Saturday, October 3, 2015

Hamlet Read-Along: Act I, Scene 2

Well, here he is at last:  Hamlet himself.  And don't worry, there won't be many more scenes without him.  This isn't just Shakespeare's longest play (running about 4,000 lines), but Hamlet is the biggest role in any single Shakespearean play -- about 1,500 lines in an uncut version.  Chatty fellow.  

Random cool thing I want to quick share with you:  a stick figure dramatis personae for this play, if you want help remembering who all these people are.  It's from a wonderful Shakespearean comic blog, Peace, Good Tickle-Brain.  I'm going to be linking to some of their Hamlet-related posts now and then.

There's SO MUCH going on in this scene, isn't there?  First, we learn all about how Hamlet's dad died recently (aka King Hamlet, aka the Ghost), and in a very short period of time, Hamlet's mom Gertrude married her dead husband's brother, Claudius.  And now Claudius has been proclaimed King of Denmark.  Not Prince Hamlet, who probably would have been crowned if Claudius hadn't sidled into the throne that way.

Now, before I dig into the text, I want to share a little background stuff from my edition, which was edited by Jeff Dolven.  Your copy might have similar info, or even different info -- feel free to discuss!  Anyway, my copy says, "Denmark, unlike England, was an elective monarchy.  Young Hamlet is treated throughout the play as the likely next king, but there is no violation of Danish law or custom in the fact that Claudius follows his brother on the throne; he was presumably elected by the nobles to the role" (p. 62).  I didn't know that before, so I find that pretty fascinating.

Also, my copy's notes say that "English law prohibited marriage between a man and his brother's wife, viewing such a marriage as technically incestuous... Under Germanic law, however, it was not uncommon for a new king to marry the former king's widow" (p. 62).  So Shakespeare and his audience would see Gertrude and Claudius' marriage as incestuous, which means Hamlet does too because Shakespeare and his audience expect him to.  But everyone else in Elsinore in the play seems to be fairly cool with it, which this would explain. 

(BTW, you do all know that Shakespeare didn't entirely make this story up, right?  It's based on a Scandinavian legend, which you can read about here on Wikipedia.  He did change a lot about it, though.)

Okay, so anyway, King Claudius and Queen Gertrude are hanging out with their courtiers, dealing with some political stuff like this Fortinbras guy and young Laertes, both of whom get used as foils for Hamlet throughout the play.  Like Hamlet, Fortinbras' dad was the king and has died, and his uncle is controlling him.  He wants to march through Denmark with his army to get to Poland, but Claudius suspects him of duplicity.  Laertes is the son of chief courtier/advisor Polonius, and he wants to go back to Paris, where he was presumably attending a university the way Hamlet had been at university in Wittenberg, Germany.  Claudius tells Laertes he can go, but he makes Hamlet stay, which he says is because Gertrude doesn't want him to leave.  This makes Hamlet grumpy, because the whole my-mom-married-my-uncle-right-after-my-dad-died situation has upset him.  A lot.  Claudius wants us all to get over King Hamlet's death already, wants to forget about it, but he can't because Hamlet is hanging around in his black mourning clothes looking mopey all the time.

Now, at this point, I don't think Hamlet suspects that his uncle killed his father, do you?  He's bored and annoyed and grieved, not so much angry, I think.  He spends most of his "too, too sallied/sullied/solid flesh" soliloquy freaking out that his mom has married his uncle and forgotten all about his father.  That's what's bugging him:  that no one besides himself seems to care that his father is dead.  He doesn't like Claudius, but it's because he cheated him out of the kingship and is sleeping with his mother, and is trying to make everyone forget about King Hamlet, that's all.  As Sir John Gielgud put it, "He's down -- a very sad boy, but not morose"  (p. 23, John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet).  Also, he's stuck here and can't put any of this behind him because Claudius just said he can't go back to school.

Right, so then Horatio and the two soldiers show up.  I love the meeting between Horatio and Hamlet here -- Horatio seems to know Hamlet very well, doesn't he?  He approaches him quietly, I think, expecting that if Hamlet is alone, he's probably lost in thought, and Horatio doesn't want to startle him.  He's not all loud and, "Hey, Hamlet, buddy!  How's it going?"  He says a very noncommittal thing:  "Hail to your lordship" (160).  And Hamlet, who has definitely been lost in thought, for a minute doesn't recognize him.  He just says the equivalent of "How're you?"  And then bam!  He realizes it's Horatio, and is all happy to see a friend.  Finally someone he can confide in!

