Saturday, October 10, 2015

Hamlet Read-Along: Act I, Scene 5

If you've ever heard the song "That's Entertainment," that line where it says "A ghost and a prince meet, and everyone ends in mincemeat" is talking about Hamlet :-)  That line pops into my head whenever I read this scene.

Everything kicks up a notch in intensity in this scene.  The Ghost declares it is Hamlet's father's spirit and spends a bunch of time telling Hamlet he can't tell him just how horrible purgatory is.  Roman Catholics teach that purgatory is a sort of hellacious middle-world where believers go to atone for their sins before going to heaven.  The word "purgatory" doesn't get used here, but with the line about foul crimes being "burned and purged away" (13), it's pretty clear that's what the Ghost is talking about.  Shakespeare lived in militantly Protestant England, but he sets his play in still-Catholic Denmark, and in the past, so he gets away with this blatantly Catholic reference that otherwise might have gotten him in trouble.  If you want to dig into this whole issue more deeply, Stephen Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory is revelatory.

So anyway, the Ghost informs Hamlet that GASP! he was murdered by Claudius, who thereby acquired both crown and queen.  He says that if Hamlet ever loved his father, he needs to avenge this "Murder most foul" (27) -- he lays on the guilt pretty thick, I think.  Sir John Gielgud calls him "a bit of a tyrant" (JGDRBIH p. 58), and I would remove the "a bit of," to be honest.

Hamlet seems to have had some suspicion about this already, as he says, "O my prophetic soul!  My uncle!" (40-41).  We know Hamlet already suspected his uncle of being an icky person, what with marrying Gertrude so quickly, and this just adds to that, I think.  I don't believe Hamlet suspected his father had been murdered before this, but that's just my take -- I could be wrong.  Perhaps he felt there was something off about his father's death, but didn't want to believe it could have been murder?  

Interestingly, the Ghost insists Hamlet not try to punish Gertrude in any way.  Some productions have Gertrude totally innocent of any knowledge of Claudius' murderous ways, some have her a little suspicious but trying to ignore it, and some have her totally in on it, all of which can get really interesting.  The Ghost's insistence that she be left to heaven makes me think she knew nothing, but then again, the Ghost might just want to believe that.  Hmm.

I really like the "ears" motif in this play.  First the Ghost says, "So the whole ear of Denmark Is by a forged process of my death Rankly abused" (36-38), and then he reveals that Claudius poured poison right into his ears!  Later on, Claudius is going to say that gossip has infected Laertes' ears, and himself pour poisonous words into Laertes with his subtle, crafty speech.  The Ghost here is pouring the poison of suspicion and vengeance into Hamlet, via words that enter his ears.  And we the audience have Hamlet's innermost thoughts poured into us as the words he speaks enter our ears.  It's just such a cool thread to have running through the play!

Did you get the little joke in Hamlet's line "whiles memory holds a seat In this distracted globe" (96-97)?  Shakespeare co-owned and co-ran a theater called The Globe, where Hamlet was first performed.  So that line is a fun play-on-words.  

Hamlet gets very wacky after the Ghost leaves, doesn't he?  I tend to feel like he does go a little nuts there.  Back in Scene 4, Horatio says that the Ghost might "deprive your sovereignty of reason" (73), which means it might stop reason from ruling over Hamlet ("your sovereignty" here could also be used like "your worship," or "your highness," but it also means "the sovereignty reason has over you").  I think Horatio's fears are proved pretty well founded for a little bit.  I don't think Hamlet actually goes entirely mad, but he's kind of over-ecstatic, isn't he?  Just so excited and confused and astonished and emotionally over-wrought that he can't think straight.  Which is a sort of madness, and definitely involves his reason not reigning over him.

Dear Horatio, who at the end of the last scene insisted "Heaven will direct" what was going to happen (91), here begs, "Heavens secure him!" (115) when he and Marcellus run onstage looking for Hamlet.  I love how worried he is about his friend.

Quick note I just learned from my edition -- when Hamlet says "Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatio" (138), Saint Patrick was believed to guard the entrance to purgatory.  So it's almost like he's cluing his friend in that the Ghost has come from purgatory there.  I think that's cool.

Finally, Hamlet tells Horatio and Marcellus he's going to "put an antic disposition on" (172) and pretend to be mad, though he doesn't actually tell them why.  He doesn't tell them what the Ghost said, either, just that he believes it to be honest.  Oh, and when he says, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy" (167-68), I hold with those who say he doesn't mean Horatio's own personal philosophy, but just philosophy in general.  He's not slamming Horatio here, he's saying things that are strange aren't necessarily wrong, they're just not something you can think your way to -- you have to believe and accept them for what they are. 

Oh, here's another funny Hamlet comic for you, all about the "fretful porpentine" line.  It makes me chuckle.

