To Be (Deux?)
Copyright © by Jean Migrenne, 6/11/02


  This approach cannot be fully understood unless one considers that languages are systems, based on simple laws, like that of gravity for the universe.
  In the case of the English language, one may visualize them diagrammatically, on one horizontal line: Let’s start with writing, as process. In the western world, one proceeds from left to right. Literature is concerned with three basic factors. TIME, SPACE, and THE HUMAN FACTOR(self/non-self). Time is expressed mostly by means of verb tenses and forms. The immediate spatial environment of self is expressed, first of all, by means of articles: definite, indefinite/and zero as is the case in English. 
  Self is placed somewhere on a line between past and future, between that which has been lived and that which has not yet been lived. Between what can be regarded as REAL and what belongs to conjecture/hypothesis. The system is best visualized as the image one has of a jet in flight overhead, with a visible wake, behind, TO ITS LEFT, and TO ITS RIGHT, the miles that remain to be flown, FORWARD, AHEAD.  Freeze the image, and analyze: The plane is where SELF is now: Point O,  in the present of the moment. At point O, and to the left of O, Time is expressed and can be measured on a precise scale by means of a combination of forms that belong to the verb: SIMPLE PAST, SIMPLE PRESENT, PRESENT +PAST, PAST +PAST: REALITY.
  To the right of O, nothing is real, the English verb has no, or almost no, means to express and measure with precision what does not exist. New verb forms must be created: by borrowing an adverb/preposition such as TO for the infinitive. Which, etymologically, implies movement forward; by means of auxiliaries, i.e. by borrowing verbs or periphrases that have it in themselves to mean future action: MODALS: CAN/COULD, MAY/MIGHT, MUST, SHALL/SHOULD (OUGHT), WILL/WOULD; MODAL EQUIVALENTS, such as ’D RATHER ; or MAKE, LET, HAVE, as in ‘to make/let/have someone do something’. These are transplants, carrying with them their own DNA and thus influencing the meaning of what is expressed: ‘I can go’/’I must go’ mean I+GO+TOMORROW+CIRCUMSTANCES. Whereas the French ‘j’irai’ just means I+GO+TOMORROW. The verb forms we have in French under the labels conditionnel or subjonctif  are unknown in English. With the exception of BE, and such verb forms which follow the rules of the Present, as in God BLESS you.

  In English, the expression of the UNREAL, is a creation for which the writer/speaker is responsible, which implies an infinity of  choices and interpretations. Logical enough, for one is free to build one’s own picture of the future, since there is no such thing as a ‘real’ future, by nature. And there is, consequently an almost infinite number of degrees on the scale, to the RIGHT OF O. From the nearest (MUST) to the remotest (MIGHT), according to the degree of probability (obstacles) these auxiliaries confer to the phrase in context, with regard to concrete materialization, in O. TO- forms are open without measure or restriction.
  One tense, the SIMPLE PRESENT, covers the whole diagram, i.e.- YESTERDAY+TODAY+TOMORROW: we refer to it as universal present.
  One more natural verb form, the –ing, one, an adjunct, not a transplant can be added to any of the above expressions of time. For reasons that would require too much of your attention, we shall abstain to demonstrate why it ‘looks backwards, TO THE LEFT, as opposed to the TO-forms which, as seen above look forward, ahead.
  Let’s just see one simplified application of the system and come back to the process of writing from left to right, in the following statement: ‘The US President has visited/been visiting the beaches of Normandy.’
  Written to the LEFT of the verb is the subject. Written to the RIGHT is the object, and various complements. ‘Has visited’ refers to cold act/fact. ‘Has been visiting’ adds a subjective touch to it. Subjective, means referring to the subject, TO THE LEFT, to an idea, before the act. Or referring to the subjectivity of the writer/speaker, itself a condition necessary to the production of the statement, therefore ANTERIOR. If you listen to broadcast reports of football matches, you can find examples of this phenomenon. There is other evidence, in other contexts. The definite article, too, IN SPACE, is an important factor in the determination of the personal (associated to the moment, in TIME) and of the universal.
  In English, the definite article used with a plural, or equivalent, refers to the universal, excludes exceptions: If you go about shouting ‘Down with the Yahoos’ (referring to Swift, of course), your avowed aim is to get rid of them all. Used with a singular, it implies that the reference is unique: ‘The Sun, the Pope, the sky, the soul. Or that it is a type,: the man in the street, common to ALL (universally recognizable). Geography is a field of its own where, in spite of appearances, the rule works.
  Since no one can really live and command the whole universe, some restriction, limitation of the field of action, of the speaker’s/subject’s scope, is necessary. This is done by introducing such elements as of, a relative clause, a superlative, only. And that is why definite articles used in any description involving a character’s environment necessary confine it. (See our comparative analysis of the two soliloquies. Definition = limitation. Indefinite or zero articles introduce no such parameters. They are expressions of reality, as items in the environment of self, but not as limits. This demonstration should be more detailed. Of course, but it is meant to be a short introduction to our method.

