A room in the castle.Enter KING CLAUDIUS, ROSENCRANTZ, and GUILDENSTERN
I like him not [I don't like his behavior
], nor stands it safe with us
To let his madness range [roam freely
]. Therefore prepare you;
I your commission will forthwith [shortly
And he to England shall [shall go
] along with you:
The terms of our estate [occupations of my kingship
] may not endure
Hazard so dangerous as doth hourly grow
Out of his lunacies.
We will ourselves provide [prepare
Most holy and religious fear it is
To keep those many many bodies safe
That live and feed upon your majesty.
[e.g. You're right to be concerned. Your safety is vital because many people depend on you.
The single and peculiar [private
] life is bound [obliged
With all the strength and armour of the mind,
To keep itself from noyance [harm
]; but much more
That spirit [that sort of person, e.g. a king
] upon whose weal [welfare
] depend and rest
The lives of many. The cease [death
] of majesty
Dies not alone; but, like a gulf [whirlpool
], doth draw
What's near it with it: it is a massy [massive
Fix'd on the summit of the highest mount,
To whose huge spokes ten thousand lesser things
Are mortised [stuck tight
] and adjoin'd; which, when it falls,
Each small annexment [annex: e.g. each person or institution dependent on the king
], petty consequence [or minor thing connected with it (the king)
] the boisterous [tumultuous
] ruin. Never alone
Did the king sigh, but with a general groan.
[Rosencrantz and Guildenstern go overboard explaining that Claudius's safety is more important than that of a private individual? This works on several levels: it's comic, displaying them as obsequious buffoons. At the same time, it may be an honest attempt on their parts to help Claudius say what he needs to say (and do what he needs to do) without losing face, without seeming like a coward: "We understand that you are not scared for yourself; you are scared for Denmark." But it's mostly a bit of self-justification. R&G know they're being asked to betray their friend in a much bigger way then previously, when they were "just" asked to spy on him. In order to feel like good people, they must convince themselves that they are doing their patriotic duties.The comic effect is heightened by the fact that Claudius seems unmoved by Rosencrantz's long speech. Stewart, the actor who played Claudius in my production, used to roll his eyes during it, irritated that he had to put up with longwinded fawning while his life was at stake. This also helped set up Claudius's general mood in the scene. He is deeply troubled after the mousetrap, and, as we'll see, his main concern isn't danger from Hamlet: it's fear for his immortal soul. And yet people keep bothering him, keeping stifling an urge to pray that must be as intense as the need to pee after standing in line at the bank for an hour after drinking several glasses of water. Claudius is internally hopping up and down, stymied first by R&G and then by Polonius.To understand the stakes here, consider that Claudius is worried he may die now. Hamlet may, at any moment, come running through the door, sword in hand (as he in fact does, shortly). Later, in reference to Hamlet's death sentence, Claudius says, "till I know 'tis done, / Howe'er my haps, my joys were ne're begin."It's not death alone Clausius fears. It's dying with a wicked soul and so being sent to hell! Earlier in the play, the ghost made it clear how terrible it is if you die with sins still on your head:Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's handOf life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd:Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,Unhousel'd, disappointed, unanel'd,No reckoning made, but sent to my accountWith all my imperfections on my head:O, horrible! O, horrible! most horrible!In short, Claudius is terrified of that undiscovered country Hamlet spoke of in "to be or not to be." It's a land that scares many of the key players in this story.
Arm you, I pray you, to this speedy voyage;
For we will fetters [chains
] put upon this fear [danger
Which now goes too free-footed.
We will haste us.Exeunt ROSENCRANTZ and GUILDENSTERNEnter POLONIUS
My lord, he's going to his mother's closet:
Behind the arras [curtain
] I'll convey myself,
To hear the process; and warrant [I'll bet
] she'll tax him home [give him a good tongue-lashing
And, as you said, and wisely was it said,
'Tis meet [appropriate
] that some more audience than a mother,
Since nature makes them partial, should o'erhear
The speech, of vantage [in addition (to her)
]. Fare you well, my liege:
I'll call upon you ere you go to bed,
And tell you what I know.
Thanks, dear my lord.Exit POLONIUS
[The fact that Claudius launches into the following with no preamble makes it clear how desperate he's been to get to it.
[It's always useful on stage to physicalize as much as possible, so we chose a specific spot on the floor as Claudius's "praying spot." He crossed to it, tried to pray, found he couldn't and ran away from it. He repeated this action several times during the speech. Below, I'll add in some (bold-face) stage directions, indicating this.
O, my offence is rank [stinks
] it smells to heaven;
It hath the primal eldest curse upon't,
A brother's murder*. [Tries to pray. Tension builds up in him, as he literally finds it impossible to kneel. His keens won't bend! Finally, when he can't take it any longer, he rushes to the other side of the room, saying:
] Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will:
[The previous line seems to contain a redundancy -- inclination and will -- unless the latter refers to the will to murder. In which case Claudius is saying that his inclination to pray is as strong as was his will to sin.
My stronger guilt defeats my strong intent;
And, like a man to double business bound [like a man with two conflicting goals
I stand in pause where [not-knowing where
] I shall first begin,
And both neglect. What if this curs-ed hand
Were thicker than itself with brother's blood?
