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Friday, 17 November 2006

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I always thought that Hamlet was supposed to be hesitant and irresolute.

I don't know David, maybe you've let the 'new' lit crit get the better of you here. I still think Hamlet was "hesitant and irresolute". The play positively abounds with existential questions, the topper of course being "To be, or not to be..."
I haven't read Hamlet in years, but it was through this play that I came to understand the term "existential angst". Hamlet as a man of action seems a bit iffy to me, but I wouldn't be particularly surprised if it were presented that way back in the day...
Am I to take it that you're involved in a production of Hamlet?

"Am I to take it that you're involved in a production of Hamlet?"

I'm going to have to sack my useless publicist - ooops, that's me! Yes, 'Kyklops, for my sins I am directing a production:
http://www.rss-mwt.org.uk/hamlet/

I sympathise with your misconception from which, I, too, suffered until I wrote out a time-line plan of the play (with 'a little help from my friends', Harley Granville-Barker, to be precise, in his "Prefaces to Shakespeare".) I may publish my time-line plan one of these days but, suffice to say, that chronologically some two months pass between Hamlet receiving the news of his father's murder from what is supposed to be his ghost(?) until the players arrive. In the days before forensic science, there was absolutely *no way* to prove this alleged murder. The idea of using the players to get a proof only occurs right at the end of "Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I ..." and within *hours* of coming up with the idea he has carried it out and arranged for an honest observer (Horatio) to confirm it. He only stops short of slaying Claudius at his prayers in order to kill him at a time that will ensure he goes to hell. Almost immediately afterwards he stabs Polonius, half-assuming, I guess, that it might be the King. He hurtles across the burial ground to fight with Laertes, and in the final scene, doesn't hesitate for a second to murder the King.

The only delay that occurs is as a result of him, standing as he does for a Renaissance 'New Man' of reason, requiring something more than the word of a ghost who may or may not be true.

Now this is something we can really get our teeth into, David. I look forward to further bulletins on your discoveries.

It is indeed a gross misconception to consider Hamlet a ditherer. Rather, his actions need to be seen in the context in which he finds himself - a usurped prince, in a state at war, with not a soul he can trust around him save Horatio (whom I always conceptualise as some kind of bodyguard - a hangover from the old regime), and surrounded by enemies who may kill him at any moment. Add to this the fact that he is in a deep state of mourning for his father, plus your very astute observations about his rationality, which is affronted by the apparition of a goddamned ghost on his first appearance, and the stage is set for the most absorbing psychological drama yet written.

A lot of people seem to think that it is a simple matter to kill a king. Far from it. If he kills Claudius, the act needs to be legitimised before the body politic, represented in the play mainly by Polonius, who is a typical mandarin - obsequious, devious, and, inconveniently, the father of his one true love. And Hamlet himself, as a Christian, needs clear proof that the offence is justified. The ghost could be a false vision - perhaps devilish in origin.

In my view, too many interpreters have clouded our vision of what is, essentially, a very clear piece of storytelling by Shakespeare. If you want to know what Hamlet is about, you just have to read it. It absolutely leaps off the page. People say what they intend to do, and then do it. The notion of Hamlet as Everyman is pure poppycock - he is a very specific character in a very specific situation. Freudian, Oedipal readings of the character are doomed to founder, as are any attempts to present a 'modern' Hamlet, or 'a Hamlet for our times'. What garbage. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark, a real, historical state, in which something is rotten.

Seen in this light, his dismissal of Ophelia can be portrayed as a protective act. 'Get thee to as nunnery' (which always seems to raise a laugh) is not the cruel jibe of an unhinged individual, but an urgent imprecation to his love to seek sanctuary before the shit hits the fan. Of course, he can't tell her that, knowing what her father is, so it comes across as brutal callousness. Therein lies the hideous tension of that scene. Ophelia's disbelief at his treatment of her is psychologically realistic, and her ignoring of his desperate plea leads directly to her madness and death. Of course, Hamlet murdering her father doesn't help, but hey - that's tragedy.

Don't forget, also, when considering Hamlet's supposed indecision, the calculating way in which he disposes of Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, and his careful amangement of 'the mousetrap'. For an audience, these actions need to be seen as steps on his path to becoming the dark angel of vengeance that he is by the end of the play.

Ultimately, the play holds out very little hope for the rational amongst us. It suggest that no matter how we pride ourselves on our rationality, our darkest, most primal urges will finally win out. I'd be very interested to see if you manage to deal with the final piling up of bodies without provoking a titter from your audience. There is something about the way Shaks packs it all in at the end that almost always leads to nervous laughter. But there's really nothing to laugh about. When the conquering Fortinbras arrives, it is as a martial leader stepping into the chasm of a state which has torn itself to bits through its own intrigues. There is no sense in which we are led to hope that the future may be better than what has gone before, except perhaps in the restoration of order under a brutal dictator. If that fact doesn't resonate with an audience, I would say that any production of the play has failed.

