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Polonius Production Diary: II,i the News

Act II, Scene one: Ophelia’s News.

Before looking at this scene, I feel it’s important to look at the question of how to treat the scene that has been cut. It’s actually the first half of this scene, in which Polonius instructs Reynardo, who is leaving for Paris, to find Danes who might know Laertes and bait them with false gossip to try to draw out rumors. It’s a lovely if irrelevant little scene, and I have to admit I’m a bit sad about it being left out. That said, cut scenes like this leave me with a question: do I take the scene as a part of Polonius’ character, just happening off-stage? Or do I build the character entirely with the script we are using, as that is what the audience will see? I think there are arguments either way, and certainly I would not feel comfortable with a Shakespeare role if I didn’t read the entire text. On the other hand, I think making choices based on stuff that is cut is silly. Certainly on the level of word choices and line deliveries I would not take into account the resonances of words that aren’t there anymore. With a whole scene… how important is it that my Polonius be capable of having that conversation with Reynaldo? Does my relationship with Laertes need to take that into account? I’m not sure.

At any rate, when Ophelia comes in, which is now the beginning of the scene, Polonius says things like How now, Ophelia, what’s the matter and What said he?. I have four of those one-line lines that feed Ophelia’s news. When she is done, it’s my turn. How I say those four lines will of course depend on Ophelia’s choices, and more importantly how I listen will depend on her choices. Do I instantly believe her? Have I (as in some surveillance-focused productions) already heard of Hamlet’s madness? For the audience, this is the first news—they have heard Hamlet say that he plans on pretending to be mad, then they hear from Ophelia that he appears to be mad, before they see him doing it himself.

Anyway, when Polonius speaks, he begins with go we to the King. No thought of hushing this up—why not? How does he think the King will take the news? He repeats it later and defends it, which makes me think that Ophelia is being reluctant, tho’ she doesn’t actually say so. I wonder whether he is himself torn about his duty, and about whether he trusts Claudius’ reaction.

His next sentence is This is the very ecstasy of love, whose violent property fordoes itself and leads the will to desperate undertakings as oft as any passions under heaven that does afflict our natures. That’s quite a long sentence. Who is he talking to? Is he trying to convince Ophelia that it’s love making Hamlet mad? Is he trying to convince himself? Or is he just stalling? Then he asks her What, have you given him any hard words of late? Why does he ask her that, or at least in that way? Has he forgotten his earlier admonition, or did he not expect Ophelia to remember it? Or does he think that Ophelia acted on his advice but did so in an unnecessarily harsh manner? He says he is sorry, both before and after that question, so I don’t think he’s trying to pin all the blame on his daughter. In excusing himself, he says: But beshrew my jealousy! By heaven, it is as proper to our age to cast beyond ourselves in our opinions as it is common for the younger sort to lack discretion. is this specifically a dig at Ophelia or just a general attempt at self-absolution? Also—why jealousy? This is clearly meant in the sense of OED meaning 3 Solicitude or anxiety for the preservation or well-being of something which was still in use at Shakespeare’s time. But Shakespeare himself doesn’t much use the word in that sense. Jaques uses it that way, true, and he’s a pedant much as Polonius. Hm. Still, it’s awkward.

Anyway, the two main questions (with all that shakes down from them) are how much Polonius trusts Ophelia and how much he trusts Claudius. Less so Hamlet, I think, although I may change my mind about that, but the regret does not seem, from the text, to come from concern for Hamlet in himself, but from the awkwardness Hamlet’s madness places his family and the kingdom. I think that for Ophelia, it seems as if Polonius perhaps doesn’t really see her as a person on her own—how old should she be at this point? At any rate Polonius doesn’t think of her as an adult, whether or no. As for Claudius, Polonius seems at this reading both wary and trusting, which may need to be resolved, or perhaps may not.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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