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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: May ::
Hamlet Act 4 Question
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1108  Monday, 29 May 2000.

From:           Jerry Downs <
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Date:           Saturday, 27 May 2000 19:55:02 EDT
Subject: 11.1094 Hamlet Act 4 Question
Comment:        Re: SHK 11.1094 Hamlet Act 4 Question

In response to Joe Conlon:

>One of my students came up with an interesting question today that
>I'd like some help with.  In act four scene two Hamlet is conversing
>with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern about the location of the body of
>Polonius which Hamlet has hidden.  At (IV,  ii, 25) Rosencrantz says
>
> R:  My lord, you must tell us where the body is and go with us to the
> King.
>
> H:  The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body.  The
> King is a thing --
>
> G:  A "thing", my lord?
>
> H:  Of nothing.  Bring me to him.  Hide fox, and all after.
>
> Both the student and I think there is some marvelous punning going on
> here or perhaps something else with some hidden meaning is being said
> that we just aren't catching.
>
> Obviously the "Hide fox and all after" is in some way referring to a fox
> hunt but who is the fox?  Polonius' body?
>
> What about the body / king  line?
>
> Can anybody help explain these lines ?

In 1914 Charles Stewart published <Textual Difficulties in Shakespeare>
without much lasting effect. I think well of his book and recommend it.
Here is an abridged sample, in respect of "The body is with the king .
.":

The sentence is very delusive; it was intended to be so by Shakespeare.
As Rosencrantz was supposed to see nothing but pure nonsense in such a
statement, being too shallow to understand Hamlet, it was necessary for
Shakespeare to put the sentence in such a form that it would appear the
same to us, at first blush . . . . At the same time its meaning is
perfectly open . . . .

To a dead man, a king does not exist . . . because the dead man is not
conscious of him. But to a live king, a dead man does exist . . . .

With the king, a body is. But with the body a king is not. Or, to use
Hamlet's exact words:

     The body is, with the king. But the king is not, with the body.

[[ Q punctuation was lacking. The use of 'with' for similarly abstract
purposes was common, e.g., "he with the Romans was esteemed so" Lucr. ]]

It is all a matter of being . . .

The reader will at once be reminded of the soliloquy, "To be or not to
be." It is all of a piece with this, even as the play in its deeper
aspects, is all of a piece . . . .

There is but one thing that stays his hand from self-destruction.  It is
the question as to whether, after death, there may still be
consciousness. And therefore memory of things in this life . . . .

His impelling reason for wanting to die is stated at once . . .  It is
"the heartache and the thousand and one shocks that flesh is heir to."
He had had a terrible insight of the possibilities of human nature. Life
had touched him to the quick on all four sides -- through father,
mother, sweetheart and friends. . . .

Hamlet is wholly concerned, not with any dread of dying, but with the
question as to whether memory persists after death . . .

With this too short view of the soliloquy [[shortened of course even
more]], we . . . return . . . to the "crux" . . . . The accepted view .
. . is that these words are "intended as nonsense" . . . .

This matter of "is," in connection with a dead body, raises up to
contemplation the whole mystery of being. It is the old question of "to
be or not to be," and Hamlet's mind, with the concrete presentment
before him, returns at once to the question that most deeply concerns
him. His remark on the subject is quite natural. To the king, the body
is. But with the body the king is not.

If you would like to see the full copy (six pages), let me know.  I have
always felt that Stewart is correct. However, I do not recall seeing an
edition that even mentions this account. When acted, the portrayer of
Hamlet is always as much in the dark as his interlocutors, and the scene
is spoiled, as usual.

As for "hide fox," the authorities say it could refer to 'hide and seek'
or to sheathing the sword. More to the point, in my opinion, is the fact
that the line was added in the Folio of 1623, but not present in the
quarto, and therefore not likely authoritative. That, however, is
another subject.

Your student is to be commended.  Jerry Downs
 

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