Table of Contents Performance Policies and Procedures
Audience Role and Responsibility
One-Minute Etiquette Reminder
Understanding/appreciating the Technical Elements
Activities/Discussion Questions/Shakespeare said it first!
Education Associate……………………………… Pat Pederson Group Sales Coordinator........................................ Tracey White House Manager...................................................... Anthony Corcoran Government/Corporate/Foundation Relations . . . . . . . . .James Dungey Producing Director................................................. James Clark Artistic Director..................................................... Robert Moss
Group Sales: 315/443-9844 Education Department: 315/443-1150 Syracuse Stage Administration Offices: 315/443-4008
PERFORMANCE POLICIES AND PROCEDURES
WHEN TO ARRIVE AT THE THEATRE: We recommend you arrive at the theatre at least 30 minutes prior to the performance to allow time for seating. This is a professional theatre production and will start promptly at the scheduled time. BUS DROP OFF AND PARKING: Busses not staying may load and unload at the Centro bus stop on East Genesee Street. Bus parking is available along East Genesee Street at the bagged meters. Cars must make arrangements in parking facilities as they will be ticketed if parked at the bagged meters. SEAT ASSIGNMENTS: Our staff will seat your students. Students must remain in their assigned seats for reasons of convenience, efficiency, and courtesy. We ask that chaperons and teachers do not sit together but sit evenly distributed throughout the students. LATECOMERS: Latecomers will be seated at the discretion of the Management. BACKPACKS, CAMERAS, AND RECORDING DEVICES : Backpacks, cameras and recording devices are strictly prohibited in the theatre. Please leave them at school or on the bus. PHOTOGRAPHY: Union rules do not allow the taking of pictures during a production and flash cameras are a distraction to both the acting company and audience. Any camera used in the theatre will be removed for the duration of the performance. FOOD, DRINK AND GUM: Absolutely no food, drink, or gum is allowed in the theatre. Please leave snacks and lunches on the bus or at school. Students will be asked to leave the theatre to remove any food items or the items will be taken and not returned. INTERMISSION REFRESHMENTS: When staff are available, soda and snacks will be sold during intermission. You must dispose of all snack items before reentering the theatre. AUDIENCE ETIQUETTE: Live performances require different behavior than movie attendance. Please review theatre etiquette with your students before attending the performance. We reserve the right to remove any student distracting other audience members or, worse, the performers. POST-SHOW FOLLOW UP: Performances at Syracuse Stage are funded by grants from corporations and individuals who want to hear from you. We ask students and teachers to write the sponsors with your likes and dislikes and to let the sponsors know that the student matinees are an important program. (Do write to us too!) Please: 1] Write thank you letters to the sponsors to let them know that this is an important program. (Names and addresses can be obtained from the Education office.) 2] Write to Syracuse Stage with suggestions to improve your theatre experience. 3] Call the Education office if you have any questions or if there is an issue that requires immediate action. Thank you in advance for the work you put into helping Syracuse Stage present the student matinee program. We hope that the season entertains and enlightens you and your students.
Part of the art of living is living with the arts.
AUDIENCE ROLE AND RESPONSIBILITY As audience members, your students have a distinct role and responsibility. The success of any performance depends on the actors on the stage as well as the people in the seats. For those students enjoying their first exposure to a live theatre production, we encourage some discussion of theatre manners before you attend the play, as some movie-, videoand television-watching behaviors are not always appropriate in the theatre. We have included two pages to assist you: the first lists discussion questions or topics for the classroom (with some suggested answers in italics) while the second is a ONE MINUTE ETIQUETTE REMINDER to read on the bus before you arrive. (You might also review the essay on Dramatic Criticism on page 13.) Thank you for helping us help your students get the most out of the performance. [ 1 ] What are some of the differences between a live theatre production and a movie? Movies can be filmed in any sequence and scenes can be redone as many times as needed to get a “good scene.” The scenes are then composed into the movie by editors and the director. Each scene in a live theatre performance is presented once only, in sequence, as written, the performance being created anew each time by the actors, stage manager(s) and backstage staff. The audience’s noise level, activity level, and attention level do not affect the movie actor’s performance. BUT, all of these things are heard and noticed by the actors of a live performance and have an immediate effect on the performance, which may be positive or negative—if the audience laughs at funny lines or is leaning forward in anticipation of the action, actors respond with energetic performances; if the audience does not respond to the actors, responds at inappropriate times or is restless, actors find it difficult to give their best performances because their concentration, their “trains of thought,” as it were, have been disrupted . Special effects in a movie are often be generated by computers or camera angles while special effects in the theatre often rely on the audience’s imagination to enhance or help create them. Movies provide realistic images while live theatre provides images of reality. [ 2 ] What is the best way to approach viewing a live performance of any art? Audiences attending a live performance must be willing to “suspend their disbelief”; that is, they should be prepared to use their imagination to fully enter into the ideas of the play/musical composition/dance, etc. Live performances are in ways television and movies are not: try to be open to the passion and emotion behind the actions, words, movements and/or music presented. Because each performance is affected by audience response, audience members will never see the same performance twice. Though the piece’s meaning remains the same, each performance may have its own underlying interpretations due to factors such as the performer(s) and/or audience’s state of mind, performer(s) physical readiness, and even the comfort level in the performing space. [ 3 ] What is the audience’s role during a live performance? How do you think audience behavior can affect a performance? Audiences ready to observe naturally connect with the performers and appropriately respond to the performance, by laughing, gasping, applauding, or quietly listening. Even when this is so audience members should remember that, for live performances, paper rattling, watch alarms, cell phones, beepers, and talking will distract the performers, thereby disrupting the connection between stage and auditorium and weakening the performance. Just as importantly, those around noisy audience members will miss hearing or seeing elements of a live performance that will not be repeated.
ONE-MINUTE ETIQUETTE REMINDER Please read to students on the bus prior to entering the theatre.
Stay in the group to be seated. Your school or class will be called and seated as a group. Sit in the seat to which you are assigned. If you move or refuse to take a particular seat, you will delay our seating other members of your group as well as other groups. No food, drink, gum-chewing, headsets, or backpacks in the theatre. Please leave lunches, snacks and backpacks on the bus. NO TALKING OR GETTING UP DURING THE SHOW. This includes whispering. Every live performance is a unique experience, created jointly by actors and audience members present for a specific presentation. Live performances vary greatly from recorded TV programs or movies because the audience’s reactions are not only obvious to the performers but are relied upon by them as signals that they presenting the best performance possible, regardless of the type of reaction—applause, laughter, crying or even quiet but responsive attention—because the actors can see and hear you. Please do not talk, act or distract attention from the stage. Please use the restrooms before the show or at intermission only. If you have any problems or questions, please ask the ushers for help.
DRAMATIC CRITICISM Why We Attend Theatre Oscar Brockett, from The Theatre: An Introduction Art is one way whereby mankind seeks to understand the world. . . .Our search for meaning . . . is always directed toward discovering those relationships that reveal order within what would otherwise seem to be chance events. Art, then, . . . shapes perceptions about human experience into . . . patterned relationships that help us order our views about mankind and the universe. . . . The artist . . . works primarily from his or her own perceptions and seeks to involve the audience’s emotions, imagination, and intellect directly. A playwright consequently presents events as though they are occurring at that moment before our eyes; we absorb them in the way we absorb life itself—through their direct operation on our senses. Thus, as art differs from life by stripping away irrelevant details and organizing events to compose a connected pattern, so a play illuminates and comments (though sometimes indirectly) on human experience even as it seemingly creates human experience. But, just as we do not mistake a statue for a real person, we do not mistake stage action for reality. Rather, we usually view a play with what Samuel Taylor Coleridge called a “willing suspension of disbelief.” By this concept he meant that, while we know the events of a play are not real, we agree for the moment not to disbelieve their reality. . . This state in which we are sufficiently detached to view an artistic event semiobjectively is sometimes called esthetic distance. [However], the distance must not be so great as to induce indifference. Therefore, while a degree of detachment is necessary, [audience] involvement is of equal importance. This feeling of kinship is sometimes called empathy. Thus, we watch a play with a double sense of concern and detachment. It is both a removed and an intensified reaction of a kind seldom possible outside esthetic experience. Another way of putting this is that art (that is, a statue, a musical composition, or a drama) lifts us above the everyday fray and gives us something like a “god’s-eye” view of human experience. . . . Art lays claim . . . to being serious (in the sense of having something important to communicate), but because its methods are so indirect (it presents experience but does not attempt to explain it fully) it is often ambiguous . . . . Special Attributes of Theatre as an Art. Even within the fine arts theatre holds a special place; it is the art that comes closest to life as it is lived from day to day. Not only is human experience and action its subject, it also uses live human beings (actors) as its primary means of communicating with an audience. Quite often the speech of the performers approximates that heard in real life; the actors may wear costumes that might be seen on the street; and they may perform in settings that recall actual places. Not all theatre attempts to be so realistic and at times it may even approximate other performing arts (such as dance and music), but nevertheless it is the art most capable of recreating mankind’s typical experiences. Such lifelikeness is also one of the reasons theatre is often insufficiently valued: a play, a setting, the acting may so resemble what is familiar to spectators that they fail to recognize how difficult it is to produce this lifelikeness skillfully. To a certain degree all people are actors; they vary the roles they play (almost moment by moment) according to the people they encounter. In doing so, they utilize the same tools as the actor: voice, speech, movement, gesture, psycho-logical motivation, and the like. Consequently, most persons do not fully recognize the problems faced by a skilled actor. Even those within the theatre often differ in their opinions about whether artistic excellence depends primarily on talent and instinct or on training and discipline. Theatre further resembles life in being ephemeral. As in life, each episode is experienced and then immediately becomes part of the past. When the performance ends, its essence can never be fully recaptured. Unlike a novel, painting, or statute, each of which remains relatively unchanged, a theatrical production when it is ended lives only in the play script, program, pictures, reviews, and memories of those who were present. Theatre resembles life also in being the most objective of the arts, since characteristically it presents both outer and inner experience through speech and action. As in life, it is through listening and watching that we come to know characters both externally and internally. What we learn about their minds, personalities, and motivations comes from what they say and do and from what others tell us about them. Thus we absorb a theatrical performance the way we do a scene from real life. Additionally, theatre can be said to resemble life because of the complexity of its means for, like a scene from life itself, it is made up of intermingled sound, movement, place, dress, lighting, and so on. In other words, theatre draws
on all the other arts: literature in its script; painting, architecture, and sculpture (and sometimes dance) in its spectacle; and speech and music in its audible aspects. In some ways, then, theatre encompasses all the other arts. Further-more, theatre is psychologically the most immediate of the arts. Several contemporary critics have argued that the essence of theatre—what distinguishes it from other dramatic media such as television and film—lies in the simultaneous presence of live actors and spectators in the same room, and that everything else is expendable. . . . Live performance has important attributes that television and film cannot duplicate, most significantly . . . the three-dimensionality of the theatrical experience and the special relationship between performers and spectators: in the theatre, . . . since the full acting area remains visible, the audience may choose what it will watch, even though the director may attempt to focus attention on some specific aspect of a scene. [But, and] perhaps most important, during a live performance there is continuous interaction between performer and spectator; even as the actor is eliciting responses from the audience, those responses in turn are affecting the actor’s performance. Thus, a live performance permits the audience a far more active role than television and film do. Ultimately, there is a fundamental difference in the psychological responses aroused by electronic media and theatre because the former presents pictures of events whereas the latter performs the actual events in what amounts to the same space as that occupied by the audience. This difference results in one unique characteristic of theatre: its ability to offer intense sensory experience through the simultaneous presence of live actors and audience. . . . The Audience. Until the public sees the material performed we usually do not call it theatre. For all the arts a public is imperative, but for most this public may be thought of as individuals—the reader of a novel or poem, the viewer of a painting or a piece of sculpture—each of whom may experience the work in isolation. But a theatre audience is assembled as a group at a given time and place to experience a performance. Why Does an Audience Attend the Theatre? One of the most powerful motives for going to the theatre is the desire for entertainment, which implies suspension of personal cares, relaxation of tensions, and a feeling of well-being, satisfaction, and renewal. But although everyone may believe that the theatre should provide entertainment, not all agree on what is entertaining. Many would exclude any treatment of controversial subject matter on the grounds that an audience goes to the theatre to escape from cares rather than to be confronted with problems. . . . Other persons look to theatre for stimulation. They too desire to be entertained, but argue that the theatre should also provide new insights and provocative perceptions about significant topics, advocate action about political and social issues, or increase awareness of and sensitivity to others and surroundings. . . . Both points of view are valid in part, but adherents of neither point of view should attempt to limit unduly the theatre’s offerings. The whole range of drama should be available to audiences, for the health of the theatre depends upon breadth of appeal. In America today the success of a play is frequently judged by its ability to attract large audiences over a considerable period of time. But is a play to be considered a failure if it does not achieve financial success? Not necessarily. A dramatist has a right to select his or her audience just as much as an audience has to select a play. Actually, dramatists do so when they choose the subject matter, characters, and techniques to be used, for, consciously or unconsciously, they have an ideal spectator in mind. Although playwrights may hope for universal acceptance, each desires the favorable response of a particular group. Consequently, a play may be deemed successful if it achieves the desired response from the audience for which it was primarily intended. . . . The Problem of Value. It is difficult to defend art on the basis of its immediate utility. Art ultimately must be valued because of its capacity to improve the quality of life: by increasing our sensitivity to others and our surroundings, by sharpening our perceptions, by reshaping our values so that moral and societal concerns take precedence over material well-being. Of all the arts, theatre has perhaps the greatest potential as a humanizing force, for at its best it asks us to enter imaginatively into the lives of others so we may understand their aspirations and motivations. Through role-playing (either in daily life or in the theatre) we come to understand who and what we are and to see ourselves in relation to others. Perhaps most important, in a world given increasingly to violence, the value of being able to understand and feel for others as human beings cannot be overestimated, because violence flourishes most fully when we so dehumanize others that we no longer think of their hopes, aims, and sufferings but treat them as objects to be manipulated or on whom to vent our frustrations. To know (emotionally, imaginatively, and intellectually) what it means to be human in the broadest sense ought to be one of the primary goals of both education and life; for reaching that goal no approach has greater potential than theatre, since humans are its subject and living beings its primary medium. . . . Unfortunately, quality—unlike quantity—is not measurable except subjectively. And subjectivity takes us into the realm of taste, judgment, and a host of variables about which agreement is seldom possible. There are many levels of
taste, many degrees of complexity, and a wide range of quality. But, if we cannot expect ever to achieve complete agreement, we all can sharpen our own perceptions of the theatre and its processes. To do this, we need first to understand the theatre and how it works. Second, we need to develop some approach through which we can judge the relative merits of what is performed and how it is performed. Then, we should work to encourage those theatrical values that seem important to us. In this way we may acquire understanding and judgment—that is, we become critics of the theatre. . . . Understanding/appreciating the Technical Elements A performance does not just happen; it is the product of a great deal of teamwork. The technical elements of a production support the characters the actors create to present the audience with the illusionary reality that is theatre. Sets, lights, sound, props, and costumes create the environment in which the play lives. These elements combine with the audience’s imagination to fashion a theatrical reality that is different from our day-to-day lives yet recognizable by all involved. The following discussion questions are intended to help students focus on each of these technical elements and analyze its part in a production. Section A: Scenery Before the performance began, what were your first impressions of the set design? How did it make you feel? Which of your senses were involved by the set design? What was the physicality of the stage? Did the set incorporate any theatrical devices such as a rake, a thrust, ramps or stairs onstage, or the voms or pit in the audience? What type of action did you expect? As the performance progressed, did the set change from scene to scene or did it remain the same for the entire play? Were the changes of location made by actual set alterations or by the actors’ use of the set? Gravedigger scene; set model by How was the stage used? Did the action take place across the whole stage or Adam Stockhausen was action contained in small areas? What could you tell about each environment and the time period of the used area? Was movement between areas fluid or rigid? Did the actors move around the set in purposeful motion or did action flow from one area to another? What materials and color schemes were used for walls, the deck (stage floor), set pieces? Did the materials and colors fit the time and location of the play? Did the colors suggest a mood or atmosphere to you? Were you able to concentrate on the action and characters or did the elements of the set attract your attention? After viewing the performance, do you feel the set design supported the play? Did it make sense to you? Would you have done anything differently? What and why? Section B: Costumes What could you tell about each of the characters based on his or her appearance before any action took place? Did the costumes influence your expectations or opinion of each character? Did the costumes put you in the appropriate time period and geographical setting (if any)? Did the style of the costumes match or enhance the characters’ personalities and social situations and the mood of the play? How did the colors and materials used compliment or contrast with the colors and materials of the set? Did the colors and materials group the characters in any way? Were there any parts of the costumes you found distracting or out of place? Section C: Lighting What clues did the lighting give you about the mood or emotional tone of the play? Was the lighting from an identifiable source or did it blend into the setting? Was the lighting supportive of the action or distracting? Was it ever supposed to be distracting? Could you identify the colors that were used? Why do you think these particular shades were chosen? Did any one character have a particular shade or degree of lighting? Sometimes lighting is used together with suggestive scenery or certain pieces of furniture to imply that a certain area onstage is always perceived as a specific place. Did you see this in this performance’s design?
Section D: Sound What types of sounds were used? Were the sounds environmental noise or in response to specific character actions (for example: crickets chirping in the summer or a gunshot)? Was sound or music used to create or enhance the atmosphere, or to foreshadow events? Were certain sounds or musical motifs associated with certain characters or repeated situations? Did the sounds fit the situation or distract you from the performance? Were the sounds correct for time period and location, or did they comment on the time and place? Section E: Props Were the props appropriate to the time period and setting? Were they in keeping with the rest of the setting (including color choices in setting and costumes)? Did some or all of them comment on the setting as a whole? Did the characters have all the props they needed for the scenes? Did they have too many props? Did they have fewer props than you expected? What did you learn about the characters’ situation or background from their possessions? Remember that props include furniture, books, purses, wagons, plates and silverware—anything an actor touches. Section F: General What non-actor aspect of the performance impacted you the most? Was this aspect more textual or physical? Did the technical elements of the performance enhance or detract from your enjoyment of the play? Would you have changed anything about this production? How would you have changed it? Why? Understanding/appreciating the Play in Performance Suggested by: Katherine Ommanney’s The Stage and the School The following questions may help you to view shows intelligently, but don’t let them spoil your enjoyment of the theatre or turn you into a commentator during the performance! Real enthusiasts of the theatre free their imaginations and emotions while seeing a play or a picture, while using their intelligence and discrimination to heighten their appreciation of this great art. Section A: Theme In your opinion, is the fundamental idea of the play true or false in its concept of life? Is the theme consistent with the setting, plot and characters presented in the play? Do you agree with the author’s philosophy? In your opinion, should the general public be encouraged to see the play? Section B: Plot Is there a clear-cut sequence of events? Do they rise to a gripping climax? Were you held in suspense until the end or did you realize what the ending would be beforehand? Were you as emotionally stirred as the author apparently wanted you to be? Are you satisfied as to the final outcome? Are you chiefly interested in the events, the people, or the place? Section C: Characterization Are the characters true to life? Are they consistent throughout the action of the entire play? Are the characters in keeping with the social and geographical background of the play? Do they arouse such feelings as sympathy, affection, disgust, admiration, or hatred on the part of the audience? Are their actions in keeping with their motives? Are the situations at the climax and conclusion the result of their inherent natures?
