I'll catch the conscience?? by leonard arndt
I'LL CATCH THE CONSCIENCE??
(A new attempt to understand Shakespeare's Hamlet) BY LEONARD ARNDT
All the cast literature on Shakespeare's Hamlet has not succeeded in answering the questions the play has raised in the mind. I have myself been baulked three times in my endeavor to write for the Magazine. I have been sure that A. G. Bradley was nearest the mark in the note he makes about the strong suggestion a religious motif after Hamlet spares the King at prayer.
"I see a cherub that sees them."
"There's a divinity that shapes our ends."
"Why even in that was Heaven ordinant."
All this at the very point of apparent failure, or after, creates an inescapable feeling about a deeper purpose in the drama than has yet been detected. One could not help saying that he left the King, too, to Heaven.
I find the support I have looked for in a B. B. C. broadcast by T. S. Gregory, printed in The Listener for July 7, 1949, which I regard as too valuable to be allowed to be forgotten, Indeed, it ought to be preserved in every student's files.
* * * * * *
First, let us state the difficulties.
All commentators are agreed that Hamlet had no doubt at all that the Ghost had to be obeyed, both for his father's peace and in order to reduce the disjointed time. Why then did he not kill the King? The question has never been satisfactorily answered.
Sir Laurence Olivier, for all the exhilaration of his grand film, has performed a disservice with his sub-tile: 'The story of a man who could not make up his mind.'
Then, again, was Hamlet mad, and was his antic disposition an index to his gear of impending madness? One answer, of course, is that in the Elizabethan Revenge plays this was a common device of the avenger, just as delay on every kind of pretext also belonged to type.
Why was he so cruel to Ophelia? Can anything justify that terrible scene? Lastly, did Hamlet contemplate suicide?
* * * * * *
I ought to add a question of Gregory's own: Is not the supernatural element much weaker here than in Macbeth and do we not, like Marcellus or Horatio, feel that Hamlet was not sufficiently shocked? (That would dispose of the common escape that there was a concession to the groundling in the 'old mole' business.)
T. S. Gregory finds the key to all the answers and I must pass it on in the hope that, if the reader will not try to obtain this copy of The Listener, he may, at least, ponder such passages as I may be allowed to reproduce here.
Let me first make brief extracts to present a few telling points he makes: one should rejoice that most of them are not obscured in Olivier's film, some even unforgettably presented, as for example the Play Scene and the Ophelia scenes.
"It is also a play about playing, a contribution to the 'poets' war' to which Ben Jonson contributed Poetaster???. Shakespeare joined the discussion on the side if nature. Against mere academic exercise he stated the purpose of playing to hold as' twerethe mirror up to nature: to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."
Gregory goes on to show that Hamlet refers to "the cosmology challenged by the younger science???.in which everything had its part to play within the cosmic pattern."
He distinguishes between Shakespeare's comedy and tragedy not as happy or unhappy but as romantic entertainment on the one hand, and realistic truth on the other.
"In the old days Shakespeare bounded in a nutshell, as it were, yet counted himself a king of infinite space. He discovered an Utopia, called it the forest of Arden, Venice, Messina??or what you will and there his lovers might happily contend towards as much of the word'smystery and meaning as he and they and the audience had a taste for. But some eighteen months before Hamlet, his predecessor-at that time in the forest of Arden-had roundly declared:
I must have liberty
Withal as large a charter as the wind??..
Invest me in my motley; give me leave
To speak my mind and I will through and through
Cleanse the foul body of the infected world
And in the tragedies Shakespeare is not providing entertainment but telling the truth. He is not creating something lovely, but setting up a glass where men may see the inmost part of them. Hamlet marks this transition from romance to realism as in itself it show you vengeance transformed into justice."
And so we come to the key I spoke of, the key which our broadcaster has found: the meaning of the Ghost.
