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|Hamlet’s Abrupt Reversal at III.4.125-130|
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.106 Tuesday, 13 March 2012
Date: March 12, 2012 1:56:12 PM EDT
>Third . . . If the above two points are correct then Hamlet’s speech
>contains a spectacular, turn-on-a-dime reversal I had not appreciated
>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.
There are plenty such contradictions and near-contradictions in Hamlet. I suggest having some method for reading them. The one I use is to come up with a likely idea resolving the contradiction, and then to test it against the text in two different ways: Look for one line, item or point that contradicts it. If you find one, throw the idea out and start over. If you don’t, look for three points that confirm it. With three points of confirmation, accept the reading.
You’ll find, doing this, that Shakespeare does not slip up with his language, but his characters often do. They talk around what they mean, sometimes saying more, sometimes less . . . but whether they say more or less, what they say, Shakespeare means them to say.
(Pleasing but useless theory: that moving the Globe’s structure to a new site was made possible by Shakespeare reading the rental contract closely, as he would a play.)
>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?
I think your reading is correct. Hamlet needs to be angry, or feels he does, in order to get the job done. And the job is important because the state is being run by a usurper. Claudius committed treason to get the throne: a rotten fact commentators often overlook. Therefore, it is of the utmost importance Hamlet, as the legitimate prince, to correct things. It is simply his job.
I had a friend in college whose mother killed herself, at a time when she was being bullied at work. He felt the person bullying her was largely responsible for her suicide, but his grief interfered with his ability to be angry about it. Anger and pity are emotions related to carrying out justice: anger for punishment, pity for forgiveness. Hamlet is an emotional man; he needs his anger. He can’t do it out of duty, or thinks he can’t. (Observe that Hamlet’s true feeling toward Claudius is hate, and out of hate he did not kill Claudius—he wanted to see Claudius damned, which was not his job.)
For the Ghost to preach to stones would make them capable; but Hamlet does not have a heart of stone. Therefore, he implores the Ghost not to arouse pity in him, because pity will interfere, Hamlet thinks, with his ability to punish Claudius.