Saturday, July 23, 2011

III.i. Briefings

We start the third Act with a scene that's again too long to do in one go. I've split it into three sequences: Briefings, in which Rosencrantz & Guildenstern brief Claudius and Gertrude on what they've "learned" from Hamlet, after which Ophelia is instructed to bump into the prince; the "To be or not to be" speech; and the Nunnery scene in which Hamlet meets Ophelia not at all by accident, while being observed by Claudius and Polonius. Let's take a look at that first sequence, with Shakespeare's words in italics, as usual.

SCENE I. A room in the castle.
KING CLAUDIUS: And can you, by no drift of circumstance,

Intriguingly, the scene starts in medias res. That "And" certainly infers that the briefing has been going on for a bit, and that R&G have yet to submit new information. This is interesting because for the rest of the sequence, R&G play for time, attempt to ingratiate themselves, and are generally desperate to please. Might we understand the King to be impatient with them already? If there's a part of the briefing we were not privy to, it strengthens both sides' motivations, and if Claudius is not yet impatient with them in the text, he soon will be at the next meeting.

Get from him why he puts on this confusion,
Grating so harshly all his days of quiet
With turbulent and dangerous lunacy?
ROSENCRANTZ: He does confess he feels himself distracted;
But from what cause he will by no means speak.
GUILDENSTERN: Nor do we find him forward to be sounded,
But, with a crafty madness, keeps aloof,
When we would bring him on to some confession
Of his true state.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Did he receive you well?
ROSENCRANTZ: Most like a gentleman.
GUILDENSTERN: But with much forcing of his disposition.
ROSENCRANTZ: Niggard of question; but, of our demands,
Most free in his reply.

An example of R&G's double-speak. Each twin has his own strategy to please the Court. Rosencrantz doesn't want to rock the boat, and perhaps especially in Gertrude's presence, covers any intimation of Hamlet's wrong-doing with praise. Guildenstern, for his part, is more straightforward and honest, trying to do a good job for the King rather than play the sycophant.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: Did you assay him?
To any pastime?
ROSENCRANTZ: Madam, it so fell out, that certain players
We o'er-raught on the way: of these we told him;
And there did seem in him a kind of joy
To hear of it: they are about the court,
And, as I think, they have already order
This night to play before him.

Though film versions will often play with the time line of the play, Shakespeare clearly tells us here that Act III takes place the day after Act II. The Mouse-Trap is set to be played this night.

LORD POLONIUS: 'Tis most true:
And he beseech'd me to entreat your majesties
To hear and see the matter.
KING CLAUDIUS: With all my heart; and it doth much content me
To hear him so inclined.
Good gentlemen, give him a further edge,
And drive his purpose on to these delights.
ROSENCRANTZ: We shall, my lord.


KING CLAUDIUS: Sweet Gertrude, leave us too;
For we have closely sent for Hamlet hither,

This is a line that we hardly ever think about, but it could prove important. Hamlet has been sent for so that Ophelia can accidentally intercept him. This may have a role to play in any given actor's decision to play "To be or not to be" as a performance from Hamlet. Does he know he's being watched? The fact he's heading to a destination he's been called to could me he strongly suspects.

That he, as 'twere by accident, may here
Affront Ophelia:

"Affront" is an interesting word. It means "meet face to face", but it does playfully prefigure the "affront" of Hamlet's attack upon Ophelia.

Her father and myself, lawful espials,

Claudius, ever the politician, paints himself as a "lawful" spy. Whatever the King does is law, after all. This may also connect to his justification for killing Hamlet Sr. Did he think it the right thing to do at the time? Since we don't know much about Hamlet's father, except the praise filtered through the prince's own recollections and the rather nasty Ghost he has become, perhaps Claudius WAS justified. Or perhaps he just has the kind of mind that allows him to justify any action.

Will so bestow ourselves that, seeing, unseen,
We may of their encounter frankly judge,
And gather by him, as he is behaved,
If 't be the affliction of his love or no
That thus he suffers for.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: I shall obey you.
And for your part, Ophelia, I do wish
That your good beauties be the happy cause
Of Hamlet's wildness: so shall I hope your virtues
Will bring him to his wonted way again,
To both your honours.
OPHELIA: Madam, I wish it may.


LORD POLONIUS: Ophelia, walk you here. Gracious, so please you,
We will bestow ourselves.
[To OPHELIA] Read on this book;
That show of such an exercise may colour
Your loneliness. We are oft to blame in this,--
'Tis too much proved--that with devotion's visage
And pious action we do sugar o'er
The devil himself.
KING CLAUDIUS: [Aside] O, 'tis too true!
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience!
The harlot's cheek, beautied with plastering art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word:
O heavy burthen!
LORD POLONIUS: I hear him coming: let's withdraw, my lord.


Polonius' regret at having told Ophelia to spurn Hamlet brings out Claudius' own guilt. In effect, the audience confirms before Hamlet does that Claudius is a villain. Calling his words "painted" covers everything that went before with a veil of irony. Words like "lawful", "frankly" and his contentment over Hamlet's interest in theater may all be false. The aside retains a certain measure of ambiguity however. Claudius does not confess to murder here, we only believe he does because that's what Hamlet accuses him of and that's where our loyalty lies. Polonius accuses himself of meddling under the guise of piety and devotion, and so that's the only thing Claudius really admits to. As a politician, he too has sugared over his political manipulations with high-sounding words - his speech at the wedding banquet, for example, or even his false concern over Hamlet being actually motivated by a desire to keep his Queen happy.

Note also that Ophelia does not exit, and in a stage production, one should expect her to be lurking on stage during "To be or not to be" (unnoticed?). In films, greater distance can be placed between characters not locked to a relatively small space, but as we'll see, some chose to keep the stage directions as intended.

These are some of the issues facing actors and directors as we head into their interpretations of the sequence.


Prof. Chronotis said...

When my students study HAMLET, we often discuss whether or not Ophelia overhears the "suicide speech." The consensus, over the last few years, has been that the text seems to indicate that she is onstage throughout -- or at the very least that when she appear it is clear she has heard all that Hamlet has just said. What do you think?

Siskoid said...

I think the text supports this, but I'm waiting for the next two sequences to actively discuss it. And one particular staging will prove revelatory in that regard.

snell said...

III.i. is one of the prime lessons in how much the choices of directors and actors can affect the interpretation of a play, even if 100% faithful to the text. Who overhears what, exactly when (if?) Hamlet realizes he's being watched, how much Ophelia "gives up the game" from her manner with Hamlet, do the spies make a noise that tips off Hamlet...So many decisions, each of which can send your interpretation of Hamlet's character in new directions--and all entirely up to the artists (at least the ones wise enough to realize the choices they have here).