Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Hamlet Read-Along: Act III, Scene 4

Clearly, I just don't have the wherewithal to do read-along posts regularly while visiting my parents this time. I promise that next week, I'll get back to my more usual posting schedule.

So here we are in Act III, Scene 4, and things have started going downhill fast, haven't they? I mean, first Hamlet gets very sarcastic and disrespectful with his mom, and then he goes and kills Polonius. Accidentally, as it were -- he thought the person hiding behind there was surely Claudius, and that he'd found exactly what he'd wished for in the previous scene: a chance to kill Claudius while he was sinning. But nope, it was that "wretched, rash, intruding fool" (31).

I really like the line "I took thee for thy better" (32) because you can understand it two ways: either "I mistook you for your better" or "I killed you in place of your better." Love passages with multiple meanings like that.

Finally, Hamlet convinces Gertrude that Claudius killed his father and that she did wrong to marry her dead husband's brother. Like the Ghost, Hamlet spends a lot more time talking about the latter issue than the former, and while some read this as indicating he has an Oedipus-like desire for his mother, I think it more reflects the Ghost's accusations as well as the moral code of the time and culture in which Shakespeare wrote this. Killing someone was bad, but fairly commonplace. Marrying your in-law, though, was seen as icky. And so often, our human nature reacts more strongly to "icky" than "bad." Anyway, I'm not saying the more Freudian interpretation is totally invalid, I just don't see it as the only valid one.

Did you catch that "ears" theme cropping up again? Gertrude says, "Oh, speak to me no more! These words like daggers enter in my ears" (94-95). I really think Shakespeare deliberately had Claudius poison King Hamlet by pouring the poison in his ear -- it's not how you usually poison someone, after all. And here again -- words like daggers, ears the place where you are vulnerable. Hearing things, Shakespeare seems to say, can be just as dangerous as doing them. I'm always reminded of a Bible passage, the part in James where it says "no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison" (James 3:8). I wonder if Shakespeare had that passage in mind while writing Hamlet.

Anyway, the Ghost pops up again! This time inside the castle. And here we have an enduring question: Why Doesn't Gertrude See It? Horatio and Marcellus and Barnardo could see it. Does Gertrude truly not see it? Or is she only pretending not to see it because she doesn't want to? That's our Possible Discussion Question for today.

Hamlet promises the Ghost to get on with the revenging business, then adjures Gertrude to quit sleeping with Claudius and to absolutely not tell him that Hamlet isn't actually mad, just pretending. Then off he goes, pulling Polonius' body out behind him. He clearly suspects that the whole "send Hamlet to England" idea is a trap, and tells Gertrude he doesn't trust Rosencrantz and Guildenstern a bit. Poor Hamlet -- he basically can't trust anyone but Horatio anymore. Even Ophelia was helping her father and Claudius spy on him. Hamlet, Hamlet, get out while the getting is good!

One last thing: pay attention to this idea of someone being "hoist with his own petard" (207), or destroyed by the violence or trap they intended for someone else. It's going to come up again.

Favorite Lines:

"O Hamlet, speak no more!
Thou turn'st my very eyes into my soul" (88-89).

"This is the very coinage of your brain" (137).

"My pulse as yours doth temperately keep time
And makes as healthful music. It is not madness
That I have uttered" (140-42).

"O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain" (156).

"Assume a virtue if you have it not" (160).

"I must be cruel only to be kind" (178).

"Indeed this counselor
Is now most still, most secret, and most grave
Who was in life a most foolish, prating knave" (213-15).


  1. You know a staging is effective when you saw it once just over 30 years ago, and still get a shiver remembering it. I think sometimes directors don't get their due credit. In the Chamberlain version, Hamlet is fleeing down the stairs into total darkness & silence after hiding Polonius' body. He seems about to make his own escape, when torches flare all around him, and soldiers with swords drawn encircle him, pinning him against the stairwell wall.

    1. Kelda, that definitely sounds like cool staging! I'm trying my hardest to track down a copy of the Chamberlain version, though I'm stuck with greymarket options.