Section D: Style Did the dialogue retain your interest throughout the play? Is it consistent with the characters and the setting? Is it an end in itself or an adequate means of plot advancement and characterization? Did it make you think about the author or the characters themselves? Did or do you remember lines after having seen the play because of their appropriateness or beauty? If a dialect or dialects are used were they correct? Did the actors use them consistently? Would people of the class represented talk in real life as they do in the play? Is the power of expression worthy of the ideas expressed? Section E: Acting Were the actors’ interpretations of their roles correct from the standpoint of the play itself? Did each actor make his or her role a living individual? Were the actors artificial or natural in their technique? Were you conscious of the ways they sought to create effects? Did they grip you emotionally—did you weep, laugh, suffer, and exult with them? Were their voices pleasing and their presence magnetic? Did they remain in character every moment? Did or do you think of them as the characters they were depicting or as themselves? Did the actors use the play as a means of self-glorification, or were each of them an intrinsic part of the action at all times? Did each cooperate with the other actors, the director, and the author in interpreting the play: by knowing his or her lines, helping to focus attention on the center of interest, and by losing himself or herself in the part? Section F: Audience Reaction Was the audience attentive or restless during the performance? Was there a definite response—gasps, laughter, applause? Did the audience express any immediate appreciation of clever lines, dramatic situations, and skillful acting? Was the audience apathetic or animated, bored or buoyant, serious or scoffing? Was the applause spontaneous and whole-hearted, or politely perfunctory? Did it seem to you that some audience members enjoyed the play more than others? Do you think this was because of their own personal background, or some other reason? Denmark to England, across the North Sea; Denmark is in red
Activities and Discussion Questions 1. Do a little research about the state of Denmark in Shakespeare’s day (1590-1603). How equivalent is it to today’s country? Do you find anything about a special relationship between it and England? 2. Take a look at the 4 college students in the play: Hamlet, Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Do they resemble present-day college students, or are they very different? 3. Consider Polonius’ effectiveness as an advisor to the king: is he helpful to Claudius, and Gertrude, in apprising them of things needing their attention? Does he offer helpful solutions? In some respects, Horatio fills the same role for Hamlet, although not in an official capacity. How effective is he? Which of the two more nearly fits your definition of being an advisor to someone? Or is neither of them a
true advisor? 4. Hamlet is tragedy in the traditional sense in that it is set among the nobility, the central character seems to exhibit a serious character flaw, and people die. In some ways it resembles Greek and Roman tragedy. Identify some characteristics Hamlet shares with the older forms, and ways in which it is different. In traditional tragedy the central character has a personal flaw that leads to his or her undoing: Macbeth and his Lady are usually seen as overly ambitious and ruthless, qualities that contribute to their deaths. What is Hamlet’s tragic flaw, and how does it do him in? Does Claudius have a tragic flaw? 5. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern arrive in England bearing a letter demanding that they be killed upon their arrival. Is this an ending they deserve? 6. Many scholars, like several characters in the play, believe that Hamlet goes insane, if only temporarily. Do you think so? Or is he simply acting (which he seems to know something about, judging from his speech to the players)? You could conduct a sanity trial for Hamlet, or simply debate whether he is loony or lucid. 7. Conduct a murder trial with Claudius as the defendant. What evidence or circumstances would the prosecution present? What witnesses might the defense call? 8. Horatio and Osric are among the few survivors left at court by the end of the play. Imagine they are interviewed by news reporters: how would their stories differ? 9. Retell this story from Horatio’s point of view, remembering that he is absent from some of the action in Hamlet. 10. Compare the father/son relationship between Hamlet Sr. and Jr. with that of Polonius and Laertes. This will probably require some imagination on your part. Compare your relationship(s) with your parents. Are there similarities? What are the differences? 11. Whose fate is the more tragic, the men’s or the women’s? Describe each character’s “purpose” as you determine this, and the effect they and their actions have on the others. Extra credit bonus: Name the characters who do not die by sword or dagger, and what kills them. The following activities and points of discussion are courtesy of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts’ Hamlet study guide. Universal Themes Universal themes are topics or ideas that endure and make sense to us over time; they are identifiable in one form or another across cultures. These common threads along with social forces shape the creation, interpretation and importance of much literature. Create a list of universal themes that have survived and had relevance over time and across cultures. These themes may include one or more of the following elements: patterns, change/adaptation-/metamorphosis/personal growth, conflict, traditions, relationships/connections/interdependence, justice, barriers, cycles, communication, influences, order, power, quests/journeys, the World Nation, heroism/obligations of leadership, duty, chaos, generations, time, survival, inhumanity, compassion, self-sacrifice, the nature of love, the role of the individual/personal honor/integrity, threat and moral behavior. After reading the text and watching Hamlet, ask students to identify enduring issues found in the play. Ask students to identify connections between personal experience and the universal themes in Hamlet. Compare and contrast a personal experience with those of a character in the play, identifying similarities and differences and recounting personal anecdotes. Students may create an essay, news article, a rap, collage, poster etc., to demonstrates their findings. Ask students to explore newspaper articles, movies, books, myths, TV shows, computer games, cartoons and works of art to synthesize and analyze the use of universal themes in them. Present an example to the class. Discuss with the class the underlying theme(s) in Hamlet. Ask them to prepare arguments for the principle theme(s) of
the play to defend their opinions. Create a class presentation to introduce another class to Hamlet using universal themes as a basis for the presentation. Contemporizing Shakespeare It is a common practice to present Shakespeare’s plays in contemporary settings because the language, stories and characters are universal, that is, they are found in many time periods. Do you think Hamlet would translate into 2004? Try setting the characters in Elsinore High School, a modern high school in the United States. What type of student, teacher or administrator would each character be? Who would be a cheerleader? A football player? A computer wizard? Class president? History teacher? Principal? Where would you set the scenes? In a locker room? The cafeteria? The office? Create a short scene with two of your modern-day characters. How does the situation stay the same although the mannerisms and language differ? Create a Character Shield Create a character shield or coat of arms for any character. Each shield should be divided into four sections and a picture drawn for each of the following: the character’s goals, the character’s worst fear, the character’s essential nature in symbolic form (preferably as an animal), a quote representing the character. Horatio’s Story Horatio is Hamlet’s friend and confidant. He is also one of the only survivors at the end of the play. In the written play Hamlet asks him “to tell my story.”(V, ii) Those of you who have read or listened to a recording of the original, uncut play should try writing the story that Horatio will tell Fortinbras. Since Horatio does not know the whole story, concentrate on the scenes in which he is involved. For extra credit, write the story in iambic pentameter. Closing Arguments Hamlet debates his actions for the entire length of the play. In class, put Hamlet on the witness stand. Those representing the prosecution could claim Hamlet is insane while the defense team would claim Hamlet is sane. Or Hamlet could stand trial for murder, with the defense claiming self-defense. Or put Claudius on trial for the murder of his brother in a suit brought by Hamlet. Is there sufficient evidence to convict Claudius? The Horatio Show Split the class into groups of five. One student is designated as Horatio who is a talk show host similar to Jerry Springer. The other four students will be characters from Hamlet that have a conflict with each other. For example, Hamlet has an argument with Ophelia, Laertes, and Polonius about whether Hamlet and Ophelia should get married. Or, Hamlet brings Gertrude and Claudius to the show to discuss their hasty wedding. Or the Ghost calls Claudius, Hamlet, and Gertrude together to discuss his murder, revenge, and Gertrude’s remarriage. What are some other conflicts that can be aired on the Horatio Show? Write short dialogues for the characters. No throwing chairs allowed! You are a Reporter Denmark has lost its king; Claudius is the new king. Select a person to play the reporter and other class members to play Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius and Hamlet. The reporter will ask pointed questions to find what state the country is in and what happened to the old king by interviewing Gertrude, Claudius, Hamlet and Polonius. Each character should decide ahead of time what story they wish told and how they wish themselves to appear in the media. The reporter should be aggressive in his/her interview. Biography Invent a biography for Gertrude. What do you think her life was like? Did she love Hamlet’s father or was she married off at a young age to an older man for political reasons? Why do you think she married Claudius? Did she feel loved or threatened? Did she just want to remain Queen? Was she trying to preserve the right of succession for her son, afraid that Claudius might produce his own son? Was she truly attracted to Claudius, her husband’s younger brother, possibly since he is closer to her age? Or did she lust after Claudius? Did she have anything to do with her husband’s murder?
Does she wield any power, or is she simply a figurehead? Write a biography for Claudius. What were his parents like? Did he grow up in his brother’s shadow? Is he a politician and old Hamlet a warrior? Is it his time to rule? Was he envious of his older brother’s position and wife? Has his conscience troubled him since he ascended to the throne? Did he just lust for power or did he think he could do a better job of ruling the country? Why has he been accepted by the court? Has his political status changed since Hamlet returned home? Did he marry Gertrude for love, to consolidate his power, to thwart Hamlet’s ascension to his father’s throne? What does he think of Hamlet? What would Ophelia’s biography be like? How old is she? When did her mother die? Is she loved by her father? Her brother? Hamlet? How does she pass her time? What was her relationship with Hamlet before the play begins? Does she have any personal power or is she just a pawn? What are her dreams and ambitions? A Whole lot of Pretending Going On Who pretends or acts or dissembles in the play? Do Claudius, the actors, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet, Ophelia, Laertes pretend or dissemble? How and why? Do you or your classmates pretend or dissemble to each other? Do you pretend to be happy and bold? Do your classmates show off? Why do you think that this happens? What do you think pretending accomplishes? Denver Center Discussion Questions 1. Claudius took what might have been considered Hamlet’s right to succession to the crown. Throughout the play we watch Hamlet struggle with the ghost’s order to avenge his murder, and the hard decision to kill Claudius. Do you think that Hamlet would be able to make the hard decisions that a ruler has to make? Do you think Hamlet could send troops to defend the country knowing that they would die? Can a pure and moral nature have the strength to rule? Describe the character traits necessary to rule or be a commander and chief of a nation. You might want to investigate the character traits of Julius Caesar, General George Patton, Abraham Lincoln, Elizabeth I, George Washington, Marcus Aurelius, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, Ghengis Khan, and Hitler. Which traits enabled them to command a following and maintain their position? 2. Why is Hamlet’s story remembered? Why is this literary invention remembered almost to the point of making him a myth or legend like Don Quixote, Don Juan or Oedipus? 3. Discuss why this play is partly about fathers and sons, that of Laertes and Polonius, Hamlet and Old Hamlet, Hamlet and his stepfather Claudius. 4. Hamlet changes throughout the play. Murder and revenge incur a price, in spirit, integrity, honesty, identity, etc. Trace the changes he undergoes and their causes.
Shakespeare said it first! Here are some famous phrases from Hamlet. You might discuss what they appear to mean, what they mean in the context of the written play, and what they meant in performance. Hamlet: A little more than kin, and less than kind O, that this too too solid flesh would melt/thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! Seems madame! Nay it is, I know not seems. Frailty, thy name is woman! Polonius: Neither a borrower nor a lender be . . .
And, of course: 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. Hamlet: It is a custom/more honor’d in the breach than the observance. Ghost: What a falling off was there. Leave her to heaven. Hamlet: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. Polonius: Brevity is the soul of wit. Hamlet: The time is out of joint. O cursed spite, that ever I was born to set it right! 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? . . .
Polonius; costume sketch by Randall Klein
I am but mad north-northwest; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw. Polonius: Though this be madness, yet there is/method in’t. [Commonly repeated as “method to my madness.”] Hamlet: O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I! What’s Hecuba to him or he to Hecuba? The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king. To be or not to be—that is the question. Get thee to a nunnery. Ophelia: O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown! Hamlet: Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue; but if you mouth it, as many of our players do, I had as lief the town crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently; for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say, whirlwind of your passion, you must acquire and beget a temperance that may give it smoothness. Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion be your tutor. Suit the action to the word, the word to the action; with this special observance, that you o’er step not the modesty of nature; for anything so o’erdone is from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is to hold, as t’were, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Gertrude: The lady doth protest too much.
Hamlet: A cry of players! I must be cruel only to be kind. Hoist with his own petard. Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio; a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy; he hath borne me on his back a thousand times. Gertrude: Sweets to the sweet. Hamlet: The dog will have his day. There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,/rough-hew them how we will. The readiness is all. The rest is silence. Horatio: Good night, sweet prince,/and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest. The play within Hamlet is titled The Mousetrap, which is the title of Agatha Christie’s long running murder mystery play (at one time it was the longest running play on the British stage). Film titles from “To be or not to be”: Outrageous Fortune (a Bette Midler/Shelley Long comedy; Ms. Long aspires to play the role of Hamlet), What Dreams May Come (After Robin Williams dies in a car accident he searches for his wife, who has committed suicide), The Undiscovered Country (Star Trek movie 6: the Federation and the Klingons are to discuss peace until Capt. Kirk’s Enterprise is accused of attacking a Klingon ship). This last phrase is also a book title used by: William Dean Howells, Eknath Easwaran, John M. Hay, Christina Koning, Georges Duquette, Samantha Gillison, Ron Rhodes, Kenneth Haxton, Robert C. Broderick, Philip C. Kolin (Undiscovered Country: The Later Plays of Tennessee Williams), and a play by Tom Stoppard. Shakespeare’s Dates v 1564: born in Stratford-on-Avon.
v1568: his father John Shakespeare is elected Bailiff (aka mayor). vNovember 1582: Will and Anne Hathaway are issued a marriage license. vMay 1583: Their daughter Susanna is christened. vEarly 1585: The Shakespeares become the proud parents of twins, Judith and Hamnet. v1592: Robert Greene quotes Henry VI in a poem. vby 1594: The Comedy of Errors, Titus Andronicus, the Henry plays and possibly The Taming of the Shrew and Richard III, performed by such troupes as Sussex’s, Admiral’s, Pembroke’s and Strange’s before the plague hits London and the theatres are closed. v1593-94: the poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece. v1594 – 96: Love’s Labor’s Lost, Romeo and Juliet, King John, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II.
v1596: John Shakespeare granted a coat of arms; Hamnet Shakespeare dies. v1596 – 1603: The Merchant of Venice, The Merry Wives of Windsor, both parts of Henry IV, Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Julius Caesar, As You Like It, Hamlet, Twelfth Night, and Troilus and Cressida. v1597 – 1603 : purchases a Stratford estate for his family, New Place, and parcels of land. v1598: Love’s Labors Lost published. v1601: John Shakespeare dies. v1603: Elizabeth I dies and is succeeded by her nephew, James VI of Scotland. v1603 - 08: Othello, All’s Well That Ends Well, Measure for Measure, King Lear, Macbeth, Coriolanus, Antony and Cleopatra, and perhaps Pericles and Timon of Athens (left unfinished). v1608 – 11: Henry VIII, The Winter’s Tale, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Cymbeline, and The Tempest. Shakespeare’s mother dies. v1616: Dies at home, New Place, on April 23.
World Chronology Elizabeth I crowned Michelangelo dies; Shakespeare born Richard Burbage builds 1st theatre in London Drake sails the world Mary, Queen of Scots beheaded Britain destroys Spain’s Armada
1 Henry VI 2 Henry VI and 3 Henry VI Richard III and Venus and Adonis The Comedy of Errors The Sonnets The Rape of Lucrece, Titus Andronicus, The Taming of the Shrew Two Gentlemen of Verona Love’s Labors Lost King John Richard II Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream The Merchant of Venice, 1 Henry IV The Merry Wives of Windsor 2 Henry IV Much Ado About Nothing Henry V, Julius Caesar, As You Like It Hamlet The Phoenix and the Turtle
1589-90 1590-91 1592-93 1592-94 1593-99
1559 1564 1576 1577 1587 1588
Christopher Marlowe dies
London theatres are closed due to plague
1593-94 1594 1594-95 1594-96 1595 1595-96 1596-97 1597 1598 1598-99 1599 1600-01 c. 1601
Globe theatre built
Bruno burned at the stake by the Inquisition 1600 Essex is executed for
Twelfth Night, Troilus and Cressida All’s Well That Ends Well Measure for Measure, Othello King Lear Macbeth Antony and Cleopatra Coriolanus, Timon of Athens, Pericles Cymbeline The Winter’s Tale Henry VIII The Tempest Cardenio (lost) The Two Noble Kinsmen
1601-02 1602-03 1604 1605 1606 1606-07 1607-08 1609-10 1610-11 1610-12 1611-12 1612-13 1613
plotting v. Elizabeth I 1601 Elizabeth dies; is succeeded by nephew James. 1603 Don Quixote; The Gunpowder Plot discovered.1605 John Smith reports on Virginia. 1608 King James’ Bible. 1611
Cervantes (Don Quixote) dies; Shakespeare dies. 1616 30 Years War; Copernicus’ theory of the universe condemned by Vatican. 1618 Moliere born. 1622 The First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays.
1623 Harvey discovers the circulation Of blood. 1628
Synopsis - Four months after his father’s death Hamlet learns, from his father’s ghost, that King Hamlet’s brother Claudius murdered him in order to take his throne; Claudius has also married Hamlet’s mother. Hamlet is charged by the Ghost to take revenge. The Main Characters Hamlet - son of the late king, age 30 and a college student who was away from home when his father died. Claudius - brother to the late King Hamlet, he has succeeded to the throne in part by marrying his brother’s widow. According to the Ghost Claudius poisoned King Hamlet but there were no witnesses. Gertrude - Hamlet’s mother, the late king’s widow, still Queen of Denmark due to her marriage to Claudius. A sympathetic soul. Ophelia - Hamlet’s girlfriend, daughter of Polonius (a member of the court) and sister to Laertes. She is very obedient in telling Hamlet she can’t see him anymore but obviously still loves him. Laertes - son of Polonius, brother to Ophelia. He comes home to mourn the late king, and returns to Paris to enjoy himself, until his own father is murdered. Polonius - an advisor to the late King Hamlet and to Claudius. Horatio - Hamlet’s best friend from college who has seen King Hamlet’s Ghost and becomes the prince’s confidant. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern - friends of Hamlet from college who are summoned to court by Claudius. He wants them to spy on Hamlet. Vocabulary My dread lord - When Laertes hails Claudius this way, and Rosencrantz later refers to Claudius and Gertrude’s “dread
pleasures,” they are using dread in a Middle English sense of “great awe, a revered personage, place or thing” (OED); of course, since it’s Claudius, for our purposes the sense of “great fear and apprehension” is also applicable. Claudius calls him cousin Hamlet - The word cousin is more loosely defined in this instance and simply means they are related. nighted color - Hamlet is dressed in black, mourning his father 2 months after old Hamlet’s death, which Gertrude has apparently gotten over. Obsequious sorrow - The OED lists a rare definition of obsequious as “dutiful in showing respect for the dead.” Filial obligation - From the Latin, filius, son, this is the obligation a son or daughter owes a parent (Webster). Claudius: It is most retrograde to our desire - Since retrograde means “opposed, contrary” (OED) Claudius means he would not grant this wish. Claudius: The King’s rouse the heavens shall bruit again -(OED) The King’s (ca)rousing will be noisily made known, either because it’s so loud it will echo across the sky or Heaven itself will be talking. (Gertrude had) galled eyes - (OED) In Middle English this meant “made sore by rubbing,” so Gertrude has been crying. To post . . . to incestuous sheets! - (OED) “to run, ride or travel with speed or haste (as if you were delivering the King’s mail) . . . to the bed Gertrude shares with her former brother-in-law, now her husband.” Truncheon - (Webster) a short stick carried by police, a billy club; a heavy club or cudgel. a sable silver’d - Horatio describes the Ghost’s beard as looking black, like the precious fur-bearing animal, overcast with silvery gray, or “color on color,” as Clairol says. Laertes: your chaste treasure - Laertes is speaking of his sister Ophelia’s virginity, without which she would not be acceptable as a bride. In those days chastity was more than a virtue. Polonius: (to Ophelia) That you have taken these tenders for true pay/which are not sterling - The OED says that a tender is “a formal offer of money made by one party to another” in exchange for something; Polonius is cautioning Ophelia that Hamlet’s flattering phrases may not be worth sterling, (like silver) and that she shouldn’t bank on them. Polonius: . . springes to catch woodcocks! - (OED) Middle English: “a snare or noose for catching small game, esp. birds,” to catch woodcocks, which, beside type of bird, had an Old English meaning of “fool or simpleton, dupe.” Polonius just doesn’t want Ophelia to be led astray by means of a simple trick. Parley – from the French, parle, to talk, speak. The king . . . drains his draughts of Rhenish down - Claudius is enjoying Rhine wine, a dry white wine. Hamlet: canonized bones - Hamlet speaks of the Ghost’s remains as “declared saintly and entitled to fully be honored,” as one might expect a son to speak of his father. The Ghost: forged process of my death - The Ghost’s cause of death has been falsified (Webster) because nobody living knows what Claudius did except Claudius. hebona - The Oxford English Dictionary supports its definitions with literary examples of specific usage, particularly helpful with words whose meaning has changed or shifted over time. In the case of hebona there is only one citation for its definition as “a poisonous juice or substance,” and that is Shakespeare’s use of it in this play.
