Venom and Compulsion. The Ears. Its Consequences in “Hamlet”
Implicit in the schema of Hamlet lies the idea that an immoral world order has established itself, imposing political and social significance onto the once purely corporeal sense and function of ears and hearing. Although one must necessarily rely on the ear in order to learn the truth, the ear is also predisposed to faulty perception. Thus, the previously trustworthy sensory organ of the ear has become a zone fraught with danger and deception, subverted by the feudal figures of Claudius and Polonius to serve as both literal and metaphorical vehicles for murder and for the distortion of truth. In a system replete with deception and disguise from all sides, the listener emerges not only as the potential victim but also as the perpetrator of infiltration and dishonesty – in other words, a spy. This subversion can be observed not only in the pervasiveness of the language of aural assault but also in the construction of both parent-child and ruler-subject relationships, interactions necessarily contingent on inequitable auditory communication. Unaccustomed and still naïve to the pragmatically ruthless ways of the court (having just returned from his scholastic endeavors abroad), the insular and isolated Hamlet positions himself in direct opposition to his society through rejecting their accepted and promoted modes of hierarchical hearing in favor of the establishment of a radically reciprocal means of aural transmission with his friend Horatio.
The tragic trajectory of the play can be traced in Hamlet’s attempt to outmaneuver his political rivals and take revenge in the contextualization of an aural arena. The royal court is presented as a place which, insofar as silence and speech are problematized, closely resembles the conception of the ear as it is developed throughout Hamlet. Shakespeare’s profuse references to ears routinely present them as vessels for violence, characterized by their vulnerability to both verbal and physical assault. That the receptacle for Claudius’s use of poison should be King Hamlet’s ear is thus rendered significant. It is this visceral image of the literally corrupted ear that is echoed in the many rhetorical descriptions that follow. The larger decay of the Danish state, reflected in the Ghost’s statement that “the whole ear of Denmark” has become “Rankly abused” (1.5.38), is itself manifested on a more localized and individual level, so that assorted ears become liable victims to all kinds of attack. Hypothetical and actual ears are variously “take[n] prisoner” (2.2.401), “cleave[d]” (2.2.484), “mildewed” (3.4.65), and metaphorically stabbed by “words like daggers” (3.4.96). The inevitable susceptibility of the “porches” of the ear as a sensory organ and the subsequent duality of function that arises from it is one of the major obstacles that Hamlet must confront in the play (1.5.63). Hamlet’s growing consciousness of this dichotomy finds resolution (however haltingly) in his own adoption and exploitation of the sensory faculty of hearing.
Correspondingly, hearing in the play is rendered as a function more political than it is anatomical, due to definitions and demarcations of both familial and social relationships by the fundamental act of listening. In Hamlet, Shakespeare expands upon the longstanding linguistic and conceptual link between hearing and obedience: according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to “hear” is “to perceive, or have the sensation of, sound” but it alternatively means “to obey” and “to belong.” In the hierarchical structure of the family unit, listening (as a vital precursor to obedience) is necessarily an act of submission: the receptive child is one who subjugates himself to parental authority. From the very start of the play, Hamlet seems to rebel against this inequitable conception of hearing. He makes no attempt to listen attentively to Claudius, interrupting and even mishearing (accidentally or purposefully) the king’s address to him (1.2.64-67). Hamlet’s refusal to listen to Claudius in the appropriate manner thus indicates his complete rejection of Claudius as a surrogate father: instead, he shifts his dutiful compliance to his mother in a pointed remark, “I shall in all my best obey you, madam” (1.2.120). His denial is twofold: by refusing to listen to Claudius, Hamlet both shirks his responsibilities as both son and prince and also denies the controlling power of Claudius’s speech. In doing so, Hamlet exposes Claudius’s weakness and deceit as a ruler even before the full extent of his crime is revealed. Ultimately, Claudius is revealed to be nothing more than a politician who exploits other people’s ears, working through the devious methods of both poison and persuasion.
When the ghost of old King Hamlet appears, Hamlet’s recognition and acceptance of the ghost as that of his father and the reaffirmation of the father-son relationship are both again appropriately presented in the figurative terms of ears and hearing. The ghost refuses to speak to Horatio: the son alone must be the hearer and recipient of the father’s speech and authority. Establishing himself as patriarch, the ghost’s control of Hamlet is accomplished through his command of Hamlet’s hearing:
GHOST: Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing / To what I shall unfold.