Shakespeare/Hamlet/To Be Or Not To Be Revisited

  Certainly the author, the play, the character, the words that most people all over the world know, without even knowing English. Certainly one of the texts most students have been, and will be confronted with. Are you sure you’ve read  this part of Hamlet, III, 1 properly, and did you ever realize that a sort of clone of the soliloquy can be found later on (IV, 4)? Let’s begin with ‘to be or not to be’ and, before reading the lines, say a few words about text and punctuation. We posit that this punctuation corresponds to the logic of the speech, and pauses in breathing. As to words and meaning, minor ambiguities and alternative readings will be dealt with, if necessary,  in the course of this analysis.


To be, or not to be: that is the question:                
/ Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,

And by opposing end them? / To die: to sleep:         5     

No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache, and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. / To die, to sleep;                                                           

To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;   10
  For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: / there’s the respect      

That makes calamity of so long life; //                      14
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,  15
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office, and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make                 20
With a bare bodkin? / who would fardels bear,
To grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death,
The undiscover’d country from whose bourn
No traveller returns, puzzles the will,                      25
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?/
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; //    28
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,            30
And enterprises of great pitch and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry
And lose the name of action. 


   The first half of line 1 is the expression of a dilemma. Or being the fulcrum on either side of which we find the same words, in a future-oriented grammatical context: to be. To the right of the fulcrum one extra word not  destroys the balance. The speaker looks ahead, and forward, to unpleasant circumstances.
   The second half of the line may well be regarded as padding, but the tense (simple present) gives the dilemma actuality both in the present of the speaker, and in universal time. The definite article, itself an immediate echo of that,  hammers in the dilemma as fact, limiting the character’s scope in time and space, restricting his field of thought.
    Lines 2, 3, 4, 5 /   
     The first horn of the dilemma, to be, is now expanded into another, more explicit dilemma: whether/or.
     The first half, (2,3) takes up to be in a passive context: to suffer, against three aggressive words: slings, arrows, outrageous. Their origin is extra-human: fortune. Although a prince and, as such, trained in the art of warfare, Hamlet is not in a conquering mood.
     The second, shorter half, (4,5/) takes up to be in an active context: to take arms, opposing, end. Some fighting spirit is now perceptible. But the context remains one of aggression against self.
  The first horn of the dilemma is also seen from an ethical and psychological point of view: nobler in the mind. Nobler, as befits a prince. In the mind: if the question is a concern of Hamlet’s own , not to be judged by others, the definite article applies it to man as type, and not just the man Hamlet.
     All verb forms are future-oriented, like in 1: to suffer/take/(end).
     One –ing form: opposing, expressing a means of action, refers to the inward looking stance of the speaker (more about this in Part II).
     What it all suggests is a struggle (centripetal)  rather than a campaign (centrifugal), in contradiction with the forward looking to- forms, for the adversary is on a scale beyond human reach: fortune, sea/SIEGE of troubles. The imagery is that of war: SLINGS/ARROWS/TAKE ARMS/OPPOSE and (SIEGE). Such words are meant to sound natural in the mouth of a normal prince. His stance is not.
     The disproportion between the two adversaries is great, but no prince worthy of the title, and no tragic hero, can afford not to take up such a challenge. The outcome is, now, given as positive (to) end THEM, meaning to triumph over the third person plural, the other(s), adversity. Since the dominant mood was expressed in the word suffer, this ending is to be regarded as a personal victory.
    Yet, (5) is not over. The second half of the line, again looking ahead: to die,  to sleep, makes the actual victory as short-lived as can be.
    (To) end  implies death of the prince/hero in the process of his triumph, self-inflicted in so far as the man assumes the choice of his course of action. It involves the intellect nobler in the mind. It is not a matter of  hot-blooded politics.
     The first horn of the dilemma: to be, is thus developed into two sub-horns: a,  lines 2,3; and a’, lines 4,5/. And we note that sub-horn a’  (the 100% active one) is given less weight than sub-horn a: half a line, 25%, less. (For proportions, see other soliloquy (11-12))
    Lines /5, 6,7,8,9/ concern the first half, b, of the second horn of the dilemma: not to be.
