Hamlet #10 - The Play's the Thing
(Note: Bardseye is currently doing Hamlet, and taking a break from our usual hallucinatory Shakespearean commentary on current events. If you're entering the theater late, Hamlet: Act I, Scene I started eight posts ago - just scroll down and catch up!).
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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, struggling to cheer Hamlet up, mention to him that a troupe of traveling players is coming to town, actually to court. Hamlet is delighted that the Elizabethan equivalent of the circus is coming:
Ham: "Gentlemen, you are welcome to Elsinore.
…..You are welcome. But my uncle-father and
aunt-mother are deceived,"
Guild: "In what, my dear lord?"
Ham: "I am but mad north-north-west. When the
wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw."
Having telegraphed that he is (usually) merely playing at insanity, he begins doing just that with Polonius, who arrives to greet the players.
Pol: "The actors are come hither, my lord."
Ham: "Buzz, buzz!"
Pol: "Upon my honor -"
But Hamlet stops toying with the king's minister as soon as the players walk in, as though dropping one toy to pick up another. Although this second toy he treats with greater care:
Ham: "…Come, give us a taste of your quality.
Come, a passionate speech."
1st Player: "What speech, my lord?"
Ham: "…I heard thee speak me a speech once, but
it was never acted…..'Twas Aeneas' tale to Dido,
and thereabout of it especially when he speaks of
Priam's slaughter, If it live in your memory, begin
at this line; let me see, let me see…".
In the ancient Greek tale of the Aeneid, the slaughter of Priam, the Trojan king, is performed by Pyrrus, who is Achilles' avenging son. Ah. An avenging son. Hint, hint. The player gives the speech at great length and to Hamlet's delight, though not to Polonius':
Pol: "This is too long."
Ham: "It shall to the barber's with your beard, -
Prithee, say on. He's for a jug or a tale of bawdry,
or he sleeps. Say on…".
The players say on for quite a while, and Hamlet then encourages Polonius to make sure they are "well bestowed," or well taken care of:
Ham: "Let them be well used, for they are the
abstract and brief chronicles of the time. After
your death you were better have a bad epitaph
than their ill report while you live."
Pol: "My lord, I will use them according to their
desert." (meaning what they deserve)
Ham: ",,,Use every man after his desert, and who
Shall 'scape whipping? Use them after your own
Honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the
More merit is in your bounty. Take them in."
The players begin sauntering off to prepare for the following night's presentation, as does the hopeless Polonius, who has shown himself to be dead to art and to any fine thing that appeals to the soul. Hamlet takes one player aside and asks if he could "study a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines which I would set down and insert" in the script of the intended play. The player agrees, and at the end of this scene, described at the end of this post, we learn what 12 of 16 lines Hamlet will write and why.
But for now, Hamlet is alone. He reflects on the sample performance he just enjoyed, and on how an actor can conjure whole worlds and "drown the stage with tears," and yet Hamlet himself…"
Ham: "…can say nothing – no, not for a king
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damned defeat was made. Am I a coward?
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murdered,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must like a whore unpack my heart with words…"
But though he is sick of his own hesitation, Hamlet needs – or says he needs – something more than the prompting of his father's ghost to persuade him to murder Claudius:
Ham: "…I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle. I'll observe his looks,
I'll tent him to the quick. If 'a do blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil, and the devil hath power
T' assume a pleasing shape………..….
…………………………. I'll have grounds
More relative than this. The play's the thing
Wherein to catch the conscience of the King."
To be continued……