Leprous distilment - (OED) This would be “an essence or purified form” of something that has been “affected with leprosy (a disfiguring skin disease that is quite contagious); also, foul, obscene; morally corrupt or corrupting.” Enmity - (Webster) deep-rooted mutual hatred. Quicksilver - an old word referring to mercury, which is silvery in its liquid form (and in small amounts rolls like small ball bearings); when ingested, however, mercury is poisonous, and so this “leperous distilment” acts quickly to poison the unfortunate person who has ingested it. Distracted globe – so Hamlet describes his head and mind, after listening to the Ghost’s story. Saws of books – in this instance saws means “impression of books,” that is, the information and knowledge Hamlet has gathered from reading. As a student and an intelligent fellow, this is a sacrifice Hamlet is making to his father’s ghost, making the Ghost’s business his sole occupation. Baser matter – this would be something of even more inferior quality than what proceeded. Pernicious woman – Gertrude is, then, exceedingly harmful; working or spreading in a hidden and usually injurious way. Mark – Pay attention; notice what is happening. Hamlet, to the Ghost: truepenny, “an honest fellow”; cellarage, cellar, or a storage area in a cellar (Hamlet refers to the Ghost’s grave); Hic et ubique: the National Committee for Latin and Greek urges people to study Latin, for “as Hamlet says of the Ghost [it is] here and everywhere.” Put an antic disposition on – Hamlet tells Horatio he may have to act the fool (in Shakespeare’s day, act fantastically or oddly) so others will think he’s lost his mind and not suspect him. Hamlet: Nymph, in thy orisons/be all my sins rememb’red. – Hamlet refers to Ophelia as a lovely young woman, a lesser goddess of water or wood and then hopes that she prays for him (orison = prayer, supplication to a deity) for forgiveness of his sins. Ophelia: sewing in my closet – HyperDictionary.com cites Webster’s 1913 edition, which defines a closet as a small private room where one might pray or otherwise concentrate. Hamlet has visited Ophelia in a very private place, which gets their parents excited without even knowing how weird he was acting (see below). (Hamlet’s) doublet, all unbraced . . . his stockings fouled,/Ungart’red and down-gyved to his ankle – Hamlet’s “close-fitting men’s jacket” unbuttoned, his hose dirty, free of their garters (yes, men wore garters to hold up their socks or “stockings”) and fallen down around his ankles—he does seem distracted, doesn’t he? He’s not only in Ophelia’s private room but he’s a mess! But is he putting on an antic disposition or is he really upset? sith – since, not a Sith lord from Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Claudius: I cannot deem of – Claudius is not sure how to judge (an obscure meaning attributed to Shakespeare) what could be making Hamlet act so strangely—as if his father’s death is not enough! Havior – as you might suspect, this is behavior in an old form, another obscure word used by Will. Vouchsafe your rest here – HyperDictionary.com says, to grant with condescension (that is, graciously, with courtesy), to bestow, and to accept with condescension. Claudius and Gertrude welcome R&G graciously. Glean – to gather, originally, to collect what’s left in the field after the harvest, but in recent times, to arrive at an under-
standing based on bits of information. Whether aught to us unknown afflicts (Hamlet) – whether anything we do not know about afflicts H. Guildenstern: show us so much gentry – Guildenstern is remarking about how he and Rosencrantz are being treated by Hamlet and his family, because the gentry (educated, well-bred people of the nobility) should behave with courtesy (see court in courtesy?). Expostulate – this does mean “examine, argue (about), reason (over),” but it also means to “discuss something with another so as to encourage him/her to rectify some wrong s/he has done.” Perpend – to weigh carefully, to pay attention to. Again, Shakespeare is the only author with examples of this meaning. Polonius: . . . this machine – There is no clanking hulk of metal in the Prince’s possession but there is an artificial device, Polonius believes, that is distracting Hamlet. Prescripts - Polonius gave Ophelia a series of rules or guiding statements to bear in mind regarding Hamlet. Declension - Hamlet’s state of mind as far as Ophelia is concerned is thought to be worsening, declining, decaying. Arras – a tapestry hung on the wall, from Arras, in the French Netherlands or Flanders. The Flemish were some of the best weavers in Europe until the advent of the power loom. Carters – men who drove carts, teamsters. Fishmonger – This is a person who sells fish by crying out about his/her wares in the market. They, like carters, were generally considered poor people, of low birth, uncouth. Carrion – dead animal flesh preferred by crows, ravens and other scavengers. Hamlet tells Polonius about old men: their eyes purging thick amber and plum-tree gum and their weak hams Hamlet has a low opinion of Polonius which he expresses about old men and their physical lackings: their eyes become clouded and leak a hard, translucent, yellow, orange or brownish-yellow resin and resin from a plum tree and their weak thighs. Polonius (of Hamlet): how pregnant/sometimes his replies are! - Polonius is trying to describe the layers of meaning he senses are lurking in Hamlet’s flippant replies. Rosencrantz: as the indifferent children of the earth - He means that he and Guildenstern are fine and, as just ordinary guys, their state is actually unimportant in the grand theme of things. Hamlet: she (Fortune) is a strumpet - literally this means whore; Hamlet means that Dame Fortune, a pagan demigoddess controlling how events in our lives turn out (good/bad—it’s that simple), only favors those who do what she wants, give her what she wants—it’s all about her. Let me conjure you - Webster’s: “to call on solemnly, to summon by oath, to evoke.” Let me create a masterful picture for you. Hamlet: consonancy of our youth - Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and he are “in agreement” as to their age: they are all about the same age. Players – a troupe of actors, those who “speak the speech.” Lenten entertainment - Lent, in the Catholic church, is a time when individuals prepare themselves spiritually for Good
Friday, that is, for the death of Jesus. In Hamlet’s day there were no celebrations during Lent, not even weddings; people went to church constantly; they refrained from eating meat and sweets. With Hamlet in such a gloomy mood, R&G are concerned that he will only want a depressing play from the actors, rather than a comedy. Roscius was an actor in Rome - According to the Columbia Encyclopedia, Roscius (c.126 B.C.–62 B.C.,), though “born a slave at Solonium, became the greatest comic actor of his time. From the [Emperor] Sulla, Roscius received the honor of the gold ring signifying equestrian rank. [This was a huge honor.] In a lawsuit, [the renown speaker] Cicero, whom he had taught elocution, defended him. . . . The title ‘the young Roscius’ or ‘the new Roscius’ has been bestowed on several English actors as a mark of supreme distinction.” Polonius’ favorite theatre: tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, tragical-historical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral - Polonius likes every type of theatre, even all be mixed together! For the record, tragedy, at that time, was a serious play about the fate of a king or kings (like Hamlet), a comedy was a play about common people that ended happily, a history play is a history play, and a pastoral play was a romantic story about pure love among shepherds and shepherdesses. Seneca cannot be/too heavy nor Plautus too light. - These two Roman playwrights are among Polonius’ favorites. Their plays had been “lost” until the Renaissance, so they were rather “new” to Shakespeare’s audience. Seneca wrote tragedies that, unlike Greek tragedies, featured violence onstage, which Elizabethans loved; Plautus wrote comedies about racy subjects: for example, his plays served as the inspiration and basis for the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which is about a slave trying to 1) earn his freedom while 2) helping his young master get his girlfriend out of the bordello next door which 3) the slave’s mistress wants closed and 5) the older master can’t wait to get into. O Jephthah, judge of Israel - Jephthah was selected by the Israelites to serve as a regional judge (a district judge, as it were) despite the fact that he was an illegitimate child whose brothers had driven out of their father’s house, leading Jephthah to join other outcast men who apparently raided non-Israelites. Most people agree he was a wise leader. Hamlet (to an actor): com’st/thou to beard me in Denmark? – Have you come to confront me in Denmark? The actor has probably grown one since last Hamlet saw him. Aeneas’ tale to/Dido . . . where he speaks of/Priam’s slaughter – In Greek mythology, Queen Dido of Carthage falls in love with Aeneas and cannot hear enough of his war stories about the siege of Troy, where Priam reigned as king, Hecuba was queen, their daughter Cassandra was cursed by Apollo to foretell a future that nobody would believe, and their daughter Polyxena was sacrificed at the hero Achilles’ tomb after the city fell. Hamlet: will you see the players well bestowed? – Hamlet would like Polonius to treat the actors as if they are official visitors to court; in those days actors were simply considered as servants who should be grateful for anything pleasant they received. God’s bodkins, God buy to you, ‘Swounds, ’sblood, by the rood – These are all mild curses. Bodkins are many things, including daggers; God buy to you is a version of God be with you, which in time became goodbye; ‘Swounds is God’s wounds, a reference to Christ’s wounds; ’sblood is Christ’s blood; rood means the cross on which Christ was crucified, so by the rood is very strong language indeed. Unpregnant of my cause – the online Shakespeare gloss says this is stupid, but uninformed is closer in meaning. Hamlet (on himself): I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall/ to make oppression bitter, or ere this/I should ‘a fatted all the region kites/with this slave’s offal – Hamlet feels he is chicken-hearted (Brainy Dictionary) and lacks the bitterness (required) to make oppression bitter, or before now he would have fattened up all the local hawks/with his excrement. A-cursing like a very drab, a scullion! - Hamlet is calling himself a slut, a kitchen maid. He is very down on himself because he hasn’t revenged his father’s murder.
Hamlet (of the play he’s presenting to Claudius): I’ll tent him to the quick. . . If ‘a do blench/I’ll know my course. -Webster’s 1913 dictionary, courtesy of HyperDictionary, uses the first phrase in defining tent as a bandage used to keep a wound open so it may drain or used as a probe to explore a wound, which brings us to quick: the living flesh as in an exposed wound. If, when Hamlet probes Claudius’ vulnerability Claudius turns pale, Hamlet will know he’s on the right track. Rosencrantz: (Hamlet was) niggard of question - Hamlet did not answer the question fully; he was “stingy” about giving Rosencrantz information. Lawful espials - Claudius and Polonius are going to eavesdrop (espial) on Hamlet and Ophelia, to see for themselves how the prince is with her, which they believe is within their rights as parents, or lawful. Gertrude: bring him to his wonted way - Gertrude, worried about Hamlet, hopes they can help Hamlet act more as he used to. Shuffled off this mortal coil - The Riverside Shakespeare defines this as “leaving behind the turmoil of this mortal life,” that is, dying. Proud man’s contumely - rudeness compounded with haughtiness or arrogance. Insolence of office - pride or haughtiness manifested in contemptuous and overbearing treatment of others, as one might experience in any workplace. His quietus make/with a bare bodkin - commit suicide with a simple dagger. Who would these fardels bear - who would bear these burdens. The native hue of resolution/ - The natural color or appearance of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought/ - is made to look sickly just like thought and enterprises of great pitch and moment,/ - and important, urgent projects, with this regard, their currents turn awry/ - seeing this, are side-tracked or deflected and lose the name of action. - and are not completed; are stopped in their tracks. Ophelia: Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce/than with honesty? - Could it choose a better social partner or friend than honesty? Bawd - the madam of a house of prostitutes. More offences at my/beck - more offences at my command; half of “my beck and call.” (men are all) arrant knaves - entirely bad, dishonest rogues, scoundrels. calumny – Ophelia will not escape calumny, that is, people calling her unvirtuous, despite maintaining her virtue. Let [Gertrude] be round with him - Polonius suggests that Gertrude be plain and direct, outspoken with Hamlet when they meet in her room so she might find out what the problem is. I had as lief - I would prefer. Hamlet (to the players): beget a temperance - act moderately, or moderate/temper your passion as you are acting. I will wear him in my heart - I will carry him in my heart (as a person precious to me). (Claudius’) occulted guilt- Claudius’ guilt is hidden.
unkennel - to chase out of a kennel or hiding place; to disclose or reveal. Vulcan’s smithy - Vulcan is the Roman god of blacksmithing or metal working; his smithy is his workshop, which would be hot and smoky, since metal can only be worked when it is heated. Hamlet: the chameleon’s dish. I eat the air promise/-cram’d. - Riverside Shakespeare: “Chameleons were thought to feed on air. Hamlet says that he subsists on an equally nourishing diet, the promise of succession (to the throne of Denmark). There is probably a pun on air/heir.” (Polonius is) a calf – “a calf; silly or awkward man; a dolt.” Bid the players make haste - tell the actors to hurry. Commingled - unlike items mixed together. (Hamlet is not) a pipe for Fortune’s finger/to sound what stop she please. - Hamlet declares that he is not an instrument to be manipulated to do as Dame Fortune (see above) wishes. Here’s metal more attractive - Ophelia is more appealing to Hamlet than Gertrude. Country matters - this is a dirty pun: breeding, in a literal sense (the act itself). Ophelia (about the pantomime): Belike this show imports the argument of the play. - It seems that this pantomimed “foreword” presents to us or tells us what the play itself is about. The posy of a ring (Hamlet calls the prologue this) - It is like a bit of poetry that might be engraved or inscribed on a ring. The actors refer to: Phoebus’ cart - Phoebus, also known as Apollo, the sun god, was tasked with driving the sun across the sky in a cart pulled by horses. Neptune’s salt wash - Neptune, Roman god of the sea, therefore lives in salt water. Tellus’ orbed ground - goddess of the earth, which would be her “orbed ground.” Hyman did our hands/unite commutual in most sacred bonds - Hyman is the god of marriage. Operant powers - power enough to influence others or cause something to happen. That’s wormwood (Hamlet says of the play) - wormwood is a plant with a bitter taste, so, Hamlet believes that the play will “taste bitter” to Claudius. Enactures - resolutions; things to be enacted or made to happen. Player Queen: an anchor’s cheer in prison be my scope - Riverside Shakespeare: a hermit’s fare, that is plain food, as if I were in prison, will be the extent (of the comfort) I will allow myself. Beguile/the tedious day with sleep - pass time during a boring day by sleeping. knavish piece of work - deceitful, false, phony piece of work. Let the galled jade wince, our withers are unwrung. - Let the disreputable woman with eyes sore from crying wince, we are insensitive to her trouble. (If one’s withers are wrung one is in discomfort.)
A pox on it/you - a curse: may you come down with a contagious disease that will leave pock marks on you! The croaking raven doth bellow for revenge. - Riverside Shakespeare says this is a misquote from a non-Shakespeare play about King Richard III. Undoubtedly Shakespeare’s audience would have recognized it. Confederate season - a time to join into plots, especially unethical or illegal plots. Hecate’s ban thrice blasted, thrice infected. - Hecate is the witch of all witches; if her ban has been announced three times (3 is a magic number), whatever she has cursed is cursed 3 times! Dire property – an item that bodes ill, is dreadful, is evil in great degree. Choler - a strong emotion; a feeling that is oriented toward some real or supposed grievance; a humor or fluid that was once believed to be secreted by the liver and to cause irritability and anger. Claudius is this upset by the play. Guildenstern: wholesome answer - Hamlet won’t give him a sound, sane answer. by these pickers and stealers – Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern he is still friends with them but qualifies that statement with this phrase; he gives them his hands on this but pickers and stealers implies his hands are criminal, not to be trusted. While the grass grows – This is part of a proverb that became popular in England in the 1300s; the full proverb is “While the grass grows, the steed starves.” Hamlet: They fool me to the top of my bent – they prompt me to be as foolish as I can be. Churchyards yawn . . . hell itself breathes out/contagion – this refers to the commonly-held notion that ghosts rose from their graves and that evildoers sent to the underworld could leave it to roam the Earth at night, from dawn to dusk (which is why the Ghost only appears at night). Aside from indicating that fearful creatures are about it also means that it is very late at night. Soul of Nero – The Roman emperor Nero had the reputation for being heartless from such acts as murdering his younger half-brother to ensure his position as emperor, openly conducting affairs in front of his wife, divorcing his wife and having her killed, and killing his own mother (before she killed him, admittedly). Hamlet tells himself to stay resolute in his pursuit of Claudius, as Nero would be. Be shent – be berated or blamed. Polonius (of Gertrude): she’ll tax him home – Gertrude will get to the truth because she can be firm with Hamlet. Claudius: primal eldest curse - a brother’s murder. In his soliloquy as he tries to pray, Claudius compares his murder of his brother with Cain slaying Abel, a tremendous crime in the eyes of Christians. Interestingly, later on Hamlet refers to “Cain’s jawbone, that did the first murder,” as if to underscore this. Visage of offence – the appearance of offence. O limed soul, that, struggling to be free/art more engaged. – birdlime is a viscous material used to capture small birds who, once they step into it, cannot struggle out but rather become stuck even more. Make assay – to make a try or attempt, or to make an examination. Hamlet: That would be scann’d :/A villain kills my father; and for that I, his sole son, do this same villain send to heaven./Why, this is hire and salary, not revenge. - As Hamlet considers murdering Claudius as the king seems to be
praying, the prince realizes that he would be, in effect, sending Claudius to heaven; Hamlet “reads” the situation as a scholar might “scan” a poem. Full of bread, broad blown, flush as May - King Hamlet, unlike Claudius, had not prayed before he died, so his soul was full of unconfessed sins, Hamlet notes. How his [the Ghost’s] audit stands – what the Ghost’s standing or status is. Physic – medicine. I’ll warrant you – I guarantee. Dead for a ducat – in the 17th century a ducat was equal to a British pound sterling, but still, that’s a rather small sum to be killed over. If damned custom have not braz’d it so/that it be proof and bulwark against sense. – If cursed custom have not hardened it so that it will withstand the power of sense. Hamlet describes his father in terms of Roman gods.: Hyperion’s curls – an ancient Roman god who was father to the sun (Helios), moon (Selene) and dawn (eos). the front of Jove/ - Jove was the patriarch of the Roman pantheon, equal to Greece’s Zeus. Like Zeus he was known as a seducer, so his looks must have been something. an eye like Mars/ - Mars, the god of war, was constantly vigilant, as a soldier should be. a station like the herald Mercury – Webster’s 1913 edition: posture like Mercury. To feed/and batten on this moor – to feed and grow fat/fatten on this area of poor soil, that is, not pastureland. Rank sweat of enseamed bed – odoriferous sweat of (Gertrude and Claudius’) greasy, polluted (because Hamlet considers theirs an illicit marriage) bed. Precedent lord – the king before/preceding Claudius, King Hamlet. Gertrude: (Hamlet does with the) incorporeal air do hold discourse. . . This is the very coinage of your brain./This bodiless creation ecstasy is very cunning in. – Gertrude can’t see the Ghost (does Hamlet really see one, some wonder?), so Hamlet appears to be speaking to thin are, with a figment of his “overheated” imagination, to her. Hamlet: I the matter will re-word which madness/would gambol from. – He will change wording that madness would skip away from. Flattering unction to your soul – an unction is an ointment or salve used to treat wounds. Extreme unction, in the Catholic church, is the administration of last rites, including the use of holy oil to bless the dying person. Reechy kisses – soiled, dirty. Hamlet is pretty disgusted with Gertrude’s choice for her second husband. adders fanged - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are snakes bearing their fangs, to Hamlet. I will delve one yard below their (R & G) mines/and blow them at the moon. – Hamlet will dig below the traps Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have set and use them against them to “explode” them. Claudius wants Hamlet out of haunt – Claudius wants Hamlet away from court, from his home, from the place he “haunts.”
Keep it from divulging – keep it from becoming known. The pith of life – the heart of life, the essence of it. A king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar – a royal progress was a trip a monarch took through his/her kingdom to see the people and be seen by them, so one traveled on the best horses, in one’s best clothes, rather like a parade. (One’s loyal nobles put one up lavishly en route.) Hamlet means that a king (read: Claudius especially) makes his last “royal progress” once the king’s body deteriorates and is absorbed by the land, which grows plants eaten by animals and people, even beggars, the lowest of the low. Or does Hamlet simply think that kings are no better than anyone else? The bark is ready . . . the associates tend – The ship is ready . . . the sailors are waiting. Like the hectic in my blood he rages – Hamlet makes Claudius’ blood agitated, feverish. Larded – made full. In cooking one lards dry meat to make it juicy. Cuckold – a man whose wife has had or is having an affair; a man who has been betrayed. Sweepstake, you will draw both friend and foe,/winner and loser – by making a clean sweep, you’ll catch everyone. Life-rend’ring pelican/repast them with my blood - in heraldry and symbolical art, a picture of a pelican wounding her breast in order to nourish her young with her blood, a practice falsely attributed to the bird, [leading to the bird’s adoption] as a symbol of Christ, and of charity. A pirate of very warlike appointment - A pirate ship prepared for/appointed with weapons for fighting. No place, indeed, should murder sanctuarize - Traditionally churches provided sanctuary for murderers and those accused of murder. Mountebank - a pitchman for phony medicine and illegal poisons. Back in the day these salesmen would either climb to the highest spot in the marketplace (mount a bank) or set up stage to attract customers. Cataplasm - a soft, moist compound applied to the body to provide relief from pain or infection. Contagion - the transmission of disease, laughter, even an idea—anything that can spread quickly among people. Our drift look through our bad performance,/twere better not assayed - It would be better if our slowly changing point of view as we act badly was not noticed. I’ll have preferred him/a chalice for the nonce - Claudius will offer Hamlet a drink in a stemmed glass for this single purpose of poisoning Hamlet. Gertrude, describing Ophelia’s death: hoar leaves of a willow, pendent boughs; her coronet weeds – old, faded willow leaves, boughs hanging down; weeds serving as a crown for her. For centuries the willow was a symbol of sorrow, desertion by a loved one, and even death. People still refer to the “weeping willow,” as if it is inherently sad. A creature native and indued/unto that element – Ophelia was like a creature used to water, completely at home in it. The pate of a politician – the skull of a politician. Tis for the dead, not the quick – the grave is for a dead person, not a living one. When Hamlet says, “How absolute
the fellow is,” he means the gravedigger is speaking very literally. Sexton – an assistant to the minister of a church who was responsible for maintenance of the building, care for the minister’s vestments and “tools,” assisting the minister during services, and even digging graves in the church graveyard. Pocky corpses – dead bodies that have pock marks on them from disease. Whoreson mad fellow – Yorick, King Hamlet’s jester, seems to have been a practical joker with everyone, including the gravedigger, who calls him illegitimate and insane. Flagon of Rhenish – a drinking vessel larger than a bottle with a narrow opening. Yorick poured a flagon of Rhine wine over the sexton’s head. My gorge rises - at the sight of Yorick’s skull, Hamlet’s throat closes and his stomach almost retches. gibes, gambols, flashes of merriment – As a court jester, Yorick’s job was to make jokes and sarcastic remarks, to dance or skip about, to be the life of the party, as it were. couch we a while – Horatio and Hamlet are going to lie down or recline to hide. funeral obsequies – burial rites. Ophelia cannot have a full burial, according to church law, because in the eyes of the church she committed suicide. I am not splenitive – I am not malicious or spiteful. Wouldst drink up eisel – He would drink vinegar or another bitter liquid. Benetted round with villainies – caught in a net/ensnared in villainies. England was his fair tributary, love between them like the palm might flourish, peace should still her wheaten garland wear – England pays Denmark a tribute of goods and/or money to keep peace between them. As for flourishing palms, Shakespeare is actually referring to Psalm 92:12. Michael and Christine Cortright note that “in the Bible lands [the palm tree] produces some kind of fruit year round [and] its root system is so firm that a palm can even stand in a monsoon storm.” And finally, returning to the peace motive, the goddess of Peace should be able to ensure prosperity for both countries, as signified by her garland of wheat, a symbol of fertility. Shriving time – time to confess one’s sins. Coz’nage – practicing fraud or a scam. This lapwing runs away with the shell on his head. – a lapwing is a small bird with large, broad wings, whose back is coppery or greenish bronze, which is known for an irregular flight pattern: up, down and in circles. Osric reminds Hamlet of this bird. The shell he refers to is Osric’s hat, which he doesn’t know what to do with. He has many more of the same bevy – Osric has many more of the same flock of birds. Use some gentle entertainment with Laertes - Gertrude asks Hamlet to be civil, polite with Laertes. We defy augury; there is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow – we care nothing for omens. In the second half of this speech Hamlet makes reference to a Bible verse, Matthew 10:29, in which Jesus reassure his disciples that no matter what they do they should not fear retribution for “are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and not one of them shall fall to the ground without God knowing.” Hamlet is confident, unconcerned—or is he ready for the end, whatever that might be?
Stoups of wine – like the chalice Claudius mentioned in his conversation with Laertes, these are stemmed glasses for wine. In the cup an union shall (Claudius) throw – Claudius will add a large, fine pearl to the cup. This is, again, an obscure use of the word—good old Shakespeare!