    Lines /9, 10,11, 12, 13/ concern the second half, b’.
    From the start, we note that the second horn is developed over 9 lines. More than twice the first horn. The balance is, therefore, dramatically tipped, from the start, in favour of  the not to be stance, since, so far, only 1.5 lines concern action regarded as positive (4, 5/). That is to say 11 lines altogether (passive and negative) against 1.5.
    Within the second horn, a balance is struck between sub-horn b and sub-horn b’: four lines each. Both are introduced by the same words: to die, to sleep, in the same position, enhanced,  obsessive, perfect iambic ends of  pentameters; each ending a quatrain, as it were. And, at the same time, opposed in their immediate consequences: no more (6)/perchance to dream (10).
    To sleep, being a metaphor for to die, comes as an explanation for not to be. In perfect symmetry with its reverse: to be/to live, although neither verb (live) nor noun (life)  have yet appeared in the soliloquy.
    The transition between the two horns is marked by the repetition of end, first as future-oriented (to) end (5), and then, as simple present, voicing universal, timeless truth, (end of 6).
    One must wait until the end of (14) to find life, in an emphatically negative context (calamity/so long).
    The approach to this matter of life and death is now religious, starting from the lower end, from the body: heart-ache, natural shocks, flesh, thrust upon self as unavoidable, unquestionable in their presence (3 definite articles).  Followed by devoutly (first word of 9), and in a simple present clause, consummation, (final word of 8) as synonym for end, heavily stresses the religious bias in the prince’s thoughts. Fact, against wishful thinking itself future-oriented per se.
    The prince’s religion, here, is strongly influenced by Gnosticism. Nothing original for Elizabethans; but surely quite out of line with what a prince was supposed to be, or  behave like, in those days. Would sound suspicious to whoever might be eavesdropping. And yet, the images belong to  military language as well: end, shocks. Quite in keeping with (3-5); nothing suspicious as far as sanity is concerned. The prince’s rhetoric is good.
    The second sub-horn is rather loosely built at the beginning (10): Another to sleep, and more padding in the second half of the line: ay, there’s the rub. But sleep is, again, repeated (11) and overtly associated with death. And dreams crop up again. Not that the metaphor requires any further explanation; but rather, now, the beginning of an obsession that tells on the expression.
    The famous metaphor which follows (12), belongs to the Gnostic approach; the imagery, mortal coil, is animal and quite possibly related, through word play, with the fall of Adam. It also introduces a new kind of future, so far mainly marked by to- forms, and the first modal may: after a systematic use of ‘to’ forms.
    The present perfect have shuffled  projects into the future (when) the reality of the speaker’s past and present. The reality of the future is now taken for granted, whereas the ‘to’ forms introduced an open future without obstacles, but without any guarantee of realization, involving self in the first person plural, just like above (6). This plural is not to be understood as regal, but as a form uniting Hamlet the prince with the rest of mankind. That the subject should become object: us (12) enhances the irreversible shift from active to passive in these first lines of the soliloquy. End, after being expanded into consummation and now re-condensed into the particle off, leads the way to the final pause: a fine alternation of Saxon and Latinate phrases, of metaphoric thought and psychology, far enough from down to earth, pragmatic considerations, but never discarding them altogether .
    (14) introduce the second modal: must. Intensity rises, the future, as obstacle,  passes from possibility to certainty. All that has been envisaged, and projected into an obstacle-free vision of the future (TO) in the introductory lines, is now bogged down, the obstacle being insuperable: must give us pause.
    The loop is looped. We are back to square one. The end of such a line cannot carry any more substance. Hence padding #3: there’s the respect, cleverly used as transition to a longer conclusion (as formal compensation), since the line is not end-stopped.
    Let’s PAUSE and look back: what we have is surely an exploration of the notions of life and death, but most of our commentary concerns form and structure, more important than psychology; surface mostly. The whole is what the French call un exercice de style. Manner matters more: 14 lines make a SONNET. The theme is introduced;  the structure is didactic: or/whether/or. Horns A and B are subdivided into a and a’; b and b’; almost the same length for each in their own bracket. The author shows off his skill. A carefully measured imbalance accompanies the reasoning down to the coda: that makes calamity of so long life, for psychological verisimilitude’s sake. 
    Here, the author as artist takes pride of place; his character comes second. Not much can be inferred as to the latter’s mental state at the time. A few  words carry just enough dramatic irony for the lines to fit in the plot.
    It is only a draft, not a perfect sonnet. But the play’s subject and tone have nothing to do with courtly love and Euphuism. There is no need for a perfect sonnet.



