Posts Tagged ‘hamlet’

Journey’s end

Hamlet and Twelfth Night were written, it is believed, very close to each other, and, although one is a tragedy and the other a comedy, they often have very similar themes. One issue that seems central to both dramas is the question of how we should mourn our dead. How should we mourn so that we can honour those who have died, and honour also the lives the we, the survivors, must continue to live?

Twelfth Night is a play I love deeply, but one I find very elusive. More so even than the other plays, it never seems to be the same on any two readings: it seems to be made of that changeable taffeta that Feste recommends Orsino to wear. In one of my earlier posts on it, I made it out to be a very dark play – closer in spirit to Hamlet than to, say As You Like It. Perhaps I was going over the top there, but even in my less lugubrious moods, its darker notes seem to me undeniably present. In the few years after writing this play and Hamlet, Shakespeare went on to write a sequence of intensely tragic dramas the likes of which have not been seen since the ancient Athenians. And there seem to me strong connections between Twelfth Night and these dark, tragic dramas: as well as the thematic overlaps with Hamlet, a new verse of the song Feste sings at the end of Twelfth Night appears in, of all places, the storm scene of King Lear. And the final verse of Feste’s song (“A great while ago the world begun, With hey, ho, the wind and the rain…”) is, as a Shakespearean friend of mine recently pointed out, about as desolate as anything in English literature. Has ever a comic drama ended like this?

Now, I wonder if there is also a correspondence between Twelfth Night and Othello – another of those great tragedies written in this period. In one of his other songs, Feste sings:

O Mistress mine where are you roaming?
O stay and hear, your true love’s coming,
That can sing both high and low.
Trip no further pretty sweeting.
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting,
Every wise man’s son doth know.

“Journeys end in lovers’ meeting.”

Now, Othello, at the most intense point of his tragedy, when he realises what it truly is that he has lost, says “here is my journey’s end”. Was Shakespeare, I wonder, thinking back here on Feste’s song, that he had written only about two years earlier? Of course, the “s” at the end of “journey” in Othello indicates possession, while in Twelfth Night it indicates plurality, but an ear as finely tuned as Shakespeare’s to the music of words would certainly have been aware of the echo. And if this echo was indeed intentional, it seems to me almost unbearably poignant. In Twelfth Night, however dark and melancholy we may take the play to be (and I know opinions vary on this matter), there was still the hope – the expectation, even – that lovers would be united at journey’s end. But Othello, at his journey’s end, has no such expectation: “When we shall meet at compt, this look of thine will hurl my soul from heaven, and fiends will snatch at it.” He has lost not only Desdemona: he has lost his own soul, for ever. For what he has done, there can be no forgiveness, no atonement: nor does he even hope for it.

Whichever way I look at it, Twelfth Night foreshadows Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. Which is not to say Twelfth Night is itself a tragic play: it clearly isn’t. But it does seem to me to point towards a traumatic tragic journey, a journey that finds its end only with those mysterious and deeply ambiguous dramas Cymbeline, The Winter’s Tale, and The Tempest – plays which, even after some forty and more years of acquaintance, I still feel I do not adequately understand.

The “nunnery scene”

In a recent post, I found myself focussing on what seems to me one of the most complex scene in the entire Shakespearean canon – Act 3, Scene1 of Hamlet. I barely scratched the surface: there is such complexity in this scene that I rarely read it the same way twice. Everything seems to be happening at the same time, and it becomes virtually impossible to keep track. No performance, not even the finest, could hope to capture all the subtleties and nuances.

This scene is often known as the “nunnery scene”. It starts with a bit of scene-setting with Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia (Ophelia is to be the bait, as it were, to get Hamlet talking, while Claudius and Polonius spy on him); then Hamlet comes in, and delivers the famous soliloquy that we can all reel off, word for word; and then he sees Ophelia, rants and raves at her for a bit; and then he storms off. And during all that ranting and raving, he tells her to go to a “nunnery”. At which point we all snigger like schoolkids because a “nunnery”, as we all know, was slang for “brothel”.

But does Hamlet tell Ophelia to go to a brothel? Yes, “nunnery” was sometimes used ironically to refer to a brothel, and this secondary meaning may well have added a bitter undercurrent to the proceedings. But even if it were a widespread piece of slang in Shakespeare’s day (and I honestly have no idea how widespread it was), the brothel is still a secondary meaning, not the primary one. And I do get the impression that we are so taken with this secondary meaning, we allow it to drown out the significance of the primary one. As a consequence, we lose much not only of the subtlety of this scene, but also the pathos, and the deep poignancy.

The context is clear. Hamlet, in his soliloquy, questions why we go on living when life is so full of suffering and pain, and concludes that we only do so because we are too frightened of death. It is a natural step to move from this to thinking that it is best not to have been born in the first place. Why bring yet more people into the world?

Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?

Hamlet is here telling Ophelia not to bear children, not to bring yet more people into this life, in which all any of us can do is merely sin and suffer. And as he says this, he expresses a quite startling degree of self-disgust:

I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me: I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offences at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in. What should such fellows as I do crawling between earth and heaven? We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.

And this is why Ophelia should go to a nunnery. We owe it to our unborn children not to bring them into life.

