A Range of Interpretations of Shakespeare's Hamlet Essay

A Range of Interpretations of Shakespeare's Hamlet Essay

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Hamlet:  Range of Interpretations     

    Comments on John Russell Brown’s  Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet   Though I am in almost complete agreement with John Russell Brown's close reading of Hamlet's dying words and with his contention that "Shakespeare chose, very positively, to provide a multiplicity of meanings at this crucial point" (30), I wonder whether his analysis, helpful as it is for an understanding of the text in the study, is equally valid in the theatre. If we were speaking of one of Shakespeare's sonnets I should find it much easier to believe in the co-existence of four or five distinct meanings, even if they "tend to cancel each other out" (27). In performance, however, we might find ourselves rather in the position of Jane Austen's "inferior young man" Mr. Rushworth, who "hardly knew what to do with so much meaning."1 It is true that each actor will have to choose between a range of possible interpretations, as John Russell Brown says--and no-one knows it better!--, but it is also worth paying closer attention to the textual problem involved.

Thinking about Hamlet's last moments on the stage, I should like to make a plea for the Folio's reading, "The rest is silence. O, o, o, o."2 The four letters following "silence" are easily one of the most neglected utterances in the canon, surprising enough in a play in which hardly a single punctuation mark has been left unscrutinized and uncommented on.3 Most editions either ignore them completely or dismiss them as some actor's invention. An honourable early exception is the edition of Nicolaus Delius where he explains the Folio reading as "Hamlets Todesgestöhn."4 The only modern edition I know to take this reading seriously is The...

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...njustified derision" (352). Honigmann's interesting article makes no direct reference to the Hamlet passage. [Back to text]

7. See, for instance, Mercutio's "Ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man" (3.1.98-99; ed. Brian Gibbons, Arden Edition [London: Methuen, 1980]). [Back to text]

8. Troilus and Cressida 5.10.22 (ed. Kenneth Palmer, Arden Edition [London: Methuen, 1982]). [Back to text]

9. This is also emphasized in Marvin Rosenberg's stimulating study The Masks of Hamlet (Newark: U of Delaware P, 1992), who suggests a range of possible meanings even beyond John Russell Brown: "Os can be most eloquent. (Try them)" (924). It would be foolish to deny, though, that, for the actor at least, "the Os may indicate, apart from dying, something of the final mystery of Hamlet's last perception" (923). [Back to text]

10. See Hawkes 22.


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