Hamlet 1

The Corpse In The Bedroom

Topics In Shakespeare's Hamlet

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Hamlet Essay


" Accordingly Hamlet never considers, deliberately , the difference between personal revengefulness and just vengeance, a distinction clearly present to the mind of Shakespeare here as elsewhere, notably in the companion play, Othello . But the dramatist with consummate art shows us that his prince's soul, if not his mind - we would say his subconscious if not his conscious mind - is aware of the vital antithesis. At the first Hamlet's attitude to Claudius is largely, not entirely revengeful; at he last largely, though not entirely, impartial and just. In between we see him proceeding, painfully and with gross lapses, from the wrong towards the right mood .......

..In the first act Claudius certainly deserves to be killed; but only in the last act does Hamlet deserve to kill him .." [ 14 ; pages xxiii - xxv. Numbers in brackets refer to entries in the Bibliography ]

CRAIG. I do not understand Shakespeare; surely he did not send the father to hell only because he did not take the communion before his death?

STANISLAVSKI . It is just in that the tragedy consists: that he sees his father on the other side of the grave suffering and begging his son to free him from his sufferings. A man who has had even one glimpse of the life on the other side of the grave can hardly be normal in this life.

CRAIG. I do not agree with that at all. I cannot understand why Shakespeare sent such a good man to hell. I do not believe that Hamlet is suffering from the inability to take revenge. The tragedy of Hamlet consists in how he, being alive , should avoid losing what is beautiful in himself. How shall he revenge justly and for the good of Denmark [ is what he sees as his obligation. (Phrase interpolated) ] .Hence his tragedy.. [13 ; pages 70-71]"

There probably does not exist another work in the literary canon, with respect to which convictions about the motivations of its protagonist are as widely divergent as those expressed in the above quotations. Over 4 centuries hundreds of theories, some by the greatest names in theater, letters and scholarship, have been advanced in the guise of 'solutions' to Hamlet's "character" , "problem" , or "mystery". Only the dogmatic insistence of each that his theory, and it alone, has uncovered the 'key' to the play, unites them.

This essay does not insist on the uniqueness of its interpretation, nor does it make any excessive claims for its author's talent for problem-solving. Along with many other things, Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is a play about a young man who over-analyzes his motives. This makes it difficult for him to take the kind of effective action he admires. Both he and his mortal enemy, Claudius, are mysteriously dilatory in dealing with each other, a delay which ultimately proves fatal to both of them. The secret source of their impediments to action has fascinated the human race since its first production at the end of the 16th century.

The elucidation of the character of the fictional character, Hamlet, has hooked hundreds of persons with proclivities to over-analysis into over-analyzing its' motives for over-analysis. This being the Age of Over-Analysis it is hardly surprising that one finds a contemporary superfluity of analyses of Hamlet , most of them over-analyses of this too too much over-analyzed play.

This essay The Corpse in the Bedroom, is yet one more addition too many to this over-abundance.

Table of Contents

  1. Preface

  2. The Play and the Text

  3. The Psychologist's Fallacy

  4. Fear , Guilt , Voyeurism

  5. The Barren Womb

  6. The Pre-Hamlet

  7. Despair and Hard Bargaining

  8. Hamlet in Mourning

  9. The Depravity of Polonius

  10. The Tirade Scene: Hamlet and Ophelia

    Act III:

  11. Rites of Passage

  12. The Mousetrap

  13. The Chapel

  14. The Bedchamber

  15. Bibliography

1. The Play and the Text

Fundamental to the theater is the distinction between the play and the text. Of all the performing arts, it is in theater that one finds the greatest disparity between the intentions, ( real or divined) of the artist, and the finished product . Musical scores impose many more restrictions on their interpreters. Even the recipes of a traditional cookbook impose a more rigorous conformity on cooks than do play scripts on actors and directors.

This is why, for example, anthologies of plays are rarely profitable as booksellers merchandise , sales of them being negligible in comparison with those of prose fiction, or even of poetry . "Reading" itself is already one of the most difficult of all skills in which to acquire proficiency . The added effort of visualization needed for bringing the dead words of a script to life in the mind of the reader, comes naturally only to directors and actors, or other playwrights, and then not without effort. Frequently an understanding of a script which is satisfactory to all of its interpreters may emerge only after an investment of many rehearsals.

As for literary scholars, it is unfortunate that there is a tendency among them to distance themselves from the advantages of technical immediacy that are available from the vantage of being on-stage. However impressive their erudition, however subtle their insights, a habitual pose of aloofness, (more of a professional handicap than anything else ) , very often leads them to misunderstand, misinterpret or overlook the express intentions of the writer. The author of this essay did not himself realize to what extent this is true until he began to sift through the enormous literature created by Hamlet analysts over the centuries.

Samuel Johnson's excessively opinionated readings of Shakespeare are a case in point. In a cognate field, one can cite George Bernard Shaw's turpitudes in music criticism. What is obscure to scholars may sometimes be readily apparent, even obvious, to skilled and experienced artists charged with translating the fragmentary bits of privileged dialogue that make up a play script, into a public performance.

