Saturday, October 17, 2015

Hamlet Read-Along: Act II, Scene 2 -- Part Two

Picking back up where we left off on Thursday, with line 313, and here comes Polonius to tell Hamlet what he already knows, thanks to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:  a troupe of players has arrived at Elsinore.  Hamlet behaves a little off-kilter again when Polonius is there, but mostly he's just being rude and snarky.

Polonius gets another funny bit here, as he drones on and on about all the possible combinations of genres these players like to perform.  Shakespeare wrote a lot of plays that combine genres, so I feel like he's almost poking a little fun at himself and his own acting company here, saying they can't help throwing as many things into a play as possible.  After all, many of his tragedies are rooted in histories, his history plays often swing tragic or comic, and some of his comedies contain so many tragic elements we call them "problem plays" because they refuse to be neatly categorized.

Okay, anyway, here enters Hamlet's other father-figure:  the First Player, also referred to as the Player King.  King Hamlet may be Hamlet's physical father, but the First Player seems to me to be his sort of creative father.  Mentor, older and wiser friend, guide.  Here we learn that Hamlet is not only a devoted fan of theater, but something of an actor himself.  Surely anything he has learned from theater about acting has been helping him with his pretending to be mad.

Hamlet asks the First Player for a speech Hamlet heard once and liked -- and considering he's only heard it once, wow, Hamlet remembers a whole bunch of it, doesn't he?  There's that fierce intelligence of his again.  It's a bit of a play about the sacking of Troy, and I'm going to share this bit of it from Branagh's Hamlet (1996) because I like how the First Player (Charlton Heston) speaks the speech with great passion, but also, they show the scene being acted out by Judi Dench as Hecuba and John Gielgud as Priam.  This is the only way I get to include a scene of John Gielgud in Hamlet, even though he's not playing the title role.

Okay, so why does Hamlet ask for this particular speech?  What is going on in it?  Well, Pyrrhus is the son of Achilles, and he's killing King Priam to avenge his father's death, while Queen Hecuba looks on and mourns.  Suddenly you see why this scene might have readily jumped to Hamlet's mind, why he might desire to hear and see it performed.  Whether anyone else yet gets the connection between it and what's been happening in Elsinore, we don't know.

Also, there's that ear motif again, did you catch it?  The city crashes down around them and "[t]akes prisoner Pyrrhus' ear" (407), which just means catches his attention, but it not only catches his attention, it causes him to do nothing (412).  And Hamlet will soon reveal via soliloquy that he's upset with himself because he's been doing nothing about the information he has heard.  And during that speech, he'll also toss off the idea of "cleav[ing] the general ear with horrid speech" (489).  Once you start looking for them, those ears are everywhere.

The First Player is moved to tears by the scene he's reenacting, and Hamlet thanks him for such a moving performance, then tells Polonius to find them a place to stay and so on.  He tells us just how important he thinks actors and plays are:  "they are the abstract and brief chronicles of the time.  After your death you were better have a bad epitaph than their ill report while you live" (453-56).  Of course, Shakespeare, being an actor and a playwright, would probably think actors and plays are important, but Hamlet thinking so as well makes us understand how dedicated he is to plays and playacting.  And since this whole play is about the difference between truth and pretending, that's pretty important, I think.

And, hey, check it out!  Hamlet is a bit of a playwright himself -- he plans to write up 12-16 lines to add to the play.  I find that nifty :-)

So after everyone leaves, we get one of my favorite soliloquies:  the "rogue and peasant slave" speech.  Hamlet compares himself unfavorably to his friend the First Player -- Hamlet has so many reasons to be angry and sad, but he's been wasting his time pretending to be crazy instead.  The First Player, on the other hand, can get himself all worked up over something pretend, a story he's telling.  Hamlet wonders if he's a coward, and hasn't killed Claudius because of that -- he's angry with himself, he's just sort of brainstorming here about why he hasn't killed Claudius yet.  And through that brainstorming, he firms up his new idea of having the players perform a play that resembles the way the Ghost described his murder.  If Claudius freaks out about it, Hamlet will know the Ghost was speaking the truth.

Here's Richard Burton's rendition of this speech, just because I feel like including videos in this post.  

Regicide is serious business.  I don't think Hamlet is a coward -- I think he is very intelligent and cautious, and understands what will very likely happen if he does kill Claudius.  Either he'll be killed himself for his crime, or he'll have to flee and live the rest of his life in exile.  It's no wonder he's been hesitating, is it?  Harold Bloom suggests also that "Hamlet cannot believe that the proper use of his capability and godlike reason is to perform a revenge killing" (Hamlet:  Poem Unlimited, p. 70).  He has his whole life ahead of him, and the Ghost of his dead father says he's bound to throw that away to avenge this murder -- is that at all fair or right?  These can be our Possible Discussion Questions today -- is Hamlet is a coward; why does he wait so long to act; should he even have to do this in the first place?

