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1.1. The opening exchange of voices in the dark may be treated as an epitome of the whole play, "Who's there"? Who's in charge? Who is supposed to challenge whom? The state is "out of joint" on every level, from the national emergency with Norway, down to the changing of the watch.
Horatio and Marcellus seem to speak with a grandiosity out of all proportion to the occasion. Why? What is the overall effect of such grand rhetoric?
What does Horatio think of the ghost? What does his language in 44--46 suggest? 107-120? 130-137?
1.2. Claudius's speech is on a very grand rhetorical scale, befitting his state and the occasion, but does it not also betray a sense of disorder in the court, both in his personal affairs and in affairs of state? Does his solution to the Fortinbras matter look like it will be effective?
What about the order of business here? Does it make sense? The king's death, the king's marriage, Fortinbras, Laertes, and finally Hamlet? And all the business wrapped up with the king promising to spend the rest of the day drinking "jocund healths" (125)? It is probably worth remembering that not that many years before Shakespeare wrote this play, in 1567, Queen Mary of Scotland married the man everyone thought had murdered her husband, Lord Darnley; the wedding took place within a few months of Darnley's murder; his body was found in an orchard. Queen Mary's son became James VI of Scotland and James I of England in 1603 (see Lilian Winstanley, "Hamlet" and the Scottish Succession [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921; also Stuart Kurland, "Hamlet and the Scottish Succession" Studies in English Literature 34 (1994): 279-300). Dartmouth Library Catalog
Hamlet argues that his grief for his father is genuine, not just conventional (76-86). Claudius tries to argue that his mourning is perverse, unmanly, irreligious, impatient, stupid, unnatural, and irrational (92-106). Doesn't Claudius overdo this just a bit? And if he thinks so ill of Hamlet's behavior, why does he take this opportunity to designate Hamlet as heir apparent to the throne (108-109)? Is this an impolitic king or what? He'd have done far better to send Laertes out to waylay Fortinbras and sent Hamlet back to school in Wittenberg, no?
Hamlet's first soliloquy (129-59). Hamlet is suicidal with grief, a grief that makes everything seem pointless, "stale, flat, and unprofitable." Even his sense of time is distracted. How long ago did his father die? Two months (138), "A little month" (147), "within a month" (153)? And his grief has been denied expression.
When Hamlet is first told about the ghost, what is his response, belief, disbelief? Skepticism, wonder?
1.3. In this scene, Laertes gives parting advice to his sister, Ophelia, and Polonius offers advice about conduct to Laertes. Then Polonius reenforces Laertes's advice to Ophelia. What mattters of conduct are a chief concern for young women? What for young men? What threats do young women face? What threats do young men face? Why does Laertes get no advice about sexual behavior and that seems to be all that Ophelia gets? Laertes and Polonius seem to know an awful lot about young men's less than straightforward practices. Perhaps the example of the king himself looms large in their fears?
By the end of three scenes, then Hamlet has been ordered to stop expressing his grief, and Ophelia has been ordered to stop seeing Hamlet or expressing any affection for him. Denmark seems a kind of emotional prison.
1.4. Again, what is everyone's general estimation of the ghost? That it is the ghost of Hamlet's father or a devil?
1.5. The twin themes of men's uncontrollable lust and women's frailty in the face of their lust grow stronger with each scene. The King's brother, says the ghost, has killed the King chiefly in order to get his wife. Brother murder recalls the first murder of Abel by Cain. What motivated that first fratricide? What motivates this fratricide?
St Patrick was considered by English Catholics (before and after the Reformation) to be the patron saint of Purgatory. See Greenblatt's Hamlet in Purgatory, 233-34. Greenblatt also points out that Hamlet's hic et ubique ("here and everywhere") might well allude to a popular English Catholic prayer for the dead, intended for recitation whenever one passed through a churchyard (see Greenblatt, 235).
The Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England (1563) explicitly reject the Catholic doctrine of Purgatory as superstition: see the Thirty Nine Articles and Find "XXII".
Why does Hamlet suggest that he will put on an "antic disposition" in the future (173)? Will he do this deliberately? Or will this happen as a kind of pathology resulting from repressed grief and now keeping the secret of his father's murder? And what if the ghost is really a devil, not an "honest ghost"?
