Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Doing and Performing in Hamlet

Academic journal article The Midwest Quarterly

Doing and Performing in Hamlet

Article excerpt

The Protestant Reformation, if we date its inception at Martin Luther's posting of the ninety-five theses to the door of Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517, was about seventy years along when Shakespeare began writing plays. By then Luther had been dead for more than forty years, but the Reformation he founded was flourishing and branching. Its tenets--justification by faith alone (no need for Popes and Cardinals and their rituals), the priesthood of all believers, the duty of the justified to act for the benefit of their neighbors--these were well known to any literate adult in Europe. This powerfully optimistic view of the ability of humans to lead morally examined lives seemed, in the minds of its adherents at least, to have kindled a new idealism. In Hamlet Shakespeare creates a hero fresh from Wittenberg, an idealist thrown into the world of pragmatic politics and power where he gets a powerful lesson in the limits of these doctrines.

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THE PROTESTANT REFORMATION, if we date its inception at Martin Luther's posting of the ninety-five theses to the door of Castle Church of Wittenberg in 1517, was about seventy years along when Shakespeare began writing plays. By then Luther had been dead for more than forty years, but the Reformation he founded was flourishing and branching. Its tenets--justification by faith alone (no need for Popes and Cardinals and their rituals), the priesthood of all believers, the duty of the justified to act for the benefit of their neighbors--these were well known to any literate adult in Europe. This powerfully optimistic view of the ability of humans to lead morally examined lives seemed, in the minds of its adherents at least, to have kindled a new idealism.

In Hamlet Shakespeare creates a hero fresh from Wittenberg, an idealist thrown into the world of pragmatic politics and power where he gets a powerful lesson in the limits of these doctrines. One of the first of these lessons comes from Polonius by way of Ophelia. On orders from her father she breaks off her relationship with Hamlet. Some readers have expressed puzzlement over Hamlet's ensuing rough treatment of her:

    "He [Hamlet] plays the madman most, when he treats Ophelia with
so much
   rudeness, which seems to be useless and wanton cruelty."--Samuel
   Johnson's notes to Hamlet
. (156)
   "... Hamlet is monstrous to torment her [Ophelia] into true
   madness"--Harold Bloom, Hamlet, Poem Unlimited
. (42) 

But he does have some reason for it. Hamlet knows why he has been dismissed--although it is possible that Ophelia does not. Hamlet is out of the king's favor, to put it mildly. His dalliance with Ophelia has apparently gone on for a time and, as long as it helped his position at court, Polonius did not object. Now Claudius rules, and with the regime change Polonius's position at court could be in danger, especially if he is seen to have any relation with Hamlet. So he instructs Ophelia to break it off.

Soon after this, Hamlet calls Polonius a "fishmonger" (II.ii.174). Given the context here--even if this is a nonce usage--it seems likely to be a darkly humorous variant of "fleshmonger" (primary meaning: butcher, slang meaning: pander [see Measure for Measure V.i.337]). There is, as the footnote in The Riverside Shakespeare tells us, "no evidence ... for such a usage in Shakespeare's day." It seems to me that evidence is not needed. The similarity to fleshmonger, a well-known term for pander (fish being a kind of flesh), and the context would be sufficient for at least the quicker members of the audience to get the point. He is accusing Polonius of pandering his daughter for political advantage. The insult doesn't register on Polonius, who takes the expression literally: "... he knew me not at first, 'a said I was a fishmonger" (II.ii. 188-9)--and as further evidence that the prince is mad. Hamlet goes on to compare her to a maggot-producing dog carcass. The old man interprets this as a sign of love. …

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