Monday, November 04, 2013

Hamlet's Crazy Timeline

I'm working my way through a Hamlet summary for my daughter (their high school is performing Hamlet next week!) and I want to make sure I understand something.  Here's the timeline of how Hamlet's "antic disposition" goes down:

* Hamlet sees ghost.  Hatches plan to "put an antic disposition on."

* Scene with Polonius where Ophelia runs in to tell her father that "she has been so affrighted" that Hamlet wandered into her room looking all crazy and what not. Polonius decides that he's mad from love and runs to tell the king and queen.

* Scene with Claudius and Gertrude, who have already summoned Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to snap Hamlet out o this mood he's been in.

* Polonius enters, announcing that he has discovered the cause of Hamlet's madness. The queen says well duh it's obviously his father's death and our o'erhasty marriage.

* Polonius then reads the love letters that Hamlet has sent Ophelia.

So I'm trying to figure out how much time is going by here.  If we take Ophelia out of the picture we're led to believe that significant time has passed, for Claudius and Gertrude to decide that something's wrong with Hamlet and to send for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, right?  Everybody seems to agree that something's wrong with Hamlet, and has been for awhile.

If that's true ... then how does the Ophelia story work into it? Why now all of a sudden is she so suddenly affrighted? Doesn't she know that Hamlet is crazy? And, doesn't Polonius also know that Hamlet is crazy?

Maybe Polonius has an epiphany here, maybe in whatever months have gone by Hamlet's had nothing to do with Ophelia (as Polonius desired), but now he suddenly bursts in on her and Polonius says "Aha!  He's clearly mad because he hasn't been close to my daughter! I've cracked the case!"

But if *that* is true...then where did the love poems come from?  He doesn't apparently give her anything when he barges into her room.  And if the letters were part of what Ophelia gave over to her father back at the beginning when she was initially asked, those would have been written at a time before Hamlet was supposedly nuts.  So that means that Hamlet's been writing letters to Ophelia during these intervening months?

Is that it?  Ophelia is no longer speaking to Hamlet. Hamlet is writing letters to Ophelia, which she is not answering, and he's getting more and more desperate.  Nobody notices the connection. But now he's so desperate he's getting physical, and Polonius finally connects the dots.

Do I have that right?


JM said...

Pol. What have you given him any hard words of late?
Ophel. No my good Lord: but as you did command,
I did repel his Letters, and deny'de
His accesse to me.
Pol. That hath made him mad.

Just curious; what do you mean by " he's so desperate he's getting physical"?

Anonymous said...

I think he means when he Ham comes up to O and examines her face like he's counting chicken pox and then takes her by the arm and shakes her. Then he walks out backwards staring at her. The funny thing is I have never seen Hamlet performed, or as a movie. The only thing I have seen is the Gilligan's Island Hamlet Musical; so in this scene in particular, I kept picturing Bob Denver.

JM said...

Actually he took her by the wrist first, steps back, while holding her wrist: "Then goes he to the length of all his arm," puts his other hand over his brow, studies her face, then: "At last, a little shaking of mine arm,"
He doesn't "shake HER". With the exception of holding hard her wrist there's no undue physicality involved.

Ophelia's description of his dress and actions--to a T--fit the behavior of the jilted lover. Rosalind's description of the Courtly Lover in As You Like It could be describing Hamlet in dress and some behavior--sighing, mooning about, hand over forehead bemoaning his fate, etc. The "picture" of sorrow and desolation over his fate.

"A lean cheek ...a blue eye and sunken...a beard neglected...Then your hose should be ungartered, your bonnet unbanded, your sleeve unbuttoned, your shoe untied, and everything about you demonstrating a careless desolation. But you are no such man: you are rather point-device in your acoutrements, as loving yourself than seeming the lover of any other." 3.2.346-56

Some of his behavior *is* outright 'loopy', but not all, according to custom. That's why Polonius instantly recognizes it as "love" and feels he's been remiss in not believing the extent of it before now.
Love was thought to possess the ability to drive people crazy--especially unrequited love--and often the afflicted would show it in such a fashion. Also, remember Hamlet's intent to "...put an antic disposition on". This whole exercise is *something* of an act on Hamlet's part, serving more than one purpose. How much of an act? That's questionable. But he's able to let Ophelia know, through a classic representation, how he feels for her, and at the same time serve notice that he is indeed somewhat "antic".

Duane Morin said...

About the "getting physical" thing, yes, I was thinking of it from Polonius' perspective, and why this event that Ophelia describes was some sort of turning point. Hamlet's been "off" for awhile, right? And Polonius has seen his love poetry already? So didn't he know that Hamlet's mad for love already?

Or is it that Polonius is so dense that he *didnt* get that, until Hamlet said "Here let me spell it out for you" and then, as you said, puts on the very dictionary definition of the jilted lover. Only when he makes it that obvious does the brilliant Polonius say, "I know! He's a jilted lover!"

