Preface to the Critical Commentary
Preface to the Critical Commentary:
The text of Hamlet exists in three versions: the First Quarto (1603 and hereafter called Q1), the Second Quarto (1604 - Q2), and the text included in the First Folio (1623 - F1). [FN1] To get a 'quarto', the printer took a sheet of paper and folded it in half twice to create four separate sections and then printed the text in these sections. A Folio is printed on a large, complete sheet of paper. Our modern paperbacks and 'coffee table' books are almost equivalent to a quarto and a folio. This means that there are two versions of Hamlet, printed at different times, in the small version, and one large 'official' version printed by Shakespeare's friends. If all these texts had the same words, the same punctuation, the same spelling, the same number of lines, and the same character names, then there would be no problem. However, that is not the case with Hamlet, and editors feel that in order to make a text that everyone can read with ease, adjustments have to be made.
In order to arrive at a 'complete' version of the Hamlet that Shakespeare wrote, editors take all three texts and compare them. According to many editors of Shakespeare texts, the text of Q1 is so different from the other two that it is labelled corrupt or 'bad'. The latest critical thinking, however, is that this text is not 'bad', but simply a different version of the play. The F1 text omits more then 200 lines found in Q2. When F1 and Q2 could be wrong, Q1 might be right. For example, in Act 1, scene 2, Hamlet has a soliloquy that begins, 'Oh that this too, too ----- flesh would melt'. The word that goes in that space is 'sallied' in Q1 and Q2, and 'solid' in F1. 'Sallied' meaning 'gone' does not make sense. 'Sullied' would mean that Hamlet is feeling so down, he feels dirty, which could be a possible meaning. The word 'solid', however, seems to make the most sense when put against the following line which is 'Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!' One editor may choose 'sullied', another 'solid'. But the confusion does not end there. Because there are a different number of lines in Q1, Q2, and F1, it is difficult to number the lines so that they can be referenced easily. With a long and popular play like Hamlet, therefore, most editors will choose the best meaning of a word from all three versions, insert lines into one that are missing from another, and then number the lines of the copy that they end up with....
(The entire section is 567 words.)
Act I Commentary
Scene i: Hamlet opens with two guards on watch. Strangely, the opening line is 'Who's there?' (1.1.1). Of course this is what we all want to know, and by the end of the play we will have multiple answers. The question receives a curious response: 'Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.' (1.1.2). The other voice says 'Long live the King!'(1.1.3). Like many other Shakespeare plays, this opening grabs our attention and pulls us into the world of the play, a world probably very different from the one in which we are a member of an audience. We do not know where we are geographically in the play, or what time it is, or what is going on. To complicate things, the men on the stage do not know all that much either! Shakespeare has very cleverly, although we do not realise it now, put the entire play in these three lines. As we move from this point deeper and deeper into the play, these three statements, 'Who's there?', 'Stay and unfold yourself', and 'Long live the King!' will be asked and answered over and over again, and each time the answers will be different.
Bernardo has come to relieve Francisco from the watch. It is midnight, the beginning of the 'grave-yard shift', and Bernardo waits for Marcellus and Horatio to join him. As their conversation continues, it becomes apparent that Horatio is not a usual member of the watch. Bernardo and Marcellus have seen something as they stood guard for the last two nights, a 'dreaded sight' (1.1.29), an 'apparition' (1.1.32). Horatio thinks the two men are imagining things, but they insist that their vision is real. Bernardo begins to tell Horatio the story of how, over the past two nights, at the stroke of one in the morning — Bernardo is interrupted by the appearance of a Ghost. Bernardo, as if to prove his case, asks Horatio to speak to what seems to be the Ghost of a dead King. Reluctantly, Horatio commands the spirit to speak to him, but the Ghost disappears. Not surprisingly, Horatio believes he has seen the Ghost of the 'dead' (1.1.45), 'buried' (1.1.52), King of Denmark.
Now, the three statements, 'Who's there?', 'stay and unfold yourself', and 'Long live the King' spring up in our minds. Who's there? Bernardo, Marcellus (both sentries); Horatio (whom Marcellus calls a scholar [1.1.46]); and the ghost of a dead King. 'Stay and unfold yourself': The Ghost refuses to speak to Horatio and apparently has not spoken to either of the guards. 'Long live the King!': The Ghost...
