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Chapter 1

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Harley Granville-Barker's Preface to Hamlet.

First published in 1936, this is one of a whole series of Prefaces written by Granville-Barker on Shakespeare's plays. His preface to Hamlet is the one where he takes occasion to write a book-length discussion.

Reproduced here is the section where he lays out the three "movements" of the play, and the chronology within and among those movements, which he proceeds to discuss in more detail in ensuing chapters.


There is both a place structure and a time structure in Hamlet. The place structure depends upon no exact localization of scenes. The time structure answers to no scheme of act division. But each has its dramatic import.

The action of Hamlet is concentrated at Elsinore; and this though there is much external interest, and the story abounds in journeys. As a rule in such a case, unless they are mere messengers, we travel with the travelers. But we do not see Laertes in Paris, nor, more surprisingly, Hamlet among the pirates; and the Norwegian affair is dealt with by hearsay till the play is two-thirds over. This is not done to economize time, or to leave space for more capital events. Scenes in Norway or Paris or aboard ship need be no longer than the talk of them, and Hamlet’s discovery of the King’s plot against him is a capital event. Shakespeare is deliberately concentrating his action at Elsinore. When he does at last introduce Fortinbras he stretches probability to bring him and his army seemingly to its very suburbs; and, sooner than that Hamlet should carry the action abroad with him, Horatio is left behind there to keep him in our minds. On the other hand he still, by allusion, makes the most of this movement abroad which he does not represent; he even adds to our sense of it by such seemingly superfluous touches as tell us that Horatio has journeyed from Wittenberg, that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have been "sent for"–and even the Players are traveling.

The double dramatic purpose is plain. Here is a tragedy of inaction; the center of it is Hamlet, who is physically inactive too, has "foregone all custom of exercises," will not "walk out of the air," but only, book in hand, for "four hours together, here in the lobby." The concentration at Elsinore of all that happens enhances the impression of this inactivity, which is enhanced again by the sense also given us of the constant coming and going around Hamlet of the busier world without. The place itself, moreover, thus acquires a personality, and even develops a sort of sinister power; so that when at last Hamlet does depart from it (his duty still unfulfilled) and we are left with the conscience-sick Gertrude and the guilty King, the mad Ophelia, a Laertes set on his own revenge, among a

people muddied,
Thick and unwholesome in their thoughts and whispers…

we almost seem to feel it, and the unpurged sin of it, summoning him back to his duty and his doom. Shakespeare has, in fact, here adopted something very like unity of place; upon no principle, but to gain a specific dramatic end.

He turns time to dramatic use also, ignores or remarks its passing, and uses clock or calendar or falsifies or neglects them just as it suits him.

The play opens upon the stroke of midnight, an ominous and "dramatic" hour. The first scene is measured out to dawn and gains importance by that. In the second Hamlet’s "not two months dead" and "within a month…" give past events convincing definition, and his "tonight … tonight … upon the platform ’twixt eleven and twelve" a specific imminence to what is to come. The second scene upon the platform is also definitely measured out from midnight to near dawn. This framing of the exordium to the tragedy within a precise two nights and a day gives a convincing lifelikeness to the action, and sets its pulse beating rhythmically and arrestingly. 1

But now the conduct of the action changes, and with this the treatment of time. Hamlet’s resolution–we shall soon gather–has paled, his purpose as slackened. He passes hour upon hour pacing the lobbies, reading or lost in thought, oblivious apparently to time’s passing, lapsed–he himself supplies the phrase later–"lapsed in time." So Shakespeare also for a while tacitly ignores the calendar. When Polonius dispatches Reynaldo we are not told whether Laertes has already reached Paris. Presumably he has, but the point is left vague. The Ambassadors return from their mission to Norway. They must, one would suppose, have been absent for some weeks; but again, we are not told. Why not insist at once that Hamlet has let a solid two months pass and made no move, instead of letting us learn it quite incidentally later? There is more than one reason for not doing so. If the fact is explicitly stated that two months separate this scene from the last, that breaks our sense of a continuity in the action; a thing not to be done if it can be avoided, for this sense of continuity helps to sustain illusion, and so to hold us attentive. An alternative would be to insert a scene or more dealing with occurrences during these two months, and thus bridge the gap in time. But a surplusage of incidental matter is also and always to be avoided. Polonius’ talk to Reynaldo, Shakespeare feels, is relaxation and distraction enough; for with that scene only halfway through he returns to his main theme.

