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Yesterday's poem selection was They All Want to Play Hamlet by Carl Sandburg, which I posted in part because of last night's U.S. debut of the 2009 BBC/Royal Shakespeare Company version of Hamlet starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart. (It was magnificent. Also, I was quite giddy about watching it, even though I'd already seen it once before, and I tweeted lines and comments throughout the broadcast.) Today, an entirely lovely poem from Hamlet. In the play, it is read by Polonius, but attributed to Hamlet, who sent it to Ophelia as a token of his love - before she rejected him at her father's urging and then acted as a puppet on behalf of Claudius and Polonius in order to explore whether he was truly mad or not.

Doubt thou the stars are fire
by William Shakespeare

Doubt thou, the stars are fire,
Doubt, that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.

Form: A single stanza in iambic trimeter (three iambs per line - taDUM taDUM taDUM - although the first two lines could arguably begin with trochees: DUMta taDUM taDUM), which is cross-rhymed, meaning that the first and third lines rhyme, as do the second and forth. Or at least, in Shakespeare's time, "move" and "love" rhymed (with both of them sounding more like the word "clove" at that time).

Discussion: Shakespeare has crafted a lovely little poem here - it is short, but packs a wallop, conveying a sincerity and depth of feeling quickly, so as to move the scene along.

Hamlet tells Ophelia what she may question: she may question scientific things that involved a component of belief (at least at that time): whether the stars are fire, whether the sun moves. (The question as to whether the sun moved around the earth or vice-versa was not a clearly resolved issue in Shakespeare's time; although there was evidence that the solar system was, in fact, heliocentric, that reasoning had not yet been determined incontrovertible. Then again, perhaps he meant whether the sun moved at all, even if he did believe in a heliocentric system.) She may "doubt truth to be a liar" - that is, she may question the existence of truth itself, or suspect that what is told to her as truth is false. But the last line says that she should not doubt that he loves - or does it? Because, of course, the word "doubt" could also be used in Shakespeare's time to mean something like "suspect" - and that is a horse of an entirely different color, if the final line is to be read to mean "but never suspect me of loving [you]."

If Shakespeare was indeed using "doubt" to mean "suspect", he could be telling Ophelia to be willing to consider that the stars ARE fire, that the sun DOES move, that truth can be used to lie . . . and that Hamlet can never love.

Oh the wonderful ambiguity of these lines, which leave us guessing. I would argue, based on Hamlet's sincere grief and remorse over Ophelia's later death and his assertions that he loved her (including a competition with Laertes in which Hamlet asserts that he loved Ophelia far more than her brother ever did) that this poem was intended by Hamlet to be sincere, but that Polonius's reading was done in a way to insinuate that it was not - allowing for the audience to wonder, when Hamlet wigs out on Ophelia just after his "To be or not to be" soliloquy, whether he'd been toying with her all along.

Dear Mr. Shakespeare: You are one brilliant dude.

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( 17 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 29th, 2010 06:59 pm (UTC)
I got to watch a bit of that last night. I'd not have known what it was if you hadn't mentioned it. Thanks!

And thanks again for posting the Poem in your pocket day. It has thrilled me to no end!
Apr. 29th, 2010 11:45 pm (UTC)
The whole production is available online now, if you're so inclined. I'm glad you've enjoyed Poem in Your Pocket day.
Apr. 30th, 2010 12:57 am (UTC)
OOoo! Thanks!
Apr. 29th, 2010 09:40 pm (UTC)
To the day I die, there will continue to be things to learn about Hamlet.
Apr. 29th, 2010 11:46 pm (UTC)
So very true. And you and I aren't the only ones to think so.
Apr. 29th, 2010 10:01 pm (UTC)
I love this, and the thing that fascinates me about it most is the lines about the solar system, so thank you for calling attention to them! It's such a fascinating era of discovery and knowledge changing the shape of the world, and to have that enormous sense of cosmic uncertainty brought down to the most intimate level... so, so beautiful.
Apr. 29th, 2010 11:48 pm (UTC)
What a truly lovely way to look at it!
Apr. 30th, 2010 12:11 am (UTC)
:) And I forgot to say, thanks for calling my attention to last night's "Hamlet" on Great Performances. DH thought it was the best production of the play he's ever seen.
Apr. 30th, 2010 05:24 am (UTC)
It was pretty spectacular. My older daughter, S, watched the start of it with me. She still prefers Jude Law (we saw him on Broadway, and he was brilliant - we were also in the second row, so we could see him and the other actors up close and personal, plus it was live theatre). She was funny, though- when it started, she declared that David Tennant was ugly and weird-looking; 10 minutes later, she pronounced him "hot" and asked how on earth he managed to change from being so unattractive to so very attractive. I believe it was just her adjusting to seeing him and appreciating his talent.

I thought Patrick Stewart was effing brilliant as Claudius.
(Deleted comment)
Apr. 29th, 2010 11:48 pm (UTC)
Re: Mr. Shakespeare is one brilliant dude
Apr. 30th, 2010 09:49 am (UTC)
Yup, I second (or third) the "one brilliant dude," and Bryson totally convinced me that all the folks who think he was someone else are just blowing smoke -- Shakespeare was Shakespeare and he was a GENIUS.
May. 1st, 2010 01:06 am (UTC)
Apr. 30th, 2010 05:43 pm (UTC)
I love this bit, but I always want to shake Hamlet just a bit and say, for Ophelia, "Words, words, words, buddy. SHOW ME!" :)
May. 1st, 2010 01:07 am (UTC)
I hear you - and yet, he views Ophelia as having betrayed him by the time this happened.
May. 1st, 2010 01:17 am (UTC)
True, but that bugs me, too. I actually get most of Hamlet and see why he stalls and delays, but his treatment/perceptions about O always seem off to me. Or maybe realistic!
Jul. 8th, 2012 06:42 am (UTC)
Polonius as Wordsmith.
I love that such a robust treatment is being given to this compact lil love-ditty, one that Polonius, himself a deliverer of a few great, if platitudinal, lines, summarily dismisses a piece of as being "a vile phrase." I would love to hear more of your views, especially regarding the role of Polonius in his former, and I suppose, ever-ongoing, role of actor. Action in this play means death, but it also means vitality in life, even at its terminal moment(s). Polonius played Brutus, we remember, having killed Caesar "i' the capitol" - a brilliant formulation by Shakespeare, and really throughout this entire play. Capitol, the true seat of legislature or senate, of which Denmark has none apparent in the play, merely having advisors to the Dane, and the Dane Himself, with an allowance for sound- and, meaning-plays on "Capital"- the city, and "cap-a-pie," an older French iteration, used in the play to denote the head or capstone, or cap, of course, meaning helmet, as Denmark's King Hamlet, is recognized and represented in his fighting arraignment, "my lord, head to foot." Hit me up! allenguywilcox.wordpress.com -Allen
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