By allowing a possible secondary meaning to swamp what is undoubtedly the primary meaning is to do this extraordinarily tragic and moving scene a great disservice. It is to replace a profound lament for life with merely a cynical guffaw.

The Tragedy of Ophelia

Given that Hamlet is quite clearly of exceptional intelligence, and has an unsurpassed mastery of language, why is it that the love letters he sends Ophelia are so crap? This is a question that has long bothered me. When Polonius presents to Claudius and Gertude the private love letters Hamlet had written to Ophelia – concept such as privacy or intimacy mean little to so unfeeling a wretch – we get stuff like this:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love.

To the celestial and my soul’s idol, the most beautified Ophelia …

O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers; I have not art to reckon my groans: but that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.

Is it at all credible that the character whom Shakespeare had endowed with something of his own intelligence and mastery of language would come out with guff as embarrassing as this? Shakespeare could have given Hamlet the kind of soaring love poetry that we see in Romeo and Juliet; or the more measured but equally potent expressions of love we see in so many other plays. But no – he seems almost to go out of his way to make Hamlet’s love letters as trite as they are clumsy.

That these lines are Hamlet’s there cannot be any question: Polonius may be foolish with other things, but he didn’t get to be the King’s most trusted right hand man without being a shrewd politician and intriguer, and he would certainly have been able to distinguish Hamlet’s handwriting from forgeries. No, Hamlet wrote these all right, and, unless we are to believe that Shakespeare had slipped up on so obvious a point, it is up to us to figure out why.

One point to notice, I think, is that, in the rest of the play, Hamlet is much given to mockery; and that when he mocks, he easily adopts the patterns of speech of those whom he is mocking. Here, for instance, he is mocking Osric:

… Put your bonnet to his right use; ’tis for the head.
I thank your lordship, it is very hot.
No, believe me, ’tis very cold; the wind is northerly.
It is indifferent cold, my lord, indeed.
But yet methinks it is very sultry and hot for my complexion.

Here he is mocking Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:

But let me conjure you, by the rights of our fellowship, by the consonancy of our youth, by the obligation of our ever-preserved love, and by what more dear a better proposer could charge you withal, be even and direct with me, whether you were sent for, or no?

Here he is mocking Laertes’ overdone rhetoric (and pointing out his own mockery in the last line):

Why I will fight with him upon this theme
Until my eyelids will no longer wag.

I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers
Could not, with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?

‘Swounds, show me what thou’lt do:
Woo’t weep? woo’t fight? woo’t fast? woo’t tear thyself?
Woo’t drink up eisel? eat a crocodile?
I’ll do’t. Dost thou come here to whine?
To outface me with leaping in her grave?
Be buried quick with her, and so will I:
And, if thou prate of mountains, let them throw
Millions of acres on us, till our ground,
Singeing his pate against the burning zone,
Make Ossa like a wart! Nay, an thou’lt mouth,
I’ll rant as well as thou.

Of course, we don’t have the instructions Shakespeare gave to his actors: we have only his texts, and even these require learned critical scrutiny. But since a number of Hamlet’s lines are quite clearly spoken in the spirit of mockery, and with ironic imitation of certain types of speech, we may, I think, justly wonder which other of Hamlet’s lines are similarly intended. My own feeling is that there is much more mockery in Hamlet’s part than is usually reckoned. Take, for instance, this rhapsody of words Hamlet directs at his mother in the big court scene in the first act:

Seems, madam! nay it is; I know not ‘seems.’
‘Tis not alone my inky cloak, good mother,
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: these indeed seem,
For they are actions that a man might play:
But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

All too often this passage is delivered straight, but it seems to me that he is here mocking insincere expressions of grief. When delivered straight, it becomes very difficult to make much sense of that trite rhyming couplet at the end; but if this passage is indeed mockery, that couplet fits perfectly.

There are, I think, a few other passages, even some revered ones, that would benefit from being delivered in a mocking tone. For Hamlet is a master of parody and of pastiche, and he employs them liberally.

Given this is the case, is it at all possible that his letters to Ophelia were similarly written in a spirit of mockery? Not that he was mocking Ophelia: not only is there no reason for him to mock her when he was wooing her, such mockery would indicate a cruel and heartless brute; and whatever else Hamlet may have been, he wasn’t that. No – he may have adopted this mocking tone in his letters because Ophelia was in on the joke. Once again, I do realise this is conjecture on my part, but let’s hold with that conjecture for now and see if it leads us anywhere sensible. For imagining that Hamlet wrote those awful lines in all seriousness really takes us nowhere sensible at all.

Polonius, of course, does not sense any irony in these letters, but the subtleties of Hamlet’s mind are entirely lost upon him anyway: we wouldn’t expect Polonius to take these letters at anything other than face value. Gertrude, despite not being perhaps the most intelligent of characters, knows her son well enough to be suspicious: “Came this from Hamlet to her?” she asks – not because she does not think Hamlet cannot love Ophelia, but because she knows this is not Hamlet’s style at all. But if, indeed, Ophelia was in on the joke, if Ophelia could laugh at the worn-out conceit of lovers’ “groans” – of lovers pining away helplessly with pangs of dispriz’d love – then the picture we usually have of Ophelia as the docile and obedient and somewhat pallid young lady disappears, and is replaced by someone who is quick-witted, and intelligent; indeed, she becomes the kind of person whom one can imagine Hamlet being attracted to.

