The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.100 Friday, 9 March 2012
Date: March 9, 2012 12:17:54 AM EST
Subject: Hamlet’s Abrupt Reversal at III.4.125-130
Hamlet III.4.125-130 has me puzzled. Here it is with surrounding text added.
. . . O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience. Whereon do you look?
On him, on him. Look you how pale he glares.
His form and cause conjoin’d, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable.--Do not look upon me,
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects. Then what I have to do
Will want true colour -- tears perchance for blood.
To whom do you speak this?
Do you see nothing there?
Nothing at all; yet all that is I see.
(Ham III.4.122-133 Arden II)
Here is my reading:
First . . . line 125 up to the hyphen in line 127 . . . Hamlet is talking to his mother about the ghost. She asks the question “Whereon do you look?” And Hamlet responds, “On him, on him . . .”
Second . . . after the hyphen in line 127 through line 130 . . . Something shifts at the hyphen. All of a sudden Hamlet is now talking directly to the ghost. He must be addressing the ghost based on Gertrude’s “To whom do you speak this?” (Obviously Gertrude thinks Hamlet is talking to somebody else, not her.) and also, Hamlet’s response, “Do you see nothing there?” (Hamlet agrees. He was talking to somebody else, the ghost Gertrude can’t see.)
Third . . . If the above two points are correct then Hamlet’s speech contains a spectacular, turn-on-a-dime reversal I had not appreciated before. Line 126 up to the hyphen in line 127 loosely paraphrased is, “Who could look on him (i.e. the ghost) and not take up his cause?” The last half of line 127 to line 130 loosely paraphrased is, “Stop looking at me lest I lose my resolve to carry out your will”. A direct contradiction.
Wow! What a turnaround in only four lines! Is my reading legitimate or do I jump off the rails somewhere? What alternative readings are possible? If you agree with my reading, what do you think explains Hamlet’s abrupt reversal?