Sunday, February 16, 2014

To be? Or not to be? All of the above? None of the above?

More online musing on the online Hamlet course I'm taking…

In the upcoming week's class there is a major focus on Hamlet as a negative character as well as looking at the "To be or not to be" soliloquy. The best performances I've seen of that scene is when the actor makes it clear that Hamlet has contemplated suicide before…this isn't off-the-cuff musing but questions he has been asking all along. So what does he choose? To be? Or not to be?

He continues 'to be,' but is that really his choice? I'd frame it more along the lines that he chooses not "not to be," which is a very different spin. That decision means that he is "to be" but it doesn't mean that's what he specifically chose. And that's what provides some of the many paradoxes we run across in Hamlet. Hamlet is an actor within the play for a large part of it. You could say we see the 'true' Hamlet in his first scene, where he tells his mother that he doesn't seem to be displaying the nighted colors she describes but he argues he *is* exactly as she says. Most of the rest of the play, though, he's an actor, introducing one of the many paradoxes of the play. In order to be an actor, he has to suppress who he is in order to play the role. Yet he must draw on his own feelings and experiences to sell the role. So we're seeing something much more complicated.

Which begs the question of when the role of the actor ends and we see the 'real' Hamlet again, assuming such a thing exists by this point. The simplest answer would be during Hamlet's last soliloquy, when he sees Fortinbras march on Poland and resolves to act instead of just thinking. But you're never quite sure with Hamlet because this is where action replaces thinking. Or is that part of the role, too?

Back to the "To be or not to be" soliloquy…who is he addressing? Is it inward musing? Or as some stagings have done it, aimed at Opehlia? Or is it meant for anyone listening in, Ophelia as well as (most likely, to him) Claudius and Polonius, to overhear as part of his act? Or a direct address to the audience? All of the above? A combination? This one I find much harder to answer with any degree of certainty, but I love that it can be performed in several ways which would seem valid.

The last point on this rambling post… The "To be or not to be" soliloquy seems like a direct confrontation to religion by saying we don't know what awaits us when we die. Backing up a step, though, are we supposed to judge Hamlet's speech by the prevailing religion of his time or by Shakespeare's day? If of Hamlet's time, it's a direct affront to the Catholic Church since it had plenty of doctrine on Purgatory and what to expect. If of Shakespeare's day, things become murky: Martin Luther (teaching at Wittenberg, where Hamlet was studying) rejected Purgatory. The Church of England didn't have an agreed-upon afterlife cosmology for several decades, until well after the play was written. Is Hamlet saying the church doesn't, and can't possibly know what awaits us (following in part Luther's rejection)? Is he following the confusion of the Church of England of the day? Ah, so many questions from just a few lines, without definite answers, but fun to go over regardless.


scott g.f.bailey said...

This play has so much about acting in it that it's sometimes easy to forget it's also a murder mystery. Or revenge tragedy, depending on who you ask.

I had not noticed until reading this post the contradictory statements about the afterlife. The ghost clearly states that he is in purgatory, though he won't describe it to the prince. Maybe that's what Hamlet fears, the unknown pain of purgatory? It's unclear, innit?

I think--and it's been said plenty of times before--that Hamlet doesn't really choose life or death. He's not really committing himself, not living or dying. That speech to Horatio before the duel in Act V, about how if death comes, it comes, but if not, then not, etc. He only kills Claudius after he learns from Laertes that he's already dying.

Hamlet (and a host of other characters) spend a great deal of the play watching each other, playing roles if you will, telling lies. It's impossible to know what's true. A really amazing play.

Dwight said...

It is amazing, and I'm glad I had a chance to revisit a couple of times with this class.

Your last point, of everyone watching each other, was highlighted in the 2009 video with David Tennant as Hamlet (and Patrick Stewart as Claudius). Parts of scenes are shown as if through security cameras, Hamlet records parts of the action, and so on. It really highlights that aspect of the play.

Unknown said...

While I do not disagree with your assessment of Hamlet's soliloquy, I offer you this (which I tell all students to think about when reading the play): Hamlet is conscious of being spied upon throughout most of the play, and this consciousness may matter a great deal in what he says in soliloquies (i.e., if he thinks he is being overheard at certain times, he may choose his words for certain purposes -- especially sending out false signals to interfering Polonius and Claudius). So, without saying more at this point, I will let you ponder whether or not the famous "to be or not to be" is being uttered in solitude or with an awareness of listeners. Your answer to that puzzle will tend to change interpretations.

Dwight said...

Thanks for reminding me of that RT, and it still reinforces the question of exactly who he is addressing. If he suspects he is being spied upon then regardless of who it is his actions/words will make their way back to the King. Sort of like the play being an address, directly and indirectly, to the audience.

I think there's an added complication with Ophelia being present here (or at least can be played that way…she could also be shown as too far to hear what he says). Hamlet may lump her in with others spying for the King, but he could also play this as directly to her. As you say, how you view it changes…or adds different layers…of meaning.

Unknown said...

As for Ophelia, I think Hamlet's harsh treatment of her can be explained by realizing that Hamlet suspects she is her father's loyal pawn -- i.e., everything Hamlet says to her will get back to Polonius, and that will get back to Claudius.