Had another quick rehearsal with WJC two days ago. We looked briefly at the scansion for Hamlet’s second, oft-overlooked soliloquy, “O, all you host of heaven,” which occurs in 1.5 immediately after the Ghost’s exit, but before Horatio and Marcellus find the Prince. It’s a nice moment to demonstrate the “relief” that WJC believes exemplifies Hamlet’s state, at this point in the play: not only is he relieved that the Ghost has clarified the source of Hamlet’s prescient dismay, but he is also relieved that the Ghost is gone. Hamlet may have loved his father, but that doesn’t mean he loves spending time with his father’s spirit; and, in any case, we often get the impression from him that Hamlet prefers to be alone with his thoughts.
The monologue is composed of surprisingly smooth verse — that is, mostly regular lines of iambic pentameter — although it has one or two surprising outliers, like the second line, “And shall I couple hell? O fie! Hold, hold, my heart,” which has twelve syllables, a real rarity in Shakespeare. I’ll consider the implications of this Alexandrine line in ten years or so, when I get around to it in my line-by-line analysis. About the speech overall, I’ll just say that the smooth verse doesn’t indicate calmness, in this case, but it does suggest a clarity of purpose that cannot be found in either “Too too sullied flesh” or “To be or not to be.” This speech is not about deciding which ride to take; it’s about the wild, vertiginous feeling that comes from knowing you’re already strapped in.
After talking about this scene and soliloquy for a while, WJC and I had some time to step back and discuss the H2016 draft of Hamlet in general (he’d had my draft in his possession since early June, but had been too busy to read through it). He had a lot of valuable observations, one of which, I think, reveals a lot about our assumptions and expectations surrounding the Dane. I hope I don’t misquote or miscontextualize him, here, but essentially my take-away from his comment was that in my draft, Hamlet doesn’t hesitate enough.
The implication is that Hamlet is (or ought to be) primarily a man of introspection, a creature of the mind, and his famous hesitations and doubts are opportunities for us to glimpse the inner workings of a fabulously complex brain hard at work. What I tried to do, in my draft, is translate those inner workings into visible, playable action — and even if the action is not directly pointed towards Claudius’s throat, it should still provide opportunities for Hamlet to be doing something with his dilemmas, rather than just talking about them.
Of course, in a later soliloquy (2.2) Hamlet famously chastizes himself for doing exactly that:
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
But there’s a funny thing about where these lines fall: they come shortly after Hamlet sets in motion his most active plot, the Mousetrap. It’s already in motion when he complains about being all talk and no action. In fact, as soon as he’s said these words, he changes tacks and lets the audience in on his plan. This is Shakespeare having his cake and eating it; he reveals a frantic-yet-paralyzed intellect AND he situates Hamlet in the midst of his own schemes and tactics.
I know I am a fool to mess with perfection, but it seemed to me that this delicate balance, offered momentarily at the end of 2.2, could be expanded to apply to other moments in the play. So, for example, “To be or not to be” — perhaps the ultimate ode to paralysis in all of literature — could easily be juxtaposed with action, were it to be moved to a different position in the plot. In 3.1, it comes very close on the heels of “the play’s the thing,” so our minds may still echo with the active implications of that line…but otherwise, it falls into a scene which does not seem to advance Hamlet’s cause — in fact, it concludes with a major point for Claudius, who seems to figure out that Hamlet’s madness is a ruse:
If, however, 3.1 were directed in a way that gave Hamlet more agency, then the juxtaposition between intellect and action could be made clearer. Alternatively, a director could move “To be or not to be” to a different scene entirely (as I intend to do). The goal is not to transform Hamlet into an action hero, but rather to ensure that his moments of indecision do not bring the play’s action to a halt.