One Line from Hamlet

When Stephen spins an elaborate yarn in Ulysses about Hamlet, Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s father and son, and all manner of other things, a yarn that has a little to do with Shakespeare and a lot to do with himself and everything going on around him, part of the joke is that Shakespeare is such an opaque author given over to interpretation that Stephen can easily produce a vaguely plausible theory eerily resonant with his own personal obsessions without straining much. My tentativeness toward Shakespeare stems from my own preference for authors with discernible or overpowering (albeit ambiguous and misleading) authorial personae behind their works: as far as canonical authors go, people like Goethe, Milton, Melville, Gogol, Joyce, and Proust. Shakespeare sometimes seems insufferably coy by being such a cipher, and his spawning of an industry of condescending would-be elucidators of his work grates on me, though I can’t quite blame him for that.

But I have been thinking lately about his sheer talent of ambiguity, and I’ve been particularly preoccupied with the one line from Hamlet that, in terms of word-to-chaos ratio, must be one of his best ever. It’s this line in III.2 in the middle of the Mousetrap play:

HAMLET: This is one Lucianus, nephew to the king.

[Quick crib note: this is the line that causes it to appear that the Mousetrap play is not representing Claudius killing the King, but Hamlet killing his uncle Claudius. I.e., Hamlet now makes it easy for the audience (including Claudius) to infer that his purpose in putting on the play is to threaten Claudius with murder. It also renders it far more difficult to ascertain what Hamlet and Claudius are thinking for the rest of the play, how genuinely convinced Hamlet is of Claudius' guilt, and what Claudius thinks Hamlet knows.]

Hamlet botches his whole “conscience of the king” scheme so badly with this one line (and he is already in the midst of botching it badly enough) that it really drains a fair bit of my sympathy for him. (I do expect a modicum of basic competence from my heroes.) But besides that, Shakespeare’s ability to cause such havoc to any possible understanding of the play’s themes, characters, and plot with this sentence is impressive. And it comes from such an apparently innocuous line, coming right after the seemingly weightier “Let the galled jade wince, our withers are unwrung” spiel, as if to make certain that for the next four hundred years, the line would make less of an impression than it should. And since most of the characters are already confused and only get more confused, it isn’t quite as obvious as it should be that there’s also great uncertainty as to exactly what they’re confused about.

So what gets me is not only that the line gives strength to the radical skepticism interpretation of the play, but that it does so in a rather non-showy way, as though to make it more difficult to believe that Shakespeare really intended such radical skepticism. So the clues that cause the most doubt over likely interpretations are themselves not particularly notable, so as to make the doubting itself look dubious and help guarantee that standard interpretations could take hold that wouldn’t include the full extent of the doubt. The surface-level ambiguities and filigrees would cover up the deeper problems. So, for example, while the Ghost’s provenance remains unknown, we still find out that multiple people see the Ghost, alleviating one uncertainty while exacerbating another. Claudius confesses to the audience, even though Hamlet still may have doubts. It’s a brilliant balancing act.

Any other picks for high word-to-chaos lines?

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[As an example of how the radical-skepticism interpretation still doesn't get enough purchase, take Richard Levin's rather unconvincing attempt to wave away concerns about the Ghost's intent:

Several critics have tried to prove, often by citing evidence from Elizabethan treatises on pneumatology, that he is not the ghost of Hamlet’s father but a devil pretending to be the ghost of Hamlet’s father in order to entrap Hamlet. This is a very serious charge because, if it were true, it would mean that he is like the deceptive villains in Shakespeare’s other plays, and so his statement to Hamlet would be completely unreliable. Shakespeare, however, eliminates this possibility by voicing it twice during the early part of the play and rejecting it both times. Horatio warns Hamlet not to follow the Ghost because it may “assume some other horrible form” to drive him mad (I.iv.69–74), but this does not happen and Hamlet returns from his encounter to assure Horatio and Marcellus that “It is an honest ghost, that let me tell you” (I.v.138). Then, near the end of the soliloquy that I just discussed, Hamlet himself wonders if the Ghost “May be a devil” who lied about Claudius’s crime in order to “damn me” (II.ii.598–603), but when he sees how Claudius reacts to The Murther of Gonzago, he tells Horatio, “I’ll take the ghost’s word for a thousand pound” (III.ii.286–287), which was a lot of money in those days; and after that we hear no more doubts about a demonic ghost. In terms of my basic assumption, therefore, we can be confident that the Ghost is not a devil because, if he were, Shakespeare would have been sure to satisfy his audience’s “need to know” this essential fact or “necessary question of the play” because he wanted them to understand this play.

Richard Levin, "Gertrude's Elusive Libido"

Well, I'll take Hamlet's word for a thousand pound, which is still a lot of money in these days!]