He could, however, circumvent such difficulties if he would. His capital reason for ignoring time hereabouts is that Hamlet is ignoring it, and he wants to attune the whole action–and us–to Hamlet’s mood. He takes advantage of this passivity; we learn to know our man, as it were, at leisure. Facet after facet of him is turned to us. Polonius and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are mirrors surrounding and reflecting him. His silence as he sits listening to the Players–and we, as we listen, watch him–admits us to closer touch with him. And when, lest the tension of the action slacken too much in this atmosphere of timelessness, the clock must be restarted, a simple, incidental, phrase or two is made to serve.

It is not until later that Shakespeare, by a cunning little stroke, puts himself right–so to speak–with the past. The Murder of Gonzago is about to begin when Hamlet says to Ophelia:

Look you, how cheerfully my mother looks, and my father died within 's two hours.

–to be answered

Nay, ’tis twice two months, my lord.

There is the calendar re-established; unostentatiously, and therefore with no forfeiting of illusion. Yet at that moment we are expectantly attentive, so every word will tell. And it is a stroke of character too. For here is Hamlet, himself so lately roused from his obliviousness, gibing at his mother for hers.

But the use of time for current effect has begun again, and very appropriately, with Hamlet’s fresh impulse to action, and his decision, reached while he listens abstractedly to the Player’s speech, to test the King’s guilt:

we’ll hear a play to-morrow. Dost thou hear me, old friend;
can you play the Murder of Gonzago? … We’ll ha’t to-morrow night.

We do not yet know what is in his mind. But from this moment the pressure and pace of the play’s action are to increase; and the brisk "tomorrow" and "tomorrow night" help give the initial impulse. The increase is progressive. In the next scene the play is no longer to be "tomorrow" but "tonight." The King, a little later, adds to the pressure. When he has overheard Hamlet with Ophelia:

I have in quick determination
Thus set it down; he shall with speed to England.…

And this–still progressively–becomes, after the play scene and the killing of Polonius:

The sun no sooner shall the mountains touch
But we will ship him hence.…

After the spell of timelessness, then, we have an exciting stretch of the action carried through in a demonstrated day and a night. But the time measure is not in itself the important thing. It is only used to validate the dramatic speed, even as was timelessness to help slow the action down.

After this comes more ignoring of the calendar, though the dramatic purpose in doing so is somewhat different. The scene which follows Hamlet’s departure opens with the news of Ophelia’s madness. We are not told how much time has elapsed. For the moment the incidental signs are against any pronounced gap. Polonius has already been buried, but "in huggermugger"; and Ophelia, whom we last saw smiling and suffering under Hamlet’s torture, might well have lost her wits at the very news that her father had been killed, and that the man she loved had killed him. But suddenly Laertes appears in full-blown rebellion. With this it is clear why the calendar has been ignored. Shakespeare has had to face the same sort of difficulty as before. Let him admit a definite gap in time, realistically required for the return of Laertes and the raising of the rebellion, and he must either break the seeming continuity of the action, or build a bridge of superfluous matter and slacken a tension already sufficiently slackened by the passing of the Fortinbras army and Hamlet’s "How all occasions…" soliloquy. So he takes a similar way out, ignoring incongruities, merely putting in the King’s mouth the passing excuse that Laertes

is in secret come from France…
And wants not buzzers to infect his ear
With pestilent speeches of his father’s death…

–an excuse which would hardly bear consideration if we were allowed to consider it; but it is at this very instant that the tumult begins. And once again the technical maneuvering is turned to dramatic account. The surprise of Laertes’ appearance, the very inadequacy and confusion of its explanation, and his prompt success, are in pertinent contrast to Hamlet’s elaborate preparations–and his failure. 2

Only with news of Hamlet do we revert to the calendar, and then with good reason. By setting a certain time for his return, the tension of the action is automatically increased. First, in the letter to Horatio, the past is built up:

Ere we were two days old at sea, a pirate of very warlike appointment gave us chase.

