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Polonius Production Diary: Between II,i and II,ii

I didn’t write up Polonius' scenes before we got to rehearsing them, so as I bull on through, you’re getting a combination of my first thoughts and the results of starting to rehearse. I’ve got as far as II,ii on this blog, and haven’t really talked about it.

I guess before I start on the scene, though, I’ll say—Hamlet is theatrically wonderful in how it orders scenes to play with (and mostly thwart) the audience’s expectations, but it does mean that what happens offstage sometimes makes very little logistical sense. As an example—Polonius is told by Hamlet that he is coming to the Queen’s closet by-and-by at the end of III,ii; he goes to the King in III,iii to briefly tell him so (the whole interaction is ten lines) and then III,iv starts in the Queen’s closet with Polonius saying He will come straight. He has a sixty line head start on Hamlet leaving the King, but is less than ten lines into the scene before Hamlet comes—does he walk so slow? That’s plausible, I suppose, but then Hamlet thinks, for a moment, that the King (who he left at the end of III,iii) is behind the arras, having passed him on the way, I suppose? None of it matters theatrically, mind you, but it means that the actors have to either concoct an unlikely stories for themselves or be willing to ignore the difficulty.

This is particularly acute with Hamlet’s madness. We first hear about it at the end of Act One when Hamlet says he may perchance put an antic disposition on; we don’t really hear anything else about the plan. In the next scene (II,i) we hear about Hamlet’s madness but don’t see it; it appears to be describing the first appearance of Mad Hamlet, to Ophelia alone. At the end of that scene, Polonius takes Ophelia to talk to the King and tell him the bad news; at the beginning of the next scene enough time has passed that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have arrived, having been sent for specifically in reaction to Hamlet’s transformation. Then Polonius enters to tell the King the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy—he clearly has not yet done so, whatever his plans at the end of II,i. That scene is delayed in the middle by Voltemand and Cornelius (cut in our production) and theatrically plays with further delays due to Polonius’ verbiage, before any mention of the actual symptoms (which appear, by the way, to be getting worse since II,i). Then after those three successive scenes of people talking about Hamlet’s madness the audience is ready for Mad Hamlet. This is marvelous stuff. But just the same, it does mean that my choices for Polonius have to be informed by a certain inconsistency.

Clearly in II,i Polonius is surprised to hear that Hamlet is mad; clearly in II,ii everybody has been talking about it for some time (well, some indeterminate time, if R&G were in Wittenberg when they were sent for, it might be a week; if they were in Copenhagen they could be there later in the day) without him. At the end of II,i Polonius says go we to the King but it seems that they do not. There is a delay. In between the scenes Polonius has made some decisions: (a) he will delay telling the King about Hamlet’s madness and the Hamlet-Ophelia liaison, and (2) when he does tell the King, he will present documentary evidence rather than eyewitness testimony.

Why? Well, it’s possible to create some explanatory filler: while Ophelia is talking to her father, Hamlet is exhibiting his antic disposition elsewhere, possibly in front of the King himself. One could imagine Polonius dragging Ophelia into the audience chamber and finding Hamlet in there already, doing his antic shtick. Ophelia breaking down, Polonius backing out. A change in plans. It doesn’t necessarily matter.The audience won’t know. What I have to do is make the next scene work. For me, that means emphasizing how scared Polonius is at this point, and his instinct to delay. I’ll go into the details in another post.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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