The unpunctuated text for this week proved a little trickier than usual; partly due to its relative unfamiliarity, and partly to its unusual syntax. It was drawn from Hamlet’s flattering words to Horatio: “Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice…”
The first scene up was between Hamlet and Ophelia. A couple of thoughts here: we played with the idea that Hamlet was “reading” Ophelia, in the same way a magician can seem to reach into a subject’s mind (e.g. Darren Brown). This gives him insight into the presence of Polonius and Claudius, who are listening in on their conversation. We also found it interesting that Ophelia returned gifts to Hamlet, claiming that it was he who had proved “unkind”; and considered that she may be using the fact she has to return gifts as a way of reaching out to him – that she wants to make contact. This mixed message from Ophelia explains Hamlet’s own ambiguity; and his “I loved you, I loved you not” comes directly out of his conflicted feelings for her, as he responds to her. Also of note to me was how vulnerable Ophelia is in this scene – forced to be less than honest with Hamlet, and also talked at by him both confusingly and unkindly.
Next we tackled a piece of the play scene, finishing with the moment Claudius rises and leaves the performance. The focus was on Hamlet’s control of the situation; he was the only one moving on (our) stage – and behaves with an underlying mania and tension as he awaits Claudius’ reaction. He throws barbed remarks at both Gertrude and Claudius, couched in an acid tone (perhaps) – meanwhile making crude jokes at Ophelia’s expense. This is a young man in some distress. He even seems to take control of the players – he has supplied their lines, possibly directed their actions, and we had Hamlet freely moving to centre stage to act as chorus and prompt Player Lucianus to continue. Again, the notion of “reading” came up – as this is the point where Hamlet so keenly observes his uncle’s response.
The third scene selection was a pair of monologues: Claudius’ “O, my offence is rank…” and Hamlet’s “Now might I do it pat…” as he watches his uncle at prayer. There were two things that struck me as being at the heart of Claudius’ speech: his paralysis over wanting to repent, but being incapable; and his love of Gertrude. The fact that he has a conscience to be caught, that he thinks of repentance at all, to me points to his humanity and makes him far more sympathetic than Iago or even Macbeth. And then the three things that he doesn’t want to give up through repentance end with “and my queen” – at the end of the line – signaling the paramount importance he places in Gertrude. For Hamlet’s speech, we found it funny that we start with him ready to jump into action, only to stop himself with “that would be scanned”, as if to say, “now let me just think about this for a minute” – playing with the audience’s expectation that he really will finally do the deed. We also worked on breaking the speech into the separate beats of: my father was killed full of guilt; killing Claudius while he’s praying wouldn’t even be revenge; I’ll wait until it really hurts him (eternally). Of course, Hamlet exits and we learn that Claudius couldn’t pray anyway. Lost opportunity, Hamlet – you could have done it pat after all!
The final scene was Hamlet’s confrontation of his mother. Hamlet has a lot to say, and the challenge is to bring clarity to this voluminous outpouring. Of course, this is true of much of Shakespeare, where characters speak in florid blank verse – but, as has been noted by many before me, this is particularly true in Hamlet the play, and no more so than in Hamlet the character. Especially challenging to communicate are images – and here there are many examples. One technique that seems helpful is to isolate and emphasize pairs of key words that balance once another. So for instance “takes off a rose…and leaves a blister”, “makes marriage vows…dicer’s oaths”; “sweet religion…rhapsody of words”. Another is to highlight sets of words that are part of pattern of images. In one speech in this section Hamlet invokes the pantheon of gods to describe his father: Jove, Mars and Mercury are all named – and lifting those words can help to make the image clearer to the listener.