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Hamlet, pt. 3: Who's there?

The first line in Hamlet is brief: "Who's there?" In Slings and Arrows, Geoffrey Tennant, the director, calls it "the world's longest knock-knock joke. Who's there, indeed? Who are these people? Who is Hamlet, and Ophelia?"

While I don't think the play is actually a knock-knock joke, I think those two words bear a bit more examination, because they sum up the entire play, and no, I'm not getting all existential on you. "Who's there?" is one of the core questions to be examined in the play, which is full of characters who are playing roles (intentionally or otherwise) or who are hiding behind tapestries or who are considering their own roles and positions.

Who's there?

HAMLET: Devoted son, scholar, Renaissance man. A thoughtful man. An intelligent, educated man who thinks a lot. A man who assumes "an antic disposition" in order to burn some time and try to figure out if the ghost he saw was telling the truth about Claudius's actions. Is Hamlet noble or twisted? Good-hearted or not? Does the real Hamlet love Ophelia for real, or was he simply using her? Is his treatment (or, perhaps, mistreatment) of her rooted in cruelty, or in a feeling of hurt and betrayal?

CLAUDIUS: Loving husband to Gertrude, whom he coveted, along with his brother's crown, efficient and organized ruler, murderer. His murder of King Hamlet was as much about Gertrude as anything else. His dealings with Hamlet throughout are based in fear - fear because the people love Hamlet; mistrust of Hamlet, lest he try to challenge Claudius to become the king. His condolence to Laertes is based more on his desire to avoid civic unrest than on any actual compassion; his decision to encourage Laertes in his revenge is similarly based on his sense of self-preservation.

POLONIUS: Devoted minister of state and advisor to the King. He seems a devoted father, but is he really? He sends someone to spy on Laertes in France. He dashes Ophelia's hopes of a happy future with Hamlet; not only does he tell her to reject Hamlet, he tells her she'd never be good enough for Hamlet. And then he uses her as a pawn to spy on Hamlet - something Hamlet figures out and resents, for which he abuses Ophelia (who has betrayed him and his trust). When it comes to Polonius, "who's there?" is a most interesting question. On the one hand, he's a windbag who can never say anything quickly if it might be said long. On the other, he's a schemer, sending a spy to watch his son and acting the role of spy himself on several occasions - sometimes openly, by conversing with Hamlet and trying to make him out, and at least twice by hiding behind tapestries to listen to Hamlet's conversations with women.

GERTRUDE: Widow of King Hamlet, bride to his brother Claudius, to whom she seems devoted. Had she loved her first husband? Whether she did or not, was she faithful to him, or did she sleep with Claudius before King Hamlet died? Did she know about - or at least suspect - Claudius's role in the death of her first husband before Hamlet told her of it? At the end, when she grabbed the cup to toast to Hamlet, did she know the cup was poisoned and drink anyhow?

OPHELIA: Devoted daughter, certainly, since she obeys her father's command to cease her relationship with Hamlet, whom she seems to love. Dedicated sister, who listens to and communicates with her brother. Who's there, though? Was she Hamlet's lover? Are the things she says and sings in her madness nonsensical? (I will argue later that they are not, in fact, and that although completely distraught, she wasn't completely off her rocker.)

ROSENCRANTZ & GUILDENSTERN: Childhood friends of Hamlet's. Sycophants willing to do whatever they can to assist Claudius. When they approach Hamlet, are they thinking they mean to help him, or are they acting out of a desire to ingratiate themselves with the king? At first those things might be compatible, but when they are no longer so, what motivates their actions?

THE GHOST: He's the ghost of King Hamlet, but when he first appears, it's unclear if he's friend or foe, and Hamlet spends a good part of the play determining whether or not the ghost was telling the truth, and/or whether it was an agent of the devil.

FORTINBRAS: Prince of Norway. Although he is onstage only little, he is a presence throughout the play - first as a potential invader who was thwarted, then as a petitioner asking for passage across Denmark in order to fight with Poland. At the end, was his visit intended as a social call or as an invasion?

The phrase "who's there?" is a question that might be asked in a number of scenes as a legitimate inquiry.

Consider the scene where Polonius and Claudius hide in order to observe Hamlet with Ophelia. Before that interaction, they get to overhear Hamlet's most famous soliloquy - "To be or not to be". Does Hamlet know that they are there? Any actor playing the part must make that decision when he plays the scene. Does he know they are there during the soliloquy? Does he know when he speaks to Ophelia? Does he figure it out as he talks with her? After all, he was sent for, and was probably told that it was Claudius or Polonius who sent for him - would he suspect they were hiding out? How much of what he says is for their benefit?

Consider the scene where Claudius is praying aloud, during which he confesses aloud his sins of murder and adultery. Hamlet enters during that scene. Was he there to hear the whole thing? Or did he only arrive in time to come upon him as he was engaged in trying to pray silently?

Consider the scene in which Polonius is hidden away to eavesdrop on Hamlet and Gertrude. Hamlet kills the man who hollers "help" from behind the curtain without knowing "who's there"; in fact, he believes (or hopes) that it was the king himself.

Or consider the scene in the graveyard, in which the gravedigger does not realize that the person with whom he is speaking about Yorick and Hamlet is, in fact the prince. And the royal procession arrives to bury Ophelia without initially knowing that Hamlet and Horatio are there.

Who's there?

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( 13 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 9th, 2009 05:01 pm (UTC)
Can I answer a question with a question?
A LOADED question? Cuz once you hear it, you'll know my ulterior motives or at least the potential thereof. And, if you fancy, make it a "game." See what your readers think? What their answers might be....

OK enough suspense-building-drumroll...hit the cymbal, dammit!

WHO would you cast as the "players?" Not REAL actors, though they can be. But PEOPLE. PEOPLE dead or alive that "fit" these characters.









Jun. 9th, 2009 05:21 pm (UTC)
Re: Can I answer a question with a question?
You may always answer a question with a question. And I shall take your comment and make it a post to solicit answers from others.

I shall have to consider. I'm crap at this "from any era" sort of question, since you need people to be age-appropriate for their roles.

You'll also want suggestions for HORATIO as well, I suppose - he's an important character, but I didn't find him to be conning any parts or otherwise hiding.
Jun. 9th, 2009 05:32 pm (UTC)
since you need people to be....
Really, I don't need them to "be anything"

I don't know if I'll even "do anything" with this but chances are likely it will inspire "something."

So, please, make it as fun and open and as free as possible.

I'm crap at this "from any era" sort of question

I don't want to cause "stress" of any kind...


Edited at 2009-06-09 05:33 pm (UTC)
Jun. 9th, 2009 07:39 pm (UTC)
"Is his treatment (or, perhaps, mistreatment) of her rooted in cruelty, or in a feeling of hurt and betrayal?" I always find it funny that the quote "never doubt that I love" that's used over and over in wedding pamphlets comes from this section of Hamlet.

"He seems a devoted father, but is he really?"
I always saw this as a gender issue. He's all about appearances. He seems to be very free with the boys (his son and Hamlet), fatherly and free with advice, but also has a bit of the wink-wink, nudge-nudge, boys will be boys... yet with Ophelia - he sees her as a useful pawn - one to marry off eventually, but for the moment to use in whatever way might possibly suit the kingdom and give the appearance of pleasing his king.

Jun. 9th, 2009 09:46 pm (UTC)
I believe that the poem was written by Hamlet in earnest to Ophelia, and that he actually loved her (more on that in another post to come). Its being bandied about in the way it was doesn't override or cheapen the sentiment.

And I think Polonius is far more of a bad guy than folks usually give him credit for. But perhaps that's just me.
Jun. 9th, 2009 11:49 pm (UTC)
I think you definitely have something in the Polonius was a bad guy thing, and I'd like to hear more of your thoughts on that.
As for Hamlet actually loving Ophelia - there are definitely lines in there that could go either way, and this is one of those wonderful plays where that depends a lot on the actor - I can't wait to read your post on that, though. =)
And no, it doesn't cheapen the sentiment - I just find it amusing. Like the song "Here comes the bride."
Jun. 10th, 2009 12:19 am (UTC)
It's the Wedding March that's usually used as a recessional (by Mendelssohn) that I object to - it's used for a farcical wedding in A Midsummer Night's Dream.
Jun. 9th, 2009 08:15 pm (UTC)
You are good at this stuff! Thank you for giving me new perspectives on all of this!
Jun. 9th, 2009 09:46 pm (UTC)
Thank you very much indeed - what a lovely compliment!
Jun. 13th, 2009 06:34 pm (UTC)
I would like to counter with "What's there?" One thing that's always bothered me about this play is that it can be seen as a pro-violence argument. (i.e., Hamlet is a wuss while he's dithering and soliloquizing; he's not a real man still he starts drawing blood) Do you see it that way, and do you think that was really Shakespeare's intent?
Jun. 13th, 2009 06:59 pm (UTC)
I suppose that one could construe it as a pro-violence argument, but I don't think that Shakespeare's intent. I construe it as a play about thoughts vs. actions, and about ends and means (not just Hamlet's, but those of lots of other folks as well). Hamlet becomes a "real man" at the point that he accepts his duty and responsiblity to avenge his father's death, not at the point that he kills anyone (or accomplishes that goal). And that's during a soliloquy. When he accepts his course of action is when he becomes manly, not when he acts on it.

For instance, I don't think Hamlet is considered a "real man" at the point that he starts drawing blood (or causing it to be drawn, really - his first bloody act is to forge the letters ensuring the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which he does with a pen, and out of a combination of self-preservation and spite). The first real blood he draws is that of Polonius, which is a manslaughter, not truly a murder - it's very heat of the moment, and he also believed it might be Claudius. I think that folks consider him a "real man" when he accepts his responsibility/destiny and decides to take action. After all, he'd given his oath to his father's spirit, and oaths were extremely serious things in those days. Also, the idea of a blood debt (whether it was called that or not) pervades the play. Claudius has it coming, a la Hamurabi's code.

I think Shakespeare's intent was to retell an existing story (probably based on Saxo's story of Amleth and/or a French version and/or an earlier play that is now referred to as Ur-Hamlet, since folks know it existed, but don't know who wrote it or precisely what it contained), and that the psychological layers he added make it complicated, but that it wasn't specifically designed to encourage or glorify violence as much as it was about considered action.
Jun. 13th, 2009 09:47 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I got that about the action, but what bothers me is that the action is violent revenge. Of which I'm not a big fan.

But to pose another question, after reading all your opinions on Polonius: Is Polonius more interesting as a villain than Claudius, because Polonius is more subtle and complicated? I didn't notice any redeeming qualities about Claudius.
Jun. 13th, 2009 11:59 pm (UTC)
The only possible redeeming quality of Claudius's is his sincere love for Gertrude. But it's kind of obsessive, so that's not necessarily great.

I think Polonius is a devious guy, for sure, and that much of what goes on in the play is his fault. Entirely his fault. Yet, I don't believe he knew Claudius killed King Hamlet. I don't think that if he had known, he'd have done anything differently, however. He's an opportunist and a schemer. Decidedly more subtle and complicated than Claudius.
( 13 comments — Leave a comment )

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