Sunday, October 14, 2012

III.iv. The Closet Scene

The Closet Scene is one of the play's most famous, discussed and pivotal. Hamlet confronts his mother about her betrayal of his father, kills a spying Polonius, has another encounter with the Ghost, and reveals Claudius' crime to Gertrude. It's a true turning point, as Hamlet must finally face consequences for one of his actions, Gertrude must now make a choice, and of course, the play loses its first character. In killing Polonius, Hamlet becomes Claudius, a father's killer, turning Ophelia into another version of Hamlet, one whose madness will overwhelm her. And for actors, directors and even audiences, there are some important choices to be made in this scene. What is the nature of the Ghost? Hamlet sees him, but Gertrude doesn't (unlike Horatio and the soldiers who vouched for its existence). Was it real then and is imaginary now? Can it simply choose who can see it? And if so, why not show itself to the Queen and confirm Hamlet's story? We can also ask whether Gertrude knew about her husband's murder already, or whether she cares? On whose side is she? How does her attitude towards Claudius change after this scene? as the most underwritten character in the play, this ambiguity rests on the actress' performance and the choices made in this scene. Before getting into the examined films, etc.'s specific choices, let's look at Shakespeare's text (in italics) to look for clues as to the answers.


LORD POLONIUS: He will come straight. Look you lay home to him:
Tell him his pranks have been too broad to bear with,
And that your grace hath screen'd and stood between
Much heat and him. I'll sconce me even here.
Pray you, be round with him.
HAMLET: [Within] Mother, mother, mother!
QUEEN GERTRUDE: I'll warrant you,
Fear me not: withdraw, I hear him coming.

POLONIUS hides behind the arras

HAMLET: Now, mother, what's the matter?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
HAMLET: Mother, you have my father much offended.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.
HAMLET: Go, go, you question with a wicked tongue.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Why, how now, Hamlet!
HAMLET: What's the matter now?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Have you forgot me?
HAMLET: No, by the rood, not so:
You are the queen, your husband's brother's wife;
And--would it were not so!--you are my mother.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Nay, then, I'll set those to you that can speak.
HAMLET: Come, come, and sit you down; you shall not budge;
You go not till I set you up a glass
Where you may see the inmost part of you.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: What wilt thou do? thou wilt not murder me?
Help, help, ho!

While there are no stage directions, it is obvious here that Hamlet should be violent or threatening in his actions. That violence is not in the words, except poetically, where Gertrude is afraid of being killed by her own reflection. In these lines, an actress might justify a certain measure of sublimated shame for what Gertrude has done (posthumous infidelity if not collusion in murder).

LORD POLONIUS: [Behind] What, ho! help, help, help!
HAMLET: [Drawing] How now! a rat? Dead, for a ducat, dead!

Makes a pass through the arras

LORD POLONIUS: [Behind] O, I am slain!

Falls and dies

QUEEN GERTRUDE: O me, what hast thou done?
HAMLET: Nay, I know not:
Is it the king?

Important to note here that Hamlet thought this might be the King spying on him. In other words, he WOULD have gone through with it earlier if the circumstances had been right (caught a-spying rather than a-praying), or we could say that the passionate hate he shows towards his mother is what drives him to lash out and kill, but without that catalyst of rage, he could not have done it.

QUEEN GERTRUDE: O, what a rash and bloody deed is this!
HAMLET: A bloody deed! almost as bad, good mother,
As kill a king, and marry with his brother.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: As kill a king!

Choice: Is the Queen surprised that a king was killed (and if so, which king, does she fear for the absent Claudius?), or that Hamlet knows about a murder she's already aware of? Note also Hamlet's accusation here. He says Gertrude did BOTH the marrying AND the killing. A case of "man and wife is one flesh"? Or an intrusion of madness, putting all crimes on his mother's shoulders?

HAMLET: Ay, lady, 'twas my word.

Lifts up the array and discovers POLONIUS

Thou wretched, rash, intruding fool, farewell!
I took thee for thy better: take thy fortune;
Thou find'st to be too busy is some danger.
Leave wringing of your hands: peace! sit you down,
And let me wring your heart; for so I shall,
If it be made of penetrable stuff,
If damned custom have not brass'd it so
That it is proof and bulwark against sense.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: What have I done, that thou darest wag thy tongue
In noise so rude against me?
HAMLET: Such an act
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty,
Calls virtue hypocrite, takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love
And sets a blister there, makes marriage-vows
As false as dicers' oaths: O, such a deed
As from the body of contraction plucks
The very soul, and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words: heaven's face doth glow:
Yea, this solidity and compound mass,
With tristful visage, as against the doom,
Is thought-sick at the act.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Ay me, what act,
That roars so loud, and thunders in the index?
HAMLET: Look here, upon this picture, and on this,
The counterfeit presentment of two brothers.
See, what a grace was seated on this brow;
Hyperion's curls; the front of Jove himself;
An eye like Mars, to threaten and command;
A station like the herald Mercury
New-lighted on a heaven-kissing hill;
A combination and a form indeed,
Where every god did seem to set his seal,
To give the world assurance of a man:

Hamlet's idealized description of his father uses, as Horatio would, pagan gods even though Hamlet's idiom is more often fiercely Puritanical. Is there a reason for this? Has the fact that his father has been denied Heaven forced Hamlet to look outside his faith for proper comparisons? The mention of Mars, the god of war, is unsurprising given Hamlet Sr.'s military background, but is there not also the notion that the former king can be idealized because, like these gods from myth, he was remote, unknowable, untouchable? Again and again, the play suggests Hamlet wasn't close to his father and basically admired him from afar.

This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew'd ear,

The reference to an ear is not lost on this reader.

Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it's humble,
And waits upon the judgment: and what judgment

Hamlet, like most children, would rather not think of his parents as sexual beings. His dismissal of his mother's passion and libido is his mistake, and explains in part why he can't understand or accept his mother's relationship to his uncle. The line is also at odds with a reality in which Gertrude does NOT love Claudius, and would have married him for political reasons (as was addressed back in Act I). If the marriage was under those terms, made through "judgement" rather than "blood", why can't Hamlet see it? He has little objectivity on the matter. As we'll see in various stagings, the casting of Gertrude adds another layer here. Is she in fact an older woman, a younger one, one with sex appeal or not?

Would step from this to this? Sense, sure, you have,
Else could you not have motion; but sure, that sense
Is apoplex'd; for madness would not err,
Nor sense to ecstasy was ne'er so thrall'd
But it reserved some quantity of choice,
To serve in such a difference. What devil was't
That thus hath cozen'd you at hoodman-blind?

We are back to a Christian idiom, but a hellish, not heavenly, one. The irony is that his father's Ghost is now one such devil. Whether the Ghost told the truth or not (and it seems it did) does not mean it's not trying to draw more souls into sin (already, Hell has won Polonius' soul).

Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,

More ears.

Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope.
O shame! where is thy blush? Rebellious hell,
If thou canst mutine in a matron's bones,
To flaming youth let virtue be as wax,
And melt in her own fire: proclaim no shame
When the compulsive ardour gives the charge,
Since frost itself as actively doth burn
And reason panders will.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: O Hamlet, speak no more:
Thou turn'st mine eyes into my very soul;
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.
HAMLET: Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew'd in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty,--
QUEEN GERTRUDE: O, speak to me no more;
These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears;

A murder weapon in the ear. It's like a mantra used to invoke the murder and summon up the victim.

No more, sweet Hamlet!
HAMLET: A murderer and a villain;
A slave that is not twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord; a vice of kings;
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole,
And put it in his pocket!
HAMLET: A king of shreds and patches,--

Enter Ghost

It has been common to show the Ghost dressed in "shreds and patches" when it appears (as opposed to the war armor it wears in previous scenes), so as to heighten the irony and/or complete the invocation. The present state of the former king is in fact closer to Hamlet's description of Claudius in this scene than to that of the idealized father figure. The images of putrefaction, for example, or likening him to a moor, a marsh-land that is closer to Hell than the otherwise described (Heavenly) mountain.

Save me, and hover o'er me with your wings,
You heavenly guards! What would your gracious figure?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Alas, he's mad!
HAMLET: Do you not come your tardy son to chide,
That, lapsed in time and passion, lets go by
The important acting of your dread command? O, say!
GHOST: Do not forget: this visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
But, look, amazement on thy mother sits:
O, step between her and her fighting soul:
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works:
Speak to her, Hamlet.
HAMLET: How is it with you, lady?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Alas, how is't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep;
And, as the sleeping soldiers in the alarm,
Your bedded hair, like life in excrements,
Starts up, and stands on end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience. Whereon do you look?
HAMLET: On him, on him! Look you, how pale he glares!
His form and cause conjoin'd, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable. Do not look upon me;
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects: then what I have to do
Will want true colour; tears perchance for blood.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: To whom do you speak this?
HAMLET: Do you see nothing there?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Nothing at all; yet all that is I see.
HAMLET: Nor did you nothing hear?
QUEEN GERTRUDE: No, nothing but ourselves.
HAMLET: Why, look you there! look, how it steals away!
My father, in his habit as he lived!
Look, where he goes, even now, out at the portal!

