Hamlet’s Abrupt Reversal at III.4.125-130


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.103  Monday, 12 March 2012


[1] From:        John Knapp <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         March 9, 2012 3:55:22 PM EST

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Reversal


[2] From:        David Bishop <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         March 11, 2012 5:31:18 PM EDT

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Reversal


[3] From:        Sarah Cohen <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         March 11, 2012 6:48:38 PM EDT

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Reversal




From:        John Knapp <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         March 9, 2012 3:55:22 PM EST

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Reversal 


Andrew --


I have written about this very scene in my chapter titled “Family Games and Imbroglio in Hamlet,” in Reading the Family Dance: Family Systems Therapy and Literary Study, ed. by Ken Womack and me (U of Delaware P, 2003): 194-218.  I would agree with the particulars of action in your analysis, but you may be interested as well in the three-way character interaction and family dynamic motivations.  This is the first “family reunion” (so to speak) since King Hamlet was killed. I often wondered why young Hamlet’s first response to seeing his father in that scene (following his conversation with the King in I, v) is just terror, as Hamlet


“begs the ‘heavenly guards:’ ‘save me and hover o’er me with your wings.’  Save him from what? Save him from his father?  Or save him from the double guilt he feels in berating his own mother and from the chastising he expects from his father?  Hamlet . . . assumes in what could be acted a defensive little-boy voice: ‘Do you not come your tardy son to chide?’ . . . (212).


I go on to argue that, assuming the reader’s mimetic view of these characters, Hamlet has seen this look before in his family.  “Does the father listen to his son’s terror and see his offspring’s own conflicted distress in angrily attacking Gertrude, his own mother? Neither parent appears to look at [young] Hamlet first . . . but seeks initially, in each case, literally or metaphorically, the spouse” (212).  Briefly, HER first worry is Claudius; King Hamlet’s comfort is saved only for his wife. 


While one could argue that mimetic readings (of family life in the Renaissance) have not been seen in a favorable light for some 60+ years (witness the scorn over “how many children had Lady Macbeth?”), recent work in family psychology and in criticism makes this scene ripe for just such readings.  To borrow David Ball’s ideas (in Backwards and Forwards), what each of the three characters wants is quite different from one another, and can be readily explained with some sense of family dynamics:  young Hamlet wants above all else a reunited family, but each parent has a quite different motive—separate from his and from each other’s.  Fascinating scene.


John V. Knapp,

Professor of English &

Editor, Style

Northern Illinois University



From:        David Bishop <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         March 11, 2012 5:31:18 PM EDT

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Reversal


Andrew Wilson points to one of the toughest cruxes in Hamlet. It is possible that “Do not look upon me” is spoken to Gertrude, and that Hamlet then turns back to the ghost, addressing the next sentence to him—or at least, particularly, the emphasized word, “blood”. It seems more natural, though, to think that Hamlet speaks both lines to the ghost.


Gertrude’s already expressed pity supports reading 1. But the ghost has also expressed pity for Gertrude. It is conceivable that he indicates pity for Hamlet, with a bend of the head for example. Pity from either is felt by Hamlet as something that would overwhelm him with grief. It suggests that he will never succeed in his task of revenge, so the threatened tears would then be of failure, weakness and self-pity. True, he kills Polonius, thinking he might be Claudius, but he has not killed Claudius. Besides, his (in my view) carefully prepared alibi of madness now has to be expended to excuse the killing of Polonius. If Claudius had been there instead Hamlet could have claimed temporary insanity, due to deprivation of Ophelia’s love. He would have the added advantage that he stabbed blindly through the arras. With Ophelia restored to him, he could have claimed to be cured, and that it was not him but his madness that mistakenly killed Claudius.


Pity is also associated with Christianity, which opposes the ghost’s value system, which I call the heroic ideal. This says that taking revenge for a father’s murder is a loving son’s duty and virtue. According to the Christian ideal, by contrast, personal revenge can never be a virtue. It is a sin, which, especially for the killing of a king, will likely be punished with damnation.