2.1. Why does Polonius send someone to spy on his son? Is everything in Denmark, even mundane family matters, a matter of secrecy, spying, catching the "carp" of truth with the "bait of falsehood"? Is there nothing direct and plain? Make a list. Is Claudius king or regicide, father or uncle? Is the ghost a devil or a spirit? Is Horatio a philosopher or a blowhard? Is Hamlet a catholic (believes in purgatory) or a protestant (does not believe in purgatory)? Is Hamlet going crazy or planning to pretend going crazy? Does Hamlet love Ophelia or just lusting after her "chaste treasure"? Is Polonius clever or a fool? Is Laertes a strict moralist or a false preacher? Is Gertrude a pawn in Claudius's game of lust and politics or a whore? Did King hamlet die two months ago or last week?
2.2. Now Claudius sets friends to spy on Hamlet. Do Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (R&G) agree to the King's "entreaty" or obey their "command" (29-32). Are they entreated or commanded? Is it possible to tell the difference? Can friends agree to such a task and still be friends?
Read Valtemand's reply from Norway very carefully. You don't need a degree in political science to smell a rat here. Old Norway has given Fortinbras money and soldiers and asked for "quiet pass" through Denmark. Can't Claudius see what any fool can see? And what about Polonius? Does his brain hunt "the trail of policy so sure/ As it hath used to" (46-47)? Is everybody so caught up in second guessing each other's motives that they cannot see the plain threat posed by Fortinbras and old Norway? Fortinbras, it seems, will go about the business of revenging his father's losses quite directly, with only the thinnest and most inept veil--"against the Polack"--and no one notices. What's hamlet's plan for revenging his father's murder?
Here (86-109) Polonius shows just how brilliant he is a court policy. Quite the psychologist he! He's as good at this as he is at state policy! At line 157-159, Polonius virtually signs his death warrant when he thinks he's boasting of his skill in ferreting out the truth (see also 167-68). Why doesn't anyone think to simply ask Hamlet straight out, what's bothering him? Because, I suppose, they all feel so guilty, they wouldn't expect a straight answer. Gertrude thinks it's her "o'erhasty marriage"; Polonius thinks it's his strictures on his daughter; and Claudius has the most to fear.
There's more "method" in Hamlet's madness here than Polonius can figure out. He's managed to suggest he knows Polonius is dishonest, that he has figured out his strategies regarding Ophelia, and that he knows Polonius is a fool like many old men. But since Hamlet thinks it is bad manners ("not honesty") to say all these things directly, he has said them indirectly. Polonius appears to undertand none of this, although Hamlet is being only modestly indirect.
Hamlet explains his distemper quite openly to R&G (285-300), though he offers no reason or motivation for it. If everyone really thought Hamlet was diseased in his mind, why would they seek to find a reason for it? All having guilty consciences, they try to discover his motivations, his reasons for losing his reason.
Why does Hamlet liken the people's lousy taste in theatre to the people's dishonest flattery of Claudius (347-52)? Hamlet appears to be quite clear bout the distinction between shows of welcome (the "appurtenance of welcome") and sincere welcome (353-59), and he manages to insinuate the insincerity of everyone else.
Why does Hamlet ask for this particular speech of Aeneas to Dido (432-498)? What does he see in Pyrrhus? in Priam? in Hecuba? in Aeneas's indictment of and railing at Fortune?
Again, Polonius plays the ass, flattering Hamlet (446) and missing all the pathos of the speech (478), and finally mistaking an actor's tears for genuine (499-500).
526-582: Hamlet's second soliloquy. Is Hamlet now falling victim to the general preference for indirection? Is he now going to go about testing the king, testing the ghost, testing his own sense of resolution? Why is "the play" the thing? Why not simply do it?
3.1. Again Claudius's judgement falls into question. If he thinks Hamlet mad, why is he so pleased to see him "inclined" towards the players (25-28). Are plays good entertainment for sick wits? Or perhaps he thinks the players will distract hamlet from seeking out the truth of the situation, a truth only Claudius knows? Claudius agrees to all of Polonius's designs knowing full well what the real problem is (52-56).
