Re-reading Shakespeare: Hamlet

(1) In his book On Shakespeare Northrop Frye talks a bit about problems and pseudo-problems in Hamlet. By pseudo-problems he basically means the kinds of thing that are open for debate but that you shouldn’t be worrying yourself about. However, he then goes on to say that “there’s no boundary in the play between the actual and the pseudo-problems” and that “there’s no other play in Shakespeare, which probably means no other play in the world, that raises so many questions of the ‘problem’ type.”

I’ve always had this warning running in the back of my head when thinking of problems I’ve had with Hamlet over the years. Am I only imagining pseudo-problems, or are they real?

Well, I think they’re real, if only because they’ve never gone away. Here are some examples:

First: why, in the opening scene, does Marcellus have to explain to Barnardo why he has brought Horatio along with him to see the Ghost? We’ve already been told that Barnardo was expecting Horatio and had already discussed the matter of the Ghost with him. So why does he need to be filled in again now? Of course, the short answer is that it’s a way of informing the audience about what’s going on, but this seems a really awkward way of doing it and Shakespeare usually isn’t awkward in his handling of such things.

Second: Before he takes his leave, Laertes makes a long speech to Ophelia warning her about Hamlet’s intentions and the gap in their respective stations. Then, right after he leaves, Polonius keeps after her on the same point. Why the repetition, especially when what’s being said doesn’t seem that well-grounded in the first place? Gertrude later says that she expected Hamlet to marry Ophelia, and apparently she was fine with that.

Third: why does Claudius get so upset at the action of the play-within-a-play when he’s just seen the dumbshow? He already knows what’s going to happen and how closely it mirrors his murder of Hamlet Senior. I’ve seen various explanations for his delayed reaction – that, for example, he tries to play it cool during the dumbshow, knowing what Hamlet is up to, but loses it as the story is fleshed out on stage – but I find such explanations unconvincing. The dumbshow serves no good purpose I can see, and only makes Claudius’s later guilt-ridden meltdown more confusing.

(2) Hamlet is a play that’s full of lines so well known that reading it seems like skimming through an anthology of famous quotations. But am I the only one who finds the whole “To be or not to be” speech flabby? Meanwhile, my favourite line in the play, for its sheer quotability, is one I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say outside of a theatre. It comes when Horatio sadly reflects on the fate of the court ass-kissers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. They “go to’t” (meaning go to their deaths). Hamlet responds “Why, man, they did make love to this employment.” In other words, they were asking for it by taking on the job in the first place. I find I use this line a lot, as it has many everyday applications.

It’s weird how some lines become adopted into the cultural consciousness while others don’t. I mean, how many people really think about suicide the way Hamlet does? And yet “to be or not to be” lives on.

(3) Every time I read Hamlet I find myself struck by something new. In this latest re-reading here’s something that I smiled at. It comes when Polonius is warning Ophelia about Hamlet’s lovemaking:

The canker galls the infants of the spring
Too oft before their buttons be disclosed,
And in the morn and liquid dew of youth
Contagious blastments are most imminent.

The conceit being worked here is that Ophelia’s virginity is like a bud in the spring that a blight may kill. But those “contagious blastments” . . . I mean, given that the whole tenor of the passage is sexual I don’t think there’s any way he couldn’t have meant what in our day goes by a legion of pornographic euphemisms. It’s the money shot!

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