So I've always had a little bit of a difficulty figuring Horatio's history out (and so have other people), because in Scene 1 he recognizes the Ghost as looking just like King Hamlet and seems to know quite a bit about him, but then here he says, "I saw him once" (186).  But then he says, "I knew your father; These hands are not more like" (212-13).  So I've always been like, "Which is it?  Had he met him often enough to know him pretty well by sight, or had he only seen him once?"  But just today, a couple of alternative readings came to me, and I want to lay them on you and see what you think.  When Horatio says, "I saw him once," is he trying to clue Hamlet in that he's seen him once recently?  And when he says, "I knew your father," by "knew" does he mean "recognized" him?  What do you think -- do either/both of those make sense, and make the question of "how often has Horatio hung out at Elsinore?" kind of go away?

Favorite Lines:

"A little more than kin, and less than kind" (65).

"I have that within which passes show,
These but the trappings and the suits of woe' (85-86).

"Oh, that this too, too sallied flesh would melt,
Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew" (129-30)(I love the wordplay here, with "a dew" sounding like "adieu.")

"How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable
Seem to me all the uses of this world! (133-34)

"But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue" (159).

"He wore his beaver up" (229). (I like this line because of this comic.)

More Possible Discussion Questions:

I ran across this new-to-me idea in Hamlet:  Poem Unlimited by Harold Bloom.  He suggests, "Is there an anxiety that Hamlet actually my be Claudius's son, since he cannot know for certain exactly when what he regards as adultery and incest began between Claudius and Gertrude?" (p. 7-8).  What do you think?

I'm a little bit sorry that this post has gotten REALLY LONG, but at the same time, I have so much to say that these posts are probably just going to be massive.  Is that okay with everyone?  Or would you rather I break up long stuff like this into a couple posts?


  1. Finally! I get to meet Hamlet!

    After meeting him for the first time, I have to say that I rather like him. He seems like a pretty nice guy. He is mourning the death of his father and has to watch his mother get married again. And to his uncle!!! Poor guy. It's as if the world has literally turned upside down. I can definitely not blame him for the way he acts. Also, the uncle wants him to forget his real father like nothing happened! It’s his father! It’s natural for him to grieve! I can’t stand the uncle at all, sorry. I don’t understand Hamlet’s mother either. Does she have any idea what her son is going through because of this marriage? To forewarn you, I’m probably going to rant about them throughout this read-a-long. :-)

    I also have to give it to him for the way he acts around his uncle and mother. I would not have been able to act the way he does. He is very controlled, and I personally would have been raving in anger at my uncle and begging my mother to please explain to me her actions.

    I also wonder if the play's title is talking about the King Hamlet, his son, or both. Will the meaning of the title be revealed? Or is alright for you to tell me?

    Is Hamlet really Shakespeare's longest play? Someone once told me that Richard III was.

    I can't wait for the third scene!!! I also love all the added information you gave about the play. It makes looking back on the scene a lot more interesting. :-)

    1. Ekaterina, yes, here he is :-) Rants about character behavior are totally fine! Including rants about Hamlet, because he's not always nice.

      The full title of the play is Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, so it's pretty clearly referring to young Hamlet, not his son. But I do find it interesting that Hamlet bears the same name as his father -- does he feel an extra obligation to his father because of it? An extra kinship? We'll probably get into all that.

      Hamlet runs about 4,000 lines, and Richard III is around 3,700, according to this site, so yes, it's the longest. Coriolanus is the closest, at 3,800 lines. The role of Hamlet has the most lines for a single play, but if you stick both halves of Henry IV together, then Falstaff has more, and if you add in The Merry Wives of Windsor, then Falstaff definitely has the most for a single character, but that's spread over 3 plays.

      Glad you're enjoying the read-along and the play so far!

    2. Hamlet is not always a good guy. Hmm. Is there any character that is good throughout the entire play? If so, please don't give me any names.

    3. Ekaterina, yes, there is one character who is entirely good throughout, and another who is forced to behave duplicitously, but would not have been so without coercion.

  2. Thanks for including that bit about Claudius's election. I've always been confused by the order of succession in this play and it seems like there are a million different explanations for it, some of which seem rather unlikely. This one clears it up nicely, though. :-)

    Your version says "sullied flesh"? The versions I've read it from all said "solid." Kind of does a lot to the meaning of that line, doesn't it? Honestly, I think I prefer "sullied" because it more firmly ties into the theme of man's fallenness, no?