Then, in a letter to the King:

Tomorrow shall I beg leave to see your kingly eyes.… 3

–the resumption of the war between them is made imminent. The scene in the graveyard thus takes place on the morrow; and this is verified for us as it ends, by the King’s whisper to Laertes:

Strengthen your patience in our last night’s speech.…

The general effect produced–not, and it need not be, a very marked one–is of events moving steadily now, unhurriedly, according to plan; the deliberation of Hamlet’s returning talk to the Gravediggers suggests this, and it accords with the King’s cold-blooded plot and Laertes’ resolution.

The calendar must again be ignored after the angry parting of Hamlet and Laertes over Ophelia’s grave. If it were not, Shakespeare would either have to bring in superfluous matter and most probably slacken tension (which he will certainly not want to do so near the end of his play) or explain and excuse an indecently swift passing from a funeral to a fencing match. He inserts instead a solid wedge of the history of the King’s treachery and the trick played on the wretched Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. This sufficiently absorbs our attention, and dramatically separates the two incongruous events. It incidentally builds up the past still more solidly; and there is again a falsifying hint of time elapsed in Horatio’s comment that

It must be shortly known to him [Claudius] from England
What is the issue of the business there.

–which is to be justified when all is over by the actual arrival of the English ambassadors to announce that the

commandment is fulfilled,
That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.

But this will simply be to give a sense of completeness to the action. Nothing is said or done to check its steady progress from the graveyard scene to the end; for that is the capital consideration involved.

It comes to this, I think. Shakespeare’s true concern is with tempo, not time. He uses time as an auxiliary, and makes free with it, and with the calendar to make his use of it convincing. 4

When he came to playwriting, time, it is true enough to say, was commonly being put to no dramatic use at all. A few passing references to "tonight," "tomorrow" or "the other day" there might be; for the rest, a play’s end would leave a vague impression that so many events must have asked a fair amount of time for their enacting. This was not freedom–though it might seem to be–but anarchy; and he soon saw that some scheme of time would strengthen a play’s action and add to the illusion. 5 For the unlikeliest story can be made more convincing by supplying it with a date or so.

An accurately realistic time scheme, with the clock of the action going tick by tick with the watches in our pockets–that the theater can hardly be brought to accommodate. Few good stories can be made to pass in the two or three hours allowed for the acting of a play, still fewer if they must include striking and varied events. There are three main ways of dealing with the matter. Each belongs to a different sort of theater and a different type of drama. There is the so-called "classic" way. This may involve rather the ignoring than any plain falsifying of time. The drama accommodating it is apt to concentrate upon one capital event, the approaches to it elaborately prepared; and with a master dramatist at work–motive after motive, trait after trait of character, will be unfolded like petals, till the heart of the matter is disclosed and the inevitable conclusion reached. There is the normal modern method of a suggested realism in "time," appropriate to a scenic theater’s realism of place. 6 This commonly goes with a selecting of various events to be presented, one (or it may be more) to an act, the gaps in time between them accounted for by the act divisions, the rest of the story relegated to hearsay and a sort of no man’s land between the acts. Each act then becomes something of a play in itself as well as a part of one, the resulting whole a solid multiple structure, the economy of its technique akin to that of sound building, as thrifty and precise.

Lastly there is Shakespeare’s freedom in time, which is the natural product of his stage’s freedom in space, and which–coupled with this–permits him a panoramic display of his entire story if need be, and uninterrupted action. And, having brought time out of anarchy, he is not concerned to regulate his use of it very strictly. He adds it to his other freedoms. Moreover he may take the greater liberties with it, because, for his audience, in their own actual world, the sense of time is so uncertain.

In nothing are we more open to illusion and suggestion than in our sense of time. We live imaginative lives of our own to quite another measure than the calendar’s; a year ago might be yesterday; tomorrow will be days in coming, and gone in an hour. The Elizabethan convention of freedom in space, which depended upon the planning of the theater, shrank with each restrictive change in this and at last disappeared; but the dramatist may still exercise–in the most realistic surroundings–a discreet freedom in time. We readily welcome that fiction. 7

Study of Shakespeare’s stagecraft has shown us how we wrong it by depriving the plays when we present them of their freedom in space, by obstructing those swift, frictionless passages from here to there, or by defining whereabouts when he knew better than to define it. This freedom in time is also a part of his imaginative privilege. He makes his play a thing of movement, even as music is, and obedient to much the same laws; and the clock and the calendar are merely among the means by which this movement is made expressive.

