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|GR: My "overheard dialog" theory
Written by Laraine
(6/12/2003 9:38 p.m.)
As the third act opens, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are reporting that the arrival of the players has made Hamlet’s spirits rise (3.1.18-19). They leave with Claudius’ approval of their report, and next comes a too often overlooked line. Claudius tells Gertrude “we have closely sent for Hamlet hither” (29). Hamlet has repeatedly asked Rosencrantz and Guildenstern if they “were sent for.” Having been “sent for” himself, is Hamlet likely to believe that Claudius has anything other than spying on his mind? There is little critical doubt that Hamlet knows his encounter with Ophelia is staged. Critics seem overly willing to believe that Hamlet could not have discerned the truth about where Claudius and Polonius are when he enters the scene. And yet, as James E. Hirsch has noted, the Second Quarto (of 1604) actually has Hamlet’s entrance in this scene occur before Polonius says, “Withdraw, my lord” (3.1.54) and they exit, so that the two must be in Hamlet’s mind as he begins the soliloquy. And even placing his entrance after the line does not preclude Hamlet seeing them go or presuming that he is being watched throughout the scene. Ophelia does not have an exit in any case, and as long as one is not invented for her, the audience must wonder if Hamlet is both curious as to why she is there and realizes she is meant to play a part in his being spied upon.
Another pivotal fact in reading all the potential meanings of this scene is that Claudius confesses his crimes directly before this soliloquy:
Polonius: . . . We are oft to blame in this,––The confession represents a turn in the cat-and-mouse game that Hamlet and Claudius are playing. Until this point, Hamlet and the audience have been wondering about the veracity of the ghost. Hamlet has reasoned out and conveyed to the audience a means by which he can prove the truth. And before anything happens, Claudius admits his guilt, at least to the audience. He concedes that Hamlet has the upper hand because right is on his side. He does not absolutely admit that he poisoned his brother, but he admits that he is living a life based on an ugly set of lies. Thus, we are allowed in on secrets of the action, the tension isheightened, and the sense of dramatic irony is strengthened. The primary fact in the audience’s mind as the soliloquy begins is that Claudius is guilty, and his reactions when he re-enters the scene reinforce our feelings of his paranoia.
We must also look at the text of the soliloquy itself. In addition to the fact that Hamlet is not technically on the stage alone (Ophelia has not exited) and Claudius and Polonius may be visible behind the arras (depending on how the scene is staged), we must also see that stylistically it is very different from the other soliloquies. It is the only one of Hamlet’s soliloquies that does not use the pronoun “I”; it also has not a single exclamation. Lacking the passion of the soliloquies in which Hamlet tries to cope with his emotions, reason out his problems, and decide how to act, this text has instead the academic tone of an intellectual exercise. It puts forth its question and searches for a solution. It has the inner structure of a sustained argument that has been reasoned in advance. One possible explanation for this is that Hamlet has not long before this asked the player if he could learn “a speech of some dozen lines, or sixteen lines, which I would set down and insert” (2.2.541-2). Could not Hamlet have written out the “to be or not to be” lines at the same time, knowing full well that Claudius will overhear them?
If, in fact, Hamlet does mean these lines to be overheard, what is Claudius meant to learn from them? Is it simply that Hamlet is mad enough to be contemplating suicide, or is this speech more like the “what a piece of work is a man” speech, in that it has a dual purpose? Hirsch has argued that the dramatic action of the play clearly calls for Hamlet to be aware of his on-stage audience, but Hirsch maintains that the speech is a feigned soliloquy, that Hamlet is attempting to lull Claudius into a false sense of security. While Hirsch’s reasoning is thorough and sound regarding the necessity for the soliloquy to be overheard, his insistence that the point is to lull Claudius off his guard is problematic considering the preceding and ensuing action. For Hamlet’s “the play’s the thing” plot to work, Claudius is best left in a state of anxiety and concern about what Hamlet knows or does not know, about whether he might or might commit suicide.
It is possible to read the soliloquy as a contemplation of suicide, feigned or real, but it is also possible to read it as a veiled message directly to Claudius, letting him know, if he can puzzle it out, that Hamlet has definite designs on his life. For example, Claudius might hear Hamlet ask if Claudius is “to be or not to be.” Hamlet can question if it is nobler to suffer the pain his uncle is bringing down on him and on Denmark, or to fight him and the entire sea of troubles he has created. The list of life’s troubles that suicide might solve can also be a list of Hamlet’s problems with his uncle: the suppression of truth, the tolerance of Polonius’ snobbery, the ruined relationship with Ophelia, and the manipulation of rightful laws. The fears discussed in the last lines of the soliloquy could be fears of damnation resulting from vengeful murder rather than from suicide. The call to action of the final line might be a promise to Claudius that Hamlet intends to act.
This reading would be complicated to express to the audience, for essentially what I propose is that it could be read this way on a level that Claudius is meant to understand but that is even somewhat ambiguous to the audience.9 A hint of the potential threats is enough to make us suspect Hamlet’s motives in speaking these lines now. The soliloquy may be something of a metaphor of warning, perceptible as such only to the most careful listeners and observers. Certainly Polonius and Ophelia aren’t paranoiac enough to look beyond its more obvious meaning(s). But Claudius is. His reaction to this speech and Hamlet’s railing against Ophelia is the reaction of a man who has been threatened:
Love? his affections do not that way tend;
Claudius wants Hamlet out of Denmark “with speed.” Something has definitely frightened him. Reading the soliloquy as a potential threat to Claudius solves several of the problems mentioned earlier, particularly the way a meditation on suicide interrupts the flow of the dramatic action. But this reading also strengthens our image of Hamlet as a worthy and dangerous opponent to Claudius. He is firmly focused on his direction rather than pausing to contemplate life’s mysteries
The reading of the famous soliloquy scene as outlined also removes the problem of the violent shift in emotion that otherwise occurs in the subsequent dialogue with Ophelia. The text of the soliloquy blends into the dialogue with Ophelia without a line break or a stage direction separating them. And directors, critics, and actors quite often concede that this part of the scene contains references to the overheard nature of the dialogue. Hamlet here sends the direct threat to Claudius that he is dangerous, that he is focused on revenge, and even that he has his eye on the crown.
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