Hamlet 2

Let’s continue the Hamlet discussion. There are a million things one could talk about, so let’s talk about a few. (I have a folder of notes on the subject somewhere…I wonder if there’s any chance I could figure out where…)

One item. I noticed once that the word “love” is used often in the play, but it’s almost always used either deceptively or doubtfully. (I didn’t have a computer when I noticed that. It’s trivially easy to collect them all now. There’s something faintly annoying about that.) That fact by itself sums up a lot about the play.

Done badly, that can seem like just teenage angst and self-absorbtion. It shouldn’t be done that way, because it’s not just teenage.

Speaking of which, one of the famous cruxes (a crux being a difficulty, a discrepancy, aka a mistake) is the fact that at the beginning Hamlet is a college student (which could make him as young as 14) and by the graveyard scene he’s 30. Shakespeare made lots of mistakes of that kind. It was a play – a working recipe for a group of actors, Shakespeare being one of them. There was no obvious need to be careful about details.

Shakespeare was unique in that way, you know. He was not only an actor, he was also a shareholder, in the company and in the theater. His company was unique in owning its own theater, and he was unique as a playwright in being also a player and an owner. Ben Jonson did some acting, but as an employee, not as an owner.

Hamlet is about acting, among other things. Acting, dissembling, seeming – it’s all about that. When people talk about “love” they’re usually acting. Polonius’s supposedly wise advice to Laertes is all about acting and dissembling – the much-quoted bromide “to thine own self be true” is deeply ironic. At the end of the play Laertes is acting and dissembling at the behest of the consummate liar and dissembler Claudius.

Your turn.


  1. Kels says

    I haven’t read, seen or studied the play in far too long to have a serious contribution here, but I would like to recommend It All Started With Freshman English by Richard Armour. A Professor of English himself, he turned his love for literature to humour for this volume, including a full (and quite hilarious) treatment of Hamlet.

    I’d highly recommend seeking it out.

  2. addiepray says

    in case anyone needs a refresher on the play:

    Thank you for pointing out the irony of the “To thine own self be true” line- that whole speech is really about cutting yourself off from everyone, so the last line has a different tenor in context. I think the age discrepancy is such an interesting thing- don’t imagine it was intentional, but it has a strange relevance, as Hamlet himself is so ageless in terms of being separate and disconnected from everyone else. There is no one else in the play who can match his intellect or wit- save for the gravedigger- and so he grows weary of their claim on him.

  3. addiepray says

    Also, Ophelia, I wonder if you have a sense of how you relate differently to the play than others might because of your name. I suspect a woman named Desdemona (not that I suspect there are many of those) would have a different relationship to Othello (the play) than I might. Or perhaps not.

  4. says

    “that whole speech is really about cutting yourself off from everyone”

    Ah – so it is. Brilliant.

    It’s funny, Addie, but I don’t. It can be quite a good joke, but it doesn’t seem to have any influence on my sense of the play at all. Like everyone, I identify with Hamlet, not with her.

    One of the quite good jokes. I saw an excellent performance once in a church (here in Seattle) – not by churchy people, just using the church as a theater. About a year later I got a phone call from the actor who played Hamlet, who was fundraising. We had a nice chat and then at the end he said something along the lines of “Well, Ophelia, it’s been nice talking to you,” and I burst out laughing and said “I bet you never expected to say that to anyone” and he laughed and said he’d thought my name on the list was a joke.

  5. says

    The business about Polonius’s speech to Laertes is important, because P. is usually thought to be a kindly auld bumbler, but he’s really not – he’s terrible. He has to be played as terrible. He is a source of laughter, to keep the groundlings from getting bored, but as a character he’s horrible – cynical and suspicious and utterly wrong about everything because of his cynicism and suspicion. He craps on everything – especially love. He’s suspicious of all the good people and credulous toward all the bad ones. He’s an instrumentalist in the worst way.