Laertes offers an indirect glimpse into Hamlet’s mind. Thinking his father has been murdered by Claudius, he charges in to take revenge. He realizes, though, that to do so involves accepting the value of revenge and throwing out other, incompatible values: “To hell, allegiance. Vows, to the blackest devil. Conscience and grace to the profoundest pit. I dare damnation.”


Allegiance and vows sound closer to what I call the patriotic ideal, a middle ground where revenge is replaced by justice. This value system gives Hamlet his duty as the prince of Denmark to respect the king and preserve the order (sanity and health) of the state. The problem for Hamlet is that the person responsible for justice is the king: the criminal. Conscience and grace sound more Christian. This is presented simply as a statement of common wisdom. We're expected to understand it.


Yet it involves an oxymoron. Is it cowardly, as Laertes implies, to fear God? The heroic ideal would say so, but the Christian ideal would not. If the act threatens damnation this must mean that God sees it as a mortal sin. So from a Christian point of view, where damnation is a threat, the act of not killing Claudius, because killing him would be a sin, cannot be cowardly. To put the ideal which makes it cowardly uppermost is to deny the Christianity that would make the act damnable.


A similar oxymoron is: “Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” The “craven scruple” shows the same structure, as does the prayer scene, which I call an oxymoronic scenario. It gives us words that don’t make sense, because they imply that Hamlet can simultaneously be a fully believing Christian and a fully believing hero, who would use God to take ultimate revenge on Claudius’s soul. (To “circumvent God” as he says later.)


The play’s central structure is the transformation of revenge into justice, or, at least, proto-justice. The proposed revenge is replaced at the end by the justified killing of a tyrant and a criminal, for the crime of murdering his heir: Hamlet. Hamlet gets what he needs for proto-justice. His mother’s death calls for investigation and trial: “Treachery! Seek it out!” He has evidence of intent in the preserved commission. He has the dying testimony of Laertes. Finally, he has the ultimate proof: his own death. He does not stab Claudius until told he is dead. When he stabs him Claudius says, “Oh yet defend me friends, I am but hurt.” This indicates that it is not Hamlet’s sword thrust that kills him but his own (authorized) poison, with poetic justice: “The point envenom’d too? Then, venom, to thy work.”


A hint of revenge remains, but it sounds more like revenge for his mother: “Follow my mother.” However, this is not real revenge, from our point of view, because it’s mistaken: Claudius did not mean to kill Gertrude. It serves to release some revenging energy without being actual revenge: a kind of lightning rod redirecting that energy into the ground.


The final requirement of justice, along with objective evidence, is an official who is charged to punish crime justly. Hamlet can’t recuse himself: the ideal of justice is not fully developed. But he does symbolically pronounce himself the legitimate king: “This is I, Hamlet the Dane.” Meanwhile the original crime, the murder of Hamlet’s father, unsusceptible of public proof, short of explicit confession, drops out of sight. Revenge has been transformed into justice. We have also begun to learn that tyrants ought justly to be overthrown. The modern world is stirring.


Best wishes,

David Bishop



From:        Sarah Cohen <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         March 11, 2012 6:48:38 PM EDT

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Reversal


Thank you to Andrew Wilson for pointing out the apparent contradiction in Hamlet’s speech! Speaking from my theatrical (not scholarly) perspective, here is how I would resolve it. 


I would direct the actor playing the Ghost to direct his pale glare towards the Queen while she is speaking, and for the first couple of lines of Hamlet’s text, and then look Hamlet full in the face just before his “do not look upon me”.


It is no contradiction to say that LOOKING at the Ghost, and considering his cause, would incite anyone to action (or so Hamlet keeps telling himself), but that being LOOKED AT by the Ghost has an entirely different effect. Tears, perchance, for blood.




Shall I Die Again?