58-92: Hamlet's third (and most famous) soliloquy. A very distracted speech. It begins with a very clearly formulated, very direct question--should I kill myself or keep on keeping on?--but soon takes a number of distracted byways--what is death? what are dreams? a list of life's oppressions. Why is death so fearful? Who would keep living such a miserable life if death were not so fearfully uncertain?
Did Hamlet love Ophelia or not? Are virtue (honesty) and beauty always at odds? Can there be any true love among sinners and is not everyone a sinner? Can love coexist with lust and still be honest? Is there anything clean, clear, plain and straightforward that passes through the heart of a mortal person, or does the taint of original sin, of insincerity and private secrets pollute everything? Does Hamlet exaggerate all this?
Claudius is finally willing to admit to himself that Hamlet is a danger to him. He sees that Hamlet broods on something that makes everything else look corrupt and foul. Of course everyone is "indifferent honest." There is no one whose motives are all pure. In the light of what Hamlet knows, and is secret from everyone else, these common vices look much larger and insupportable than they normally do.
3.2. Why is Hamlet so concerned that "The Murder of Gonzago" be played so perfectly? That speeches be natural, not over- or under-played? Why must the clowns keep to their lines and not interrupt the play with laughter and foolishness, even if people like it? Is Hamlet concerned here for art, or for his scheme? What would happen if the play were poorly performed? Alvin Kernan reminds us that King James and Queen Anne may well have watched this play performed at Hampton Court in January 1604 (Shakespeare, the King's Playwright: Theatre in the Stuart Court 1603-1613 [New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995] 32). Dartmouth Library Catalog
What does Hamlet say he admires most about Horatio? Why does Hamlet enlist him in this scheme? Does he mistrust his own judgement?
It seems to me that hamlet rather steals the show here. His comments to Claudius and Ophelia, pregnant with double-meanings, interrupt and quite overdo the play. It's as if he can't keep silent, and to any attentive ear and eye, he betrays almost all the causes of his distemper--his father's death and shortened mourning, the lust of his mother's marriage, his disappointment with Ophelia, and his impatience with everything including the play. The play shows more about Hamlet than about Claudius, but no one, not even Horatio, appears to notice. Claudius might well be upset by the play's representation of a king killed by his nephew, or so any bystander might well think.
What has Hamlet gained from this little scheme? Does Horation share his newfound conviction about the ghost (263-67)? Why does Hamlet now feel all doubt is gone (360)? Is the play really "the thing"?
3.3. Why do R&G so often appeal to these orthodox arguments about majesty to cover their betrayal of friendship?
Claudius's soliloquy (35-72). Here now we have proof positive of Claudius's gulit, even if no one else has. Can your paraphrase and summarize the arguments Claudius makes about penitence? As it turns out, this would have been a perfect time for Hamlet to kill Claudius and so acheive his revenge and perhaps the crown. Why doesn't he? He had a 50-50 chance to catch him in his sins.
3.4. Hamlet and Gertrude (and Polonius, for a few minutes, anyway). What does Gertrude think of Hamlet in this scene? Do his words really strike conviction in her heart (78-81), or is she just humoring a madman and a murderer (21, 96)? Try to look at Hamlet from her perspective, then from Hamlet's own view of himself (144-146, 157-159). Which one is the real Hamlet? Why does Hamlet change his advice to Gertrude from (148-154) to (165-180)? Is he being sarcastic or serious in the later lines?
4.3. Hamlet has sworn to kill Claudius to revenge his father, but so far all he does is mouth threatening riddles at him (20-25, 27-31, 33-36). Of course, in this scene he's under guard (14) and so cannot kill Claudius. Nevertheless, why such indirection even in threatening? Is Hamlet more concerned in these riddles to threaten Claudius or to meditate on the "pursy times." Is he too depressed with grief and thoughts of the world's flat staleness to do anything like revenge? Would revenge do any real good for the world as Hamlet imagines it?
