Sunday, March 9, 2014

Winning Arguments

Much to my daughter’s chagrin, the other night over dinner my husband and I got into a little argument. The argument was about when, in Act III, scene 1 of Hamlet, does Hamlet realize that people are spying on him. If you look at the text, the playwright does not include a stage direction anywhere that says “Hamlet realizes Polonius and Claudius are hiding behind a curtain.” (In fact, Shakespeare’s plays are virtually devoid of stage directions.) But, conventionally, those directing the play accept that they must pinpoint a moment in that scene when Hamlet realizes that something is afoot—which in turn explains why he suddenly starts screaming at Ophelia to get herself to a nunnery.

My husband and I have different views about when this moment occurs. But because this is my blog, I get to convince you that I’m the one with the superior explanation. I can only hope to do so, however, if I act like a lawyer, always a winning strategy when it comes to arguments with a spouse, don’t you think? 

Seriously, lawyers are supposed to try to win arguments.  And they are supposed to endeavor to do so by marshaling sufficiently convincing evidence to support their position while also acknowledging and rebutting any reasonable counter evidence, which almost always exists.

So let me start by explaining the husband’s (aka Alex’s) hypothesis. Alex contends that Hamlet’s epiphany has already happened by the time he starts speaking in this particular scene. This is a pretty interesting proposition since what Hamlet has to say upon entering this scene is that most-famous “to be or not to be” soliloquy. For the Alex Hypothesis to fly, however, it would first need to explain why Hamlet was contemplating suicide in front of an audience. Alex’s explanation is that the soliloquy should be understood as a coded message to Claudius—the uncle whom Hamlet believes murdered his father and then married his mother so swiftly that “the funeral baked meats/Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” [I.2] In other words, according to Alex, the existential issue captured in the speech is not Hamlet’s own despair but a suggestion to Claudius that the way he can escape the guilty conscience that surely must be plaguing him and redeem his sorry excuse for a life is for him “to take arms against a sea of troubles,/ And by opposing end them.” In other words, Alex suggests that what Hamlet is doing with this speech is a version of what Curly tries in Oklahoma! when he goes into the old smokehouse where the grimy hired-hand Jud Fry lives on Aunt Eller’s farm and seeks to convince him that the best way to take charge of his unsatisfying existence is to hang himself.  SeePore Jud Is Daid” by Rogers & Hammerstein. Curly’s point is that, in death at least, Jud will finally get himself cleaned up and then get some attention as “friends’ll weep and wail for miles around.” 

What evidence does Alex have to support the contention that Hamlet:Claudius::Curly:Jud? 

Alex says “Hamlet doesn’t use the first-person singular in the entire speech.”

Okay. Certainly another interesting observation. For this fact does distinguish this soliloquy from, say, the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” soliloquy, in which Hamlet compares himself (unfavorably) to an actor delivering “Aeneas’ tale to Dido.” That soliloquy is replete with the word “I,” e.g.:

  • What would he do,/ Had he the motive and the cue for passion/ That I have?
  • Yet I,/ A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,/ Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,/ And can say nothing;
  • Am I a coward?
  • 'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be/ But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall/ To make oppression bitter, or ere this/ I should have fatted all the region kites/ With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
  • 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,/ A scullion!
And so forth.

What’s wrong with the Alex Hypothesis?

Let me count the ways!

Principally, there’s the problem with the basic theme of the “to be or not to be” soliloquy. After rattling off all the good reasons a person might have for wanting to end it all—“the whips and scorns of time,/ The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely,” etc., etc.—most of the speech is about the ambivalence that thoughts of suicide engender. Why? Because, according to Hamlet, a person cannot quite be sure about what comes after death, “the undiscovered country.” If Hamlet were giving this speech to try to convince Claudius to kill himself, why would Hamlet devote much of the speech to acknowledging how the will to live has a way of trumping the impulse to end it all even when life really, really sucks? Why would Hamlet end the speech bemoaning that thinking hard about how little we know about death causes us to lose our resolve—“the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought”? Why would he admit that thinking this way causes a person to “lose the name of action” if what Hamlet wants is to induce Claudius to take a specific (suicidal) action?

