Monday, June 27, 2011

II.ii. O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I

The second of Hamlet's five great soliloquies, it may suffer severe cuts in adaptations where the First Player isn't allowed to perform. And yet, even the plottiest of directors will feel the need to include this sequence for "the play's the thing", leading into the crucial play within a play. What is lost, of course, is the entire idea of Hamlet comparing his true emotions to the Player's manufactured ones, a theme that goes back to Hamlet's very first scene's "trappings of woe". Shakespeare keeps asking if the representation of emotion is less than/the same as/more than actual emotion. In a later scene, Hamlet will ask the players to underplay. This seems to be all part of Shakespeare's "acting method" - to feel rather than represent, to recreate emotion within the actor rather than simulate its outward signs for an audience. But let's look at the text (in italics) for more.

HAMLET: Now I am alone.
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,

A mirror to Act I Scene 2 and Hamlet's contention that the signs of grief are not themselves representative of his actual grief. In the Player, he sees something admirable - the ability to express emotion worthy of its subject (even if an imaginary one). One of the driving forces behind the play is that Hamlet cannot find a way to truly express his love for his father, neither in shows of grief, nor in avenging his murder. As in I.ii, he shows contempt for his own "emotionality".

That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,

These lines herald the play within the play, delineating the very effects the "Mouse-Trap" has on its diverse audience. Had Hamlet not already asked to insert lines in "The Murder of Gonzago", this might be the origin point of the idea. Hamlet, hearing himself speak these lines, would have come up with the plan a few lines later. Perhaps it could be played so that Hamlet's interest in the Italian play is just part of his morbid fascination with his father's murder, and the lines inserted are literary manipulation (Hamlet writes poetry, this we know) not intended to have a "trap" effect. Only after overhearing himself say these lines would that realization dawn on him.

A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn'd defeat was made. Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i' the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!

This is the first real indication that Hamlet knows he's delaying his revenge (and that so does the play, if audience members are getting restless). Hamlet's power is that he knows himself, can criticize himself and can attempt to change based on that criticism. How does he respond to his own accusations?

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion!

Words are the playwright's trade, so there is an almost meta-textual beat here as Hamlet attacks his condition as a character in a play (who lives by words rather than actions). Indeed, the plan he next hatches is all about using the play's tools to push his agenda forward. Words will be his weapon since that is all his author allows him.

Fie upon't! foh! About, my brain! I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds
More relative than this: the play 's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.


The irony of this speech, of course, is that Hamlet resents and aspires to the First Player's emotionalism, yet his next move is not to give in to emotion, but to intellectualism. The ploy is a reasoned one and seeks to gather more evidence, analyze facts, take nothing for granted. From the first part of the speech, one would imagine Hamlet racing out of the hall to skewer Claudius right away. Instead, Hamlet goes from high emotion to detection mode. In the following posts, we will see how actors manage this about-face transition.


Prof. Chronotis said...

My favorite of the soliloquies! So naturally I was eager to see what you'd have to say about it, and as usual your commentary is insightful and thought-provoking. I'm not sure I'd fully appreciated the symmetry between this business of Hamlet feeling his affect doesn't suit his emotions and the earlier "trappings and the suits of woe." It's a very keen observation.

Siskoid said...

Same here. Many a relevant point comes to me in the writing of these articles.

snell said...

And of course, Hamlet's course makes a wonderful contrast with Laertes', who is unconcerned about evidence or facts or truth or context--kill him now!!

In fact, the "devil" who "abuses [Laertes] to damn him" is Claudius, which proves Hamlet both right and wrong: he's right to be cautious, in case he's being manipulated. But Claudius is "the devil," and by not acting more swiftly, Hamlet allows an awful lot of other people to die because of Claudius' manipulations while he gets his ducks in a row.

Finally, Hamlet's soliloquy here is another example of his "more Christian than the rest of Denmark" identity. He's worried about damning his own soul, something Laertes isn't worried about--he "dares damnation."