  2. I don't think that Gertrude was pretending not to see the ghost- frankly, she just doesn't seem capable of dissembling to that degree. Though that does leave us with the puzzle of why she couldn't see the spectre. Maybe it's another sign of her willful blindness to what's actually going on in Elsinore. Or maybe- to return to my previous theory- the ghost is still sulking. :) BTW, I find it kind of hilarious that Hamlet and Gertrude just continue having their conversation over Polonius' dead body.

    1. Lynn, I LOVE your thought that Gertrude's willful blindness to what Claudius has done makes her unable to see the Ghost. Headcanon accepted, as they say.

      And yeah, it's pretty funny that neither of them are all that disturbed by Polonius just lying there.

  3. I feel kind of upset with Hamlet. How dare he treat his mother that way! I don't care if she did marry your uncle in a short amount of time after your father died. She's your mother and therefore deserves the respect due to her. You can never owe enough to the person who brought you into the world. Actually, I'm really upset, not kind of. I feel bad for his poor mother. Now she has to live with her actions. She is tied to both her dead and living husbands. She knows why her son is acting the way he is, suffers seeing him going through pain, and also suffers because she sees that he is going mad. I feel really bad for her, even if she did marry her husband’s brother.

    What is an Oedipus-like desire?

    Yes I did catch the ear theme! I find it very interesting that ears are very important in this play? The king is killed because his brother poured something in his ear and there seems to be all these ear themed phrases. “Like daggers enter in my ears.” This is the phrase that really drew out my pity and sympathy for Gertrude. It’s almost as if Hamlet is unintentionally killing her. I hope she doesn’t die! I know this is silly, but why does everyone have to die in tragedies? Tragedies always have more interesting characters than in comedic plays, but it's the interesting ones that always seem to get killed off.

    After Polonius dying, I thought I would be kind of happy because he was a bad guy, but now I don’t really feel anything. I’m kind of glad he’s out of the picture, but now I don’t have anyone to be annoyed with. Poor Ophelia! I hope she doesn’t miss her father too much. I wonder what her brother will say when he hears the news.

    I didn’t think about Gertrude not seeing the ghost. That is interesting that other people besides Hamlet could see the ghost, but not Gertrude. As the ghost’s wife, you would expect her to see him. Maybe after marrying his brother, she somehow dishonors her vows, so she would not be able to see her dead husband. I would like to think that she would want to see her husband but maybe not. Maybe she is feeling grief over the death of her husband, and is trying to forget about him because she is still shocked by his death. I really don’t know. Will the reader ever find out? Or is that something we discuss amongst ourselves and figure it out?

    Hamlet can’t trust anyone, except Horatio. Do you think he could trust his mother? I’m not sure any more about any of the characters. In my effort to trying to understand them, I feel as if I am back to the very beginning of the play and not getting anywhere.

    I am almost dreading what’s going to happen. I feel so unhappy and sad for everyone in the play. I’m afraid that Hamlet is going to get caught in his own traps. I wish he would act a little bit more sensibly and have a cooler head.

    I have not begun watching the Olivier Hamlet yet. Mom really wants to see it with me and after watching a unexpectedly dark movie (The Heiress), we both want to watch lighter movies. I did start watching the David Tennant version on my own, and I think Hamlet is going to go mad. I can't really see it while reading the play, especially since a lot of it is from Hamlet's point of view. The way Tennant acts Hamlet out, I feel like he has truly gone crazy, especially in this scene with his mother. Also, killing people even when you can’t see who you’re killing is not being very sane.

    Oops. Sorry this comment ended up so long.

    1. Ekaterina, I think you win the prize for longest comment :-D

      Yes, Hamlet's unkind to Gertrude here -- much like he was to Ophelia earlier. I won't try to defend him.

      Oedipus is the title character in a Greek play by Sophocles who unwittingly murders his father and marries his mother. An Oedipus Complex, then, is having a physical desire for your parent.