    To answer your questions, I took Horatio's "I saw him once" to mean "I saw one time not too long ago." I also think "knew" in this instance might mean "recognized," as in, "I'd know him anywhere."

    Regarding "a dew," I never noticed that before! Awesome!

    You know, when I read that line "He wore his beaver up," I thought of the very same thing depicted in that cartoon. XD

    And no, I don't mind long posts at all. :-)

    1. Hanna, I agree -- all the political stuff has often befuddled me. This does make a lot of sense to me too.

      This version says "sallied." Like "assailed" or "attacked." My edition says that both the first and second Quartos say "sallied," but many editors change it to "sullied," and the Folio reads "solid."

      I'm used to either "solid" or "sullied." The "solid" kind of works better with the "melt and thaw" idea, but I do like the ideas conveyed by "sullied" better -- that way makes it more about Hamlet already pondering that man is "a quintessence of dust" that he gets into in Act II. He's recognizing his own imperfections and fallenness.

      I think that when I have a super long post like this on a long and involved scene, I'll wait 2 days before the next post. When it's a shorter scene with less going on, I'll only wait one day. That will give people more time to read and digest the longer scenes and all the stuff I spew forth about it.

  3. Thanks so much for the clarification with regard to the rights of succession. That's always puzzled me.

    What rampant manipulation Claudius uses in his first speech. It's stunning. He forces Polonius to take responsibility of his own (Claudius') actions by saying that he was only taking his advice; implies that because of the king's death, the kingdom is perceived as weak and vulnerable to attack (again implying he is needed to steady it and make it strong); and stresses the weakness and infirmity of the king of Norway, implying that he may not be able to be counted on and therefore, who is the only one left strong and able to save Denmark? That's right ..... Claudius! Wow! His nerve and deft ability at manipulation is breathtaking! And he chastizes Hamlet for mourning too long. Two months?! That is nothing. I thought a mourning period often lasted a year. Laertes, however, does not appear to think much of Claudius.

    1. Cleopatra, yes! Claudius is quite the speech-maker, isn't he? Very much the politician, very smooth and manipulative. Though I think he's speaking not just to Polonius with the whole "Nor have we herein barred Your better wisdoms, which have freely gone With this affair along." I think that's addressed to all the courtiers and nobles hanging out at court. Basically saying that not only did they approve his kingship, but also his marrying Gertrude. Which includes Polonius, of course. But you're so right -- he totally foists the responsibility/blame off on them. Smooth and slippery man.

      And yes, Hamlet's mourning is not the weird thing here at all. Remarrying after a month, and putting off mourning -- that's the weird thing. We and Hamlet know this, but the rest of the court seem to be purposely ignoring it.

      I'm very fond of Laertes -- after Horatio and Hamlet, he's my favorite character in this play. What leads you to believe he doesn't think much of Claudius?

    2. It was more Laertes tone than anything else. It was like, "Okay, I've come back, I've seen you crowned .... can I go now?" He's done his duty and wants out.

      Here's my post for Act I Scene II:

    3. Cleopatra, ahh, that makes sense. Yes, he's very terse and just "can I go now?" here.

      I'll pull your post up now so I can read it when I get a few more free minutes!

  4. I don't mind the length of this post at all - I'm very wordy, myself, though, so that might have something to do with it. :) Anyway, I read Scene 2 this morning from a teeny-tiny copy of Hamlet that I own (not as small as the one I sent you, though). It feels so good to have such a compact copy to tote around. :)

    So far, I'm liking Hamlet's loyalty as a son (to his father, at least). I have to confess that I don't know anything about how the story goes (really, I don't), so I'm looking forward to seeing how it all turns out.

    1. Eva, ooh, another teeny tiny copy? How do you keep finding these things? :-)

      My goodness, this is going to be an exciting ride if you don't even know how things turn out!

    2. Well, Dad gave me a lovely wee box set of 'The Complete Shakespeare' for my last birthday, I believe (I can't remember exactly when) and you wouldn't believe how small the volumes are (there are ten in all), how many plays they squeeze into each one, and yet how relatively large the font is. After I finish Hamlet, I'm planning on reading through the whole set.

      The temptation to read ahead is great, let me tell you. :)

    3. That's so cool! I have a vast tome of all his plays and sonnets in one book and it's such a pain to lug around. Your set sounds much better.

      That temptation to read ahead is not evil. I won't scold you if you do.