For Ophelia (like Hamlet himself, for that matter) is in the wrong play. In a comedy, she could have been a Rosaline, or a Rosalind, or a Beatrice, or a Viola: Shakespeare’s comedies are full of bright-witted and intelligent and immensely attractive young ladies. Even the very young Juliet has wit and wisdom beyond her tender years. And the men fall for them: Berowne falls for Rosaline, Orlando for Rosalind, Romeo for Juliet. Even Benedick, despite his apparent enmity with Beatrice in the earlier acts, is clearly besotted with her: his discovery of his love for her is not the realisation of something that is new, but an uncovering of what already is, but had been hidden.

Observe, for instance, Ophelia’s reply to her brother, who tries to put on a “big brother” act and give her moral instruction:

But, good my brother,
Do not, as some ungracious pastors do,
Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven;
Whiles, like a puff’d and reckless libertine,
Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads,
And recks not his own rede.

This is a young woman who understands full well her brother’s sanctimony, his hypocrisy; she knows full well what he gets up to when he is seemingly “studying” at university. Her instinctive understanding, and her turning the tables on him in so shrewd and so articulate a manner, are worthy of Rosalind.

And Hamlet had, I think, been attracted to Ophelia for these very qualities. In a comedy, this would have worked out fine, but they are here in a very different play: here, Ophelia’s natural wit and intelligence are crushed by the overbearing nature of the power her father exerts upon her. She is utterly isolated, and has not even a Nurse to turn to. When she is distressed – as she is by Hamlet’s inexplicable behaviour – she has no-one to turn to except her father; and neither does she have any option but to obey her father’s instructions, even if it means handing over to him the personal love letters she has received. For all her natural intelligence, she is nonetheless a woman in a very patriarchal environment; and she is very young, and utterly dependent. Her spirit, though brilliant, is also fragile, and it is easily crushed.

It is in the third scene of the play, immediately after the big court scene (in which we had first seen Hamlet), that we see Ophelia for the first time. In too many productions of this play, the tension drops here, and it is largely a matter of “wake me up when the ghost appears”. But it shouldn’t be like that. We see Ophelia as intelligent and quick-witted, as she responds aptly, though not unkindly, to her brother, who has, rather patronisingly, been giving her moral instruction. But then her father enters, and he, in turn, gives moral instruction to his son. And the son takes it all. One suspects it is merely a matter of form on both sides, and that it is neither intended seriously on one side, nor taken seriously on the other. (The next time we see Polonius, he is setting spies on his own son: he certainly does not expect his moral instructions to be observed, and appears to have very few moral scruples himself.) And then he turns to his daughter, and she is in no position to reply to her father as she had to her brother. Both Polonius and Laertes judge Hamlet by their own somewhat debased standards: he merely wants his bit of fun with her, they think, and nothing more. Ophelia is sure she knows Hamlet better, but she is powerless: her last helpless words in this scene are “I shall obey, my lord”. And here, Ophelia’s tragedy, no less in magnitude than Hamlet’s, is set in motion – the crushing an intelligent, quick-spirited woman.

The two meet in III,i – the so-called “nunnery” scene. It has long seemed to me a key scene in the drama, although I don’t think I understood why. I am still not sure I entirely understand this scene – there is far too much happening here – but it still seems to me a key scene in the drama, and deserves close inspection.

Here, Ophelia has been instructed by her father to return to Hamlet all his gifts. And furthermore, she is to be the “bait”: she is given the morally dubious task of provoking Hamlet, so that her father and the King may, from their hiding place, observe how he reacts. Indeed, she finds herself in a situation similar to that of Hamlet himself: both have been enjoined by their respective fathers to do what does not come to them naturally – to do what they cannot.

She has been instructed to “read on this book”. If this is intended to camouflage her, as it were – to make her presence seem innocuous – it must be because Ophelia reading on a book is not a conspicuous sight: one can but conclude that she is often seen with a book. Hamlet enters, and delivers his famous soliloquy without at first noticing her. But it would be surprising indeed were she not to hear him; and what she hears is hardly cheerful stuff. Hamlet ponders why we choose to live when living is merely a series of the most intolerable vicissitudes, and concludes that we carry on living merely because we are to cowardly to face the alternative. And only when he has delivered himself of this that he notices her, reading on her book, and he immediately adopts the familiar tone of mocking parody:

Soft you now!
The fair Ophelia! Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remember’d.

If my conjecture is right, Ophelia is accustomed to this sort of banter, and, uneasy as she is in the task allotted her, takes up gratefully a similarly bantering tone:

Good my lord,
How does your honour for this many a day?

“My lord”, “Your honour” … is this the way a wooed woman addresses her wooer? Even if he is a prince? Their wooing was not, after all, merely in its early stages: she had already, by her own admission, “suck’d the honey of his music vows”.

