Hamlet : What’s in a line?

There’s a line in Hamlet during the bedroom confrontation that I go right to whenever Hamlet comes up. Something in it just hooked me once upon a time and it’s been a personal favorite ever since. It’s when Hamlet says to Gertrude, “You have my father much offended.”

In my head, that line summarizes the entire play. A major part of Hamlet’s anquish lies in his feelings toward his mother. He wants to confront her, but hasn’t (yet). He wants to tell her the truth about what he knows, but he can’t. And yet here he does both. I don’t see it as a throwaway line in their little banter (“Come come, you answer with an idle tongue….go,go, you question with a wicked one…”) It’s more cathartic than that. I can just picture him screaming it at her – “YOU have MY FATHER much offended!” Is he talking about her o’erhasty marriage, or the fact that she married the murderer? Both, probably. There’s agony in the poor kid at this point, absolute torment. His mother is sharing a bed with the guy that killed his father. He’s trying desperately to ask her “What the $%^&* are you doing?? Don’t you see how sick this all is?”

My question is, am I completely off in hanging so much on that one line? When it’s performed, is it usually done as a throwaway just so they can get through the banter? I suppose “You are the queen, your husband’s brother’s wife, and would it were not so you are my mother” is the “better” line in the sense that it climaxes the little back and forth and begins to make things happen. But I like the line I cited. It just captures the essence better to me, because only three characters are mentioned in it — Hamlet and his mom and dad. It brings the play completely back to them makes the play accessible to any parent or child. The “You are the queen…” line makes the situation too complicated.

Lord, I’m talking too much. ok, I’ll stop.

10 thoughts on “Hamlet : What’s in a line?

  1. I think this line fits into a pattern of escalation suited to the action that is to follow. The bed chamber scene is among the most highly charged. There is a murder, a ghostly visitation, the transformation of Gertrude’s attitude regarding Claudius and the first and only showing of proper grief from the woman who’se name is “frailty.” I personally think that this scene and this line is most necessary to show us Gertrude’s response. Her bewilderment at this line shows her to be a victim of the unseen action that runs before the play. I think that we are meant to see her death as a tragedy rather than as the moderately justifiable death of an accomplice to regicide.

  2. I’ve never bought into that. I like productions where Claudius is some distance from the enraged Laertes. I think of him as a drunkard. And while Gertrude does o’erhastily come to defense of the villain, I see it as little different than the misguided protection that codependant modern mothers give to their despicable drunkard spouses. And it’s not like Hamlet is nearby to face Laertes. For Gertrude, he’s off at some English health spa recovering his wits, safe from strategems, plots and spoils.

  3. That’s one of the great Hamlet debates – does Gertrude know that Claudius is the killer? I’m in the “no” category, for as you say, it makes for a more tragic ending rather than a “she deserved it.”

    Something that was pointed out to me recently which I thought interesting is when Laertes first barges in on Claudius, demanding to see his father. “Dead,” replies Claudius, to which Gertrude (standing between them, mind you) adds, “But not by him!” Gertrude’s first instinct is to protect her husband, even if at the expense of her son. She practically says “Hamlet did it!” That’s not very nice for a mom to do.

    (One of my favorite Claudius lines, by the way, is when he so easily says to Gertrude about Laertes, “Let him go, Gertrude; do not fear our person.” A man is standing with sword drawn on you and you just casually tell him you’re not afraid of him in the least. That’s cool.)

  4. Nah, I like Claudius as more the scheming politician than that. It doesn’t do justice to Hamlet’s dad to think that he could have been so easily dispatched by a drunkard. I agree that he is a coward when in the face of a real enemy (he kills the king in his sleep, he has other people attempt to kill Hamlet for him…) but when he does not face a threat, having seen right through Laertes, he has the charisma to disarm him and even get Laertes to do his bidding.

    One production I remember enjoying immensely was fairly violent during the whole “Where is Polonius?” sequence. While asking the question of Hamlet repeatedly, Claudius is beating the holy heck out of him. He asks, gets his smartaleck answer, and then hurls Hamlet across the room, only to go pick him up again and keep asking. This would be one reason why Hamlet does eventually tell them where the body is hidden. If Hamlet didn’t fear Claudius at all he could have played that game all day.

    I like the idea that Claudius does quickly assume the role of king as if he were born to play it, and only in the deep recesses of his own mind does he have any real doubt or guilt about how he got there. On the outside he’s all about “I’m the king and don’t any of you forget it.” On the outside he’s so confident of his ability that he completely misses the attack on Fortinbras, and so on. He’s not really a good king, he’s more a player king.

  5. Anonymous says:

    You guys have some interesting comments, but I think you have to remember that the way particular productions are staged do not always represent what the text provides. For example, there is nothing that I can find that indicates Laertes necessarily approaches Claudius with a drawn sword. Secondly, while there is every indication that Claudius is a bit of a tipster, there is no indication I can derive from his words that he is ever incapacitated. He is extremely competent as a king, and if you ask me, very much a “mighty opposite” to Hamlet. He only fails in his efforts to secure the kingdom because of a ghost with a big mouth who manages to get a few moments free from Purgatory. Of course there is also the underlying decay that is slowly rotting the royal roots.

    I do agree with your comment that if one were to find a single hinge-pin phrase in the play that snags Gertrude’s sin, it is surely the great line you have chosen: “You have my father much offended.” It not only defines the cause of her “frailty” but her “pernicious” adultery as well.

