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Home :: Archive :: 2001 :: July ::
Re: To be or not to be
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 12.1895  Monday, 30 July 2001

[1]     From:   Andrew W. White <
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        Date:   Friday, 27 Jul 2001 15:42:26 -0400
        Subj:   To be or not to be

[2]     From:   Charles Weinstein <
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        Date:   Sunday, 29 Jul 2001 17:41:44 EDT
        Subj:   SHK 12.1858 Re: To be or not to be


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Andrew W. White <
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Date:           Friday, 27 Jul 2001 15:42:26 -0400
Subject:        To be or not to be

First:  somehow, R. A. Cantrell and I have miscommunicated.  I believe
Hamlet is _especially_ gifted at finding things out; in the original
legend, in Belleforest's narrative, and here too he is able to play the
fool but tell the audience that he's in charge of his own fate.  (how
does he get word about the trip to England, eh?)  On a related thread, I
have stated my belief that Hamlet learns Claudius' guilt at _The
Mousetrap_, although few seem to agree.  [Care to chime in on that
thread, to back me up?]

Some people on this thread have problems with Hamlet's prescience, but I
do not.  I believe that if Hamlet smelled a rat from the very first, his
"To be or not to be" would be explicitly staged for the benefit of his
observers.  Hence, that's just how I would play it if given a second
chance: book in hand, pontificating.  [And if it is about suicide, but
it's staged, it could be done as a means of keeping Claudius and
Polonius off his back.]  Just because few people stage it this way
doesn't mean that it can't be done.  But it does require an especially
astute director and nuanced actor -- one or both being in short supply
as far as Hamlets go.

As for Mary Jane Miller's remarks -- I thought this was Ophelia's line
of reaction too, for a long time.  But once I concluded that Hamlet knew
he was being watched from the start, and that Ophelia was taught how to
play this scene, what props to use, etc., and on VERY short notice, it
was hard for me to see "rich gifts" as anything other than a bit of
Polonian dramaturgy.  After all, it isn't Hamlet who has been cruel, it
has been Ophelia -- she is telling him a bald-faced lie, and both of
them know it.  How on earth can Ophelia, who has shunned Hamlet and sent
back all letters, gifts, etc., for months on end, accuse Hamlet of
cruelty at this moment?  Answer: because she was put up to it.

Which leads me to another question:  since when is Ophelia a good spy?
Let alone, a good actress?  Why should we not be given to see the strain
of the demands placed on her, through her awkwardness at both line
delivery and prop-handling?

Andy White

[2]-------------------------------------------------------------
From:           Charles Weinstein <
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Date:           Sunday, 29 Jul 2001 17:41:44 EDT
Subject: Re: To be or not to be
Comment:        SHK 12.1858 Re: To be or not to be

The Nunnery Scene is (or should be) about Hamlet's need to love warring
with his inability to love, his desire for Ophelia struggling against
sexual nausea and helpless misogyny, his longing for a wife and family
polluted by thoughts of a faithless mother and murderous uncle stewing
in corruption, honeying and making love over the nasty sty.  Much of
this is lost or obscured if Hamlet suddenly notices a twitching behind
the arras or, worse, is aware of the "lawful espials" from the outset.
The scene then ceases to be about Hamlet's love-sickness (far more
severe than anything Polonius has imagined) and promptly becomes a scene
about his dislike of spies.  That is not only trivial and reductive,
it's superfluous, since the play has already given us one such scene
("Were you not sent for?") and is about to give us another ("How now, a
rat?  Dead for a ducat, dead!").  We don't need three.

We certainly don't need the cheapening suggestion that Hamlet's words
are not a true confession of his agony, but rather an act staged for
Claudius and Polonius or the easy, understandable fury of a man who
hates eavesdroppers.

