Friday, May 18, 2012

III.ii. Critical Reception

The scene's final sequence concerns reactions less to the play than about everyone's reactions about the play. Hamlet wants to know if Horatio saw Claudius' reaction. Guildenstern & Rosencrantz react to Hamlet's wildness and bring a message that the Queen wants to speak with her son. Polonius arrives to do much the same, ever the tedious, redundant cog in the works. Shakespeare never fails to entertain when his genius confronts his fools, but after the laughs, he puts a button on the scene, a short soliloquy that allows Hamlet to react to himself, what he has seen, and what he now means to do. As usual, we'll be looking at the text first, Shakespeare is in italics.

HAMLET: "Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungalled play;
For some must watch, while some must sleep:
So runs the world away."
Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers-- if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me--with two Provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry of players, sir?
HORATIO: Half a share.
HAMLET: A whole one, I.
"For thou dost know, O Damon dear,
This realm dismantled was
Of Jove himself; and now reigns here
A very, very--pajock."
HORATIO: You might have rhymed.

The closeness between the two characters is well represented here, with Horatio teasing his friend in spite of the class difference. For directors who want to make Claudius' guilt ambiguous could use it to their advantage - Horatio is very critical of Hamlet's prowess as a player (he undervalues the first ballad and critiques the second), and may be critical of Hamlet's conclusions regarding his uncle. Even if the director doesn't go that route, the lines still have an ironic bent. Hamlet is here representing himself as a Player, but he broke character during the play with some outrageous behavior that undermines his entire experiment. Damon, by the way, is a character from Greek myth reputed to be a trusted friend. The realm dismantled of Jove is Denmark, as Hamlet Sr. is compared to Jove in the play. And a "pajock" is a peacock, which I've often heard directly substituted into the text for modern clarity.

HAMLET: O good Horatio, I'll take the ghost's word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?
HORATIO: Very well, my lord.
HAMLET: Upon the talk of the poisoning?
HORATIO: I did very well note him.

The text seems clear that Horatio saw the same thing as Hamlet and agrees with him about Claudius' guilt. And indeed it will soon become clear to the audience as well when we hear the King's confession. Depending on the staging, it may still be prudent to have Horatio unsure at this point, which does make him a less sincere character, albeit a more skeptical one.

HAMLET: Ah, ha! Come, some music! come, the recorders!
For if the king like not the comedy,
Why then, belike, he likes it not, perdy.
Come, some music!


GUILDENSTERN: Good my lord, vouchsafe me a word with you.
HAMLET: Sir, a whole history.
GUILDENSTERN: The king, sir,--
HAMLET: Ay, sir, what of him?
GUILDENSTERN: Is in his retirement marvellous distempered.
HAMLET: With drink, sir?

Hamlet is mocking R&G and the King, but since we know drink to be one of Claudius' weaknesses, the line may be taken as a stage direction to have the King drink during the play, perhaps as an explanation for his extreme reaction.

GUILDENSTERN: No, my lord, rather with choler.
HAMLET: Your wisdom should show itself more richer to signify this to his doctor; for, for me to put him to his purgation would perhaps plunge him into far more choler.
GUILDENSTERN: Good my lord, put your discourse into some frame and start not so wildly from my affair.
HAMLET: I am tame, sir: pronounce.
GUILDENSTERN: The queen, your mother, in most great affliction of spirit, hath sent me to you.
HAMLET: You are welcome.
GUILDENSTERN: Nay, good my lord, this courtesy is not of the right breed. If it shall please you to make me a wholesome answer, I will do your mother's commandment: if not, your pardon and my return shall be the end of my business.

A word like "breed" always alerts Hamlet's reader, since breeding, succession and yes, sex, are important themes. Hamlet is answering them with the wrong breed of courtesy, answering their own insincere breed of friendship, coming as they do from the wrong breed of King.

HAMLET: Sir, I cannot.
GUILDENSTERN: What, my lord?
HAMLET: Make you a wholesome answer; my wit's diseased: but, sir, such answer as I can make, you shall command; or, rather, as you say, my mother: therefore no more, but to the matter: my mother, you say,--

Hamlet's hatred for the various members of the Court guilty of his father's murder/disrespect is spreading, and lines like this one, where Gertrude and R&G are osmotically linked and interchangeable are a poetic reflection of that. When Polonius comes in later with the same news and request, he becomes interchangeable with R&G and thus the Queen. Later, Hamlet will play word games to make father and mother equivalent, including Claudius in this guilty ensemble. And despite the Ghost's return to try and reign Hamlet in, the psychic damage is done, and the play will have each of those characters die, sharing punishment along with guilt.