HAMLET: Speak. I am bound to hear.
GHOST: So art thou to revenge, when thou shalt hear (1.5.5-8)
Whether or not the ghost really is Hamlet’s father is left purposefully ambiguous; this vagueness is complemented and heightened by the Claudius-like way in which the Ghost operates. The ghost’s power is contingent upon compelling Hamlet to listen and obey, a “commandment” that exploits both the constructive and destructive functions of hearing (1.5.103). By listening, Hamlet will not only fulfill his filial duty (“List, list, oh, list! / If thou didst ever thy dear father love”) but also be “bound” to realize and complete the ghost’s thirst for revenge (1.5.21-22). In the ghost’s account, Claudius literally poisons King Hamlet’s ear; by telling the story to Hamlet, the ghost metaphorically poisons Hamlet, to the extent that Hamlet even begins to feel physical symptoms: “Hold, hold, my heart, / And you, my sinews, grow not instant old” (1.5.93-94). Hamlet’s lingering suspicion and mistrust of the ghost is implied, though never directly stated. Even after claiming the ghost as the father, Hamlet remains reluctant to obey; his underlying resistance to listen to the ghost manifests itself in the delay of the actual revenge plot and Hamlet’s misdirection of blame towards his mother, which the ghost explicitly warned against.
In contrast to Hamlet, who cannot find an adequate paternal figure to fully acquiesce to, Laertes acts every bit the loyal son and subject, attending carefully and unquestioningly to both Claudius and to his father. Appropriately, his behavior is reflected in his diction, which is as polite and straightforward as Hamlet’s is discursive and pun-riddled: towards Claudius, he affirms his “duty” and praises the king’s “gracious leave and pardon” (1.2.53-57). Laertes is equally as respectful towards his father, attending to his father’s every word despite the tedious and seemingly facetious nature of pedantic Polonius’s advice. He does not interject as Hamlet does and only speaks when he is about to depart: “Most humbly do I take my leave, my lord” (1.3.81). Laertes’ compliance can be traced to the speech that precedes it: although Polonius does not immediately appear to the reader as an apt father figure, closer examination of his speech reveals that his advice, while not succinct, is acute and perceptive. In his parroting of trite sayings like “Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice. Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgement,” Polonius expresses a savvy, worldly sort of wisdom; he indicates that the way to survive and succeed in society is through being a good, but guarded, hearer (1.3.67-69). His words bear relevance to the critical issue at hand; it is clear from Hamlet’s actions and words that the prince, Laertes’ foil, has not been the willing recipient of such paternal guidance.
The aural language that pervades the diction of both Polonius and Hamlet is an interesting linguistic commonality which juxtaposes two characters who represent entirely different worldviews and express antithetical variations on the thematic motif of ears and hearing in the play. As “councillor” to the king, Polonius is positioned as Hamlet’s essential enemy, being the man who most dutifully listens to Claudius. Polonius derives his influence from listening to the king, whereas Hamlet’s power stems directly from the opposite action – it is in rejecting Claudius’s speech that Hamlet is able to behave most independently. Outstepping the boundaries of Hamlet’s moralistic sense of hearing (“For God’s love, let me hear!”), Polonius is always trying to hear what he should not: “by indirections find directions out” (1.2.195, 2.1.63-65). His subversive acts of overhearing extend beyond the political realm so that Polonius problematically conflates both his parental and courtly roles: not only is he ordered to eavesdrop for Claudius, Polonius also appoints Reynaldo to spy on Laertes and uses his daughter Ophelia as bait for his schemes.