    4. Hehe. I don't think I'll do so, though, because it's easier to understand the story if I just follow your notes.

  5. Well -- I was predisposed to like Hamlet, but I didn't need to be. I already like him more than I expected. His speeches are wonderful. :)

    Those background details are very interesting. Thanks for including those!

    As far as Horatio and the King, I took it to mean that he had really only seen him once, and "knew" meant "recognized." I just figured that when he saw him the one time it was up-close enough that the remembered what he looked like.

    1. Sarah, yes, he's so splendidly intelligent that one can't help but sympathize with him. I'm glad you like him! His soliloquies are delicious.

  6. So much new information in one scene!
    I think we got a good idea of Hamlet's character really quickly. (An advantage of monologues)
    I think you're right, he doesn't suspect any foul play yet - he is just mourning his father, and puzzled by his mother's new marriage.

    1. Rose, it's true -- all those internal thoughts laid bare really let us get to know Hamlet quickly. Love them.

  7. I thought these lines about the late king were beautiful: "So loving to my mother / That he might not beteem the winds of heaven / Visit her face too roughly."

    Thought: to someone who didn't know the story already (i.e. a new audience in Shakespeare's time), is there anything in this scene that would make them suspicious of Claudius and Gertrude? Maybe not...except once Hamlet starts giving his opinion of the marriage, it does make all their smooth speeches early in the scene look a little hypocritical.

    I love how Shakespeare paints the personalities of his characters so vividly with only dialogue. For instance, when Hamlet and Horatio are talking about the funeral and the wedding, Horatio is basically prudent and discreet and says the polite thing, while Hamlet (perhaps, as a prince, privileged to speak his mind more freely) is sarcastic. ("Thrift, thrift, Horatio!")

    Incidentally, I think I recall seeing the phrase "the funeral baked meats" quoted in an Agatha Christie mystery, when two characters are discussing a meal for assembled relatives after a death in the family.

    1. Elisabeth, I think you're right, that someone who doesn't know what Hamlet suspects would probably not see much wrong with Gertrude and Claudius, other than a hasty remarriage. They're one of Shakespeare's most loving couples, really, and if murder and stuff hadn't gotten in the way, I bet they could have been happy together.

      Yes, Horatio's very tactful and careful, all through the play. Definitely knows his way around important people and how to say what he means without giving offense.

      Sherlock Holmes quotes this play a couple times too -- I love it when it pops up in random books! Just ran across this paraphrase in The Bourne Identity: "The English poet said it best: There were more preposterous vicissitudes in life than a single philosophy could conjure." Made me grin because "There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy" is one of my favorite Hamlet lines.

  8. Thank you so much for clearing up my confusion as to why Hamlet wasn't made the new king after the old king's death! I was a little relieved when I looked at the comments and saw that others were puzzled by that as well!

    I feel so much sympathy for Hamlet in this scene! His father hasn't even been dead for two months (it took one of my closest friends two years to get over the death of her dad!) and he's been cheated out of his birthright. And his mother's already moved on and married her brother-in-law and no-one at the court seems to understand or care why Hamlet's so upset about this. At one point Claudius even tells Hamlet that he's being "unmanly" for showing his grief - which always makes me want to hit him on Hamlet's behalf!

    I just love Hamlet's character right from this scene. Even though his heart is broken - that soliloquy of his in this scene is so moving, beautiful and powerful - you can see that he still has plenty of sass and humour in this scene e.g. that first aside of his. Hamlet's as witty as Benedick from 'Much Ado About Nothing' imo.

    To answer two of the questions you posed:

    - I don't think that Hamlet suspects that it was Claudius who killed his father but he definitely dislikes and distrusts the man (understandably so) and I think his intuition is already telling him that his father's death was suspicious (there's that line "I doubt some foul play" and then later on "Oh my prophetic soul").

    - I'm perfectly okay with the length of this post. I loved reading it and seeing everyone else's comments :)

    1. Hannah, you too, huh? That had always puzzled me, so I was super happy to find out that they were an elective monarchy -- it all makes sense now!

      Yes, Claudius needs slapping when he does his whole "tis unmanly grief" line. I love seeing how different Hamlets react to that -- disgust, annoyance, anger, surprise... always intriguing.

      Hamlet is simply brilliant. I love how he's so sarcastic and very often, nobody gets that he's being sarcastic, so he totally gets away with saying snarky stuff. I went through a phase not long ago where I was like, "You know, I love the play, but I'm not sure I love Hamlet himself." Silly me. I love him greatly. Must've been some kind of weird hormones from one of my pregnancies or something.

