The Closet Scene: An Analysis

I got a message on tumblr today: “Tell me about the closet scene in Hamlet and why it’s so interesting!”

(responding to an earlier post where I’d said, “i think that the closet scene with gertrude is quite possibly the most fascinating scene in hamlet”)

And I responded with… quite a lot of analysis. So, this is why I like the closet scene.

(I’m so glad I already had most of the ideas here written down in the annotations of my Hamlet edition.)

The first reason why this scene is so fascinating is that Hamlet and Gertrude continually switch what pronouns they use to refer to each other. First, Gertrude uses the familiar “thou” for Hamlet, while Hamlet uses the formal/polite “you” for her.

GERTRUDE: Hamlet, thou hast thy father much offended.
HAMLET: Mother, you have my father much offended.
GERTRUDE: Come, come, you answer with an idle tongue.

Gertrude, confused, switches to the formal “you,” probably out of caution. They continue like this, the tension in the conversation rising, until Gertrude cries, “What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?” (I also love all the emotion in this scene—it’s very clear through the text, and very disturbing.)

Hamlet kills Polonius. Gertrude stays with “thou”—either to chastise Hamlet or attempt to regain the familiarity she’s lost, if that makes sense. It seems to be the former, what with Gertrude’s later line, “What have I done, that thou dar’st wag thy tongue / In noise so rude against me?”

It’s also interesting to note that Hamlet’s attack on Gertrude is, from the beginning, based in gender roles. For example, he cites modesty, virtue, and innocence—all of which are stereotypically feminine—as things which Gertrude is lacking or that she lost when she married Claudius.

Anyway, Hamlet has a lot of really nasty things to say to Gertrude, but what interests me the most is his distinction between Gertrude’s emotions and her reason. I’m not going to close read the entire thing, but I find these passages particularly interesting—think about reason vs. emotion, choice vs. compulsion, madness vs. sanity, etc:

You cannot call it love; for at your age
The hey-day in the blood is tame, it’s humble,
And waits upon the judgment: and what judgment
Would step from this to this? Sense, sure, you have,
Else could you not have motion; but sure, that sense
Is apoplex’d; for madness would not err,
Nor sense to ecstasy was ne’er so thrall’d
But it reserved some quantity of choice,
To serve in such a difference.

Proclaim no shame
When the compulsive ardor gives the charge,
Since frost itself as actively doth burn
And reason panders will.

In this monologue, Hamlet also switches to “thou” for the first time in the scene, obviously to attack and belittle Gertrude.

Then Gertrude says this,

O Hamlet, speak no more:
Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul;
And there I see such black and grained spots
As will not leave their tinct.

which almost seems like some sort of confession. It also looks like she believes Hamlet’s words—believing that she’s done something wrong, whether that be marrying Claudius, or even, as mentioned earlier in the scene, helping to kill Hamlet Sr. (which is less likely textually, but an interesting direction to take a production…)

And then of course we have this passage,

Nay, but to live
In the rank sweat of an enseamed bed,
Stew’d in corruption, honeying and making love
Over the nasty sty—

which is just downright GROSS, with some very nasty imagery going on.

Another quote I find interesting is Gertrude’s “These words, like daggers, enter in mine ears,” which reminds me of Hamlet’s earlier line, “I will speak daggers to [Gertrude], but use none.”

But then everything changes when the Ghost enters:

GHOST: Speak to her, Hamlet.
HAMLET: How is it with you, lady?
GERTRUDE: Alas, how is’t with you

Here, both of them turn back to the formal/distant “you.” Hamlet no longer has the upper hand—he’s afraid, and so is Gertrude. There’s some interesting pronoun stuff here:

GERTRUDE: O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience. Whereon do you look?

AND THEN. Hamlet has this absolutely fascinating line to the Ghost:

Do not look upon me;
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects: then what I have to do
Will want true color; tears perchance for blood.

“What I have to do”—kill Claudius? This almost seems like the Ghost is making Hamlet kill Claudius, which Hamlet doesn’t actually want to. (I played off this theme in my screenplay, actually!)

After the Ghost exits, Gertrude, who couldn’t see the Ghost, insists that Hamlet’s mad. Hamlet insists he isn’t. He then goes on to, again, urge Gertrude not to sleep with Claudius, and tell her to repent. There’s lots of religious rhetoric here. But this time, Hamlet isn’t attacking her, he’s pleading with her. Gertrude also switches pronouns again to “thou,” while Hamlet stays with the polite “you”:

GERTRUDE: O Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.
HAMLET: O, throw away the worser part of it,
And live the purer with the other half.
Good night: but go not to mine uncle’s bed;
Assume a virtue, if you have it not.

It almost seems like Hamlet is trying to save her or help her, since he doesn’t want her to go to hell. (“I must be cruel, only to be kind.”) There are some other interesting individual lines in this speech, but I won’t go into them.

AND NOW COMES MY FAVORITE PART—

GERTRUDE: What shall I do?
HAMLET: Not this, by no means, that I bid you do:
Let the bloat king tempt you again to bed;
Pinch wanton on your cheek; call you his mouse;
And let him, for a pair of reechy kisses,
Or paddling in your neck with his damn’d fingers,
Make you to ravel all this matter out,
That I essentially am not in madness,
But mad in craft.

The main point here is that Hamlet is not mad, he’s just pretending, and that under no circumstances should Gertrude tell this to Claudius. Hamlet starts out by listing things that Gertrude should not do—even if Claudius kisses her and all that stuff, she shouldn’t tell him that Hamlet’s faking his madness. Hamlet then goes on a rant that’s sarcastic and kind of hard to understand, so I haven’t included it—basically it just adds to his above points.

Gertrude responds:

Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,
And breath of life, I have no life to breathe
What thou hast said to me.

essentially an interesting way of saying “I swear I won’t tell him.”

Her assurance here is REALLY IMPORTANT in the next scene, where this happens:

CLAUDIUS: What, Gertrude? How does Hamlet?
GERTRUDE: Mad as the sea and wind, when both contend
Which is the mightier.

GET THIS: Gertrude keeps her word. She insists that Hamlet is mad, even though she knows he isn’t. And this is important because it seems now that Gertrude is more on Hamlet’s side than Claudius’.

Then the scene goes in a different direction.

HAMLET: I must to England; you know that?
GERTRUDE: Alack, I had forgot: ’tis so concluded on.
HAMLET: There’s letters seal’d: and my two schoolfellows,
Whom I will trust as I will adders fang’d,
They bear the mandate; they must sweep my way,
And marshal me to knavery. Let it work;
For ’tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petard: and ‘t shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines,
And blow them at the moon: O, ’tis most sweet,
When in one line two crafts directly meet.

This passage suggests that Hamlet knows about Claudius’ plot to have him killed in England. I especially like the “hoist with his own petard” line. (The Folger edition rephrases it as, “to have the maker of military devices blown up by his own explosives.”) Essentially, Hamlet is already planning to turn the plot on Claudius (the engineer) by having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (R&G) killed. It’s also fascinating how excited he sounds about this: “tis the sport,” “tis most sweet.” And as for his “two crafts”—foiling Claudius’ plot, and killing R&G? He sure sounds excited to kill R&G. It’s pretty awful.

It’s also interesting that this part comes right after the “don’t tell Claudius I’m sane” part, since there seems to be no correlation. And why tell Gertrude about his plot to kill R&G? My theory is that the two are in fact related—perhaps, if Claudius thinks Hamlet is insane, Hamlet can go about his plotting business without suspicion.

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