Tags: hamlet

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Turning Points Hamlet 22: Tricks I’ the World

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Act IV, Scene V: A) Torn by her own guilt, Gertrude refuses to see a tormented Ophelia—until Horatio persuades her otherwise.

We’re treating both Ophelia and Horatio as secondary PCs. This beat represents an emotional victory for Ophelia, but is brought about by Horatio. As befits his rank in relation to Gertrude, Horatio uses the logic of the courtier to persuade her (making this a procedural victory for him) rather than leveraging an emotional advantage over the queen. Although Ophelia is offstage, the description given (by an unnamed walk-on character) of her behavior gives her a sort of presence in the scene. We can intuit that she’s seeking solace in her distress—an emotional goal rather than a practical one. For this reason we can score it with two up arrows—dramatic for Ophelia, procedural for Horatio.

B) In her famous flower speech, Ophelia insanely sings and babbles to Gertrude and then to Claudius.

This mad scene gives interpreters considerable leeway in choosing an intention for Ophelia. As its effect is to remind the king and queen of the guilt they ought to feel over the tragic events they’ve set in motion, let’s say that she’s subconsciously seeking a show of remorse from them. Whatever she wants, it’s not procedural in nature, so we can score it as a dramatic scene. She gets only bafflement from them, leading out on a dramatic down note.

C) Disturbed by what he’s seen, Claudius reveals to Gertrude that Laertes is on his way back to Elsinore, and that he plans to suborn the young man to his cause.

With Hamlet bound for England, we’re not sure what the procedural consequences for him will be, but we know that a new ally for Claudius is bad news in general. This fresh note of suspense is a procedural down note for our absent protagonist.

Entire map so far.

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Turning Points Hamlet 21: A Promised March

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Act IV, Scene IV: A) Fortinbras, a prince of Norway, dispatches a captain to affirm his permission to march through Denmark on his way to wage war on Poland.

In modern screenplay parlance, Shakespeare is “keeping Fortinbras alive” in the story (that is, reminding us of his existence) so we know who the heck he is when he shows up at the end to provide royal closure. In a game, this would not be a full dramatic beat unto itself but rather a passage of GM narration given to the players. As such, it doesn’t warrant a spot on our narrative map.

B) Hamlet meets the captain and asks him whose forces he beholds. The two of them commiserate on the pointlessness of war—this particular war, at least.

This additional exposition highlights an aspect of Hamlet’s character—as a critic of pointless war, he’d make an admirable king. This knowledge will heighten our sorrow when he dies without claiming his birthright.

In a game session, this could be seen as a plot thread dangled in front of Hamlet’s player: the GM is giving him the chance to go and interact with Fortinbras. We can imagine various plot branches not taken: maybe Fortinbras would help Hamlet with Claudius. But of course this doesn’t happen. Hamlet’s player makes the choice to stick to his plan, to go with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to his exile in England.

Although it’s not really treated as such in the play, here I’m going to go with our RPG conceit and treat it as a choice to stick with the current plan. That makes it a procedural choice point that does not change the status quo, thus rating a lateral arrow.

C) Hamlet soliloquizes, comparing himself unfavorably to Fortinbras. Where he has good reason to act and is stymied, Fortinbras is able to whip himself and his people into a whirlwind of warlike activity over nothing.

Now we see Shakespeare tie this necessary expository reminder into his hero’s emotional state. This is a self-inflicted dramatic down moment for Hamlet — even if we feel that he’s being too hard on himself, and don’t particularly admire Fortinbras’ devotion to meaningless warfare.

In a game, this might be a moment of player discouragement, expressed in character. This holds out an interesting possibility: that moments of player discouragement should be treated as emotional down moments for the character. This might then influence the GMs’ decisions when designing upcoming obstacles—perhaps by lightening the mood with an easy or comic challenge.

Full map here.