“Good my lord”, “my lord”, “my honoured lord”, “your lordship” … by my count, there are eight instances of “my lord” (or variations thereof) in the very few lines that Ophelia has at this point, and it seems to me plausible that she is continuing the tone of banter that they were both accustomed to, and which, in this scene, Hamlet himself has introduced. Take, for instance, Ophelia’s next lines:

My lord, I have remembrances of yours,
That I have longed long to re-deliver

“Longed long” seems to me a rather contrived piece of poetic artifice, like someone who is not naturally a poet trying to speak poetically. Unless, of course, we take this also as a piece of parodic mockery. She even throws in a trite little rhyming couplet:

Take these again; for to the noble mind
Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.

We may remember that when Hamlet had mocked Gertrude, he too had thrown in a trite little rhyming couplet:

But I have that within which passeth show;
These but the trappings and the suits of woe.

But Hamlet’s reaction is not very appreciative. (One would hardly expect it to be given that she is returning his gifts.) He laughs – it could be a sardonic laugh – and then proposes a paradox. Once again, this was an aspect of courtly wit – we have seen Hamlet exchange paradoxes earlier with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – but this particular paradox has a rather nasty edge to it. The paradox is that beauty is more powerful than honesty; and this is because beauty has the power to transform honest people into being dishonest, but honesty does not have the comparable power to transform beautiful people into being ugly. A pretty enough paradox, but a bit too close to the bone given what Ophelia is doing (i.e. using her own beauty to entrap Hamlet); and the way Hamlet explains this paradox, bringing into it the imagery of prostitution, is particularly nasty:

… the power of beauty will sooner transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the force of honesty can translate beauty into his likeness

Ophelia understands the insult. She is using her beauty to trap him, and she is no better than a prostitute. She now drops the bantering tone – it is no longer appropriate – and the rest of her lines are merely brief replies, as short and as to the point as possible, to Hamlet’s questions. Her entire world is now on the point of collapsing.

And then, on top of it all, she is forced into a lie. “Where’s your father?” Hamlet asks, all of a sudden. “At home, my lord,” she replies, and this time, there is no bantering quality to “my lord”. It is a bare-faced lie, and she knows it; and Hamlet knows she knows it. And this lie seems to confirm to Hamlet everything he had suspected. Previously, Hamlet had ranted at himself (“I am myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me…”), but now, he turns his fury upon her. Nothing Ophelia says from here onwards is addressed to Hamlet: he is now not someone who may be spoken with. This is not the person she has known, and all she wants is for the Hamlet she had previously known to be restored to her:

O, help him, you sweet heavens!

O heavenly powers, restore him!

But Hamlet is past restoring now. Polonius had thought Hamlet mad because – well, because he had been acting a bit funny. But with Ophelia, it is different: she knows that the  Hamlet she sees now is not the Hamlet as he used to be.

When Hamlet leaves, Ophelia is given some of the most heartbreaking lines in all dramatic literature. However, since, in most productions I have seen, the focus of the preceding scene had been primarily on Hamlet, with Ophelia playing effectively the “straight man”, these lines often fall a bit flat. Really, they shouldn’t:

O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown!
The courtier’s, soldier’s, scholar’s, eye, tongue, sword;
The expectancy and rose of the fair state,
The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
The observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
That suck’d the honey of his music vows,
Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled, out of tune and harsh;
That unmatch’d form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy: O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see!

And this time, there is no hint of parody here in that final rhyming couplet.

Hamlet and Ophelia meet again, for one last time, in the next scene, and this time they are in full gaze of all the court. I find this scene excruciating: it is among the most distasteful and cruel scenes in all literature. Previously, Hamlet had accused Ophelia of behaving like a prostitute; here, he publicly – and quite deliberately, with pre-meditation – treats her as one. Polonius sees his daughter’s public humiliation, and does nothing. In this, at least, he is not being a hypocrite: he is merely following the advice he had given his son. He acts like an unfeeling bastard, and that’s because he is an unfeeling bastard: to his own self he is indeed true.

But what can one say of Hamlet’s behaviour? How could he have sunk so low from what he once had been? That is his tragedy.

The next time we see Ophelia, her mind has collapsed. It shouldn’t surprise us. Perhaps no-one had ever really loved Ophelia. Laertes protests in very exaggerated terms that he had, but one suspects that he was neither sufficiently intelligent nor sufficiently sensitive to appreciate her worth. Hamlet had truly loved her once – and indeed, he had made her believe so – but even when he finds she is dead, he seems more concerned with mocking Laertes than grieving for her. The only person who had, perhaps, really loved her, was Gertrude, herself another tragic character. She may not herself be the most intelligent or perceptive of characters, but it is she who delivers that rightly famous and very beautiful passage describing Ophelia being dragged down to her death in the waters while singing. And her brief and simple lines at Ophelia’s funeral I find almost unbearably moving:

Sweets to the sweet: farewell!
I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet’s wife;
I thought thy bride-bed to have deck’d, sweet maid,
And not have strew’d thy grave.