It should not however be assumed that actors and directors are therefore free from the danger of extreme misapprehensions arising from systematic myopia. [29,30,31,32,33] It may well be the case that very nature of their profession renders certain kinds of blind spots unavoidable. There is no originality in these observations: mutual recriminations between actors and playwrights, omposers and musicians, choreographers and dancers, etc. are timeless features in the topography of the performing arts.

The production of a seriously crafted play entails a large burden of technical challenges. There are times in the action when the complexities of a dramatic situation force actors to focus so narrowly on what they're supposed to be doing , that it's impossible for them to pay attention to what the play is doing. The galley slaves don't always know which way the ship is headed ! In any case, this is not necessarily a bad thing. To demand the kind of total control on the living stage that a director achieves in the cutting rooms of a film studio, is to rob theater of its unique capacities for creative spontaneity that guarantee that it will never cease to be one of the most vital of all artistic endeavors.

A classic example of the kind of stumbling block daunting to performers and baffling to scholars is to be found in the transition in Hamlet from the soliloquy in Act II , ii, 533-591 ( "Oh what a rogue and peasant slave am I! .. " ) to the opening soliloquy of Act III, i, 57-89 ( "To be or not to be .... " )

All excerpts are from Hamlet ,Prince of Denmark ; edited by Willard Farnham, the Pelican Shakespeare, 1977
There are clear connections of subject matter between them: the former expresses exasperation with a seemingly incurable impotence, somehow intrinsic to person, environment and situation; while the latter is a solemn meditation on the futility of all action, terminating with a psychological rationale, not entirely satisfactory , for doing nothing:

" Thus conscience doth make cowards of us all
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action ..."

In the first soliloquy it must be noted that although Hamlet is wallowing in self-castigation, he appears to be enjoying himself! His is a giddy mood. Both posturing and flippancy suggest that the excitement generated by the rough-and-tumble encounter with the players is still upon him. This is understandable in the light of his observation to Guildenstern just moments before, that "Denmark's a prison " ( II, ii, 224 ). Cloying, sickly, ridden with lurking suspicions, lies, schemes of vengeance, agonies of conscience, a lethal ennui saturates the atmosphere of Elsinore. Constrained to live in this joyless provincial backwater, unilluminated by a single spark of intellectual challenge, Hamlet kills time by sticking pins in his self-esteem and pondering the folly of all endeavour.

How thrilling it therefore is , that for a brief moment the dismal world of the court will been distracted by the pomp and pageantry of the strolling players! The effect of the arrival of a military contingent upon the barren world of The Three Sisters makes use of a similar theatrical device.

In the course of the earlier soliloquy, Hamlet concocts the scheme of the play-within-a-play - his ingenuity is as dependable as his caution - then leaves the stage. Almost immediately he returns , just after the opening of Act III , to unburden himself of the most celebrated of all soliloquies, and one of the greatest poems in the English language :

" To be or not to be..."

We will refer to this as 'the existential monologue'. To our utter amazement ( "us" in contexts such as this one refers to a species of 'generic' theater audience ) , Hamlet's emotional state has abruptly plummeted from ironic, if self-deprecating, playfulness to the blackest depression ! His mental anguish is so acute, that it leads him to make the bitter reflection that from such total despair there is no release even in suicide.

" For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil
Must give us pause..." (III,i, 66-68)

Even allowing for a short intermission between Acts II and III, (and the only logical place for an extended intermission is after Act III ) , there can't be more than five minutes between the giddy Hamlet of the former soliloquy, and the wretched Hamlet of the latter ! The problem appears quite different to someone who, reading the script, can see numerous plausible connections, than it does to an actor trying to make it work on the stage : Here is what Richard Burton has to say about this dilemma: " ...sometimes he seems incoherently joined up. He seems to have a lot of anachronisms within himself, I mean. It's very difficult, for instance, for an actor to realize the change between ' The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king', and then within 3 minutes - I think it's literally three minutes if you play it in the Folio version - he's back on stage contemplating suicide. The audience has been led to believe, just before, that he's about to start a detective chase of the King; now certainly he's deciding possibly to commit suicide. That kind of inconsistency is enormously difficult for the actor to smooth over. And what it does, of course is fascinate actors and scholars alike, because one wonders at the mind of a man behind Hamlet and the man who wrote Hamlet, whoever he might have been."( [ 31] , page 291) (There is no evidence to my knowledge that Richard Burton was a partisan of the Earl of Oxford.)

One must concur with Burton's observation that this technical feat stretches an actor's capacities beyond all reasonable limits. It is because of this, in fact, that Laurence Olivier, in his 1949 movie, isolates the existential monologue completely . There it appears as a showpiece, a display cameo, divorced from any functional significance in the unfolding of the plot.

