If the Sun Breed Maggots in a Living Dialogue

Kyle Blaus-Plissner & James Soderholm

JS: I have always wondered why Shakespeare’s longest and most difficult play has also been his most popular. Apparently, Hamlet is ‘on the boards’ every single night somewhere on the planet. Our globe—like the original Globe—enjoys being ‘distracted’ by Hamlet and by Hamlet. What is it about this play and this prince that has so beguiled four hundred years of theatre-goers and readers? Any thoughts? In what ways has the play beguiled you, if it has? Do you have any favourite lines? One of mine is: ‘In my heart there was a kind of fighting that would not let me sleep’. That line, fittingly enough, has kept me awake many nights. Hamlet’s vigilance saves his life. That same wakefulness and battling heart has vexed my life but also, so far, kept me ticking.

KBP: The wordplay's the thing, for me. As an amateur wordsmith, the most eternally seductive aspect of Hamlet and Hamlet is the combination of vocabulary and incessant wit, which possess me from the first scenes. I remember when we had discussed Hamlet's first line, “A little more than kin, and less than kind”, where he can scarcely go a word without toying with how he says what he says. No other work of fiction of which I'm aware is so dense with genius, with ingenuity, with crass and class, where each line -- particularly Hamlet's own -- is so layered with different shades of meaning. Perhaps writing the play line by line was inaccurate, for Shakespeare: it requires a hierarchical design, an inverted funnel of thought and poetry, and should have been shaped like a pyramid. Who would not want to play Hamlet? I can't imagine anyone would want to be Hamlet, given the rotten state he finds at home, but that's the magic of drama and fantasy -- to speak a demi-god's words without suffering his fate. If I could speak like that line by line at will in daily conversation -- and believe me, I have told many a cute girl to get thee to a nunnery -- I would consider my entire life a success.

JS: I also wanted to find a girl who would respond to my own attempts at word-wit by exclaiming, “Get thee to a punnery—why wouldst thou be a breeder of meanings?” So far, no joy. I too love Hamlet’s pun-conscious mind. It produced one of the darkest and funniest lines ever penned. Hamlet is telling Horatio how quickly (for Hamlet) his mother’s wedding followed his father’s funeral:

Thrift, thrift, Horatio! the funeral baked meats
Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.

Freud makes much of these lines because they show how ‘condensation’ and ‘displacement’ (of meaning) occurs when ‘wit’ is the fruit of unconscious tension. I think Hamlet is wittiest when he is most in pain and uses his wit-craft both to bleed off tension and, at times, to stab at the court. Perhaps linguistic richness emerges most fully when we are acutely in pain: moaning as meaning. Or is that too gloomy? Surely there are also distinct pleasures in the aroma of hot-cross puns rising in the oven of one’s heated mind. The pun in literature usually gets low marks (‘the lowest form of humour’, etc.). But Shakespeare puns incessantly. To gratify the ‘low’ groundlings? Hamlet is also impossibly lofty, speaking like a demi-god, as you say. And I agree that there is something exhilarating about the Prince’s linguistic compression: the pun as verbal thrift, a baked meat served as cold-cut, two meanings for one occasion.

KBP: I haven't surrendered to moaning as meaning yet, though I admit I too find unexpected outbursts of creativity correspond to complicated catharsis. What might start as a journal note on a bus ride will naturally begin to carry its own rhythm and rhyme until it starts to look something like poetry. In is in the hour of great contempt when we lose our desire to be productive and would just as soon sit down and write, or, in Hamlet's case, speak. The amount of wordplay and multiple meanings in every line of Hamlet's speech indicates how consciously and carefully he selects the words he breathes. There are two ways to breathe, the automatic fashion we use throughout the day, and the slow, conscious breath extolled in religious practice. If words be the stuff of breath and breath of life, there must also be two ways to speak, a conscious “controlled speaking” or the subconscious and automatic responses we bring with us throughout our day. Speaking consciously is a practice, like religion. Hamlet literally invents and modifies the English language as he goes along. Speech is his faith. By contrast, Polonius does not have a single original thought in his head, spitting platitudinous advice to Laertes upon the latter's departure. Polonius is like an old medieval philosopher, whose source of knowledge is others' ancient writings. His speech is as aware as a lone forgotten breath. Hamlet, by contrast, is modern. His source of speech comes from the active use of his brain. This is why it is so easy for Hamlet to confound and toy with Polonius. To him, 'tis like talking to a dog.

JS: ‘Tis true what you say. But in the fishmonger scene the cliché-monger Polonius does manage to recognize a bit of method to Hamlet’s madness. That by itself makes him a cannier reader of Hamlet’s wit-craft than anyone else in the play. I think it starts to unnerve Hamlet how much those at court fail to pick up on his meanings and his word-play. He reduces Polonius to a yes-man.

Do you see yonder cloud that's almost in shape of a camel?
By the mass, and 'tis like a camel, indeed.
Methinks it is like a weasel.
It is backed like a weasel.
Or like a whale?
Very like a whale.
Then I will come to my mother by and by. They fool
me to the top of my bent. I will come by and by.
I will say so.
By and by is easily said.

I have always enjoyed this meteorological Rorschach test. Polonius, unlike Hamlet, is capable only of what ‘is easily said.’ Hamlet seems intent on saying things in the most lyrically-compressed and recondite way possible. And that makes him a breathing poet, as you suggest. And in contradicting himself, he re-verses him, mostly famously when he says ‘to be or not to be’. What are the other particularly brainy bits of his that you like? It does sound as if his mind has re-worded your own. I wonder sometimes if human beings actually become more intelligent when they read or see plays such as Hamlet. You can almost feel your linguistic IQ going up several points.

KBP: Hamlet's viral vocabulary is like steroids for the language lobes. I'd suspect that in a very literal way exposure to evolved language aids in crafting and refining the book and volume of the brain. After all, if conscious speaking is conscious breathing, the formation of language is like a form of active meditation, and the exposure to its syllable-sound like exposure to a sacred song or mantra. Hamlet might seem mad to others around him, but we the audience watch him use this “madness” to manipulate every other character in the play. The only one who stops Hamlet is, ironically, the gravedigger. Is there another place in the play where Hamlet is so attentive to what someone else says without wit, insult, interruption, or some clever comeback? Perhaps during his first encounter with the ghost, but that was also a major plot point. The fact that Hamlet shares the talking stick, for once, suggests a respect for the toe of the peasant that he would never have given the heels of erudite Rosencrantz or Guildenstern. The gravedigger is one character who manages to confound the prince, to pull a Hamlet on Hamlet, with his “absolute” speech about relative “lies”. It is also following their exchange that Hamlet lands his culminating epiphany of beer-barrel reincarnation:

Imperious Caesar, dead and turn'd to clay,
 Might stop a hole to keep the wind away

If curiosity or conscious consideration were to be Hamlet's tragic flaw, having considered too curiously about the fate of the flesh of kings, his own end is near. That cork is Hamlet's forbidden fruit, and now, having eaten, the time is nigh for the confrontation between the prince and the pallbearer.

JS: Hamlet’s too-curious considerations make for first-rate Absurdism and plenty of gallows humour. Hamlet is his own Yorick and therefore can keep pace with the quickening wit of the gravedigger, who realizes that dead people are no longer people—men and women—but things. Hamlet proceeds to ‘re-member’ Yorick by nostalgically giving him back his body and even the lips Hamlet ‘kissed I know not how oft.’ What do you make of the famous skull scene and its combination of verbal playfulness, absurdity and melancholy? Is it a case of Beckett’s ‘There is nothing funnier than unhappiness’? And if there were no pallbearer bearing down on us, would we ever be moved to be princes of wit? Death is the mother of [verbal] invention?

KBP: The skull scene mutates Hamlet's preoccupation with the quick and the dead, with being and not being, to which is now added a sort of re-incarnation, of being again. Like a witch-doctor Hamlet summons the jester's soul as he pieces the face back together with magic words. Hamlet, and Hamlet too, share this kind of immortality, being reborn nightly on stages across the earth. This has its own irony, since the play itself tells the tale of the extinction of a bloodline. Hamlet dies without an heir, having chosen not to be and damning his lover to the eternal nunnery. Could this be why his rest is silence? Much like Alexander and Imperious Caesar, his own immortality is unknown to him. Hamlet is immortal not only because his words are spoken past his time, but also because they are very much his words, his own identity. To be a prince of wit not only gives one a shot at immortality, but it also strengthens one's very identity. I think it's about living -- being -- as much as it is about dying.

JS: Like the ghost of his father, Hamlet, the prince and play, keeps ascending through the trap door of Time to play itself out for us all the evenings of the world (matinees in Shakespeare’s time because they all needed to be ‘too much in the sun’). Yes, we are alive in words and words are alive in us, making identity often with the same agility and passion as those who make love as if there is no tomorrow. Because, one day, there won’t be. That certainty, skulled forth Hamlet as rotting Yorick, forces Hamlet to be at once a witchdoctor and a wit-doctor: ministering to himself more than others, healing himself through the sheer magnificence of his verbal facility. Hamlet must stay alive and not kill Claudius for ages so he can keep talking. His loquaciousness is his raison d’etre. ‘One word more, mother’—that is Hamlet’s mode of being. To be renowned, or talked about afterwards, the Greeks called kleos. It is what we are doing when we write about Hamlet to each other, and what others will be doing if they ever talk about us and this dialogue as the play of two minds. Isn’t all articulate speech a form of the ghost’s imperious ‘Remember me’? Isn’t all writing at some level epitaphic and memorial? Otherwise, why write, why speak?

KBP: Words leave imprints on time like ghosts in catacombs – an invisible residue of how we experience each, moment to moment. Words and phrases capture memory and feeling like liquid light inside of a little vial. They become the magic spell of the 'wit-doctor' to recreate the feeling, frolic, and even failures of a disintegrating past. The once-quartered quotations of our ancestors are re-membered through the echoes of their voices, spoken unwittingly through us, their descendants. I don't even think it is restricted to lofty speech, as Hamlet must “speak by the card” to his psychological equal, the gravedigger. A common recollection across a bar to a stranger can summon a spirit from sulphrous and tormenting flames for a moment, much like the gravedigger introduces Yorick simply as “whoreson”. The Word is primary, as St. John famously iterates. After all, are not our names merely a word to encapsulate everything we experience, think, and feel – ultimately, what we can remember about ourselves? The name, that first word – the birth-tattoo, if you will – is the title to everyone's breathing biography. That brief description of ourselves, how it is said and by whom, becomes our identity. Renown and reputation spring from that seed. What creature is left beneath our names? There is a class of rebellious litigants who believe they can exempt themselves from court charges by refusing to represent their legal name, instead only accepting a description of “man”. We might begin as man or babe, then be known -- or re-known -- as Hamlet, King, dear father, royal Dane. Hamlet receives a new, if ill-fitting name from the ghost upon that command – Remember Me! – he is now a vengeful son. Hamlet's world, and maybe ours too, has a syntactical nature. When he assumes his new identity and begins to “put an antic disposition on,” the already tedious words of the court become even more vapid and vacuous.

JS: Your comments bring to mind Act 4, scene 5, when Laertes returns from France to avenge the death of his father and cries out to Claudius, “O thou vile king,

Give me my father!” We see how Claudius is indeed a vial king—a king whose regicide/fratricide involves using poison from a vial, so in a sense he is a bottled-king, a fake king, a “king of nothing,” as Hamlet later observes. The Ghost himself alerts us to the vial/vile pun in his account to Prince Hamlet of his being poisoned:

Sleeping within my orchard,
My custom always of the afternoon,
Upon my secure hour thy uncle stole,
With juice of cursed hebona in a vial,
And in the porches of my ears did pour
The leperous distilment; whose effect
Holds such an enmity with blood of man
That swift as quicksilver it courses through
The natural gates and alleys of the body,
And with a sudden vigour it doth posset
And curd, like eager droppings into milk,
The thin and wholesome blood. So did it mine;
And a most instant tetter bark'd about,
Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust
All my smooth body.

Always alive to acoustical cousins, Shakespeare (and Hamlet, his punniest creature) also gives us a “death-tattoo” in form the vial-vile pun. Claudius is thus marked as a degraded and false king. We keep these epithets in little bottles, as you suggest, and pour them into the porches of our auditors—and ourselves, in interior monologues—when we must sort out the world and others in it. What, then, can we make of Hamlet’s keeping Horatio from drinking poison when he says, as he dies--

As thou'rt a man,
Give me the cup: let go; by heaven, I'll have't.
O good Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me!
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.