One sonnet, 1-14. On top of another, 15-28.
    SONNET#2 is also carefully built and balanced: the transition with #1 is to be found in the use of modals: would (lines 15/21) and might (20), cleverly balanced, with will, as noun, (25) before the coda, itself built round a double future-looking verb pattern: makes us rather bear…than fly. The open future introduced by 12 (or13) TO forms in #1 no longer prevails ((only 1/2 in SONNET#2 (22) to grunt and sweat)). Obstacles, introduced by would and might, are subdued; more simple presents take everyone (who) back, and down, to real earth.
     Part x: (15-21/): 6.5 lines introduced by for who would bear.
     Part x’ (/21-27): 6.5 lines almost similarly introduced: (for) who would fardels bear and closing  almost exactly on bear#3 (26).
     But at different extremities of their respective lines, for variety’s sake. The whole taking up, and laying heavy stress on one item belonging to the imagery of SONNET #1: suffer, Latinate and more immaterial, has been replaced by  bear (x3), itself wittily echoed by bare (21), by under (22), and culminating in the conclusive cowards (28).  A coward does not/cannot/will not act. Action negated;  passiveness. Another loop is being looped. Back to square one again. Pure, brilliant, cold rhetoric. Does make…us all echoing the universal simple present of 1: that is the question, accepting no exception. For that is what the conjunction of simple present and definite article points to, all the more so when associated to a plural emphasized by ALL, equivalent to the definite article. Let’s have a look inside.
   The mortal nature of man has been established as principle. We have read that the possibility of an after-life remained open, although subject to doubt may come (11); that inaction imposed itself as necessary must give (13). The tone in SONNET #2remains the same, but somewhat subdued, after this climactic must. The next 12 lines depend on a new modal (repeated) would (15/21), less coercive and etymologically admitting some degree of human volition. Yet the phrases are included in rhetorical questions whose answer is necessarily ‘no’, and whose enactment is prohibited by an accumulation of material obstacles, ALL introduced by definite articles, 8 (or 9) between (15-18). No free scope is allowed; freedom of space, both physical and psychological, is denied.

   Now, the point is that none of such obstacles ought to apply to Hamlet, the prince. For a prince is above all that.
     the whips and scorns of time are the lot of  an earth-bound populace. Princes, unless they are masochists, could not care less. They are of divine (next text, line 18) essence/right/ etc…They set the pace. Yet, someone behind the arras might be interested in exploiting the strain.
     the oppressor’s wrong : same as above. Revenge and defence of his own station are a prince’s duty and source of glory. (See below)
    the proud man’s contumely: a prince will kill such impudent fools. (An intelligent eavesdropper of high station might take the hint)
    the pangs of despis’d love: a prince’s bed/heart is never empty. (But some ears, here, or there, might find this information useful)
    The same is the case with the law’s delay, insolence of office, and spurns (on the part of) the unworthy.
    The balance is kept between polysyllabic Latinate and monosyllabic Saxon vocabulary. Good rhetoric, no obsession. Sanity, although the mind is said to boggle. A healthy man in possession of all his faculties, able to stand back and analyze himself, but also a prince expert in courtly, elaborate language.
    Dramatic irony as its best. All the more so as the syntax leaves the passive/active/passive subject anonymous: who/he himself, his/ who, and us, we, we. From impersonal third person singular to general first person plural as in SONNET#1. No princely ego, but mock dissimulation. This means that the spectator is aware that Hamlet knows, just as Ophelia does, that Claudius and Polonius are within hearing. But hollow and psychologically trite. Purely formal. A catalogue.
    The imagery (20-21) is cold, financial: the solution is a self-administered remedy (see below for a reactivation of the image), in contradiction with the Commandments and other moral precepts.
    Directors will make their Hamlets handle a dagger or some sharp trinket while the words are spoken. The visual takes over the spoken. At long last we have some hint of interesting action on the stage, against that endless, brooding, to-ing and fro-ing along  walls or across a nave. Nothing essential. 100% abstract.
    The second (x’) part meets the need for some concrete element in the narrative, if not in the action. The imagery takes spectators back to their condition, to their bodies that gravity irresistibly pulls down to earth.  Less mortal coil than flesh again. Animal life and sex being our common lot: grunt and sweat (22). The image of a weary man bearing fardels, like Thomas Gray’s ploughman, some 150 years later, is timeless, universally accepted, and can lead to many interpretations.
     Much more important is the illustration following the rhetorical fulcrum (first word of 22) but, itself introducing a phrase that plunges man into the crucial question: the fear of the unknown. Expressed by means of the indefinite end of (23), just under life (end of 22): something after death, immediately followed by the definite beginning of (24) The undiscover’d country, it raises the ghost. Man (Columbus) had come back from the bourn of an as yet undiscovered country just a hundred years before. There was nothing to fear on the Planet any more. Earth is no longer what matters. The new frontier is religious. And religion in Shakespeare’s days gave contradictory clues to the mystery. Was there a Purgatory, or was there not? Did one side with Luther, with Rome, or sit in-between? What happened to those tormented souls that were seen walking about? 
    This certainly affects prince Hamlet more than any other ill he may have (listed in the lines spoken just before), and does put him in fear of others that he knows not of.  (26-27). All the more so as none of the eavesdroppers knows about the ghost of Hamlet the Dane. These lines are meant for the knowing public as much as for Hamlet’s own dumbfounded (puzzle) self at this stage of the plot. They may well be the only genuine, and psychologically acceptable, lines in the whole soliloquy. The heart of the matter. If this ‘too solid flesh’ can be made to ‘melt’ either by suicide or by murder, or in a dubious battle, there remains the spirit, that walks and, so it seems in Hamlet’s case, does not tread lightly. 
    SONNET#2 ends on a rhetorically correct conclusion introduced by thus. Conscience: another word for the spirit?
    Thirteen lines, featuring alternative x, and alternative x’ , each being given equal importance, with a gradual inflexion towards a general conclusion (28), verging on the universal: us all, and enhanced by a cluster of simple presents (25-28).
    Another exercice de style, but closer to the problems of the prince who delivers the line. This prince is an intellectual, lately of Wittenberg university. If his religion is ‘out of joint’ and  not able to give him the cue to proceed as he ought to, at least his medicine can help him find a  plausible conclusion, a diagnosis, to solve  the paralyzing dilemma developed along the two sonnets.  