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Turning Points Hamlet 20: Every Thing Is Bent For England

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Act IV, Scene 3: A) Claudius explains to his attendants why he’s sending Hamlet away instead of punishing him for the death of Polonius.

This beat doesn’t so much advance the story—we have known for some time that Claudius intends to send Hamlet away—as address a logical question concerning the antagonist’s behavior. (I’m picturing an incident where the actor playing Claudius asks Shakespeare, “Why don’t I just kill him?”, and Bill S. responds by inserting this speech.) It preserves our suspension of disbelief regarding another story moment, rather than being a beat unto itself. For this reason it doesn’t rate a spot on our map.

B) Claudius demands that Hamlet produce Polonius’ body; Hamlet refuses. Hamlet continues his madman act and reveals where he’s stashed the remains.

Hamlet is advancing his procedural goals only insofar as he reinforces his madman ruse, which Claudius has already bought into. At best, he seems to be temporizing. Emotionally, he’s attacking Claudius by showing contempt for the dead, and the very idea of death. His revelation of the body’s location isn’t a loss for him; he’s giving up a bargaining chip of no great value. The dialogue doesn’t indicate how shaken Claudius is by Hamlet’s emotional assault. It might play as a victory, a loss, or a wash, depending on how the actor playing Claudius chooses to react. For the purposes of this map, let’s treat it as an inconclusive beat, with a lateral emotional arrow.

C) Hamlet departs for England. Claudius orders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to make sure he boards the ship will all due haste.

This is a procedural setback for him; if he’s anywhere but Elsinore, he can’t take revenge on Claudius. He’s not resisting here, he’s choosing to go—making this a choice point.

D) Claudius reveals his intention to kill Hamlet after all, acting by proxy, through the English king.

Another suspense-heightening procedural moment. Because we now increasingly fear for Hamlet, this can be scored as a down moment. As per usual, in an RPG version this would register only when the players learned of the increased threat. It’s a choice point for the antagonist, who makes this move without resistance.

The full map just keeps getting longer. Thank goodness for side scrolling!

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Turning Points Hamlet 19: Demanded Of a Sponge

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Act IV, Scene Ib: A) Claudius orders Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to find Hamlet and recover Polonius’ body from him.

This simple procedural moment increases suspense by promising a confrontation with Hamlet. It places Hamlet in additional jeopardy, so we give it a procedural down arrow. It’s yet another scene that would have to be reconfigured in an RPG, because it’s an interaction between NPCs.

(By the way, last week I failed to add the procedural up arrow leading out of the previous beat. It’s in the diagram now.)

B) Claudius departs with Gertrude, announcing his plans to confer with allies, and his dismay.

This beat reprises Claudius’ previously expressed distress. In addition, Gertrude’s silent acquiescence suggests that Hamlet’s previous injunction to avoid her husband fell on deaf ears. It confirms that she’s his procedural ally (keeping secret his confession of false madness) but not his emotional one. Although he hasn’t yet discovered this, the audience may register it as an emotional defeat for him.

Act IV, Scene II: A) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern confront Hamlet; he subjects them to verbal abuse they’re too obtuse to understand, but refuses to reveal the location of the body.

In this scene of verbal conflict, R&G are the petitioners (seeking the location of the body) and Hamlet the petitioned. They lack any power over him and get nothing from him. It’s a scene of procedural victory for Hamlet, but not one that poses much suspense. Since they have no leverage over him, Hamlet needs merely to choose to rebuff them, and succeeds immediately and completely. So this beat is marked with a choice icon, not the suspense icon.

Purists of procedural construction might argue that Shakespeare introduces false suspense, following up a couple of beats in which R & G seem to be threats, but then letting Hamlet blow them out of the water when the confrontation occurs. I’ve never bought this theory. So-called false suspense is just a variety of reversal, and no more a cheat than any other time-honored storytelling technique. Or, to put it another way, if it’s good enough for Shakespeare...

Full map here.

