Subjunctive Mood

Act Three, Scene 2, lines 248-266:

Polonius: Give o’er the play.

King: Give me some light, away.

Polonius: Lights, lights, lights!

Exeunt all but Hamlet and Horatio

Hamlet: “Why, let the stricken deer go weep,
The hart ungalléd play,
For some must watch while some must sleep—
Thus runs the world away.”
Would not this, sir, and a forest of feathers, if the rest of my fortunes turn Turk with me, with provincial roses on my razed shoes, get me a fellowship in a cry of players?

Horatio: Half a share.

Hamlet: A whole one, I.
“For thou dost know, O Damon dear,
This realm dismantled was
Of Jove himself, and now reigns here
A very, very—” pajock.

Horatio: You might have rhymed.

Hamlet: O good Horatio, I’ll take the Ghost’s word for a thousand pound. Didst perceive?

I chose this passage mainly for its mix of tenses and its mix of prose/verse. There is a lot going on here, but since we’re thinking about time and tense, I want to focus on the subjunctive as it is used in this strange exchange.

The mood of possibility is already a tricky tense—in part because we describe it as a tense, in spite of its intrinsic a-temporality. Or, if it is not a-temporal, its time is still out of or apart from ours, which seems particularly pertinent to a play that deals in ambiguity in the way that Hamlet does.

The subjunctive’s meaning may be a-temporal, but the ways we use it are not. According to the Rissanen article, in fact, the loss of the subjunctive inflection was one mark of Middle English’s progress toward analytic constructions, and the increasing use of auxiliary periphrasis in order to represent the subjunctive became a marker of Early Modern English. According to Rissanen, the auxiliary periphrasis of the hortative subjunctive—which is the command/mandative form of subjunctive whose periphrasis is expressed by “let” as in line 251 above—developed more rapidly than the periphrastic form of the optative subjunctive (the mood that expresses wish—think of adding the word “may,” as in “may we be truly grateful”).

Anyway, that is a good deal of technical language in order to make the simple point that Hamlet’s first bit of verse above begins in a form of the subjunctive tense that also marks it as relatively current to 1599 (though I’m not sure if it would have “sounded” particularly current—how fast does language evolve, and how fast do we get used to its evolution?). This particular snippet of verse, however, ends in what sounds to me like a common-place—“for some must watch while some must sleep”—which develops into what is now, thanks to this moment, another commonplace (“thus runs the world away”).** Commonplaces in this play may be a kind of archaism, or at least a category of phrases that we associate with older characters and characters that waste our time, but like the subjunctive they also exist outside of time, in a way. They have that always-being-true effect that makes them difficult to locate temporally, even as we associate them with outdated language and outdated characters.

I think what I’m getting at here is a question about what to do, as readers, when a verse’s immediate tense is simultaneously equipped with a time-stamp from a different time or temporal plane altogether? In what tense are Hamlet’s verses operating, both in terms of their grammar and in terms of their place in the play’s larger structure? This seems important, especially when we consider the fact that this whole exchange opens up and lingers over an essential moment that would have otherwise been brief (Claudius’s leaving the room)—so in addition to all of the other times at play here, we also have the sense of a pause.

I think a lot of these conflicts and interactions come to a climax at the end of the second verse. We’ve had the subjunctive playing at different registers throughout the passage I’ve highlighted—from the direct command “Give me some light” to the more mild “let the stricken deer go weep,” or the more confusing “would not this…get me a fellowship in a cry of players?”—but it all but disappears from Hamlet’s second verse fragment.

However, the subjunctive also defines that second verse fragment in curious ways, because of the possibility of rhyme that Hamlet flatly refuses (and that Horatio very flatly points out, lest I get credit for that reading). I am fascinated by that “very—’ pajock” and its subsequent “you might have rhymed.” It’s a kind of implied subjunctive, in which the mood of possibility is not constructed out of auxiliary periphrases—actual syntactical realities—but instead manifests itself through the ghostly presence of a would-be rhyme. Hamlet himself points us to this feature of what I want to call subjunctive verse when he invokes the “ghost’s word” immediately after Horatio’s poetic critique. How do conventions of verse present these kinds of moods of possibilities, for words that might have rhymed or meter that might have “fit” better (something we’re probably all thinking about as we imitate)? Is it more effective than prose for simultaneously invoking and then defying convention, and thus presenting us with an unfulfilled possibility?

In light of that last question and this week’s reading, I think we could also have an interesting discussion of the prose in this section—but I haven’t formulated my thoughts on it quite yet, and I think I’ve rambled on too long anyway, so maybe we can look at them together!


**And though I don’t want to go into it here, I do think that features like this—the long genealogy that is manifested in the reception, performance, inheritance and quotability of some of these lines—is another mode of “possibility.” It is moments like this that really illuminate the conceit of time as a crumpled up handkerchief.

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