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.102  Monday, 12 March 2012


From:        Thomas Pendleton <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         March 9, 2012 2:02:00 PM EST

Subject:     Shall I Die


The avoidance of the in the poem is especially unusual—and undoubtedly deliberate—since the continually repeated three-syllable unit could so easily be filled out with a prepositional phrase with the article supplying the unstressed second syllable. E.G., “At the head of the bed,” “On the floor near the door,” Through the night with the light,” “For the cat in the hat.”


It is surprising that Gerald Downs claims the poem “has no rhythm,” a judgment that might be challenged by comparison to a somewhat similar (if superior) lyric:


                        I’ve got tears in my ears

                        From lying on my back in my bed

                        While I cry over you.

                                                H. Barlow



Tom Pendleton 

Laertes, the Superior Fencer?


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.101  Friday, 9 March 2012


[1] From:        David Crystal <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         March 8, 2012 12:44:12 PM EST

     Subject:     Laertes, the Superior Fencer


[2] From:        Stuart Manger <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

     Date:         March 8, 2012 6:09:14 PM EST

     Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Laertes fencing




From:        David Crystal <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         March 8, 2012 12:44:12 PM EST

Subject:     Laertes, the Superior Fencer


I sent on your post to son Ben, who played Hamlet in the original pronunciation production at the University of Nevada last fall, produced by Eric Rasmussen, directed by Rob Gander, and he sent me this comment, which I thought you’d be interested to see.


‘I worked with the fight choreographer Roberta Brown on Iris Theatre’s King Lear in a castle in Austria, where I played Edgar, and having her choreograph the fights for Hamlet was the only time I insisted on something, diva-esque (aside from my footwear, which is another story).


Having worked with Roberta before, I knew her methods. JJ, my Laertes, was less familiar with fighting in general, but we’d spoken carefully over the first two weeks of rehearsal before she arrived.


Roberta’s fights always grow out of character, and so the logic was thus: Hamlet grew up in Elsinore. Polonius was a well-renowned councillor in King Hamlet’s reign. His children grew up there with him, their mother died there. Ophelia, in particular, seems dear to the Queen Gertrude. And King Claudius is willing to grant Laertes any suit. 


They are the second family, and with few other younger courtiers to play with, young Hamlet would have trained and played sword-work with Laertes. As Ophelia grew into a woman, the childhood friendship with Hamlet became something more, something Laertes could helplessly see blossoming.


As Laertes left for France, Hamlet hugged his old friend goodbye. 


When Laertes returns, he has grown up very quickly in a short space of time. A traveller’s life experience packed into a few months. Very likely encountering real fight situations, and thereby learning some French and possibly Spanish fighting styles.


We found a similar fighting relationship between Edgar and Edmund, the latter who has travelled and de facto has learnt fighting techniques from foreign lands, if only to survive.


Entering the fight at the end of the play, despite the recent tragic events, Hamlet and Laertes at play was once a regular event to watch. They start with rapiers, not Laertes’ strongest weapon.


At the beginning of the fight, Hamlet tests Laertes’ guard, and he doesn’t flinch. He tests again, and still nothing. Laertes’ fighting ability has changed these last few months, and he isn’t giving anything away. His form is perfect in comparison to Hamlet’s looseness.


Hamlet invites Laertes to start, but Laertes returns the invitation, (Come on sir/Come on sir), forcing Hamlet to make the opening move.


The first two bouts became about Hamlet trying the old tricks that no longer work, and Laertes gifted with moves Hamlet had never seen before.


Despite these tricks, Hamlet takes the first two points. This was worked out to Hamlet’s status and confidence - having always been a few years ahead, older and more experienced - winning over Laertes’ new skills. When they first face each other, neither can shake the memory of sword-playing together as children, when Hamlet always used to win. 


With the mocking ‘I pray you pass with your best violence’, a now publicly embarrassed Laertes pulls his dagger ‘Say you so, come on’, upping the stakes. Hamlet takes his own from Horatio, and the third bout begins with rapier and dagger, Laertes’ best combination.