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Turning Points Hamlet 18: Most Secret and Most Grave

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Act III, Scene IVc: A) A heartbroken Gertrude asks Hamlet what he wants her to do. He makes two requests. One, he tells her to rebuff Claudius’ future affections. Two, after admitting that his madness is a ruse, he swears her to secrecy. She agrees to the second with such passion that Hamlet—and perhaps the audience—fails to notice that she makes no mention of the first request.

Hamlet’s two requests split along structural lines—the request for his mother to reject Claudis is an emotional goal, while the request for secrecy furthers his procedural goal. He gets the latter, but not the former. Further complicating matters, the loss of his emotional objective is not apparent here; it doesn’t become apparent until later that Gertrude has chosen to remain with her new husband. Victories and defeats need to be felt by the audience to impact the dramatic rhythm, so we’ll leave off notating this emotional loss until it becomes apparent.

If you check out the full narrative map you’ll see that it’s been nine beats since Hamlet last scored a procedural victory.

B) Hamlet reminds Gertrude that he’s being banished to England, revealing that he distrusts his escorts, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

His distrust introduces a note of danger, making us worry about his success in pursuing his procedural goal. We mark this beat with a downward procedural arrow. So as soon as he secures a victory by (seemingly) winning Gertrude to his cause, Shakespeare increases the pressure on him again.

Act IV, Scene I: A) Gertrude tells Claudius that Hamlet has killed Polonius. We can see that she’s taking her son’s side to a degree, because she portrays him as mad, with no mention of his admission from the previous scene. Claudius responds by vacillating, fearing that he’ll ultimately be blamed for his nephew’s actions.

Though offstage, Hamlet gains the upper hand in his struggle against Claudius, scoring another moment of procedural advantage. His mother keeps her promise to him—tellingly, she also omits the fact that Hamlet thought he was stabbing her husband. Claudius is taken off-guard, worrying as much about political fallout as the personal threat posed to him by a mad and violent Hamlet.

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Turning Points Hamlet 17: Thy Almost Blunted Purpose

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Act III, Scene IVb: A) The ghost comes to chide Hamlet for his slowness in killing Claudius, but then urges him to help save his mother’s soul.

In quick succession, the ghost acts on two intentions. First he increases the urgency of the procedural thread by pointing out that Hamlet’s purpose is “almost blunted.” This doesn’t so much advance the procedural storyline as re-inflate its necessity. Structurally it’s not dissimilar from the standard moment in a Law & Order episode when a tearful family member shows up to ask the prosecutors why they aren’t moving faster to convict the guy who killed their relative.

Then the ghost introduces a secondary goal—to save Gertrude. In a way, this turns Hamlet’s emotional goal (to show her mother the error of her ways) into a practical one (to prevent her damnation.) This intention doesn’t really take hold throughout the rest of the play, though. The effect of this moment is to increase our sympathy for Gertrude by portraying her as redeemable.

Neither beat is conventionally dramatic, because Hamlet chooses not to resist either instruction from the ghost. That makes this a procedural and a dramatic choice point. The scene reframes and reiterates the stakes without advancing them. We might need a new symbol or marker for beats that do this, but for the moment let’s mark this moment with lateral procedural and dramatic arrows.

B) Gertrude, not seeing the ghost, takes Hamlet’s behavior as evidence of his madness. Hamlet tries to convince her that it’s real.

Here an element from the procedural storyline leads to an emotional loss for Hamlet. He tries to persuade her that the ghost is real but fails. The result is an interesting crossing of the streams: a failed persuasion interaction, usually associated with procedural scenes, that leads to a loss of emotional power. In this beat, their conflict arises from a factual question: is Hamlet seeing a ghost, or is he crazy? Hamlet is trying to persuade her rather than to overcome her emotionally. Before Hamlet had the upper hand, inducing remorse in his mother. Now, thanks to an ill-timed spectral intervention, that seems to be in doubt.

Stupid ghost!

