I just got the song from Hair in my head from considering this line. It is hardly silence. I mean, “Let the Sun Shine In” is an enjoyable song and being a part of that indie college production when I was 17 was one of the highlights of my performing life. But the song rather saps the depth from one of the most potent exit lines in theatre. Thanks a lot, hippies! (Side note: I come from hippies – any hippie disparagement from me is both fully loving and hard earned.) It would be nice to have something profound to say about such a powerful line but it really cannot be matched. I can barely even aspire to “Let the Sunshine In” nonetheless “The rest is silence.” I can walk proudly in a winter coat. I can be silent. I can let the sun shine in. What happens after Hamlet says “The rest is silence” is usually that he dies. Most productions have him say this and kick the bucket, either as he’s finishing the word “silence” or immediately after. To me that is as much to say that silence = death and for the AIDS crisis slogan, that was true. But I have a lot more respect for silence than that. Silence is potent. Silence contains a world of possibility. It does not have to equal death.
I’d like to see a production wherein Hamlet says his line and then just listens to the room for a minute, just experiences life for a moment before dying. I want him to reach out and touch Horatio, to experience his last moments through touch, through sight, through sound – to love the world for a moment before leaving it. I feel like that would be a beautiful way to go.
This sounds like an attempt to be political. It’s the most Claudius-like Hamlet has sounded the entire play. It is formal language, government speech. Occurrents? Solicited? Hamlet has not spoken like this before now. Has he stepped into his rightful place as king just for a moment before he dies?
He could just as easily have said, “Tell him what happened” but he doesn’t he begins this Claudius-like sentence and then seemingly gives up halfway through. He does not have time to make a kingly speech. Death is breathing hot on his neck. He no longer has time for occurrents and solicited things. His last words can’t be these. His last words are coming and they are much better words than these.
I wonder if a dying voice carries more weight in this political system. Does a dying voice confer extra legitimacy? Like – a living one might be subject to challenge. If a perfectly healthy Hamlet declared Fortinbras his successor, perhaps all the advisors would gather together and say, “Oh, no, no, not Fortinbras. No. I mean, obviously, we’re expecting you to live long and forever and should anything happen to you by then you will have a son, of course, so not Fortinbras, no, not even in the meantime – just in case. Why not pick Reginald here? I mean, he’s actually Danish for one thing.”
But a dying voice. A dying voice is not one you can argue with. I guess that’s the point.
This raises a great many questions about the electoral process in Denmark. Not that a great many questions have not, already, been raised. But – first, we know that this is a monacrchy and that the throne has, at least, in this case, passed from brother to brother rather than from father to son. We know that the will of the people plays at least some small role in the selection of its rulers. Claudius is, after all, aware that Hamlet is beloved by the people and so he dare not outwardly challenge him. We know that there has recently been an unsuccessful coup.
Now Hamlet is prophesizing the “election” of Fortinbras. And the choice of those two words is not inconsequential. One usually uses prophesy to suggest a prediction for the future but I wonder if it is instead a divine statement. I assume, like most monarchies, the Danish one was sustained by the Divine Right of Kings. So, Hamlet, as the remaining member of the royal family, might take on a kind of divinity in a moment like this.
And an election is a choosing. But who is doing the choosing? It’s not Hamlet, directly. He is seeing that the choice will be Fortinbras but he does not say – “I, the sole remaining member of the Danish Royal Family designate Fortinbras the next ruler of our land.”
He sort of passively lays it out – like a fortune teller predicting a president instead of a prince with authority. Who will do this electing? I don’t mean – “Are they going to have an election?” – it is obvious this is not a democracy. But even so – there must be someone – some group of advisors – a board or a House of lords or something – that makes such a decision.
The divine royalty would seem to be acknowledging that truth even as he is dying.
I wonder how Hamlet feels about this news from England, which he knows is coming. Earlier, he was pretty blasé about the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern but that was before he was dying himself. Is he sorry he had them killed or sorry he’s going to miss the pleasure of hearing it confirmed?
Also – how long does this trip to and from England take? It would seem not very long. Hamlet just got back from an incomplete journey to England and the ambassadors have already had time to receive the orders to execute Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to do the executing and get back to Denmark to report it. All without the benefit of airplanes.
Sometimes, I think Shakespeare uses funny geography.
I enjoy o’ercrows here. It makes me picture Hamlet’s spirit and the potent poison in a crowing contest, like Peter Pan crowing with the Lost Boys. Hamlet’s spirit crows, weakly…and the poison crows, triumphantly, loudly, proudly and the observers all shake their heads regretfully because it’s such a shame that that bully poison should beat the resilient philosophical royal spirit of Hamlet? How can a poison be so potent? So able to overcome the strong? How is it able to crow so loud and strong?
The gift in this sentence is the O. It changes the subject, it takes everyone’s attention.
I mean – it depends on the production. The O could be a simple, reaction to the news that Norway and England have arrived and are greeting each other with war sounds. O. I see.
Or the O could rise up from a pain in his body. It could surge out of his guts and through his mouth as he realizes, more acutely now that the end is moments away.
Or he could be suddenly seeing the ghost of his father beckoning him to the other side. Or flights of angels waiting to receive him.
There is a conversation about Hamlet’s end that features some Os at the end of this speech – those Os are not featured in this edition – but there are a lot of possibilities and the way that Hamlet senses the death that awaits him is significant. It could be physical. It could be spiritual. It could be visual. It is full of possibilities.
Given the sound, one might assume that war had been declared. It would be a logical conclusion. Denmark is after all preparing for war at the start of this play. One might assume that Fortinbras has come to take over, not to report on his other wars. (I mean, he does sort of take over but only because no one is left in this royal court.)
This raises the question for me of who all those war preparations at the start were for. Is it support troops for Fortinbras’ campaign? Does Claudius do more for that war than just grant permission for Fortinbras to march through?
Also – it is very interesting that Norway and England greet each other with warlike noise – even though they both simply come with news.
And they arrive at the same moment?
Couldn’t they have arrived a little sooner and forestalled this little sword play?
This sort of thing keeps many a storyteller alive. They may be particularly sensitive to the harshness of the world, to the miseries that afflict the many but they will draw their breath in pain because they feel a sense of responsibility to tell someone’s story.
One’s own story might keep you alive for a little bit but ultimately, for a consummate storyteller, it will be the responsibility to recount others’ stories that will keep them going.
It is a harsh world. It is also beautiful sometimes. The responsibility (either given or taken on) of telling someone’s story is sometimes enough to help one draw one’s breath in less pain.
It occurs to me, as I read this line, that Horatio is a sort of stand in for Shakespeare. We can imagine him as the writer of this play – attempting to clear Hamlet’s wounded name for him. It is, after all, the writer of this play who creates what lives behind Hamlet.
Of course, he also made him up. But if we look at Horatio – he does behave a lot like a writer. He observes. He watches. He listens. He asks questions. He is charged to tell this story – even if he must draw his breath in pain to do it.