Shakespeare Our Contemporary Jan Kott . . . No Dane of flesh and blood has been written about so extensively as Hamlet. Shakespeare’s prince is certainly the best known representative of his nation. Innumerable glossaries and commentaries have grown round Hamlet, and he is one of the few literary heroes who live apart from the text, apart from the theatre. His name means something even to those who have never seen or read Shakespeare’s play. . . . We have been separated from the text not only by Hamlet’s “independent life” in our culture, but simply by the size of the play. Hamlet cannot be performed in its entirety, because the performance would last nearly six hours. One has to select, curtail and cut. One can perform only one of several Hamlets potentially existing in this arch-play. It will always be a poorer Hamlet than Shakespeare’s Hamlet is; but it may also be a Hamlet enriched by being of our time. It may, but I would rather say—it must be so. For Hamlet cannot be played simply. This may be the reason why it is so tempting to producers and actors. Many generations have seen their own reflections in this play. The genius of Hamlet consists, perhaps, in the fact that the play can serve as a mirror. An ideal Hamlet would be one most true to Shakespeare and most modern at the same time. Is this possible? I do not know. But we can only appraise any Shakespearean production by asking bow much there is of Shakespeare in it, and how much of us. What I have in mind is not a forced topicality, a Hamlet that would be set in a cellar of young existentialists. Hamlet has been performed, for that matter, in evening dress and in circus tights; in medieval armor and in Renaissance costume. Costumes do not matter. What matters is that through Shakespeare’s text we ought to get at our modem experience, anxiety and sensibility. There are many subjects in Hamlet. There is politics, force opposed to morality; there is discussion of the divergence between theory and practice, of the ultimate purpose of life; there is tragedy of love, as well as family drama; political, eschatological and metaphysical problems are considered. There is everything you want, including deep psychological analysis, a bloody story, a duel, and general slaughter. One can select at will. But one must know what one selects, and why. The Hamlet produced in Krakow a few weeks after the XXth Congress of the Soviet Communist Party lasted exactly three hours. It was light and clear, tense and sharp, modern and consistent, limited to one issue only. It was a political drama par excellence. . . . “Watch” and “enquire” were the words most commonly heard from the stage. In this performance everybody, without exception, was being constantly watched. Polonius, minister to the royal murderer, sends a man to France even after his own son. Was Shakespeare not a genius for our time? . . . At Elsinore castle someone is hidden behind every curtain. The good minister does not even trust the Queen. . . .: ‘Tis meet that some more audience than a mother, Since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear The speech, of vantage. (III, iii) . . . The murderous uncle keeps a constant watchful eye on Hamlet. Why does he not want him to leave Denmark? His presence at court is inconvenient, reminding everybody of what they would like to forget. Perhaps he suspects something? Would it not be better not to issue him a passport and keep him at hand? Or does the King wish to get rid of Hamlet as soon as possible, but give way to the Queen, who wants to have her son near her? And the Queen? What does she think about it all? Does she feel guilty? What does the Queen know? She has been through passion, murder and silence. She had to suppress everything inside her. One can sense a volcano under her superficial poise. Ophelia, too, has been drawn into the big game. They listen in to her conversations, ask questions, read her let-
ters. It is true that she gives them up herself. She is at the same time a part of the Mechanism, and its victim. Politics hangs here over every feeling, and there is no getting away from it. All the characters are poisoned by it. The only subject of their conversations is politics. It is a kind of madness. Hamlet loves Ophelia. But he knows he is being watched; moreover—he has more important matters to attend to. Love is gradually fading away. There is no room for it in this world. Hamlet’s dramatic cry: “Get thee to a nunnery!” is addressed not to Ophelia alone, but also to those who are overhearing the two lovers. It is to confirm their impression of his alleged madness. But for Hamlet and for Ophelia it means that in the world where murder holds sway, there is no room for love. . . . The Hamlet I saw in Krakow was modern not only because the problems of the play have been brought up to date. It was modern in its psychological and dramatic qualities. Action developed under great stress, similar to that experienced by us in real life . . . Hamlet is like a sponge. Unless it is produced in a stylized or antiquarian fashion, it immediately absorbs all the problems of our time. It is the strangest play ever written, by its very imperfections. Hamlet is a great scenario, in which every character has a more or less tragic and cruel part to play, and has magnificent things to say. Every character has an irrevocable task to fulfill, a task imposed by the author. This scenario is independent of the characters; it has been devised earlier. It defines the situations, as well as the mutual relations of the characters; it dictates their words and gestures. But it does not say who the characters are. It is something external in relation to them. And that is why the scenario of Hamlet can be played by different sorts of characters. . . . The scenario dictates actions of the dramatis personae, but does not dictate motives underlying the actions, i.e. the psychology. This is true of life, as well as of the theatre. . . . [Whichever characters people a production of Hamlet, when Horatio agrees to tell Hamlet’s story,] a great drama has been concluded. People fought, plotted, killed one another, committed crimes for love, and went mad for love. They told amazing things about life, death and human fate. They set traps for each other, and fell into them. They defended their power, or revolted against power. They wanted to build a better world, or just save themselves. They all stood for something [and] even their crimes had a certain greatness . . . . Our Director Prepares Hamlet Bob Moss, who is directing our production of Hamlet, recently described his thoughts on the play, and what went into the look of Syracuse Stage’s production.
Hamlet is timeless—“more contemporary than not.” The relations between the characters remain as contemporary as the day it was written (see Shakespeare Our Contemporary). “It just happens that the characters speak in iambic pentameter,” Moss added. While the language may be distracting, the situations and relationships are still with us today. The overriding idea behind the look of Stage’s production is simply that: more contemporary than not. There won’t be cell phones or laptops, no modern props at all. But in the setting, the costumes and the relationships, the timelessness will be evident. Operating under the notion that if the women’s dresses are floor length, it’s a period show, each character’s standard look will include a “hemline” that will give the costumes a classical feel, while indicating their position at Elsinore. For the most part the only color onstage will be in the costumes, with Claudius and Gertrude in deep reds, and Polonius and his family in purples, to indicate the dignity of their position, and other shades of red. The set itself is primarily steel gray; in fact, its mostly translucent panels on a steel frame. When Mr. Moss first met with set designer Adam Stockhausen Moss told him that a visual image he had for the play was of a hand pulling back a curtain because in Elsinore, everyone is spied on, all the time: Claudius keeps Hamlet at court rather than allowing him to go back to college; Polonius sends Reynaldo to check on Laertes in Paris, not just by meeting with Laertes directly but by secretly findAdam Stockhausen’s model for Hamlet, with ing out who Laertes’ friends are, who he associates with, and what his some of the sliding panels demonstrated. reputation is. As they say in the play Copenhagen Elsinore represents the “darkness of the human soul.” The translucent walls will allow the audience to see that someone is just behind them
without revealing who that someone is. As the audience enters the theatre there will be people practicing their fencing behind one of the walls, so we will see how formal fencing is without getting us involved in who is fencing. Stockhausen has also included sliding walls or partitions in his design that can be positioned so as to create hallways, and larger or smaller rooms. Like many other productions of Hamlet Moss’ will not include every word of the written play. Our Hamlet does not include any of the Fortinbras plot line, nor the early scenes in which the Ghost is sighted by the castle guards. (Our performance will begin with Claudius’ and Gertrude’s wedding, with Claudius’ speech “Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death/the memory be green; . . .”) Hamlet’s speeches are intact with the sole exception of his “How all occasions do inform against me,” but Moss only cut that with permission from the actor playing Hamlet for us, Tommy Schrider, who has also appeared as the Bridegroom in The Dybbuk and as the little boy’s father in Backsliding in the Promised Land. Moss’ focus is “the humanity of these people,” what human event is occurring moment by moment. This Hamlet is not about regicide but familial relationships that we can all relate to: we grieve for parents, we are stepparents, we are lovers, our families are changing. Hamlet remains contemporary because these things remain contemporary; as Harold Bloom says, “Shakespeare was involved in a lifelong conversation with life,” and that’s why we keep reading and going to his plays. As Hamlet progresses through the events of the play, he can trust fewer and fewer of the people around him: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern betray him to Claudius and Gertrude, Polonius betrays “everyone”; even Ophelia may be seen as having betrayed Hamlet by being a party to Claudius and Polonius eavesdropping on her conversation with Hamlet. Ultimately Horatio is the only person Hamlet can rely on. Asked whether the Ghost is a figment of Hamlet’s imagination, Moss reminds us that the Ghost is seen by the castle guards and Horatio before Hamlet sees it, so although Gertrude can neither hear nor see it, it exists; as for himself, Moss said, “I don’t not believe in ghosts.” He promises that the Ghost’s entrance will be terrifying to the audience. Is this Hamlet a revenge play? “It transcends that genre,” says Moss. And while he doesn’t know yet what the overall theme is, for Moss the tragedy of the play is that “Hamlet would have been the great king,” because he is “great with everyone, especially the common people.” The Play: an Introduction to Interpretations From: Cliffs Notes, Hamlet, by Dr. James K. Lowers Although many students of Shakespeare believe that Hamlet, among all the plays in the Shakespearean canon, best reflects the universality of the poet-dramatist’s genius, it remains an enigmatical work, what has been called a “grand poetical puzzle.” No artist can control the use to which his insights are put by posterity, and this dictum is especially true of Shakespeare, whose Hamlet has caused more discussion than any other character in fiction, dramatic or non-dramatic. Many readers have been disturbed by what has been called the “two Hamlets in the play”: one, the sensitive young intellectual and idealist, the “sweet prince” who expresses himself in unforgettable poetry and who is dedicated to truth; the other, a barbaric Hamlet who treats Ophelia so cruelly, who slays Polonius and then speaks of lugging the guts into another room, and who callously reports sending Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths. It has been argued that Shakespeare transmuted an old play without reconstructing it in response to audiences who would not have tolerated excisions (J. M. Robertson, “Hamlet” Once More, London, 1923). Most commentators cannot accept this argument. For one thing, audiences and readers find themselves very sympathetic to Hamlet—some even to the extent of identifying with him. But if there are those who create Hamlet in their own images, fortunately others have sought to find the key to his character through intensive study of Renaissance thought. Yet no answer that satisfies all, or even most, has been found. In the words of a competent Shakespearean critic of the last century, H. N. Hudson, “It is easy to invent with plausibility almost any theory respecting [Hamlet], but very hard to make any theory comprehend the whole subject” (Introduction to Hamlet, 1870). . . . Most interpreters of Hamlet start with the assumption that the tragic hero has a clear and sacred obligation to kill Claudius and to do so without delay. The basic question, then, is why does so much time elapse before the young Prince sweeps to his revenge? It is argued that, if Hamlet had substituted prompt action for the considerable verbalism in which he repeatedly berates himself for procrastination, Gertrude, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, and— most important—Hamlet himself would have survived. But then Shakespeare would not have achieved tragedy and the resulting work would have been no more than a potboiler. There must be found some effective explanation for Hamlet’s long delay. Hamlet, the Victim of External Difficulties
Before one turns to the more elaborate and better-known theories, it is desirable to notice one that provides a simple answer: as is true in Belleforest’s prose version of the story, the Hamlet of Shakespeare’s play faces external difficulties which make immediate, positive action impossible. Claudius was too powerful and only once before the final scene placed himself in a defenseless position. Moreover, had the Prince been able to carry out the Ghost’s injunction of immediate revenge, he would have placed himself in an especially difficult position. How could he have convinced the people that he justifiably had executed revenge? To be sure, this theory leaves many questions unanswered. But, as will be true with reference to other theories, no rebuttal is required here and now. Hamlet, the Sentimental Dreamer Leading Romantic critics of the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw Hamlet as a young man, attractive and gifted in many ways, but incapable of positive action. For them, “the native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,” to use Hamlet’s own words (III, I, 84-85). One would have little difficulty in finding several passages in the play which seem to support such an interpretation. . . . Goethe is to be credited with first providing in detail this basically sentimental interpretation. His Hamlet is a young man of “lovely, pure, and moral nature, without the strength of nerve which forms a hero.” In brief, Goethe’s Prince of Denmark is an impractical dreamer. Some thirty years later, A. W. Schleger, Goethe’s compatriot, arrived at the same conclusion. His Hamlet has “no firm belief either in himself or in anything else. . . . In the resolutions which he so often embraces and always leaves unexecuted, his weakness is too apparent. . . . His farfetched scruples are often mere pretexts to cover his want of determination. . .” (Dramatic Art and Literature, 1810). Leading English Romantics arrived at the same conclusion. Coleridge’s well-known remarks on the character of Hamlet have been most influential. For him, the Prince of Denmark suffers from an “over-balance of the contemplative faculty” and, like any man, “thereby becomes the creature of mere meditation and loses his power to action” (Notes and Lectures on Shakespeare, 1808). And William Hazlitt continues: “At other times, when he is most bound to act, he remains puzzled, undecided, and skeptical, dallies with his purposes, till the occasion is lost, and finds out some pretense to relapse into indolence and thoughtfulness again” (Characters in Shakespeare’s Plays, 1818). That this Romantic view of Hamlet has survived into the 20th century is only too evident. The late Arthur Quiller-Couch stated: “Hamlet’s character is the prevalence of the abstracting and generalizing habit over the practical. . . . He is full of purpose, but void of that quality of mind which accomplishes purpose” (Shakespeare’s Workmanship, 1931). Hamlet, the Victim of Excessive Melancholy Traditionally, Hamlet has been called the Melancholy Dane, and quite appropriately. His first lines in Act 1, Scene ii, wherein he first appears, and certainly his first long soliloquy establish him as grief-stricken. Moreover, Hamlet himself refers to melancholy in a way which suggests that it is a debilitating factor. Ordinary grief, of course, is one thing; everyone experiences it. But Hamlet’s grief, it is argued, is pathological; it is a destructive thing which causes him to procrastinate and leads to his death. Actually, this theory dates from the 18th century. Among later critics who have accepted it is A. C. Bradley, whose still widely influential Oxford lectures on Shakespeare’s tragedies were first pubThe main look for Syracuse Stage’s Hamlet; model by Adam Stockhausen. lished in 1904. In a definite way his work represents the keystone in the arch of Romantic criticism because he treats Hamlet not as dramatis persona, not as an artistic representation which stops just where the author chooses, but as a living human being. Again like the early 19th century Romantics, Bradley found Hamlet to be irresolute. He makes reference to what he calls Hamlet’s “otiose [that is, lazy; idle; futile: ineffective. Webster’s] thinking which hardly deserves the name of thought, an unconscious weaving of pretexts for inaction.” At the root of this, Bradley finds melancholy which was “increased by deepening self-contempt.” Melancholy has been called the “Elizabethan malady.” It was recognized as a disease and was the subject of treatises published in England and on the Continent. At the time Shakespeare wrote Hamlet, Timothy Bright’s A Treatise of Melancholie, first published in 1586, was well known. In an age when the proper study of mankind was man, it seems improbable that a writer like Shakespeare, with his manifest intellectual curiosity and acquisitive mind, was unfamiliar with contemporary ideas regarding the causes, symptoms, and results of melancholy. Indeed, melancholy characters of one kind or another appeared rather often in Elizabethan and Jacobean plays. Hamlet, inevitably, has been classified as the intellectual melancholy type. The disease which afflicts him is the most destructive kind, namely, melancholy adust.
When Hamlet speaks of “my weakness and my melancholy” (II, ii, 630), for example; when he speaks “wild and whirling words” (I, v, 133); when his mood shifts from deep depression to elation, he is following the pattern of behavior peculiar to the melancholic as described by Bright and other writers on the subject. . . . [Hamlet, the Melancholy Dane, part 2. For centuries the Danish Prince has been popularly known as the “Melancholy Dane,” and he certainly has plenty to be morose about. In Shakespeare’s time, though, there was an illness known as melancholy or melancholia that bears a close resemblance to what is known as clinical depression. Following are two descriptions of melancholy that I have merged. Does Hamlet’s overall mood fit this description?