In another play, a comedy perhaps, she could indeed have been Hamlet’s wife, and it could have been a marriage of true minds. But here, the sweet spirit of hers, as intelligent and as bright as Rosalind’s or Viola’s, is crushed: it has no chance. This does not often register in productions: because she appears in only a few scenes, she often emerges no more than merely peripheral; and, although we see her fall, we do not really feel the full impact of her tragedy because we see little of the height that she falls from. But Shakespeare has, I think, given her enough. Hamlet Prince of Denmark does not present Hamlet’s tragedy alone.

Meanwhile, when Hamlet was not writing letters to Ophelia with their deliberately pisspoor verses, what else was he doing? My guess is he was writing: Hamlet needed to write things down (“meet it is I set it down”). And, given his passion for theatre, I’d guess further that he was writing a play. I’d guess he was writing Troilus and Cressida, that brutally cynical and dyspeptic play in which one of the two titular characters, Troilus, finds himself shocked that other humans do not possess the sense of honour that he does, and comes to hate them all. But Hamlet, in whose guise I like to think Shakespeare was writing this play, gives us Cressida as well, and she is presented as someone who realises – to her own shock – that Troilus loves not so much herself as a person, but Love and Honour as abstract ideals.

Troilus and Cressida was probably written soon after Hamlet, and there is no record of this brilliant but curious play ever being performed in Shakespeare’s lifetime. I suppose we can make of that what we will.


Shakespeare’s bundles of contradictions

Towards the end of the play of which he is protagonist, Macbeth speaks these famous lines:

I have lived long enough: my way of life
Is fall’n into the sear, the yellow leaf;
And that which should accompany old age,
As honour, love, obedience, troops of friends,
I must not look to have; but, in their stead,
Curses, not loud but deep, mouth-honour, breath,
Which the poor heart would fain deny, and dare not.

(From V, iii)

And yet, a brief couple of scenes later, he speaks these even more famous lines:

To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time,
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.

(From V,v)

The earlier speech is a heartfelt lament for what he is; the latter a statement of nihilism, a conviction that nothing in life really matters. And of course, the two speeches are inconsistent: for if nothing in life really matters, there is nothing for him to lament. So the actor looking for a consistency is here flummoxed: Macbeth surely cannot mean both!

And yet, I think he does: at the time he speaks each speech, he means it. Both speeches are heartfelt. So has he changed dramatically between the two speeches? It seems unlikely. The only difference is that before he utters the second speech, he receives news of his wife’s death; but the two had grown very far apart by then, and he must have been expecting this news anyway. And even if that were not the case, it is hard to see why this news should change him in such a manner.

One reason Shakespeare seems so profound a depicter of humanity is, it seems to me, that he recognises humans are bundles of contradictions. The drama in his plays is frequently within his characters as much as, or even more than, between his characters. Thus, Macbeth can at the same time lament the profound tragedy that he knows his life to be, while at the same time believe that it doesn’t matter. And instead of resolving this conflict, Shakespeare is happy to leave it as it is. Macbeth is both. This cannot be resolved.

And Macbeth himself knows this. He seems to me by far the most self-aware of all Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists. Even Hamlet, that most intelligent and introspective of characters, is often puzzled by his own self, asking himself questions about his own self that he cannot answer, and admitting that he does not know:

                             I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;
‘Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t.

(From III, iv)

Hamlet’s acute self-awareness is, quite frequently, an awareness that he doesn’t truly know his own self. But Macbeth knows his true self all too well. Alone amongst Shakespeare’s tragic protagonists, Macbeth does not make the journey towards greater self-knowledge: this is because he has known himself perfectly from the start. His tragedy is not that he had acted from lack of self-knowledge, but, rather, he had acted knowing perfectly that his acts will damn his soul for ever; knowing perfectly that once started, there can be no going back. And yet, he is unable to stop himself. Othello’s vision had been fatally clouded as he walked into damnation, but Macbeth goes into his damnation with his eyes wide open at each step. And their sense is not shut.

Lady Macbeth, too, is a huge bundle of contradictions. Does her invocation to evil spirits to possess her an indication of her evil nature? Or an admission that she cannot truly be evil without the spirits’ possession? Why does this personification of evil in a female form herself shirk from the act of murder – and for the most sentimental of reasons?

Had he not resembled My father as he slept, I had done’t.

(From II,ii)

How, indeed, can so implacably evil a woman eventually become mad with guilt?

Shakespeare never repeated himself. After the terse bleakness of Macbeth, he went immediately to the opposite extreme, and gave us the expansive and overflowing opulence of Antony and Cleopatra; here, instead of a protagonist who knows himself, he gives us a queen who, regardless of what she had been in life, mythologises herself into a great queen at death; and a once mighty soldier whose extent of acquired self-knowledge amounts to his realising that he doesn’t have the first understanding of who or what he is.

That which is now a horse, even with a thought
The rack dislimns, and makes it indistinct,
As water is in water.

It does, my lord.

My good knave Eros, now thy captain is
Even such a body: here I am Antony:
Yet cannot hold this visible shape…

(From IV, xiii)

Like the Macbeths, Antony and Cleopatra too are bundles of unresolved contradictions. There is, by the end, a closure in terms of plot, but never in terms of character.

