The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 16.1612  Monday, 26 September 2005

From: 		Arnie Perlstein <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>
Date: 		Sunday, 25 Sep 2005 00:42:23 -0400
Subject: 	Hamlet and Those Darned Yet Again!

I notice that threads on this subject about Hamlet and the pirates have 
appeared in SHAKSPER three or more times since its inception, but the 
issue only entered my personal radar screen today. After a close 
rereading of Shakespeare, and fresh from reading Wilson's book on "What 
Really Happened in Hamlet" and some other commentaries, I quickly zeroed 
in on the episode with the pirates, which I had never noticed before 
(never having previously studied Hamlet carefully, I must admit). At 
first I wondered whether it ever actually happened, and then I decided 
that it did, but that Hamlet must have pre-arranged the "attack" by the 
pirates, so as not to have to be there in England when R&G got hoist on 
their own petard, and also to be free to return post haste to attend to 
some unfinished business at the Elsinore Corral.

I then went through some articles I had collected a few months back 
about Hamlet, and lo and behold, I realized that I had actually read in 
two of those articles (and then promptly forgotten, at least 
consciously) that very idea of Hamlet having arranged things with the 
pirates. Thankfully, my unconscious apparently does remember---I've made 
many such "discoveries" in recent years.   ;)

Anyway, a quick perusal of same led me to a third, earlier article in 
the same vein, which had gotten that theory rolling in the Twentieth 
Century.  Here are the cites to all three (of course there are also 
articles espousing the contrary or orthodox view of the pirate encounter 
as providential, but they are utterly unconvincing to me):

"Hoisting the Enginer With His Own Petar", Warren V. Shepard, SQ 7 
(1956), 281-285.

"Hamlet and the Pirates: A Critical Reconsideration", Martin Stevens, SQ 
26 (1975), 276-284.

"Hamlet's Account of the Pirates", David Farley-Hills, RES, 50 (1999), 

Stevens in particular has some rich and marvelously brilliant insights 
into the huge implications of this plot element, of which I will now 
reproduce, in slightly shortened form, my favorite passage (which 
crystallizes, in the most elegant and concise prose, what I was trying 
to explain to Jim yesterday in my post about the metafictional 
implications of the Duke's secret scheming in MFM in particular and of 
all the secret scheming in Shakespeare in general). All caps are my own 
added emphases: "When the intervention of the pirates is understood as 
an act willed by Hamlet, an important dynamic of the play comes into 
clearer focus.


Since human volition is at the very core of the central action, it is 
right that stratagems and machinations, demonstrating the power of the 
individual will, occupy a prominent place in the dramatic design. It is, 
in fact, possible to detect an alternation of "moves" (MUCH AS IN A 
CHESS GAME) [I wonder whether here Stevens was subliminally recalling 
the chess game in The Tempest?] between protagonist and antagonist as 
the essential thrust in the dramatic action in the play.....practically 
all of the plotting and counterplotting in Acts II and III is done by 
characters in the guises of actors and spectators.....And, 
interestingly, the stage is almost constantly peopled with 
spectators.....The arras [where Polonius hides], whether in a literal or 
in a figurative sense, becomes an object of great theatrical prominence 
because, throughout Act III especially, it demarcates the stage players 
and the stage auditors.....until they play [within the play], at the 
moment of discovery, is abruptly stopped. Now role playing has come to a 
shocking end, and the opponents prepare for a new phase of more deadly 
combat....The stabbing of Polonius through the arras marks the end of 
the theatrical metaphor. The curtain has been punctured; it is no longer 
needed.  The conflict is now in the open, and the essential discoveries 
have been made. The second, more deadly, phase in the game of strategies 
is now ready to commence in earnest....Hamlet, on his return to Denmark, 
has abandoned his erstwhile role as player and spectator and now stands 
in readiness (as he will tell us) to exact the last measure of his 
revenge....Shakespeare, at least in the best version of Hamlet, gave 
various clues to his audience that Hamlet's encounter with the pirates 
was carefully planned....a close reading of the text...positively begs 
us to see Hamlet's intervention in Claudius's design as part of the 
larger conflict in which Hamlet consistently outwits his opponent. On a 
deeper level of significance, the sea adventure is the last link in a 
chain of self-willed events. It leads Hamlet, almost imperceptibly, to 
anew realization of the limits within which he can "act"....That, in 
essence, is the insight Hamlet gains when he is, literally and 
figuratively, at sea."

Shepard is also particularly on the money with this passage about 
Hamlet's judoesque strategy for survival, literally and metaphysically, 
in rotten Denmark: "And from that opening remark until the death of 
Claudius, Hamlet proceeds according to a fixed pattern. That pattern is 
as follows: He lets his adversary attack first. Then, using the weapon 
of his adversary [words, players, sailing craft, documents, fencing 
foils, poison], he strikes swiftly home. This happens not once, not 
twice, but time and time again."

Most recently, Farley-Hills scored a palpable metafictional hit with: 
"In any case, Hamlet constantly likes to keep friend, foe, AND EVEN 
AUDIENCE guessing at his precise intentions. Shakespeare is constantly 
engaged in mystification in Hamlet (as befits a play which questions the 
adequacy of 'your philosophy'), especially in the later versions, as, 
for instance, when he substitutes in Q2 and F a far more ambiguous 
response of the Queen to Hamlet's revelation that he knows of his 
father's murder...The difference between Q2 and F in their account of 
the meeting with the pirates might well be explained by a later decision 
in F to make the nature of the encounter more ambiguous."

Now the only really important question remaining is whether Tom Stoppard 
was really making a sly allusion to all of this in Shakespeare in Love 
when Ben Affleck's character suggests "Romeo and Ethel The Pirate's 
Daughter" as a working title for R&J, and if so, what did he really mean 
by it?!   ;)

Arnie Perlstein
Weston, Florida

S H A K S P E R: The Global Shakespeare Discussion List
Hardy M. Cook, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
The S H A K S P E R Web Site <http://www.shaksper.net>

DISCLAIMER: Although SHAKSPER is a moderated discussion list, the 
opinions expressed on it are the sole property of the poster, and the 
editor assumes no responsibility for them.

Subscribe to Our Feeds


Make a Gift to SHAKSPER

Consider making a gift to support SHAKSPER.