Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have encountered many fine performances of Shakespeare both on stage, and, sometimes, on screen. And also, quite frequently, in audio recordings, which can be at least as effective as either. But for me, reading the plays provides the most enriching experience of all: somehow, nothing quite matches the performance that goes on in my head. There, I can be my own director, my own set and costume designer, determine the lighting just as I would wish. I could be the entire cast, all by myself. There is no bar to my imagination – except, of course, the natural boundaries of that imagination itself. There is no bound on my own interpretation. And all this from the comfort of my own library, without having to worry about getting the train back home afterwards!
For instance, I have yet to experience a production of Hamlet that stages the first scene in between Hamlet and Claudius (I,ii) as a confrontation. Yet, that is how I have been reading it these last few years. Everyone on set is dressed in their fineries: this is the court, after all, and also the first time the court is presided over by the new king. Only Hamlet, dressed still in his suit of solemn black, stands out. The king notices, of course, but pretends not to. He goes through other business first – even the relatively insignificant one of granting Laertes leave to return to France, before turning with a forced geniality and good humour to “our cousin and our son”, Hamlet.
Hamlet’s opening lines are laden with multiple meanings. First, we have “A little more than kin, and less than kind”: this alone indicates the deep antipathy Hamlet feels for this man now calling him “cousin” and “son”. And then, when Claudius asks: “How is it that the clouds still hang on you?” Hamlet answers:
Not so, my lord, I am too much i’th’sun.
(Or, if you read the Quarto text, “Not so much, my lord, I am too much in the ‘son’ ”.)
The quibble with sun/son is obvious, but I think an extra layer of meaning may be added to this if it is made clear in the set design that the sun is a royal symbol. This line I always imagine spoken with an almost aggressive insolence. It certainly stops Claudius in his tracks. It is a tricky situation for him: he cannot afford to lose face in his own court, and yet he has to be careful, for, amongst other things, the queen, his new wife, still dotes on her son. As he pauses, wondering what to say in reply to such insolence, Gertrude wades in with some loving, motherly advice: all that lives must die – you know it’s common … and various other such banalities. Hamlet, disgusted, amongst other things, that such unthinking platitudes are dressed up as wisdom, replies sarcastically: “Ay, madam, it is common.” He does not even bother to disguise his scorn: it is “common” … it is a “commonplace” … indeed, you, dear mother, are “common”, for mouthing such trite emptiness.
But the queen doesn’t get it. “If it be, why seems it so particular with thee?”
The word “seems” strikes a nerve in Hamlet. For his mother, of all people, to accuse him, Hamlet, of “seeming”! “Seems!” he practically screams at her. “Nay, it is – I know not ‘seems’.” And then, as ever, his mind races on to all sorts of other things, his tone changing almost by the second. First of all, he affects the tone of a kindly teacher imparting basic matters to a child: “’Tis not alone this inky cloak, good mother…” (or “cold mother” in the Q2 text: did Shakespeare, I wonder, alter this because it expressed Hamlet’s contempt too blatantly?) Then, the tone changes to one of exaggerated affectation:
Nor customary suits of solemn black,
Nor windy suspiration of forced breath,
No, nor the fruitful river in the eye,
Nor the dejected ‘havior of the visage,
Together with all forms, moods, shapes of grief,
That can denote me truly…
The voice becomes forceful again for the next three words: “These, indeed, seem” – this last repetition of the word “seem” almost spat out. And then, to rub it in, he changes abruptly to a tongue-in-cheek flippancy, as he closes his little tirade with a somewhat trivial little rhyming couplet:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.
Almost as soon as Hamlet finishes – even slightly before he finishes – the King steps in: he has had enough. For a while, he had been unsure what to do, but there is no way he can allow himself and his Queen to be humiliated in open court. He speaks in a severe, formal tone, first of all addressing Hamlet with apparent kindness (although there is no kindness any more in his voice – none of this “our cousin and our son” stuff):
‘Tis sweet and commendable in your nature, Hamlet,
To give these mourning duties to your father…
For the next few lines he expresses more or less those commonplace sentiments that Gertrude had expressed – that all who live must die, that’s the way things are, and so on. But, unlike Gertrude, he does not allow Hamlet time to reply: he presses on till he comes to his point:
but to persever
In obstinate condolement is a course
Of impious stubbornness;
These last two words are delivered with the utmost force. There must be a pause here, for these words to register. There is pindrop silence. The court is shocked to see Prince Hamlet receive so public a dressing down. Gertrude too is shocked by this: yes, she knows that son had overstepped the mark, but this perhaps is a bit too severe. Claudius possibly at this point makes a discreet gesture to Gertrude, as if to tell her not to interfere, that he will explain later; and she, knowing the niceties of aulic manners, remains silent, though troubled. And Hamlet himself, possibly for the first time in his life, is lost for words: no-one has ever spoken to him like this before. And certainly not in public. Possibly for the first time his true position dawns on him: he is no longer the son of the king, and there is now nothing to shield him from this sort of thing. The advantage gained, the King presses on, as Hamlet stares at him in stunned silence:
’tis unmanly grief;
It shows a will most incorrect to heaven,
A heart unfortified, a mind impatient,
An understanding simple and unschool’d…
“Unmanly” was perhaps a greater insult then than it is now: it is intended to sting, and it does. And “unschool’d”? Imagine describing the most intelligent and educated character in all literature as “unschool’d”! How that must hurt!
