The Plot Thickens

Hamlet, Act II: Scenes 1-2

  • Brevity is the soul of wit
  • What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!
  • The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king

It’s beginning to sound a lot like a mix tape of famous Shakespeare quotes. I feel great about finally having a grounding in their genesis and reason for being.

Though there are only two master scenes in this act, so much is going on here that it’s hard to keep up without referring to outside sources.

Act II begins with Polonius advising Reynaldo to slander Laertes (Polonius’ son) in Paris, but to do it discreetly. Why, I have no idea, though I trust it will have meaning ere the play is finished.

I’m bamboozled by Hamlet’s madness so-called, whether it be feigned or part of a larger scheme on his part. Polonius is convinced Hamlet has gone goo-goo over his daughter, Ophelia, and the restrictions the father has insisted the daughter take to keep the lusty suitor at bay.

Ophelia turns over far more evidence of Hamlet’s romantic overkill to her father than seems credible. I find myself believing that she and Hamlet have concocted this as part of a ruse for whatever revenge plot Hamlet has in mind.

A lot of the dialogue gets thick and thorny in these parts, especially when Hamlet “demonstrates” his lunacy in front of Polonius. The vernacular (and bawdy) back-and-forth between Hamlet and the traveling players who have come to town leaves me helpless without footnotes, though I refer to them only as a last resort. I’d rather re-read until I have the gist of what’s being said, even if that means missing a double entendre (or entire meaning) or two. Here is where No Fear Shakespeare can be useful, providing a modern translation that adds meaning but subtracts the lush joy of Shakespeare’s wordplay.

I remembered Priam and Pyrrhus from readings at St. John’s, but found myself wanting a more detailed explanation for the play-within-the-play that will be so crucial to the plot of Hamlet. I urge you to visit a site I found while googling for a great explanation:

Shakespeare seems obsessed by doubling/trebbling/mirroring both here and throughout his works. I need to find out more about this, and will revisit it when we come to A Comedy of Errors and others.

Polonius says to Reynaldo a line that applies equally to Hamlet:

POLONIUS: Your bait of falsehood takes this carp of truth,

And thus do we of wisdom and of reach,

With windlasses and with assays of bias,

By indirections find directions out.

For Hamlet, the play’s the thing by which he means to call his uncle out. For those who wish to start up a conversation about “meta-truth,” it begets a bloodletting on the notion of fiction and its connection to reality — and morality.

This weekend, coming home from a New Year’s spent roaming the wild surf in Ventura, CA, I stumbled upon John Gardner’s marvelous book “On Moral Fiction” in Barnes & Noble. While pouring through it in the coffee shop, I was reminded of Ayn Rand’s thoughts on the Sense of Life and purpose of art. I realize I’m being obtuse, but the point here is that what Gardner, Rand and Shakespeare (I should say Hamlet) share is a belief that the contents of fiction cannot be easily dismissed as “just a book/play/movie/story” as many so-called realists would like us to accept.

Hamlet has hatched a devious scheme in which he will insert new lines into the intended performance by the players. The play within the play already echoes Hamlet, which has now become the reality within the play that we are reading here and now. But by Hamlet’s design:

HAMLET: I have heard that guilty creatures sitting at a play,

Have by the very cunning of the scene

Been struck so to the soul that presently

They have proclaimed their malefactions… I’ll have these players

Play something like the murder of my father

Before mine uncle.

Shrewd! It would seem then that Hamlet’s madness is entirely contrived and part of his scheme, though how this plays into it I have no idea.

HAMLET: I am but mad north-northwest. When the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw.

He tells this in confidence to Rosencrantz and Gildenstern, two childhood friends who decidedly aren’t dead. They have been recruited by the king and queen to restore normalcy to the brooding (and now pining) Hamlet. But he quickly sees through their ordered presence and outs the lie by which they have appeared to greet him.

Lies, lies, lies. Everywhere lies!

Are relations among men mere advantages to be manipulated for personal gain? Has all of Denmark adopted Machiavellian principles? Will the new king and his queen get away with their crime(s)?

Where will all the duplicity lead?


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