In this bout, Laertes’ full skill-set at his disposal, and he quickly disarms Hamlet’s sword, taking the opportunity to cut Hamlet’s cheek (placing the poison furthest away from the organs, allowing him longer to die), and the fight devolves into a punch-up (part them they are incensed). Laertes, shocked and wondering how quickly the poison will work holds Hamlet at point, before Hamlet disarms him, slashing Laertes’ stomach (making for a quicker end) with the poison-tipped blade as he does so.


Throughout, Laertes was the stronger fighter, but their skills were balanced by the pressure of the situation until the final bout. Any hesitation on Laertes’ part to cut Hamlet disappeared with the shame of losing the first two bouts, and Hamlet’s mockery.


If you’d like to see the fight, a film of the production and documentary will be released later this spring.


Professor David Crystal







From:        Stuart Manger <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         March 8, 2012 6:09:14 PM EST

Subject:     Re: SHAKSPER: Laertes fencing. 


Don’t quite get this. Hamlet before the contest says he will win ‘at the odds’ i.e., he’s not that confident. Moreover, he is said to be ‘fat and scant of breath’. Whatever skill he may have, if Laertes makes him run around seriously, Hamlet’s timing etc may go. Laertes cheats before any real effect of Hamlet’s lack of condition might take effect. 


Stuart Manger

Hamlet’s Abrupt Reversal at III.4.125-130


The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.100  Friday, 9 March 2012


From:        Andrew Wilson <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

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?



Andrew Wilson

Stacy Keach, The Shakespeare Society, “Shakespeare’s Sisters”



The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 23.099  Friday, 9 March 2012


From:        John F Andrews <This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.>

Date:         Thursday, 8 Mar 2012 14:27:14 -0700

Subject:     Stacy Keach, The Shakespeare Society, “Shakespeare’s Sisters” 


A Conversation with Actor Stacy Keach

MONDAY, MARCH 19, at 8:00 p.m.  

DICAPO OPERA THEATRE, 184 East 76th Street, Manhattan

General Admission $30; Special Discount $25


STACY KEACH is currently starring in Broadway’s acclaimed Other Desert Cities. Best known to many of his television fans as Mickey Spillane detective Mike Hammer, Mr. Keach is also familiar for such popular films as Brewster McCloud, Doc, End of the Road, Escape from LA, Fat City, Luther, Nice Dreams, That Championship Season, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, The Killer Inside Me, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The New Centurians, The Ninth Configuration, and Up in Smoke. But what he finds most satisfying is the Shakespearean acting he has done in such classic roles as Falstaff, Henry V, King Lear, Macbeth, and Richard III. Clive Barnes, who observed a number of superb Hamlets during his many years as drama critic for the New York Times, has commented that the best ever “was Keach, whose neurotic passion and fierce poetry were quite wonderful.” Described by one reviewer as “the finest American classical actor since John Barrymore,” Mr. Keach has received a Golden Globe, three Obies, and multiple nominations for Emmy and Tony awards. Last year he garnered his third Helen Hayes Award for a Kennedy Center production of Frost/Nixon in which he portrayed a disgraced former President. Mr. Keach has performed not only on Broadway but in such additional settings as Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, Lincoln Center, the National Theatre of Great Britain, the New York Shakespeare Festival, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the London West End’s Wyndham Theatre. He was recently honored with the prestigious Millennium Recognition Award for his many contributions to the classical repertory.


This event will be hosted by Artistic Director MICHAEL CAPASSO of the Dicapo Opera Theatre and co-sponsored by The Shakespeare Society, whose Artistic Director, MICHAEL SEXTON, will join the Guild’s JOHN ANDREWS in conversation with Mr. Keach. It is open to the general public at $30 (plus a $3 service charge for orders placed online). For tickets at the $25 member rate (plus a $2.50 service charge for orders placed online), visit http://www.smarttix.com/show.aspx?showcode=CON100, click on the “Enter Discount Code” link below the “General Admission” price, type in SHAKES, click on the “Use Code” box to the immediate right, and then click on “Find Tickets” to proceed. If you have any difficulty with these steps, simply reply to this e-mail or call (505) 988-9560, and the Guild will be happy to assist you. For the Dicapo Box Office, call (212) 288-9438, extension 10.



