Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Hamlet Read-Along: Act III, Scene 1

We start out with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern reporting that they are really bad at spying and have no idea why Hamlet is acting so oddly. Claudius and Polonius prepare to spy on Hamlet themselves, since R&G failed so utterly.  An offhand remark from Polonius prompts Claudius to give us our first real clue at to whether or not he is has committed some great sin.  I love the way his aside ends there:  "O heavy burden!" (53)  Now we know Hamlet's not the only one brooding over a secret.

Then, here it is:  the famous "To be or not to be" soliloquy.  One of the most famous passages in all of literature, and pretty central to the plot of this play.  Of course, it's partly a musing on suicide -- Hamlet's thinking that just dying would be a lot easier than going on with this wretched revenge business.  It's also a musing on one of the central themes of the play:  action versus playacting.  Will Hamlet lose not only "the name of action" (87), but the ability to act as well, or will his playacting at being mad, at not knowing how his father really died -- will that aid him in acting on the Ghost's information?  

Some actors play this scene as quite suicidal, others have him more musing academically about death, some start out considering their own death and move on to thinking about life and death, acting and action in a broader sense.  Marvelous writing that allows for so many interpretations, don't you think?  I dearly love that soliloquy -- I memorized it after the very first time I read this play, and still can recite it nearly perfectly.  So beautiful.  (EDIT:  I don't mean I read it through once and knew it perfectly.  I mean after I finished reading the play, I went back and memorized the soliloquy.  Took me days.)

I do find it interesting that he says "no traveler returns" (79), because hasn't the Ghost just returned from the dead, in a way?  Maybe he means never fully returns.

And then here comes Ophelia, walking around with a book, just like Hamlet was doing a few scenes ago when Polonius accosted him.  She's just pretending to read or pray ("orisons" means "prayers," so quite often she's shown reading a prayer book), just as Hamlet was earlier pretending to be mad.  And this is generally my least-favorite scene ever.  Because Hamlet is pretty cruel here, isn't he?  I have a really hard time liking him here.  He's very angry when he figures out she's walking there to bait him into talking so her father and his uncle can spy on him, but right from the first, he's denying he ever loved her, denying he gave her gifts or letters or whatever her "tokens" are.  And telling her to go to a nunnery, which could mean just a convent, but was also slang for a brothel -- is he telling her he wants her to go shut herself away from the world and be safe, or is he saying she's a worthless whore?  Either way, unkind, Hamlet.  Very unkind.

He's sending her farther down the path to her own madness, the path I think Polonius first nudged her onto by suggesting that she's to blame for Hamlet's madness.  So she's got that guilt riding her, and then Hamlet disavows any love for her and does a lot of yelling and shouting -- who wouldn't be an emotional and mental wreck?  But what does she say, after he's berated her?  "Heavenly powers, restore him!" (140).  Her first reaction is to pray for him, that he can soon be more like himself again.  Only after he does some more ranting and yelling does she start to pity herself.  Poor, poor Ophelia -- she's the most innocent character in all of this, excepting perhaps Horatio.  Of all the characters, she deserves her fate the least.

Off stomps Hamlet, out come Claudius and Polonius, and while Polonius thinks this all still stems from despised love, Claudius disagrees.  Neither of them pay much attention at all to poor, weeping Ophelia, which is pretty typical of almost all the characters in this play -- they only pay her any notice if they need her to do something or they have no other choice.  Laertes, her brother, is the exception here, and that's part of why I'm so fond of him.  Especially when he's played well.

Favorite Lines (Besides the Entire "To Be or Not To Be" Speech):

"...to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind" (99-100).

"I was the more deceived" (119).

"Oh, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!" (149).

"There's something in his soul
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood" (163-64).

"Madness in great ones must not unwatched go" (187).

Possible Discussion Questions:

Do you think Hamlet is contemplating committing suicide at this point in the play, or just thinking about it somewhat abstractly?

Why do you think Hamlet told Ophelia to go to a nunnery?  Do you think he meant "convent" or "whorehouse" or possibly both?

