Lear 2.2.64-78

Cornwall: Why art thou angry?

Kent: That such a slave as this should wear a sword
Who wears no honesty. Such smiling rogues as these
Like rats oft bite the holy cords a-twain,
Which are t’intrance t’unloose; smooth every passion
That in the natures of their lords rebel,
Being oil to fire, snow to the colder moods,
Revenge, affirm, and turn their halcyon beaks
With every gall and vary of their masters,
Knowing naught, like dogs, but following.
A plague upon your epileptic visage!
Smile you my speeches as I were a fool?
Goose, if I had you upon Sarum Plain,
I’d drive ye cackling home to Camelot.

Cornwall: What, art thou mad, old fellow?

I’m interested in this moment as one in which communication seems to break down entirely, in part because of an excess of language, not a lack of it. Kent’s speech here embodies excess to a tee: it describes an excess of servitude (“oil to fire, snow to the colder moods”), there is an excessive amount of metaphor and figuration, and as a (non) answer to Cornwall’s question, the speech is in itself excessive. What I find particularly skillful—and what I think has bearing on the play as a whole—is the foundation of “naught” upon which this excess is built. Not only does this 13 line speech fail to answer Cornwall’s question, there is also (at least in the eyes of everyone else on stage) no apparent reason for it, and its string of metaphors builds into one involving dogs which both know “naught” and follow nothing, syntactically as well as metaphorically. I like the use of this in a play that in so many ways has “nothing” at its center but an old man’s folly, sparking an excessive chain of events.

What’s more, and what’s particularly pertinent to this week’s theme, this passage deals with multiple transformations of the human body into animal form. Is this merely a complement to “poor, bare, forked animal” that seems to me to be the center of this play—“unaccommodated man”? Or is there something more organized or developmental to this progression of curious and consistent animal metaphor? Each featured animal has a specific physical or verbal trait assigned to it (rats biting, birds with beaks, dogs following); there is an order and symmetry to the animal-metaphors in a rant that is otherwise made up of unstable outbursts. What’s more, this passage suggests itself as an extreme counterpart to Edgar’s more famous and more subdued speech in Act 2.3, in which he “take(s) the basest and most poorest shape / That ever penury in contempt of man / Brought near to beast.” We also have another strangely symmetrical and specific animal-laden speech by the fool at 2.4.6, commenting on Kent’s position in the stocks as a result of the encounter in question.

I’m not sure what to make of all of this beastly figurative transformation, except that I find it appropriate in this moment where people begin to thoroughly misunderstand each other, and particularly apt in a play in which civilization all but breaks down. The fact that Cornwall’s questions develop only from “why art thou angry” to “art thou mad”—two simple lines to Kent’s 13—helped me to think about the exchange that follows this speech in terms of this week’s exercise, as well. I decided to think about how Kent and his interlocutors might abandon communication altogether and staged the passage following this one as a fight.

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.