Hamlet: Range of Interpretations
Comments on John Russell Brown’s Multiplicity of Meaning in the Last Moments of Hamlet Though I am in almost complete agreement with John Russell Brown's close reading of Hamlet's dying words and with his contention that "Shakespeare chose, very positively, to provide a multiplicity of meanings at this crucial point" (30), I wonder whether his analysis, helpful as it is for an understanding of the text in the study, is equally valid in the theatre. If we were speaking of one of Shakespeare's sonnets I should find it much easier to believe in the co-existence of four or five distinct meanings, even if they "tend to cancel each other out" (27). In performance, however, we might find ourselves rather in the position of Jane Austen's "inferior young man" Mr. Rushworth, who "hardly knew what to do with so much meaning."1 It is true that each actor will have to choose between a range of possible interpretations, as John Russell Brown says--and no-one knows it better!--, but it is also worth paying closer attention to the textual problem involved.
Thinking about Hamlet's last moments on the stage, I should like to make a plea for the Folio's reading, "The rest is silence. O, o, o, o."2 The four letters following "silence" are easily one of the most neglected utterances in the canon, surprising enough in a play in which hardly a single punctuation mark has been left unscrutinized and uncommented on.3 Most editions either ignore them completely or dismiss them as some actor's invention. An honourable early exception is the edition of Nicolaus Delius where he explains the Folio reading as "Hamlets Todesgestöhn."4 The only modern edition I know to take this reading seriously is The Oxford Shakespeare. The Complete Works,5 possibly for [page 183] the first time in three centuries, faithfully reproduces the Folio at this point, whereas G. R. Hibbard in his single-volume edition translates the four letters into a stage direction: "He gives a long sigh and dies."6 This seems to me rather too specific, but at least the editor recognises that the editors of the First Folio knew what they were doing.
John Russell Brown assumes, as many editors have done, that we owe the Folio's "addition" to James Burbage, and one must agree with him that "We have no idea what the four O's were intended to mean and still less notion of what Shakespeare thought about them" (28). Still, they are the earliest commentary on Hamlet's silence we have and they may well be part of Shakespeare's own revision of the play. Whatever their precise meaning, they confirm the impression that at this point in the play it is not so much "multiplicity of meanings" that is the issue, as the ultimate failure of language. Hamlet knows that as far as he is concerned the time for words has passed, that there is nothing but silence left to him. It is, of course, impossible to rule out that, for the more sophisticated, other meanings of...