The Time Is Out of Joint

Hamlet

Act 1: Scenes 1-5

  • Frailty, thy name is woman
  • This above all, to thine own self be true
  • Something is rotten in the state of Denmark
  • O Hamlet, what a falling off was there
  • There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy
  • The time is out of joint

And we’re barely out the door. Haven’t even left the yard. And yet… and yet!

I tried to read scenes 1-5 with utter objectivity, as if I’d never heard of this Shakespeare fellow from Stratford who had submitted some anonymous play for consideration.

It’s so universally taken for granted that the Bard is some “super genius” that we often tend to approach him like a stalk of broccoli at dinner time. While many folks love their green vegetables and just about everyone knows they’re good for you, we pretty much assume that what we’d all rather be doing is serving up a slice of pizza instead.

And then there’s Hamlet.

To be honest, the speech that completely floored me was not one of the famous ones mentioned above, which materialized like celebrities at a familiar neighborhood eatery. No, the one that totally clobbered me hit like a roundhouse right I had not expected, and convinced me without further proof required that I had entered the realm of mindblowing wordcraft.

It comes from Horatio, and it comes early:

Horatio:

A mote it is to trouble the mind’s eye.

In the most high and palmy state of Rome,

A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,

The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead

Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets;

As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,

Disasters in the sun; and the moist star

Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands

Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse…

It’s the line that reads: “The graves stood tenantless and the sheeted dead” which ran over my brain like a mack truck. I kept reading it over and over, savoring the imagery, the poetry, the allusion as Horatio sees a harbinger of doom in the appearance of the ghost of Hamlet’s unjustly slain father. I found myself asking, who is this Horatio and how does he speak so well?

And that, of course, is one of the ways you know you’re in the hands of Shakespeare. Each character has his or her own manner of speaking, a reflection of a fully developed person with a manner, bearing and philosophy unique unto themselves.

In fact, on the first page alone, barely six lines into the play, Shakespeare had me at hello when Francisco, one of the guards standing sentry who might in other hands have been just another generic GUARD #2, says this to Barnardo, his fellow sentry come to relieve him of his post:

FRANCISCO: For this relief much thanks. ‘Tis bitter cold,

And I am sick of heart.


Why is he sick of heart? What happened? What’s going on?

Shakespeare may be singled out for so many different aspects of his brilliance, but on a technical level his craftsmanship is masterly. He hooks you with mini-questions within the larger scope of the story, causing the playgoer or reader (whom he didn’t anticipate) to wonder aloud those words which sound best to any aspiring stage or screenwriter’s ears: and then what happened?

Shakespeare, if nothing else, is a very, very good tease.

Horatio, it turns out, is a friend of Hamlet and fellow student in Wittemberg. In my ignorance, I have yet to see it mentioned that Wittemberg is the town made famous by Martin Luther and the posting of the 95 Theses he wrote in protest of abuses in the Catholic church, an act of defiance which led to the Reformation.

Can that possibly be a coincidence?

I have no idea. But if you scroll down in this blog, you’ll see a post which points to new revelations that Shakespeare may have been a secret Catholic. Secret, because England in Shakespeare’s day was virulently Anglican and it could be dangerous indeed to openly profess allegiance to the Pope.

I am not taking sides, mind. I’m simply reading with this notion at play in the background. My senses are alerted to subtle indicators in the text should they appear. Thus, I ask again, Wittemberg? They could be studying anywhere, these two lads. Why in the seat of Luther for crying out loud?

On two occasions in the first five scenes, “marry” is used in an odd way that we do not employ today. Polonius says it when he is speaking to his daughter, Ophelia, cautioning her on the worldy ways of men:

POLONIUS: Marry, well bethought.

And again:

PLONIUS: Marry, I will teach you.

A footnote in my text tells me: “Marry by (the Virgin) Mary (a weak oath).”

Well, okay, fine. What do I know of the practices of Elizabethean England? Besides, Polonius is concerned with his daughter’s chastity and reputation, since she’s been seen setting aside private time with young Hamlet. There is an apt metaphor here that Polonius is playing on.

But then, not one page later, in answer to a question by Horatio, Hamlet says:

HAMLET: Ay, marry, is’t.

And later:

HAMLET: Yes, by Saint Patrick, but there is, Horatio…

Now, I’m not a complete idiot. I recognize that just because a few characters toss a couple odd Catholic references around in speech that may have been perfectly normal 500 years ago, it tells nothing of what religion Shakespeare himself may have been.

I simply throw it out there into the wind, an ah and an oh, for consideration. It seems odd. It may mean nothing. I’m curious how these little moments may or may not accumulate.

I could write a book on the first five scenes alone, they are so profound and inspiring. I have only mentioned the ghost of Hamlet’s father — the elder Hamlet as it were — and a doubling of the younger if in no more than coincidence (which I doubt). For Fortinbras, the Norwegian king whom Hamlet (the younger) slew, was succedded by a younger Fortinbras, who now raises trouble seeking to regain the territory siezed by the Danes.

So the initial watch upon which we met Francisco and Barnardo turns out to be the Danish response to the iminent threat of the Norwegians. But it is at this watch that the ghost of Hamlet’s father appears again for what is the third time.

Shakespare teases us here too because Horatio, good scholar that he is, doubts Francisco and Barnardo’s report until he sees the apparition for himself. Shakespeare hooks us with another of those mini questions: how will Horatio react when he sees the ghost? Will he remain skeptical?

The ghost indeed appears, and Horatio at once accepts it as real. But the ghost teases him as well as us by refusing to speak. He shows up, scares the crap out of everyone, then walks off as the rooster crows the start of the new day.

Another Biblical reference.

Peter denied Jesus three times. I’m sure it means nothing…

I’m rambling, I know. And raving. It’s maddening, just how wondrous this opening to Hamlet is.

I promise to be more structured and organized in the future. But before I go for now and leave you with your next assignment: Act Two due before Tuesday, I can’t leave without waxing on two scintillating dialogues that make me giddy with joy.

Dialogue #1

Between Hamlet and Horatio after Hamlet suffers his mother and uncle’s platitudes in reference to Hamlet’s lingering grief over the death of his father. After appearing docile and obedient, he then lashes out in malevolent glee with Horatio — digs flying left and right like hurled daggers:

HORATIO: I came to see your father’s funeral.

HAMLET: I prithee do not mock me fellow student.
I think it was to see my mother’s wedding.

HORATIO: Indeed, my lord, it followed hard upon.

HAMLET: Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats

Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.

Would I had met my dearest foe in heaven

Or ever I had seen that day, Horatio!

The wit and spirit of their friendship bubbles forth. But for those who love language and subtext, it’s hard to beat the sexual innuendo in the speech Laertes gives to his sister Ophelia and her tart response (an excerpt):

LAERTES: Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain

If with too credent ear you list his songs,

Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open

To his unmastered importunity….

To which she replies:

OPHELIA: Do not as some ungracious pastors do,

Show me the steep and thorny way to heaven,

Whiles like a puffed and reckless libertine

Himself the primrose path of dalliance treads

And recks not his own rede.

I like this girl. Man, this is gonna be good!

I haven’t even begun to disect the play’s central question: will Hamlet follow through with his father’s request to avenge his unjust death, even if it means killing his uncle and possibly his mother — whom the ghost bids him to spare?

All this, and more… and we’ve barely gone out the door.

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