Hamlet's Antic Disposition

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Hamlet's Antic Disposition





[See Hamlet, II.ii.159-185 in which Polonius proposes to use his daughter Ophelia as a bait for Hamlet, while Polonius and Claudius conceal themselves behind an arras; at which point Hamlet enters unexpectedly and is spoken to by Polonius]



Everything that Hamlet here says is capable of an equivocal interpretation reflecting upon Polonius and Ophelia. "Fishmonger," as many commentators have noted, means a pander or procurer; "carrion" was a common expression at that time for "flesh" in the carnal sense; while the quibble in "conception" needs no explaining. And when I asked myself why Hamlet should suddenly call Polonius a bawd and his daughter
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Hamlet must have overheard what Polonius said to the King. The context allows no escape from this conclusion, inasmuch as what Hamlet says to Polonius is only intelligible if the conclusion be allowed. It remains to examine the text in order to discover, if possible, what Shakespeare's intentions, clearly impaired in some way by corruption, may have been. We are left, of course, to conjecture, but even so we are not entirely without clues. Says Polonius:


You know sometimes he walks four hours together

Here in the lobby;


and as he speaks we may imagine him jerking a thumb over his shoulder towards the inner stage before which the three plotters stand, their faces to the audience. Words and the action are a direct invitation to the spectators to look in that direction; and, as they do so, Hamlet enters the inner stage from the door at the back, his eyes upon his book, quite unconscious at first that his uncle, his mother, and Polonius are on the outer stage, which stands for the audience chamber of the castle. In short, "Here in the lobby" is equivalent to a stage direction, and marks with practical certainty the moment at which Hamlet comes in and the place of his entry. And it is the right moment; for the entry should seem unquestionably accidental, lest the audience should suspect him of deliberate spying. It would never do, for example, to let him linger in his place of
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