Moreover, if "Where's your father?" signals Hamlet's awareness of hidden
auditors and his test of Ophelia's loyalty, then Ophelia surely knows
it, and just as surely knows that his resulting fury is provoked by her
untruthful reply.  Yet her words indicate no such knowledge, either to
Hamlet or to herself when alone.  On the contrary, her prayers during
Hamlet's tirade reveal nothing but an anguished belief that he is
genuinely insane, beyond human comprehension or treatment.  "O help him,
you sweet heavens!"  "O heavenly powers, restore him!"  When left alone
to express her deepest and truest feelings in soliloquy, does she
castigate herself for betraying Hamlet?  Does she say "I've deceived the
man I loved, forfeiting his trust and affection forever"?  Not a bit of
it:  she utters the heartfelt eulogy "O what a noble mind is here
o'erthrown," lamenting the ruin that madness has wrought in Hamlet's
soul and body.  If Hamlet has truly guessed the presence of others and
revealed this knowledge to Ophelia, then her prayers and her soliloquy
are nothing but the craven charade of a weakling who cannot admit her
guilt even to herself.  Ophelia perforce becomes a hypocrite who shuns
self-awareness through false piety and ludicrous head-shakings over the
"madness" that makes Hamlet behave so inexplicably.

Of course, it is possible to see Ophelia as a coward and a ninny, and
some critics (e.g., Anne Barton) have done precisely that.  But I cannot
read Ophelia's words and hear the accents of craven hypocrisy.  Nor do I
believe that so paltry a figure would show the quiet, contained courage
with which Ophelia receives Hamlet's obscene insults in the Play Scene.
("Lady, shall I lie in your lap?" is the Elizabethan equivalent of
"Wanna fuck?" and the subsequent references to "country matters" and
lying "between maids' legs" are hardly cryptic.  Yet Ophelia does not
run weeping from the room or into her father's arms:  she cradles
Hamlet's head and deflects each lewd remark with pained but gentle
dignity:   "Still better, and worse.")   Finally, I do not believe that
a shallow doll, even in distraction, could utter the most beautiful and
haunting lines of the play, as Ophelia does in IV.5:  "Lord, we know
what we are, but know not what we may be."  "There's rosemary, that's
for remembrance.  Pray you, love, remember."  Shakespeare lavished
considerable tenderness and care upon Ophelia:  he would not have done
so if he intended her words in the Nunnery Scene to be read in the only
way that the "awareness" theory will allow.

The theory can also be faulted for judging the eavesdropping in too
partisan a fashion.  For as we all know (but seldom admit) the "lawful
espials" are by no means clearly reprehensible.  Hamlet, after all, is
thought to be insane, and the insane are often discreetly watched to
insure that they do not harm themselves or others.  Hamlet has recently
broken into Ophelia's closet and assaulted her physically; Polonius
could hardly allow his daughter to meet him again without supervision.
Yet the supervision must be hidden from the patient if he is to freely
reveal his heart to Ophelia and effect the cure that everyone desires.
In short, it is possible to see Polonius' plan as benign in intention,
prudent in conception and responsible in execution--"lawful" indeed.
Yet it becomes difficult to keep this in mind if one supposes that
Hamlet's fury is prompted by his knowledge of prying eyes and lurking
ears.  Sympathies become skewed in favor of the outraged victim of
invaded privacy, at the cost of ambiguity and complexity.

Well then, how should "Where's your father?" and the surrounding lines
be played?  Like this, I believe:  "Why isn't your father here to
protect you from me?  He told you never to see me again--and he was
right.  I'm an arrant knave who would deceive you into slaking his
filthy lust.  And you, of course, would deceive me with your coquetry
and lies, your false faces and false words.  Your father was right to
lock you away from me, and if he now relents and allows you to wander
unchaperoned, let the doors be shut on him, since he's clearly too old
and too senile to know what he's doing.  If he won't sequester you in a
convent, do it on your own initiative.  Save yourself, and save me."

--Charles Weinstein (using his wife's server)

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