In short, I do not feel that my husband’s creative suggestion accounts for the textual evidence very well.

Of course, there is some evidence to support the otherwise unconvincing Alex Hypothesis (aside from that no-I contention, which only gets a person so far). By this point in the play, we know that Claudius is preoccupied with Hamlet’s every move. For instance, the scene in question begins with Claudius interrogating Hamlet’s old school chums, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, whom Claudius commissioned earlier in the play to “get from [Hamlet] why he puts on this confusion,/ Grating so harshly all his days of quiet/ With turbulent and dangerous lunacy[.]” In other words, Claudius has already enlisted people to spy on Hamlet, and a previous scene with R & G suggests that Hamlet sniffed out that plan pretty easily—which is why he keeps ducking these gents whom he initially greeted as “my excellent good friends!” Therefore, one could speculate that Hamlet, smart guy that he is, understands by Act III, scene 1 that spies lurk everywhere. Also, in this scene, right after Rosencrantz and Guildenstern admit they haven’t yet been able to get much of anything out of Hamlet, Claudius sends them off and then asks his “Sweet Gertrude” to “leave us too” because he and Polonius plan to do some spying of their own, using Ophelia as a prop. Claudius admits that they “have closely sent for Hamlet hither,/ That he, as 'twere by accident, may here/ Affront Ophelia. . .”—all so Claudius and Polonius can see if Hamlet is suffering “the affliction” of unrequited love, as Polonius believes, or something else entirely. In short, everyone in the Danish court seems to be in on the plot to spy on poor Hamlet; so Hamlet has every reason to suspect that whenever he roams freely about the castle, there are spies in his midst.

But if one believes that Hamlet suspects he is being spied upon as he delivers the “to be or not to be” speech, the Alex Hypothesis has another problem in addition to failing to account for the speech’s theme. The problem is that it also doesn’t account for another development slightly later in the scene. And this is where it is my turn to marshal evidence to support my own argument.

In my view, Hamlet realizes that he is being set up and likely spied upon a few lines into his exchange with Ophelia a few moments after his private “to be or not to be” moment. After a perfunctory greeting, Ophelia does as her father has instructed her and says: “My lord, I have remembrances of yours,/ That I have longed long to re-deliver;/ I pray you, now receive them.” My hypothesis is that Hamlet recognizes that she is lying as she makes this assertion. He knows that she hasn’t “longed long” to give him back all of his love letters and such. He knows that she continues to pine for him like the lovesick teen that she is. He also knows that she is usually more articulate than this statement suggests. If she were speaking from the heart, she would never say something as awkward as “I have longed long to re-deliver” this stuff. As she trips over that “longed long to” formulation, Hamlet realizes what is going on. And with a quick glance around, he intuits that her intermeddling, blowhard father is probably lurking nearby—if not Claudius too.

Do I have any more proof than this “longed long to” bit?

But of course!

After the highly rational, completely coherent “to be or not to be” speech, and then right after a polite, if stiff, exchange of pleasantries with Ophelia, Hamlet starts assaulting her with a series of highly sexual and degrading comments. After she presses him to take back the tokens of his love, he first responds “I never gave you aught.” Clearly, he is not being literal. He is saying “I never gave you jack shit. That stuff is worthless”—which is like saying “It was all a charade. You are not who I thought you were so what I thought I loved does not exist.” Ophelia has no trouble understanding the hostility of his message, even if she does not understand why he has turned on her this way. So she responds form the heart, making it clear that what he calls “aught” she valued as “rich gifts” until, suddenly, he proved to be “unkind” to her:

     My honour'd lord, you know right well you did;
     And, with them, words of so sweet breath composed
     As made the things more rich: their perfume lost,
    Take these again; for to the noble mind
     Rich gifts wax poor when givers prove unkind.
     There, my lord.

 But that is more than enough for Hamlet. With this pretty speech she essentially confirms that she is not acting naturally; she is someone else’s pawn. Instead of feeling sorry for her, he goes for the jugular. He attacks her “honesty”—in a single word challenging both her truthfulness and her chastity, knowing full well that he is hitting below the belt, so to speak:

That if you be honest and fair, your honesty should
admit no discourse to your beauty.

