Ask Philippa: Hamlet

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Philippa giving a grove talk
Philippa Kelly giving a Grove Talk; photo courtesy of Kelly

Ask Philippa: Hamlet

On August 18— following two weeks of lectures on Julius Caesar—Cal Shakes’ Resident Dramaturg Philippa Kelly offered her first of two lectures on Hamlet as part of  Shakespeare In-Depth. Here are a few questions that came up during the  two sessions. Feel free to join the conversation by adding your own questions and comments below.  If you missed the class but would still like to be part of Shakespeare In-Depth, there is still time to register for upcoming sessions on  Measure For MeasureKing Lear, and The Taming of the Shrew.

Questions from August 18:

Question: Even if Hamlet is so uncertain about himself, does that excuse, or even completely explain, his coldness toward Ophelia? Has he no humanity to express towards his now former love?

Philippa: We might not only say, ‘Poor Hamlet’. What about ‘poor Ophelia’? Ophelia has no mother, and is stuck with a garrulous father who is trying to work the court as best he can for the benefit of himself and his children. She has an assumed relationship with Hamlet.  We may be able to excuse his several murders on the basis of grief, not knowing what he is doing, the hand of providence, etc – but is there any excuse for the downright cruelty he inflicts upon Ophelia, the mocking, vulgar reference to her ‘country matters’ that confuses and shames her?

Question: Does Gertrude have any choice to reject Claudius? There is implied agency in her son’s judgment that she has somehow invited an incestuous relationship.

Philippa: Firstly, it was so important in that time for a widowed queen to re-marry – Gertrude may have felt she had no choice and that this was a convenient solution (as did Catherine of Aragon.) Gertrude is, I think, a mother more on the scale of Lady Capulet. There does not seem to be a warm and intuitive bond between mother and son, despite the reams of material written on Hamlet’s obsession with his mother. On the one hand we can acknowledge that these plays are set in a society that is extremely patriarchal by our standards, a society in which a mother is either dead or (except for Lady Macbeth) confined to the home and extraneous to the development of the plot. And on the other hand we can see how useful a mother might be to her children as they come to understand the complexities of life. We see, then, that Shakespeare has created an important pretext in Hamlet, as a variation on the semi-orphaning theme in many of his plays: he removes the father via an implied assassination, and he makes the mother cold and distant, leaving Hamlet to puzzle through his thoughts and cogitations as best he might.

Question: I recently read the novel Hamnet, by Maggie O’Farell, which explores the idea that Hamlet is in part an act of mourning for the death of his son of the same name (from the plague as it happens).  Do you have any thoughts about that?  Now that we are in a pandemic I’m wondering too if the plague is a context for the mourning in the play more generally.

Philippa: I think this is a great observation. It’s a tricky one—the idea of Shakespeare/Hamnet. We know he didn’t return for Hamnet’s funeral, but this may have been because, like Shakespeare’s Hamlet, he was informed too late. I do think the plague had to have had a huge impact on Shakespeare’s psyche, just as it does on ours. 
 
Question: Is the opening speech (I.ii) an intentional diversion  by Claudius – somewhat akin to certain tweets by a certain modern head of state?
Philippa: Definitely, except that Claudius intends to be a good and sober king. Here’s a question for study group – how would you compare Claudius’ illegitimate rule to Trump’s?
 
Question: Is young Fortinbras a model for young Hamlet?
Philippa: Fortinbras is a foil – I mentioned this in class.He is the emblem of what Hamlet should be were he to take on an avenger’s role.
 
Question: I  have a bone to pick with Old Hamlet!  He expresses no love for Hamlet, but only mentions Hamlet’s love for him, and he doesn’t seem to be at all concerned with what becomes of Hamlet in this world or the next once he exacts revenge on Claudius; and he’s creepily focused on Gertrude’s incest.  Though he does express concern for her, early and later on.?
Philippa: I’m with you! And he admits that he was himself no angel – “no shriving time allowed,” (V,ii).
 
Question: Can you comment on the various film versions which you listed?
Philippa:  I quite like the David Tennant version. It brings out the humor in Hamlet – also it is very brief but well cut. The Derek Jacobi one is a little old now, as is the Mel Gibson, but both play vigorous Hamlets. I find the Laurence Olivier one to be very much surrounded by the iconography of existential enormity – the cliff being a form of cinematic background to Hamlet’s grief. This is a version of “pathetic fallacy” – where nature mirrors and expresses the emotion in a protagonist’s soul.
 

Questions from August 25:

Question: Does Hamlet doubt his own sanity in terms of what the ghost tells him to do? Or is he doubting that the ghost is, in fact, an agent of Satan? So this is why he keeps trying to test Claudius?

Philippa: Hamlet asks himself, who is this ghost? It may be truly his father’s spirit, sent by a Catholic god to tell of his unjust murder while he waits out his time in purgatory. But the ghost may just as easily be a Protestant devil, sent from hell to tempt Hamlet to the heinous sin of murder. (‘The devil hath power t’assume a pleasing shape’, in which case the act of revenge would send Hamlet himself, and not his uncle, to hell.) Shakespeare’s society had just lived through a century where Catholicism rocketed to Protestantism, to Catholicism, and back to Protestantism again, and, while everyone knew what they should believe according to the regent of the day, people did not know quite what to believe in their heart of hearts. Hamlet epitomizes this uncertainty. 