Hamlet discusses the idea that a little lewdness will overcome a lot of chastity, and that women make monsters out of men by cuckolding them -- do you think he's speaking/thinking of his mother here?  Does he maybe think she cuckolded his father?  Is he comparing Ophelia to Gertrude, or warning her against such behavior?


  1. I was surprised at how much of the "To be or not be" speech I recognized. No idea where I've it before! And that's so impressive that you memorized it so quickly! It is the sort of thing you want to read over and over until you know it...

    It is really cool how much the interpretations can vary. Personally it doesn't really make much sense to me that he would be seriously considering suicide. I got the impression that he was wishing he could be dead but in the end his choice was between revenging or not revenging. Of course not avenging could include suicide. But then later in the speech it's like going through with it would be the equivalent of suicide (I remember you said earlier that murdering the king would ruin his life) and he doesn't want to do it and die with the guilt haunting him. He either has to live with the torture, or die with the torture. Anyway, that's what I got out of it after reading it several times, and changing my mind a few times. :P Definitely love this soliloquy too.

    I have another technical question for you: why does the stage direction sometimes say just plain "exit" and sometimes say "exeunt"?

    1. Sarah, oops! I didn't mean I memorized it after reading it once -- I meant that after I'd read the play through once, I went back and memorized that soliloquy. Took me several days. I used to memorize a lot more stuff than I do now -- I should get back to that.

      I think perhaps Hamlet might also not necessarily be considering committing suicide then and there, but more like "when this is over, what do I have to live for?" It works so many ways!

      "Exit" means one character leaves, while "exeunt" means multiple characters leave. I have zero idea why they use a different word, but that's what it is.

    2. Haha, actually that's my bad. I didn't think you'd memorized it after reading it just once, but it certainly sounds like I did! I meant more that I was impressed that you read it once and then immediately resolved to memorize it -- but worded it very lazily. :P That's a great idea though, to regularly memorize things you like. I do that accidentally for movies sometimes, but it's harder for me for books.

      Right -- I probably could have figured that one out if I had tried hard enough! I thought perhaps one meant that they would come back in later in the scene, but that didn't work, so I was just like, "fine, I'll just ask!" Thanks for explaining. :)

    3. Sarah, oh good! I was afraid you thought I was some kind of memorizational genius. But yeah, I really adored it right from the get-go.

  2. I don't think that Hamlet was actually contemplating suicide... after all, the play with his lines added was coming up. He was hardly going to miss that, and the chance to catch out Claudius. As for what he said to Ophelia, I think that he was probably using the term as a double entendre, to further mess with her head. I don't know if Hamlet actually thought his mum committed adultery, or if he just felt that she got remarried so quickly that she was essentially cheating, and so was engaging in bitter hyperbole. I'm sure that his bitterness with Gertrude also resulted in his being harsher with Ophelia. Seeing Ophelia being manipulated by Polonius may very well have incited his disgust, reminding him of his mother's manipulation by Claudius.

    1. Lynn, that's true that he would be excited about seeing his play performed. But also maybe fearful of what he'll learn through it?

      I definitely agree that his anger toward his mother gets vented at Ophelia -- he's very upset with all women at the moment, I think. And yes, that's a good way to put it about him equating Polonius and Claudius' manipulations.

    2. I kind of felt that he was considering suicide, perhaps not seriously but certainly musing over it. He has his mother's behaviour weighing on him, his father's death, and his promise of revenge, which so far he is not fulfilling. He is full of guilt over all this, least of all his inaction, so is it surprising that he just wants to escape life and have all his troubles disappear? Suicide is one way to do that.

    3. I agree, Cleopatra -- I think he's definitely been weighing suicide as an option for a long time. I mean, in Act I already he's opining, "Oh that the heavens had not set their canons 'gainst self-slaughter."

  3. Ophelia goes mad!! Poor girl! It's awful that she has a father like Polonius. Him and Claudius are sincerely getting on my nerves.