His point made, Claudius can now afford to make a show of his love and regard for Hamlet. And he can now do so on his own terms:
We pray you, throw to earth
This unprevailing woe, and think of us
As of a father:
The stage is now his. Claudius is in full control. He has defeated Hamlet publicly, and he knows it. Hamlet’s request to return to Wittenberg is refused in the most imperious of terms:
It is most retrograde to our desire
And finally, his mission now accomplished, the King can afford to return to his genial, loving tones:
And we beseech you, bend you to remain
Here, in the cheer and comfort of our eye,
Our chiefest courtier, cousin, and our son.
But there’s no sarcastic rejoinder from Hamlet this time: he knows he has lost the battle.
This, at least, is how I imagine this scene being played. But it never has been played like this in any of the performances I have seen or heard. Indeed, in some performances, we have Claudius gently remonstrating with Hamlet, and sympathising with his grief: this seems to me entirely wrong. In the opening book of The Iliad, which Shakespeare would have known at least through Chapman’s recent translation, Achilles is humiliated in open court, and in response, he withdraws from action and broods on the nature of morality and of mortality; and I, for one, can’t help conjecturing whether this Homeric motif had stayed in Shakespeare’s mind, and had transformed itself into this.
Gertrude’s death in the final scene has never satisfied me either in any of the productions I have seen. She dies from drinking from the poisoned chalice that had been intended for Hamlet, but is this a mere accident? For if it is, the random nature of her death makes for weak drama. How much more powerful the drama is if she drinks it knowingly! For Gertrude, too, is a tragic figure: the two people she loves the most – the two to whom she is wholeheartedly devoted – are her husband, and her son; and between them they have cleft her heart in twain.
In the text, the King marks out the chalice intended for Hamlet by dropping a pearl into it:
Stay; give me drink. Hamlet, this pearl is thine;
Here’s to thy health.
[Trumpets sound, and cannon shot off within]
Give him the cup.
As soon as he drops in the pearl, Gertrude understands. And the production should make it clear that she understands. Perhaps she should be standing at this point right at the front of the stage, facing the audience, and somewhat detached from the other figures crowding the scene. A quick, jerky movement from her could draw the audience’s attention to her face, which now bears an expression of the utmost horror, and also one of utmost grief. There is only one thing for her to do – to take that poison that her husband had intended for her son:
He’s fat, and scant of breath.
Here, Hamlet, take my napkin, rub thy brows;
The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.
Gertrude, do not drink.
Claudius is often criticised at this point for being too cowardly to leap over and knock the poisoned drink from her hand, but if he is on the other side of the stage at this point, and if there are many people between them, then it is not possible for Claudius to make his way over to her in time. The best he can do is to call out to her, and tell her not to drink. But Gertrude insists: “I will, my lord.” There is no reason why she should insist on this if she didn’t know the significance of the drink she is holding. But if she does know what it is, then her insistence at this point is charged with deep significance. And, all of a sudden, at the moment of her death, this shallow creature, this wretched queen, becomes heroic.
I pray you, pardon me.
This is no polite rejoinder. This is a heartfelt plea for forgiveness, her last words to the man she continues, despite everything, to love. And before she dies, she takes a last tender farewell of her son:
Come, let me wipe thy face.
Each one of Gertrude’s lines at this point must be charged with significance, and with tragic weight.
I find Gertrude one of the most pathetic characters in Shakespeare: she is foolish, weak, and irredeemably shallow: and yet, she is naïvely loving. This is the person who feels real grief at the fate of Ophelia – more so, one suspects, than Hamlet himself does. Almost without quite realising what she is doing, she has allowed herself to become embroiled in a terrible evil. It is in her death, I think, that she redeems herself. And yet, the pathos of this scene is rarely projected. Well – it is in the production that goes on in my mind as I read it!
One could go on almost indefinitely, going through it all scene by scene. And the best thing is that unlike, say, films, or recordings of Shakespeare’s plays, the interpretation of the mind isn’t frozen in time: each time I come back to the play, I find new subtleties and nuances that had not occurred to me before. Shakespeare’s plays are intended to be seen, not read, runs the mantra, but that is to ignore what one sees – and hears – in one’s mind as one reads.