“To thine own self be true…”

This above all: to thine own self be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

These lines are often cited as great wisdom, as evidence of how wise and profound a thinker Shakespeare was. They are spoken, however, by Polonius, who is anything but a wise and profound thinker. Indeed, he is a shallow man, a pompous, long-winded buffoon, one of those “tedious old fools” that Hamlet refers to so contemptuously. These lines of wisdom occur towards the end of an excruciatingly tedious oration delivered by Polonius to his son Laertes, peppered from beginning to end with cracker-mottoes of the most mind-numbing banality. Far from depicting profundity, these lines serve merely to depict Polonius as a man who has no conception of the complexities of life that Prince Hamlet is grappling with, a manwhose idea of wisdom is no more than a few trite and meaningless platitudes.

For what does it mean to be “true to one’s self”? What, for that matter, is “one’s self”? The very opening line of this play, a seemingly casual “who’s there?” spoken by a guard on duty on the battlements, rings through the rest of the play: it poses the question of identity. Is Hamlet being true to his self when he is a sweet prince, greeting his social inferiors Bernardo and Marcellus with courtesy? Or is he being more true to his self when making nasty and obscene suggestions to Ophelia in the open court? When he fails to kill the king when given the opportunity to do so, or when he plunges his sword into the arras only a few minutes later thinking the king is hiding behind it? Even after all these centuries, we have not come close to plucking out the heart of Hamlet’s mystery, and this is because his true self, like all our true selves, whether we recognise it or not, is complex: we do not even know what these true selves are that we are instructed to be true to.

To see Polonius’ exhortations to his son as pearls of wisdom is to see the complexity of this play through Polonius’ uncomprehending eyes. It is a grotesque reduction. It is to see the moral paths of Right and Wrong as clear as they are in Aesop’s fables, and characters as flawed for not seeing what is so apparent. It is to imagine that identifying a tragic flaw on the part of the protagonist can help us come close even to an adequate understanding of these endlessly intricate works. Such reduction leads not merely to a simplified view of these works, but to a distorted view. Far from helping us understand the work, it takes us further from it.

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak. ’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be play’d on than a pipe?

Directing “Hamlet” in one’s mind

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.

Good madam!

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.

She adds:

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.

The three Hamlets

There is no single text of Hamlet: there are three separate texts, and versions we read or see performed are usually conflations of two of them, with, perhaps, a nod to the third. But it is highly unlikely that Shakespeare intended the different texts to be conflated. I have heard Prof. James Shapiro – author of the book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare, in one chapter of which he discusses the textual differences and the impact they make – insist passionately that Shakespeare wrote quite different versions of the play, and that to conflate the two versions together is to end up with a play that is faithful neither to Shakespeare’s original thoughts, nor to the revised. Since hearing Prof Shapiro on the subject, I had been meaning to read the different versions separately; and now that the Arden Shakespeare has printed these different versions in separate volumes, I really have no excuse not to.

(The earlier Arden edition of the play, edited by Harold Jenkins, is still widely considered to be an exemplary piece of Shakespearean scholarship, although, like most editions, it uses a conflated text.)

hamlet 001

It was in 1603 that the first text appeared: this is known as the First Quarto (Q1), or the “Bad Quarto”. Whoever put this together obviously had access to Shakespeare’s own text, but there are huge cuts, and, at times, the text seems garbled:

To be or not to be – ay, there’s the point.
To die, to sleep – is that all? Ay, all.
No, to sleep, to dream – ay, marry, there it goes…

At other points, it seems to follow closely enough the later texts that we think of as the better ones. How this particular text came about is a bit of a mystery: it is often conjectured that it was pieced together from memory by some players who may recently have left Shakespeare’s company, but who had heard it often enough at rehearsals, or who had even performed in it, to be familiar enough with it to reproduce large chunks of it. The play we now recognise as Hamlet is discernible, but it’s like seeing a mediocre artist’s copy of a painting by an old master: we may discern a genius lurking somewhere behind the work, but the work itself seems clumsy.

The very next year, in 1604, as if in response to the Bad Quarto, there appeared another text – the Second Quarto (Q2), or, as it is rather unimaginatively dubbed, the “Good Quarto”. This is almost twice as long as the Bad Quarto, and it is unmistakably a work of genius. But it is very long. A full performance would have taken some four hours – far longer than the “two hours’ traffic on our stage” mentioned in Romeo and Juliet, or even the “two hours and a half, and somewhat more” as mentioned in Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair. So either this text is a fuller version of what was performed on stage; or conceivably, the players made an exception for this work in performance, allowing it to run longer than was usual. (Shapiro argues this latter possibility is unlikely: given that the performance started at 2 in the afternoon, and the, as this play was performed in the Globe during autumn and winter months, it would have been dark by the final scene.)

The third text appeared in the First Folio, the first collected works of Shakespeare’s plays that was published in 1623, seven years after Shakespeare’s death. And here, we have another good text, but with a great many differences from that of the Good Quarto. It wasn’t an abridgement for performance: only 230 lines are excised, while 90 are added. It is, quite clearly, a conscious revision. That is, if we agree that the Folio text is a revision of the Second Quarto text, and not the other way round: both Shapiro, and the editors of the Oxford edition, Stanley Wells and Gary Taylor, seem agreed that the Second Quarto text had been written first.

