Posts Tagged ‘Nicholas Royle’

Read this passage in the introduction to a book I am reading now called ‘How to read Shakespeare’ by Nicholas Royle. Thought you might like it J




POLONIUS : What do you read, my lord?

HAMLET : Words, words, words.

POLONIUS : What is the matter, my lord?

HAMLET : Between who?

POLONIUS : I mean the matter you read, my lord.


(Hamlet, 2.2.191-5)



Hamlet, the stage direction tells us, is ‘reading on a book’ (2.2.167). They are just words, he suggests, all of them the same, they go on and on and on. The bumbling old Polonius politely asks what the words are about, ‘What is the matter, my lord?’, but Hamlet apparently misunderstands him. He interprets the word ‘matter’ in the sense of ‘issue’ or ‘something of concern’. ‘[Matter] between who?’ Hamlet asks. Or in other words : I’m sorry, I was so immersed in my reading, despite the fact that reading is impossible in my current state of deep grief and melancholy, it’s all just words, words, words. I didn’t realize there was a problem (since my uncle murdered my father, married my mother – it’s called incest – and took over from my father as King and pretty much no one seems to think anything of it, why should there be anything the matter, for example between me and the King, or me and all the rest of you? Honestly, I really hadn’t noticed there was anything wrong). No, I don’t mean that, says Polonius, ‘I mean the matter you read.’ If we have been reading or watching the play from the start, we know that Hamlet has earlier claimed that he is going to put on ‘an antic disposition’ (1.5.179), in other words to act in clownish or apparently mad fashion. How ‘antic’ is he being? How should we read his words? Is Hamlet being funny or deadly serious, calculating or distracted, mocking or indifferent? How might a particular director or actor choose to play him here?



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