Horatio must be holding that cup pretty tightly for Hamlet to have to say this.
It also occurs to me that Hamlet may not succeed in getting the cup. He’s weak, after all, losing his facility with his body, I expect. It’s clearly not having an impact on his mind or his speech. This would mean that the next lines are further attempts to get Horatio to put down that cup. That powers those lines rather powerfully.
I think I’ve usually seen this line with Hamlet getting a burst of energy and getting his hands on the cup. The next lines then become a little speech rather than a plea for Horatio to give up the deadly cup. I mean – I understand why this happens. If Horatio doesn’t surrender the cup, he could look like a real asshole who is teasing a dying man. It’s a hard look to avoid under the circumstances, though.
It’s funny that Horatio chooses to wrestle with Hamlet over this cup, right at the hour of his death. I mean, there’s a lot of things I’d choose to do at the side of a dying person – sing to them, ask them if there’s anything they need, adjust their comfort in some way, hug them, hold their hand, brush their hair, share stories, share jokes – but one thing I would not do is make them try to take something from me. Hamlet can’t be at his strongest and yet here’s Horatio holding onto this cup of poison wine while Hamlet struggles to get it from him.
If he wants to kill himself with it – why not wait until Hamlet is dead and save him the energy in his last moments on earth?
The reason to do it now is to show Hamlet he means to do it and if Hamlet doesn’t like it – just let that cup go!
Even here, at the point at death, potentially for both of them, manhood is still of the utmost importance. Is there something about dying like a man? I mean, yes, of course there is. It’s how they get young men, through the ages, to risk their lives in war. The appeal of dying like a man is so strong that even thoughtful wise ones will join up to do it.
So here is Horatio attempting to die like a man, specifically a Roman one from ancient times and here is Hamlet attempting to prevent Horatio’s dying by invoking his manhood. He is basically countering one concept of manliness by pulling in another.
My god, the suffering men have put themselves through just to feel part of their own gender.
What is popping out to me today is “the unsatisfied.” I don’t think I ever noticed this last bit of the line before. I could have quoted you the first bit without hesitation. What would Hamlet like Horatio to do at the end of the play? That’s easy.
Report me and my cause aright!
But – to whom?
I couldn’t have told you.
I don’t know whether “to the unsatisfied” is often cut or if most Hamlets swallow the last part so it sort of disappears – but it disappeared to me until today. Because who are the unsatisfied? Largely, we’re talking to the audience here. It’s an epilogue sort of moment – it’s an end of the play plea before the play has ended. It’s like Rosalind or Puck at the end of the play hoping that you liked it and Hamlet is handing over the responsibility of storytelling to Horatio and hopping he can satisfy those who have not been satisfied by what has happened thus far.
I also am struck by the creation of the group. The Unsatisfied have gathered together, bound together by unsatisfaction and there is a hope, a small hope to be sure, but still a hope that a story from Horatio might be enough to convert them from The Unsatisfied to The Satisfied.
I would love to make that sort of affinity group switch myself. Could a story do the trick?
It’s probably important to have someone remind you that you’re alive on occasion. It’s probably even more potent when that reminder comes from a dying person. Just being near death like that can serve as a reminder of life. Watching someone die heightens the difference between the living and the dead. Ah! I am alive. Ah! My blood pumps throughout my body. It makes my flesh pliant, it puts a spark in my eyes. Life courses through me every minute and almost every minute I take it for granted.
Again. The more he declares it, the less dead he seems. Perhaps one could keep one’s self alive just by declaring one’s self dead enough. I am dead! I am dead!
Maybe that’s why Goths tend to age well – in declaring their proximity to death throughout their lives, they call forth Death’s unruly side, his/its contrary aspect.
“You’re dead?” he thinks, “No. Not even close. In fact, it’s even further now. You want me close to you? Sorry, Charlie, it’s going to be a long time til we meet.”
It is the simplest of sentiments and elegant in its essentialness. Hamlet says it twice, more or less, and both times as a kind of acceptance of what’s to come – the first time as the possibility of his death and the second as the inevitability of his death.
Philosophers who love this play tend to be very interested in this stance in the face of mortality. I don’t want to take that away from them. I, too, am moved by the peace that “let be” and “let it be” can bring.
If this sentence ended with a dash instead of a period, Hamlet could be about to declare something before death interrupts him again. It would be a very dramatic choice, which is sometimes better than watching someone accept death. It might be more interesting to watch him fight it.
He could be about to say, “But, let it be proclaimed throughout the land that all pirates are protected by the state of Denmark. Or let it be known that King Claudius poisoned King Hamlet in his garden and I am revenged.” But before he finishes, he feels death’s cold hand on his spine and is thus inspired to declare his death to Horatio again.
It’s the more active choice if somewhat less poetic.
What would he tell us if he had time? Would it be the story of what happened with those pirates? I hope it’s the story of what happened with those pirates.
It could also simply be the story we’ve all just watched about the ghost and the play and so on – depending on who the you is. It could be where the treasure is buried.
It could be a joke he’s just remembered and then realized might not be exactly what he wants his last words to be.
I looked up the etymology of sergeant because I was trying to work out if Hamlet was thinking of a military sergeant or a police sergeant. The answer is likely of the military sort due to the fact that it would be another couple hundred years before sergeant was used for the police force. However – what I learned was that sergeant was the same as servant for quite a while before it came to mean military sergeant. Even the military sergeant was a servant to the military. That makes sense, in that everyone in the military thinks of themselves as in service. But the direct line from servant to being in service feels like a revelation to me. It also feels like it should have been obvious. Now that I see it, it feels obvious that sergeant comes from servant. They sound alike in the right context.
Anyway – thinking of death or maybe Death as a serious servant who comes to arrest the dead shifts the quality of that arrest for me. Instead of some Dogberry officer of the law who comes to bring in the dead – no exceptions – it becomes this servant sergeant who, in service to the universe, has to bring in the dead.
It is an interesting image for Hamlet to call forth at this moment in the play. In a way it foreshadows the arrival of Fortinbras who will be bringing a military presence into this hall of death.
When I was in my early twenties, I felt like I had no time at all. I recall saying to the artistic director of the theatre I was quitting my job at, that I was going to die someday so I did not have time to waste in his exploitative “acting” program. He told me I should meditate and I told him he should go fuck himself. Sorry – that’s not at all true. I only wish I had told him to go fuck himself.
Anyway – I felt as though I was on fire – so hungry and so restless and my death seemed right around the corner. Twenty plus years later, my death is closer than it’s ever been before but it no longer breathes down my neck somehow.
Time feels long now in a way where it used to feel short. Then, I’d have said I had no time when I had all the time in the world. Now, I feel like I have all the time in the world and I definitely do not. It’s an odd turn of events.
Though, back then, I suspect that, in addition to death, I also felt the spectre of age. That is, I fundamentally understood that my most viable years as an actress (usually I say actor – but this time I mean actress specifically) were right in the moment I was in. I knew that I would not be marketable for long – if I could even be considered marketable then. I knew I only had a handful of years to get the romantic leads, girlfriend parts, the ingénues. I did not feel I had time to waste in the chorus of a play about a shipwreck when I had been promised a lead in a hit play. I did not feel hours in the box office for insufficient wages were a good use of what I knew was limited time.
And now that that limited time is over – my ingénue days are definitely over. I will not play Juliet again. Or Imogen. Or Viola. Or Celia. Even Hamlet is probably out of my reach now. I have all the time in the world to play Titania or Goneril or Margaret.
But had I but time –