HAMLET’S TABLES 6 – December Posts (Part 1)

by Hamlet on February 11, 2012

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! If you have any questions or comments, you can find my page on Facebook at Kyle McDonald, or you can find me on twitter @mrkmcdonald.


December 13 – Our first stumble through (Spoiler Alert: LOW )

We didn’t get the rehearsal space we wanted, so our quarters were a little cramped, but I was excited to run through none the less. Phil unfortunately was called into work last minute (such are the hazards of not paying people), but we began the run without him. For me, much of my blocking stuck, but that stands to reason because I run my lines at least once a day. The run was a little laborious, and I was tired owing to my Blood Falls training and my many other producerly duties. The stage management team was talking during the run (which is standard), but it still distracting none the less. The run revealed the scenes that didn’t make sense in the context of the whole play, these mostly being the ones we did earlier in the rehearsal period. Personally, I’m pleased with the shape of the piece, I just want to get out there and run. We ended up staying till 11:30 to get notes.


December 14 – Reflections on “To be or not to be,” and Hamlet’s Tables. (Spoiler Alert: HIGH)

I’ve always been intrigued by Hamlet’s sudden – and only – reference to his “tables” in 1.5. after the ghost leaves. To my memory, I’ve never seen anyone do anything with this; why? What are his tables? Judging by the immediacy with which he would reach for them, they’re something he must keep on him all the time. I’ve construed them to be his journal, or more specifically, his notebook. It is here that he records his thoughts and ideas; it is here that he scribbles hasty verses for Ophelia before he enlarges on them and writes them out properly to be given to her; it is here that he chronicles his days; it is here that he keeps track of his disposition; it is here that he sets down his evidence against his uncle and the other pretenders around him; and it is here that he confronts himself. With this understanding of Hamlet and his tables, I’ve endeavoured to use them throughout to the performance to demonstrate his fastidiousness. Seeing a man dressed like a gladiator pouring over his notes gives a very unique impression, I think. Brawn and brains. I’ll be curious to see what the audience reaction to the tables will be, if any.

As for “To be, or not to be,” and Hamlet’s tables: I’ve combined them. To be or not to be is a mental exercise and it is distinctly different from Hamlet’s other speeches (even though “How all occasions do inform against me…” in 4.4., which we’ve unfortunately cut, has some of the rhetorical elements that “To be or not to be” has), and I wanted to highlight this a little further. As mentioned before, I had some trouble with To be or not to be’s placement at this point in the script: O what a rogue and peasant slave is only a page earlier. They’re very tight on each other and very different. To be or not to be appears to be about whether or not to commit suicide, and this interpretation is indeed justifiable; however, I want to go a little deeper, or perhaps a little more abstract? I used to read this passage in school and be awed by its fame, and I didn’t really think too much about it’s meaning (beyond it being about suicide).

Now, however, confronted with the task of speaking these words, and moreover, knowing their meaning, I find myself craving deadly specificity. I’ve thought about this piece for the last few months (obviously), and at last I believe I’ve found what I want to say with it. Hamlet in his soliloquy in 2.2 asks: “Am I a coward?” I was playing this before as a rhetorical device which he uses to mock himself (which, in the context of the rest of that speech, is a very solid interpretation, and one that I’m still inclined to use, though I won’t be doing so in this production); however, I started asking the question legitimately. The trouble then is how to justify the rest of the passage (which I’ve covered in another entry). That being done, I found that the lines “The play’s the thing/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King,” felt doubtful, as though Hamlet isn’t entirely convinced that his plan will work (December 16th entry).

Anyway, Hamlet goes away from this and then comes back with To be or not to be, which I believe is an exploration of cowardice. The relationship of conscience and cowardice is visited several times throughout the piece (we’ve cut some of it too from the top of 5.2.); this relationship is still subtle enough to go unnoticed by many observers. Hamlet’s preoccupation with conscience, salvation and damnation is ubiquitous. The whole reason he puts on the antic disposition (to gather evidence) is a response to his fear of blemishing his conscience; he wants to use the play (the Mouse Trap) to “catch the conscience of the King;” the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not near his conscience; even Claudius talks of receiving a smart lash to his conscience in 3.1. before To be or not to be; Laertes, in his outburst against Claudius in 4.5., threatens to hurl his conscience into hell (a willingness to pawn it for revenge, in stark contrast to Hamlet’s caution); Hamlet asks, in 5.1. “is’t not perfect conscience,/To quit [Claudius] with this arm?”; Laertes again, before he strikes Hamlet, confesses that it’s against his conscience.

The word recurs frequently enough throughout the play (especially in Hamlet’s mouth), to make it noteworthy. Hamlet’s language of salvation is recurrent: each time he sees the ghost, he calls on angels to save him; when he’s imploring his mother to change her evil ways, he invokes words like “confess” and “repent”; he stays his hand in murdering Claudius in 3.3., fearing that he might actually save Claudius from hell. His obsession with damnation and crime is also omnipresent, “If it assume my noble father’s person,/ I’ll speak to it, though hell itself should gape/And bid me hold my peace” (1.2.) “foul deeds will rise/Though all the earth o’erwhelm them to men’s eyes” (1.2.), “Be thou a spirit of health, or Goblin damned?” (1.4.), “the spirit that I have seen may be the devil…and perhaps…abuses me to damn me,” (2.2.), “…that his heels may kick at heaven/And that his soul be as damned and black as hell/ Whereto it goes” (3.3.), “…if your messenger find him not there [in heaven], seek him i’the other place yourself [in hell]” (4.3.) and so on. Though, remarkably, Hamlet doesn’t have much to say about heaven or hell after his return in 5.1.

So, when considering all this, we see that To be or not to be is a measured (a quality that Hamlet actually hasn’t displayed much of hitherto) exploration of cowardice and its relationship to conscience. Life is difficult and replete with injustice: why don’t people take matters into their own hands and end the pain? Conscience. Conscience records your every deed, and in a world of more or less clearly delineated religious morality, suicide is a crime, and your conscience will reveal it when you stand at the pearly gates. And so, conscience does make cowards of us all because it ties our hands, and we would rather endure the wretched known, than face the unknown. And it’s in this bumbling morass of confusion and concern that truly great deeds my be smothered, and lose the name of action. A simplistic paraphrasing, but it does the trick.

The argument itself is brief and simple, but what makes this speech a joy for an audience (besides its beauty), are Hamlet’s discoveries as he works through it. This is why I’ve employed the tables: Hamlet is actively diagramming his thought process; this is something that every fledgling logician must learn to do; and while I’m not reasoning with Venn diagrams or anything, I’m still working through the speech as though it were a word puzzle, where each discovery leads to the next. And what I love most, is that just as he reaches “lose the name of action,” he is interrupted by a shuffling Ophelia. I do not think that the speech would have ended there if no one else had been around. I think Hamlet would have moved on to discover the answer that he eventually discovers while out at sea, and which brings him back to Elsinore with a steady and calm determination, and which is very eloquently explained in 5.2. before the duel with Laertes:

“There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man has aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.”

And so Hamlet has answered his own question:

To be, or not to be, that is the question.

Let be.


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