When she saw Pyrrhus make malicious sport
In mincing with his sword her husband's limbs,
The instant burst of clamour that she made,
Unless things mortal move them not at all,
Would have made milch the burning eyes of heaven,
And passion in the gods.'

Hamlet's link to Hecuba is, as with the rest, two-fold. On the one hand, he sees himself in her, the grieving family member whose passion would defy the fates. On the other, she is an idealized version of his own mother, what his mother SHOULD have been like upon his father's death.

LORD POLONIUS: Look, whether he has not turned his colour and has tears in's eyes. Pray you, no more.
HAMLET: 'Tis well: I'll have thee speak out the rest soon. Good my lord, will you see the players well bestowed? Do you hear, let them be well used; for they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time: after your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live.
LORD POLONIUS: My lord, I will use them according to their desert.
HAMLET: God's bodykins, man, much better: use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping? Use them after your own honour and dignity: the less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty. Take them in.

Hamlet's heartfelt rebuke is in stark opposition to his mission, and may hold a clue as to the reason for his delayed revenge. Though Claudius, Gertrude and other conspirators deserve very little, he has vowed to, so to speak, whip them. This line may belie his true nature, which is rather more gentle than it needs to be to carry out the Ghost's vengeance. Hamlet is damned either way.

LORD POLONIUS: Come, sirs.
HAMLET: Follow him, friends: we'll hear a play to-morrow.

Exit POLONIUS with all the Players but the First

Dost thou hear me, old friend; can you play the Murder of Gonzago?
FIRST PLAYER: Ay, my lord.
HAMLET: We'll ha't to-morrow night. You could, for a need, study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines, which I would set down and insert in't, could you not?
FIRST PLAYER: Ay, my lord.
HAMLET: Very well. Follow that lord; and look you mock him not.

Exit First Player

My good friends, I'll leave you till night: you are welcome to Elsinore.

ROSENCRANTZ: Good my lord!
HAMLET: Ay, so, God be wi' ye;


While this sequence is often cut short, some elements need to remain in order to trigger the "What a rogue and peasant slave" speech that follows it. In the next series of articles, we'll see how various directors handled this difficult passage that threatens to make the audience impatient.

No comments: