The Reynaldo Stratagem

Unless you are putting on a full-length Hamlet, one of the more obvious scenes for trimming in a production has always been the dialogue between Polonius and his man Reynaldo (2.1.1-70). Sandwiched between two episodes of powerful drama directly related to the play’s main business (Hamlet’s encounter with the Ghost; Ophelia’s “affrighted” description of Hamlet’s entry to her closet), the exchange can have a non-plussing effect in terms of the surrounding scenic material. It reprises a minor bit of the story from a couple of scenes before, and introduces a very secondary character whom we never hear of again. Its justification seems mostly to lie in the laughs to be mined from the meandering thought processes of the elderly counsellor – and these, of course, are provided on a variety of other occasions in the play. Better, perhaps, to do as many traditional productions have done, and segue straight from the battlements of the previous scene to the unsettling details of the intrusion related by Ophelia…?

The scene’s inclusion has been defended on the grounds that it functions as a valuable buffer. On the one hand, it provides a brief but timely relaxation in the tension; on the other, it gives an indication that some time has passed since the events of the previous scene. Without this knowledge, Hamlet’s entrance into Ophelia’s closet might seem a direct response to the encounter with the Ghost, whereas with it, we are apprised of a gap in time significant enough to suggest he may harbour fears of a different kind [1]. Nonetheless, are these contributions (which could be provided by any kind of scenic content) really sufficient to justify an exchange which goes on long enough, and with enough of a change in tone, to risk diverting audience attention entirely?

Modern full-length productions have found that the scene can repay inclusion in another sense, with its depiction of the venal campaign of espionage mounted by Polonius against his son Laertes. Reynaldo (the name, of course, connoting a ‘fox’) is asked to ‘fish’ for information about Laertes in Paris by spreading rumours about his behaviour and then seeing how far they correspond to the facts. Far from being an instance of bumbling comic relief, here is a rather nauseating statement about mistrust, control, the darker strategies of power, and the obsessive reach of the state into private affairs. For many 20th/21st century productions, this has resonance enough of its own; and it tallies with the play’s emphasis on covert observation. As one commentator puts it, “the whole atmosphere of suspicion […] is institutionalized in Polonius’ ploy” [2].

At this particular point in the play, however, suspicion is at a fairly low premium. Hamlet has accepted without question the Ghost’s accusation of murder against Claudius – he does not suspect fratricide; he treats it as a matter of revelation from beyond the grave (this will of course change once Hamlet starts to doubt the Ghost’s word). Moreover, nobody but he knows of it at this stage. With the dynamics of plot and counter-plot between Hamlet and Claudius not yet established, the spying game elaborated by the two men may still come over as isolated and – in dramatic terms – unmotivated. The question remains: why spend 70 lines mapping out in detail a strategy that has no clear currency in the play?

We can try to answer this by looking at what it is specifically Polonius asks his man to do, and more importantly how he asks him to do it. Reynaldo is to get to the truth about Laertes’ conduct in Paris by circumventive means: “by indirections” to “find directions out”. A “bait of falsehood” – the fabricated rumours – is to be trailed in conversation so that the “carp of truth” – confirmation or denial – will be offered up by the unsuspecting interviewees. Pursue this analysis down to the level of verbal performatives and we can see that there is a quite consistent form which Reynaldo is asked to follow. First admit knowledge of Laertes, Polonius says, and then “put on him/What forgeries you please” (20-1). When a list of suitable charges is trotted out – ranging from dicing to brothel-visiting – Reynaldo is advised to steer clear of one damaging imputation in particular:

You must not put another scandal on him
That he is open to incontinency (29-30)

Laertes is to be characterised as wild, but not weak; for by “laying these slight sullies” – or blemishes – on him, he will appear only as “a thing a little soiled with working”: a youthful vigour expressing itself.

Three times, then, Polonius resorts to a particular formulation for describing the ploy: Reynaldo is to elicit information by ‘putting on’, or ‘laying on’ (it is the same thing) “forgeries”, “scandals”, “sullies” – with Laertes as their object. Such consistency and specificity could be alluding to a known technique of espionage, or the exact opposite – a technique being explicated for the first time, which therefore requires particular emphasis to make it clear. A telling observation here is that while the reported text of Hamlet (Q1) reproduces the overall strategy advised by Polonius (or Corambis as he is named there), it completely misses the explicit verbal formula by which ‘forgeries’ are to be ‘put on’ Laertes. It seems likely, then, that the latter represents an emphasis peculiar to the play, easily forgotten (or seen as superfluous?) when reconstructing the gist of the episode from memory. If we can’t account for this emphasis by reference to something outside the play, is there anything within the play itself which can give us a context?

There are many sorts of ‘putting on’ in Hamlet, carrying subtly different meanings from one another. Hamlet’s own epitaph, at least as provided by Fortinbras, is of one who, “had he been put on” (i.e. crowned king), would have “proved most royal” (5.2.397). Here the verb is of a similar transitive sort to that used by Polonius – Hamlet (in an elective monarchy) would be ‘put on’ to the throne by the consent of the nobles. In a more ambiguous sense is Claudius’ accusation that Hamlet “puts on” confusion through his disruptive behaviour at court (3.1.2). The tenor of a transitive action is still explicit, but we can catch the more intransitive sense of play-acting behind this as well. And most important of all, we have Hamlet’s own announcement, immediately before the Reynaldo scene, that he is going to “put an antic disposition on” – assume the disguise of madness (1.5.171-2). This fully expresses the sense of play-acting, and carries the self-reflexive sense most usually implied by ‘putting on’ in Shakespearean usage.

There can be little doubt as to which of these senses is the privileged one in Hamlet as a whole. In a drama devoted to the manifold articulations of seeming, performing and dissembling – Claudius’ treachery, the players intervention, Hamlet’s guise of lunacy – ‘putting on’ in the sense of acting a part is of overarching importance. Why, then, do we have this very particular emphasis on the opposite sense – the petty imposition of slanders by one person upon another – in the scene immediately following Hamlet’s all-important announcement about his ‘mad’ performance, and in what is otherwise a narrative dead-end?

The stance I will take here is that the Reynaldo-Polonius episode does in fact reflect directly on Hamlet’s own announcement in the previous scene that he will “put an antic disposition on”, and that this, rather than a foreshadowing of the spying motif, is its primary function in the play. We can begin by noting how close the two instances are, and how they segue into one other as part of the theatrical experience. Hamlet’s announcement to his friends comes at the end of the previous scene, with only 18 lines until the exit. Polonius’ insistent advice to Reynaldo about ‘putting on forgeries’ follows 20 lines from the two men’s entrance in the next scene. In the Second Quarto, the two instances stand almost parallel to one another:

With the Elizabethan emphasis on continuity in staging practice, no break would be experienced by the audience to indicate that there was a change of ‘act’, while place and time would remain unspecific. The auditors’ ears would no sooner have absorbed Hamlet’s announcement of a ‘put-on’ madness, than they would be presented with a verbal – if not semantic – echo being worked out in the following lines.

This kind of auditory continuity might be read as inflecting meaning in two different ways. The first would subsume the Reynaldo stratagem under the wider idea of play-acting and disguise, so that what Polonius is asking his man to do is a subset of the art of deception practiced more comprehensively by Hamlet. In his much-cited essay on ‘The World of Hamlet’, Maynard Mack identifies the idea of ‘putting on’ as one of the main seams within the play’s imaginative tapestry (‘Shakespeare’s mind seems to worry this phrase in the play’, he argues), and suggests how far the sense of a false outside subtends its usage in the two juxtaposed scenes [3]. Thus Mack queries whether Hamlet’s ‘antic disposition’ refers to a ‘mask’ proper or to a ‘habit’ in its broader sense, before going on to characterise the Reynaldo stratagem as a ‘false dress of accusation’ placed upon Laertes. We could thus account for this whole, rather curious exchange between councilor and spy by assuming it reinforces this idea of a division between appearance and the inner person.

The second way in which meaning could be inflected involves the reverse emphasis: Hamlet’s announcement of 40 lines earlier is subsequently qualified by the ‘putting on’ canvassed in the Reynaldo episode. Chronologically, this is the appropriate order – we would expect the later usage to amplify and clarify the earlier; but semantically there seem to be more difficulties. How are we to interpret Hamlet’s act of disguising himself as a madman through Reynaldo’s act of ‘sullying’ another person with a bad reputation? The two usages seem incommensurable.

The first point to make here is that Hamlet’s own announcement at the end of 1.5 is not specific about the ideas either of disguise or of madness. In fact the phrase “antic disposition” – best translated as a ‘grotesque manner’ – would not be precise enough to establish the assumption of madness without foreknowledge of the Hamlet/Amleth story, together with the ensuing references to madness over the course of the play. It accurately describes the bizarre demeanour which accompanies Hamlet’s ‘mad-talk’, but does not present anything more concrete than that to make a disguise of madness the inescapable reading.