Melancholia . . . was described as a distinct disease as early as the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. in the Hippocratic writings. It was characterized by “aversion to food, despondency, sleeplessness, irritability, restlessness,” as well as the statement that “fear or depression that is prolonged means melancholia.” It is now generally believed that melancholia is the same phenomenon as clinical depression. The name melancholia comes from the old medical theory of the four humors: disease being caused by an imbalance in one or other of the four basic bodily fluids, or humors. Personality types were similarly determined by the dominant humor in a particular person. Melancholia was caused by an excess of black bile; hence the name, which means “black bile”. . . . During the early 17th century, a curious cultural and literary cult of melancholia arose in England. It was believed that the passing of the dazzling culture of Elizabethan England after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, together with religious uncertainties caused by the English Reformation and a greater attention being paid to issues of sin, damnation, and salvation, led to this cultural mood. In music, the post-Elizabethan cult of melancholia is associated with John Dowland, whose motto was Semper Dowland, semper dolens (Always Dowland, always mourning.). In literature, William Shakespeare expressed the cult of melancholia in his play about Hamlet, the “Melancholy Dane.” Another literary expression of this cultural mood comes from the death-obsessed later works of John Donne. Other major melancholic authors include Sir Thomas Browne, and Jeremy Taylor, whose Hydriotaphia, Urn Burial and Holy Living and Holy Dying, respectively, contain extensive meditations on death. But the most extended treatment of the cult of melancholia comes from Robert Burton, whose Anatomy of Melancholy treats the subject from both a literary and a medical perspective. A similar phenomenon, though not under the same name, occurred during Romanticism, with such works as The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe. . . . The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton appeared in 1621. It is one of the most curious books ever written in English, and one of the unlikeliest literary masterpieces ever written. . . . Burton defines his subject this way: Melancholy, the subject of our present discourse, is either in disposition or in habit. In disposition is that transitory Melancholy which goes and comes upon every small occasion of sorrow, need, sickness, trouble, fear, grief, passion, or perturbation of the mind, any manner of care, discontent, or thought, which causes anguish, dullness, heaviness and vexation of spirit, any ways opposite to pleasure, mirth, joy, delight, causing frowardness in us, or a dislike. In which equivocal and improper sense, we call him melancholy, that is dull, sad, sour, lumpish, ill-disposed, solitary, any way moved, or displeased. And from these melancholy dispositions no man living is free, no Stoic, none so wise, none so happy, none so patient, so generous, so godly, so divine, that can vindicate himself; so well-composed, but more or less, some time or other, he feels the smart of it. Melancholy in this sense is the character of Mortality. . . . Burton . . . opens with a long address titled Democritus Junior to the Reader, in which he confesses his personal predisposition to melancholia. So his writing this book was as much a self-diagnosis and self-therapy as it was an endeavor to inform. Psychology, physiology, astronomy, astrology, demonology, meteorology, and theology are all pressed into service to elucidate his topic, which is no less than a catalogue of the various sorrows and frustrations that human beings are heir to. Noteworthy sections besides Democritus Junior to the Reader are his discourses on the melancholy of scholars, the melancholy of lovers, and his counsels as to how one can fall out of love. And in the midst of all of this, he also finds the place to propose his own Utopia. The Anatomy of Melancholy has been admired by many subsequent writers, from Samuel Johnson and Charles Lamb to Stanley Fish.] Hamlet, the Victim of the Oedipus Complex
The Freudian, or neo-Freudian, interpretation of Hamlet appeals to many people today. The first and most elaborate presentation of this theory was made by Dr. Ernest Jones, disciple and biographer of Sigmund Freud, as early as 1910 and received full expression in Hamlet and Oedipus. Concisely stated, the Freudian interpreters fervently believe that the Prince of Denmark suffered from the Oedipus complex—an undue and unhealthy attachment of a son for his mother which is apt to be morbidly suppressed and cause great mental distress. To quote Mr. Harry Levin, this ingenious theory “motivates Hamlet’s delay by identifying him with Claudius, through whom he has vicariously accomplished the Oedipal feat of murdering his father and marrying his mother” (The Question of Hamlet). Mr. Levin rejects this theory. Hamlet, Motivated by Ambition A few commentators see The Tragedy of Hamlet as one of the Elizabethan ambition plays. For them, the primary reason for Hamlet’s desire to kill his uncle is not to avenge his father’s “foul and most unnatural murder,” but rather to make possible his own advancement to the throne. The delays and inner conflicts are the result of his awareness that personal ambition and pride, not sacred duty, motivate him. Once more it is possible to cite lines from the text which, if taken out of context, lend support to this theory. Hamlet, Misled by the Ghost Not all critics agree that the Ghost of Hamlet’s father is an “honest ghost” or that Hamlet himself has a solemn duty to slay Claudius. This, of course, is to deny the widely held assumption that the Prince was called upon to execute public justice—that he functions as God’s minister, not as scourge who, though he may be the instrument of divine vengeance, is himself a grievous sinner and must suffer for his sins. For these critics, Shakespeare depicts a tragic hero who should not take vengeance into his own hands: not only Gertrude but also Claudius should be left to heaven. To do full justice to the immediate subject, one should investigate in depth Renaissance theories of revenge. For the immediate purpose, let it be noted that Hamlet has been said to have been misled by the Ghost, the test of whose honesty is not the establishment of Claudius’ guilt but rather the nature of its injunction. It is argued that the Prince is called upon to execute private vengeance, an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, contrary to all Christian teaching. His problem, then, is that of a man who believes in heaven and hell and whose reason tells him that the man who defies divine ordinance ultimately must face judgment. It follows that Shakespeare portrays a tragic hero who should not take vengeance into his own hands and a Ghost that is “a spirit damn’d.” This theory has been developed brilliantly by Miss Eleanor Prosser in her well-documented study, Hamlet and Revenge (see, below). Certainly there are passages in the text of the play which may be used to establish vindictiveness in Hamlet’s character. Instead of seeing Hamlet as one whose propensity for thought prevents him from performing the necessary action, Miss Prosser finds him to be one whose conscience, which operates with reason, restrains him for some time from acting impulsively in response to instinct. From this survey of better-known interpretations of Hamlet, two major conclusions can be made. First, Shakespeare’s tragedy is a work of surpassing interest and genius, and the tragic hero is universally attractive and fascinating. Second, only the naïve will start with the assumption that there is one obvious interpretation of the play and that critics, not Shakespeare, have introduced complexities into it. It would be gratifying to . . . present a simple, direct interpretation based upon a major generalization and to ignore passages in the play which do not fit into the argument. But such a presentation would not do justice to a great play or help the student. . . . But always one must ask himself whether or not the entire play urges the acceptance of [one] theory; ultimately, major themes emerge from the entire plot, not from isolated episodes or passages. Hamlet and Revenge Eleanor Prosser Most critics still hold that the average Elizabethan believed a son was morally bound to revenge his father’s death. The most thoughtful of these critics have not ignored the orthodox code [condemning bloody revenge]; they have insisted, rather, that a popular code approving revenge had far more influence than the code of the Elizabethan Establishment. . . . [Ms. Prosser] suggests, however, that the “popular” attitude toward revenge was far more complex than has been generally assumed. Popular literature and dramatic conventions indicate that the orthodox code did in fact have widespread influence. At the same time, they indicate that the average spectator at a revenge play was probably trapped in an ethical dilemma—a dilemma, to put it most simply, between what he believed and what he felt.. . . Throughout the last half of the 16 th century, Church, State, and conventional morality fulminated against private revenge in any form and under any circumstances. The vigorous campaign may perhaps best be seen as a response to the natural energies and contentiousness of the age, an age of new and unsettled political loyalties, new economic and class
struggles, new fears, new hungers, new hopes. Conflicts were inevitable. More specifically, the Establishment’s denunciation of revenge was related to its recurrent fears of civil disorder[:] private revenge could lead to quarrels, thence to public tumult, thence to dissension between families, and thence to national quarrels. Since punishment was the prerogative of the State, every possible argument was induced to convince the private citizen that he must leave revenge to God, and thus to the magistrates, His appointed agents. . . . Indeed, revenge became such a major concern that we often find it included in traditional lists of the sins: “We must purify and cleanse our minds from our corrupt and unclean affections. . . . They stir up pride, envy, hatred, malice, desire of revenge, fear, and such like perturbations and unquietness of the mind.” Of special interest is Timothy Bright’s list of the particular temptations Satan offers the melancholic: “Of this kind are certain blasphemies suggested of the Devil, and laying of violent hands on themselves, or upon others neither moved thereto by hate or malice: or any occasion of revenge: . . .” At times it almost seems as if revenge was considered the eighth Deadly Sin, and even, together with despair and suicide, one of the “sins against the Holy Ghost.” . . . The primary argument against revenge, therefore, was that the revenger endangered his own soul. No matter how righteous a man might think his motives, the act of revenge would inevitably make him as evil as his injurer in the eyes of God. “In so going about to revenge evil, we show ourselves to be evil, and, while we will punish, and revenge another man’s folly, we double, and augment our own folly.” A revenger may honestly think he seeks justice, but the nature of revenge makes justice impossible. . . . Not only is the revenger guilty of blasphemy and malice, he cuts himself off from the possibility of forgiveness and thus is damned forever: . . . But what if the evildoer is clearly beyond hope of redemption? Then waiting for him to repent is at best a frustrating discipline. [Essayist Jerome] Cardan offers an almost childishly pat answer—“Rest assured that your enemy will die young or at least be miserable, for it is manifest that evil cannot be happy.” . . . Conscience is an inexorable judge that can never be stilled. A villain may refuse to follow its dictates, but he cannot ignore its torments. . . . Eternal damnation was not the only penalty for revenge. An age devoted to temporal pursuits was constantly warned that there were penalties in this world as well. The ravages of revenge appear most clearly in the deterioration of the mind. At first, the revenger becomes distracted, shutting everything but revenge out of his consciousness—he “mindeth none other thing, which reason and experience doth well declare.” As he gives rein to his impatience, he “is therewith abstract from reason and turned into a monstrous figure.” “To be short, after that anger hath once got the bridle at will, the whole mind and judgment is so blinded & carried headlong, that an angry man thinks of nothing but of revenge, insomuch that he forgetteth himself, and careth not what he doth, or what harm will light upon himself in so doing, so that he may be avenged.” At this point reason is totally eclipsed, and “a man in such a case is not much unlike to a mad dog.” . . . Closely allied to dangers to the mind are dangers to the body. Psychological treatises by [Timothy] Bright [and others] present the typical Renaissance view that physical health is dependent on the moderation of passion. La Primaudaye, [a famous Renaissance ethicist,] also connects the two; he warns that a pale man is more dangerous than a red-faced one, because the revenger’s anger makes the blood leave the face and rush to the heart. Moreover, vehement anger often provokes a frenzy or the falling sickness. These beliefs may underlie Caesar’s fear of “pale Cassius” (Antony and Cleopatra, II, vi, 115) and Othello’s seizure. . . . If the potential revenger is undeterred by the threat of eternal damnation and of physical and mental illness, then, says the eminently moral Cardan, let him consider self-interest. “What can be more foolish,” he asks, “then to seek revenge, when safely it can not be performed?” Even if a man could get away with it, let him consider his reputation, for “the glory gotten by forgiving of foes, whom thou may oppress is greater than the pleasure of revenge.” In short, Elizabethan moralists condemned revenge as illegal, blasphemous, immoral, irrational, unnatural, and unhealthy—not to mention unsafe. Moreover, not only did revenge violate religion, law, morality, and common sense, it was also thoroughly un-English. [One writer] prays fervently that God will preserve England from the revolting practices of the Italians, for “indeed, there is nothing wherein they take greater delectation, pleasure, and contentment, than to execute a vengeance.” Bloodcurdling tales of “Italianate” revenge had trained Shakespeare’s audience to shudder at the fiendishness of delayed vengeance and dissembling intrigue . . . What recourse, then, does the orthodox code offer a man who has been grievously injured? He can take his case to the law—provided, however, he does so for the right reasons. “We must take heed that we go not to avenge ourselves upon our neighbor, with a vengeable heart. . . . When we will go to the law, we must beware that it be done charitably, not with a vengeable mind; for whosoever seeketh to be avenged, he shall not be blessed of God.” A man who institutes legal action out of anger and desire for retaliation may operate within the civil law, but he violates the laws of God and nature, and will suffer the same physical, mental, and spiritual penalties as the private revenger.
But what can the injured party do if he has no recourse to law? The orthodox code offers only one answer: nothing. “It will greatly help us, if when we are moved with anger, we stay our tongue a certain space, and delay a little while our own revenge. For it is very certain that a man promiseth, speaketh, and doth many things in his anger, which afterward he wisheth had never been in his thought.” The wise man will first delay. Then he will proceed slowly, without anger, to take whatever steps justice demands. If the stringent requirements of justice forbid any further action, his solace—and indeed his joy—must be patience. . . . [Nonetheless,] many scholars have argued that most Elizabethans of all classes, not merely members of the nobility, considered blood revenge justifiable and even obligatory in certain special cases. . . . A few people may have mistakenly believed that a son had to seek legal punishment of his father’s murder to ensure his inheritance, but I have found no evidence to indicate that Elizabethans believed the law required blood revenge. . . . The law was absolute—murder, as such, was never justified. Even if a man’s entire family had been brutally massacred by the most vicious criminal, even if the magistrates themselves were so corrupt that they knowingly would let the guilty go free—even then, the man who planned and executed the death of the murderer would be equally a murderer in the eyes of the law. English law allowed only one exception. Instant retaliation for an injury was adjudged manslaughter, on the grounds that it was unpremeditated, and in the Elizabethan period might be forgiven by royal pardon. To be considered manslaughter the killing had to be an immediate reaction to immediate injury. Any delay at all indicated premeditation, and Elizabethan law defined murder as unlawful killing by a sane adult with “malice prepensed.” According to Chief justice Sir Edward Coke, the standard authority on Elizabethan law, “This is said in law to be malice forethought, prepensed, malitia praecogitata.” Moreover, “this malice is so odious in law, although it be intended against one, it shall be extended towards another.” If Hamlet planned to kill Claudius when he entered his mother’s bedchamber and thought it was Claudius behind the arras, he was guilty of murder. The modern argument that he was not guilty of premeditated murder because he did not intend to kill Polonius would have been dismissed by Elizabethan courts. . . . [However,] despite the almost unanimous condemnation of revenge in the Elizabethan period, history records that brawling increased, dueling began to capture interest, lawsuits flooded the courts, and the revenge tragedy flourished. At this point, then, the reader may be troubled by an unanswered question. In the words of Robert Ornstein, these “official and semiofficial pieties” are undeniable, but how accurately did they reflect the attitude of Shakespeare’s audience?” The question is eminently fair. As Ornstein notes, in the Elizabethan age, as in our own, popular platitudes stood in marked contrast to reality. The mid-20 th century is ravaged by war and prejudice as it preaches peace. The emotional response of Shakespeare’s audience to the revenge tragedy may be illuminated by our response to the popular revenge drama of today. A typical television Western [or detective/police story] would probably have had as much appeal for Elizabethans as it has for the mass audience of the 20 th century. The son of a good small homesteader learns that the hired gunman of a big bad cattleman has killed his father. He first goes to the sheriff, who proves to be a figurehead, paralyzed by his fear of the powerful rancher who “owns” the town. Of course our sympathies are entirely with the son. We want him to act, but at the same time we know we do not want him to rush out and gun down the killer. Usually the climax comes as our hero, driven by fury and frustration, traps his victim, raises his gun—and suddenly stops short. In the rosy world of the traditional Western, he hauls the killer off to the incorruptible marshal in the next county, or, more probably, charges the paralyzed town with courage so that the revitalized law can take over. In the supposedly more realistic world of the “adult Western,” he may gradually be consumed by his passion for revenge—alienating the town, rejecting his girl, pursuing his course by any means available, until he kills his victim. Of course he is condemned to death, as we know he must be, but we and the town regret the waste. . . . None of the foregoing has been intended to suggest that the Elizabethan automatically rejected a revenger emotionally because it rejected revenge morally. Human instinct is on the side of the rebel who refuses to submit to injustice. Few dramatic themes are so appealing to man in any age, especially to the Elizabethan—full of energy, aware of the many evils about him, frustrated at the law’s delay, yet operating under a code that required him to do nothing. The revenger was an ideal character with whom to identify. In the revenger, he found a man like himself, surrounded by evil and bound by the laws of God and man that said “Thou shalt not” at every turn; but he also saw an exceptional man who, unlike himself, somehow asserted a hidden potential in his willful rebellion against established order, in his defiant refusal to let corruption go unpunished. . . . Hamlet’s tragic dilemma has arisen not because he instinctively shrinks from action. Quite the contrary. Every instinct in him cries out to act; every instinct rebels against a metaphysic that defines man in terms of obedience to imposed law, in terms of surrender of his will, in terms of passivity and resignation. The Ghost’s challenge has fallen on receptive ears: “If thou hast nature in thee. . . .” The resolution of the soliloquy on the word action, Hamlet’s rejection
of coward conscience, and his actions following the [play-within-a-play] all indicate that he has accepted the challenge. He has decided to act. . . .
Hamlet’s women Courtesy of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts GERTRUDE: There is much controversy written about Gertrude, first wife to old Hamlet, mother to young Hamlet and bride of Claudius. She has been characterized as everything from a “wicked woman” to a weak, soulless individual. The latter opinion is held by Isaac Asimov who calls her “not very bright” and “shallow.” He insists that she is unclear about what is going on and absolutely unaware of the consequences of her actions. He feels that her reaction to the play-within-aplay— “The lady doth protest too much, methinks” (III,ii,236)—demonstrates her superficiality and dullness. His opinion is supported, somewhat, by Baldwin Maxwell who finds Gertrude dependent and ineffectual. His claim is confirmed by the fact that she remains with Claudius after Hamlet has told her of her husband’s crime. Her reply to him, “What shall I do?” (III, iv, 180), illustrates the lack of initiative and independence which mark her throughout the play. Also, he writes, she has fewer lines than Ophelia and therefore, her role is definitely a subordinate one. But there are other scholars who disagree. Carolyn G. Heilbrun in her essay, “The Character of Hamlet’s Mother” finds Gertrude strong-minded and Costume sketch for Gertude, intelligent. Most of her speeches are concise and pithy with a “talent for seeing the for the closet scene. Sketch essence of every situation present before her eyes. If she is not profound, she is certainly by Randall Klein. never silly.” Conciseness of statement is surely not the mark of a dull and shallow woman. She is kind to Ophelia and speaks sweetly and intelligently of her help (III, i, 38-42); she is also the only one who mourns Ophelia’s death in a manner befitting the young woman. When rebuked by Hamlet (III, iv, 82-87), she confesses to her relationship with Claudius and her lustful nature, but after all, she is a desirable woman in her prime who was probably married as a young girl to old Hamlet for political reasons. Just because she wishes to continue a life of sexual experience does not make her weak-brained or unperceptive. In fact, she sees reality clearly and expresses it, even when it concerns her. O Hamlet, speak no more! Thou turns’t mine eyes into my very soul, And there I see such black and grained spots As will not leave their tinct. (III, iv, 88-91) Like most women who have been idealized into powerlessness, she has fallen off the pedestal that women are set upon by their husband and children. The ideal of her has been destroyed and . . . she seems very human. Michael Pennington, actor and writer, feels that Gertrude has great natural authority and, as such, has more experience in ruling than Claudius. She handles Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with skill and diplomacy and is very perceptive about Polonius: “More matter, with less art.”(II, ii, 95). Moreover, after the “closet scene” and the death of Ophelia, she achieves a humanity that allows her to understand other people’s pain, some of it caused by herself. Additionally, she loves her son very much as evidenced by her desire to have him stay at Elsinore and her tenderness to him in the duel scene. There is an interesting historical sidelight by Steven Mullaney in his essay “Mourning and Misogyny: Hamlet and the Final Progress of Elizabeth I.” Quite recently, scholars have suggested that “Gertrude, the aging widowed Queen of the play, resonates with the aging Virgin Queen Elizabeth I. Gertrude represents the convergence of three issues—sexuality, aging and succession—and she functions as a degraded figure of Queen Elizabeth.” Hamlet is repulsed by his mother’s hasty remarriage and feels her lust is unseemly in light of her advanced age. Most modern women would chuckle and find Hamlet’s reasoning to be unsound, unreasonable and typical of their children because the 40-plus woman knows that she has not yet lost her sexuality.
OPHELIA: Alas, the fair Ophelia does not fare as well. Though she demonstrates a saucy sense of humor toward her brother, Laertes (I, iii, 45-51), she is still chattel to her father and brother as women of Elizabethan times were. [See Medieval Queenship, below.] She had not been taught to read, write or reason, so what options does she have other than marriage? The woman she might have become is thwarted by love gone wrong, her father’s death and madness. As to her insanity, Theodore Lidz feels that it is cause by Polonius being killed by Hamlet. She is placed in “the intolerable predicament of having to turn away from the person she loves and idealizes because that person is responsible for her father’s murder.” Ophelia is a victim of male power; without a family, her only refuges are submission and shame—or madness and suicide. “The last we see of her, she is being thrown about in a grave, just as she was thrown about in life: shouted over by two assertive young men [Hamlet and Laertes] vying with each other over who loved her more, when there is no great evidence that either of them did very much. Rest in peace.” [Nonetheless, I would add, Ophelia’s actions and stated beliefs following Polonius’ death reveal powerfully what those around her either will not or cannot say or do; as is frequently the case in literature, her madness allows her freedom of speech and act that “sane” people dare not employ. And because she is of the lesser nobility and a woman, she is allowed to go further in her madness than Hamlet is in his, if only because no one could ever suspect gentle Ophelia of violence. As “evidence” I offer the following explorations of the songs and flowers she uses to express herself.] Ophelia’s songs (“How should I your true love know . . .,” (recorded by Marianne Faithful on her cd North Country Maid [All Music Guide]) and “Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s day.”) First, a helpful introduction to songs in Shakespeare’s plays from the Renaissance and Baroque Society of Pittsburgh: “It’s sometimes easy to forget that in [Shakespeare’s] plays, of course, the songs don’t stand apart—they have a dramatic purpose, a role to play, as it were. . . . Several types of music were employed in Elizabethan theatre. ‘Stage music’ set the mood for banquets, battles, processions, and duels. Trumpets, cornettos, drums, and the like were used in this way. ‘Magic music,’ a second category established a different mood, and would most often be heard from offstage, from behind a curtain or beneath a trapdoor; Ariel’s songs in The Tempest and ‘Come Away Hecate’ from Macbeth are excellent examples of ‘magic’ songs. Music could also be used to explore or establish character; such ‘character songs’ were generally not sung by the main characters in the play, but by a boy singer, a clown or a fool. In fact, in Shakespeare’s plays the main characters rarely sing (Ophelia and Desdemona were exceptions). . . .” About Ophelia and Desdemona and their songs, Patsy Rodenburg says, “In Shakespeare . . . we can see how song and rhyme are employed to give us respite and yet simultaneously heighten a scene. In Othello, for instance, Desdemona sings the beautiful ‘Willow song.’ The placing of this simple rhyming lament is hugely effective. Othello has just struck Desdemona and sent her to bed. She is traumatized; so are we. We also know that he is planning to murder her; that she is innocent; and that Iago has plotted it all. The beauty of the song itself is a balm to our ears, but there are also important clues in the story of the girl which, if Desdemona could find them, might save her: Desdemona. I call’d my love false love; But what said he then? Sing willow, willow, willow; If I court moe women, you’ll couch with moe men— (IV, iii) The song is a conduit into the center of Desdemona’s trauma and contains the clue to Othello’s false rage: ‘false love,’ couch with moe men.’ If only she could use the lyric to crack the source of his anger she might be able to save herself. “Likewise in Hamlet, Ophelia, in her madness and distress, moves into song and rhyme. Again the regular forms try to contain and soothe her disordered mind, and in their subject matter we hear the themes that are breaking her heart—her father’s death and Hamlet’s betrayal. Ophelia. He is dead and gone, lady, He is dead and gone; At his head a grass-green turf, At his heels a stone. (IV, v)
In states of emotional and psychological anguish, we will often find consolation in songs that seem to fit our situation. They bring reassuring order and insight, shaping and extending our experience, and focusing our thoughts in healing ways. . . .” Some specifics on Ophelia’s songs from Ian Delaney: “Ophelia sings three songs to the Queen in scene IV. v., and two more later in the scene after her brother’s arrival. The first (‘How should I your true love know. . .’) is about an absent lover. The second (which might be a continuation of the first) begins ‘He is dead and gone lady.’ The third ‘Tomorrow is St. Valentine’s Day’ is the story of how a young girl is duped into sleeping with a man who promises to marry her and doesn’t.” [Steve Roth, writing for the journal Early Modern Literary Studies, notes that “Elizabethans observed a tradition on Valentine’s Day (much deplored by the Puritans) of young people choosing partners by lot to be their ‘valentines.’ I don’t find any correlation to this practice in Hamlet, but the sexual connotations make sense, especially when you consider that images of St Valentine often included images of cocks. The word cock is used six times in the play, many more if you include woodcock, cockle, and the like. (The OED cites a usage meaning ‘penis’ as early as 1618.) One notable occurrence is Ophelia’s bawdy oath—replacing God with cock—in her Valentine’s song about a maid losing her virginity: ‘Young men will do’t, if they come to’t;/By Cock, they are to blame.’”] [Mr. Delaney:] “Applying the first two songs to Ophelia’s history doesn’t take much ingenuity. She has an absent lover and a dead dad. “The third, more bawdy, song is a little trickier. Hamlet has not been unfaithful to Ophelia, in fact the opposite is more true. Yes, he’s unpleasant to her, but she’s the one who participates in a plot to trick the other. It is possible that Ophelia’s madness transposes the sexes of the characters and that the song is about her infidelity. It is also possible that Ophelia is mourning her own virginity. Or that her delirium releases the sexuality which has till this point been pent up by the demands of propriety and decorum. We don’t know enough to make a definite choice. “The next song, after Ophelia hands out the flowers, is apparently part of a popular series of ‘Bonny Robin’ songs which were about lovers and unfaithfulness. The final song (‘And will ’a not come again’) is about the death of an older man. “It is not implausible, on the basis of these five songs, to assume that Ophelia’s madness was caused by the death of her father, her loss of Hamlet and her guilt about her infidelity to him. . . .” Ophelia’s flowers: The language of flowers persisted for centuries, and Ophelia is well versed in it. Here are “definitions” for the flowers she has while Gertrude and Laertes are with her (after Polonius’ death): rosemary for remembrance, pansies for thoughts, fennel signifies “worthy of all praise,” columbines mean desertion or folly, rue for disdain, daisies mean innocence, violets are for faithfulness, love and modesty (she says the violets died when her father did; Laertes hopes they will spring from her grave). Ophelia’s deadly wreath: The garlands of wild flowers that lead to Ophelia’s drowning have their meanings, too, of course: crowflowers are for ingratitude, nettles are for cruelty and slander, daisies for innocence (wild daisies: I will think of it), and dead men’s fingers, a variety of orchid, could mean beauty, though the bee orchid means error. One could argue that both would be appropriate. Excerpts from Medieval Queenship: “Queenship in Medieval Denmark” Inge Skovgaard-Petersen and Nanna Damsholt
Ophelia, painting by John Everett Millais
This article provides both background to Gertrude’s place in the court as well as some insight into Saxo Grammaticus, and his Historica Danica (excerpted above), one source for Hamlet.
