1. My favorite line in Hamlet is a casual remark of Hamlet’s to Horatio, late in the play. It occurs just after he agrees to take part in his fatal fencing match with Laertes. Hamlet had just been telling Horatio of the devious means by which his uncle the king has tried to get him killed, when a courtier enters to inform him of the king’s interest in arranging the match. Laertes is known to be a champion fencer, his unsurpassed prowess begrudgingly acknowledged even by the French. Nonetheless, Hamlet agrees, returning the answer that he’s willing to take part immediately. When the courtier leaves with the message, Horatio says plainly what any first-time audience or reader must be thinking, “You will lose, my lord.” Hamlet’s nonchalant answer: “I do not think so. Since he went into France; I have been in continual practice. I will win, at the odds.”
For nonchalant revelations, that’s hard to beat. Continual practice – when might that have been? So far as the audience has been in a position to see, Hamlet has spent the last several months doing little but brooding alone, unsociable and unkempt. The only time he seemed to take any lively interest in the world was when stimulated by the chance visit of a touring theater troupe, without which he’d never have been roused to act on his seemingly-forgotten pledge to avenge his father’s murder. And now Shakespeare has Hamlet let drop – in the play’s final scene – he’s been at practice fencing, all of this time? Apparently so, for Hamlet’s cool self-assurance is borne out in the bout: he fences well enough in the first two rounds – winning both – to make the king doubt that Laertes can get in a single touch. (After this, it gets hard to judge – and bloody, on both sides.)
When had Hamlet been practicing? Laertes, recall, is a champion fencer (and also Hamlet’s sworn enemy). Continual practice would have to mean regular sparring, and probably also (if Hamlet’s skill has lately improved, as he seems to imply) extensive drilling as well. So far as we know, Hamlet has had no other friend at Elsinore over this period but Horatio, and Horatio seems to be no more apprized of this business than we are. With whom has Hamlet been practicing? Shakespeare supplies us with no information.
There’s more to be said about Hamlet’s fencing, but I’ll have to save that for another occasion. (A topic for another post, I promise.) I mention all this just to frame a more general question, or cluster of questions, concerning the limits of what we can know about Hamlet, and Hamlet’s doings. What else might Hamlet have been up to, of which the audience is unaware? What else was he practicing, in all of the time he had seen merely passive and withdrawn, or else over-excitable and impulsive? Hamlet’s psychology (his self-understanding) is famously elusive. But Hamlet’s activities are generally thought to be fully accounted for — enough so, at least, to make us construe his elusiveness in psychological terms. The seeming haphazardness in what we’re shown of his doings, over the course of the play, we ascribe to his being distracted, or skittish, or merely impulsive. But might it be, instead, that Shakespeare has seen no need to inform us of his full agenda?
The word “practice,” in Shakespeare, can sometimes mean to dissimulate, or deceive. This is not unrelated to ‘practicing’ fencing, for fencing in Shakespeare’s time was known especially for techniques of feinting, deceptive evasive manoeuvres. In general, too, fencing was practice for handling weapons in actual duels; it looks like real fighting, but only in play. When Hamlet and Laertes have their abortive bout, the stage direction reads: “They play.” (It turns out this ‘playing’ is the real thing, in that end up mortally wounded.) That’s not the only playing within the play Hamlet, of course. My concern in the following is the other kind – theatrical play-acting, as performed by the troupe of professional actors – or “players” — that shows up in Elsinore in Act II. With the questions I’ve just posed in mind, I’d like to examine some details in Hamlet’s behavior in the scene when the players arrive.
2. The first we hear of the players is when Hamlet is told of their imminent arrival by his former schoolfellows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who had passed them on the road to Elsinoire. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (whom I’ll call R. and G. from now on) had themselves just shown up, unexpectedly, and were studiously vague to Hamlet about what they were doing in Elsinore. When they say they have come merely to pay him a visit, Hamlet is instantly suspicious, and presses them to know their real business: “Were you not sent for? Is it your own inclining? Is it a free visitation? Come, deal justly with me.” He gets them to admit they were sent for, then pre-empts their further deceit by informing them he knows that it must have been the king and queen who had done so, for the purpose of humoring him (and also, it goes without saying, for the purpose of spying on him). They are momentarily out of their depth; then one of them gets the idea to divert Hamlet’s attention by bringing up the players with him. “What players are they?” Hamlet asks. “Those you were wont to take such delight in, the tragedians of the city,” Rosencrantz replies. “How chances it that they travel?,” comes Hamlet’s next question – at which point the conversation drifts into general talk about the theater business in the (unnamed) city where this company is usually based. The players arrive soon after, and Hamlet welcomes them heartily.
Run through that again. Moments before, Hamlet has had his suspicions confirmed that R. & G. have been specially summoned to the Court by the king, who hasn’t scrupled to recruit his old friends to deceive him. His suspicions had been aroused merely by the fact of his schoolmates’ otherwise unexplained appearance at the court. Why are his suspicions not similarly aroused when this company of players just happens to arrive at Elsinore on the same day? He has just obtained confirmation (if any were needed) that these two perfidious flatterers are well informed of his special liking for this particular company. R. & G. are inept, easily seen through. But this next batch of old acquaintances – well, they’re professional actors. They’re expert dissimulators, and they do it for hire. Somehow Hamlet is fully at ease with them, nonetheless. He never inquires what they’re doing in Elsinore.
Might it be that Hamlet has no need to inquire, already knowing the answer?Might it be that he knows very well that the players had been specially sent for – having sent for them himself? There is admittedly no positive indication of this. But nor does he say or do anything then or later that indicates the contrary. They are well known to him; he is capable of posting letters. He presumably would have the means to induce them to come, he being a prince, and they being players of uncertain financial standing. The queries he first puts to R. & G. when they tell him of their coming – “What players are they?” and “How chances it that they travel?” – tend to create the impression of his having no foreknowledge of the players’ coming. But mightn’t he want to create that impression, to them? It would be as easy as lying – easier, requiring no definite lies. Having just found out that R. & G. have been co-opted for the purpose of deceiving him, and are sure to be reporting back to the king, it would be simple prudence for him to withhold certain information. Or he might simply find it amusing to play dumb, privately mocking their knowing presumption of his ignorance.
If Hamlet knew in advance of the players’ visit, the natural inference would be that he had keenly anticipated their coming, and might well have been in prior contact with them. Nothing he says in this scene could be taken as positive grounds for ascribing foreknowledge to him – but then again, if there were, then Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would perceive this as well. Conversely, we in the audience, witnessing this, are in no position then they, to know Hamlet’s mind. It’s the first that we’ve seen of him since his encounter with his father’s Ghost, some weeks or months earlier. Suppose Shakespeare intended to leave us in that position – to give us no inside knowledge of Hamlet’s designs beyond what would be available to R. & G. Perhaps he deemed it sufficient to allow us only this one advantage over them: the opportunity to perceive the groundlessness of their knowing presumptions.
We may be no better positioned than R. & G. are to tell whether Hamlet might merely be feigning his seeming ignorance, when they tell him of the players’ arrival. And yet we are in a position to see that such feigning is something that Hamlet is capable of, and that he’d think clever – and funny – to do. And, remarkably, R. & G. are in a position to see this of him as well. For Hamlet proceeds to demonstrate this, right in front of them, moments later – when Polonius comes in, bringing his news of the players’ visit.
As Polonius enters, Hamlet sees fit to murmur a jibe about him to R. and G., aside, as if inviting them to conspire with him against the newcomer. He sets them up to join in a private joke against Polonius, the (nominal) point of which is to mock him for being so tiresomely predictable. “I will prophesy: he comes to tell me of the players, mark it” (355). To set up the joke, Hamlet then pretends – as Polonius comes within earshot – that the three are absorbed in discussing some past event, so that Polonius will assume that they haven’t yet gotten word of the latest. (“You say right sir, a Monday morning, ’twas then indeed,” Hamlet improvises.) When Polonius excitedly interrupts – “My Lord, I have news for you -” Hamlet then cuts him off by parroting back those same exact words – then continuing, nonsensically – “When Roscius was an actor in Rome…” – as if to imply, obscurely, that there’s not much to choose between the latest news and ancient history. (Roscius was a famous actor of Roman antiquity.) At which point Polonius impatiently cuts him off, with the very announcement that Hamlet had predicted. Hamlet must find this hilarious, if he’s willing to put so much energy into the joke. The other two must be delighted, too, to have been taken into his confidence, sharing the private joke. But they must be a bit befuddled as well, for why should Hamlet find this so hilarious, when Polonius’ news had been news to him just moments before? Needless to say, they’d never think to consider the joke might perhaps be on them.
3. Whether or not Hamlet knew of the players’ itinerary in advance, he shows every sign of knowing just what he wants of them, once they arrive. Immediately after greeting the company – with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, along with Polonius, still present – he requests an impromptu declamation. He asks the First Player to recite “a passionate speech” — it turns out, he has one particular speech in mind, from a play he especially likes. Here’s how he explains his request:
I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted, or if it was, not above once, for the play I remember pleased not the million: ’twas caviary for the general. But it was, as I received it, and others whose judgements in such matters cried in the top of mine, an excellent play, well digested in the scenes, set down with as much modesty as cunning. I remember one said there were no sallets in the lines to make it savoury, nor no matter in the phrase that might indict the author of affectation, but called it an honest method, as wholesome as sweet and by very much more handsome than fine. One speech in’t I chiefly loved, ’twas Aeneas’ tale to Dido, and thereabout of it especially where he speaks of Priam’s slaughter.
After all that, he then specifies more precisely what part of the speech he is most keen to hear, by reciting the first dozen lines himself – directing the First Player to continue from there.
Now this is curious. Hamlet begins by identifying the speech as one that he has heard the player recite once before. Then he gets carried off into happy reminiscences about his own and (unnamed) others’ opinions concerning the play to which the speech belongs. When he turns back from the play to the speech, he is very specific in identifying where in the play it occurs. The detail to notice: amid all this talk, Hamlet never actually names the play, nor identifies it by its contents or author. Yet somehow he counts on the person whom he’s addressing – the First Player – to understand what play he’s talking about. For he evidently expects him to know what he’s referring to, when he goes on to indicate a particular episode within it. (His manner of mentioning the episode cannot plausibly be taken as a way of specifying the play – as in ’You know, that play, the one with Aeneas telling a story to Dido.’ On the contrary, it presumes prior familiarity with the play’s contents.) Hamlet must assume that his ostentatiously oblique comments about the play’s merits and reception conveys all the information required for the Player to recognize what play he’s referring to. That is to say, there must be some private allusion involved in his cryptic mention of the “others whose judgments in such matters cried in the top of” his own, and the “one” who praised it so floridly. He may be alluding to persons known to the players, recognizable from these opinions. Alternatively, he may be reminding the players, perhaps teasingly, of statements that they’d made themselves. Either way – it seems to be some sort of private joke.
Consider a few further details, and see if we might catch the joke, possibly. Hamlet begins by telling the First Player, “I heard thee speak me a speech once, but it was never acted, or if it was, not above once, for the play I remember pleased not the million.” The speech has been spoken in Hamlet’s presence. (Note the suppressed preposition: was the speech spoken to Hamlet? For him?) And yet he professes uncertainty as to whether the play had ever been performed, due to its unpopularity – notwithstanding the praise it received by the true cognoscenti. In what capacity had Hamlet heard the speech spoken? How came he to care so greatly for the play’s merits, in the face of its popular failure, as to cherish in memory what praise it received? How is it that Hamlet is so familiar with a speech from a play never acted (or acted not above once) that he’s able to recite a dozen lines at a stretch? One possible answer, consistent with all of these facts: he wrote it himself.
And why not? Somebody had to have written it. If Hamlet himself were the author, the circumstances noted above would all be intelligible. It would explain how Hamlet is able to recite the first dozen lines without difficulty. It would also account for the player’s ease in reciting a so long a speech (from a play performed no more than once): in that case, he might have bethought himself to rehearse it, prior to coming to Elsinore. (Hamlet, after all, is a prince.) The joke in Hamlet’s long-winded deference to others’ esteem for the play’s merits would become legible, as an exercise in mock self-deprecation. (Note the bit about “cunning and modesty.”) He may be teasingly recalling this very actor’s flattering judgment of himself.
There is of course no way to prove that Hamlet is the author of the unnamed Aeneas play. My purpose in offering this as a hypothesis is largely heuristic, as one possible explanation for details otherwise easy to miss. The point is that Hamlet speaks of the play in a manner consistent with the hypothesis, and we’re in no position to know any further. We’re no more than half-comprehending observers to Hamlet’s interactions with the players, not knowing anything of his prior dealings with them, and not being privy to whatever the inside allusions pass unstated in their exchanges.
If this is our epistemic situation in relation to the unnamed Aeneas play, it is equally true of another play that Hamlet brings up, this time by name, later on in this same conversation. I refer to The Murder of Gonzago – otherwise known as The Mousetrap.