(Interestingly, in the various passages of the First Quarto that correspond to the “good texts”, it is the Folio text rather than that of the Second Quarto that it appears closer to. This is why the First Quarto is often consulted by editors when there appears to be printing errors or uncertainties in the Folio. The First Quarto is also interesting in that it places Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, and the scene that follows with Ophelia, in Act Two rather than in Act Three, where it stands in both the Good Quarto and in the Folio texts. This leaves open the fascinating possibility that Shakespeare, even during rehearsals, was experimenting with the structure, and tinkering with the order of various scenes. The DVD of the recent RSC production with David Tennant and Patrick Stewart, although using, as usual, a conflated version of Q2 and the Folio, nonetheless followed Q1 in placing these passages in Act Two.)

After a while, I must admit, scholarly discussion of textual matters finds me a bit out of my depth. Naturally, there is much controversy over several aspects of this, but, fascinating though it all is, it is a controversy in which I do not feel sufficiently knowledgeable to take part. However, after some forty or so years of reading conflated texts, I felt I should take Prof Shapiro’s advice and read the texts separately. That isn’t actually as easy as it sounds: my mind is so imprinted on conflated texts, that even when a passage is missing from one text or the other, I find myself automatically filling in the gaps. One can’t, after all, unlearn what one already knows.

Most of the changes are quite minor – changes in wording, or in phrasing. But often, even small changes can make a huge impact. For instance, in the Q2 text, while Hamlet, Horatio and Marcellus are waiting for the ghost to appear, we get this:

HAMLET: The air bites shrewdly; it is very cold.
HORATIO: It is a nipping and an eager air.

This is a bit of idle chit-chat while they are waiting. But in the Folio text, we get this:

HAMLET: The air bites shrewdly: is it very cold?
HORATIO: It is a nipping and an eager air.

Here, Hamlet is at a stage where he cannot even trust the evidence of his own senses, and needs confirmation that what he feels really is a reflection of reality. A slight change, but it casts the entire scene, and, indeed, the entire play, in a different light.

I am intrigued also by the change of phrasing in Hamlet’s famous passage about the nature of man. In the First Folio, and in all the conflated versions I have seen, we get this:

What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals – and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

But in Q2, we had this:

What a piece of work is a man – how noble in reason; how infinite in faculties, in form and moving; how express and admirable in action; how like an angel in apprehension; how like a god; the beauty of the world; the paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Admittedly, the overall meaning remains much the same, but there is something fascinating about Shakespeare rethinking and re-organising the phrasing and the rhythms in this manner. I’d love to hear the Q2 phrasing used in a production.

There are also somewhat more significant changes. In Act 2 Scene 2, where Hamlet sees through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the Quarto text allows Hamlet to see through them almost immediately; the Folio text, however, allows Hamlet a bit longer, letting him engage for a while in seemingly friendly banter before dropping the bombshell: “Were you not sent for?” Here, I must admit, I feel the Folio text is dramatically more effective, giving more scope for the actor playing Hamlet to display his shrewdness in weighing up the motives of his former friends. In the Q2 text, the question “Were you not sent for?” seems based on a hunch, asked on the spur of the moment.

In the closet scene, however (III,iv), Q2 has a magnificent piece of extended rhetoric in which Hamlet berates his mother. It is an irresistible torrent in full flow:

This was your husband. Look you now, what follows:
Here is your husband; like a mildew’d ear,
Blasting his wholesome brother. Have you eyes?
Could you on this fair mountain leave to feed,
And batten on this moor? Ha! have you eyes?
You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
And waits upon the judgment: and what judgment
Would step from this to this? Sense, sure, you have,
Else could you not have motion; but sure, that sense
Is apoplex’d; for madness would not err,
Nor sense to ecstasy was ne’er so thrall’d
But it reserved some quantity of choice,
To serve in such a difference. What devil was’t
That thus hath cozen’d you at hoodman-blind?
Eyes without feeling, feeling without sight,
Ears without hands or eyes, smelling sans all,
Or but a sickly part of one true sense
Could not so mope.

And I can’t help feeling what a shame it is that Shakespeare in his revision chose to shorten this of all passages. Presumably, he had his reasons for doing so, but I can’t help wondering what devil was’t that thus hath cozen’d him at hoodman-blind.

But without doubt, the most significant cut of all comes in the fourth act. In Q2, Hamlet, as he is led into exile, sees Fortinbras and his troops; expresses some thoughts about them to Fortinbras’ captain, and then, left on his own, delivers the last of his great soliloquies (“How all occasions do inform against me”). In the Folio text, Hamlet is not present at all in this scene: his words to the captain, and his soliloquy, one of the most magnificent speeches in all Shakespeare, are cut out. This scene now serves a purely narrative purpose – to remind us of Fortinbras and his troops, and to prepare the ground for their entrance at the end of the play. But before decrying this unkindest cut of all, we should examine why Shakespeare was so apparently willing to discard so extraordinary a passage.

To be entirely honest, this longer scene in Q2, magnificent though it is, has always puzzled me. On hearing from the captain that the troops are on their way to fight over a meaningless piece of land, all for the sake of honour, Hamlet is horrified:

This is the impostume of much wealth and peace,
That inward breaks, and shows no cause without
Why the man dies.

