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Home :: Archive :: 1995 :: August ::
Re: Hamlet (Was "To be or not to Be")
Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 6, No. 0601.  Thursday, 3 August 1995.
(1)     From:   Piers Lewis <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 02 Aug 1995 10:07:11 -0600
        Subj:   Hamlet's irony
(2)     From:   Sean Lawrence <
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        Date:   Wednesday, 2 Aug 1995 14:57:04 -0700 (PDT)
        Subj:   Re: SHK 6.0593 Re: "To be or not to be" Speech
From:           Piers Lewis <
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Date:           Wednesday, 02 Aug 1995 10:07:11 -0600
Subject:        Hamlet's irony
Michael Yogev (7/26/95) writes:
<Just a brief response to Piers Lewis's characterization of Hamlet as the most
<inner-directed character in Shakespeare's plays.  Along with the Romantic
<critical assessments of his character as the quintessence of individual
<consciousness (and of dust), I used to share Mr. Lewis's sense of Hamlet as
<the epitome of introspective <humanity--until 1979, that is, when I had the
<good fortune to see a barebones production of the play by Stephen Berkoff and
<a small company he brought to Haifa.  Berkoff as Hamlet was a sardonically and
<cynically self-conscious ACTOR, above all, delivering his lines in the "To be
<or not to be" soliloquy with a range of accents from classic Olivier to Jimmy
<Cagney.  The performance rustled my critical feathers, scandalized a number of
<spectators who left quite early on, and altogether productively unsettled my
<sense of what or who Hamlet may be.
'Introspective' does not have the same meaning, to me at least, as
'inner-directed' but let that go.  What or who is Hamlet?  Let us begin with
the words on the page (of some text, any text) which we have come to hear
recited on the stage by some actor.  One of the qualities that particularly
characterizes the words conventionally assigned to the character named 'Hamlet'
is irony, a trope that is frequently confused with sarcasm or cynicism.  And
perhaps we can also agree that Hamlet's ironies sound as if they come naturally
to him; as if irony were his natural mode of thought and expression:  so swift,
so apt, that we feel--do we not?--it must be spontaneous and couldn't be an
act.  But now we encounter a difficulty:  though I have not reviewed each of
them in detail, it seems to me this ironic style is almost entirely absent from
Hamlet's soliloquies. (I don't know why this should be so.  Any ideas?)  Since
these are by theatrical convention the occasions when a character is saying
what he or she really thinks or feels, the fact that Hamlet is not ironic in
private seems to support the argument that the mordant ironies of his 'mad'
style ARE an act.  (I don't, myself, think that's the case but I can see why
some might.)
Is there a connection between Hamlet's ironic wit and his dilatory approach to
his role as revenger?  For he seems to be doing all he can in the first two or
three acts to distance himself ironically from politics.  The job he's been
given by his father's ghost is unavoidably political as well as bloody, nothing
less than a coup d'etat, and what does he do?  It is a famous question and it
has a famously murky answer:  nothing much, yet behaving so strangely that
people are talking, wondering what's the matter with him; so strangely that he
has aroused the suspicion of Claudius, a man who does not let the grass grow
when he gets an idea.  But what has Hamlet actually been doing?  Or saying?
Our only specific information comes from Ophelia's report to her father, about
how a distraught Hamlet had come to bid her a silent and somewhat histrionic
farewell.  And from Polonius who says that Hamlet "sometimes walks fours hours
together here in the lobby". And that's all we know.  How long has this sort of
thing been going on?  IS this the sort of thing that's been going on?  We have
no idea.  The play tells us nothing.  So naturally we in the audience feel a
certain thrill of anticipation, no matter how well we know the play, when the
"poor wretch" makes his first post-ghost appearance, reading a book.  What
book?  Not, evidently, _The Prince_; plotting a coup d'etat is the last thing
on his mind when Polonius accosts him, a boarding party of one.  What IS on his
mind?  Polonius thinks he knows.   Does Hamlet know what Polonius thinks he
knows?  Does he know that by talking in this way about dogs and maggots, and
"good kissing carrion," and warning him not let to his daughter walk in the
sun, he is not only feeding into Polonius' presumption of madness but
confirming his idea about its cause?  Does Hamlet know he is telling Polonius
what he expects to hear?  Or are these maggots being hatched in his own mind?