"A ghost may-though I doubt whether this ghost really does-enhance the sense of the supernatural, and a play showing man at the bourne of the undiscovered country or crawling between heaven and earth calls for a touch of supernature. Even so this Ghost has little of such value and Shakespeare goes out of his way to discredit such explanation. It is an honest Ghost, seeking the simple things Ghosts always seek, vengeance and the vindication of himself and his family, and Shakespeare rather debunks him. (Here the 'old mole' is quoted.)
"Thatis not Shakespeare's supernatural, like the ghost of Banquo or the witches. And there is a simple explanation. By appearing, the Ghost turns Elsinore into a stage. By giving Hamlet a revelation withheld from everyone else, he puts Hamlet into the place of an author. Hamlet thus knows the place and function of every character and in that knowledge creates all the situations??..Hamlet's knowledge is unique and supernatural; it is given and accepted in such terms as pronounce a doom on the whole exiting order; and knowing the murder he must still discover it, not as an event merely, but as a spiritual fact. And the play's the thing 'Wherein I'll catch the conscience'???.
"The simple device of a ghostly revelation makes Hamlet at once author-player-spectator, and translates him from the stage in the theatre to the stage which is all the world, the stage of real people, you and me?..."
Being the creator and not only a character of the play, Hamlet grows in Shakespeare's mind. He is not like Othello, for instance, fully armed and complete from the beginning. His business is not to do but to see. He is Shakespeare's disinterested justice. His father, mother and uncle, Polonius and Laertes, even Ophelia and himself, are parties in a cause of which, whether he will or no, he, Hamlet, must be judge. As he weighs evidence, hears pleadings, hold the mirror up to nature, he is driven upon ever wider spheres of disinterestedness so that at last there's no question of vengeance. What matters to the author is that the situation be realized in spirit and in truth. So the first three acts are discovery. From an awareness of something rank and gross in nature, he advances to the mystery of existence itself and of what puzzles the will. The crisis to which Hamlet has directed the whole action, the moment at which the King rises and cries, 'Give me some light,' and Hamlet calls for music is an apocalypse not a retribution. It is not a balance but a mirror. Hamlet is not getting even with Claudius but eliciting and revealing the truth of him. Shakespeare's problem is to resolve a paradox: that whereas the Ghost has laid on Hamlet the responsibility of an author and a judge, he seems to demand the services of an assassin."
So we come to the question, Why didn?t Hamlet avenge his father? Not that any of us would have liked to see him use the one opportunity we see afforded him. Hear Gregory again:
"We cannot have it both ways. The Ghost's words lose all their savour if they were spoken to a gladiator who just went and got his man?.. At that level of blood and melodrama??.we might have the full-flavoured Elizabethan entertainment??..the King, Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Laertes, Hamlet and the Queen simultaneously dying to the accompaniment of Ophelia's demented laughter. We should rest or revel in the inprinciples simplicity which defines justice as an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth?..in the words of Claudius and Gertrude.
"The fact is Hamlet did not delay vengeance but transmuted, sublimated it. When at last he did stab Claudius, it was not revenge??..but something quite different. And then it was Laertes who delivered the verdict 'The King, the King's to blame'?..to blame, that is, for the death of Laertes and the Queen and Hamlet himself. This, the more effective crime Claudius committed in self-defence not against anything Hamlet had done or threarened, but as the eternal lie against Hamlet's knowledge of the truth."
Our broadcast brings together cunningly various passages that make a cumulative impression. The cause of Hamlet's melancholy, for instance, is thus made easy to understand. Here are some of these passages woven into the argument:
"'Seems, Madam! Nay it is '…….and in order to rip open the pretences Hamlet will use the play. The King's words are not so much lies in themselves as an extinction of meaning. That is the Claudius-polonius world; anything is what your whim or profit makes it…. King or fishmonger. Star from such premises…….and what is left but a lunatic staring over his shoulder at untrue and unattainable beauty, finding his way without his eyes? What in such a shifting chaos is the firmament but a pestilential congregation of vapours, or man but a quintessence of dust?
