Living with Hamlet: Part Three
By Quinn Mattfeld
Editor’s Note: This is the last of three blog posts written by actor Quinn Mattfeld about playing the towering role of Hamlet this year at the Utah Shakespeare Festival.
Long ago when I was a young, impressionable actor, someone (I don’t recall who) told me that there is only one question in Hamlet: “Is the ghost real?” Thankfully, as a less impressionable and less young actor, I now know that this is not the only question. In fact, I don’t think it is a question at all.
The ghost is real. The question probably isn’t.
Horatio sees the ghost. As do Marcellus and Bernardo. If the ghost is, as Gertrude worries, an invention of Hamlet’s brain, then these characters must also be projections of Hamlet’s mind, as would all the characters with which they interacted and so on until everyone in the theatre except Hamlet is imaginary. This includes, of course, the audience as they too have seen the ghost.
In order to make sense of the play—to engage in good faith with all of its questions and infinite potential we have to accept the circumstances that the playwright gives us.
Another question which haunts any portrayal of the Dane is whether or not he has gone mad.
In this case we get a clear and definitive answer from the character himself. After encountering the ghost, Hamlet tells Horatio and Bernardo, “I perchance hereafter shall think meet to put an antic disposition on” and later confides to Gertrude, “I am not in madness but mad in craft.”
As unequivocal as the answer initially appears, unlike the existence of the ghost, Hamlet’s madness is, I think, somewhat amenable to interpretation. There is no doubt that Hamlet deliberately feigns madness in order to conceal his revenge-plot against Claudius. Yet throughout the play he is repeatedly warned by those closest to him about the danger of losing his mind in that pursuit. As the ghost beckons Hamlet to follow him further into the wilderness, Horatio tells Hamlet that the spirit may, “deprive your sovereignty of reason and draw you into madness.” Adding pointedly, “Think on it.” And then, one scene later the ghost itself concludes his charge to Hamlet with this special observance, “taint not thy mind.” And again, before Hamlet reveals his method therein, Gertrude warns her son about his madness with, “This is the very coinage of your brain. This bodiless creation ecstasy is very cunning in.”
So while we can say definitively that Hamlet is affecting madness, it’s not entirely clear that madness isn’t also a very real danger for him. It seems to strike exactly no one in Elsinore as a shock that Hamlet has gone mad, and it therefore makes a great deal of sense that he would employ that very device to inoculate himself against suspicion.
The Prince often describes himself as a victim of his own thoughts, bemoaning to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern his “bad dreams” and the rotting state of Denmark, “there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so. To me, it is a prison.” And when he is alone, Hamlet is relentless in the prosecution of his own mind, concluding in “To be or not to be,” that “conscience does make cowards of us all,” and that “resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought.” In preparation for his exile in England, Hamlet finally sheds the paralysis within his own head by naming it, “some craven scrupel of thinking too precisely on the event.”
Indeed, up until this point in the play, he seems to have a great deal of trouble containing his thoughts and in particular with Ophelia and Gertrude. They are arguably the two most important people in his life and neither can get more than a few words in while alone with him. Hamlet’s mind collapses into an obsessive pattern of enumerating his grievances against them and himself, “I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious and with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.”
It’s as if he just can’t stop himself.
Has he always been like this? Was Hamlet the young prince that all of Elsinore whispered and worried about? When Hamlet bursts into Ophelia’s room, does he know that she will run to tell her father, and in no time, the fear of his madness will be converted into a fact by the loquacious pedant Polonius?
If so, Hamlet is using the court’s calumny against itself, and for an actor the question of Hamlet’s madness becomes a very useful one—a tactical one. The question of the ghost, not so much.
If we accept the given circumstances that Shakespeare offers us, questioning leads us to a place of discovery and choice. If we instead turn the questions against the given circumstances themselves, the play quickly descends into nebulous illogic and absurdity.