  6. quartologist says

    Ophelia is quite right to point out that Shakespeare was a working dramatist, so that we can’t ask the plays to provide the kind of rigorous consistency demanded of works written for the study. Shakespeare shows the same insoucient attitude to numbers in the Fortinbras scene a little earlier (where 2000 soldiers become twenty thousand a few lines later)…

    But there is also something a bit odd about the age ‘crux’ in Hamlet, as far from being a momentary slip the dialogue around it seems to be at pains to push Hamlet’s age to the foreground. It’s a question-and-answer sequence (‘how long have you been grave-maker’?) which goes on long enough to make Hamlet’s 30 years the effective conclusion to it.

    If it is more than just a mistake, and if Hamlet is elsewhere in the play understood to be a late teenager, then we could bear in mind that the whole scene takes place in a graveyard, with references to doomsday worked into it at various points. According to Augustine, 30 years was to be the default age of all resurrected bodies following the Final Judgement, so perhaps – for whatever reason – Shakespeare is alluding to this notion. It’s one of the play’s frissons, a chilling moment, where we recognise that behind the easy banter between clown and prince there are other forces working to shape the ends of the protagonists…

    (By the way, Musical Atheist diected me to this post, and perish the idea that I should actually admit to beliefs in the resurrection, fate, or unaccounted instances of Werner syndrome…)

  7. says

    ‘Love is not love’, indeed.

    I think one major point about this period is that it’s very self-aware: dramatic fiction is often the stage on which power relationships and Elizabethan social identity are played out. (Particularly in the case of Jonson.) And ‘love’, as such, often stands in for something else – especially loyalty.

    In all the fashionable sonnets and sonnet sequences of this period, poets appeal for the ‘love’ of an exceptional lady; exceptionally beautiful, exceptionally chaste, etc. This happens with the ‘Dark Lady’ in Shakespeare (‘My mistress’ eyes…), in Sidney’s Astrophil and Stella, with John Donne and his mistress in bed – it’s always ‘Here, let me tell you how wonderful you are, and in return you can give me love.’ The point, of course, is that it parallels the writers’ relationship with their patrons, and in particular with Elizabeth I: ‘Here, let me tell you wonderful you are, and in return you can give me money/your favour/a title.’

    In practically all of Shakespeare’s plays we get ‘love’ used to mean loyalty or courtly status: Othello switching his ‘love’ from Cassio to Iago, Macbeth promising Duncan he’ll seek his ‘love and honour’, illegimate Edmund’s desire to be ‘beloved’ in Lear. (In fact, as Lear opens we’re directly shown Regan and Goneril telling the king how much they ‘love’ him in return for land and the right to rule.)

    Hamlet is a revenge play – it’s modelled largely on The Revenger’s Tragedy by (probably) Thomas Middleton – and this genre is very about there being ‘something rotten in the state’: it typically begins with an act of betrayal within the court, like the King’s brother killing him or a heroic officer being murdered, and the hero’s task it to set things right by avenging this. It’s a genre very much about social, which is why plays are often a device in the revenge plot. (Hamlet, The Revenger’s Tragedy, The Spanish Tragedy.

    So it’s absolutely unsurprising that in Hamlet, love is often false, ambiguous or questionable – because loyalty, brotherhood and all the other courtly ideals for which Elizabethan ‘love’ stands are equally unstable.

  8. says

    Now we’re talking!

    “Love is not love, which alters when it alteration finds” could be a subtitle of Hamlet. Claudius does a variation on that theme when he’s tricking Laertes into murdering Hamlet.

  9. addiepray says

    RE: “Love is not love…”
    Inconstancy seems to be one of the things Hamlet hates (“Frailty”, of course; but also the “Methinks it is like a weasel” scene, in which he exposes P’s spineless shifting; as well as R and G’s fate as a result of their duality) so that he feigns madness (ie. not-Hamlet-ness) by assuming an air of inconstancy (north-northwest). The only characters for which he shows undying loyalty and admiration are Horatio (who is little more than a cipher), his father, and Yorick. The fact that the latter two are dead means that they are incapable of changing (though he does fear that his father’s ghost may be a demon who can change his form.)

    “To be or not to be” can therefore be seen not only as a musing on whether or not to live, but also a confrontation with the notion of changing shape, as in to be (fill in the blank) or not to be that thing, how to choose who to become. Hamlet’s intellect does not allow him to be deceived by falsity, leaving him dissatisfied and restless. More than kin and less than kind, indeed, for his lack of identification with the others he cannot help but perceive as beneath him means he is unkind to those not of his kind, ie everyone.