(More) Favorite Lines:

"Murder most foul, as in the best it is,
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural" (27-28).

"Methinks I scent the morning air" (58).

"Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand
Of life, of crown, of queen at once dispatched" (75).

"Oh, horrible, oh, horrible, most horrible!" (80).

"And thy commandment all alone shall live
Within the book and volume of my brain,
Unmixed with baser matter" (102-04).

"That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain -- 
At least I am sure it may be so in Denmark" (108-09).

"These are but wild and whirling words, my lord" (135)."

"The time is out of join.  O cursed spite,
That ever I was born to set it right!" (188-89).

(More) Possible Discussion Questions:

Has the Ghost driven Hamlet a bit mad?  Or is he faking from the get-go?  (There's no right answer here -- this has been debated for centuries.)

Is the Ghost truthful?  Does it matter if it is or not, since Hamlet believes it is?

Do you think Horatio and Marcellus hear the Ghost adjure them to "swear," or is Hamlet is the only one who hears the Ghost speak?  I've seen it played both ways -- what differences would that make to whether or not we can believe the Ghost?


  1. Does Hamlet actually end up telling Horatio and Marcellus what the Ghost said? I couldn't figure out when I read the last part of the scene this morning.

    I *knew* Claudius killed Hamlet (the elder)! I just knew it. :)

    1. He doesn't tell them here. He does eventually tell Horatio, though off-stage, and later on. I don't know if he tells Marcellus or not - -Marcellus isn't really in the rest of the play.

    2. Ah. I didn't *think* he'd told them then, but wasn't sure.

  2. I love how Shakespeare includes the Purgatory references here--whenever I read that I'm always like, "YEAH! Way to evade the censors, buddy!" :)

    Just to be clear--Lutherans don't believe in Purgatory, right? I was pretty sure it was only us Catholics. I always think of it as God's way of giving us humans a "second chance" :)

    1. Jessica, yeah, purgatory is a uniquely Roman Catholic teaching. There is some evidence that Shakespeare and his parents were closet Catholics -- Stephen Greenblatt goes into that a ton in both Hamlet in Purgatory and his wonderful Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare.

    2. I actually did an honors project on that in my Shakespeare class last year! It was really fun--I basically wrote this pretend dialogue between Shakespeare and Richard Burbage where Shakespeare tells him he's a secret Catholic and Burbage is . . . Quite Shocked. ;) I went through all the plays and pulled out the bits and pieces where Shakespeare says stuff that sounds "Catholic"--including this scene, actually.

    3. Jessica, that's very cool! I can imagine Burbage would be Quite Shocked :-)

  3. Interesting to hear of the "ear thread", I hadn't thought of that. And yes, I caugth the Globe line, though I wasn't sure if it was intentional or not.
    That comic is one of the funniest things, I laughed so much!

    I don't think Hamlet was per say mad efter talking to the ghost, but he was strangely secretive and a bit paranoid (though that coul also come from the revelation that his uncle is a cold blooded killer)

    1. Rose, the whole "ear" thing is my own idea, actually -- I haven't read anyone else pointing out all the stuff about ears in this play. I'm sure other people have, though. It crops up in Act II again too.

      I must admit that Cowboy and I call our son "the fretful porpentine" now and then because he does seem to enjoy fretting.

      Hamlet definitely has reason to be paranoid! Claudius already pointed out that Hamlet is next in line for the throne... what if he decides to preemptively dispatch Hamlet so Hamlet won't stage a coup or have him killed? Yikes.

  4. I missed the "ear" references in common, so thanks for pointing that out!

    I didn't think Hamlet was going mad. His reaction seemed natural for someone who is already conflicted by doubts but then (I think) is told that things are much more "foul" than he could possibly have imagined. His whole world is turned upside down and I think his reaction is understandable. I do think that he plans to present a type of madness when he tells H & M that if he starts to act differently, they cannot make any references to what happened there that night. So far, I think he's sane, but with a plan. We'll see how it plays out .....

    I should read the Greenblatt books. I know that he's popular but he's slammed at bit in more academic circles for shoddy research and ad hominem. Some of his books are respected but some ..... aren't.

    1. Cleopatra, I like "sane, with a plan."

      Yeah, both Greenblatt and Harold Bloom are in some circles respected and in some... not. (Well, Bloom mostly just gets accused being a fuddy-duddy, I think.) I like kind of gleaning what I think is reasonable/truthful/sensible from them, and everyone else I read involving Shakespeare or specifically Hamlet.

    2. Have you read any of the older commentaries, like Hazlitt, Johnson, Oliphant, etc.?? It is so interesting to read them, not only because they have some wonderful insights, but because they can be exactly opposite of some of the newer commentaries. It's curious how popular opinion plays into everything .....