 Lines 29-33/
    If the two sonnets waver between balance and imbalance in many respects, Prince Hamlet knows his Galen. The theory of humours is used as reference in two metaphors: the native hue of resolution and the pale cast of thought.  The now normally healthy body is sicklied o’er by intellectual activity. For Hamlet is not your Claudius, not one who kills first and thinks later. And even if the body is rotten by nature, as developed in the two sonnets, at least it can do for itself as long as the mind/spirit does not interfere. Energy, enterprises of great pitch and moment (a view of the world that a physicist of the day might have measured), is wasted.
    The question is answered: Prince Hamlet thinks too much and too precisely (read below (10)), sometimes rightly, and sometimes disquietingly.
  And now, on to other matters, for Ophelia will be the focus Hamlet’s destructive energy. Not the good target. Not our subject.


  A comparative study of ‘How all…’ from now on abbreviated: Ha. ‘To be…’ becomes Tb

Act IV, Scene 4.

How all occasions do inform against me,                        1
And spur my dull revenge! What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more:
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,              5
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and god-like reason
To fust in us unused. Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th’event—                        10
A thought which quartered hath but one part wisdom,
And ever three parts coward—I do not know
Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do,’
Sith I have cause, and will, and strength, and means,    
To do’t… // Examples gross as earth exhort me.             15
Witness this army of such mass and charge,
Led by a delicate and tender prince,
Whose spirit with divine ambition puffed
Makes mouth at the invisible event,
Exposing what is mortal and unsure                          20
To all that fortune, death and danger dare,
Even for an egg-shell… // Rightly to be great
Is not to stir without great argument,
But greatly to find quarrel in a straw
When honour’s at the stake. How stand I then,         25
That have a father killed, a mother stained,
Excitements of my reason and my blood,
And let all sleep? while to my shame I see  
The imminent death of twenty thousand men,
That for a fantasy and trick of fame                          30
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is no tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain? O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!          35

     Length: Tb 32 lines and a half. The soliloquy soon turns into dialogue as Prince Hamlet realizes that Ophelia  has been there all the time (planted) by King Claudius and Polonius.
                 Ha  35 lines, self-contained, with final couplet: ….forth,/….worth!
   Conventions tell us that final couplets are used whenever kings speak. Hamlet is, therefore, given the attributes of a king or sees himself as good as king  now, or has progressed and come to a position or state of mind much closer to the throne. A case of dramatic irony anticipating his killing of the king? or the effect of his response to the noble spectacle he can now see: a delicate and tender prince/…. with divine ambition puffed /….Rightly to be great/Is not to stir without great argument,/But greatly to find quarrel in a straw/When honour’s at the stake…./, Hamlet in the skin of Fortinbras?
    Sonnets: The first 14 lines, with a slight overspill (15) make SONNET #1. The last 14, with a slight deficit : first half of 22 missing, make SONNET #2. Both are self-contained units and are  much rougher  drafts than in Tb.  Similarities and differences:
     Images, metaphors, themes:   Tb sleep / no more (5-10)             Ha  sleep / no more  (4) (28)
                                                        grunt and sweat  (22)                    A beast  (4) bestial (9)
                                                        cowards  (28)                                 craven (9) coward  (12)
                                                        life  (14, 22)                                    live (13)
                                                        death/die (5,9,11,23)                     death (21,29)
                                                        fortune (3)                                     fortune (21)
                                                        great (31)                                       great/ly (22,23,24)
                                                        time  (15)                                       time (3)
                        and, in order of appearance:
              Tb MILITARY (3-5)                                  Ha  LEGAL inform against (1)
                   DEATH AS SLEEP/DREAM (5-11)         MILITARY spur (2)
                   FLESH AS HEIR TO SHOCKS (7)           ECONOMIC good and market (3)
                   MORTAL COIL (12)               DECAY fust (8)
                   VIOLENCE (15)                                         HERALDRY  quartered (11)
                   ACCOUNTANCY (20)                               WIND spirit…puffed (18)
                   ANIMALITY (22)                                       FOOL/JESTER makes mouths (19)
                   DEATH as COUNTRY/JOURNEY (24-25)       GRAVE as BED (31)
                   MEDICINE  (29-30)
                   PHYSICS (31)

