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Hamlet's mind, in logical connection, the image of a king and a dead body, and with it the one idea that concerned him personally. In his life he had two courses open to him. One was to occupy his time with overcoming the usurper and trying to place himself on his father's throne; the other was to turn the dagger against himself and get relief from that heartache which, in any case, would be his for life. Situated as he was, he might become either a king or a dead body. They were the only two logical courses open to him. In the present juncture of his life there was suddenly and vividly presented to his contemplation a dead body on the one hand and a king on the other; and the messenger had said “You must tell us where the body is.” This matter of “is, in connection with a dead body, raises up to contemplation the whole mystery of being. It is the old question of, “to be or not to be," and Hamlet's mind, with the concrete presentment before him, returns at once to the question that most deeply concerns him. His remark upon the subject is quite natural. To the king, the body is. But with the body the king is not.
. And back of his remark was the thought that if he were a dead body, nobody would be now saying to him, “Go with us to the king.” The hypocritical and hollow king, the corrupt court and the whole painful state of affairs would be wiped out of existence so far as he is concerned
a thing much to be desired. It seemed so,
for the moment; and he said what he thought. But the mystery of death still remained; and he had probably decided that "it is nobler in the mind" to suffer and try to do something than to desert the field of action.
Enter a Messenger
Grates me: the sum.
(Antony and Cleopatra, i, I, 18)
The generally accepted interpretation of Antony's “the sum” is that he is ordering the messenger to sum up the news shortly. Impatient of interruption he exclaims that it "grates” upon him and then demands the news from Rome in a nutshell. This is a misconception. Antony's words,
are in answer to Cleopatra's foregoing inquiry as to “how much” he loves her. She has been insisting upon an answer to that question, but just when Antony is beginning to expatiate upon that pleasant theme, the messenger arrives and interrupts him. Vexed at this untimely obtrusion he waves the messenger aside and at once resumes his reply to Cleopatra. “The sum he begins; but before he can tell her the amount of his love he is again interrupted, this time by her. The line should be printed with a dash after it to indicate that he has begun a sentence which is broken off.
At first blush it might seem that the usual interpretation of the passage is as good as the
one I am submitting. We must, however, look at the context. If Antony, the triple pillar of the world, commanded a man to sum up his message quickly, it is safe to say that he would make some attempt to do so. But the messenger does not respond. Then, too, if Antony is here supposed to be asking for the sum of the news he must have some intention of listening. But Cleopatra immediately says, “Nay, hear them, Antony." He not only shows no indication of having made such an inquiry of the messenger, but he continues to ignore his presence even when Cleopatra tries later to get him to give audience. Thus the accepted understanding of the line produces such a state of affairs that in order to assent to it we have to have no regard for human nature. This is un-Shakespearean.
On the other hand, if Antony is replying to the question “how much,” it is quite natural for him to begin, “The sum
As soon as he began, Cleopatra saw that he was addressing her and not the messenger; it is for that reason that she breaks in, “Nay, hear them, Antony.” And the messenger says nothing because he saw that he simply was not wanted.
Difficulty with this passage, which began with the earliest editors, has resulted in continual efforts to repunctuate it; but always with the one preconceived meaning in view. In addition to the suggestions I have made I would separate the two halves of the statement, as at
present printed, with a period, thus showing their complete detachment from one another, and indicate them as being addressed to the Messenger and Cleopatra respectively.
The opening scene of this play is all bent to the purpose of impressing upon us Antony's complete infatuation and obsession with the charming Egyptian. Therefore, at the very beginning, we see him ignoring state affairs entirely not partially or with a divided mind. This is brought out most strongly in the line we are considering; it was Shakespeare's strongest point in calculating the opening. We should not, therefore, be willing to consider Antony as consenting to pause in his courtship and lend one ear to the news, as it were, providing it was summed up or made short.