Constructing Hamlet's Mind

David Frost


"There's no art / To find the mind's construction in the face"so Duncan, before giving further instance of his own inability. If the audience at a play is in a more privileged position, having in Macbeth both some obvious "body-language"-not least that fearful "start" by which the hero responds to the Witches' prophecy-and also Macbeth's subsequent self-revelations in soliloquy, it is true, nevertheless, that for much of a Shakespeare tragedy its watchers must assess character by means little different to those they would employ in life. Shakespeare is a master of small verbal signs: of a varying movement ofphrases, a tell-tale emphasis or pause, a crucial interruption, a syntactical ploy, a sudden disjunction, the significant choice or avoidance of a word ("He that's coming / Must be provided for"). Unfortunately, we do not have the dramatist's directions as to actors' "body-language", beyond what we can infer from his text; but we do have a host of verbal triggers that delineate character and movement of mind, signals that are perceived by an audience largely at a pre-conscious level, where they are registered but not reflected upon. Such triggers are more than a superficial illusion of character or Stoll's signals within a dramatic convention; their placing and interaction-so convincing that audiences and critics have regularly to be counselled against "doing a Bradley" and interpreting the signals as though they emanated from living personages-was probably unconscious in part, and stems from an imaginative creation of character at levels of personality deeper than the simply rational. A proper response must therefore be as much to these signals as to the rational content of speeches. And as in life there are Duncans, always bewailing their inability to "get it right", so there are critics who fail to read the signs on the "face" of the play, who interpret ambiguous signs with premature certainty, or are unable to perform that feat of self-reference whereby we infer the inner dispositions of others.

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