    The last two metaphors of Tb concern enterprises of great…, whereas the final lines of Ha are the expression of a scene actually seen by Prince Hamlet: REALITY INTERPRETED: I see / The imminent death of twenty thousand men,… itself anticipated by (22-25) dealing with greatness. For Fortinbras’s indeed is an ‘enterprise of great pitch and moment’: his troops have been marching from Norway, crossing Denmark on their way to Poland, to fight a battle having to do with sovereignty, access/succession to a throne. A real army is within sight (between 16 and 34)  Concrete geography. No more  undiscovered country. Whether they return or not gives rise to speculation, to shame (28), no longer to dread (Tb). Religion is now a matter of contrast between a man endowed with capacity and reason as God-given, or with divine ambition that puffs the spirit (7/17). Man and hero. Both know what they are on earth for, do not waste their time speculating as how to get away. The only way out is the way DOWN: tomb and continent to hide the slain (33,34) and accepted as such. NO FALL, except on the battlefield (re Tb 3,4/), NOTHING IN COMMON WITH THE NUMBER OF PESSIMISTIC PREOCCUPATIONS  developed in Tb.
    The spook that walked the battlements of Elsinore has been replaced by twenty thousand concrete men, also in arms/armour. A turning point has been reached: two thirds of the play , roughly, are behind us. Prince Hamlet undergoes a mental change: O, from this time forth/My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!  This difference materializes in the final couplet.
  So far, and in Tb, life and death were matters of speculation. The approach was metaphysical. Physics was a metaphor. From now on, life and death become affairs of honour. Blood must be shed. The law of revenge takes over. Yet concrete action does not follow. There is no spur to the moment: only the THOUGHTS are to BE (IMPERATIVE in the speech, i.e. future-oriented, again) BLOODY. The play has some more scenes to go through (one third). There is still speculation about the relative importance of things: straw (24), egg-shell (22) or great argument. After the conflict between one part wisdom and three parts coward (11-12). Obsessive metaphysical considerations have gone altogether. Grammar:
    In Tb Hamlet NEVER uses the first person singular. We have noted, and accounted for the pronouns and adjectives used; 1st plural, WHO, 3rd singular. The distance between man and reality is important, though the umbilical is not cut. The character, touching reality with a barge pole, hides, blends his anonymous self. Whatever example is given represents our common lot.
    In Ha, the speculation is about a man, taken up by two successive 3rd person adjectives and, in close succession, by 3 collective 1st person plural as object, again (5-8). A first cluster of 1st person singular occurs (12,13,14) followed by one as object (15) The article is indefinite and the person 3rd singular. But the tone is set from the start, with me (1) as object/passive subject like in Tb: in Ha, Hamlet has just been in close physical contact with Rosencranz and Guildenstern, two former friends, identified as spies. Hence the consequences of their ‘I (me)/YOU’ exchange. On the contrary, in Tb, there was no preliminary contact. Hamlet walked on to the stage while the two spies (King and Polonius) were eavesdropping. Contact  was established ‘I/YOU’ LATER, with Ophelia. In Ha, one has to wait until (25, 28, 35) to come across another cluster of five 1st person singular occurrences. Most related articles are indefinite: a father/a mother. No longer the forest of conventional, definite, obstacles we had in Tb. The approach is now human, personal, related to the concrete general environment (indefinite articles), and no longer abstract, universal, or precisely confined. Hamlet has gathered some substance as human being.
     In Tb Shakespeare uses some 22 definite articles or equivalents. In Ha, only seven, five of which are gathered in a cluster between 25 and 34. The definite article either singles out ONE object/notion and can typifiy it; or itsingles out/typifies A GROUP taken in its entirety, without exceptions or omissions. In speech, definite articles introduce recognized elements that stand in front of the narrator, taking pride of place and imposing their presence. They can soon clutter the character’s sphere of space and block his way to an obstacle-free future, as stated in our foreword.
    The number of such obstacles in Ha is one-third that found in Tb. Much headway has unconsciously been made towards concrete action. But the final cluster doubles the 1st person singular/indefinite article cluster mentioned above. Not all obstacles have yet been wiped out. Hamlet is not yet ripe.
    And yet the mood, behind the intentions, remains the same : Latinate polysyllabics in Tb: about 30 , in Ha, not much less. The barge pole has not yet been significantly shortened.