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Turning Points Hamlet 16: The Primal Eldest Curse

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Act III, Scene IV: A) Hamlet’s mother scolds him for offending Claudius; he responds in kind, accusing her of offending the late king.

This is really the header of a dramatic scene which will continue in a moment, after a deadly intrusion by the narrative’s procedural thread. On the map, we’ll treat this as a single scene that occurs when it reaches resolution.

B) Mistaking Polonius for his uncle, Hamlet kills him.

This disastrous mistake represents a big procedural loss for Hamlet. If only he hadn’t failed his Perception check...

So far I haven’t been addressing the issue of the relative weight of narrative beats. Some of the moments I’ve isolated and placed on the diagram are fleeting and not especially memorable. The scene where Hamlet comes upon Claudius at prayer and vengefully decides not to kill him is of greater emotional, thematic and narrative importance than the earlier moment when Hamlet makes fun of Polonius by getting him to agree that a cloud looks first like a camel, then like a weasel, then like a whale. Yet on the map they appear to be the same. Any rules system that attempts to replicate dramatic storytelling will have to take into account gradations of impact between story beats.

As a marker to remind us of that point, and to show that the mistaken murder of Polonius is a major turning point that inflects everything that comes after it, let’s give this a longer-than-standard procedural down arrow.

Note also that even though this is an act of violence, it’s played out as a choice point. Because Hamlet tries to kill the figure behind the curtain, he succeeds. Shakespeare doesn’t draw out the moment to make us wonder whether Hamlet will overcome Polonius, as he does later in the climactic duel with Laertes. That makes this a choice point, rather than a suspense point. In HeroQuest, this would call for a simple contest, as opposed to an extended one. Or perhaps even an automatic success—the GM could easily rule that if the attempt is made to stab the hidden figure, Polonius dies, without resort to a rol*. In more traditional games, you’d have to jigger Polonius’ stats to make the scene come out as effectively a choice point. In 4E, you’d make him a minion with a low AC.

C) Returning to the confrontation between Gertrude and Hamlet, she demands that he justify his disrespectful treatment of her. His blistering response provokes an epiphany in which the queen responds to her own actions with shame and guilt.

A dramatic scene if ever there was one. Each seeks capitulation and remorse from the other; Hamlet gets what he wants, taking the emotional power in the scene. The scene ends on a dramatic up-arrow. If we were to consistently assign weights to all of the beats, this too would be a big one, also more important than the Polonius cloud watching bit.

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Turning Points Hamlet 15: Backed Like a Weasel

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Act III, Scene IId: A) Polonius, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern did before him, comes to tell Hamlet that his mother wants to see him. Hamlet takes the opportunity to have some pseudo-madman fun at his expense, getting him to agree that a cloud is shaped like a camel, then like a weasel.

This beat accomplishes nothing new for Hamlet in the procedural plot line: Polonius is as well convinced as anyone that the prince is mad. Its purpose must be emotional: after once again being disappointed by R & G’s steadfast commitment to Claudius, Hamlet regains a measure of emotional power by making a fool of the father of all lickspittles. We score this as a dramatic moment ending on an up arrow. See how it compensates for Hamlet’s previous down arrow, giving us a varied emotional rhythm and a sense of reversal.

Act III, Scene III: A) Claudius informs R & G that they are to escort Hamlet to exile in England.

Like any of the various antagonist-only sequences in the play, this beat in the procedural plotline wouldn’t be configured as such in an RPG. There, a GM might give Hamlet a chance to learn in advance of his imminent exile. At any rate, by escalating the exile story thread, the scene further threatens to move Hamlet further from his procedural goal. As such, we mark it with the suspense icon and a downward arrow.

B) Polonius informs Claudius of his plan to hide behind an arras and spy on Hamlet’s conversation with his mother.

Immediately after one antagonist scene that intensifies the pressure on an unknowing Hamlet, we get a second one. His big feint at Claudius through the players has engendered a furious counter-reaction. This too rates a suspense icon and a downward arrow—and wouldn’t be possible as written in an RPG.

