Saturday, July 28, 2012

III.iii. The Confessional

At the top of Scene 3, Claudius' sycophants report in, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern desperate to ingratiate themselves despite their failures (this is often cut from productions as there is something necessarily tedious about it), and Polonius to inform him of his plan to hide in the Queen's closet. We then get to the heart of the matter as Claudius confesses his crime in a prayer/soliloquy. This is where Shakespeare lets go of any ambiguity concerning the crime, but to better forge a cruel irony. Hamlet walks in, sees an opportunity to kill Claudius, but stays his hand because the King is at prayer and his soul thus likely to rise to heaven, whereas his father's is trapped in hell. Or it is just another excuse not to commit to his action, regardless of his previous soliloquy. Hamlet is yet a man of words, not of action. Before we look at the play's various featured productions, and how they staged this very theatrical double-aside, let's look at Shakespeare's text (in italics) and shine some light on some of the lines.

SCENE III. A room in the castle.

KING CLAUDIUS: I like him not, nor stands it safe with us
To let his madness range. Therefore prepare you;
I your commission will forthwith dispatch,
And he to England shall along with you:
The terms of our estate may not endure
Hazard so dangerous as doth hourly grow
Out of his lunacies.

The hazard, at this point, is that Hamlet gives Claudius away and reveals his guilt more plainly to Court and Country. After the next scene, he'll be better able to justify the exile as a different "hazard" is realized violently on Polonius.

GUILDENSTERN: We will ourselves provide:
Most holy and religious fear it is
To keep those many many bodies safe
That live and feed upon your majesty.

As if knowing the punishment (exile) doesn't fit the crime (putting on an outrageous play), R&G immediately jump to Claudius' defense, justifying his order for him and making sure he knows they are absolutely on his side. Without meaning to, Guildenstern creates a Hamletian image of a rotting King on which maggot-subjects feed. Words and kingly diets will turn up again soon.

ROSENCRANTZ: The single and peculiar life is bound,
With all the strength and armour of the mind,
To keep itself from noyance; but much more
That spirit upon whose weal depend and rest
The lives of many. The cease of majesty
Dies not alone; but, like a gulf, doth draw
What's near it with it: it is a massy wheel,

In Rosencrantz' wheel metaphor, one might see the Wheel of Fortune, Hamlet's strumpet, and an again-accidental warning that what goes around, comes around, proclaiming another king's death in the future. He should do well to heed his own prophecy, because he's one of the lesser things annexed to that royal wheel, and will share its fate. The King will sigh (his last), and he will groan.

Fix'd on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortised and adjoin'd; which, when it falls,
Each small annexment, petty consequence,
Attends the boisterous ruin. Never alone
Did the king sigh, but with a general groan.
KING CLAUDIUS: Arm you, I pray you, to this speedy voyage;

Small ironies: Claudius "prays" them, and in a few more lines will pray God. From the lowest to the highest, but with no change in intensity or value.

For we will fetters put upon this fear,
Which now goes too free-footed.


LORD POLONIUS: My lord, he's going to his mother's closet:
Behind the arras I'll convey myself,
To hear the process; and warrant she'll tax him home:
And, as you said, and wisely was it said,
'Tis meet that some more audience than a mother,
Since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear

The idea here is that Claudius does not trust Gertrude, and believes she will always be biased in Hamlet's favor. This is a variation on the first arras scene, in which Gertrude was sent away.

The speech, of vantage. Fare you well, my liege:
I'll call upon you ere you go to bed,
And tell you what I know.
KING CLAUDIUS: Thanks, dear my lord.


Here begins Claudius' confession, and one might compare it to "To be or not to be", in that it is a strong example of something losing "the name of action". If Hamlet refuses to commit murder (or self-murder, if you believe he's really talking about suicide), Claudius refuses to repent. Both men have this moment of weakness where they cannot do what they should. In both cases, we can invoke pride. These men follow "To thine own self be true" to the letter and are doomed by it. Though they can reflect on the possibility of change, change is actually beyond them (at least, at this point in the play). We will discover over the next few weeks if directors have acknowledge this parallel between the two characters and the two scenes.