(The entire section is 3971 words.)
Act II Commentary
Scene i: As Shakespeare ended the last act by challenging what we believe, he begins Act Two by challenging what we have seen. A new character, Reynaldo, is in conversation with Polonius whom we have seen as a careful father. Polonius is sending Reynaldo to spy on Laertes and to intentionally spread lies about him. His reason for this is to find out the truth of Laertes' behaviour. Perhaps we have forgotten that Polonius told Ophelia that her behaviour may 'tender me a fool' (1.3.110). Polonius is thus shown to be a man who worries that the things his children do will reflect on him as a father and as a man, affecting his position at court. This revelation also shows how deep the suspicion in Elsinore goes. No one can be assured of safety, and, by employing Reynaldo, Polonius foreshadows Claudius' using Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to spy on Hamlet.
At this point, Ophelia enters to tell her father that a dishevelled, disturbed Hamlet has just left her, scaring her with his looks and his manner. Is this what he meant by 'antic disposition'? Is this part of his plan for revenge? Polonius decides from her story that Hamlet is suffering from 'the very ecstasy of love' (2.1.104). When Ophelia tells him that instead of encouraging Hamlet she has obeyed her father and 'denied his access' (2.1.111-112), Polonius admits he suspected Hamlet was not serious about her and that he may have acted hastily. He tells her they must go to the King and confess what he has done before Hamlet does something drastic.
From Ophelia's account and Polonius' reaction, we are unsure whether Hamlet is pretending to be mad or is actually mad. The scene also reinforces Ophelia's position as a meaningless object in the politics of the court. We must also question Ophelia's love for Hamlet. She seems to be unwilling to disobey her father, like Juliet in Romeo and Juliet or Celia in As You Like It, but seems to have turned her back on Hamlet rather easily. In addition, Polonius is true to form, worrying about his position, more than the effect his dictates are having on his daughter.
Scene ii: In a 'public' scene (in front of others), Claudius and Gertrude welcome Hamlet's school friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the court. They have been summoned to spend time with Hamlet and try to figure out what his problem is. Gertrude even promises them a royal reward. Instead of declining what amounts to bribery as true friends would,...
(The entire section is 1774 words.)
Act III Commentary
Scene i: As with almost all of Shakespeare's plays, Act Three presents us with the turning point where all the information we have been given in the first two acts leads us to the climax and resolution of the last two acts. We know that Polonius intends that he and Claudius will observe a meeting between Hamlet and Ophelia which Polonius has arranged. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern report to Claudius and Gertrude that they have been unsuccessful in getting 'some confession/ Of his true state' (3.1.9-10). They relay Hamlet's invitation to the play and Claudius turns his attention to the Hamlet-Ophelia encounter.
Claudius and Polonius hide, and Hamlet begins the most famous soliloquy in Shakespeare, 'To be or not to be'. Hamlet debates with himself the value of continuing to live when there are such comforts in being dead. But we must all be aware that no one has come back from 'the undiscovered country' (3.1.80) to tell us there are indeed comforts in the next life. It is this uncertainty about the next life, the not knowing, and guilt about our present life that make us 'lose the name of action' (3.1.89). Hamlet knows that what he has planned could result in eternal damnation. It is this fear which compounds all his other fears about killing Claudius which makes him delay.
As planned, Hamlet meets Ophelia. He greets her coolly. When she says she has 'remembrances' (3.1.94) of his that she wants to give back to him, he denies they are his. Curiously, Shakespeare does not tell us what these remembrances are. They could be love letters, trinkets, dried flowers — anything one lover gives another. The point is that it does not matter what they are. Because Ophelia has decided to obey her father rather than be supportive and faithful to Hamlet, they have lost their meaning, and she tells him so. For Ophelia, however, their meaning has been lost because Hamlet has been 'unkind' (3.1.102).
Hamlet turns on her, realising what is really going on. He asks her if she is 'honest' and 'fair' (3.1.104, 106). Like her father, Ophelia fails to grasp his meaning. Hamlet tells her he loved her once, and she replies 'Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so' (3.1.117). Obviously there is a vast distance between them now that cannot be breached. Rather than 'I loved you too', Ophelia says that Hamlet made her believe he loved her which implies two things: (1) she may think he was only using her; (2) she is uncomfortable...