"One of Joseph Conrad's narrators (Marlowe, I think) says that a lie makes him physically sick as if he had bitten something putrid. So does the Claudius world make Hamlet metaphysically sick, though it is only when he is near Ophelia that his loathing gets the better of his control. For Ophelia cannot live in such a world, Hamlet must hold up the glass, must tell the truth of that world. So he refuses to stab the praying King in the back with excuses that never deceived himself or anyone else?..a sophistry which belongs to the gladiator's theology, a theology of irrational penalties and immoral pardons. It reduce the whole question of revenge to its real paltriness."
Finally, this analysis?..which really does poor honour to the broadcast???.leads us to the relations between Hamlet and Ophelia.
"Hamlet is what he is order to penetrate beyond that superficial activity, which in the end leaves everything unchanged. Shakespeare left behind him a world in which are no real problems or in which problems have a well-known historical solution. Hamlet, 'desperate with imagination,' answered his fate on the wall of Elsinore. For him there can be no slick solution, or nicely balanced retribution. In other words, Shakespeare is no longer a showman producing entertainment. Like Aeschylus he has introduced a new character. Shakespeare's new character is the spectator: his play will catch the conscience of the men who see it. Having given his art all the workof natural faith and natural science and seeing all the world a stage, he comes, as it were, himself or man or you or I and shows us our own image. Henceforth he demands the co-operative thought and understanding of his audience as he had never asked it in his comedies.
"In Macbeth??..and in King Lear the audience could be trusted??.to peer into the ends and origins and substance of human life itself. In Hamlet, the stage comes down into the pit, or all the world's a stage?? That is why the crisis and climax of the play is a theatre incident; above all, that is why Hamlet's purpose and calling was not to kill the King but to make him see-not the gladiator's vengeance but the player's revelation. Hamlet, the author, the distinguished justice, sees that though you kill Claudius you have still to vindicate the justice his falsehood and violence have offended. It is not in haste of retribution but in a slow fidelity showing vice in its own feature and falsehood its own image that the perturbed spirit must be satisfied. Claudius is to be punished by being Claudius: he is sentenced to reality."
"'The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience'-so we are prepared for the third act which begins in the spies' report on Hamlet and ends in the conversion of the Queen, the damnation of Claudius and the death of Polonius. Thereafter the 'seeming' and spying are done with???.
"But why does Ophelia go mad? What happens to beauty when we have Claudian Elsinore instead of the Forest of Arden? Shakespeare's answer is to show us, as it were, beauty crucified and in pain delivering judgment??..
"What happens to beauty when there is no Forest of Arden? In Macbeth there is none, in Lear less than a hundred lines. In Lear and Othello beauty is murdered. In Hamlet, beauty goes mad??..
Nymph, in thy orisons
Be all my sins remembered.
The 'mad' interview which breaks thus upon the great soliloquy or rather springs out of it has been spoiled by producers who cannot account for Hamlet's brutal speech except by making him spy the spies and put on an act for their benefit." (Olivier followed a recent tradition. Let's hope we have seen the last of it.) "So, as it seems to me, they miss the tragic pathos of Hamlet's only love scene. It is the only time he confesses himself and his confessor is Ophelia. 'Be all my sins remembered'-and here they are, the contempt and loathing which
have turned his truth into something near cruelty-'Go to, I'll no more on't; it hath made me mad'???.. All the world is in his confession; not its sins only but the paradox of such fellows as I crawling between heaven and earth. Besides the confession, is the warning, for Hamlet sees the drift of things, that war and a no-man's- land is preparing between his father's murderer and his father's avenger and that anyone so nearly engaged as Polonius and Ophelia stands in danger:
'Get thee to a nunnery'??'Let the doors be shut upon him that he may play the fool nowhere but in's own house.' If only they had obeyed the seer's warning instead of diagnosing 'ecstasy'"
"It is all a cry of pain, of pain and contradiction. Let honesty avoid beauty, and beauty avoid marrying, let marriage be abolished. I did love thee once?. you should not have believed me?? I loved you not??. we are arrant knaves??. you make us monsters??..be you as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, you shall not escape calumny. The only place in all the play where Hamlet loses a princely and sage temperance, where at first he wears 'a look so piteous in purport,' and then is 'quite, quite down' and finally falls to ranting against Laertes, is in Ophelia's presence. To his mother he sets up a glass where she may see the inmost part of her. In Ophelia he finds a mirror for himself. And so it comes about that when Hamlet has done his work and gone to England, the play is Ophelia's."