O, my offence is rank it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound,
I stand in pause where I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this cursed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood,
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow? Whereto serves mercy

The same idea is explored more fully in MacBeth, in which a similar image of unwashable blood represents guilt tempered by ambition. There as here, the true villain's ambition triumphs over his guilt and he resolves not to repent, but to commit further murders to hide the first. MacBeth is, in truth, an anti-Hamlet that may deserve its own entry one day, a Hamlet told from Claudius' perspective and where rashness replaces delay.

But to confront the visage of offence?
And what's in prayer but this two-fold force,
To be forestalled ere we come to fall,
Or pardon'd being down? Then I'll look up;
My fault is past. But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?
That cannot be; since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?

If Denmark is a moral universe, now corrupted, then it could be that once Hamlet has done his own murders and set the country's moral compass a-right, he has to die. Hamlet will not retain the advantages of the deaths he has caused, and Denmark passes into the hands of an entirely different monarch.

In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft 'tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law: but 'tis not so above;
There is no shuffling, there the action lies
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell'd,
Even to the teeth and forehead of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? what rests?

In another mirrored moment from "To be or not to be", Claudius wonders at the undiscovered country himself, and he too sees it as a place to fear, a place where he cannot hide from justice as he has done in our own corrupt world.

Try what repentance can: what can it not?
Yet what can it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged! Help, angels! Make assay!
Bow, stubborn knees; and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!
All may be well. [Retires and kneels]


Note that Shakespeare makes it clear Hamlet only comes in after the speech and once Claudius is on his knees. He does not hear what is said, though of course, Claudius does not hear the following words. On stage, this is often played with Hamlet standing right over him with a blade. As we'll see, films have attempted many different stagings to make this moment less theatrical and more realistic.

HAMLET: Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't. And so he goes to heaven;
And so am I revenged. That would be scann'd:
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
'Tis heavy with him: and am I then revenged,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season'd for his passage?
Up, sword; and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep, or in his rage,
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing, or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't;
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven,
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black

Readers today may not realize how violent and even blasphemous this passage is. Hamlet is not just contemplating the murder of his king and uncle, but also of making sure Claudius' soul isn't saved so that is doomed to hell. Christian doctrine, which Hamlet adheres to, often showing a Puritanical vein, would have him allow his uncle to repent before his death/execution. Hamlet's choice puts him on the path of evil, which possibly adds an ironic layer to Horatio's invocation of angels upon his death. What undiscovered country will Hamlet go to?

As hell, whereto it goes. My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.


KING CLAUDIUS: [Rising] My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.


And there's the punch line. The irony is that Claudius' prayers are empty and that he was basically communicating his refusal to repent. Hamlet could have killed him then after all. Hamlet's words are truer than he realizes. It is indeed a "physic", i.e. purely physical state. that prolongs Claudius' days. Of course, different stagings and performances may change how we perceive this scene. Is Hamlet convinced by the prayer, or just looking for yet another excuse to delay his action? Does the setting, both physical and temporal, change how we interpret these Christian ideas? The next articles will address these issues and more.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

III.ii. Critical Reception - Classics Illustrated

The original
The black comedy of the recorder exchange between Hamlet and Rosencrantz & Guildenstern cannot be easily reproduced on the comics page, not with the page count inherent to the format, so I'm sad to report the sequence was cut from both version of Classics Illustrated. R&G still show up to deliver the Queen's message, but it acts merely as prologue to Hamlet's soliloquy. This is especially true of the original comic, which has Hamlet spare his cruelties, unless one considers an abrupt answer "cruel".Note also how the bloodier language was excised from the speech, pitching it to its younger audience.

The Berkley version
Tom Mandrake's adaptation uses an entire page, but is still very economical. Hamlet's delirious rhymes are kept, but spoken over the panel in which the King runs off, showing more clearly that he is the "stricken deer" of Hamlet's song. Mandrake's gloomy Hamlet has a very different expression from the original Classics Illustrated too, replacing joy with anguish. Gone is the euphoria, and in its place is the realization that now he must carry out a bloody revenge. For this Hamlet, it's made things worse and it seems he'd rather have been told that the Ghost was lying, tormenting him.
R&G's arrival restores a lot of dialog lost in the original comic, but still no recorder business (which would probably have been bitter and violent rather than manic). In fact, Hamlet's response, cutting to a later line in the scene, is almost a non sequitur. "By and by is easily said" seems strange here, but it is basically Hamlet telling them what answer to go, without the prompt of it being their own, plain answer. The comics form shows another of its weaknesses at adaptation when Hamlet starts his speech in the same panel he dismisses his friends, making it look like they'll hear that part of it. However, it does kind of work, and makes the witching hour the reason for their dismissal. Instead of saying it's late, Hamlet goes into poetic detail the likens night to evil. I could see this used in a proper staging of the play as a way to give Hamlet another "madness" moment in front of the traitors, putting a mirror up to their own evil or acting as a veiled threat.
The rest is the speech is as written and performed alone, either with Hamlet in close-up, or walking towards his mother's closet.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