Like the other father figure of Claudius (and arguably, the ghost), Polonius exploits the function of the ear for his own gains; his fraudulent practices are characterized by the manipulation and interception of hearing. There are no people with which Polonius can relate and interact on an honest level: his distrust of his own offspring and his eagerness to pry into and “o’erhear” the private bond between mother and son leads to his downfall and ironically appropriate death “in the ear / Of all their conference” (3.1.183, 3.3.32). Although Polonius proclaims himself to be “a man faithful and honorable,” Hamlet ultimately exposes him and condemns him as a “wretched, rash, intruding fool” (3.4.31). Hamlet’s accidental murder of Polonius is perhaps not quite so incidental then; rather, it can be interpreted as more than instrumental to his ultimate goal of revenge. Claudius poisoned the ear of Hamlet’s father, and Hamlet has now killed Polonius, Claudius’ symbolic, extended avatar of an ear (“Behind the arras I’ll convey myself / To hear the process […] I’ll call upon you ere you go to bed / And tell you what I know”) (3.3.33-34).
If Hamlet seems to place his entire identity in jeopardy by refusing to listen to Claudius, his defiance should not be construed as a byproduct of irrational, adolescent stubbornness but rather as the reflection of his willful, intellectual resolve and new cognition. Kettle writes in his essay, “From Hamlet to Lear,” that “Hamlet can no longer base his values and actions on the accepted assumptions of the conventional sixteenth-century prince” (Kettle 147). Hamlet attempts to rearticulate the terms and relationships of hearing in order to create an identity for himself that is based not on his status as a prince, but rather “as a man, a sixteenth-century man, imbued with the values and caught up in the developing and exciting potentialities of the new humanism (Kettle 147). Society dictates that Hamlet, as the prince, should listen to and obey his father and king, and subsequently that the courtiers and nobles should listen to Hamlet. Shakespeare elucidates Hamlet’s rejection of the former relationship through the construction of disruptive dialogue; similarly, the latter relationship is also upended through the act of hearing. However, this time, it is accomplished not by a refusal to hear but by the exact opposite: Horatio demands of Hamlet to “season your admiration for a while / With an attent ear” to Hamlet’s reply of “For God’s love, let me hear!” (1.2.192-195).
Their conversation can be interpreted as an affirmation of the ear’s integrity and thus as an entire reversal of formerly supposed hierarchical structures of hearing. Hamlet’s conception of hearing as of this scene is that of a sanctified rather than corrupted function; he acknowledges that hearing is not his natural activity as prince in appealing to God to “let” him hear. While Hamlet’s words seem to imply that he somehow lacks the permission or ability to hear, what is most prominent in his conversation with Horatio is his driving desire to be a listener. Engaging in a fundamentally human act of hearing allows Hamlet to assert his essential personhood. In a coinciding departure from tradition, the lower-ranking subject is given the authority to speak with such volition and autonomy so as to subjugate the prince to the passive role of listener. Even more radically, Hamlet is not just a willing participant but an active agent in his own dethroning, correcting Horatio when he calls himself Hamlet’s “poor servant”: “Sir, my good friend. I’ll change that name with you” (1.2.162-163). Shakespeare, too, seems like a conspirator in this revolutionary plot: if Horatio’s discourse places him in the ambiguous grey area between being Hamlet’s subject and his conversational equal, so too does the playwright reject the restricting labels of stratified society. Unlike other characters in the play, Horatio is not clearly defined by his status at court. Rather, Shakespeare simply identifies him as a friend of Hamlet’s, making Horatio an apt interlocutor in their humanist dialogues and accordingly the most appropriate, perceptive survivor and successor of the tragic drama that unfolds.
It is in the final scene that Horatio once again breaks with established feudal custom to demand the hearing of a prince: “let me speak to th’yet unknowing world / How these things came about. So shall you hear” (5.2.352-354). This time, however, it is Fortinbras who answers – but his response (“Let us haste to hear it, / And call the noblest to the audience”) indicates that although Hamlet is now dead, his enlightened sentiments might still yet live on (5.2.360-361). Horatio has been charged with the task to persist and tell Hamlet’s story, but it is in Fortinbras’ words that we directly hear the lingering echo of Hamlet’s “dying voice” (5.2.330). This reverberation is at once haunting and hopeful, containing a promise of redemption from the current dire state of affairs wherein “the ears are senseless that should give us hearing” (5.2.343). Ultimately, Fortinbras’ bold reaffirmation of the integrity and equitability of hearing presents the euphonious possibility that the wounded ear of Denmark will finally heal and regain its capacity to hear fully – so that it is no longer sophistry that resounds in the land or even Hamlet’s predicated “silence” but “music” (5.2.332, 372).
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