The second point to make is the well-known one of motivation – or the lack of it. With the murder a secret known only to Hamlet, and he himself under no present threat from the new king, the assumption of disguise is notoriously unnecessary – even counter-productive – at this point. It is usually explained away as a gesture towards the elements inherited from the original Amleth story, only with a revised emphasis on madness as a psychological or carnivalesque response rather than a plot-driven one [4]. Nonetheless, Hamlet’s assumption of madness has been a point of critical difficulty from the first, and continues to be so [5].

Hamlet’s intention “to put an antic disposition on” is therefore doubly insufficient to the purpose, if that purpose is defined as a disguise of lunacy to lull suspicion. What his utterance supplies instead, I would suggest, is an empty carapace of words which it is the job of the Reynaldo episode subsequently to fill in with substantive meaning. We can see that Hamlet’s strange behaviour begins with his treatment of the Ghost just prior to the ‘antic’ announcement, and this can be interpreted as a first manifestation or trial run of the strategy he is later to adopt. We can also detect a correspondence between Hamlet’s treatment of the Ghost in mocking terms here and the ‘sullying’ action which Reynaldo is then asked to apply to Laertes. They both involve the imposition of pejoratives upon another figure: ‘old mole’, ‘truepenny’, ‘worthy pioneer’ upon King Hamlet’s spirit; gambler, brawler, brothel-haunter upon Laertes [6].

The implication is that at the level of action Hamlet’s antic disposition is only superficially a disguise, a ‘putting on’, of madness. The traditional Hamlet story supplies this component which the Shakespearean reworking strips of all narrative point or necessity, leaving only a formula – a set of signifiers. These signifiers are non-specific, thus providing the latitude needed to encompass two different senses of the putting on of grotesquerie: the adoption of a mad disguise, but also the laying upon another of bizarrely comic attributes. Through both the position and the content of the Reynaldo episode, the latter meaning is identified as the important one in terms of Hamlet’s actions during the play. Reynaldo’s mission supplies a comparable form of activity to the approach that Hamlet will adopt more comprehensively in his dealings with many other individuals in the play: with Polonius, who is ‘slandered’ as a ‘fishmonger’, a ‘great baby’, and (once he has been killed) a pile of ‘guts’; with Ophelia, who is ‘calumniated’ to her face as a ‘painted’ wanton, a piece of sexually ‘attractive metal’; to Claudius and Gertrude, who are together an ‘uncle-father and aunt-mother’; to Rosencrantz, who is a ‘sponge’; and to others in the like fashion.

The interpretation of the Reynaldo episode sketched out above, with its emphasis on the specificity of dramatic action, has been preferred over one that comments more generally on the division between appearance and reality because the focus here is on performative rather than thematic meaning. By the same token, it has not attempted to explore why such a strategy is adopted by Hamlet, either on narrative or psychological grounds, arguing only that the Reynaldo episode is indispensable to establishing the form and function of the antic disposition, and that without it an important dimension of the play is lost. One plausible reading, however, would point to an affinity between Hamlet’s recourse to pejoratives and the fashion for satire which was, at the time the play was performed, exercising its grip upon the late Elizabethan stage through Shakespeare’s fellow playwrights Marston, Jonson and Chapman.

[1] See John Dover Wilson, What Happens in Hamlet (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1959, repr. 1986), p.210.
[2] Marvin Rosenburg, The Masks of Hamlet (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1992), p.360.
[3] Maynard Mack, ‘The World of Hamlet’, in Shakespeare: Hamlet, A Casebook, John Jump (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1968), 86-1-7 (93-4)
[4] For the carnivalesque function of the antic disposition, see Robert Weimann, Author’s Pen and Actor’s Voice: Playing and Writing in Shakespeare’s Theater (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), 168; 172-3.
[5] For an early objection see the remarks attributed to Thomas Hanmer on the “Absurdity” of the counter-productive disguise of madness (in Shakespeare: Hamlet, A Casebook, John Jump (Houndmills: Macmillan, 1968), pp21-22. For a more recent but equally pointed objection, see Jan H. Blits, Deadly Thought: ‘Hamlet’ and the Human Soul (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2001), pp.108-9.
[6] Mark Thornton Burnett speaks of it as “coded linguistic mockery” whereby Hamlet’s “ascription of folly to his enemies […] permits him verbally to reduce the king and his most valued counsellors.” See ‘“For they are actions that a man might play”: Hamlet as Trickster’, in Hamlet, Theory in Practice, ed. by Peter J. Smith and Nigel Wood (Buckingham: Open University Press, 1996). p.34; 40.

All quotations and line references are from The Enfolded Hamlet (Modern Enfolded).