      Why must everyone die in tragedies? To entertain and to instruct, same as the reason for all good story-telling. In tragedies, they're meant to elicit our sympathy and give us a cathartic outlet for our emotions, and also to serve as a lesson or warning: don't be like these people. Classically, tragedies involve "great" people, ie kings and other important people, while comedies involve "low" people, ie commoners. (I don't know if you were asking that rhetorically, about why must everyone die off in tragedies, or not, but answered it regardless.)

      Polonius' death is definitely going to affect both Ophelia and Laertes very strongly. He may have been a "foolish, prating knave," but his children are pretty devoted to him nonetheless.

      That's a good idea of yours that Gertrude doesn't see the Ghost because she's trying to forget about him and put her grief for him behind her. I like that! No, it's never made clear in the play why she doesn't see him.

      Hamlet wants to trust his mother, but I don't think he does -- he suspects her loyalty is now more to Claudius than even to her own son.

      And good point that killing someone you can't see is not the sanest act.

      Keep up the long comments! I love that you're really involved in the play :-) I'm sorry I can't promise you a happy ending for it.

    2. Oh! So that's who Oedipus is! I've heard of the story, but I forgot Oedipus's name. I don't think Hamlet has an Oedipus complex toward his mother, at least it didn't seem that way while reading the scene.

      That's interesting. I never thought about tragedies in that way, and every comedy that I can think of has commoners as characters even if they are more modern.

      I wish this would have a happy ending. But alas, the play would not be as good or interesting, and I like writing that keeps me interested. :-)

  4. I noticed the ear reference!

    Wow, things really are picking up now. Poor Polonius. Sorta.

    I like the line "I must be cruel only to be kind" line too. It helps us be more accepting of Hamlets behavior.

    That's really interesting about the queen not being able to see the ghost -- maybe, that is. I would be inclined to believe her though. I don't know why she wouldn't be able to see him though. Unless he can choose who can see him and chose to let the guards see him so they'd get Hamlet. Or maybe you can only see him if you're open to the idea of ghosts or some vague kind of thing like that.

    I really really loved this:
    "Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,
    And breath of life, I have no life to breathe
    What thou hast said to me."
    Great turn of phrase. I need to remember that one. :D

    1. Sarah, you have cracked me up :-D Poor Polonius. Sorta. My feelings exactly!

      It could be that the Ghost only lets certain people see him. Both Katerina and Lynn have come up with some cool theories in their comments above about this.

      Shakespeare's language is exquisite, isn't it? I like that section too.

  5. SO. Prepare thyself for a long(ish) comment.

    I just finished Hamlet for the first time! (T'was a school assignment.) I'm so glad I've read it, because now I can understand why you love it so! It makes me happy to have another thing with which to relate with one of me bloggie buddies. Does that happen to you?

    The story is not my favorite, I'll be up-front about that. Not that I have moral or theological issues with it, of course, but just that the plot just Isn't My Thing, if you know what I mean.

    However. ;)

    1. Um, hello, the LINES. I liked bits and pieces of this dialogue so much! I knew some of the famous quotes from other things, but I didn't know that they were all from THIS Shakespeare--some of them, I thought, were from others of his works, so that was monstrous fun, seeing and recognizing and ooh-ing and ahh-ing over them:D

    2. Ophelia! I really, really liked Ophelia, and I'm not even sure why. I think she reminded me just a little bit of Scott's Rebecca--she wasn't like this ultra-feminist-revolutionary, but she wasn't a weak-willed doormat either. She had dignity, y'know?

    3. "I humbly thank you, sir. [Aside to Horatio]
    Dost know this water-fly?"