Is he the dead dog that's breeding them?  Is that how he sees himself?  What
makes this scene odd and difficult for both actor and audience is that both are
true:  Hamlet knows what Polonius thinks and doesn't care; his irony is
devastating because it includes himself.  He is as contemptuous of himself as
he is of Polonius.  For things rank and gross possess this world merely:
nothing and nobody is what it seems; everyone and everything is rotten and
corrupt:  Contemptus Mundi (or something of the sort) is what's on Hamlet's
mind (isn't it?) and has been ever since his father's ghost showed him the face
of death and the truth about his own.  He is not mad nor is he pretending to be
in this scene; he is merely being himself and baiting Polonius:  saying what he
truly thinks and feels while witholding his reasons.  The truth about the self,
any self, is so complicated and paradoxical that perhaps it can only be
expressed ironically and most people understand irony as poorly as they do
themselves.  So of course Polonius thinks Hamlet is mad:  authenticity will
always look like madness to purely conventional people like Polonius.
Both of these characters depart satisfied that their expectations about the
other have been confirmed:  Hamlet thinks Polonius is a fool, which is what
he's always thought, and Polonius thinks Hamlet is not only mad but madly in
love with his daughter.  That is to say, neither knows anything more at the end
of the scene than he did before.  So in one sense nothing happens either in
this scene or because of it; yet, like the gravedigger scene which also makes
nothing happen, it is indispensible:  both dramatize Hamlet's state of mind at
key points in the play.  I doubt that either of these scenes can be played very
well by an actor who approaches them with only two questions on his or her
mind:  "Why am I here?  What do I know?" (Clark Bowlen, 7/26.)  But these are
powerful questions:  anyone who thinks hard about them and is willing to follow
wherever they lead is bound to learn a lot about this play and how it should be
The job that Hamlet has been given is unavoidably bloody as well as political.
As Machiavelli pitilessly reminds us, politics is an inherently bloody
business:  if you are unwilling to shed blood or have others do it for
you--soldiers, for example--you'd better stay out of it because you will fail
in whatever you attempt.  The dramatic change in Hamlet's tone, when he returns
from his vacation with the pirates, owes a good deal to the fact that he knows
he can dispatch his enemies with the best of them--with perfect, professional,
cold-blooded efficiency--and that he is therefore a match for Claudius.  Death
as he shows when he matches wits with the gravediggers and his own humor with
theirs, has lost its terrors and its mystery:  the conquering worm is just
another worm, not the great equalizer that he ironically invokes in his last
conversation with Claudius before his departure.  For after all it's only
natural that the sun should breed maggots in dead dogs.
Piers Lewis
From:           Sean Lawrence <
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Date:           Wednesday, 2 Aug 1995 14:57:04 -0700 (PDT)
Subject: 6.0593 Re: "To be or not to be" Speech
Comment:        Re: SHK 6.0593 Re: "To be or not to be" Speech
No, I haven't read the Watson book.  Reading criticism is pretty much on hold
while I read up for my qualifying exams, though I'll make a point of looking it
up.  I think it was reviewed recently in _SQ_.
Robert suggests that Hamlet may be anticipating Calvinism to some extent.  Not
knowing much about Calvinism, I can't really comment, but I always took him to
be leaning towards Lutheranism.  He comes from Wittenberg, dresses in black,
This would allow us to tie him into some of the religious change in
Shakespeare's own time.  He seems to have got the first homilies, on the
depravity of man, on the uselessness of works, down pat.  He rejects everything
of the world.  On the other hand, he hasn't gone on to the (very Lutheran)
doctrine of grace, also found in the homilies.
In other words, he's rejected a view of his own being as assured by a "chain of
being" (thank you, Tillyard) which in turn is derived from Plotinus, or a
belief in the beneficience of works (a la later medieval Catholicism), and he
has yet to arrive at a view of being as assured by a personal relationship with
Why isn't this an existential question?  I don't see why we're arriving half
way through a thought process.  The first line of the F1 text ends in a colon,
which is a good rhetorical way to begin a long speech.  I don't see "Nobler" as
subjective completion to the verb "to be".  It seems much more closely to be
acting as a possible modifier for whatever the answer might be:  "being" or
"not being."  It might be the criterion upon which the "mind of reason" will
decide whether "to be or not to be", but that doesn't make it the question
itself.  And besides, "nobler" can mean more real, or possessing more being--I
believe Pico uses it that way (at least in translation).
Besides, I don't think the distinction is between fighting and suffering, but
between dying and suffering, as the latter end of the speech seems to make
clear.  In other words, it's between the world of "non-esse" and total
nothingness.  And until he considers that death might not be annihilation, it
seems to be a toss-up.

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