Question: Would you please take a look at the friendship between Hamlet & Horatio and compare it to that of Cassius and Brutus. What makes a friendship admirable (I’m thinking about Cicero’s Laelius de Amicitia)?

Philippa: I think Aristotle’s idea of male friendship is relevant to both – the idea that a true male friendship is far closer than any relationship a man can have with a woman. This is very patriarchal, but suited this patriarchal period. But there’s an important distinction between the two pairs. Cassius manipulates Brutus for his own ends – throwing the letters in at his window, for example – letters that he’s written as if they come from several admirers. Horatio and Hamlet share a bond that is not mercenary in this way. And Hamlet leaves his one true friend to tell his story. 

Question: I noticed surveillance cameras were used in the David Tenant version (and mirrors in the Branagh version.) What would you say about the sense of observation and of being observed that plays out throughout the play?

Philippa: Absolutely! Hamlet feels watched everywhere, and IS watched everywhere! And yet those who watch – who play on him as a pipe – cannot get into his heart of hearts.
 

Question: It seems to me that there are two instances where Hamlet really loses control:  the “Get thee to a nunnery” speech (III, ii), and his rant at Laertes over Ophelia’s grave (where he offers to eat a crocodile) (V, ii). Hamlet later admits to Horatio “that the bravery of his (Laertes’) grief did put me/ Into a towering passion.” He seems to recognize Laertes’ grief as well as his own, and realizing that his days are numbered, to come to terms with his own death. “If it be now, tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come; the readiness is all…” In the very next speech, Hamlet apologizes to Laertes for his behavior at the grave-site, claiming it was not him but his madness.

 

Philippa: Yes, the madness is really interesting, isn’t it? Putting on an antic disposition (madness) was a way of putting on a disguise (bear in mind that in that time, madness was diagnosed on a case-by-case basis, and there was only one place [Bedlam] where mad people were institutionalized. Many “mad” people were pushed out of society and were vagrants, and thus in a sense “buried” out of sight in the forest or woods, away from civic life.)  It gives us a new view of the word, “eccentric,” doesn’t it – i.e. pushed out of the centre.

So, Hamlet believes that putting on an “antic disposition” would persuade those in the court to dismiss his actions as “mad,” offering him protection for his scrupulous vigilance. (No one would take him seriously because he’s been designated “mad.”)

But here’s a question – if you behave “madly,” do you become what you behave? This is related to the nature/nurture debate that intrigues Shakespeare and still intrigues and puzzles us today. This makes me think – whenever I hear people saying, “I mean, who does Shakespeare anymore?,” it seems so strange to me that people would somehow think that because Shakespeare’s plays are 400 years old, their explorations of human emotions and disguises would be irrelevant. When we reach back through the arc of history, we see ourselves on a deep and profound stage that complements and questions the stages of our moment, offering versions of ourselves that are both estranged and highly relational. 

Questions from August 29: Question: I had asked about Polonius having a lot of stage time. He is a character often portrayed as a doddering old man but he is anything but. He spies on his son and daughter, he directs his daughter to repel her lover’s advances and he enables the king.
So he directs a lot of the play. Even his death directs the plot because that is the excuse Claudius uses to send Hamlet to England. So I suppose one observation that I asked for feedback is what you think of Polonius’ role in the play.
A broader question for me is what happens to Hamlet to make him come back to Denmark a changed man. As I was exposed to Hamlet in high school (thank goodness!) at the same time I was studying the existentialism of Sarte and Camus (high school for me was not a fun romp), I have always seen the character of Hamlet through that existential lens. I wasn’t aware of the revenge play context but there is still the same basic question. What changes Hamlet? What was his defining act that changed him? It was not the unintentional killing of Polonius which as you said he took so lightly, because it was not an intentional act with purpose. Setting in motion the killing of Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern seems almost an aside for which he has no moral qualms.  Could it have been his witnessing Fortinbras’ army, the “how all occasions do inform against me” soliloquy that is the turning point in his consciousness? Did he realize that there may be another way he could dethrone Claudius and get his revenge, such as Laertes stirring up the populace? If we disregard the revenge play context, he didn’t have to kill another person to define his existential self, he just needed to take action. Whatever it was, he comes back a different person, confident, his grief madness in control, so much so that even learning of Ophelia’s death doesn’t set him back. He had come into his own by the time he comes back able to declare at her grave “It is I Hamlet the Dane.” What’s your opinion?
 

Philippa: Your first – Polonius – when he asks Claudius “What do you think of me?” Claudius answers, “As of a man faithful and honorable.” I think you are spot-on, here – Claudius directs the script of THE NEW DENMARK. In this play, now that Hamlet has returned, he has to find our where Hamlet fits – hence his spying, his earnest conversations. Audience members who see him as a silly old man are following Hamlet’s own point of view – Hamlet consistently makes fun of Polonius. But you’re right – if we take him away from Hamlet’s lens, he is a force to be reckoned with.