The Patriarchal System The status of women in [medieval] society was determined by their relation to men, and whether they were virgins, wives, or widows. According to the law, every woman was considered to be underage and in the custody of a man, though widows had a certain independence. A woman could temporarily take the place of a man and function as the head of a household or institution. A married woman could be in charge during the absence of her husband, or because of his weak health. A widow could manage a farm or household until a male heir came of age. Women could thus substitute for men if it was in the interest of house, lineage, or kingdom. Within the patriarchal framework, therefore, women had positions of high esteem as leaders of that part of the household belonging to women: the mistress of the house carried the keys to the storerooms, a symbol of her power. Here we are concentrating on the study of powerful married women, namely queens, and must leave out the interesting subject of kings’ concubines. . . . The Origins and Choice of Danish Queens and the Royal Marriage Medieval Danish queens came from a wide variety of backgrounds. If we begin with the tenth century when the evidence becomes sufficient for our purposes, a list of the queens reveals certain instructive patterns. During the Viking Age, Slavonic princesses were preferred; then, in the eleventh and at the beginning of the twelfth centuries, most of the queens were chosen from the Scandinavian countries, apart from the wives of Waldemar II. Danish kings also married princesses from Russia and from countries as far away as Portugal and Bohemia; in the later Middle Ages, German-born queens abound. Only one queen was of Danish origin, namely Bodil, the wife of King Erik “the Evergood” (r. 10961102), though the women attached to the Danish kings as friller, or concubines, were probably Danish, as for instance the mothers of the sons of Sven Estridsson (r. 1047-74). But queens were usually selected from foreign royal families, and no doubt these matrimonial choices are a mirror of foreign politics. An interesting study is the account of queens in Saxo Grammaticus’ Gesta Danorum [aka Historica Danica/Danish History], written in Latin around 1200 and regarded as the culmination of Danish medieval historiography. A few examples from this rich source show the author’s attitude toward queens, probably colored by his attitude toward women in general. In the fifth book of his work, Saxo maintains that kings ought to marry princesses from neighboring countries, not from faraway lands: Frode III (in later texts called “the Peaceful”) is asked to propose to a daughter of the Hunnish king, but the marriage turns out badly: she betrays him with one of his men, and when the affair is disclosed Frode hands her over to another of his followers. Frode then marries a Norwegian princess and the marriage seems to succeed. A queen born in a neighboring country had certain advantages: she would speak a Nordic language and belong to the same culture as the king. The political reasons were less idealistic. . . : a foreign princess was isolated from her kindred and they could not intervene in Danish affairs to help her. Saxo’s narrative is a moral lesson based on clerical views. The point is that in the Middle Ages many marriages, not only royal ones, were alliances between kindreds with elaborate rules for inheritance. Saxo was fully aware of the real conditions, so he put Christian ideas, which in his view stemmed from natural law, into the legendary past to create a Utopia to imitate a future age in Medieval scribe which people could understand what the best relationship between men and women should be. In the first, legendary, half of his work, Saxo thus insists upon the wife’s consent to marriage even if she is of royal descent. This is a canonical doctrine which Saxo adopted and used in that part of his work in which he was not bound by his sources. When he crosses the border into recorded history, he admits that royal alliances were negotiated by the relatives of the two parties. There is no evidence that future queens were involved in the planning of their marriages; some of them were small children when they were betrothed to young princes. Only three times does Saxo tell of queens or princesses who acted against the wish of their male wardens, were seduced, or left their husbands of their own will. Almost every time that sort of thing happens in Saxo’s work, disastrous consequences follow. . . . It must be remembered that Saxo invented much of the legendary part of his work (Books I – VIII) —if not the whole, then at least the dating, background, and connections among these stories. To create this sort of thing he had to use other sources than historical ones, for instance, events from his own time. Of course it can only be guesswork, but it is tempting to look for parallels at the Danish court at the end of the twelfth century. King Waldemar I, the Great, took a Russian princess as his consort [Queen Sophia]. . . . Saxo disliked her, and she was perhaps the model for the Hunnish princess Frode III married, though her faults were not the same: she was rather poor but was nevertheless very ambitious
for the marriages of her children. One of them was betrothed to a son of the emperor Frederick Barbarossa; a huge sum of money was to be given as her dowry, but the marriage never came off. It must be added that Saxo’s opinion of Queen Sophia was not the only one. In another chronicle from the same period, Sven Aggesen praises her beauty and in [his] Brevis histortia she appears as a lady worthy of the songs of the troubadours. Both Aggesen and Saxo finished their narratives in the mid-1180s and so avoided writing about the scandals at Waldemar’s court in the 1190s, but a famous royal wedding in 1193 must have loomed large in their thinking . . ., the marriage of Ingeborg, daughter of King Waldemar and Queen Sophia, who married the French king Philip August. For unknown reasons the bridegroom wanted to divorce her the morning after their wedding, but the young queen refused to yield to his wishes. For about twenty years Philip tried to divorce her, but the papacy and the Danish king fought stubbornly for Ingeborg’s rights. From her isolated and prison-like residence Ingeborg sent letters that give a touching description of her situation and of the way she handled it, and of the importance that Ingeborg attached to her status as queen: she claimed the right to be with her husband and to be dressed and served according to her rank. At last, Ingeborg was accepted as queen of France and remained there, even after King Philip’s death. Obviously it is impossible to tell whether the letters idealize or give a true picture of the mind of Ingeborg and her advisers. But her case shows the importance attached to the status of a crowned and acknowledged queen. A princess was raised in the expectation of being treated truly and honorably as the first lady of the realm, mother of a future king, and the mistress of royal estates. The Duties of Medieval Queens Like every wife in a medieval household, the queen held the keys—that is to say, she managed the household but as that sort of thing belongs to the private sphere, it does not appear in the source material. Only in elaborate chronicles like Saxo’s can we get an idea of what that meant, and we must always keep in mind that Saxo invented much information, especially in the legendary part of his work. One of his most famous incidents is the story of Amleth’s mother weaving wall-hangings to be hung up at his funeral. Whether queens really did that kind of thing we cannot know, but it seems plausible; of Queen Gunhild, whom Sweyn Estridsson divorced, it is told that she afterwards lived as a nun and wove church-cloths. (Altar-cloths could also be bought, however; when Canute IV was canonized his widow Adela, who had then married the king of Sicily, sent a beautiful Byzantine antemensale of which a fragment is still preserved.) A very humble type of housework was the repairing of courtiers’ clothes. Saxo says that King Frode needed a wife to do the mending, but this seems to be an antiquarian’s dream. . . . In the tenth-century Norwegian grave-mound at Oseberg, where a distinguished lady, presumably a queen, was buried together with her elderly maid, the magnificent burial deposits included a milk-sieve which must have been meant for the old servant. . . . [Two] Famous Danish Queens Much more is known of queens from the thirteenth century. Admittedly the chronicles and annals are rather poor, but several other pieces of evidence can be unearthed in the way of diplomas and seals. Still, we do not know why the youngest son of Waldemar II, Christopher, in 1249 took a bride from Pomerania. It may be that he wanted to offset [the influence of] his elder brother Abel, who had married a wife from Holstein and so gained considerable influence over Schleswig and Holstein, the southernmost provinces of Denmark. . . . The eldest of the royal brothers, King Erik “Ploughpenny” [“because of a tax he raised to finance a crusade,” according to Alara.net] was murdered in the Schlei firth [an inlet of the sea] in 1250. Rumor accused Abel of provoking the murder, but he succeeded to the Danish throne, to be killed two years later in a battle . . . . His sons were passed over and imprisoned, so that the third brother, Christopher, took the throne. During the long struggle with the princes of Schleswig-Holstein, Abel’s descendants tried to regain the Danish crown but were invariably repulsed by Christopher. One of his tactics was to kindle hatred against Abel by publicizing the latter’s responsibility for King Erik’s murder. That was done by a detailed narrative in a letter to the pope describing the struggle between the two brothers, and how Erik was beheaded and his body thrown into the Schlei. Fishermen netted the corpse and the head, and brought them to a Dominican priory where they were buried; in 1258 Erik’s body was transferred to the royal sepulchral church in Ringsted. Some people had recognized the body as King Erik’s, and before Abel could be crowned king he had to swear that he had no part in the hideous crime. Still, many believed him guilty of the murder, most important among them King Christopher and Queen Margaret; she was the author of the letter to the pope, which is known only through its quotation in the pope’s preliminary response. We do not know why it was the queen who requested Erik’s canonization
while King Christopher was live. A commission was appointed but refused the canonization; nevertheless Erik was venerated as a popular saint and several guilds of merchants took him as their patron. . . . Erik had only four daughters, of whom two married the kings of Sweden and Norway while the two youngest went at Queen Margaret’s instigation into a convent at Roskilde; when they later abandoned the convent there was a great struggle for their property. A more significant quarrel was the fight between Kings Erik and Christopher and the Danish archbishop, Jakob Erlandsen. An account of this conflict in the “Acta processus litium inter regem Danorum et archiepiscopum Lundensen” shows that Queen Margaret had a significant part in the quarrel, which was concluded in a way that was rather favorable for the crown. Margaret participated in politics both when her husband was alive and after his death in 1259; he was poisoned, it was whispered, by means of sacramental wine. At that time Margaret became the guardian of her young son Erik, called “Glipping” [“the one who blinks,” says Alara.net] and shouldered the royal tasks very seriously indeed. She fought the princes of Holstein and was captured with young Erik in 1261; they were released only in 1264. Margaret’s best weapon was her chancellery. . . . The king had to procure his income by traveling around the kingdom, while the dowager queen could stay in her castle in Nykobing and keep the same scribes to a much greater extent than was possible for the king. The result was that her charters were much more firmly implemented. Several times she seems also to have taken the initiative; the king’s letters would follow afterwards, more or less explicitly agreeing with Margaret’s. She reaped the fruits of her efforts by having conferred on her the government of Estonia and Virland; on some of her seals she is called “Domina Estoniae” [Lady of Estonia]. She died in 1282, only four years before her son was murdered at Finderup in Jutland, one of the most debated events in Danish history King Waldemar Atterdag shrewdly arranged that his younger daughter Margaret (born in 1353) should marry Haakon, the young king of Norway, though the Norwegian nobility wanted Elizabeth of Holstein as their queen. When Elizabeth arrived in Danish waters she was taken into custody until the marriage between Haakon and Margaret was solemnized at Copenhagen in 1363. Two years afterwards, Margaret was taken to Norway to be brought up under the supervision of a daughter of St. Birgitta of Vadstena. . . . In 1371 Margaret gave birth to a son, Olaf. As Norway was a hereditary realm, the young prince was guaranteed the succession to the throne when King Haakon died in 1380. Denmark, on the other hand, was an electoral monarchy, so that when Waldemar died in 1375 leaving no sons, the choice lay between the sons of his two daughters. The elder daughter, Ingibjorg, was dead, and her son Albert of Mecklenburg had already become king of Sweden; when the Danish counselors succeeded in choosing Olaf as their new king, they were supported by the Hanseatic League [a sort of medieval European Union], who did not want to see the same king reigning over both Denmark and Sweden. Olaf’s power, or in fact his mother’s, was at first restricted. He had to sign a coronation charter which stressed the enforcement of the law and ensured the privileges of the clergy and nobility. No doubt a certain distrust of the kingship lingered from the reign of Waldemar IV, who was criticized for successfully laying doubtful claims on lands. Margaret took over this course of action, thereby enriching the royal family. During the next fifteen years Margaret revealed her diplomatic abilities. She had good advisers indeed . . . still, there is no doubt that the queen herself was the soul of Danish politics. The first issue was an arrangement with the Hanseatic League. At a peace negotiation . . . in 1370, the league had won the supervision of the royal castles in Scania for fifteen years. When the time came to restore the castles the [League] refused to do so; and . . . when King Haakon died, Margaret declined to renew the Hanseatic privileges. . . . Thus the Danish crown lost some income from the League, but on the other hand the necessity of cooperation became evident . . . Margaret succeeded in having the castles returned. A contemporary chronicler, Dietmar of Lubeck, praised her skill not only as regards the Scanian castles but also her politics concerning Schleswig-Holstein; when in 1386 she and her son King Olaf drove through Jutland, official homage was paid to him and the fiefs of Schleswig and Holstein were restored to the Danish crown. It was stressed that these prominent vassals should in the future adhere to Young Olaf. Later on, however, Margaret infringed part of this agreement, and it has been said by a modern Danish historian that “neither Young Waldemar nor his daughter were remembered by the Hanseatics for fidelity to their promises.” Now the time had arrived for a decisive battle between Margaret and her nephew Albert of Mecklenburg, the king of Sweden. The opportunity arose when the richest Swedish nobleman died and left his estates to the king of Norway, Margaret’s son Olaf. . . . Just as [Margaret and Olaf] were preparing for war with Albert, Olaf died. . . . Margaret had to act quickly. She assembled a meeting of noblemen who, on behalf of all the people of Denmark, pronounced that Margaret had been appointed . . . “principal mistress and householder and guardian of all the realm of Denmark.” At the same time it was decided that all parties involved should choose a new king. The next year, Margaret received the same title in Norway, with the addition that as queen of Norway and Sweden she was inheritor of Denmark. These magnificent titles were new and were meaningful only insofar as she could gain control over the three
countries. First and foremost, the war with Albert of Mecklenburg provoked a final decision. Supported by Swedish nobles, Margaret went to battle with her nephew . . . in 1389 and won the day; Albert was captured. In name he was still king of Sweden and soon the Swedes’ hostility towards foreign rulers was transferred from the Germans to the Danes. In order to ensure a more certain sovereignty over the three Nordic countries, Margaret chose her nearest male relation, her sister’s grandson Erik of Pomerania, as the elected king of the three realms. In 1397 a grand coronation ceremony was held . . . , and a magnificent document of the coronation was signed and sealed by sixty-seven noblemen from all three countries. At the same time a letter describing the coronation was written in a more modest form; only seventeen men signed it and only ten signatories, most of them Swedish and only one Norwegian, impressed their seals onto it. The explanation may be its content: In this letter . . . each country stresses its independence of the others in many ways, for instance, that the castellans should be indigenous. As Margaret had much trouble with Swedish noblemen it must have been her intent to keep this document in a preliminary form. She did not wish to commit herself beforehand, and when the chance arose, she appointed Danish or Germans castellans of royal castles in Sweden and Norway as well as in Denmark. The government was centralized around her and her adopted successor Erik. In a letter she wrote to Erik when he was going to Norway for the first time . . . , the same carefulness appears. She tells him what he should be aware of in particular places, which people he can trust, and that while he should always appear as a kind and liberal regent, he must not take any decisions by himself “because we know more of the issues involved than you yourself”! As can be seen, Margaret was as shrewd as her father, though a velvet glove covered her iron hand. Despite her asperity there is every reason to believe in her piety. Shortly before she died in 1412 she made a will; apart from many legacies to individuals and monasteries . . . she appointed monks to visit all Scandinavian and many other places of pilgrimage, in order to intercede for her soul. . . . Conclusions [Through surveying the lives of these medieval queens it is clear that] a reigning woman was accepted. We have seen that Margaret Sambiria had already taken part in the government, both when her husband was alive and after his death, when she was guardian for her young son. Nevertheless, the man who was the cause of her role was never forgotten, for obviously he was the real ruler. But Margaret I ruled in her own right and had a special title. Among her particular accomplishments was the fact that she named not only her heir but also his consort; and she took care of Philippa’s upbringing so that the younger woman did her adoptive mother-in-law credit. When Margaret died, Erik of Pomerania decided that Philippa should be in charge when he himself was prevented from reigning, and she was the regent during his absence from 1423 to 1425. At that time she negotiated with the Hanseatic League, and the Hanseatics were rather shocked to meet a woman of such strength. Among other things she and they together decided that the Danish coinage should be stabilized. Philippa also took care of the relationship with the Union, especially with Sweden. A good part of the lands allotted to her as queen were in the middle of Sweden, where she also enjoyed the companionship of the nuns at Vadstena. In fact, Philippa followed the style of Margaret’s government more than did her husband. The next queen after Philippa, Dorothea of Brandenburg, was independent in another way. Erik was expelled from Scandinavia in 1439 and his nearest male relative, Christopher of Bavaria, became king of the three realms. He married Dorothea in 1445 when she was fourteen, but he died three years later. Dorothea tried to have a hand in the arrangements for her next marriage, but she had to accept the man whom the Danish counselors appointed, a distant relative of the old dynasty, Christian of Oldenburg, who founded the line that ruled Denmark until 1863. He was charming and extravagant, rather a handful for his young wife. Whatever she had been beforehand, she now had to be a good manager, and compared to other queens of Denmark she was quite a different sort of person. Time and again she had to go to the so-called Kielerumschlag, a yearly money-market in the town of Kiel, to pay her husband’s debts or to arrange new mortgages. At the same time, she took good care of her own money and estates, bore several children, and saw to their upbringing. When King Christian went to Rome in 1474 he showed the utmost extravagance, whereas the next year Dorothea drove there quietly, if not anonymously, with a small train of attendants, and secured results Christian had not obtained. Among other things she had the patience and the needed family connections to induce the papal curia to issue the bull for the establishment of the University of Copenhagen, which came into being in 1479. To conclude, Denmark existed under the same patriarchal conditions as prevailed elsewhere, and in many ways the history of its queens was the same as in other European countries. Everywhere during the Middle Ages there were queens who wanted to live up to the maxim from the Gospels “pious as doves, wise as serpents,” and some of them fulfilled this ideal.
Hamlet Reflected in British History Courtesy of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Elizabethan audiences would not view the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude as overly hasty. At the beginning of Hamlet, Denmark is facing a national crisis; Fortinbras is threatening invasion and demanding the return of territories lost by his father (I, i, 0-107). With the death of the old King Hamlet, Denmark needs a leader and quickly. Young Hamlet is not truly qualified because he has been out of the country in school. Whatever the real motives of the newly wedded couple, the Elizabethan world would see the marriage of Claudius and Gertrude as a matter of public necessity and patriotic duty. Also, they would have accepted a marriage between relatives in order to forestall rival claims to the throne. Mary, Queen of Scots married her first cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley in 1565 to strengthen her position to the crown. In 1485, Richard III attempted to marry his niece in order to fortify his kingdom but she escaped him and married Henry VII instead, uniting the rival houses of York and Lancaster. But, would the British public blush at the “incestuous” union of Claudius and Gertrude? Probably not. A similar union had already taken place. It was justified for political reasons and it changed the course of British history: the marriage of Henry VIII to Catherine of Aragon. King Henry the VII’s oldest son Arthur was first married to Catherine to cement an alliance between England and Spain. When Arthur died, it was deemed politically necessary to keep the agreement between England and Spain so Catherine was betrothed to Arthur’s younger brother, Henry VIII. The Pope granted a special dispensation and the two wed in 1509. However, after 20 years of marriage, Catherine bore no male heir and Henry VIII claimed this was “divine” punishment for his “incestuous” union. He applied to the Church for a divorce but the Pope refused. This disagreement, that raged on for 25 years, together with the English clergy’s unhappiness with Italian religious domination, caused a schism with Rome and the establishment of England’s Anglican Church in 1534. There is also a parallel in British history to Hamlet’s hesitancy in killing Claudius. Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots and daughter of Henry VIII’s sister, was a constant source of danger to Elizabeth I for the English throne. Elizabeth’s advisors urged the Queen to have Mary killed because the Catholics (of which Mary was one) stressed Elizabeth’s illegitimacy—she was the child of Henry’s union with his second wife, Ann Boleyn, a marriage never recognized by the Catholic Church. Numerous plots were launched against Elizabeth’s life and Mary was implicated in several of them. If Elizabeth were dead, Mary was next in . . . succession to the throne and since she was a Catholic, Rome would resume its influence over England. Yet, despite the urgent pleas of her advisors, Elizabeth delayed the obvious solution for many years. It is apparent that Elizabeth faced a dilemma much like that of Hamlet: she had to find evidence that Mary was plotting against her. She was finally convinced when Sir Francis Walsingham, her principal Secretary of State, intercepted a letter with Mary’s signature on it approving a plot against Elizabeth’s life. This is very similar to the storyline in Hamlet. Hamlet, too, intercepts a letter signed by Claudius ordering Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to kill him [and shows it to Horatio]. . . . Elizabeth, like Horatio, was finally convinced by Mary’s letter that the execution of her cousin was a duty demanded by justice and not personal animosity. Mary was beheaded in 1587. . . . Excerpts from Speaking Shakespeare Patsy Rodenburg Ms. Rodenburg is famous among actors and directors for her work (and workshops) in making a physical connection between a play’s text and the actor’s deliverance of that text, particularly in working with Shakespearean texts. Her approach is to instruct people in both techniques for actually “speaking the speech” and identifying literary techniques Shakespeare uses in expressing what his characters are thinking and feeling in his compact yet abun- Mary’s death mask dant style. I have quoted some of her advice from Speaking Shakespeare as she specifically addresses Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet below, but her central tenets include these major points:
Shakespeare is always concrete and specific in his choice of words.
Shakespeare uses language to give concrete reality to potentially abstract ideas and feelings.
In Shakespeare, you are what you speak.