Our author closes his acute and quite original analysis by making good his point that now the play is Ophelia's.
"Beauty goes mad, but mad or sane commands all the issue. In Ophelia the whole tragedy coheres. The Queen's profanation of marriage would be a fad or an abstraction apart from Hamlet's own love, and the play's whole argument would collapse if his love were smirched or faded. When he bids her to a nunnery Hamlet may be too much protesting his disillusion as a prince, but he is only stating his logical necessity as an author. Ophelia carries Hamlet's confession. Ophelia pronounces sentence on Claudius and shows the age and body of the time its form and pressure. She breaks upon Hamlet's great soliloquy, and he resumes it at her grave, and in her grave the last battle of justice begins. We are doubtless at liberty to judge with Claudius that the madness springs all from her father's death. Yet it does not speak so, and indeed the Queen knows better."
Here Gregory quotes piercing lines spoken by Ophelia to the Queen, the King and Laertes which must send one back to Shakespeare's text. Indeed it would be doing scant justice to this original treatment of an over-studied Play not examine the text again in this new light. 'Hadst thou wits and didst persuade revenge,' says Laertes, 'It could not move thus.' Ophelia had made a pointedly dramatic and ironical appearance just when there had been "a characteristic specimen of Claudian diplomacy."
"And then-there she is! And what of the King's protest then. There might be nothing intolerable in his marriage or even unpardonable in his usurped throne, we might even accept Guildenstern's monarchism, or, like Polonius and the Queen, shut our minds to any disquieting surmise of truth-but not in this presence??"
"Claudius has ceased to exist. The whole sphere and frame in which he and his works mean anything has vanished. Hamlet's word and the Ghost's denunciation are light vanity compared with this 'document in madness'??
"Perhaps the most miraculous of all Shakespeare's insight is given to conveying profound humanity-sadness, wisdom, beauty, love, sin, prayer-in this lovely and distracted figure. Here more clearly than anywhere in the play the mirror is held up to nature. The things Ophelia speak or sings are the stuff of human life always. Her language is classical speech of folk song and monumental inscription. Her adornment is flowers, given or scattered, simple as they grow, and like Time itself she passes from one mystery to another lightly and almost unperceived-passes away But she misses nothing:
Thought, affliction, passion, hell itself
She turns to favour and to prettiness.
And at last she says all there is to say:
God ha'mercy on his soul
And of all Christian souls! I pray God, God be wi' ye.
So I end my grateful task! I have taken large extracts out of T. S. Gregory's broadcast, rearranging them in my own order. Hamlet is made all new by his genius, and all my own doubts are resolved. Here is how he closes:
'How is it that in a tragedy where are nine violent deaths, there is so little initiative? Ophelia does nothing: she just is. Yet all the climax, all the last judgment springs from her madness and her father's death. Hamlet initiates nothing, yet he is Claudius: and all he does within the play is an endeavor to escape from truth. Shakespeare deliberately confronts us with that which in any lesser poet would be a miracle-the fact that Hamlet's being and knowing and Ophelia's being and suffering together force an action as bloody as all the ambitious enterprise of Macbeth and his not left in any doubt even for a moment, Laertes and Claudius are but instruments of Hamlet's justice, or rather of that justice of which Hamlet is himself the scourge and minister."