What Planet is This?

16 Jul 2005

Ever 'Gainst That Season

Some harsh things have been said about Hamlet scholars. Someone, I think it was H.H. Furness, said that if his best friend were dying and the only way to save him would be to listen to his newest theory on Hamlet, his response would be: die, die, die!

As I've written before, when you have books on such subject as Marxism in Shakespeare, and Shakespeare's Punctuation, you can understand why the more intelligent scholars get irritated. On the latter, it's obvious that since we have no foul papers of Shakespeare's except for Hand D of Sir Thomas More, it's impossible to say for sure how he punctuated. As Dr. Johnson said in his 1765 preface to the works of Shakespeare, "I have considered the punctuation as wholly in my power; for what could be their care of colons and commas, who corrupted words and sentences?" And if we are to take Hand D as an average example of his work it's clear that he barely punctuated at all.

But some things are really useful to know. It's easy when reading the play, for example, to overlook the fact that Polonius' forgetfulness is funny and daring because it would seem as though the actor was forgetting his lines:

And then, sir, does he this—he does—what was I
about to say? By the mass, I was about to say
something: where did I leave?

Hamlet, II.i

It's easy to overlook the fact that the silent play evoking no response from the king makes no sense whatsoever, until you realise that scholars have puzzled over this one for centuries. It's easy to misinterpret Hamlet's retort to Horatio, "your philosophy", as using the singular your instead of the plural:

O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!

And therefore as a stranger give it welcome.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

Hamlet, I.v

And there are many other such little things that help in understanding the play. One that I was quite pleased to have worked out for myself on the 28th November last year was about the word "season" in the opening act:

It faded on the crowing of the cock.
Some say that ever 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:

Hamlet, I.i

The bit that I couldn't understand was why the "bird of dawning" sings all night before the Christmas season instead of, surely the more obvious and striking period, just Christmas Day (i.e. on Christmas Eve). But later on in the play Horatio provides the answer by using the word in an even more restricted sense to describe the hour in which the ghost is likely to return:

Indeed? I heard it not: then it draws near the season
Wherein the spirit held his wont to walk.

Hamlet I.iv

So the ever 'gainst the season is likely on Christmas Eve alone, or it may even be a kind of pun where either Christmas alone or the whole of the dozen day festival ending on Epiphany could be intented.

Cite: Palmer, S.B. (2005). "Ever 'Gainst That Season", in: What Planet is This?
Archival URI: http://inamidst.com/notes/season


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