    4. Ophelia's funeral, and Hamlet's grief. Not in a weird way, but in an "Oh, he really loves her so much! Now, that is a well-executed tragedy!" You know what I mean, I'm sure:D

    5. I didn't really like Gertrude, but I did like how she really cared about Ophelia.

    :D I'm so glad to have read it! Oh, and how do you feel about the film version with Kenneth Branagh and Kate Winslet? I really want to see Kate Winslet as Ophelia for some reason…did you do a review of it? I shall have to go check:)

    So, anyway, yeah. Just thought you should know, and all that;D

    1. Olivia! Another long comment! Excellent!

      Yes, so often when I find out a blogging friend likes the same thing as I do, it makes me so happy. Or, like when I saw North and South and read The Blue Castle, both things I heard about from blogging friends, I was just so happy to be able to understand and join in their enthusiasm.

      I'm okay with it not being your favorite :-)

      1. Yes, this one is Chock Full of Famous Quotes. Love that.

      2. Hmm, I'd never considered comparing Ophelia with Rebecca, but I can see that a little bit. She's definitely complex.

      3. Hee. I love Hamlet's snark.

      4. Yeah, that graveside bit can be really affecting. "Forty thousand brothers could not make up my sum!" and all.

      5. Gertrude is hard for me to like too. She exasperates me.

      I really like Branagh's movie version! I haven't formally reviewed it, but I love how much of the text he uses -- it's the only filmed version that uses the full text, and he has so many amazing actors in it. Kate Winslet is a lovely Ophelia, very sympathetic. I do feel duty-bound to warn you that there is a teensy bit of adult material (flashbacks to Hamlet and Ophelia making love -- brief and non-explicit, but they're basically rolling around on a bed half-naked), but it's pretty easy to skip, you'll just miss a little voice-over dialog. And of course there's violence cuz... that's the nature of the play. But overall, it's a beautiful, sumptuous production filled with amazing acting and delicious costumes & sets.

      Thanks for letting me know!

  6. I, for one, am glad of your pace, because I'm a little behind but not falling back even more so. I'm almost finished my The Canterbury Tales read, so I should be back on track soon!

    I didn't think that Gertrude saw the ghost, because, like Lynn, I didn't think that she was capable of dissembling to such a degree. She seems a little dense, but a good type of dense, in that she wants to see the good in everyone (her first husband, her second husband, Hamlet, etc.) but when the facade begins to crack, because of her simple nature, she's unable to handle it. How's that for speculation? ;-)

    I was thinking that it might be wise to track who can see the Ghost and who can't, and then ask ourselves why. It might give more insight into the play.

    Thanks to you, I noticed the "ear" reference, but I'm also noticing "words" everywhere. I kind of like the combination of the two.

    My post:

    1. Cleopatra, okay then! I think I'm going to aim for 2 short scenes or 1 long scene a week from now on -- does that sound good?

      I like your description of Gertrude as "a good type of dense." She can definitely come across that way.

      I believe only Hamlet, Horatio, Marcellus, and Bernardo ever see the Ghost, that we know of. And two of them are incidental characters.

      Yes! "Words" is a recurring theme too -- their power, their danger, etc.

    2. That sounds good! I'm just following along with you.

      So, the people who see the Ghost are all innocent of the crime of regicide, or supporting it. Then are all the people who can't see the Ghost complicit in the crime? I guess we will see......

  7. I got the ear reference (Thanks to you I am now hyper aware of everytime ears are mentioned)
    A really emotional conversation between Hamlet and Gertrude. He really could use some tact. And just killing Polonius like that? I had to reread it because it just felt so casual..
    A big twist that Gertrude can't see the ghost!! Why that is, I don't know. I guess ghosts can choose who to appear to... It for sure would have been a proof to her of Hamlet's madness (if it wasn't for the fact that he just explained that he was pretending..I wonder if she was convinced)

    1. Bwahahaha! My sinister plan has worked, and everyone's paying HUGE attention to the whole "ear" theme.

      Anyway, yes, you're right -- tact would be good. And his words do seem pretty casual when he's killed Claudius -- the emotion there gets left to the actor and director. Is he freaked out? Remorseful? Indifferent? The text isn't exactly clear.

      I've never been sure if Gertrude is convinced that Hamlet's not truly mad. Depends on the production, again.


What do you think?

Comments on old posts are always welcome!

(Rudeness and vulgar language will not be tolerated.)