HAMLET’S “TABLES” 3 – (Spoiler Alert: MEDIUM)

by Hamlet on November 25, 2011

Hello fellow Danes! This is my Hamlet Blog. I’ve been writing down my thoughts on process since we decided to go ahead with it. There are some parts that are almost short hand while others are a little more didactic (which could make for some bumpy reading), though I’ve tried to smooth it out as much as possible without compromising the immediacy. Thanks for reading!

Sept 22 – I went about reading several articles on Hamlet; it’s very curious to see how different eras perceive Hamlet’s essence. I finished reading an article by William Hazlitt, published in 1817. He shredded the Hamlets of his day (Kemple and Kean), one for being too formal, the other for being too splenetic. His thesis is that Hamlet is lost in his thoughts and merely shares what’s inside because an audience cannot read his mind. He insists that the Dane should be gentlemanly, and melancholic, though not gloomy. I find that Mr. Hazlitt is disastrously mistaken, and that his observations are equally erroneous. Then again, he comes from a different time. A Hamlet who is not connected with world around him would be something that no one today could suffer to endure; a melancholy soul is called a whiner these days. Though, I suppose Hazlitt’s impression of Hamlet are justified by the text, as are Kemple’s, Kean’s, and my own; it’s all there. The more I think about this, the more terrifying, and therefore stimulating, it becomes; I’m sweating from the mere thought of it!

Sept 27 – We had the production meeting last night and everyone seemed rather excited about our proposal. I was exhausted myself after the excitement I endured all day looking forward to it. The true triumph is that I now have a script I can carry with me; which I will, all day, every day, for so it goes. As I went through and highlighted my parts in the script, I came to the Hamlet Gertrude scene: I started to wonder at the amount of times that Hamlet says goodnight; it seems to me that in this scene, Hamlet really does venture into a kind of madness which seems to be building since his encounter with Ophelia. With Gertrude I can almost see Hamlet ranging between violence and heart-break, and then terror from both. What a sight that shall present! He is clearly annoyed about killing the wrong man (Polonius), but this also seems to spur him to greater resolution (which might manifest itself in physical violence towards his mother, which he instantly checks, and stands, as if wrestling with himself (as Gertrude says, “Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend/Which is the mightier…”)

Is Gertrude saying this only to take Hamlet’s advice (not to let on that he’s only mad in craft), or is it her belief? I think it will be my challenge to make her believe it, because it’s very evident that Hamlet doesn’t ramp down until his return from England, at which point, he has undergone other changes. If we stay with Kurt’s vision (hush hush) for the end of the first part of the piece, it stands to reason that Hamlet comes to accept his violence, which can explain his relative calmness in the last act (save over Ophelia’s death and after he’s been wounded), as he has now only to find the opportunity to exact his revenge. His discussion with Horatio wherein he reveals that he believes it his duty to slay his uncle and claim the throne (which we’ve actually cut), makes it clear that he has formulated a plan. Though, he is forestalled by Laertes’ and Claudius’ treachery. What Hamlet’s plan is, we shall never know. I would like to invent this plan; an easy answer lies in the source material. The source states that Hamlet used trickery to escape his uncle; not much unlike Edgar in King Lear, actually.

In the source, when Hamlet returns from England, he attends his own funeral, and, pretending to prick his finger on his sword, is seized upon by the guards who then lock his sword in his scabbard; later, during the banquet, he switches swords with his uncle, sets the hall on fire, then claims his revenge. It is clear to me, that Amleth (Hamlet) in this story, much like Iago, is making things up as he goes. Yet Shakespeare’s Hamlet is different; he is not as comical, and not as reckless, or even, amoral. Hamlet uses his madness to give him time to gather evidence. People seem to forget about the significance of this point. Hamlet is often portrayed as indecisive, sensitive, and impotent. We have the 19th C to thank for that. Hamlet is a scientist (scholar) as well as a courtier, and a soldier, just as Ophelia says. The love the “general gender bear him…Who, dipping all his faults in their affection, would, like the spring that turneth wood to stone, convert his gyves to graces…” makes it clear that the people love him, and will resist Claudius should he move against him. If the world at large believes that Hamlet is the paragon of excellence, why should we, the audience, believe any differently? Naturally, though the public may see him as invincible, we as the audience are treated to a private perspective wherein we see doubt, but not indecision, inaction, or impotence.