    Sorry if I’m rambling and incoherent. This sort of stuff gets my brain juices running.

  10. says

    That’s the plan! And not rambling and incoherent at all. Yes yes – inconstancy was a big theme with Shxpr as well as Hamlet – almost obsessively so.

    That’s why Cordelia is so heroic – and why that scene of their reunion when Lear wakes up is so unbelievably moving. (From a feminist point of view she should have just stalked off and never looked back, but never mind that.) “No cause, no cause.” She refuses to baby him in the first scene, and she refuses to admit she had any cause to reject him at the end. She’s a hella good daughter.

    But we’re talking about Hamlet. That’s why there’s so much concern with seeming – it’s in tension with constancy. Shxpr and Hamlet are both always knocking on things to test them for constancy and honesty. Claudius is creepy because he’s always talking flowery fraudulent bullshit.

  11. addiepray says

    One more thought, since you mention Claudius’s flowery BS-
    In his “private” moment, he is honest and direct (O my offense is rank), not denying his culpability or his guilt. But publicly, he dissembles and rambles. Hamlet on the other hand, is publicly honest (until the ‘madness’, he “knows not seems”) but in private, he is divided and uncertain, trying to pin himself down.
    In the “This American Life” episode I mentioned last time (Act V– about prisoners performing the final act) Hamlet is played simultaneously by numerous actors (can’t recall how many) which is an interesting literalization of the idea of fragmentation in the character.

  12. says

    Oh, so he is.

    The prisoners’ multiple Hamlet reminds me of Brian Friel’s Philadelphia Here I Come, where the main character is played by two actors. Funny and sad at once.

  13. Orlando says

    @quartologist: “According to Augustine, 30 years was to be the default age of all resurrected bodies following the Final Judgement.” Is that like all superheroes being 29?

    @Alex: Shakespeare’s ‘Dark Lady” sonnets, *especially* the one you mention, mock and undermine the exceptional woman trope: “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun.”

    I’m fascinated by the pointing out that Polonious’ famous speech is all about cutting yourself off from others, because it is forcing me to revise my understanding of a key scene in Ibsen’s _Peer Gynt_, in which “there is a saying among men ‘to thine own self be true'” is presented as a contrast to the trolls’ saying, to thine own self be [and here we have a tricky translation issue] ‘enough’ or ‘sufficient’. Being too self-sufficient without acknowledging the need for interdependence is Peer’s tragic flaw. But with this reading, the contrast of sentiments is illusory.

  14. Orlando says

    Something I noticed a couple of years ago about Cordelia: it’s the feminine of Cordelion, which is the Anglicised version used in the First Folio of Coeur-de-lion, to refer to Richard I. Which means that Cordelia means ‘lionheart’.

  15. Roger says

    “Speaking of which, one of the famous cruxes (a crux being a difficulty, a discrepancy, aka a mistake) is the fact that at the beginning Hamlet is a college student (which could make him as young as 14) and by the graveyard scene he’s 30.”

    No a crux isn’t.
    A crux is a crucial point- sonething which affects every other aspect of the play. Your definition is a rarer one which follows from that. The crux here is that a student could be as young as fourteen but that doesn’t mean they must be as young as fourteen. A student could be much older- the middle-aged or elderly Dr. Faustus is described as a student. Some productions of Hamlet play Hamlet as a ‘perpetual student’ like Faustus, in fact. The crux is what kind of student is Hamlet- someone who is studying because he’s expected to spend a few years doing so or someone whose main interest is the pursuit of knowledge? That connects with his age, his family relations, his expectations of succeeding to the throne- it affects how every other character must be played.

  16. says

    Wull I meant in Shakespeare studies – there “crux” is a term of art for these argued-over inconsistencies. At least, some scholars said it was. I pictured it as a fork in the road where they all got stuck arguing.

  17. julian says

    I’ve read Hamlet a good dozen times and missed the hypocrisy behind ‘love’ every time. Love was just another word (like fealty and loyalty) that just got grouped under allegiance. Going back and substituting allegiance where ever love appears right now. Puts everything in a much darker light (if that’s possible with Hamlet) that makes me wonder if the play wasn’t intended as a criticism of government politics.