This is the wonderful thing about Hamlet, and about theater, and about life – it is not so much about who we are, but about what lens we look through. Once Polonius is gone – his body lugged into the other room – the play goes on but has a different lens.

Now, your question about Act V Scene 2, when Hamlet comes back a changed man: firstly, he is at sea: Shakespeare’s – and Ovid’s before him – great metaphor for the loss and re-making of identity (think of the saying, “I am all at sea.’ The ocean is a place of self-loss and self-re-making, and a metaphor for this). Hamlet sees the fact that he lay awake in his bunk as a divinely-ordained providence  – he lay in the bunk, and SOMETHING prompted him to go to the bunks of his old childhood friends; SOMETHING greater than himself prompted him to search for a missive; to take it out and read it in his own bunk; and RE-WRITE IT, REMEMBERING AN OLD FORM OF COURT HAND-WRITING; to write a new order to replace their deaths with his own, being super-careful to use this old, barely remembered (but accurately remembered) hand; and to return the new, sealed missive to the bunks of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

How fascinating is this – we have “in one fell swoop” a new journey for Hamlet (not across the seas to have his head cut off); a new journey for the play (his re-writing of the missive is an act of revenge, so we see a revenge drama take a new rhythm on the seas); a re-enactment of an old plot (note that Hamlet REMEMBERS how to write that old court hand-writing – such a beautiful metaphor for re-writing the play); and an appeal to providence, rather than to the controlling forces of his own agency. Hamlet here does two things simultaneously – he takes control of events; and he DOESN’T take control of events – he takes control, in his own mind, only as the subject of Providence. This, in his mind, is God’s plot, not the “drama” he has been trying to get control of. Look at his lines a little further on in the scene:

…there’s a special?
providence in the fall of a sparrow If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

Death comes to all men, all men must ‘leave betimes’ – so why not be ready for death at any time? God will decide when death comes, not me or any man. And if I let go of the wish to control my own understanding of death, and of who should die and why, then I can also let go of the need to say when Claudius is “ready” to be killed (Providence will now tell me when, just as Providence did with my childhood friends on the seas); I can let go of the urge to understand what comes before death; I can let go of the fear of what comes after death; and I can let go of this play that is becoming longer and longer and needs to end…

Where this strikes me so powerfully is that -whether we believe or not in heaven, God, etc – it is so thought-provoking for our own lives. Sometimes I see life as an incredible struggle for every human being, where (as with a play) we are striving to understand each other, to interpret each other’s lines, to plan our own lines and plot and chart the course of our own adventures. And yet the play will end; all things will pass; and we will pass.

National Endowment for the Humanities

This project is supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

4 thoughts on “Ask Philippa: Hamlet”

  1. Would you please take a look at the friendship between Hamlet & Horatio and compare it to that of Cassius and Brutus. What makes a friendship admirable (I’m thinking about Cicero’s Laelius de Amicitia)?
    Thank you!

  2. There was a lovely lecture given through Cambridge University’s online summer sessions, and I wish I could remember the name of the actor who gave it, but no. It was called, I think, “Lessons from Ophelia,” and she talked about her lack of enthusiasm when a director or producer asked her to play Ophelia, long ago, and then took us through her process of getting to know the character. She paid attention to the scenes where it is evident that Ophelia is present, but has no lines, and the places where others speak on her behalf, rather than letting her speak for herself. (Harold Goddard has a whole essay on Shakespeare’s defiant or disobedient daughters (Cordelia, Juliet, Hermia, Rosalind, and so on) and how Ophelia does not quite make it into this group, because she never had the wherewithal to develop her potential as an independent soul, and wonders how Hamlet’s fate might have been different if he and Ophelia had had the chance for a realer or stronger relationship.) Anyway, I do wish the lecture were available, though I haven’t been able to find it. The process of an actor’s finding out who the character is was just fascinating.

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4 thoughts on “Ask Philippa: Hamlet”

  1. Would you please take a look at the friendship between Hamlet & Horatio and compare it to that of Cassius and Brutus. What makes a friendship admirable (I’m thinking about Cicero’s Laelius de Amicitia)?
    Thank you!

  2. There was a lovely lecture given through Cambridge University’s online summer sessions, and I wish I could remember the name of the actor who gave it, but no. It was called, I think, “Lessons from Ophelia,” and she talked about her lack of enthusiasm when a director or producer asked her to play Ophelia, long ago, and then took us through her process of getting to know the character. She paid attention to the scenes where it is evident that Ophelia is present, but has no lines, and the places where others speak on her behalf, rather than letting her speak for herself. (Harold Goddard has a whole essay on Shakespeare’s defiant or disobedient daughters (Cordelia, Juliet, Hermia, Rosalind, and so on) and how Ophelia does not quite make it into this group, because she never had the wherewithal to develop her potential as an independent soul, and wonders how Hamlet’s fate might have been different if he and Ophelia had had the chance for a realer or stronger relationship.) Anyway, I do wish the lecture were available, though I haven’t been able to find it. The process of an actor’s finding out who the character is was just fascinating.

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