III.ii. Critical Reception - Slings & Arrows

The only part of the sequence that makes it into the performance montage is the soliloquy, but we don't see it. Instead, we're with the play's director, Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), mouthing the words backstage, praying to the Shakespearean gods for a good outcome. In the show, he was a much-praised Hamlet until he cracked on stage, and the "witching hour" in terms of that story is when he must redeem himself and walk back from that disaster (through a proxy). As the soliloquy ends, he signals the number of soliloquies to the actress playing Gertrude, a countdown that refers to the five key moments an actor must nail as he gets through the play, something he told "Jack Crew" to reassure him that this performance was possible. In relating it to the play, it refers to Hamlet's delay of the action, a self-imposed countdown that creates the tension in the play. Hamlet is a time-bomb, each soliloquy counted down a means to talk himself into taking action. By the end, when all soliloquies are done, words turn to action, and the dialog shrinks until the rest is, indeed, silence.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

III.ii. Critical Reception - Tennant (2009)

The sequence doesn't start with the usual rhymes in this version, but instead with Horatio trying to tell Hamlet that was he noted most definitely was NOT conclusive proof of Claudius' guilt. Hamlet won't listen, of course, an almost violent euphoria overtaking him. He asks for music, but also grabs a silver tray from a servant, banging it in the man's face like a gong. Horatio attends him and laughs at his jests, but he doesn't speak or try to broach the subject of the King again. The focus changes, in any case, to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, surely Horatio's rivals in the friendship department, so perhaps there's a psychological, personal reason why he falls in with Hamlet again despite the unspoken disagreement.

David Tennant's Hamlet is at his funniest in this scene. His "with drink?" is impish and a confidential "he's drunk again eh? yeah, that happens a lot", traitor's talk that makes R&G co-conspirators if anyone were listening. As they continue, Hamlet more or less ignores them, putting the Player's crown on his head, using the silver tray as a mirror, hiding his face from them. He's their mock King, the King that should have been if only they (and the rest of the Court) would follow the right man, the true heir. He's also mocking Claudius, sitting on the throne misunderstanding everything they say on purpose. It is a sly condemnation of Claudius' decisions to date, prefiguring Denmark's downfall at the hands of Fortinbras. When they demand an answer from him, he raises his hand excitedly, like a school boy, only to reveal he can't make a wholesome one. It's with mock pride that he says the "oh wonderful son" line. It's all a caricature of his false King/Father.

And he does the same with the friendship he bears these men. At "pickers and feelers", he gets up to tickle Rosencrantz, freaking him out. And he should. They are failing at their appointed task, and that will have consequences. For this Rosencrantz, it's really about getting it over with so he can leave this hellish place before the axe falls on him. He tries to keep back, he's rather sincere when he asks Hamlet to stop what he's doing before it ruins them all. Guildenstern is the more political, albeit gauche, animal. He tries to find the right words and hopes to get favor from the King. But of course, neither of them are aware that Claudius may be a murderer and usurper. They just don't get it, perhaps because they can't. It's shown, for example, when Rosencrantz gives Hamlet a blank stare at "While the grass grows". There's a funny beat before the next line, and Hamlet obnoxiously slaps him, but doesn't awaken him to the very real danger of trusting Claudius.
The recorders arrive, and the production plays on the plural in that line to make Hamlet throw one to Horatio, which will come into play later. The interplay between Hamlet and Guildenstern is sweeter and less violent than usual, initially, Hamlet acting all innocent, not understanding why Guildenstern won't play and laughing at the irony. Guil, for his part, tries to understand what is being said and takes the Prince's explanations with a measure of respect, as if he agrees he's been rumbled. Then BAM! A rare musical sting accompanies Hamlet attacking Guildenstern with the pipe, trying to choke him, even as Rosencrantz tries to gently separate them. What actually does it is Polonius' arrival.