Complete map here.

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Turning Points Hamlet 14: The Mouse-Trap

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Act III, Scene IIc: A) Hamlet comments on the action as the players reenact Claudius’ murder of the king. He baits his mother, asking her what she thinks of the play. Gertrude’s answer to his question seems inadvertently revealing.

Finally we see Hamlet’s s plan in action. His mother’ s reaction seems to be a minor procedural success. But since he’s said nothing about using the scheme to uncover his mother’s guilt, it’s slightly off-target. This can also be seen as a dramatic moment—he wants her to concede to him that she’s behaved shamefully. However veiled and unknowing, Hamlet presumably takes satisfaction in her words—as does the audience. As his procedural and emotional aims dovetail here, the moment is both dramatic and charged with suspense. We score the scene with both arrow types.

B) A nervous Claudius asks about the play; Hamlet claims that it’s about a murder committed in Vienna. The action continues until a distraught Claudius abruptly rises and storms off, confirming Hamlet’s suspicions...

...and paying off the scheme he’s been hatching since the arrival of the players in Act II, Scene II. This is a big procedural win for Hamlet. It’s not much of a dramatic scene, as a) Hamlet never seems to want much from Claudius, emotionally and b) it’s achieved through complicated trickery, as opposed to the use of an emotional tactic.

C) Hamlet confers briefly with Horatio, now taking the ghost’s words about his murder as the truth.

This is not so much a separate beat as a confirmation of Hamlet’s victory and a reminder of why he was seeking it. In a game, this would again be non-contentious dialogue between PCs.

D) Guildenstern and Rosencrantz come with a summons for Hamlet from his mother. He agrees to see her. Using his madman persona, he lashes out at them for their continuing effort to manipulate him.

Hamlet tests his former friends for signs of contrition. We see no indication of his doing this to further his plans, so his objective appears to be mostly emotional. They respond with either feigned or genuine incomprehension. Again they disappoint him, ending the scene on an emotional down arrow.

Complete map so far.

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Turning Points Hamlet 13: Let the Devil Wear Black

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Act III, Scene IIb: A) Hamlet enlists Horatio in his scheme to watch Claudius’ reaction to the theatrical recreation of his apparent crimes.

This story beat reminds us of Hamlet’s procedural aims, but is not a turning point, as Horatio agrees without resistance. As we’re treating both of them as PCs, it is analogous to a planning session between players. Horatio’s player probably already knows the scheme; this is one of those little exchanges that harmonizes player and character knowledge.

B) Hamlet greets the king’s entourage.

This transitional scene provides a little banter to cover the action as a large number of actors troop onstage. It is not a turning point.

C) Resuming his madman act, Hamlet baits Ophelia with ribald remarks. She deflects him, commenting on his merry mood. He responds by challenging her to agree that his mother seems too happy, given his father’s recent death.

Hamlet’s treatment of Ophelia only tangentially impacts on his current procedural scheme, to test Claudius’ reaction to an enactment of the murder. You could argue that it is chiefly for Claudius’ benefit, so that he won’t seem to be suddenly dropping his cover just as the trap is about to be sprung. If so, this would be a procedural scene. But since we don’t see Claudius react to this, it doesn’t resolve as such. As a dramatic scene, Hamlet seems to be testing Ophelia, to see if her affection for him transcends his madness and crudity. In a perverse way, he’s petitioning for her affection. Ophelia gently denies him her concern or loyalty, diminishing his comments as merely “merry.” He then switches tactics, giving her another chance to side with him and against tradition and authority as represented by her father and the king. Again she rebuffs him. She doesn’t particularly get what she wants, either, resulting in a dramatic no-win resolution. We come out of this exchange on a down arrow, representing the trajectory for both characters. (Alternately, you could more cynically characterize this as Hamlet’s attempt to gain a sense of emotional power by picking on Ophelia, but he loses that way, too.)

Full map here.