act 2 scene 2
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Left alone on stage, Hamlet muses about the strangeness of his situation. He asks himself, “How can this player be so filled with grief and rage over Priam and Hecuba, imaginary figures whom he doesn’t even know, while I, who have every reason to rage and grieve and seek bloody revenge, am weak, uncertain, and incapable of action?” He curses himself and his indecisiveness before cursing his murderous uncle in a rage. Having regained composure, Hamlet announces his plan to make sure that the ghost of his father is genuine – that the apparition was not some evil spirit sent to lure his soul to damnation. He declares his intention to stage a play exactly based on the murder of his father. While it is played he will observe Claudius. If the king is guilty, Hamlet figures, surely he will show this guilt when faced with the scene of the crime.
It seems that Shakespeare is blurring the lines between theatricality and reality. He insists that we see his play as occurring at the same time in the fantasy world of Elsinore and in the actual world of the Globe Theater in London in the early seventeenth century (which for us, at our historical remove, is yet another layer of fantasy). He writes elsewhere, in As You Like It, “All the world’s a stage.” In Hamlet, he takes this notion a step farther, giving us a play that presses relentlessly on the primordial relationship between acting in the theater and acting in “real life.” Is there ever a moment when we, as human beings, are not “playing a role” in one way or another? Are the tears that we shed for the loss of our loved ones any more genuine than the tears that an actor sheds for the imaginary death of Priam, the imaginary grief of Hecuba? If so, how? Why?
And this, of course, is the subject of Hamlet’s second soliloquy, which closes the Act. “What’s Hecuba to him or he to her?” he asks of the player who has just wept for his fictional subject. Shakespeare has layered this speech so carefully and so vertiginously that it might be helpful simply to bracket out the several planes of meaning on which it operates. First, Hamlet speaks of the man on stage who has shown such an outpouring of emotion for Hecuba while he, Hamlet, who has every reason to show such grief himself, remains cold and reluctant to act. But on another level, “Hamlet” himself is an actor on stage, and has no more reason to wail and grieve and gnash his teeth than the player who spoke of Hecuba does. While he is philosophizing about the nature of pretend grief versus real grief, all is ultimately pretend. There is no Hamlet. There was no poisoning, not really. On this second level, it seems almost as though Hamlet “knows” that he is in a play. He does not hurry along the revenge because he knows there is nothing really to revenge; nothing really happened; it has all been staged. Of course, he can’t really “know” this, but Shakespeare creates the effect of self-awareness and self-doubt that reaches beyond the limitations of the stage. Somehow he is able to explore these philosophical questions while maintaining a compelling plotline.