Exit Ghost

QUEEN GERTRUDE: This the very coinage of your brain:
This bodiless creation ecstasy
Is very cunning in.
HAMLET: Ecstasy!
My pulse, as yours, doth temperately keep time,

This is not a trustworthy image, since time has been co-opted and distorted in the play, A clue that Hamlet's madness is very real indeed?

And makes as healthful music: it is not madness
That I have utter'd: bring me to the test,
And I the matter will re-word; which madness
Would gambol from. Mother, for love of grace,
Lay not that mattering unction to your soul,
That not your trespass, but my madness speaks:
It will but skin and film the ulcerous place,
Whilst rank corruption, mining all within,
Infects unseen. Confess yourself to heaven;
Repent what's past; avoid what is to come;
And do not spread the compost on the weeds,
To make them ranker. Forgive me this my virtue;
For in the fatness of these pursy times
Virtue itself of vice must pardon beg,
Yea, curb and woo for leave to do him good.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.

A clue that Gertrude is in love with Claudius? While the image is that of a broken heart, it's one that is broken in two pieces, one for her son and one for her husband. Is one piece bigger than the other? Hamlet urges her to get rid of the one that holds Claudius:

HAMLET: O, throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half.
Good night: but go not to mine uncle's bed;
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.
That monster, custom, who all sense doth eat,
Of habits devil, is angel yet in this,
That to the use of actions fair and good
He likewise gives a frock or livery,
That aptly is put on. Refrain to-night,
And that shall lend a kind of easiness
To the next abstinence: the next more easy;
For use almost can change the stamp of nature,
And either reign the devil, or throw him out

Hamlet's recipe for using habit to get rid of a certain behavior is enlightening. The suggestion is that if you assume a virtue (or, by extension, a fault), custom and repetition will make it become "true". This may be a way to understand Hamlet's madness. He starts out playing mad, which makes him mad. Only after taking a break from that madness (during his upcoming exile) does he become more reasonable and ready to commit to action.

With wondrous potency. Once more, good night:
And when you are desirous to be bless'd,
I'll blessing beg of you. For this same lord,

Pointing to POLONIUS

I do repent: but heaven hath pleased it so,
To punish me with this and this with me,
That I must be their scourge and minister.

A villainous justification for wrong-doing, and possibly how Claudius justified his own actions. In a staging where Claudius is more sympathetic, we might imagine him wrestling the crown from a corrupt Hamlet Sr. (whose going to Hell is not an injustice) constantly plunging Denmark in war, and/or kills for love of Hamlet Sr.'s neglected Queen. That Claudius might have explained his actions as a question of destiny, as Hamlet does here.

I will bestow him, and will answer well
The death I gave him. So, again, good night.
I must be cruel, only to be kind:
Thus bad begins and worse remains behind.
One word more, good lady.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: What shall I do?
HAMLET: Not this, by no means, that I bid you do:
Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed;
Pinch wanton on your cheek; call you his mouse;
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damn'd fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out,
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft. 'Twere good you let him know;
For who, that's but a queen, fair, sober, wise,
Would from a paddock, from a bat, a gib,
Such dear concernings hide? who would do so?
No, in despite of sense and secrecy,
Unpeg the basket on the house's top.
Let the birds fly, and, like the famous ape,
To try conclusions, in the basket creep,
And break your own neck down.
QUEEN GERTRUDE: Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,
And breath of life, I have no life to breathe
What thou hast said to me.

Foreshadows her own death.

HAMLET: I must to England; you know that?
I had forgot: 'tis so concluded on.
HAMLET: There's letters seal'd: and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang'd,
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way,
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For 'tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petard: and 't shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines,
And blow them at the moon: O, 'tis most sweet,

His father's son, as Hamlet gets closer to his goal (i.e. the Ghost's), he starts to use military metaphors. We'll see if it holds or if it's a temporary affect caused by the Ghost's visitation, but Hamlet is soon to meet an entire army on his way to exile.

When in one line two crafts directly meet.
This man shall set me packing:
I'll lug the guts into the neighbour room.
Mother, good night. Indeed this counsellor
Is now most still, most secret and most grave,

Note the pun.

Who was in life a foolish prating knave.
Come, sir, to draw toward an end with you.
Good night, mother.

Exeunt severally; HAMLET dragging in POLONIUS

In the coming weeks, we'll see how various films, comics, songs, etc. have dealt with this complex and difficult scene.


snell said...

If the production uses mirrors in the Nunnery Scene, then Hamlet's "setting up a glass" to Gertrude extends the metaphor quite nicely...

Stan Szczesny said...

Shakespeare's characters pun under some of the gravest circumstances. I enjoy your blog.

Siskoid said...

Snell: True! Branagh's is up next, and it does that.

Stan. Thank you kindly, sir.