But that's just my take - you may feel differently. I believe you said that you had actually cut Fortinbras. Fair enough. But I really hope your Ophelia is good - it's one of the hardest parts in Shakespeare, and whoever she is, she will need your loving and patient support. The best one I've seen was actually old Helena Bonham-C in the Mel Gibson film. Of course, Mel is a complete tit, but the film itself is an admirably clear telling of the story, and the supporting cast is excellent. Above all, Ophelia must not appear to be some dippy bint who goes mad because she's just a bit fragile, but a flesh-and-blood woman, driven round the twist by the impossible circumstances in which she finds herself. that's a tough act to pull off, and HBC is the only actress I've seen who's managed it - and I've seen a good few actresses try it.

One final thing - I hope your Hamlet is not some forty-odd year old 'star' playing young. Hamlet should not be older than about 25. Otherwise, the entire metaphorical meaning of the play, assuming it has one, is utterly compromised.

On that note,. I bid you goodnight - ladies - goodnight, sweet ladies.

Tediously self-absorbed adolescent/student type gets in a bit of a broil. Ruckus ensues. Most die. The End.

Clever bugger wrote it though, so good play nonetheless.

'Dearieme', you are a cynic before your time!

Andy, I don't quite know where to start with your comment. In fact, because it has been a long day speaking to actors and my set builder, who lives halfway round the wrong side of London, followed by a tedious drive back to Dorset, and I am somewhat knackered, I will simply leave you these quotes which appear with some irony at the beginning of the introduction to Michael Pennington's book "Hamlet: A User's Guide":

"It is *we* who are Hamlet" - William Hazlitt.

"Yes, Germany is Hamlet!" - Ferdinand Freilgraph (German political poet).

"This is very Slavic" - Alexander Herzen, (Russian thinker).

"Poland is Hamlett" - Adam Mickiewitz (Polish romantic poet).

"Unfortunate family, those Hamlets" - anonymous Dublin theatregoer.

I will try and do better tomorrow!

Andy, sorry for the delay in responding which I do now with the caveat that everything I write is provisional. Well, I have to make that clear because I am changing my mind almost daily as I dig into this - what's the word? - ambiguous play"!

First I take issue with your remark concerning Hamlet being "usurped". It is only mentioned once, and fleetingly, I think, and exactly the same thing happened over in Norway where Fortinbras's uncle took over when his brother was slain by Hamlet the Elder in free fight. It certainly doesn't appear to loom large with Hamlet who concentrates of the personal rather than the particular. Granted the peculiarities of the Scandinavian method of elective kings is not easily understood by Brits.

Also, I think describing the court as "enemies who may kill him" is a bit strong. I suspect that they are fed up with his moody behaviour but Polonius and Laertes are merely mouthing cynical truisms in warning Ophelia against involvement with a royal prince - the equivalent of 'there'll be tears before bedtime, my girl'! And even Claudius admits that the people are very sympathetic to Hamlet.

I absolutely agree that killing a king is not easy, although it must be said that Laertes, in my view, a representative of the 'Old Way', would not hesitate - it requires very fast talking from Claudius and the interruption of the insane Ophelia to stop matters coming to a bloody conclusion when he first confronts the King. I am much taken with Shapiro's recent book: "1599", in which he suggests that the observant WS, now esconced in a new theatre on the South Bank, realised that there was a new audience prepared to accept new dramatic ways and means. Hence, the falling out with Will Kemp, hitherto the master clown who, in his tradition, would extend his part way beyond the written words to incorporate dancing, juggling and general clowning. There was to be no room for this latitude in WS's new drama. Now the comedy would be done by actors not clowns!

Again, I must disagree with you by stating that I do not think Hamlet 'dismisses' Ophelia. It is *she* who has obeyed her father's instructions and cut off any contact with Hamlet. Indeed, in the scene which we do not see but which she describes, he virtually uses force to invade her closet and there takes one last, long, lingering look at a girl he loved but who he now realises is, to quote a rather nasty phrase, "not fit for her purpose". I think it is Granville-Barker who writes, perhaps romantically, that in Ophelia lay his last chance of survival, but seeing that she was, to all intents and purposes, her father's daughter, if not pawn, he then strikes her from his life.

I can only repeat, with you, that I do not believe Hamlet is hesitant *except* in the Renaissance sense of requiring proof before acting but in an age before forensic science there was simply no way to satisfy his desire for proof of murder. He only had the word of the Ghost and as G-B (I think) points out, the nearer he is in proximity to the Ghost the more he believes it, but the further away he is in time and space the more his reasoning faculties warn him not to accept anything at face value.

Out of force of circumstance, I have cut Fortinbras as a physical presence although his story is retained. Thus, he will not be making his triumphant entry at the end of the play. However, I am just reading Michael Pennington's book "A User's Guide to Hamlet" and he mentions one production in which Fortinbras's closing words are delivered in a sneering and contemptuous way in order to show that this wild, medieval 'Old Style Man' and his ragged band of adventurers has prospered at the expense of the thoughtful 'New Man'. (Horatio gets most of Fortinbras's lines at the end so they will be spoken with sincerity in my production.

My Hamlet, you will be glad to know, looks suitably 'boyish' but more important, he is a terrific actor. My Ophelia (and I had about 10 to choose from!) was carefully picked because she is one of those fortunate ladies who (and I won't give her age) has remained looking 18 since I have known her. She once played Thomasina for me in my production of "Arcadia". She had a spell working as a professional so she is very, very experienced and equally intelligent. That's why she got the job because I am relying on her to get us through the mad scenes - surely the most difficult to pull off successfully.

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