However the notion proposed by Richard Burton that Shakespeare seeks to portray the strange pathology of a mind catapulting through an impossibly wide swing of manic-depression, is not supported by the text. The first soliloquy presents an unsparing self portrait, a self-deprecating exhibition of Hamlet's impotence in all its forms . The second meditates the futility of action . In terms of elapsed time, 'rogue and peasant slave' is delivered on the evening of the day before, while the existential monologue is recited on the morning of the day in which the Murder of Gonzago is to be performed. The text is very clear. Here is Act II, ii, 531:

Hamlet: Follow him friends. We'll hear a play tomorrow
[Aside to Player] Dost thou hear me, old friend? Can you play "The Murder of Gonzago"?

And here is Act III, i, 16 :

Rosencrantz: "Madam, it so fell out that certain players
Were oer'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 here about the court.
And, as I think, they have already order
This night to play before him.

An entire night,an entire dark night of the soul , has passed between these two impassioned reflections ! . That's the whole point of the contrast between them . It is as if the issues raised by the first soliloquy, with its many personal references, it's self-loathing, it's earnest attempts at grappling with the difficulties of the political situation, leading to the ingenious scheme of the play-within-a-play, have worked themselves out in mind and heart, resolved at last in the relative calm of a essentially impersonal discourseat the highest philosophical level. However gloomy its reflections, however pessimistic its conclusions, this speech suggests that Hamlet has cast aside all worldly struggle, all 'sound and fury', to regard the folly of existence almost in the form of an abstraction, as if he himself were something of a stranger to it all.

Far more perplexing to this author is the abrupt transition from that state of stoic resignation to the vituperative violence of his subsequent attack on Ophelia! Bertold Brecht, it turns out, did not invent Impulse Theater. Shakespeare also demanded from his actors the capacity to effect abrupt transitions between emotional states. This scene will be discussed at another place in the essay.

A more reasonable explanation of his steep descent from giddiness to despair, is that Hamlet, goaded from his rooted sorrow by the impetus provided by the arrival of the players, has, after working out his strategy for action, suddenly been stricken by the realization that his fate is sealed. That very night there is to be the performance of a play that will force Claudius' hand. So outspoken a challenge to the tyrant's power cannot go unanswered. Hamlet's days of fretful indolence are over and he knows it. Such passages from self-loathing to panic, then to inspiration and action, then to despair, finally to resignation, occur repeatedly throughout the play.

Consider how the companion soliloquy to 'rogue and peasant slave', namely " How all occasions do inform against me " (IV, iv, 32- 66), is followed by the restlessness on board ship that leads Hamlet to seek out, confiscate, then rewrite the letter confided to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ; how, after his return to Denmark , this is followed by the magnificent oration, ( analog to the existential monologue ), in the graveyard . Again, consider how the state of bleak depression in which we find him in Act II, ii is dissipated by the bold action of encountering, then following, the Ghost of his father; how this is immediately followed by the "wild and whirling words" of the sequel and the swearing of the oath of silence.

Failure to understand the natural connection between these two soliloquies is a failure to align oneself with the very heartbeat of the play, to follow its progress, ever renewed but most intensely in Act III , through the dark night of the soul .

It appears that even an Olivier may not have fully grasped the deeper purpose of this juxtaposition of soliloquies. (In fact I'm certain he did, but that he concluded that what is appropriate to the stage(and that with great difficulty ) would simply not work on the screen. )

Yet there is can be no doubt that something is wrong: using a demotic 'method' vocabulary, ( all vocabularies derived from 'systems' rapidly become demotics ) , it would appear that the cogent logic of the through-line of action is nullified by the technical impossibility of conveying the idea that, although only 3 minutes have passed in the time of the auditorium, a entire sleepless night has transformed the character walking about the stage ! It is not surprising therefore, that one finds a virtual consensus among actors and directors that it would do just as well to cut out the most famous soliloquy in all English literature, which works so well in the reading, from productions of Hamlet on the stage .

Burton seems to feel that the whole play, or even its creator, are "clumsily joined together". I would not go so far, but I would agree that the programme of making Hamlet work as a whole , via some global interpretation that, at long last, illuminates all its mysteries, may not only be impossible, but wrongly conceived. At least half a dozen fragmentary plots, and as many themes, unfold in the course of the action, and it may just be the case that is not able to put them together in a coherent whole.

This following quotation suggests one of the reasons for this situation, which is unique when dealing with a masterpiece of its stature:

" Most likely , then, Shakespeare's Hamlet is a revision of a dramatic treatment ( Ur-Hamlet ) of a retelling ( Belleforest ) of a literary treatment (Saxo ) of a Scandinavian legend." [24 ; page 67 ]

Given that this is so, the coherence that one does find is truly remarkable. I recognize that I am not the first writer on this subject to discover how much sense there is in the story for those who listen carefully to what Shakespeare is really saying. One has the impression that the vision which possessed him was so gigantic that any vehicle in which he had cast it would have broken under the load. The great tragedies that follow are more unified and consistent . Othello , in our opinion, is his consummate masterpiece in the welding together of psychological insight, moral wisdom, and stagecraft of the highest majesty and scope, into a coherent unity.