Is there not rain enough in the sweet heavens
To wash it white as snow?
[It's worth mentioning that, while asking the above two sentences, Stewart stared at his hands. It's always thrilling to see an actor concretize an idea, rather than leave it metaphorical. This, in a sense, is what we pay actors to do: to be the word made flesh.
----------- Whereto serves mercy
But to confront the visage of offence?
[e.g. What's the point of mercy, unless it confronts guilt?
And what's in prayer but this two-fold force,
To be forestalled ere [to stop us before
] we come to fall,
Or pardon'd being down [excuse us once we've fallen
-------- Then I'll look up [...to heaven
]; [Crosses to the praying-spot once more.
My fault is past. [This refers back to the previous idea. Prayer can either stop you from sinning or pardon you once you've already sinned. Claudius's crime is in the past, so it's too late to be stopped. But perhaps God will pardon him.
]But, O, what form of prayer
Can serve my turn [needs
]? 'Forgive me my foul murder'?
That cannot be; since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder,
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
[Stewart paused slightly before "and my queen," which he said with great tenderness and sadness, as if his crown and ambition were secondary to this great prize: Gertrude. During rehearsals, he and I spoke at great lengths about whether or not Claudius loves Gertrude or is just using her as a political ladder. It definitely helps secure his position as king (which is shaky, due to Hamlet's claim) to be married to the former queen, who is also Hamlet's mother, and who seems to be, via marriage, casting her political weight in favor of her husband, not her son.I cast Stewart partly because he's un-erringly polite and gentle, and I thought this would be more interesting than an obviously evil actor playing the role. HAMLETO villain, villain, smiling, damned villain!My tables,--meet it is I set it down,That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain;At least I'm sure it may be so in Denmark:And though I think a case could be made for Claudius loving or not-loving Gertrude, Stewart made a clear decision that he was a man deeply in love. Once this decision was made, many aspects of the play supported it, such was when, later, he explains to Laertes why he didn't just kill Hamlet:The queen his motherLives almost by his looks; and for myself--My virtue or my plague, be it either which--She's so conjunctive to my life and soul,That, as the star moves not but in his sphere,I could not but by her.And, of course, towards the end of the play, he cries out "Gertrude, do not drink!" when she's about to sip the poison. Both that and the speech to Laertes could be played as political maneuvers (he needs the queen alive in order to serve his ends and he needs to convince Laertes it wasn't love for Hamlet that hindered him), but Stewart's choice -- that he was deeply in love -- painted Claudius with a romantic and tragic patina that added many layers to the play. He was the most sympathetic Claudius I've ever seen, and it made me speculate as to why he murdered his brother. Stewart played it as if it was a generally out-of-character action, made out of necessity. Perhaps he even did it for patriotic reasons. Maybe -- at least in Claudius's mind -- King Hamlet was a despot.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence [the spoils of the crime
In the corrupted currents of this world
Offence's gilded hand [hand filled with gold, e.g. bribes
] may shove by [push away
And oft 'tis [often it is
] seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law [e.g. bribery
]: but 'tis not so above [with God, who can't be bribed
There is no shuffling [conning God
], there the action lies [will be seen
In his true nature; and we ourselves compell'd [will be compelled
Even to the teeth and forehead [the very top
] of our faults,
To give in evidence. What then? what rests [remains to be done
Try what repentance can? What can it not [not do
Yet what can
it when one can not repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!
O limed [trapped
] soul, that, struggling to be free,
Art more engaged [tangled
]! Help, angels!
[Again, it's almost always better to play the actual rather than the imaginary or the metaphorical. Stewart screamed to heaven for the angels, trying desperately to get them -- real angels, up above his head -- to hear him and descend.
--- Make assay [Make an effort
[Runs to the praying-spot
Bow, stubborn knees; [with huge effort, forces his knees to bend.
] and, heart with strings of steel,
Be soft as sinews of the newborn babe!
All may be well. [May all be well.
]Retires and kneels
... [Hamlet enters and speaks, here. I'll cover what he says in the next post. Meanwhile, here's the result of Claudius's prayers.
] My words fly up, my thoughts remain below:
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.Exit[* This is, of course, a reference to the Cain and Abel story from the Bible. Claudius knows he's guilty of just about the worst sin possible! What lies waiting for him in the afterlife? The Arden edition points out that while Claudius is deeply troubled by the fact that he murdered his brother, he doesn't mention incest. The only person troubled by the King's marriage seems to be Hamlet.
Perhaps this is my prejudice, but I've long felt this play could be called "Hamlet and Claudius," or (and this would be more interesting due to its ambiguity), "The Prince and the King." Claudius is the most well-rounded character after Hamlet, and he's the only one, besides Hamlet, with a lengthy soliloquy. Consider how the play would be different without it!
Strictly speaking, it's unnecessary. It does nothing to further the plot, which would tick along nicely if Hamlet just came into the room and saw Claudius silently praying.
By including this speech, Shakespeare purposefully tips our sympathies towards Claudius, though not necessarily away from Hamlet. He makes our feelings much more complicated and conflicted. Which is why I so wanted a strong but sympathetic actor to play the King.
Next: Act Three, Scene Three: Hamlet's opportunity