    So this is the scene that has the famous soliloquy. I had an interesting time reading the soliloquy. I first started to read it and stopped in the middle because my mom called me to do something, so I didn't get to it till the next the morning. When I first started reading it, I understood Hamlet to be talking about life and death (this thought partially came from notes in the footnotes). During the morning of the following day, I went back to the beginning of the soliloquy so I could read it completely all the way through. The second time I thought he was talking about pretending/acting versus not acting, so that was kind of interesting to see two different sides of the same soliloquy.

    I did not like Hamlet in that one scene with Ophelia. What was he thinking? Sending her to a nunnery...Hamlet! I don't know what he meant when he said nunnery. My first thought was convent because that is what a nunnery is, but I wasn't sure because he mentioned that one phrase about lewdness.

    I never thought about Hamlet comparing Ophelia to Gertrude. I don't think he really can warn her because Ophelia does not know about everything. Maybe Hamlet was thinking about his mother when he made that comment, which leads me to another thought. The ghost made Gertrude appear very innocent, but now Hamlet is or might be suspecting his mother of foul play. Well, he already believes the ghost about his father, so why wouldn't he believe what the ghost said about his mother. I don't know. I feel like I just went around in a circle. :-)

    1. Ekaterina, yes, alas, it's true. Ophelia goes mad for real.

      I also like that "to be or not to be" can be interpreted as "to exist or not to exist," or as "to truly be or to pretend." Once again, so many layers, huh?

      If you look back at what the Ghost said, he said "leave her to heaven." Don't punish her yourself, Hamlet, but let heaven do it, in other words. I don't think Hamlet specifically suspects Gertrude as being involved in his father's murder, but more that she was sort of the motive for it, that Claudius wanted to acquire her by killing her father. And then that she remarried so very, very quickly -- he definitely thinks she may have been involved with Claudius before the murder. So that's what he's upset with her over, I think.

    2. I would be upset too if my mother just up and married my uncle just after my father died. I don't really like anyone that was in this scene right now, except for Ophelia, and I feel a mixture of pity and love for her. I almost wish that the characters wouldn't act so crazy (like marrying relatives and creating all the trouble), but then it would be a boring play and not as enjoyable.

    3. Hee, yeah, I sometimes wish that too. "Be sensible, you fools!" But then, no drama.

  4. I'm doing a little catching up here ......

    Brava to you for memorizing the soliloquy! I'm impressed!

    I think that it's important to remember, with regard to Hamlet's interaction with Ophelia, that Hamlet has been severely affected by his mother's actions with regard to his father's death and her marriage to Claudius. I think now, to Hamlet, all women are Gertrude. So, in effect, Hamlet is transferring his mother's traits (and guilt) to Ophelia and responding to that. Yes, still, it is not right, but at least it makes his behaviour understandable. And perhaps it is one situation, where he is truly not acting rationally, not just pretending not to.

    I liked that, while Hamlet is setting a trap for Claudius, Claudius and Polonius also set a trap for Hamlet. Who is going to catch what? ;-)

    1. Cleopatra, I agree that for Hamlet right now, all women are just... awful. "Frailty, thy name is woman!" and so on. Not right, not rational, but not entirely reprehensible either.

      Oh, so much trapping and spying and lying and various other acts of skulduggery! What a horrible place Elsinore must have been at that time.

  5. I just took quite a break from reading, but now I'm catching up again.
    I'll admit I had a bit of trouble understanding the "to be or not to be" monologue, but then, it is my first time reading it.

    You're right Hamlet is really cruel to Ophelia here, poor thing, she is ever just doing what she's told to and still no one seems satisfied.

    1. Rose, do you have anything in the "To be or not to be" speech you'd like explained? Mostly it's just Hamlet thinking death must be easier than all the pain of this life, unless we aren't sure what happens after death, and then people just don't want to risk it.

      I feel extremely sad for Ophelia. Poor thing just can't get a break.

    2. Thank you for the recap of the speech, it makes a lot more sense now!


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