Antithesis. The use of antithesis in Shakespeare is a common structural technique that works at the levels of both form and content—and, of course, the two are inextricably linked. Viewed on a purely formal basis, the setting of opposites against each other was a popular Elizabethan device that satisfied in writing the pleasures of harmony. In terms of content, however, antithesis is also a very economic way of exploring complex thoughts and feelings. By swinging between extremes in one line, a character reveals the layers of experience that exists in any difficult decision or deep emotion—like “I hate you, but I also love you”; “war is terrible, but peace is boring”; or “you make me angry, but I find you attractive.” Antithesis refuses to make life simple or onedimensional. It’s certainly true that many of our strongest feelings and thoughts can simultaneously provoke two opposite reactions within us. Antithesis explores that tension within the swing of a line or thought. Indeed, the ability to see both sides of an argument or an idea is something we’re brought up to value: it’s part of the reasoning process. Its absence can be frightening when we encounter another person who has no room for doubt in their thinking, or no sense of anybody else’s feelings. Hamlet has been educated to reason, to seek out opposites and see both sides of an argument. Hamlet.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 godlike reason To fust in us unus’d. (IV, iv) Indeed, he is so good at seeing both sides of an argument—so reasonable—that he is unable to take direct action until he realizes that the impulse of revenge is incompatible with and cannot be tempered by reason: O, from this time forth My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth! (IV, iv) When swings of thought and feeling like these are condensed in a verse line, the dramatic experience of both actor and audience can be considerably heightened by the compression of opposites. . . . In this beginning speech from Romeo and Juliet, the main conflict is between love and hate—but the simple opposition is explored through antithesis in a variety of ways: Romeo.What fray was here? Yet tell me not, for I have heard it all. Here’s much to do with hate, but more with love. Why then, O brawling love! O loving hate! O anything, of nothing first create! O heavy lightness! Serious vanity! Misshapen chaos of well-seeming forms! Feather of lead, bright smoke, cold fire, sick health! Still-waking sleep, that is not what it is! This love feel I, that feel no love in this. Dost thou not laugh? Benvolio.
No, coz, I rather weep.
Romeo. Good heart, at what? Benvolio.
At thy heart’s great oppression. (I, i)
[Consider Claudius’ opening speech: Claudius. Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death The memory be green; and that it us befitted To bear our hearts in grief, and our whole kingdom To be contracted in one brow of woe; Yet so far hath discretion fought with nature That we with wisest sorrow think on him, Together with remembrance of ourselves. Therefore our sometime sister, now our queen, Th’ imperial jointress of this warlike state, Have we, as ’twere with a defeated joy, With an auspicious and a dropping eye, With mirth in funeral, and with dirge in marriage, In equal scale weighing delight and dole, Taken to wife; . . . Denmark has been through some emotionally wrenching events lately, Claudius tells, that have left people feeling both bereft and joyful, a confusing state that helps set the temper of the play.] Irony. Ironic language conveys the opposite of its apparent literal meaning. . . . Irony lies in the word and its context, which means that the person who hears it can penetrate the paradox of meaning through the language; and because it is more than tone of voice it conveys a deeper set of meanings than mere vocal color. In order for it to operate, both speaker and listener have to fire on two engines simultaneously. Irony requires wit, intelligence and ability to see beyond the obvious. Irony creates a paradox. It does so according to context, so that the apparent message is unsettled by the possibility of alternative ones. It can be very subversive: it means you can say many things at once, and those you say them to can’t be quite sure which you mean. [Again, as with antithesis’ use in Hamlet, irony leaves both the characters and the audience unsure or doubtful of exactly what is meant.] Those characters who use irony are generally of high intelligence, and they resort to its indirection when “straight talking” hasn’t worked or is inappropriate. It is a device often used where what is being said is so fraught with peril that it can only be witnessed aloud in disguise. Where the partners in debate are equal and want to listen and transform, they don’t need it, but it’s fair play when the listener has more power than the speaker. Used against someone weaker or less clever, it is either an abuse of power or passes unnoticed—but in the right hands, it can unseat a bully. . . . Irony is reliant on context and character. As in antithesis, where opposites are explored by placing a word against a word, so we understand when a speech is ironic according to who says it and in what situation. We are alerted to it when a thought is placed in a context that cannot support its literal meaning, or when it is incompatible with what we know of a character’s “true self.” Irony is a kind of mask that helps meaning penetrate disguise. You will recognize its presence when what is apparently being said is inconsistent with what you know of the character’s preoccupations and values in the context. . . . Irony is not employed when direct and equal dialogue is possible. It does not occur in “the marriage of true minds” because it coats true meaning with a protective layer. At unequal moments, where naked truth is not possible or makes you vulnerable, irony is safer. Thus Hamlet cannot risk expressing exactly what he feels and thinks after his mother’s marriage to his uncle. No one else at court seems to think their relationship is wrong, so he resorts to punning and irony. Claudius. But now, my cousin Hamlet, and my son— Hamlet. [Aside] A little more than kin, and less than kind. Claudius. How is it that the clouds still hang on you? Hamlet. Not so, my lord; I am too much in the sun.
Gertrude. Good Hamlet, cast thy nighted color off, And let thine eye look like a friend on Denmark. Do not for ever with they veiled lids Seek for thy noble father in the dust. Thou know’st ’tis—all that lives must die, Passing through nature to eternity. Hamlet. Ay, madam, it is common. It is impossible for Hamlet to be straightforward. He is politically gagged and emotionally confused. Something very wrong has happened to his whole world and no one seems to be remarking on it. There’s no straightforward debate, so he has to comment on the situation ironically. Interestingly the King is either deaf to Hamlet’s irony—is he not intelligent enough?—or chooses not to notice it. Nevertheless, it enables Hamlet to be extremely impudent, to slice into a more powerful person with some chance of surviving because irony always leaves an exit route. He calls his mother “common”—but because he is picking up her reference to death being common, the irony conceals the insult. Language is a sparring weapon and irony is one tool in the armory. It doesn’t go for the frontal assault but finds openings in any clash of intellect where a direct attack is unwise or impossible. It is the stone in David’s sling that can slay the giant Goliath. . . . Language Games. . . . . Hamlet uses every form of language available to him. He is extremely skilled at expressing himself. As his life is complicated through the discovery of his father’s murder, he has to use all his language skills to disguise his true intentions and is only straightforward with the audience—whom he trusts—and Horatio. All the other characters in the play, who he believes are betraying him, suffer the barb of his wit. Hamlet. Lady, shall I lie in your lap? Ophelia. No, my lord. Hamlet. I mean my head upon your lap. Ophelia. Ay, my lord. Hamlet. Do you think I meant country matters? Ophelia. I think nothing, my lord. Hamlet. That’s a fair thought to lie between maids’ legs. Ophelia. What is, my lord? Hamlet. Nothing. Ophelia. You are merry, my lord. It is hard to imagine that, before the start of the play, Hamlet would have been so crude with Ophelia as to pun on lie and country, particularly in public. Her shock emphasizes how out of character it seems to her. The exchange is a oneway street. . . . [Ophelia] is confused. The first exchange we see between Hamlet and Ophelia is by contrast straightforward—almost clumsy. Ophelia. How does your honor for this many a day? Hamlet. I humbly thank you; well, well, well. (III, i)
Only when she hurts him by returning his gifts does he resort to punning, mocking and irony. All Hamlet’s enemies—Polonius, [Claudius], [Gertrude], Rosencrantz and Guildenstern—are on the receiving end of his wit, and none is capable of competing with him. Gertrude. What have I done that thou dar’st wag thy tongue In noise so rude against me? (III, iv) This unhappy remonstrance comes after Hamlet has battered her with innuendo, irony and insinuation [in her bedroom or “closet.”]. His mother is completely unsettled, unsure of her footing. It’s not just that Hamlet has been shouting at her: “noise” also indicates how ruthless and overwhelming has been the language from his wagging tongue. Hamlet’s verbal skills confuse his enemies and safeguard his secret. Indeed, they are so confusing that Hamlet achieves the desired effect of seeming mad. Only Horatio, his one true friend, receives Hamlet’s clear and honest affection uncluttered by innuendo, irony or puns. Hamlet. Horatio, thou are e’en as just a man As e’er my conversation cop’d withal. Horatio. O my dear lord! Hamlet. Nay, do not think I flatter; For what advancement may I hope from thee, That no revenue has but thy good spirits To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flatter’d? No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp, And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee Where thrift may follow fawning. (III, ii) Repetition. Repetition is one of the oldest and most powerful poetic devices, and Shakespeare uses it in a variety of ways. Repetition of ideas, images and themes: his plays are woven through these threads. For the actor, however, it can pose problems, especially when words or phrases are repeated side by side. . . . The sorts of disturbance represented by repetition are fully evident in Hamlet’s “O, that his too solid flesh would melt” soliloquy: Hamlet. O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew! Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d His cannon ’gainst self-slaughter! O God! God! How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable, Seem to me all the uses of this world! Fie on’t! Ah, fie! ’tis an unweeded garden, That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature Possess it merely. That it should come to this! But two months dead! Nay, not so much, not two. So excellent a king that was to this Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother, That he might not beteem the winds of heaven Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth! Must I remember? Why, she would hang on him As if increase of appetite had grown By what it fed on; and yet, within a month—
Let me not think on’t. Frailty, thy name is woman!— A little month, or ere those shoes were old With which she followed my poor father’s body, Like Niobe, all tears—why she, even she— O God! a beast that wants discourse of reason Would have mourn’d longer—married with my uncle, My father’s brother; but no more like my father Than I to Hercules. Within a month, Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears Had left the flushing in her galled eyes, She married. O, most wicked speed, to post With such dexterity to incestuous sheets! It is not, nor it cannot come to good. But break, my heart, for I must hold my tongue. The naturally articulate prince is struggling through this whole speech— “Oh God! God!”; “Fie on’t! Ah, fie”; “Within a month/A little month”; “Why she, even she”; “Within a month.” The amount of repetition highlights the difficulty and lack of flow. Accepting his mother’s betrayal, mar- Albrecht Durer woodcut: Melancholia riage and sexual behavior is a tortuous process. The repetition is like chipping away at a block of stone that eventually reveals the heart of his pain—his mother in bed with his uncle: then Hamlet’s heart breaks. That it should so seems inevitable given the degree of struggle shown not just by the repetitions, but also by the fractured nature of the iambic and the broken thoughts in the speech. Remember that this is Hamlet’s first soliloquy. The audience meets someone struggling to speak. It is only later in the play that we realize how naturally fluent and articulate he is. But on the evidence of this speech, he is an almost stuttering communicator, unable to gather his thoughts coherently. That is the measure of his distress: his natural eloquence has been shattered. . . . Soliloquy. . . . Soliloquy has the dramatic effect of making the audience complicit with the character, for good or ill. It means we know more about what is going on than other people in the play. By addressing us, the character engages us in the story and perhaps even in a moral debate. . . . Through soliloquy, characters invite the audience inside their heads, to witness their motives. Soliloquy is only written for characters who have no one else to speak to. The audience is their only friend and confidante. They test their ideas with us through soliloquy; and as soon as they have found out what to do they cease speaking to us. Once they have friends within the play we are no longer needed. Thus Hamlet establishes a relationship with us but as soon as he decides on a course of action—“my thoughts be bloody or be nothing worth”—he breaks it off. He doesn’t need us anymore. It can make the audience feel surprisingly lonely. . . .
Sources of Hamlet Courtesy of the Denver Center for the Performing Arts Many of Shakespeare’s plays were based, some more loosely than others, on existing literature and history. Though whether Hamlet was based on fact or fiction remains uncertain, most scholars point to 12th century historian Saxo Grammaticus’ Historica Danica (Danish History) and 16th century author Françoise de Belleforest’s Histories Tragiques as the sources for Hamlet. Grammaticus’ work tells of the tragic story of Prince Amleth, son of the heroic Horwendil and his wife Gerutha who, deprived of his inheritance by a villainous uncle, feigns insanity to hide his plans for revenge. [There is a rather lengthy except from Historica Danica following this; unfortunately I could not find the Histories Tragiques.] The story itself was based on an even older Roman legend of Lucius Junius Brutus. This legend and Grammaticus’ plot contain a strikingly similar storyline including: the melancholy prince, the first king’s murder, the “incestuous” marriage, the pretense of insanity, a woman used as a decoy and spy, eavesdropping counselors and a trip to England. One can also find within Historica Danica the prototypes of the Prince, Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Shakespeare probably did not read Grammaticus’ work in its original language.
Most likely, he read the anonymous English translation of Belleforest’s Histories Tragiques and its story of Prince Hamblet. Belleforest’s text is longer than Grammaticus’ and contains more of the psychological and moral observations that we also see in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Again, the plot patterns are similar though Belleforest’s Hamblet and Grammaticus’ Amleth are both more brutal and savage than Shakespeare’s contemplative Hamlet. There is never any question that the madness of Hamblet and Amleth is a sham or that they are going to slay their evil uncle. If indeed Shakespeare drew from one or both of these stories, he clearly increased the level of doubt to challenge the audiences’ estimation of Hamlet over the course of the play. Another means by which Shakespeare may have encountered the story was in works by the playwright Thomas Kyd, who wrote the melodrama that is now referred to as Ur-Hamlet. It was produced in 1589 when Shakespeare was an apprentice. Thomas Kyd probably found his source in the first French printing of Belleforest’s Histories Tragiques in 1576. Kyd’s play contains a ghost character who calls out “Hamlet, revenge!” Even earlier, Thomas Kyd wrote a play called The Spanish Tragedy that contained a ghost seeking revenge, a secret crime, a play-within-a-play, a hero who feigns madness and a love interest who loses her sanity and commits suicide. The Spanish Tragedy focused primarily on the revenge aspect of the story. It was the first of a genre of revenge plays in which dramatists place Hamlet. How these sources influenced Shakespeare no one knows. Artists often derive inspiration from the world around them. That these sources did influence and inspire is likely but not as important as the craftsmanship of this inspirational work that has made only Shakespeare’s Hamlet one of the greatest plays in Western culture. The Danish History, Books I-IX: Books Three and Four Saxo Grammaticus, ca. 12 th century, Berkeley Online Medieval and Classical Library . . . At this time Horwendil [Shakespeare’s Hamlet Sr.] and Feng [Claudius], whose father Gerwendil had been governor of the Jutes, were appointed in his place by Rorik to defend Jutland. But Horwendil held the monarchy for three years, and then, to will the height of glory, devoted himself to roving. [After meeting and defeating the King of Norway in hand to hand combat during three years of “roving” (like Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings), Horwendil thought to settle down.] . . . In order to win higher rank in Rorik’s favor, [Horwendil] assigned to him the best trophies and the pick of the plunder [from his roving]. His friendship with Rorik enabled him to woo and will in marriage his daughter Gerutha [Gertrude?], who bore him a son Amleth [Hamlet]. Such great good fortune stung Feng with jealousy, so that he resolved treacherously to waylay his brother, thus showing that goodness is not safe even from those of a man’s own house. And behold, when a chance came to murder him, his bloody hand sated the deadly passion of his soul. Then he took the wife of the brother he had butchered, capping unnatural murder with incest. For whoso yields to one iniquity, speedily falls an easier victim to the next, the first being an incentive to the second. Also, the man veiled the monstrosity of his deed with such hardihood of cunning, that he made up a mock pretence of goodwill to excuse his crime, and glossed over fratricide with a show of righteousness. Gerutha, said he, though so gentle that she would do no man the slightest hurt, had been visited with her husband’s extremest hate; and it was all to save her that he had slain his brother; for he thought it shameful that a lady so meek and unrancorous should suffer the heavy disdain of her husband. Nor did his smooth words fail in their intent; for at courts, where fools are sometimes favored and backbiters preferred, a lie lacks not credit. Nor did Feng keep from shameful embraces the hands that had slain a brother; pursuing with equal guilt both of his wicked and impious deeds. Amleth beheld all this, but feared lest too shrewd a behavior might make his uncle suspect him. So he chose to feign dullness, and pretend an utter lack of wits. This cunning course not only concealed his intelligence but ensured his safety. Every day he remained in his mother’s house utterly listless and unclean, flinging himself on the ground and bespattering his person with foul and filthy dirt. His discolored face and visage smutched with slime denoted foolish and grotesque madness. All he said was of a piece with these follies; all he did savored of utter lethargy. In a word, you would not have thought him a man at all, but some absurd abortion due to a mad fit of destiny. He used at times to sit over the fire, and, raking up the embers with his hands, to fashion wooden crooks, and harden them in the fire, shaping . . . certain barbs. . . When asked what he was about, he said that he was preparing sharp javelins to avenge his father. This answer was not a little scoffed at, all men deriding his idle and ridiculous pursuit; but the thing helped his purpose afterwards. Now it was his craft in this matter that first awakened in the deeper observers a suspicion of his cunning. For his skill in a trifling art betokened the hidden talent of the craftsman; nor could they believe the spirit dull where the hand had acquired so cunning a workmanship. Lastly, he always watched with the most punctual care over his pile of stakes that he had pointed in the fire. Some people, therefore, declared that his mind was quick enough, and fancied that he
only played the simpleton in order to hide his understanding, and veiled some deep purpose under a cunning feint. His wiliness (said these) would be most readily detected, if a fair woman were put in his way in some secluded place, who should provoke his mind to the temptations of love; all men’s natural temper being too blindly amorous to be artfully dissembled, and this passion being also too impetuous to be checked by cunning. Therefore, if his lethargy were feigned, he would seize the opportunity, and yield straightway to violent delights. So men were commissioned to draw the young man in his rides into a remote part of the forest, and there assail him with a temptation of this nature. Among these chanced to be a foster-brother of Amleth, who had not ceased to have regard to their common nurture; and who esteemed his present orders less than the memory of their past fellowship [Horatio?]. He attended Amleth among his appointed train, being anxious not to entrap, but to warn him . . . . When [Amleth] was bidden mount his horse, he deliberately set himself in such a fashion that he turned his back to the neck and faced about, fronting the tail; which he proceeded to encompass with the reins, just as if on that side he would check the horse in its furious pace. By this cunning thought he eluded the trick, and overcame the treachery of his uncle. The reinless steed galloping on, with rider directing its tail, was ludicrous enough to behold. . . . As he passed along the beach, his companions found the rudder of a ship, which had been wrecked, and said they had discovered a huge knife. “This,” said he, “was the right thing to carve such a huge ham;” by which he really meant the sea, to whose infinitude, he thought, this enormous rudder matched. Also, as they passed the sandhills, and bade him look at the meal, meaning the sand, he replied that it had been ground small by the hoary tempests of the ocean. His companions praising his answer, he said that he had spoken it wittingly. Then they purposely left him, that he might pluck up more courage to practice wantonness. The woman whom his uncle had dispatched met him in a dark spot, as though she had crossed him by chance; and he took her and would have ravished her, had not his foster-brother, by a secret device, given him an inkling of the trap. . . The token was interpreted as shrewdly as it had been sent. For Amleth . . . perceived that it was a secret warning to beware of treachery. . . . He caught up the woman in his arms and dragged her off to a distant and impenetrable fen. Moreover, when they had lain together, he conjured her earnestly to disclose the matter to none, and the promise of silence was accorded as heartily as it was asked. For both of them had been under the same fostering in their childhood; and this early rearing in common had brought Amleth and the girl into great intimacy. So, when he had returned home, they all jeeringly asked him whether he had given way to love, and he avowed that he had ravished the maid. When he was next asked where he did it, and what had been his pillow, he said that he had rested upon the hoof of a beast of burden, upon a cockscomb, and also upon a ceiling. For, when he was starting into temptation, he had gathered fragments of all these things, in order to avoid lying. And though his jest did not take aught of the truth out of the story, the answer was greeted with shouts of merriment from the bystanders. The maiden, too, when questioned on the matter, declared that he had done no such thing; and her denial was the more readily credited when it was found that the escort had not witnessed the deed. . . . But a friend of Feng [Polonius?], gifted more with assurance than judgment, declared that the unfathomable cunning of such a mind could not be detected by any vulgar plot, for the man’s obstinacy was so great that it ought not to be assailed with any mild measures. . . . Accordingly, said he, his own profounder acuteness had hit on a more delicate way, which . . . would effectually discover what they desired to know. Feng was purposely to absent himself, pretending affairs of great import. Amleth should be closeted alone with his mother in her chamber; but a man should first be commissioned to place himself in a concealed part of the room and listen heedfully to what they talked about. . . . Loath to seem readier to devise than to carry out the plot, zealously proffered himself as the agent of the eavesdropping. Feng rejoiced at the scheme, and departed on pretence of a long journey. Now he who had given this counsel repaired privily to the room where Amleth was shut up with his mother, and lay flown skulking in the straw. But Amleth had his antidote for the treachery. Afraid of being overheard by some eavesdropper, he at first resorted to his usual imbecile ways, and crowed like a noisy cock, beating his arms together to mimic the flapping of wings. Then he mounted the straw and began to swing his body and jump again and again, wishing to try if aught lurked there in hiding. Feeling a lump beneath his feet, he drove his sword into the spot, and impaled him who lay hid. Then he dragged him from his concealment and slew him. Then, cutting his body into morsels, he seethed it in boiling water, and flung it through the mouth of an open sewer for the swine to eat, bestrewing the stinking mire with his hapless limbs. Having in this wise eluded the snare, he went back to the room. Then his mother set up a great wailing, and began to lament her son’s folly to his face; but he said: “Most infamous of women; dost thou seek with such lying lamentations to hide thy most heavy guilt? Wantoning like a harlot, thou hast entered a wicked and abominable state of wedlock, embracing with incestuous bosom thy husband’s slayer, and wheedling with filthy lures of blandishment him who had slain the father of thy son. This, forsooth, is the way that the mares couple with the vanquishers of their mates;
