Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Hamlet Read-Along: Act I, Scene 3

First off, does anyone have ideas for guest posts for this read-along?  I have Carissa down for reviewing two versions, but no one else so far.  You can sign up on any read-along post, or on this page, which also shows what's "taken."  You can review a movie version (negative and positive reviews welcome), do a character sketch, whatever you dream up.

So this is the scene in which Polonius and his children give each other lots of advice.  Really, that's about all that happens here, other than establishing that Hamlet's been professing to love Ophelia.  Did this start before or after his father's death?  I kind of think before, but certainly it's been a fairly recent development, since Polonius seems only peripherally aware of it.  Either that or they've been keeping it a secret really well.

When talking about Hamlet choosing a bride, Laertes says, "on his choice depends The safety and health of this whole state," (19-20) and he's saying something wiser than he knows, isn't he?  The health and safety of Denmark and especially its heads of state depend on Hamlet's choices of what to do with the information he'll receive from the Ghost.

I always get a kick out of Polonius' idea of what "few" means.  His "few precepts" for Laertes to remember run on for 22 lines.

Favorite Lines:

"I shall the effect of this good lesson keep
As watchman to my heart" (44-45).

"Those friends thou has, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them unto thy soul with hoops of steel" (61-62).

"Give every man thy ear but few thy voice" (67).

"This above all:  to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man" (77-79).

Possible Discussion Questions:

A lot of times, Polonius gets portrayed as very abrupt and terse toward Ophelia, but I think you can also read this section as him being very caring and concerned for her welfare.  The same goes for his interaction with Laertes -- Polonius may be a tedious old windbag, but he gives good advice.  I think his "to thine own self be true" (77) gets quoted at least as much as "To be or not to be."  What do you think?  Is he concerned about their welfare, or only about how their behavior reflects on himself?

22 comments:

  1. I thought that too when I read that line from Laertes: the whole fate of Denmark depends not just on Hamlet's choice of a wife, but also on the choices he'll make in the future regarding the ghost's commands. Cool!

    I always got the idea that Polonius means well, especially where his children are concerned. His main fault, I think, is assuming that he's always right no matter what. As we see in this scene, he is capable of giving some very sage advice, but I think moments like that make him think he understands *everything* and how he sees it is how it must be. He's not really a bad guy, just a bit too prideful.

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    1. Hanna, I like to hope Polonius means well. He's too sneaky for me to truly like, and too toadying, but I like to think he cares about is kids. So many productions have him almost bullying Ophelia, which always bugs me.

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  2. I know what you mean- such wise advice coming from Polonius of all people seems incongruous to say the least. I think that his concern for his kids and his concern for his reputation are probably so closely linked together that it would be hard to separate them. No doubt his worry about Laertes and Ophelia is genuine, but it's at least partially rooted in his sense of self pride. Laertes is his heir; if he goofs off and fails at school, and foolishly squanders money, he risks both Polonius' good name and fortune. If Ophelia disgraces herself, not only would this bring shame on the whole family, but it would make arranging a beneficial and lucrative marriage for her well nigh impossible.

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    1. Lynn, incongruous is a good way to put it! Maybe he read a bunch of this in a book of wise proverbs? Or maybe Shakespeare is trying to tell us that Polonius might be tedious and old, but he's not actually a fool, but merely plays the fool to seem innocuous around people he's spying on?

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  3. I wonder, why do both Laertes and Polonius seem so set against Hamlet? Are they just suspicious by nature, or over-protective of Ophelia, or do they have a genuine reason to distrust or dislike him? Laertes seems to be saying, beware of Hamlet making rash promises that his responsibilities won't allow him to keep—but Polonius just seems convinced that Hamlet isn't sincere at all.

    I don't really get a sense of Ophelia's character from this scene—does she care anything for Hamlet, or not? She seems to accept pretty much everything her father and brother say without questioning much.

    Slightly off-topic, have you ever seen the episode of The Virginian "First to Thine Own Self"? The title comes from a character slightly misquoting that line, and there's a conversation about the speech and what it really means.

    Even further off-topic...did you ever see the episode of Gilligan's Island where the castaways put on a musical performance of Hamlet? I'll never forget the Skipper singing "Neither a borrower nor a lender be" to the tune of Bizet's Toreador March. :)

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    1. Elisabeth, I think they're worried more than against him. Because obviously a marriage to the prince would be an amazing thing -- but they're sure it's not going to happen because princes marry princesses, that's how it's done. Royal marriages have to be all about facilitating alliances, and so even though they both admit Hamlet might actually love Ophelia, they don't believe he'll be allowed to marry her. That's my take.

      Ophelia's very docile, isn't she? We never really get to learn what she feels or wants about any of this -- does she love Hamlet? Does she think she does?

      Nope, haven't seen that Virginian ep, but you're making me want to :-)

      And yes, I've seen the Gilligan version -- it's a hoot! Pretty clever too.

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  4. Mmmm, romance! :D "To thine own self be true" always reminds me of that Gilligan's Island episode that Elisabeth mentioned! Can't... get... it.. out... I think it's because I learned that song on the flute around the time I watched a lot of Gilligan's Island, so every time I played it, I'd hear the singing in my head. It kinda ruined both the song and the line! :P

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    1. Sarah, it's the Gilligan version of "Is it to be or not to be" that always gets stuck on repeat in my head -- oh well. I've had worse things stuck :-)

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  5. Hmm. I didn't think about Polonius being worried that their behavior would reflect on him, but I guess I can't trust any character except maybe Horatio. I'm beginning to like him, even though I haven't seen him that much so far.

