DO NOT BELIEVE IT!!! : LUSENET : Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet : One Thread

Dear people, or should I say Catherine seeing as I only really rate your answers among the rabble here. Can you explain for me the quip of Hamlet's "Do not believe it... ...That I can keep your council and not mine own". I have read the explanations in several editions but find it none the easier to understand his meaning.

-- Patrick Walker (, January 22, 2003


Patrick, I'm glad if you find some of my thoughts useful, but ... um ... that seems a pretty unpleasant comment all the same. I think lots of people contribute thought-provoking, insightful, and frequently amusing questions and answers.

If you have a script that says 'council', I'm not surprised you can't understand it. Burn it. The word is 'counsel'. This word has several meanings, but in allying it with 'keep', Hamlet is using it in the sense of 'a secret', or 'secrets'.

To state the obvious, I'll just point out that 'Do not believe it' does not refer to what Rosencrantz has just said about telling him where the body is, but to what Hamlet is about to say about keeping people's counsel. So Hamlet is saying in total, 'Do not believe that I can keep your counsel but not my own.'

Compare III.ii.137-138: 'The players cannot keep counsel; they'll tell all.'

To keep one's counsel is to keep one's knowledge/opinion/intention to oneself; in a general way, the phrase means to keep what one knows or is thinking secret. These days, in my experience, the phrase is almost always used in what I'll call a reflexive way: he kept his [own] counsel, I kept my [own] counsel - he kept his thought to himself, I kept my thought to myself.

-- catherine england (, January 23, 2003.

Hamlet uses the phrase about himself: '... I can keep ... mine own [counsel]'. R & G have asked him for information regarding something Hamlet knows - the whereabouts of Polonius' body. This then is Hamlet's relevant secret just at the moment. More generally though, we are aware (from II.ii and the end of III.ii) that Hamlet knows that R & G's aim, to please the King, is to pluck out the heart of Hamlet's mystery, to use their friendship with Hamlet to ferret around and find out what is going on in Hamlet's mind, what his thoughts and intentions are. These are Hamlet's larger secrets which he is going to keep to himself.

-- catherine england (, January 23, 2003.

Hamlet also uses 'keep counsel' about others, R & G: 'I can keep your counsel'. When he uses it about them, he is implying that he knows one of their secrets, that he knows something which they wanted to keep secret. For in order to be able to 'keep' their secret, he would need to know it. Their secret is that they are, as he says immediately after, 'sponges' - that they are sucking up to the King (and therefore working against Hamlet) for their own advantage. Hamlet's words pack extra punch and bite here, because we have just learned at the end of III.iv that he is perfectly well aware that R & G are going to be up to some dirty work for the King in England.

There is more to it than this though. Overall in the lines, Hamlet is asserting that he has the ability to keep secrets - both his own and other people's. In other words, he is indicating that if he can keep their counsel (secrets), he can also keep his own. An implication of this is that if he were to give up his own secrets to R & G, it would mean that he cannot keep any secrets at all; therefore, he would be likely to divulge their secrets to someone. So, Hamlet might not only be saying that he is aware of their sycophancy, but also threatening that he could point their sycophancy out to other people, which R & G would not want.

-- catherine england (, January 23, 2003.

It is sometimes stated in footnotes that there is a pun on 'counsel' with the word's meanings of 'advice' and 'secrets'. In this way the lines would translate, 'Do not believe ... that I can follow your advice (to tell where the body is) and still keep my secret (the knowledge of where the body is).' Hamlet would simply be wittily pointing out the obvious difficulty: it's quite true, it would be impossible to do both. However, this interpretation of the lines seems clumsy to me. While 'counsel' by itself can have the meaning of 'advice', this meaning does not make sense in the whole phrase of 'keeping' counsel: 'to keep counsel' just does not mean 'to follow advice'. Furthermore, Rosencrantz has really ordered rather than advised Hamlet to tell him where the body is. Nevertheless, I suppose you could take it to be a possible, secondary meaning.

But I think the lines are neater, richer and cleverer, and the attack is much stronger, with the other meaning. The other makes more sense. It fits progressively within the scene as a build-up to the sponge lecture. And it contributes to the whole R & G theme that the wages of toadying, flattery, 'insinuation' and trying to use a friendship to betray a friend is death.

Clear as mud? Let's know if the explanation needs explaining.

-- catherine england (, January 23, 2003.

Erm...My brain is fucking hurting. Please could you somehow give an easier and simple translation of the conversation between them? Just the few lines. I have probably not read your answers well enough, but I have a mean bloody headache, mark my words.

-- Patrick Walker (, January 23, 2003.

Heigh ho. Well therein lies the point: like so many single statements in this play, it isn't simple. However ...

ROS: Tell us where Polonius' body is, so that we can take it from where it is and carry it to the chapel.

HAM: Do not believe it.

ROS: Do not believe what?

HAM: Don't think that I can know and keep your secrets, yet cannot keep my own to myself. I can keep your secrets and mine, but if I were to spill mine I might spill yours too. Besides, why should I, a prince, answer a sycophantic, self- seeking berk like you anyhow?

OK? Plus, I've just looked up the ARDEN edition: Jenkins says there was actually a proverb along the lines of, 'a man who cannot keep his own secrets is unlikely to keep another's', which proverb Hamlet is playing on.

Now DO you think you could keep your own counsel regarding the F- word that isn't 'Freud'?

-- catherine england (, January 24, 2003.

No! Fuck off!!

(I jest of course)

-- Patrick Walker (, January 24, 2003.

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