Coming into a violent moment, Polonius gets a loud pipeful in the face, followed by Hamlet and Horatio playing a tune together over his words. By having the old councilor mouth words at R&G with a certain degree of ire, the production motivates his presence. Thematically, I've said that Polonius is entirely redundant in the scene because he always makes the wrong choices, and that Hamlet feels he's irrelevant all the time. Here, he comes because R&G are taking too long. We have to remember he plans to hide in the Queen's closet (even if he hasn't said so yet), so his impatience stems from that. He's been kept waiting as much as the Queen has. Showing impatience and even anger is rare for him, so perhaps his head too, is on the chopping block. When the King is angry, chaos reigns in Elsinore. And it's because he's impatient and in a hurry that Hamlet chooses to play the game of clouds with him, pushing him to show disrespect. Polonius catches himself each time, but his composure does break.
The soliloquy is done straight into Hamlet's movie camera, a point of view we get to see. Sitting askew on the throne while he speaks of being cruel to his mother creates a visual inversion of what is natural, and may put the lie to his words. Hamlet looks quite demented here. His successive victories over Claudius, R&G, and Polonius have pushed him over the line of what may be reasonable or acceptable.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

III.ii. Critical Reception - Fodor (2007)

After the King leaves, Hamlet's insane clapping draws a hateful look from Polonia, who in this universe, is Claudius' lover. The transgendering of Polonius has several effects, but one of them is creating a dynamic that makes attacks on Claudius that much more personal for his councilor (and chief accomplice?). The King obviously "blenched", and Horatio really did note him and shares in Hamlet's joy. There is no bitterness in them, Fodor treats this as a victory as yet untinged by what must come after. When Hamlet calls for the recorders, it's in a gently mocking, celebratory tone, a way of smoothing over the fact that it's a clarinet and not a medieval recorder he finds. It's amazing how an actor can simply put a little humor or sarcasm into a single word and modernize it immediately.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, dangerous bullies in this world, are really angry and do a lot of shouting out of their frustration. They're at the end of their ropes. In fact, their reaction is so strong that Hamlet's "I am tame" shames them into a quieter stance. They're the ones who seem crazy, not him. Instead of the aggressive, threatening madness most Hamlet put on in this sequence, this one instead goes for innocent playfulness, as a man-boy who doesn't understand why people are angry at him. Ever his partner in this affair, Horatio quietly smiles next to him, somehow acting as Hamlet's irony. It's how R&G know they're being laughed at. No matter how much they threaten him with body language and tone, Hamlet doesn't lose his composure. On "as easy as lying", he makes it a discovery, an answer inspired by looking at them. And there's no violence in the business with the recorders. He just gives them the clarinet and begs them to play it, more a petulant child than a dangerous man in his own right. They hesitate before admitting to not knowing how and roughly disassembling the instrument before giving it back, again an implied threat.

By the time Hamlet gets to "you cannot play upon me", Polonia is standing behind R&G and the remark is addressed to her as much as to them, if not more. Through the innocent act, he lets slip that he knows they're all in league with each other. The imaginary cloud in the ceiling plays out as a power struggle, Polonia refusing to be intimidated, her responses dripping with sarcasm to let him know she's quite aware of what he's doing. There is further osmosis between the conspirators at the end of the sequence when "by and by is easily said" is spoken to R&G instead of Polonia, but they put a further twist on it. R&G each get one "by" thrown in their direction, making it "bye" and "bye", a pun on their quick dismissal directly following.
Horatio then leads him out of the room by the hand, a gesture that could be interpreted as either romantic or childish, but a tense sound stops him. Does he feel the Ghost? A gun left on a chair - it might have fallen out of R&G's pockets - draws his attention, and he fondles it as he says his speech, a prayer to the gods of violence. These choices are informed by the modern staging of the play in the film. Hamlet does not carry a weapon, so much procure one. And the "witching hour" cannot be heralded by bells or some such, so a strange feeling comes upon the Prince instead. It's a supernatural occurrence, this weapon suddenly materializing when Hamlet needs to kill the King, and supernatural forces may well be at work.