For our convenience in performing the play, one or two stopping places can be found; there are two, at least, where the check and the pause will do little harm. For the purpose of this study, then, and as a hint to producers, I divide the play into three parts. But, as a reminder, "movements" will perhaps be the better word to use for them. The first will carry us from the beginning to Hamlet’s acceptance of this mission (it coincides with the first act of the editors); the second from Reynaldo’s dispatch to Hamlet’s departure for England; the third from the news of Ophelia’s madness to the end.

1. It is perhaps worth remarking that, while the first scene upon the platform closes with Horatio’s cheerfully beautiful

But look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastern hill.…

in the second, when the Ghost scents the morning air, we have:

The glowworm shows the matin to be near,
And ’gins to pale his uneffectual fire.…

–and then no more, nothing of hopeful dawn or cheerful day at all. An audience may not consciously observe the difference. Shakespeare evidently did not attach much importance to it, and he had, of course, no means of giving it scenic effect. But the producer of today, with light at his command, may do well to indicate it.

2. Does this contriving, however, stand the test of performance? Personally I have always felt so fart that it did not, that Laertes' appearance was a little too surprising, that the King's excuse only made the matter worse, that Shakespeare has, for once, been too slap-dash, in facdt that the flawed illusion of the action is not restored till Ophelia reappears, and in the pathos of the sight of her the rebellion is forgotten both by us and by Laertes. But this is perhaps to be over-nice of apprehension; and such a performance as Shakespeare would stage might cover the weakness.

3. There is another but not very noticeable piece of upbuilding of the past in the King's line to Laertes:

Two months since
Here was a gentleman of Normandy....

This with what follows implies that Laertes has been absent from Denmark for an appreciably longer time--and incidentally it falsifies the play's calculable calendar. But that is, of course--since, as listeners, we go by impressions, not calculation--no great matter; and the dramatic intention clearly is to give, by this passing touch, an added sense of solidity to the time-structure.

There is yet another to come, a more subtle and a far more effective one, in Hamlet's talk to the grave-diggers, in the passage about Yorick. Why does Shakespeare take the trouble, thus late in the day, to establish Hamlet’s age so exactly? To counteract the impression of the youtful prince, which circumstances—his studentship at Wittenberg, Gertrude still in the hey-day of her blood, and as played by a boy, her youthful appearance--will have made on us; and thus late in the day, because, with the great central mass of the play’s thought and passion behind him, Hamlet is inevitably a maturer figure than was the morbid young rebel of its beginning

But the immediate effect, though we probably receive it unconsciously, is more dramatically valuable even than this. The play is nearing its end, and it must be, we feel, a tragic end; we know of the plot against Hamlet, which he can hardly escape. And the casting back of his thoughts to his birth, to his childhood, gives us the sense of a live approaching its term. He stands with the skull in his hands; it is thirty years since he was born, three and twenty since the dead jester used to carry him laughing on his back. To this compexion must he also come--how soon? The picture, and the tale of the years, will set flowing some under-current of imagination in us; nothing more explicit, for we travel with Hamlet, not ahead of him. But this is typical of the true use that Shakespeare makes of time.

4 Exceptionally the story itself (as with The Merchant of Venice) or a part of it (as in Romeo and Juliet) may depend upon a question of time. He must then give it attention for its own sake; but he will manage to keep it fairly malleable, and to make something of his habitual use of it, even so.

5 Which is not to say that he was the only dramatist who saw this.

6 The ratio will not be exact; but, generally speaking, the less realism in scenic place the less sense of realism shall we expect in time.

7 Shakespeare’s treatment of time is most notable in Othello. There is the undisguised freedom of the scene of the landing at Cyprus, when three separate vessels come into sight, ride out the storm, make harbor, and disembark their passengers within the undivided speaking space of 180 lines. There is the complex latent use of time throughout the rest of the play.