Favorite Lines:

"Out, out, thou strumpet Fortune!"  (423)

"Use every man after his desert, and who shall 'scape whipping?" (468-69)

"Now I am alone" (475).

"...the devil hath power 
T' assume a pleasing shape" (525-26).

"The play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king" (530-31).


  1. Shakespeare is so amusing... counterbalancing the drama of this scene with Polonius' ridiculous comments :) On a more serious note, I don't think that Hamlet is a coward. It would be foolish indeed for him to rush off to kill Claudius with no proof of his guilt except the word of an apparition. And no, I don't think Hamlet is duty bound to seek revenge for his father. Justice, yes- but not revenge. It probably would have been a better idea for him to get evidence of his uncle's guilt. If he was convicted of regicide he'd be executed, and so would be dead, and without his blood being on Hamlet's hands. Heck, Claudius is feeling guilty enough that he probably would have confessed if given sufficient motivation- like, say, the appearance of his brother's angry ghost. Speaking of which, why didn't ghostly Hamlet Sr. just appear to the whole court and tell them what happened instead of putting the whole burden on Junior? He's dead, and nothing is going to change that, so I don't think much of him for demanding his son ruin his own life just for revenge.

    1. Yup, it's a great balance. And just when Polonius starts to get annoying with his interruptions... Hamlet gets annoyed with him too! So the audience isn't annoyed with the playwright or actors, but with the character. Brilliant.

      I'm not sure who Hamlet would have appealed to with evidence of Claudius' guilt. Remember, this isn't set in Shakespeare's time, even, but in medieval Denmark. The king isn't a president subject to the laws of the land.

      However, I really love your idea of the Ghost appearing to Claudius instead. That would have been awesome! Just drive him mad, or to confess, and be done. Of course, then we wouldn't have this play...

    2. True- it wouldn't have been much of a play if Claudius had just been overcome with remorse and done away with himself. Hmm... now I'm thinking up alternate endings. Maybe if Hamlet had told Gertrude, she might have tried to kill her new husband...

    3. If Hamlet killed Claudius right after the play when he had the chance, if he only realized Claudius was trying to pray but couldn't, then Polonius wouldn't die, Ophelia wouldn't go mad, etc. Still don't know what would happen to Hamlet though -- could he run off and leave the throne to Fortinbras?

  2. After the ghost scene I immediately figured that the next thing he would have to do is get evidence. That's also probably because it would be very unsatisfactory to an audience if he went and killed him just like that. And if I were Hamlet I would definitely want to get a confession of some kind -- just something that just proves it to me like he's currently planning. Even if I believed the ghost 100%, I think it would be important. I don't think he's a coward, though I can understand why he would question himself about it. His soliloquy is wonderful!

    1. Sarah, that's very true -- we as the audience need to be convinced of Claudius' guilt, perhaps more than Hamlet, even.

      Glad you dig his soliloquy! It's not all famous like "To be or not to be," but I find it equally cool.

  3. I'm so glad I'm doing this read-a-long. For some reason I didn't catch the part where the Player King is like Hamlet's other father. Now that answers why Hamlet was so familiar with him.

    I have to give it to Hamlet. Having remembered a certain speech only once and being able to recite it with some emotion!! The reader has to be amazed at how smart Hamlet is at least a little bit for this reason, even if he does go around believing in random ghosts dressed like his father.

    I wonder what's going to happen when the play is preformed in front of Claudius and Gertrude. I can't wait to see/read their responses. Hamlet is really so smart. I know I'm kind of repeating the previous paragraph, but he's really planning everything out really nicely. Everything tends to be going a little bit too nicely besides slow for him, a conflict has to occur.

    Hamlet is not a coward. That's for sure. Right now he thinks that Claudius killed his father. If Claudius is powerful and cunning enough to kill his father, I think Hamlet better watch out. I don't know if that means Claudius will kill Hamlet too, but Hamlet will definitely have some trouble.

    I placed a hold at the library for the 1940 version of Hamlet. I'm not sure when it's going to come in, but I can't wait to see it! It will also really help with putting faces to names and straightening some small things out.

    1. Ekaterina, I'm so glad it's helping you! And yeah, the Player King being a father-figure for Hamlet is more something you pick up on when you know the play and have thought about it a lot, not something you'd necessarily get on your first time or two through it. I may have mentioned this earlier, but Shakespeare is believed to have played both the Ghost and the Player King when this was performed at the Globe, which is very interesting -- that he plays both of Hamlet's father-figures. If I have time, I'll get into that more in a later post too.

      I hope you enjoy the 1940! I wish my library has it, because I'd like to see it again.


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