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Home :: Archive :: 2007 :: December ::
Soliloquies - Truth or Lie...or Overheard
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 18.0836  Friday, 21 December 2007

[1] 	From:	Lynn Brenner <
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	Date:	Thursday, 20 Dec 2007 16:47:57 EST
	Subj:	Re: SHK 18.0833 Soliloquies - Truth or Lie...or Overheard

[2] 	From:	Scott Shepherd <
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	Date:	Friday, 21 Dec 2007 03:50:14 -0500
	Subj:	Re: SHK 18.0833 Soliloquies - Truth or Lie...or Overheard


[1]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Lynn Brenner <
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Date:		Thursday, 20 Dec 2007 16:47:57 EST
Subject: 18.0833 Soliloquies - Truth or Lie...or Overheard
Comment:	Re: SHK 18.0833 Soliloquies - Truth or Lie...or Overheard

 >Where does Hamlet first show awareness or suspicion about the privacy of
 >his conversation with Ophelia? What does "Ha ha!" mean? What does "Are
 >you honest?" mean? (Do you think Ophelia correctly interprets this as in
 >inquiry into her chastity?) If you agree that this line shows Hamlet's
 >awakened suspicion, then what awakened it? What happened just before
 >this line that might have inspired Hamlet's interjection and question?

I've always thought that Hamlet's interjection and question are prompted 
by a piece of staging. The stage directions in the plays are all 
implicit rather than spelled out, and in this scene it seems obvious:

Claudius and Polonius are hiding behind a convenient upstage screen. 
When Ophelia tenders her gifts -- 'There, my  lord.' - Polonius peeps 
out for a split second to see what she's handing Hamlet. (What could be 
more like him?)

Hamlet (turning away from Ophelia) detects the motion out of the corner 
of his eye. That's all he'd need to know he's been set up, and make him 
turn back to Ophelia with "Ha, ha! are you honest?"

In other words, that line is meant quite literally.

I also think "nunnery" is meant literally. Obviously, Hamlet knows its 
double meaning; but isn't it far likelier that he's telling this 
obedient little pawn in her father's game to go to a nunnery-a more 
appropriate place for a girl of her simple, obedient nature than the big 
bad world-than that he's packing her off to a whore house?

Even then, he sounds angrier at himself (and at Polonius) than at her. 
("Get thee to a nunnery: why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners? I am 
myself indifferent honest; but yet I could accuse me of such things... 
...We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us. Go thy ways to a 
nunnery." )

I imagine him then turning to leave. Pausing, looking again at the 
upstage screen, and unable to resist giving her one more chance to level 
with him, adding abruptly, "Where's your father?"

It's her flat-out lie-"At home, my lord."-that really enrages and sets 
him off against her. That leads us into "God hath given you one face, 
and you make yourselves another, etc" and then the double meaning of 
'nunnery' rises to inform his words beautifully.

(My, that man could write!)
Lynn Brenner

[2]-----------------------------------------------------------------
From:		Scott Shepherd <
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Date:		Friday, 21 Dec 2007 03:50:14 -0500
Subject: 18.0833 Soliloquies - Truth or Lie...or Overheard
Comment:	Re: SHK 18.0833 Soliloquies - Truth or Lie...or Overheard

That Hamlet means chastity when he says "Are you honest?" is clear from 
his immediate follow-up: "your honesty should admit no discourse to your 
beauty." (This comes before Ophelia does any "interpreting.")

The offense that we are finding Ophelia guilty of here-consenting to be 
observed with him in the hopes of helping him-is not even on Hamlet's 
radar of injustice. When he catches his mother committing the very same 
offense three scenes later, he doesn't berate her for it.  This is not 
what he is referring to when he challenges Ophelia's honesty.

Hamlet's tirade is against the very assertion of proper conduct in 
women. The returning of the gifts, and the cooling of relations that 
proceeded it, is after all an assertion of chastity, indeed contains  in 
it a rather insulting accusation that *he* has behaved improperly 
toward her honor. This (awakening of course the outrage at his  mother) 
is what prompts Hamlet's explosion.

We should notice also that the explosion starts *before* "ha, ha!":  you 
can hear it rumbling already in "No not I, I never gave you aught."

There are several possible meanings for "ha, ha!" "Aha, I've found you 
out!" is not the commonest. I think "ha" usually expresses contempt or 
surprise at what has just occurred. I tend to read it as a response to 
the indignity of having his rejected love-gifts pushed into his hand.

As for the real question at the heart of the matter: When does Hamlet 
first show awareness or suspicion about the privacy of his conversation 
with Ophelia?, the answer is, he doesn't.

The idea that Hamlet knows about the eavesdroppers is a satisfying 
invention, it pleases us by giving Hamlet the upper hand, it turns 
"where's your father?" and "all but one shall live" into nifty zingers, 
and it makes us more comfortable with Hamlet's behavior toward Ophelia 
by allowing us to blame the victim a little bit.

But is this invention necessary? Does it even improve our understanding 
of the scene?

Doesn't it rather alleviate the need to understand it, by explaining it 
in terms of the *plot*, in terms of hero-vs-villain?

Doesn't it in fact invalidate a crucial encounter between Hamlet and 
Ophelia, turning it into a clever show put on for the benefit of the men 
behind the curtain? Doesn't it make us deaf to the real content of 
Hamlet's speeches, because we are listening only for brilliant hidden 
thrusts at the eavesdroppers, of which disappointingly in all that text 
it turns out there are only two?

I propose that we cast off this old crutch and try again to understand 
Hamlet's encounter with Ophelia on its own terms.

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