Hamlet’s scientific inquiry, in many ways medieval, is still a roughly empirical and inductive process; he does not rely solely upon the a priori reasoning so common in Shakespeare’s time, but like Othello wants “ocular proof”; he meets and interviews the ghost, whereat he immediately springs into action with his antic disposition, thereby creating a platform where he’ll be more able to observe his enemies, much the way Claudius of the Julio-Claudian dynasty in the nascent days of the Roman Empire was underestimated by his opponents for being a half-wit. I suppose the real question is: why is Hamlet so seemingly inactive until the arrival of the players? He spurns himself quite thoroughly in “O what a rogue and peasant slave am I…”, which might suggest that perhaps he has been lounging rather than venging (though realistically, the turn-over time from Ghost to Player is a day). But something struck me: after he meets the ghost he looks for his “tables” and means to “…set it down/ That one may smile, and smile and be a villain…” He’s writing this out. I propose that it is here that he begins building his case; in Brannagh’s 1996 film version, Hamlet picks up a book on Demonology after he is informed that his dead father has been stalking around at midnight. Why might not Hamlet be reading something to this effect while Polonius overtakes him in the hall? Why might not Hamlet be taking a catalogue of his enemies in the interim, to determine exactly who is most deserving of death? Is it his uncle only, or the whole court? Is Hamlet delaying, or building a case?

Many of the scenes following the encounter with the ghost are used to display his “antic disposition” (utilized to puzzle the monarchs and throw them off the trail), and to introduce Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are very easily recognizable as spies. Hamlet knows he is being watched, but as we progress in the play, we see that those he trusts most betray him, right down to his lover, Ophelia. Horatio is notoriously absent at this time, surely only isolating Hamlet more, but also, freeing the friendly scholar from suspicion. In the midst of this web of spies, and having no evidence, how can Hamlet sweep to his revenge blindly, and still commit a righteous act, which is of great concern to him? Laertes “dares damnation”, but behold his lot: he betrays himself, his friend and superior (Hamlet), and then eventually the King himself, who was only lately his compatriot! If there is anyone going to hell, it is certainly Laertes, as much as we might be able to sympathize with him. And what happens when Hamlet acts rashly without investigation? He slays Polonius, who, while in no way free of some guilt for dishonesty, is more than likely spotless in the murder of Hamlet Sr. (or is he)? It is simply a want of proper investigation of the text which would suggest that Hamlet is dilatory, or impotent. He makes no delay in dispatching Ros and Guild when it’s clear to him that they have betrayed him; he shows scant remorse. He has all the evidence he needs. After the Mouse Trap, Hamlet is utterly prepared to expunge his uncle, but is forestalled because his revenge wouldn’t be complete enough. Perhaps this is his fault; perhaps it is because he is too invested in his wrath that he “fails”. It’s important to note that he doesn’t fail technically – for his uncle is murdered in the height of sin – but in terms of enjoying the fruits of a righteous action while on earth (i.e. remaining alive), he does fail.

I cannot say with honesty that I believe that it was Hamlet’s intention to perish during the execution of his revenge. I imagine he envisioned a world without Claudius only, with an Ophelia by his side, and his mother as a matronly advisor to his empery. So. After all this, I think I’m going to actually use Hamlet’s tables to record my observations during the performance. I think this is what Hamlet’s reading when Polonius comes upon him; I think it’s in here that he’s written: TO BE. NOT TO BE in columns to weight the relative pros and cons; the more I read this play, the more I believe that this speech is very much in the wrong place. Olivier moved it. With this speech set in III.i, it is difficult to refute the idea that he is pondering killing himself rather than executing his revenge. This speech turns into a didactic exploration which perorates in self-reproach. However, there is no reason Hamlet cannot himself believe that he is delaying, though he may not actually be. Patience is a virtue; a virtue difficult to impose on revenge. But it’s apparent that Hamlet has consummate self-control: this I chalk up to the discipline of the warlike Danes, and his function as a soldier (probably leader of the cavalry). He was with his father on his expeditions; he’s seen the battle-field; he has taken life in the heat of war. His mediations on the bones of the dead Alexander and Caesar illustrate to me that there is a part of him that aims to rise to those heights, which is all the more reason for him to be both disconsolate and reflective upon witnessing the common end that even these shooting stars of history have come to; he says himself a King may pass through the guts of a beggar. When he says this in Act IV, it is before he is King; in Act V, when he returns and is sure to be king, the meaning changes for him. Suddenly he is the one who shall pass through the guts of a beggar, just as Alexander and Caesar did. – Kyle

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