Act IV made clear the fact that Hamlet, the play, isn’t a one-man show. Gertrude, Claudius, Ophelia and Laertes all have some terrific scenes in this act – with a range of emotions to play – and a complex set of relationships with our titular anti-hero.
The first scene we tackled was between Claudius and Gertrude, immediately following Hamlet’s scene with his mother. Some editions have Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern all entering the scene together, with Claudius’ opening lines all directed to Gertrude. However, we played with the idea that he is speaking to Hamlet’s friends when his wife comes in; and only “Where is your son?” is directed to Gertrude. This makes a lot of sense ofGertrude’s then dismissing the young men to have some time with her husband – and we see the transition from the public to the private face as she relaxes into her distress when the two are alone. We also played with Gertrude looking for close protection from Claudius, and that closeness challenged when Claudius seems concerned with himself (“It had been so with us had we been there”) and when Hamlet’s welfare is threatened (“Alas, how shall this bloody deed be answered?”). Gertrude is quite shaken by her encounter with Hamlet, and we closed this brief scene with Claudius collecting her with some care as they exit together “full of discord and dismay”.
Where is Polonius?
Next, Claudius, searching for Polonius’ corpse, confronts Hamlet. To show Hamlet’s careless distraction, we had him playing solitaire with cards on the floor. Seemingly engrossed in his game, Hamlet shows no concern for what he’s done (there is certainly no evidence of concern in his lines) and he throws barbed remarks at Claudius. There are some very dangerous undercurrents here, as both men want to kill each other and are discussing Hamlet’s murdered victim; Hamlet makes jokes! We wondered how anxious Claudius might be for his own safety; putting Hamlet on the floor disarmed him to some extent, and allows Claudius to appear relatively secure. Of course, his plan is to get Hamlet out of the kingdom – partly to secure Claudius’ own safety – the threat is real and clearly it is felt.
Finally we looked at Claudius plotting Hamlet’s death with Laertes; a scene that ends with Gertrude relaying Ophelia’s death. When Claudius baits Laertes with not being son enough to take action, the echo of Hamlet’s inaction can be heard – although I don’t know that this should inform the playing of it – except not to gloss over it, and instead let the audience take note. I do think there is something particularly violent and disturbing in Laertes’ declaration of wanting “To cut his throat i’ th’ church” – which might register as unsettling to Claudius, rather than having him react with relish. Again, it’s not that Claudius knew that he dodged a blade, but the audience should be able to hear the echo of the scene where Hamlet was more scrupulous about killing his uncle at prayer.