      I don't see my posts getting any shorter, so I'm glad nobody minds that they're long!

    2. Yes! I'm so glad that you changed your mind about Hamlet! I love Hamlet's character; he's hilarious (which you pointed out so well!) and I love how sensitive, thoughtful and fiercely intelligent he is :)

      The only aspect of Hamlet's character that I find frustrating is his meanness towards Ophelia at times. I'm not the biggest fan of Ophelia - I've always found her rather bland and have never understood what first attracted Hamlet to her - but, yeah, Hamlet definitely seems to be taking his anger with Gertrude out on her. But I forgive Hamlet for that because he's ill. He's depressed and he isn't always thinking rationally.

    3. I don't recommend the Nicol Williamson version of Hamlet from the '60s, because it's dull as tombs, BUT they did one thing that I loved: the whole nunnery scene was played with Hamlet and Ophelia canoodling, and they're saying these things but obviously don't mean them -- it's a flirty little love scene. And he's not angry with Ophelia over the whole spying thing, he's understanding IIRC, so it all worked SO WELL and I was happy.

      But yes, he's very emotionally overwrought by that point -- I mean, he was just discussing suicide moments earlier! Not at a healthy place. So I cut him some slack, or try to.

  9. I have to admit, I judge my Hamlets by their Horatios. The relationship has to be there. 2 least favorite, Olivier with his Horatio with the part chopped to pieces& wearing a truly weird Christmas tree bubble light pants, and Nicol Williamson's doddering old fool who has trouble reading a letter. As of now, I cannot imagine a more perfect pair than of Campbell Scott and John Benjamin Hickey. I sat down one night to count the number of times they touch.*44* in about 3 hours. Nothing sexual about it - embraces, touches on the shoulder or arm.If you get to see it, I think you'll appreciate it. It is an irrevocably deep friendship.

    :^) I like that ghost/vampire By Invitation Only. It hits me as odd that Gertrude cannot see or hear the ghost in her room. It bugged me so much that I eventually revised it, and added Horatio to the scene.More on that later. (LOL: laugh out loud, or little old lady.) I agree with the vote for Patrick Stewart as one of the best Claudius's.
    He balances kingly behavior with villany - keeps you guessing, doesn't he?

    Laertes, hm? Hamelette has nudged me into a ,well, begrudging approval of him. I guess we could call him a cold hearted sneak vs a man distraught by the losses that overwhelm him. Ophelia - well, she is too dependent on her father, Yes Daddy, No Daddy. No doubt, when Hamlet realizes Polonius and the King are eavesdropping on his meeting, he believes she is in on it, as she is, though timidly. O Daddy! Polonius ... I would agree that he makes a number of errors, but y'know I say cut him some slack.Let's agree that he was probably a good councillor to the King Hamlet, or why keep him? But he is struggling to please Claudius, putting even his daughter at risk. Ophelia really needs more spunk. I do think Shakespeare (Sx) was creating dual mental illnesses, Ophelia's reaction to her loss vs Hamlet's behavior that swings wildly from manic to depressive. Sx wasn't familiar with bipolar disorder, of course. (Incidentaly, Olivier himself has been after the fact diagnosed as BP. In one stage performance, he threw himself from a raised stage onto Claudius- knocking Claudius out & breaking his own ankle.)

    "These are but wild and whirling words, my Lord." My favorite quote. So, with personal admission, I say
    I'm myself bipolar - pretty significantly so - & if Sx had had a text book, he couldn't have done it better. When I was hospitalized for 10 days, I spent 7 days writing swirls of "wild and whirling words."

    The staff tried to distract me with library trip "to pick a funny book
    WaaaHooo. HAMLET! I wrapped myself in a sheet & walked battlements/hall.

    til later! Adieu.


    1. Kelda, yes, you're much less forgiving of a bad Horatio than I am. You're making me want to rewatch the Olivier now, though, just to see those "Christmas tree bubble light pants," hee!

      I sometimes wonder if Gertrude can't see the ghost because she doesn't want to?

      Do you think Polonius knows/suspects that Claudius offed King Hamlet, and is afraid he might be next? And so he's going to great lengths to be pleasing and helpful?

      If Hamlet is bi-polar, then he's not so much driven mad as simply has his symptoms/behavior brought to the fore?


What do you think?

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)