“Impostume” is an abscess: once again, Hamlet employs the imagery of disease. This Hotspur-like insistence on honour, even at so great a loss, is a disease, and is the hidden reason that explains “why the man dies”. Shapiro thinks that this “may well be the darkest moment in the play”. But then, left on his own, we have Hamlet’s final soliloquy. At the very opening of the soliloquy, Hamlet castigates himself – as he had done in the soliloquy that had ended the second act – for not having yet acted:

How all occasions do inform against me,
And spur my dull revenge!

But this opening is immediately followed by some of the most glorious lines in English literature, in which Hamlet speaks of humans as thinking beings:

What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more.
Sure, he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused.

How noble in reason indeed!

But at this point, the soliloquy takes a strange turn. Hamlet now turns his critical eye on thinking too much – on “thinking too precisely on th’event”. One of Hamlet’s own principal characteristics – the ability to think and to reason deeply – is found wanting, and rejected:

Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on the event,
A thought which, quarter’d, hath but one part wisdom
And ever three parts coward, I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t.

In all the years I have been reading and re-reading this play, I have never understood this turn of Hamlet’s mind. And it eludes me still. Hamlet knows that what Fortinbras is doing – leading two thousand souls to their deaths for nothing, for some point of honour – is stupid, is pointless. It is an “impostume” – an abscess, a disease. So why does he now think that Fortinbras’ actions shows himself, Hamlet, in a bad light? Why is he turning against his own nature? Why is he now castigating himself for being, unlike Fortinbras, capable of thought? He is still aware that what Fortinbras is fighting for is not worth fighting for: an “eggshell”, he calls it, “a fantasy and a trick of fame”. And yet, he now admires and wishes to emulate even this fighting that is pointless, that is an impostume.

When I last wrote about Hamlet on this blog, I had conjectured that Hamlet sees in Fortinbras an image of his own warlike father; and that his guilt in being so unlike his father, in having, as it were, betrayed his father’s values, compels him to admire those very qualities that he knows he does not have. It compels him to admire these qualities even though he can see these qualities for what they are. This is, I admit, mere conjecture on my part; but I can think of no other reason why Hamlet should express admiration for Fortinbras, and try to force himself into becoming what he knows he isn’t:

O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

However we interpret this soliloquy, and Hamlet’s words to the captain, we are in deep moral and psychological waters. By removing these passages, these complexities are also removed. Shapiro in his book presents us with a number of other changes Shakespeare introduced into the revised text that, consistent with the removal of complexity, present revenge as morally correct and desirable, and Hamlet as, essentially, a revenging angel.

First of all, since Fortinbras is no longer so strong a foil to Hamlet, Laertes’ role as a foil is emphasised, perhaps somewhat clumsily, with the addition of these lines:

But I am very sorry, good Horatio,
That to Laertes I forgot myself;
For, by the image of my cause, I see
The portraiture of his.

Hamlet’s beautiful lines on the acceptance of Fate are also subtly changed. In Q2, we had this:

We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be, ’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 of aught he leaves knows what is’t to leave betimes. Let be.

In the Folio, this becomes:

We defy augury. 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?

The more committed avenger in the Folio text leaves out “Let be”. And the passage is rephrased so that the word “knows” drops out: Hamlet in the Folio no longer says that it is not possible to know, but, rather, that it is unimportant to have. The moral complexity of the Q2 text is here ironed out: in that text, Hamlet had resolved the questions that had been tormenting him by calmly accepting that it is impossible to know. In the Folio text, all those issues have disappeared altogether, leaving a somewhat simplified character, but also, for that very reason, a more credible avenger.

There is a further significant addition. In Q2, we had this:

He that hath kill’d my King and whored my mother,
Popp’d in between th’election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life
And with such cozenage. Is’t not perfect conscience?

This passage is clearly intended to prepare us for the act of revenge that is soon to follow, but in the light of the moral complexities introduced earlier, this passage sits awkwardly: has Hamlet forgotten about these complexities? But, with these complexities removed in the Folio text, this same passage can now be given greater dramatic force, and the sense of the impending revenge, and of its correctness, emphasised:

He that hath kill’d my king and whored my mother,
Popp’d in between the election and my hopes,
Thrown out his angle for my proper life,
And with such cozenage–is’t not perfect conscience,
To quit him with this arm? and is’t not to be damn’d,
To let this canker of our nature come
In further evil?

It is now “to be damn’d” not to take revenge – a sentiment that the Q2 text could not have accommodated.

(For a more detailed and a far more eloquent account of the impact of these changes, I would strongly recommend Chapter 15 of James Shapiro’s book 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare.)

So, what are the final impressions left by reading these competing texts separately? A certain clarification, certainly. To see the subtle touches of revision, those apparently little changes that alter so much, are in themselves a joy to behold. But while there are some aspects of the revised Folio text that I would not wish to be without – such as the extended scene in II,ii where Hamlet speaks with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – it is the morally and psychologically complex Hamlet of Q2 that I find more compelling. Even though, admittedly, the final act of revenge in which the play culminates does nothing to resolve those complexities.