  6. I think that if you’re going strictly on what “the text” says and leaving no room for creative interpretation you’re doing yourself a disservice. After all, which text? Quarto or Folio? Very often they say radically different things. I encourage a visit over to Shakespeare High where they are currently dissecting the famous “to be or not to be” speech and whether it was merely dropped into the scene by Shakespeare because he couldn’t find any other place for it. Both Quarto and Folio show different evidence.

    Besides, keep in mind that Shakespeare himself was on hand for the original productions and could easily have scribbled on the plays, made notes, and otherwise told people what he wanted, just like any director might do. The texts that we have are merely what survived, no what Shakespeare intended to be “it”.

    On top of that I think that when Laertes bursts in on the king there’s certainly enough evidence that he’s in something of a murderous rage. He’s just charged his way past the king’s people and is now standing here yelling at the man. In other circumstances that would get him executed.

    As far as Claudius the drunk goes, isn’t it Act 1 Scene 4, I think, where Hamlet is waiting for the ghost and watching Claudius get drunk? And he makes some comments to the effect that getting drunk is something of a national past time that Hamlet does not particularly care for (“more honored in the breech than the observance”)? Of course that’s not evidence that Claudius is a drunk, but it’s something that a director could use to extend his ideas along those lines. The same with Gertrude – no evidence that she’s a drunk, but the way she goes for the wine in the final scene is very different indeed if you see her as somebody who constantly has a cup of wine in her hand.

  7. Anonymous says:

    Thanks for your feedback duane. What I was trying to say is something more like: many people will see a production of “Hamlet” where Laertes has a sword at Claudius’ throat (nothing wrong with that) except that if it doesn’t happen in the next version they go to, they think something is wrong. Same with a tipsy Claudius, often you will find people who insist he must be a drunk because the version they saw depicted him that way. They carry that image of the king into their reading as well, and will argue to tedium that Claudius must be incapable because of his Rhenish. Final example, if in the first version they saw Polonius depicted as a buffoon, forever more he must be one, rather than a cagey, and capable minister to the king. See what I mean?

    Btw, what are your thoughts on Gertrude as an adulteress?

  8. You are correct that the text doesn’t place a sword into Laertes’ hand when he confronts Claudius. But you should also know that the stage directions come from later editors. Those may well be based on stage traditions that were transmitted to posterity by oral tradition, rather than by adherence to a strict text. But your assertion that Claudius is merely a tipster and is never incapacited are not correct. He is never shown incapacitated on stage, and why would he, since the character is required to deliver lines while there. But as far back as stage traditions go, Claudius has been shown as a drinker. And we have Hamlet’s description of his drunken revels, his own departures for carousing and his own clear incompetence as a defender of the nation to illustrate his lack of fitness for the stolen throne.

    But back to the original post. I can’t argue against duane’s feeling that the line, “mother, you have my father much offended,” is a defining utterance. He says that for him, it is so. For me it’s the speech of the First Player and Hamlet’s dawning recognition of the power of drama as the key to the puzzle that he faces.

  9. You know, it never really occurred to me that people could see Shakespeare and assume that there’s only one interpretation. It’s a good point. I’ve just always gone into it from day one with the understanding that directors sometimes have more or less wiggle room. I suppose that if somebody does see two different versions of Hamlet and is confused by it, one of their theatre wise friends needs to sit down and explain this to them. After all, is this problem a Shakespeare specific thing? Can’t the same be said of Edward Albee, or O’Neill, or Beckett? Some playwrights put a major emphasis on exactly what they want to portray, but others leave all but the crucial bits up to the imagination. In my college theatre group we wrote for bare stage, and the rule was that someone else had to direct your work. Was always fascinating to see how directors portrayed what I wrote.

    Gertrude as an adulteress? Honestly the only portrayals of her that I think I’ve ever seen are “guilt ridden mother drowning her sorrows in wine.” I almost never see her depicted as particularly sexual, even though Hamlet’s thoughts seem to dwell on that aspect of her sin. What did you have in mind?

  10. Anonymous says:

    “Gertrude as an adulteress?” asks Duane. I refer you to Appendix A (The Adultery of Gertrude) of Dover Wilson’s “What Happens in Hamlet”. Let me tease you with his opening: “There are those who deny the fact of adultery before the murder of King Hamlet, on the ground that the word “adulterate” is only once used in the play . . . But such a view runs directly counter to the Belleforest story…”. It gets better.

    I am sorry but I can make no sense of Bardolph’s – “He (Claudius) is never shown incapacitated on stage, and why would he, since the character is required to deliver lines while there.” Just because a person has to deliver lines on the stage does not seem a sufficient reason that he may not appear impaired.

    As for “Hamlet’s description of his (Claudius’) drunken revels . . .” – you must remember that wine was ubiquitous at the time and probably safer than water to drink. Also, I think Hamlet is indicting the entire nation for its dedication to excessive drinking, for example, we have the gravedigger’s “stoup of liquor” as well of his youthful baptism with Yorick’s Rhenish which occurred during King Hamlet’s reign. Also, Hamlet is probably a bit of a drinker too given his: “We’ll teach you to drink deep…” remark to Horatio. By the way, you can’t forget that Hamlet is not too happy with Claudius who is not only celebrating Hamlet’s agreement to remain in Elsinore, but more significantly, his marriage to Gertrude.

    Finally, you suggest that there is evidence of Claudius’ “own clear incompetence as a defender of the nation”. I wonder if you could clarify that declaration. Where is he incompetent? If you are looking for a King of incompetence, please look no further than the Prince.

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