ROSENCRANTZ: Then thus she says; your behavior hath struck her into amazement and admiration.
HAMLET: O wonderful son, that can so astonish a mother! But is there no sequel at the heels of this mother's admiration? Impart.
ROSENCRANTZ: She desires to speak with you in her closet, ere you go to bed.
HAMLET: We shall obey, were she ten times our mother. Have you any further trade with us?
ROSENCRANTZ: My lord, you once did love me.
HAMLET: So I do still, by these pickers and stealers.
ROSENCRANTZ: Good my lord, what is your cause of distemper? you do, surely, bar the door upon your own liberty, if you deny your griefs to your friend.
HAMLET: Sir, I lack advancement.
ROSENCRANTZ: How can that be, when you have the voice of the king himself for your succession in Denmark?
HAMLET: Ay, but sir, 'While the grass grows,'--the proverb is something musty.

For a more careerist vision of Hamlet who is driven not just filial duty, but by ambition, this line becomes important. Claudius may have said in open Court that Hamlet will succeed him, he nevertheless cut in line, as it were, by marrying Gertrude. What else is he capable of? Hamlet's exile to England has already been planned after all. As time goes by, Claudius may change the arrangement, have Hamlet killed, or even have another son. Claudius must die in order for Hamlet to become King. An entirely political reading of Hamlet would see it this way.

Re-enter Players with recorders

O, the recorders! let me see one. To withdraw with you:--why do you go about to recover the wind of me, as if you would drive me into a toil?
GUILDENSTERN: O, my lord, if my duty be too bold, my love is too unmannerly.
HAMLET: I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe?
GUILDENSTERN: My lord, I cannot.
HAMLET: I pray you.
GUILDENSTERN: Believe me, I cannot.
HAMLET: I do beseech you.
GUILDENSTERN: I know no touch of it, my lord.
HAMLET: 'Tis as easy as lying: govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth, and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.
GUILDENSTERN: But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony; I have not the skill.
HAMLET: Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me; you would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery; you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass: and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ; yet cannot you make it speak. 'Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me.

One of my favorite exchanges in the play, just for the wit of it, even if Hamlet does use a mixed metaphor (pipes and strings). But then, the pluck and fret puns are too good to pass up or criticize.


God bless you, sir!
LORD POLONIUS: My lord, the queen would speak with you, and presently.
HAMLET: Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
LORD POLONIUS: By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
HAMLET: Methinks it is like a weasel.
LORD POLONIUS: It is backed like a weasel.
HAMLET: Or like a whale?
LORD POLONIUS: Very like a whale.
HAMLET: Then I will come to my mother by and by. They fool me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.
LORD POLONIUS: I will say so.
HAMLET: By and by is easily said.

The whole exchange about the clouds have posed problems for modern stagings of the play. In Shakespeare's day, the play would have been performed under an open roof, and I imagine crowds looking up and trying to spot that cloud, or actors changing the animals perceived based on the clouds that day. But for Hamlet, who is in Elsinore... are they outside? Do they have access to a skylight or window? Or is it all just a feigned hallucination Polonius buys into as an obsessive yes-man? Each director must answer that question for him or herself.


Leave me, friends.

Exeunt all but HAMLET

Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood,

Hamlet foreshadows here the return of the Ghost.

And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on. Soft! now to my mother.
O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom:
Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites;
How in my words soever she be shent,
To give them seals never, my soul, consent!


Hamlet promises to hurt his mother with words, probably by revealing the truth of his father's death and accusing her of "damned incest". What he WANTS to do is hurt her physically, so the closet scene will have that tug of war between his violent impulse and a more reasoned approach. Eruptions expected.

1 comment:

Prof. Chronotis said...

Excellent comments as usual! And I am not the tiniest bit surprised that you and I are both great fans of "Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, yet you cannot play upon me." It's one of my favorite lines in all of Shakespeare, for all the reasons you cited.