An Evening with The Shakespeare Society

TUESDAY, MARCH 20, at 8:00 p.m.  

NATIONAL ARTS CLUB, 15 Gramercy Park South, Manhattan

No Admission Charge, but Reservations Requested


Since its founding by Nancy Becker and Adriana Mnuchin in 1997, THE SHAKESPEARE SOCIETY has presented scores of challenging programs for general audiences and served thousands of students and teachers through its many educational initiatives. We’re thus delighted to welcome Executive Director MADELINE AUSTIN, Artistic Director MICHAEL SEXTON, and Society board President K. ANN MCDONALD, who’ll talk with the Guild’s JOHN ANDREWS about the Society’s history, mission, and recent offerings, among them evenings with such stars as F. Murray Abraham, Zoe Caldwell, Richard Easton, Ralph Fiennes, Roger Rees, and Marian Seldes. Ms. Austin is an experienced Off-Broadway producer, actor, and theater administrator. For a decade she worked alongside Gerald Schoenfeld, legendary Chairman of the Shubert Organization, and for five years in Washington she was a performing member of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s touring company. Mr. Sexton recently directed Titus Andronicus for the Public Theater. Last spring he created Margaret: A Tyger’s Heart, a Red Bull Theater adaptation of the three Henry VI plays and Richard III. He has directed for the Humana Festival, the Juilliard School, New Dramatists, NYTW, NYU, Soho Rep, and the Sundance Theater Lab. A litigator who is now affiliated with Robinson McDonald & Canna, Ms. McDonald has served on the Society’s board since 1998 and presided over it as President since 2007. 



Georgianna Ziegler & ‘Shakespeare’s Sisters’

MONDAY, APRIL 16, at 8:00 p.m.  

NATIONAL ARTS CLUB, 15 Gramercy Park South, Manhattan

No Admission Charge, but Reservations Requested


In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf lamented that if Shakespeare had “had a wonderfully gifted sister, called Judith,” she would never have been able to develop her talents and achieve success in  the way her famous brother did. Perhaps so. But in Edward Rothstein’s enthusiastic February 24 New York Times review of “Shakespeare’s Sisters: Voices of English and European Writers, 1500-1700” (http://topics.nytimes.com/topics/reference/timestopics/people/r/edward_rothstein/index.html), an exhibition at the Folger Shakespeare Library on Capitol Hill that closes May 20, we learn that there were dozens of “women from Britain, France, and Italy, many of them celebrated in their own time,” whose brilliant careers prove that Ms. Woolf was unduly melancholy. The curator who organized this show is GEORGIANNA ZIEGLER, who oversees the Folger’s Reference department and occupies a post that has been endowed by Louis B. Thalheimer. A former President of the Shakespeare Association of America, Dr. Ziegler spent a decade at the University of Pennsylvania’s renowned Furness Library before she moved to Washington in 1992. Her previous exhibitions have introduced viewers to “Shakespeare’s Unruly Women,” to “Elizabeth I, Then and Now,” to “Shakespeare for Children,” and to “Marketing Shakespeare: The Boydell Gallery (1789-1805) and Beyond.” Dr. Ziegler’s conversation with the Guild’s John Andrews will be illustrated with images of the most notable female authors of the period and with copies of pages from many of their publications.  



For more information about these and other programs, among them a new CENTENNIAL FRIDAYS series at the St. Francis Auditorium in Santa Fe’s New Mexico Museum of Art, visit the website below and take a look at the Current Events page. To reserve space for events that will occur at the National Arts Club, all you need to do is reply to this message or call the telephone number below.


John F. Andrews

The Shakespeare Guild

5B Calle San Martin       

Santa Fe, NM 87506

Phone 505 988 9560


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