(The entire section is 2402 words.)
Act IV Commentary
Scene i: This scene shows us how devious both Claudius and Gertrude can be at playing the political game. While feigning concern for both his wife and her wayward son, we can see that Claudius is really concerned about the 'whisper o'er the world's diameter' (4.1.41). Gertrude, on the other hand, assures the King that Hamlet killed Polonius in pure madness, bending the truth more than a little. Clearly this marriage is now beyond repair. And it may be that Claudius and Gertrude realise this. Claudius must now get his plan for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to get Hamlet to England going as quickly as possible. One of the keys to this small scene is in the language. Claudius begins and ends by addressing the Queen and referring to himself in the 'royal we'. Such language would normally be reserved for a public meeting, such as that in Act One, scene 2. However, there are only four people in this scene, Claudius, Gertrude, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. And it is the presence of these two outsiders that keeps Claudius aware of public opinion on a royal crisis. Although Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Hamlet's schoolmates, they are also common people who cannot be trusted not to preserve any code of silence regarding what they have witnessed in the private corridors of power. Tom Stoppard's play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, demonstrates that they are little men swept up in great affairs. Claudius is behaving here as the consummate politician who knows it is the little things that topple whole governments.
While Gertrude effects Hamlet's suggestions to her, Claudius falls back on the preservation of the monarchy at any and all costs. He is determined that Hamlet's supposed lack of control is not reflected on him.
Scene ii: In this scene, Hamlet confronts Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are simply acting on their employment by the King. Of course they do not understand the Prince and Hamlet leads them on a game of hide-and-seek. Only 32 lines, this scene is like a snapshot of the court: no one understanding actions taken, people hiding, bodies in closets (literally and figuratively), and a government trying to maintain control of public opinion. It is from such a world that Hamlet will escape. It is to such a world that he must return.
Scene iii: Claudius opens the scene by uncharacteristically admitting Hamlet's value, even to him: He's loved of the distracted multitude Who like not...
(The entire section is 1594 words.)
Act V Commentary
Scene i: To give us a brief respite from a landslide of horrible events, Shakespeare now presents two gravediggers who debate whether or not Ophelia committed suicide. Treating a very serious point in this way allows us to digest the far-reaching effects that the events of all the previous acts of the play have shown us. In all, the scene gives us a summary of events through the eyes of the common person in Denmark, while bringing us up-to-date on Hamlet and Horatio. We are also given a brief window into Hamlet's childhood when the gravedigger shows him the skull of Yorick, the court jester. Through his thoughts, we now see a resolved Hamlet, one who has obviously had time to come to some conclusions about mortality and come to terms with his vow of revenge. However, the present arrives in the form of Ophelia's funeral cortege.
Gertrude has obviously thought better of the poor young woman: 'I hoped thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife' (5.1.244). After a fit of emotion which his mother explains as 'mere madness', Hamlet knows he is back in the corrupt world of the court. He asks the mourning Laertes, 'What is the reason you use me thus? (5.1.292). Hamlet will continue the pretence of madness if he means he can get at Claudius. Claudius, aware he is the company of those outside the court, tells Horatio to wait on Hamlet. After Horatio and Hamlet leave, Claudius boldly tells Laertes that they must push their plan and that he must maintain his strength in purpose against Hamlet. Although we know that the graveside of his just buried sister is not an appropriate place for these words, we also know that Claudius is not one to let an opportunity pass him by. But we must wait to see what will happen next.
Scene ii: Hamlet and Horatio are deep in conversation as Hamlet reveals what transpired on the voyage to England. He was very restless and distressed by all the villainy that surrounded him and was unsure how he would proceed. He went into Rosencrantz and Guildenstern's cabin, retrieved their commission from the King, and brought it back to his cabin to read. Although he had suspected foul play, he was shocked to learn that when they arrived in England, Claudius intended the English to chop off his head. He felt that since 'they had begun the play', he would finish it. He rewrote the commission so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would be executed immediately on their arrival without time to even receive the...
(The entire section is 854 words.)