KBP: Horatio is perhaps the saintliest ('saintliest' – that's a vile phrase) and only trustworthy character in Hamlet, but his fealty nearly leads that antique Roman to self-martyrdom at the play's end. Hamlet spares Horatio the cup to keep his (Horatio's) tongue free of poison when speaking Hamlet's wounded name. Most of the play's lead characters, who fall like Hebona drops into our ears at the climax, open vials of deceit and duplicity every time they speak, like Claudius tempering their own poisons, but Horatio is Hamlet's “one man picked out of ten thousand,” something Hamlet himself cannot claim as he enters his silent rest. Hamlet's own idea of the vial comes through the “play within a play”. The players' pageant, their pretend poison, fiction by its nature, allows Hamlet to know the truth, an ambition he also entrusts to Horatio.

I prithee, when thou seest that act afoot,
Even with the very comment of thy soul
Observe mine uncle: if his occulted guilt
Do not itself unkennel in one speech,
It is a damned ghost that we have seen,
And my imaginations are as foul
As Vulcan's stithy. Give him heedful note;
For I mine eyes will rivet to his face,
And after we will both our judgments join
In censure of his seeming.

The wit-doctor retrieves one of Claudius' memories from the bottle and places it into the king's vision. This dramatic draw is Hamlet's vial in the eyes of the nothing-king – Claudius knows that somewhere in Heaven, he has been discovered. I wonder if this was something Shakespeare cued into in the dramatic business. What do you suppose players Horatio, Hamlet, or Shakespeare might see upon the faces of the crowds their opening night? Can the actor also be an extractor, having the power to bring out the memories of the audience? If so, I would suggest that Shakespeare uses Hamlet as an example or archetype of this actor/extractor.

JS: The play-within-a-play is indeed a kind of poison tempered by our melancholy Prince. He refers to the interior play as “wormwood”, knowing that his mischief is doing to Claudius—and Gertrude—what Claudius had done to Hamlet’s father: pouring poison into the ears. It is also, as you suggest, a hall of mirrors, for we in the audience watch Hamlet watch Claudius watch the Player-King and Player-Queen. And, right on cue, Claudius rises to the occasion of his unkenneled guilt and halts the play-within-a-play and then storms off to pray for his black soul. Those with black souls in the audience—the murderer of Kit Marlowe, for example—might shift uncomfortable in their seats as Hamlet pulls their guilt out of them. People go to plays to feel strong emotions and then, presumably, to get rid of them: catharsis. But I wonder if Hamlet, the prince and play, also often induce a terrifying knowledge that cannot be dissipated or purged. Hamlet increases our self-consciousness about everything, especially mortality and the absurdity of grunting and sweating under a heavy life. The opposite of being purged is being poisoned. That’s precisely when art comes, as Nietzsche observed, “as a saving sorceress, expert at healing.” But has too much intellectual, psychic and existential damage already been done?

KBP: The damage may be proportionate only to the third, somewhat unsettling, response to that saving sorceress: denial. Hamlet's dramatic poison produces Claudius' purgative prayer, in which he (Claudius) succumbs to the fact that his “purpose is but the slave to memory” of his own deeds, and the rewards those deeds have brought him. But, ironically, this prayer prolongs the nothing-King's life enough to see Act V, simply because Hamlet cannot desecrate his own purpose – dull revenge – by making it “hire and salary”. When we comprehend that the destiny (and destination) of all is the meal “not where he eats, but where 'a is eaten”, we must redefine how we approach the notion of purpose in daily life. Shakespeare, for example, takes the actor's hall of mirrors into his own cones and rods, from Hamlet's play-within-a-play to the famed “world's a stage” to Macbeth's “poor player”. In Vedanta, Brahmin is the “great actor” who forgets himself in the earthly shells of incarnated souls. The audience in Hamlet leaves not only with a subtle existential knowledge, but also with an acute dramaturgical self-consciousness, not unlike the fake frolics of Joyce's The Dead. Do you remember how you once challenged our class to turn each breakfast into a haiku? I ran with that idea, and now every day gradually evolves into a Homeric epic. Could one argue that the difference between good art and bad art is its contagiousness? The audience must, however briefly, however subtly, discard denial and embrace a few breaths where the market of time is no longer but to sleep and feed, but to reason. Simply put, the measure of an artist's success is to take those threads and breaths of poetry and weave a magic spell that induces lucid reflection in the minds of the masses, whether it be consciously or not. Bad art, then, induces distraction and denial.