    Thank you all for the read.

  18. says

    Re: Ben Johnson and “benefit of the clergy” that got him off the hook.
    A long while ago in my local library I wanted to find out what life would have been like for the bard, so read parts of a very interesting researched book by James Shapiro on a year in the life of William Shakespeare in 1599. I was also amazed to read that re a charge of manslaughter, Jonson pleaded guilty, but was released by benefit of clergy, a legal ploy through which he gained leniency by reciting a brief bible verse (the neck-verse), forfeiting his ‘goods and chattels’ and being branded on his left thumb. While in gaol Jonson converted to Catholicism, possibly through the influence of fellow-prisoner Father Thomas Wright, a Jesuit priest.

  19. peterh says

    “I’ve always so wished I could have had that name instead.”

    Get thee to a lawyery.

  20. says

    @Orlando: the Dark Lady sonnets undermine the Petrarchan, idealising tendency (ultimately beautiful/chaste/whatever) but they’re still in the ‘male poet petitioning a desired woman for her ‘love’.

  21. quartologist says

    @ Orlando (15): It’s exactly like that! Although in the post-Kick Ass era even that happy truism is no longer secure…

    A great overview of the age issue, btw, can be found in Arden 2nd editon of Hamlet (ed. Harold Jenkin), Longer Notes. There’s also a whole website devoted to the problem:


    As Roger says above, the issue remains valid because it can affect one’s reading and/or performance of Hamlet himself. It thus boils down to whether you think the 30 years reference is to be read as a substantive piece of characterisation, or think (as I do) that it is merely scene-specific.

    And we need to be careful with a fetish for ‘character consistency’ in plays of this period – it’s a requirement imposed by our own era, not Shakspeare’s…

  22. Antiochus Epiphanes says

    Acting, dissembling, seeming – it’s all about that.

    I know not “seems”.

  23. Roger says

    ‘It thus boils down to whether you think the 30 years reference is to be read as a substantive piece of characterisation, or think (as I do) that it is merely scene-specific.’

    There’s a further problem given the differences between the texts of Hamlet. The drama critic James Agate specifically discusses some of the problems of Hamlet- the play and the character- in his nine volume diaries, Ego. He argues that the text should be regarded as like a musical score: something with enormous possibilities until it is produced whereupon many things have to be decided for entirely practical reasons- for example, examples agate cited, Gielgud and Olivier were both very good actors, but their physical and vocal characteristics meant that their versions of Hamlet and every other character in the play were predetermined by the decision to cast them, regardless of the director’s intention. there is a big difference between Hamlet the text[s] and Hamlet the acted play.

  24. Orlando says

    @Antiochus, The speech you quote is one I use to demonstrate to students the sublimely useful way that, writing for actors who knew how to speak verse, playwrights would put the important stuff at the end of each line (knowing that is the word the actor will hit, and the audience will hear).

    Fun game: read just the last word of each line all the way down the speech. It’s like a summary of Hamlet’s ‘issues’.

    Seems, madam, Nay, it is. I know not ‘seems.’
    ‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
    Nor customary suits of solemn black,
    Nor windy suspiration of forc’d breath,
    No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
    Nor the dejected havior of the visage,
    Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
    ‘That can denote me truly. These indeed seem,
    For they are actions that a man might play;
    But I have that within which passeth show –
    These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

  25. quartologist says

    “He argues that the text should be regarded as like a musical score: something with enormous possibilities until it is produced whereupon many things have to be decided for entirely practical reasons”

    That’s an excellent analogy, because it suggests the particular richness of dramatic texts – the way they operate on a number of levels, much as a score does. And one of those levels must be the materiality of the actor’s body – including its vocal character – with the inflections and the limitations it imposes on the words. The muscular as against the melifluous, perhaps, in the Olivier-Gielgud example Agate gives.

    By the by, I remember a Gielgud anecdote on the theme of actors conjuring up tears in performance (‘Is it not monstrous that this player here’, etc.). Gielgud remarked that he’d never cried either on or off stage in his whole life . Except once, when ‘Larry’ had had a success as Hamlet.

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