Hamlet Essay - Critical Commentary

Critical Commentary

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...

(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 from the afterlife is walking in the middle of the night, but if this King is dead and buried, who is the King now?

Horatio begins to give us much needed answers. This Ghost looks as he did when he fought Norway and Poland 'on the ice' (1.1.67). This Ghost does not appear as we might think a King would, dressed in stately robes and a crown, but in 'armour'. Horatio knows right away that 'This bodes some strange eruption to our state' (1.1.73). Now that Horatio has brought up the subject of the state, Marcellus the soldier who obeys without question, pursues Horatio. He wants to know, as we do, just what is going on. He wants to know why there are twenty-four hour guards, armoury manufacture, and shipbuilding, with not even Sunday as a day of rest.

Horatio goes back to the history of events before the play opened, and brings the guards, and us, up to date. The old King whose Ghost we have just seen, had been drawn into battle with King Fortinbras of Norway. The two men wagered a large amount of land, and when King Hamlet (Horatio names him) killed King Fortinbras, the land went to Denmark. King Fortinbras' son, Fortinbras, to avenge his father's death (even though the wager was drawn up in a legal, binding contract) has raised an illegal army of 'lawless resolutes' (1.1.102) to get the land back. That is why Denmark is preparing for all-out war around the clock. Bernardo agrees with Horatio and the scholar begins a long poem about how natural events often forecast disturbances in politics. Suddenly, the Ghost appears again.

Horatio once again urges the Ghost to speak to him. He offers to help the spirit, asks it to tell him if he has a message about the future, or if it had committed any sins to atone for. Then, a rooster (or 'cock') crows. The Ghost vanishes. The three men decide to break up the watch and relay what they have seen to 'young Hamlet' (1.1.176). Horatio is sure that the Ghost will speak to this young man with the same name. Now we have more answers. Denmark is preparing for a war brought about by the killing of the King of Norway over a wager, and it is being haunted by the King who did the killing. King Fortinbras' son is young as is the young man who is obviously the Ghost's son. Both are named for their fathers, and have, apparently, succeeded their fathers to the throne.

In 181 lines, Shakespeare has constructed one of the most effective of all his opening scenes, probably only comparable to the opening of Macbeth. We may think that we will see a straight-forward story, one with a beginning, a middle, and an end, but from the play's beginning, we quickly become aware that the narrative line in this play is not direct or straight. Shakespeare opens the play in media res (in the middle of things). He then flashes back to fill in a few details, fast forwards to what may happen, and comes back to the present. In so doing, Shakespeare challenges us to stay focused on events, to put clues together, to try to predict where the story is going, before he shifts things around once again. Nonetheless, we think that this play is going to be about how Hamlet and Fortinbras battle it out for disputed lands, and Hamlet is going to win, just like his father. Can it be that simple?

Scene ii: If we thought 'Who's there?' was a strange opening, this one may seem stranger: 'Though yet of Hamlet our dear brother's death/ The memory be green… (1.2.1-2). We are shocked — this cannot be right. Because this man says 'our dear brother' using what is called 'the royal we', we know he must be the King, but he said 'brother', not 'son'. Again, 'Who's there?' is answered by this man; 'unfold yourself' means that this man is King Hamlet's brother; 'Long live the King!' means that he is the King. As the King continues his speech, we are told that the entire country has been mourning for the King that has died. This King, debating with himself about a proper mourning period and the proper time to resume social activities, and taking advice from his councillors and courtiers, has apparently married his sister. Is this all possible? We do not have long to think about it because the King moves along his agenda swiftly to the issue of war with Fortinbras.

He informs the court that Fortinbras has been pestering him to surrender the land and may think that Denmark may not be ready for war because they have been in mourning or because they are weak. The King sends Cornelius and Voltemand to carry a message about Fortinbras' actions to Old Norway, Fortinbras' uncle, who is ill and bedridden. The King of Norway is in the same position as this King: they are both brothers to the last Kings and have nephews.

The King of Denmark continues dealing with public business and turns his attention to Laertes (Lay-AIR-tees). This young man is the son of Polonius, one of the King's ministers, and seeks the King's approval to go to France. The King asks Polonius if he agrees and he does. This section of the scene is especially important. Here we have one son with a living father. This third son forms a triangle of sons which is reflected in the triangle of fathers. The difference in this father triangle is that Polonius is alive and the others are dead. Furthermore, the number three becomes a repetitive motif of the play.

With these three matters resolved, the King turns to 'my cousin Hamlet and my son' (1.2.64). This line does little to clarify the 'sister' whom the king married, but for the Jacobeans, 'cousin' meant someone who was not immediate family. Shakespeare has chosen this word very carefully. Under canonical law, a brother was precluded from marrying his brother's widow. It was considered incest, the most famous case being Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, his brother Arthur's widow. By calling Hamlet 'cousin', he indicates that he is not a close relative, but calling him 'son' indicates he is close. Such confusion would cover any sin that might be inferred. This pattern is immediately picked up in Hamlet's response, his first line in the play, 'A little more than kin and less than kind' (.65). In addition, Hamlet is more than kin to the King: he is a son, a stepson, a nephew, and a rival for the Crown. The King and Queen beg Hamlet to cease mourning for his father and to stay with them in Denmark (Hamlet has been in school in Wittenberg, Germany). He says he will, and is then left alone.

In Shakespeare's plays, asides and soliloquies to the audience are considered to be the truth told by the character. In this, the first of many soliloquies, Hamlet opens a window on the thoughts running through his mind. He wishes he could just 'melt' (1.2.129) and evaporate away, or even commit 'self-slaughter' (1.2.132). He is very depressed and everything seems 'weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable' (1.2.133). Hamlet's feelings are ones we can all relate to, especially after the death of a loved one, but what has caused him to react so strongly? Hamlet says his father the King has been dead for 'two months' (1.2.138), so his depression could stem from that alone. When he recalls, however, how his parents were together, we know the cause is much deeper. Hamlet remembers that when the King died, his mother was grief-stricken, 'all tears' (1.2.149), but after a mere month, she married the King, his...

(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...

(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...

(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...

(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...

(The entire section is 854 words.)

Michael Foster, Ed. Scott Locklear