JS: I think Hamlet might have had some talent for turning himself into a work of art, but Shakespeare thought it more interesting—and entertaining—to put Hamlet into a play where he is increasing ill-at-ease with his role of avenging son. Indeed, Hamlet is stuck in the wrong play and watching him twist in the wind for five acts makes him endlessly intriguing to the audience. Just about everyone knows what it feels like to be stuck in the wrong play, the wrong narrative, the wrong life, with the more appealing life right next you as a fantasy.

How many times must we stage ourselves as disappointments? Trying to make oneself into a work of art (Nietzschean self-fashioning) can correct that disappointment but it is nearly impossible to live each day as a work of art, as if one is both forger and forged, creator and creature. Hamlet shows us that struggle. But the Danish world of revenge and poison and thuggery is too much with him. The play does weave its spell. But Hamlet’s fate is our fate.

KBP: You remind me of some of the different portrayals of Hamlet I've seen, Derek Jacobi consumed with anguish, or Olivier, born for the stage, himself never in the wrong play. I disagree on the difficulty of turning one's life into living art -- like a religion, it merely takes practice, time, and persistence, until it becomes second nature. It has to be a daily way of life, like the breakfast haiku -- hour to hour, minute to minute. But I do agree that in order to be both creator and creature one needs compatibility with one's environment. Hamlet may have been better off getting himself to the monastery, possibly the only venue where his wit-craft would not have been blasphemy. Can you imagine what he would have been like had he survived the play to become to king? A counterpart to the philosopher-king might be the artist-king. Find one of those in our human history.

JS: To get back to Hamlet’s word-play and perhaps to see this dialogue to an end, let us recall this exchange late in the play.

My lord, you must tell us where the body is, and go
with us to the king.
The body is with the king, but the king is not with
the body. The king is a thing--
A thing, my lord!
Of nothing: bring me to him. Hide fox, and all after.

This abstrusely-cheeky reply of Hamlet’s distantly echoes his first pun and first line (“A little more than kin and less than kind”). Has Hamlet the philosopher-prince finally realized that a king, any king—either Claudius or his own father—is merely a thing on its way to ‘being’ nothing. Does the artist-prince understand the vanity of all human wishes, the folly of all titles, the absurdity of all rank and position? Is the reflective or, for that matter, the punny prince an oxymoron? Don’t we admire Hamlet precisely because he usually eschews the stabbing obviousness of the rapier for the subtle delights of the rapier wit? Laertes and Fortinbras are Nordic dullards, despite the former’s attachment to Parisian polish (turns out to be mountebank poison!). The less-than-kind mind compressing king/thing/nothing is precisely without kin, without equal, without match. Your departing thoughts?

KBP: Hamlet's existential conclusion is contagious, giving the audience a chance to become a know-thing, however temporarily. The artist-prince grasps that upon his demise his immortality will be the way his tattoo (birth and death) will be spoken by those he leaves behind – the way his own name is spoken after his skull sits side-by-side with Yorick and Alexander. Shakespeare's more obvious but equally engrossing pun on the word 'lie' in the graveyard scene touches on this.

Whose grave's this, sirrah?
First Clown 
Mine, sir.
O, a pit of clay for to be made
For such a guest is meet.
I think it be thine, indeed; for thou liest in't.
First Clown 
You lie out on't, sir, and therefore it is not
yours: for my part, I do not lie in't, and yet it is mine.
'Thou dost lie in't, to be in't and say it is thine:
'tis for the dead, not for the quick; therefore thou liest.
First Clown 
'Tis a quick lie, sir; 'twill away gain, from me to you.

All rank and position is a lie by the time one will lie in the ground. The gravedigger also jests and suggests that he, and not the deceased, is the true owner of each grave, of each king made nothing. But Hamlet's name extends beyond the death-tattoo etched into his headstone. By being poison'd, King Hamlet becomes a walking ghost, but by being a purgative force, Prince Hamlet becomes a possessing demon, taking the body of an Olivier or a Jacobi based on the full flourish of his dialogue. Four centuries later, Hamlet himself is a ghost that requires his words to be spoken, almost as a sort of survival instinct. To answer your original question about why people continue to be fascinated by Hamlet and by Hamlet, perhaps it is because the author either created or channeled some kind of dramatic apparition that seeks to remember itself, to walk the stage nightly. Even through this dialogue and its authors, which have deepened my own appreciation and understanding of the play, the spirit of Shakespeare's best-loved creation has taken on new breath, life, and meaning.