I kind of like that - the idea that Hamlet planned out everything, even how his madness would be interpreted. Maybe not be accurate to the text, but like we've discussed so many times in the past J, I think I'm more willing to spin off on these wild ideas to fill in the blank spaces between the pages.

JM said...

"...but like we've discussed so many times in the past J, I think I'm more willing to spin off on these wild ideas to fill in the blank spaces between the pages."

--As long as the spin doesn't turn into a dervish of misinformation, causing wrong impression about what IS actually there on the page.
Of course we have to speculate and invent *some* of what *any* character in *any* work of literature might be "thinking/feeling".
But as soon the desire to do that trumps what the playwright invented and intentionally served to us on a platter as his/her creation; what the character TELLS US or SHOWS US outright, leading to patently WRONG conclusions in face of the evidence that soundly proves them wrong, I draw the line. Otherwise, we abandon principle and take up selfishness, insulting the artist in the process. As an artist myself, it's my responsibility to see that that doesn't happen. If not, my claim to love and respect the work, as it has been lovingly and painstakingly offered to me, is a sham.

Duane Morin said...

I think we've gone too far from the original question. How exactly does the timeline of Hamlet's madness play out? When did Polonius get those letters, and what does that mean for the whole Polonius/Ophelia/Hamlet relationship? Shouldn't they have already known he was crazy for love? Why then is this event in her chamber so frightening? Has Hamlet truly been trying to get a message to Ophelia, or are the letters a deliberate part of his act?

JM said...

Polonius--Reynaldo, Laertes to France; been there long enough for P to send Reynaldo to report on what has occurred so far; Voltemand to Norway and back. You left that out of your timeline. Time passes. But we've argued the importance of this before. Even so, now you're indicating that enough time has passed for Hamlet to have been the object of hurt *before* he responds in kind to Ophelia?

Wouldn't you be "affrighted" if your significant other--THE Prince, his highness. no less-- displayed such behavior? Weird? or maybe not?

First mention of actual existing "letters" from Hamlet is Ophelia to Polonius *after* the chamber scene has happened. Do not "Give words or talk" is the only command Polonius gives Ophelia. She obviously already has "remembrances"; 'mementos'. Perhaps among them are love poems. Polonius already knows of the 'love connection' between the two. But he dismisses it as inconsequential as regards veracity--not as regards social importance--...until...scene in question happens.

Shakespeare has to SHOW US somehow and has to begin somewhere. Time on the stage is of the essence. It's scarce and exposition vis a vis scene and subject must be meted out judiciously. He can't show us everything that happens re: Hamlet acting out his 'madness'. It's a PLAY, not a made for tv movie.
Whatever kinds of displays of nuttery have occurred, over *whatever* time has passed, are punctuated by THIS one, which just happens to deal with love between H & O and, obviously, IT HAS NOT OCCURRED BEFORE. She's been refusing his letters and repelling him at each attempt at advance. Has she reported *every* occurrence of a refusal to acknowledge his "letters"? Personally, from the tenor of her report to daddy about what a good girl she's been, I don't think so. But THIS obvious display of Hamlet, to the extent it goes and the subject it deals with, happens *as a result*. Polonius, who wouldn't give this "love" the time of day before (and obviously hasn't been) goes "Aha! Ophelia obeyed instruction and THIS is what happens? So THAT'S what this behavior (whatever *that* may have been *so far*) is *really* about!"
What's so complicated about that?

Shakespeare elongates and compresses time at will.The nature of the medium dictates it. The important thing is to not eliminate what time line he has offered, however sketchy and thin it may be. When entire scenes are eliminated, explanations are then needed for things which wouldn't have even occurred to us otherwise, as we have seen.
Apparently, to me, Hamlet still has true feelings for Ophelia, otherwise she would be a mere trifle to him and unable to cause the great hurt and consequent wrath she inspires in him when he thinks he has totally lost her. He cannot simply dismiss her out of hand. He tries once again at the beginning of the nunnery scene. She rebuffs him once more. She HATH made him mad--crazy mad---he says so. WHY is this happening?--he doesn't know and no one will tell him!
That his appearance to her in her chamber might be simultaneously advantageous to his purpose in some other way doesn't change that for me. He's a 'pretty smart' guy and can hold two conflicting thoughts in his head at the same time.
Did I cover everything?

JM said...

"Did I cover everything?"

Sorry. I didn't mean for that to sound so rhetorical. Given the reasons you asked the questions, the answer is important to me, when you get a chance. Thanks.

Duane Morin said...

Hi J!

Yes, you did cover it nicely. I think that this part here:

" But he dismisses it as inconsequential as regards veracity--not as regards social importance--...until...scene in question happens. "

is the fundamental bit of info I was questioning. I knew that the timeline meant that everybody knew Hamlet was the spurned lover, so why suddenly did the scene in question cause everything to kick into high gear. You've confirmed what I was thinking, that Polonius didn't really take it seriously until Hamlet took it to the next level. Thanks!