4.4. Hamlet's fourth soliloquy (9.22-9.56). Hamlet seems in this soliloquy to determine himself to do the deed. But look at his interpretation of the "occasion" that "informs against" him, the example that spurs his resolve. Fortinbras, as he thinks, leads an army out to fight and die "Even for an eggshell." What is it "Rightly to be great"? Not to stir without great argument, or to quarrel over a "straw" if "honour's at the stake"? And what, pray tell is "honour"? A "fantasy and trick of fame"? In his habit of thinking too precisely on the event, a habit I for one admire, Hamlet can find no good reason for action, so shall he act then without reason at all?
4.5. Hamlet and Ophelia, the most innocent of the main characters in this play, both speak madly, with a kind of method in their madness. In a comedy like Twelfth Night they would make excellent fools, corrupting and exposing the corruption of words to their betters and to the audience. It would be funny and entertaining. In Hamlet we see the tragic side of this corruption of words, language, ideas, and orthodoxies. In a state of utter corruption, where friends mouth political theory to justify betrayal, where the King is a regicide and a fratricide, where the queen is an incestuous whore, where the king's chief counselor is a prating knave, where all the forms, qualities, and excellencies of the human mind and person are put to the most despicable or vacuous uses, Hamlet appears a mad suicide, and Ophelia his spiritual spouse. Perhaps the play asks, how can a person be a person at all in such a world? All the conventions and structures by which we form and recognize our own subjectivity, our being, are corrupt and misinform us, shape us to monstrosity.
Ophelia's madness is a good example of this. "Her speech is nothing" yet the hearers can make much of it "fit to their own thoughts." Ophelia's songs of maidens' betrayals, of the lust that drives men's lies offer examples of how people (in this case, young women) are transformed from one state of being to another by the most familiar and now customary forms of deceit. As Claudius notes, the entire state of Denmark is now "muddied" and unstable, all its forms and customs, degrees and conventions, even its language, twisted and corrupted by intemperate desire. Which desire is more strong in people, the desire for order or the desire to subvert it?
Laertes threatens rebellion, threatens, as the Messenger puts it, to wipe away all custom and antiquity and begin the world anew (99-104). But even Laertes is easily corrupted by his baser desires. His is a rebellion led for personal and private reasons, not reasons of public interest. He sends his followers away (112), and Claudius uses this as an excuse to pronounce the "divinity" that "doth hedge a king." It's no divinity; Claudius knows he can turn Laertes against Hamlet and so divert the rebellion.
4.7. If Hamlet is plagued by delay from "thinking to precisely upon the event," not so is Claudius: 93-95.10. Claudius believes in the imperative "Just Do It" before desire cools. So, apparently does Laertes (99, 111). Which attitude does the play endorse?
5.1. Aside from Hamlet's dark fooling, these are the only clowns in the play. Follow their word-plays closely. Are the rules and customs that define and constitute Christian death and burial as corrupt as everything else in Denmark? Is this foolery dark like Hamlet's, or some relief? The gravediggers are presented here (punningly) as a sort of Diggers, an early 17th-century sect that disbelieved in class divisionss, claiming that all men, since Adam, were of a single class--diggers.
When Hamlet appears on the scene, he almost seems to take the second clown's place, and is better at it. He meditates at length, in his dark humor, on the absolute vanity of all human endeavor, custom, privelege, and rank in the face of death.
Has Hamlet given up his habit of thinking too precisely upon the event (188-99)?
By strict interpretation of Church law, Ophelia should have received no ritual at all in her burial, yet the priest has made allowances for her because she was high-born. Yet he refuses a requiem. Considering the circumstances of her death, and Hamlet's late ruminations on death as a great leveller, what sense does all this make?
Hamlet and Laertes encounter their first struggle (251-252)--over the corpse of a madwoman, whose remains are destined to rot in a few years, perhaps be dug up by a sexton, perhaps stop up a bung-hole.
5.2. Once more, Hamlet tots up his reasons for revenge (64-71). And once more he allows himslef to be diverted by a "waterfly" proposing a fencing match, or is it a duel? Why? Is it because revenge is no more than "a trick of fame"? If taking a man's life is "no more than to say 'one,'" why bother at all. Isn't thinking about revenge, and meditating on life, death, and the vanity of it all far more interesting than doing anything? Perhaps line 157-61 most fully sum up Hamlet's attitude towards life and the part he plays in it.