    After thinking about it, I think Polonius does care for his children, but he also definitely knows that their actions are going to reflect on him. I'm not sure if I trust him, but I also don't want to form an opinion of him right away since I just found out he existed. :-)

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    1. Ekaterina, you are a kind and charitable person :-) (Keep trusting Horatio!)

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  6. So, Ophelia is in this scene! I've been hearing stuff about her in books and blog posts for ages but 1) I didn't even know which play she was in and 2) I didn't know anything about her. :P So this'll be interesting.

    I'm guessing Polonius doesn't like Hamlet? Orphelia says all that stuff about Hamlet liking her and making "many tenders/Of his affection to me" and Polonius just dismisses all of that and says Hamlet isn't to be trusted. And he doesn't seem to have much of a reason for that except the fact that Hamlet is still quite young.

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    1. Eva, yup, this is what Ophelia is in :-)

      I think that Polonius probably doesn't like Hamlet because... Hamlet is always making jokes at Polonius' expense that Polonius only half-gets or half-acknowledges. Imagine having to deal with a prince like that for his whole life -- Polonius must be so sick of that smarty-pants prince.

      But Polonius is also being very sensible, because back then, princes and princesses married each other, not even members of the nobility. Marriages were for facilitating alliances between countries, not about who you loved. Even if Hamlet truly loves Ophelia, he probably wouldn't be "allowed" to marry her because he'd need to marry a princess for political advantages.

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    2. Yeah, I wouldn't like Hamlet if I were Polonius, either. :)

      Huh. I didn't think about it in that way, but it's totally true. Now I've got to go catch up with the next couple of acts. (Pinterest keeps distracting me.)

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    3. Oh, that Pinterest! It's so useful, but sooooooooooooooo pesky too.

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  7. Polonius really annoys me but I do love how Shakespeare humanises him in this scene. It's hard for me not to feel a grudging respect for the person who said "to thine own self be true".

    BUT that being said I do find Polonius and Laertes' advice to Ophelia in this scene faintly condescending even if it is well meant. Okay so princes would usually marry princesses but it's not *that* inconceivable that Claudius would sanction a marriage between Hamlet and Ophelia given that Polonius is his right-hand man. There have been a few instances in English history where royals married commoners. And if they still doubt it then why not try to subtly sound Claudius out on the matter? If, erm, Polonius can do subtle...

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    1. Hannah, I think it's also not that inconceivable that Hamlet would marry Ophelia to spite his uncle-stepfather.

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    2. I was thinking that as well.

      This is slightly off-topic but it's something I've been meaning to ask you, how old do you think Hamlet is? I know most scholars reckon that he's about 30 but when I read the play I often get the impression that he's younger than that (e.g. those lines from Laertes in this scene that go on about Hamlet's youth). Either way I think it would be really cool if Hamlet was portrayed by 20-something actors more often..

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    3. Sigh. The age thing. It's so puzzling, isn't it? At the beginning, he's acting like he's in his 20s, but then of course the gravedigger's statements would put him more at 30. It's as if Shakespeare just didn't care how old we think Hamlet is, that it wasn't important to him. My one thought on how Hamlet could be 30 but still be hanging out at the University and calling Horatio his fellow student is that perhaps they were sort of understudy professors or PAs or something -- guys who loved the collegiate world and didn't want to leave it. Or even "professional students" while Hamlet waits to assume official duties in Denmark.

      I think part of why we don't see 20-something actors portray him very often is that they can't bring the depth of portrayal the part demands -- it seems to be something actors grow into as they reach their 30s or even 40s. Of course, there are some actors who in their 20s would rock the role, but perhaps they just aren't famous enough yet, or directors don't trust their youth or something?

      Either way, I'm getting really excited about seeing a certain 41-year-old in the role tomorrow night!!!!

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    4. Yeah, Shakespeare does leave it pretty ambiguous and it probably wasn't very important to him but it's just something that I find interesting.

      I know Trevor Nunn cast Ben Whishaw to play Hamlet when he was either 23 or 24. He was an unknown at the time and he won huge acclaim for it. From what I've gathered the critics couldn't believe that an actor as young as him could pull the character off. When I first found that out I thought it was really weird since 23 isn't even that young. It's not like they'd cast an 18 year old! But, yeah, there must be other actors in their 20s out there who could pull the character off but they'd need to have so much maturity to play that emotional depth. Overall I don't have much of a preference when it comes to Hamlet's age - as long as the actor rocks the part then that's all that matters right?! - but I do think that a truly brilliant performance from a 20-something Hamlet would definitely add to the tragedy of the story.

      Haha, I know! I'm really starting to get excited about it now! I mean, I was looking forward to it before but now I'm getting properly excited! :D

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    5. Oh, it fascinates me too, if only because we can't Know For Sure, so there are so many options to think about.

      A younger Hamlet definitely adds to the tragedy! I think the youngest I've seen was in their early 30s. My alma mater put on Hamlet a few years ago, and I've discovered they've put it on YouTube, so I'm hoping to watch that soon, and that would definitely have a college-age Hamlet.

      It's tonight! Oh, Hannah, it's tonight! I may go slightly mad myself with anticipation.

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  8. I got a quite positive impression of Polonius from this scene. Sure, he gives alot of advice, but that is what fathers do, and it is sound advice (especially "to thine own self be true").
    On the other hand I was surprised that he and Laertes were so negative against Hamlet's and Ophelia's relationship - but it do make sense what the other commenters said: that they believed a marriage between them couldn't happen.

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    1. Rose, he does have a lot of practical knowledge and sense here, doesn't he? It's interesting how the theme of being true to yourself versus doing what someone else wants gets used throughout the play -- Hamlet being told he has to avenge his father's murder whether he wants to or not, etc.

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What do you think?

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