    3. I've read stuff by Hazlitt, but it was a while ago. The others aren't familiar to me, but I tend to buy random editions of the play at used book sales just to read their notes and commentaries, so it's possible I have. I'm actually working on a post about how many different copies of the play I have, lol. So yes, it's pretty interesting how things change! Which is why I chose Gielgud and Bloom to bring into my posts, because Bloom's book is only a couple years old, but the Gielgud is from when he directed the play in the '60s after having played the role repeatedly since 1930, so I felt like that gave kind of a range to their reactions. (Also, they're my two favorite books on the play.)

    4. Obviously, they're both "modern" as in from the 20th and 21st century.

  5. Neat insights on this one. And I like that, that no one knows or agrees about the innocence level of the Queen. I'll have to consider what I think about that one.

    1. Thanks, Sarah! And yes, Gertrude can be played so many different ways -- I love the nuances you can bring to the character because she's not exactly crystal in the text.

  6. I was rather upset at Hamlet while I read this scene. This is what I was thinking. "What on earth are you doing?! You automatically listen to this ghost and believe him. How do you know if he isn't your father? Maybe he's an evil spirit. Have you completely lost your senses? Why didn't you listen to Horatio? Oh great! What's going to happen now?" thoughts are kind of silly but seriously, I don't think Hamlet should have trusted the ghost right off the bat.

    I'm not sure if the ghost drove Hamlet mad but I definitely think that if Hamlet actually does become mad, then it was because he let the ghost make his mad.

    I don't think it matters if it matters if the ghost's information is accurate or not in the story because Hamlet believes him. I'm not sure about other readers, but I personally would want to know as a reader if the information was truthful or not.

    As I was reading the part where Hamlet is asking Horatio and Marcellus to swear on the sword, I was wondering if they could hear the ghost. As the reader, I knew what the ghost was saying, but it didn't seem like Horatio and Marcellus were responding. Do you think Horatio and Marcellus could hear the ghost?

    1. Ekaterina, that's so interesting and exciting to me! Really quite good reaction -- I love that you're questioning Hamlet's seemingly blind agreement to go kill off his uncle at the word of an apparition. Fear not! He's not going to go trotting off to dispatch Claudius immediately -- that's why this play is so long :-)

      And you're right that it doesn't matter within the play if the Ghost is truthful or not, so long as Hamlet believes him. As a reader, we definitely want more proof -- and this does play out a bit like a murder mystery in some ways, so there will be clues.

      I've seen it the "Swear" scene played both ways -- in some productions, they can hear the Ghost, and in others, only Hamlet hears him and the others are confused. I think both work, to be honest. Having them not hear means Hamlet is the only one who ever hears the Ghost speak, so it would support a "Hamlet is making this all up" theory, but I don't care for that theory anyway.

  7. Yay! I've finally finished Act 1!

    When it comes to the question of Hamlet's madness I believe I think the same as you. I do believe that Hamlet has some kind of a mental health struggle going on as his behaviour is definitely overwrought and irrational at times - which is actually very understandable given his depression and all of the stress that he's under! - but I still believe that he's ultimately sane. He's clearly not mad on the level of Ophelia or Bertha Mason! For example, that play to test Claudius's guilt is a brilliant idea and would a mad person have been able to come with it? I really can't see how.

    And can we just take a moment and thank Shakespeare for being courageous enough to write this play?! Even though the play is set in the past the implication that the Ghost has come from purgatory is still clearly there and it was a brave, brave thing to have written!

    1. Hooray for you, Hannah!

      Yes, I think that in Ophelia we have a picture of someone who goes totally mad, whereas Hamlet mostly just pretends to be mad -- perhaps pretends to be mad so as to really stay sane? The play is all about fiction versus reality, so with Hamlet we have the fictional madness, and with Ophelia we have the reality.

      And yes, Shakespeare was pretty gutsy to write this and include recognizably Catholic things, and also portraying mental illness for any reason but to get laughs.

  8. Y'know the quip, "If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail."? I 'nailed' Hamlet from the first time. I also fell in love with Horatio in the same film. Richard Chamberlain as Hamlet, & I think (long time ago) Brian Bedford as Horatio. 90-minute cut, but I didn't know any different, Late '60's, a Hallmark Hall of Fame TV Production. It was issued as an LP, but as far I know, never came out in video.

    Even from the first viewing, I wondered why would anyone doubt his illness? Why does he say he'll put on an antic disposition? If we accept my prof's assertion that all soliloquies are truthful, because no one can lie to himself, just take a trip through the soliloquies.


    1. Kelda, it's so cool that you loved Hamlet from the first :-)

      And I like the idea you can't lie in a soliloquy. I do think Hamlet's faking his madness -- I take him at his word. He's antic, but not mad.

      (Just thought of an interesting similarity in the words "antic" and "antique" -- one used to describe Hamlet, the other Horatio.)


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