for brute beasts are naturally incited to pair indiscriminately; and it would seem that thou, like them, hast clean forgot thy first husband. As for me, not idly do I wear the mask of folly; for I doubt not that he who destroyed his brother will riot as ruthlessly in the blood of his kindred. Therefore it is better to choose the garb of dullness than that of sense, and to borrow some protection from a show of utter frenzy. Yet the passion to avenge my father still burns in my heart; but I am watching the chances, I await the fitting hour. There is a place for all things; against so merciless and dark spirit must be used the deeper devices of the mind. And thou, who hadst been better employed in lamenting thine own disgrace, know it is superfluity to bewail my witlessness; thou shouldst weep for the blemish in thine own mind, not for that in another’s. On the rest see thou keep silence.” With such reproaches he rent the heart of his mother and redeemed her to walk in the ways of virtue; teaching her to set the fires of the past above Gertrude’s closet; set model by the seductions of the present. Adam Stockhausen When Feng returned, nowhere could he find the man who had suggested the treacherous espial; he searched for him long and carefully, but none said they had seen him anywhere. Amleth, among others, was asked in jest if he had come on any trace of him, and replied that the man had gone to the sewer, but had fallen through its bottom and been stifled by the floods of filth, and that he had then been devoured by the swine that came up all about that place. This speech was flouted by those who heard; for it seemed senseClaudius costume less, though really it expressly avowed the truth. sketch by Randall Klein Feng now suspected that his stepson was certainly full of guile, and desired to make away with him, but durst not do the deed for fear of the displeasure, not only of Amleth’s grandsire Rorik, but also of his own wife. So he thought that the King of Britain should be employed to slay him, so that another could do the deed, and he be able to feign innocence. Thus, desirous to hide his cruelty, he chose rather to besmirch his friend than to bring disgrace on his own head. Amleth, on departing, gave secret orders to his mother to hang the hall with woven knots, and to perform pretended obsequies for him a year thence; promising that he would then return. Two retainers of Feng then accompanied him, bearing a letter [requesting that] the king of the Britons to put to death the youth who was sent over to him. While they were reposing, Amleth searched their coffers, found the letter, and read the instructions therein. Whereupon he erased all the writing on the surface, substituted fresh characters, and so, changing the purport of the instructions, shifted his own doom upon his companions. Nor was he satisfied with removing from himself the sentence of death and passing the beril on to others, but added an entreaty that the King of Britain would grant his daughter in marriage to a youth of great judgment whom he was sending to him. Under this was falsely marked the signature of Feng. Now when they had reached Britain, the envoys went to the king, and proffered him the letter . . . The king dissembled the truth, and entreated them hospitably and kindly. Then Amleth scouted all the splendor of the royal banquet like vulgar viands, and abstaining very strangely, rejected that plenteous feast, refraining from the drink even as from the banquet. All marveled that a youth and a foreigner should disdain the carefully cooked dainties of the royal board and the luxurious banquet provided, as if it were some peasant’s relish. So, when the revel broke up, and the king was dismissing his friends to rest, he had a man sent into the sleeping-room to listen secretly, in order that he might hear the midnight conversation of his guests. Now, when Amleth’s companions asked him why he had refrained from the feast of yestereve, as if it were poison, he answered that the bread was flecked with blood and tainted; that there was a tang of iron in the liquor; while the meats of the feast reeked of the stench of a human carcass, and were infected by a kind of smack of the odor of the charnel. He further said that the king had the eyes of a slave, and that the queen had in three ways shown the behavior of a bondmaid. Thus he reviled with insulting invective not so much the feast as its givers. And presently his companions, taunting him with his old defect of wits, began to flout him with many saucy jeers, because he blamed and caviled at seemly and worthy things, and because he attacked thus ignobly an illustrous king and a lady of so refined a behavior, bespattering with the shamefullest abuse those who merited all praise. All this the king heard from his retainer; and declared that he who could say such things had either more than mortal wisdom or more than mortal folly; in these few words fathoming the full depth of Amleth’s penetration. Then he summoned his steward and asked him whence he had procured the bread. The steward declared that it had been made by the king’s own baker. The king asked where the corn had grown of which it was made, and whether any sign was to be found there of human carnage? The other answered, that not far off was a field, covered with the ancient bones of
slaughtered men, and still bearing plainly all the signs of ancient carnage; and that he had himself planted this field with grain in springtide, thinking it more fruitful than the rest, and hoping for plenteous abundance; and so, for aught he knew, the bread had caught some evil savor from this bloodshed. The king, on hearing this, surmised that Amleth had spoken truly, . . . and learning that the ignoble eyes wherewith Amleth had reproached him concerned some stain upon his birth, had a secret interview with his mother, and asked her who his father had really been. She said she had submitted to no man but the king. But when he threatened that he would have the truth out of her by a trial, he was told that he was the offspring of a slave. . . [Further,] while resenting that the courtliness of his wife had been accused . . . , he found that her mother had been a bondmaid [that is, a slave]. . . . Then the king adored the wisdom of Amleth as though it were inspired, and gave him his daughter to wife; accepting his bare word as though it were a witness from the skies. Moreover, in order to fulfill the bidding of his friend, he hanged Amleth’s companions on the morrow. Amleth, feigning offence, treated this piece of kindness as a grievance, and received from the king, as compensation, some gold, which he afterwards melted in the fire, and secretly caused to be poured into some hollowed sticks. When he had passed a whole year with the king he obtained leave to make a journey, and returned to his own land, carrying away of all his princely wealth and state only the sticks which held the gold. On reaching Jutland, he exchanged his present attire for his ancient demeanor, which he had adopted for righteous ends, purposely assuming an aspect of absurdity. Covered with filth, he entered the banquet-room where his own obsequies were being held, and struck all men utterly aghast, rumor having falsely noised abroad his death. At last terror melted into mirth, and the guests jeered and taunted one another, that he whose last rites they were celebrating as through he were dead, should appear in the flesh. When he was asked concerning his comrades, he pointed to the sticks he was carrying, and said, “Here is both the one and the other.” . . . Thereon, wishing to bring the company into a gayer mood, he jollied the cupbearers, and diligently did the office of plying the drink. . . . Then, to smooth the way more safely to his plot, he went to the lords and plied them heavily with draught upon draught, and drenched them all so deep in wine, that their feet were made feeble with drunkenness, and they turned to rest within the palace, making their bed where they had reveled. Then he saw they were in a fit state for his plots, and thought that here was a chance offered to do his purpose. So he took out of his bosom the stakes he has long ago prepared, and went into the building, where the ground lay covered with the bodies of the nobles wheezing off their sleep and their debauch. Then, cutting away its support, he brought down the hanging his mother had knitted, which covered the inner as well as the outer walls of the hall. This he flung upon the snorers, and then applying the crooked stakes, he knotted and bound them up in such insoluble intricacy, that not one of the men beneath, however hard he might struggle, could contrive to rise. After this he set fire to the palace. The flames spread, scattering the conflagration far and wide. It enveloped the whole dwelling, destroyed the palace, and burnt them all while they were either buried in deep sleep or vainly striving to arise. Then he went to the chamber of Feng, who had before this been conducted by his train into his pavilion, plucked up a sword that chanced to be hanging to the bed, and planted his own in its place. Then, awakening his uncle, he told him that his nobles were perishing in the flames, and that Amleth was here, armed with his crooks to help him, and thirsting to exact the vengeance, now long overdue, for his father’s murder. Feng, on hearing this, leapt from his couch, but was cut down while deprived of his own sword, and as he strove in vain to draw the strange one. O valiant Amleth, and worthy of immortal fame, who being shrewdly armed with a feint of folly, covered a wisdom too high for human wit under a marvelous disguise of silliness! And not only found in his subtlety means to protect his own safety, but also by its guidance found opportunity to avenge his father. By this skilful defense of himself, and strenuous revenge for his parent, he has left it doubtful whether we are to think more of his wit or his bravery. Amleth, when he had accomplished the slaughter of his stepfather, feared to expose his deed to the fickle judgment of his countrymen, and thought it well to lie in hiding till he had learnt what way the mob of the uncouth populace was tending. So the whole neighborhood, who had watched the blaze during the night, and in the morning desired to know the cause of the fire they had seen, perceived the royal palace fallen in ashes; and, on searching through its ruins, which were yet warm, found only some shapeless remains of burnt corpses. For the devouring flame had consumed everything so utterly that not a single token was left to inform them of the cause of such a disaster. Also they saw the body of Feng lying pierced by the sword, amid his blood-stained raiment. Some were seized with open anger, others with grief, and some with secret delight. One party bewailed the death of their leader, the other gave thanks that the tyranny of the fratricide was now laid at rest. Thus the occurrence of the king’s slaughter was greeted by the beholders with diverse minds. Amleth, finding the people so quiet, made bold to leave his hiding. Summoning those in whom he knew the
memory of his father to be fast-rooted, he went to the assembly and there made a speech after this manner: “Nobles! Let not any who are troubled by the piteous end of Horwendil be worried by the sight of this disaster before you; be not ye, I say, distressed, who have remained loyal to your king and duteous to your father. Behold the corpse, not of a prince, but of a fratricide. Indeed, it was a sorrier sight when ye saw our prince lying lamentably butchered by a most infamous fratricide-brother, let me not call him. With your own compassionating eyes ye have beheld the mangled limbs of Horwendil; they have seen his body done to death with many wounds. Surely that most abominable butcher only deprived his king of life that he might despoil his country of freedom! The hand that slew him made you slaves. Who then so mad as to choose Feng the cruel before Horwendil the righteous? Remember how benignantly Horwendil fostered you, how justly he dealt with you, how kindly he loved you. Remember how you lost the mildest of princes and the justest of fathers, while in his place was put a tyrant and an assassin set up; how your rights were confiscated; how everything was plague-stricken; how the country was stained with infamies; how the yoke was planted on your necks, and how, your free will was forfeited! And now all this is over; for ye see the criminal stifled in his own crimes, the slayer of his kin punished for his misdoings. What man of but ordinary wit, beholding it, would account this kindness a wrong? What sane man could be sorry that the crime has recoiled upon the culprit? Who could lament the killing of a most savage executioner? Or bewail the righteous death of a most cruel despot? Ye behold the doer of the deed; he is before you. “Yea, I own that I have taken vengeance for my country and my father. Your hands were equally bound to the task which mine fulfilled. What it would have beseemed you to accomplish with me, I achieved alone. . . . Not that I forget that you would have helped this work, had I asked you; for doubtless you have remained loyal to your king and loving to your prince. But I chose that the wicked should be punished without imperiling you; I thought that others need not set their shoulders to the burden when I deemed mine strong enough to bear it. Therefore I consumed all the others to ashes, and left only the trunk of Feng for your hands to burn, so that on this at least you may wreak all your longing for a righteous vengeance. Now haste up speedily, heap the pyre, burn up the body of the wicked, consume away his guilty limbs, scatter his sinful ashes, strew broadcast his ruthless dust; let no urn or barrow enclose the abominable remnants of his bones. Let no trace of his fratricide remain; let there be no spot in his own land for his tainted limbs; let no neighborhood suck infection from him; let not sea nor soil be defiled by harboring his accursed carcass. . . . These must be the tyrant’s obsequies, this the funeral procession of the fratricide. It is not seemly that he who stripped his country of her freedom should have his ashes covered by his country’s earth. . . . “Whose breast is so hard that it can be softened by no fellow-feeling for what I have felt? Who is so stiff and stony, that he is swayed by no compassion for my griefs? Ye whose hands are clean of the blood of Horwendil, pity your fosterling, be moved by my calamities. Pity also my stricken mother, and rejoice with me that the infamy of her who was once your queen is quenched. For this weak woman had to bear a twofold weight of ignominy, embracing one who was her husband’s brother and murderer. Therefore, to hide my purpose of revenge and to veil my wit, I counterfeited a listless bearing; I feigned dullness; I planned a stratagem; and now you can see with your own eyes whether it has succeeded, whether it has achieved its purpose to the full; I am content to leave you to judge so great a matter. “ . . . I have been the agent of this just vengeance; I have burned for this righteous retribution; uphold me with a high-born spirit; pay me the homage that you owe; warm me with your kindly looks. It is I who have wiped off my country’s shame; I who have quenched my mother’s dishonor; I who have beaten back oppression; I who have put to death the murderer; I who have baffled the artful hand of my uncle with retorted arts. Were he living, each new day would have multiplied his crimes. I resented the wrong done to father and to fatherland: I slew him who was governing you outrageously and more hardly than it beseemed men. Acknowledge my service, honor my wit, give me the throne if I have earned it; for you have in me one who has done you a mighty service, and who is no degenerate heir to his father’s power; no fratricide, but the lawful successor to the throne; and a dutiful avenger of the crime of murder. . . . In your hands is the reward; you know what I have done for you, and from your righteousness I ask my wage.” Every heart had been moved while the young man thus spoke; he affected some to compassion, and some even to tears. When the lamentation ceased, he was appointed king by prompt and general acclaim. For one and all rested their greatest hopes on his wisdom, since he had devised the whole of such an achievement with the deepest cunning, and accomplished it with the most astonishing contrivance. Many could have been seen marveling how he had concealed so subtle a plan over so long a space of time. After these deeds in Denmark, Amleth equipped three vessels, and went back to Britain to see his wife and her father. He had also enrolled in his service the flower of the warriors, and arrayed them very choicely, wishing to have everything now magnificently appointed, even as of old he had always worn contemptible gear, and to change all his old devotion to poverty for outlay on luxury. He also had a shield made for him, whereon the whole series of his exploits, beginning with his earliest youth,
was painted in exquisite designs. . . . The King of Britain received them very graciously, and treated them with costly and royal pomp. During the feast he asked anxiously whether Feng was alive and prosperous. His son-in-law told him that the man of whose welfare he was vainly inquiring had perished by the sword. With a flood of questions he tried to find out who had slain Feng, and learnt that the messenger of his death was likewise its author. And when the king heard this, he was secretly aghast, because he found that an old promise to avenge Feng now devolved upon himself. For Feng and he had determined of old, by a mutual compact, that one of them should act as avenger of the other. Thus the king was drawn one way by his love for his daughter and his affection for his son-in-law; another way by his regard for his friend, and moreover by his strict oath and the sanctity of their mutual declarations, which it was impious to violate. At last he slighted the ties of kinship, and sworn faith prevailed. His heart turned to vengeance, and he put the sanctity of his oath before family bonds. But since it was thought sin to wrong the holy ties of hospitality, he preferred to execrate his revenge by the hand of another, wishing to mask his secret crime with a show of innocence. So he veiled his treachery with attentions, and hid his intent to harm under a show of zealous goodwill. His queen having lately died of illness, he requested Amleth to undertake the mission of making him a fresh match, saying that he was highly delighted with his extraordinary shrewdness. He declared that there was a certain queen reigning in Scotland, whom he vehemently desired to marry. Now he knew that she was not only unwedded by reason of her chastity, but that in the cruelty of her arrogance she had always loathed her wooers, and had inflicted on her lovers the uttermost punishment, so that not one but of all the multitude was to be found who had not paid for his insolence with his life. Perilous as this commission was Amleth started, never shrinking to obey the duty imposed upon him, but trusting partly in his own servants, and partly in the attendants of the king. He entered Scotland, and, when quite close to the abode of the queen, he went into a meadow by the wayside to rest his horses. Pleased by the look of the spot, he thought of resting—the pleasant prattle of the stream exciting a desire to sleep—and posted men to keep watch some way off. The queen on hearing of this, sent out ten warriors to spy on the approach of the foreigners and their equipment. One of these, being quick-witted, slipped past the sentries, pertinaciously made his way up, and took away the shield, which Amleth had chanced to set at his head before he slept, so gently that he did not ruffle his slumbers, though he was lying upon it, nor awaken one man of all that troop. . . . With equal address he filched the letter entrusted to Amleth from the coffer in which it was kept. When these things were brought to the queen, she scanned the shield narrowly, and from the notes appended made out the whole argument. Then she knew that here was the man who, trusting in his own nicely calculated scheme, had avenged on his uncle the murder of his father. She also looked at the letter containing the suit for her band, and rubbed out all the writing [and] wrote in its place a commission purporting to be sent from the King of Britain to herself . . . wherein she pretended that she was asked to marry the bearer. Moreover, she included an account of the deeds of which she had learnt from Amleth’s shield, so that one would have thought the shield confirmed the letter, while the letter explained the shield. Then she told the same spies whom she had employed before to take the shield back, and put the letter in its place again; playing the very trick on Amleth which, as she had learnt, he had himself used in outwitting his companions. Amleth, meanwhile, who found that his shield had been filched from under his head, deliberately shut his eyes and cunningly feigned sleep, hoping to regain by pretended what he had lost by real slumbers. . . . As the spy came up stealthily, and wanted to put back the shield and the writing in their old place, Amleth leapt up, seized him, and detained him in bonds. Then he roused his retinue, and went to the abode of the queen. As representing his father-in-law, he greeted her, and handled her the writing, sealed with the king’s seal. The queen, who was named Hermutrude [?!], took and read it, and spoke most warmly of Amleth’s diligence and shrewdness, saying that Feng had deserved his punishment, and that the unfathomable wit of Amleth had accomplished a deed past all human estimation. . . . She marveled therefore that a man of such instructed mind could have made the one slip of a mistaken marriage . . . for the parents of his wife had been slaves, though good luck had graced them with the honors of royalty. . . . If he were to seek a match in a proper spirit, he should weigh the ancestry, and not be smitten by the looks. . . . Now there was a woman, as nobly born as himself, whom he could take. She herself, whose means were not poor nor her birth lowly, was worthy his embraces. . . . Indeed she was a queen, and but that her sex gainsaid it, might be deemed a king; . . . and she yielded her kingdom with herself. Thus her scepter and her hand went together. . . . Therefore she pressed him to transfer his wooing, to make over to her his marriage vows, and to learn to prefer birth to beauty. So saying, she fell upon him with a close embrace. Amleth was overjoyed at the gracious speech of the maiden, fell to kissing back, and returned her close embrace, protesting that the maiden’s wish was his own. Then a banquet was held, friends bidden, the nobles gathered, and the marriage rites performed. When they were accomplished, he went back to Britain with his bride, a strong band of Scots
being told to follow close behind, that he might have its help against the diverse treacheries in his path. As he was returning, the daughter of the King of Britain, to whom he was still married, met him. Though she complained that she was slighted by the wrong of having a paramour put over her, yet, she said, it would be unworthy for her to hate him as an adulterer more than she loved him as a husband: nor would she so far shrink from her lord as to bring herself to hide in silence the guile which she knew was intended against him. For she had a son as a pledge of their marriage, and regard for him, if nothing else, must . . . incline his mother to the affection of a wife. “He,” she said, “may hate the supplanter of his mother; I will love her; no disaster shall put out my flame for thee; no ill-will shall quench it, or prevent me from exposing the malignant designs against thee, or from revealing the snares I have detected. Bethink thee, then, that thou must beware of thy father-in-law, for thou hast thyself reaped the harvest of thy mission, foiled the wishes of him who sent thee, and with willful trespass seized over all the fruit for thyself.” By this speech she showed herself more inclined to love her husband than her father. Albrecht Durer engraving: While she thus spoke, the King of Britain came up and embraced his son-in-law a young couple closely, but with little love, and welcomed him with a banquet, to hide his intended guile under a show of generosity. But Amleth, having learnt the deceit, dissembled his fear, took a retinue of two hundred horsemen, put on an undershirt (of mail), and complied with the invitation, preferring the peril of falling in with the king’s deceit to the shame of hanging back. . . . As he rode up close, the king attacked him just under the porch of the folding doors, and would have thrust him through with his javelin, but that the hard shirt of mail threw off the blade. Amleth received a slight wound, and went to the spot where he had bidden the Scottish warriors wait on duty. He then sent back to the king his new wife’s spy . . . to bear witness that he had secretly taken from the coffer where it was kept the letter which was meant for his mistress, and thus was to make the whole blame recoil on Hermutrude, by this studied excuse absolving Amleth from the charge of treachery. The king without tarrying pursued Amleth hotly as he fled, and deprived him of most of his forces. So Amleth, on the morrow, wishing to fight for dear life, and utterly despairing of his powers of resistance, tried to increase his apparent numbers. He put stakes under some of the dead bodies of his comrades to prop them up, set others on horseback like living men, and tied others to neighboring stones, not taking off any of their armor . . . . The wing composed of the dead was as thick as the troop of the living. . . . The plan served him well, for the very figures of the dead men showed like a vast array as the sunbeams struck them. . . . The Britons, terrified at the spectacle, fled before fighting, conquered by the dead men whom they had overcome in life. . . . The Danes came down on the king as he was tardily making off, and killed him. Amleth, triumphant, made a great plundering, seized the spoils of Britain, and went back with his wives to his own land. Meanwhile Rorik had died, and Wiglek, who had come to the throne, had harassed Amleth’s mother with all manner of insolence and stripped her of her royal wealth, complaining that her son had usurped the kingdom of Jutland. . . . This treatment Amleth took with such forbearance as apparently to return kindness for slander, for he presented Wiglek with the richest of his spoils. But afterwards he seized a chance of taking vengeance, attacked him, subdued him, and from a covert became an open foe. Fialler, the governor of Skaane, he drove into exile. . . . Wiglek, recruited with the forces of Skaane and Zealand, sent envoys to challenge Amleth to a war. Amleth, with his marvelous shrewdness, saw that he was tossed between two difficulties, one of which involved disgrace and the other danger. . . yet . . . dread of disaster was blunted by more vehement thirst for glory. . . . Yet Amleth was enchained by such great love for Hermutrude that he was more deeply concerned in his mind about her future widowhood than about his own death, and cast about very zealously how he could decide on some second husband for her before the opening of the war. Hermutrude, therefore, declared that she had the courage of a man, and promised that she would not forsake him even on the field, saying that the woman who dreaded to be united with her lord in death was abominable. But she kept this rare promise ill; for when Amleth had been slain by Wiglek in battle in Jutland, she yielded herself up unasked to be the conqueror’s spoil and bride. Thus all vows of woman are loosed by change of fortune and melted by the shifting of time; the faith of their soul rests on a slippery foothold, and is weakened by casual chances; glib in promises, and as sluggish in performance, all manner of lustful promptings enslave it, and it bounds away with panting and precipitate desire, forgetful of old things in the ever hot pursuit after something fresh. So ended Amleth. Had fortune been as kind to him as nature, he would have equaled the gods in glory, and surpassed the labors of Hercules by his deeds of prowess. A plain in Jutland is to be found, famous for his name and burial-place. . . .
End of play; set model by Adam Stockhausen
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