The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 19.0012 Monday, 7 January 2008
Date: Monday, 7 Jan 2008 02:56:23 -0500
Subject: 19.0006 Soliloquies - Truth or Lie...or Overheard
Comment: Re: SHK 19.0006 Soliloquies - Truth or Lie...or Overheard
>Scott Shepherd's comments quibble with the perfect
>wholeness of my interpretation, but do not offer a
>reasonable alternative, or any alternative at all.
To clarify what I am suggesting, in the hopes that it might be regarded
as an alternative:
Hamlet never becomes aware of the spies. His outburst is a genuine cri
de coeur, not a performance, and it is the villain who has the upper
hand in this scene, not the hero.
I do think the idea that Hamlet detects the spies is an invention, but
not one created by anyone on this list. It's at least as old as "What
Happens in Hamlet" (1935) and surely older. Does anyone know if it shows
It seems to me concealment in Shakespeare is like disguise: It works
unfailingly until the hidden person reveals himself. For a character to
quietly see through an eavesdropping trap, and not even tell us so in an
aside, is downright un-Shakespearean. Can anyone think of another
example like this, where a deception is penetrated by sheer
perceptiveness, without physical exposure of the deceiver? Without any
overt indication to the audience?
I know the lines "Where's your father?" and "All but one shall live"
present a great temptation, but these are better understood as
Shakespeare's habitual practice in hidden-listener situations: The
unwitting character typically "happens" to talk about the hidden
listener, simply because this is fun for the audience. Cf., Malvolio's
fantasizing about Sir Toby, Lucio's slandering the Duke, the
gravedigger's telling Hamlet about Hamlet, etc, etc.
A concealment scene generates excitement from the constant *possibility*
of discovery. "Where's your father?" tantalizes the audience in this
direction, as do Hamlet's several false exits, where probably Polonius
repeatedly starts to emerge and then retreats again.
Okay I know this is getting long but one more thing.
If Hamlet doesn't have the upper hand in this scene, the king is
Yes, Hamlet has become a sort of superhero of perspicacity, we don't
like to see the "less intelligent" characters get the jump on him. But
this is the villain's first move against the hero, and rather than have
the hero easily sidestep the danger, I believe we're meant to see him in
the clutches of the enemy, and to *worry* about him for a while. Like
James Bond we need to see him imperiled early in the story to appreciate
the threat of the bad guy. And if not now, when? This is where the king
shows his fangs, starting with the aside that confirms his villainy, and
finishing with a specific plan to get rid of Hamlet.
If Hamlet is undeceived, the villain is rendered impotent and the
anxiety is gone. But if not, we have an exciting scene with an uncertain
outcome, centered on what's really at stake here (is Hamlet going to
show a crack in his antic disposition when he is alone with the girl he
loves?) and built on a pattern of tension and release, e.g.:
1) anxiety for Hamlet as the trap is being set (and the villain
confesses his guilt to us)
2) unexpected expansion in the great soliloquy
3) anxiety again as he approaches Ophelia
4) relief when he exhibits plausible symptoms of love-madness
5) relief nullified when the king doesn't buy the love-madness explanation
Why doesn't the king buy it? One can hardly imagine better evidence.
Hamlet even offers the diagnosis himself: "It hath made me mad!" The
king's analysis ("There's something in his soul . . . ") is remarkably
perceptive here, and again I think this suggests that we are meant to
see him as an effective, formidable threat.
There is more to be said, about Ophelia, but this is too long already.
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