Verb forms:

    The idea is that  the simple present refers to the reality of the moment, or to universality; that –ing forms (whatever the tense they are affixed to) refrain from action and revert the polarity towards an approach of the subject, as cause, as idea, whereas  all future-oriented forms, i.e. MODALS -TO FORMS, IMPERATIVES, make/let/have+VERB structures,  carry an opposite polarity, look forward, and lead to action. Past participles (not in present or past perfects) enhance the passive. The whole system, as laid down on paper in the process of writing exposes the conscious, or unconscious thought processes of their characters. Thus, authors often covertly anticipate action which they will materialize in the coming lines by means of specific vocabulary.
    In Tb, the whole tense pattern reads as follows: SONNET  #1 , in succession: TO  TO  TO TO /ING/ TO  TO  TO/ simple present: end/is/is TO TO  TO TO  is  MAY   HAVE SHUFFLED MUST is  makes. SONNET #1 is 100% active, but in intention only. Obstacles are there (final modals).
  SONNET #2  WOULD  takes  MIGHT  WOULD  TO  (TO) returns puzzles makes  BEAR  have  FLY  know  does. The mind has ceased its thinking, realized that it was wishful, and come down to the condition of man on this earth, from a metaphysical point of view. The last five lines are in the simple present is, turn, lose.
     Five evenly distributed passives  wished,  despised,  undiscovered,  sicklied, show that the worm of inaction is in the fruit. In such a mood, the world, and specific circumstances,  are too much for one individual to change, even for a prince.
    In Ha, SONNET #1  begins with simple presents: do inform/spur  is. Followed by TO  (TO). Then, for the first time ever, we come across simple pasts MADE, GAVE, referring to the undisputed fact of the creation of man by God. Unquestionable reality. The first time Hamlet refers to his maker, too. Creation has a purpose:  TO (fust). But uncertain Hamlet transforms it into a subjunctive, a mere hypothesis: BE, before coming down to facts, universal and personal: hath  do  live have, qualified by two escapes into the future: TO DO  TO DO.   9 verb forms anchored in reality against   4 future-oriented ones. Compare with SONNET #1 in Tb.
     In the 8 lines that separate #1 and #2 we find, in succession: exhort, WITNESS, makes,  exposing,  is, dare. Again more fact than anything else.
     In SONNET #2 : TO  TO  TO  stand  have let SLEEP see  go  fight CANNOT  is  TO  BE  BE.
  The character looks forward again (mere intentions) but, as we have shown, much more rooted in reality (see context). 8 against 6. Fortinbras’ army is not to be overlooked: unquestionable reality #2, against that other reality Hamlet does not yet wish to face: a  father killed/a mother stained.
     One –ing  form (20) just like in Tb. 6 passives  (8,11,17, 18,26,26). 50% more than in Tb.
     The climate has changed. Unconsciously so, mostly, so far.
  The point, now, is for us to realize that Shakespeare offers two versions of the same situation one at the beginning of Act III, the other one act and a few scenes later., logically showing that things have changed and are changing. But that, as artist, he manipulates his character as if he were actually writing a sonnet sequence leading to a conclusion that fits his witty/clever/intellectual purpose, without really caring for his character’s own subjectivity: only ONE –ing form in each piece.  Hamlet is object throughout and, in spite of his introspection, a two-dimensional character, ‘words, words, words…’ so far,  manipulated by his maker, the playwright. Not a real man. For the critic to determine whether Hamlet is mad or not is totally irrelevant. The problem is elsewhere. The play remains an exercice de style. The procrastination is purely rhetorical. Power, love, the Ghost, revenge, are there indeed, but as themes, food for thought, no more. Manner still prevails, though less than before in III 1.

[Dan comments: a solid technical approach. I agree with most of what you say- especially Hamlet’s 2D-ness. I’ve always though Shakespeare’s best plays are so because of the dramatic tensions, not the characterizations.]

Return to Bylines

Bookmark and Share