Could beauty, my lord, have better commerce than
with honesty?

Ay, truly; for the power of beauty will sooner
transform honesty from what it is to a bawd than the
force of honesty can translate beauty into his
likeness: this was sometime a paradox, but now the
time gives it proof.

After this insulting exchange, Hamlet ups the intensity still further—admitting one moment that he did love her once and then immediately thereafter contradicting himself:

. . . . I did love you once.

Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so.

You should not have believed me; for virtue cannot
so inoculate our old stock but we shall relish of
it: I loved you not.

I was the more deceived.

Right after that, Hamlet starts urging Ophelia to get herself to a nunnery. His rant against marriage and procreation is so over the top that she is forced to conclude “O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!” 

The raving-lunatic bit is, in part, a performance for Ophelia and any other spies that might be at hand. But Hamlet gets so absorbed in his ravings—venting real emotions in his effort to portray himself as unhinged—that he ultimately exposes his true feelings.  In particular, Hamlet telegraphs exactly what he thinks about the marriage between his Uncle Claudius and his Mother Gertrude: “we will have no more marriages:/ those that are married already, all but one, shall/ live the rest shall keep as they are.” That is why, after Hamlet storms off and Claudius and Polonius emerge from their hiding place, Claudius recognizes uneasily “what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,/ Was not like madness.”

In short, it is true that, during Act III, scene 1, Hamlet sends a message to Claudius, as Mr. Alex believes. But the textual evidence does not quite support the Alex Hypothesis regarding what that message is and when it was sent. I believe the evidence instead shows that Hamlet ends up sending a message to Claudius that is not quite what he intended; and he does so only after he obtains evidence that Ophelia is part of the wide-ranging scheme to manipulate him. Because the line between performed madness and real outrage becomes blurred, Hamlet lets slip exactly what he thinks of Claudius and his marriage to Hamlet’s mother—that it is so offensive that they are the one married couple in all the world who should not be permitted to live. In this moment, Hamlet reveals to Claudius that Hamlet’s opinion of his uncle is far worse than can be explained by Gertrude’s hypothesis: that it is just a product of “[h]is father's death, and our o'erhasty marriage.” As a result, Claudius ends up with evidence that Hamlet suspects that Claudius is a murderer, not just an adulterer.  Claudius will get further evidence confirming just how much Hamlet knows in the very next scene, in the very moment when Hamlet gets evidence that Claudius really did murder Hamlet Sr. in the manner described by the Ghost back in Act I. Once the two men are armed with this evidence, they can then make a reasoned choice among the competing hypotheses swirling about in their heads. But, too bad for them, having evidence that they are indeed right doesn’t prove to be good for their longevity. . . .

P.S. Special thanks to Husband Alex for being such a good sport about things generally.

1 comment:

  1. Acting like a lawyer is indeed the best way to unravel this knot, but perhaps we have the wrong lawyer in mind. Hamlet is a bit of a lawyer himself, versed as he is in the many hues of words and argument.

    Specifically, in his "to be or not to be" speech, he does engage in a bit of pleading when he says, "For who would bear the whips and scorns of time . . . when he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin." Before "quietus" came to mean "death," it was a legal term, meaning a final settlement of a debt. It comes from Middle English "quietus est," which is itself from Middle Latin, signifying that one is quit, as in discharged, from an obligation.

    Now, Hamlet does have a major obligation to his father; besides owing King Hamlet his very life, he also owes him revenge. But, committing suicide would hardly be adequate payment to his father, since, by doing so, he would have failed to fulfill his debt.

    Claudius, however, in the logic of an eye for an eye, owes Old Hamlet his life. And taking a bodkin to his chest would certainly pay off that debt.

    Besides, the play within the play that will soon follow is surely on Hamlet's mind. So, when he says that "conscience does make cowards of us all," then perhaps he's engaging in a little prologue intended to "catch the conscience of the King." What good lawyer wouldn't want his adversary going to trail a little shaken?