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Jul 15 2012

Hamlet

A longish time ago we talked about the idea of doing book discussion threads, or was it Shakespeare threads. One of those. Inspired by Pamela Gay’s urgings to make the world better and do something, let’s get to it.

Let’s start at the top, with Hamlet.

We’ll talk until no one has anything left to say.

I’ll start.

Biggest thing: it’s not [just, or primarily] about A Guy Who Can’t Make Up His Mind. That’s become the boring soundbite about it, and it is very damn boring. That’s not what it’s about. It’s about a million things, and that one is more incidental than most of them.

It’s about everything. I think I mentioned when we were talking about Shakespeare before that I once developed a fascination with Hamlet, and spent several months reading/watching/listening to it and related things (the rest of the plays, other playwrights, Elizabethan writers in general, secondary stuff). That’s partly because it’s about everything.

Such as

Love

Betrayal

Time, and the erosion of love over time

Grief and loss, obviously

Revenge

Sex

Family, romance, friendship

Death

Epistemology

Truth

Appearances, and deception (or “seeming” as Shakespeare liked to call it). “A man may smile, and smile, and be a villain.”

Acting

Lies, deceit, trickery

Thinking

Words

Your turn.

70 comments

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  1. 1
    julian

    I liked the religion in Hamlet. It was a very refreshing throw back to see the implications of faith and dogma given actual prominence without a some kind of happy ending or epiphany. Heaven and Hell, the need for Confession, incest, absolution, fun to actually look at from a distance. At least for me.

  2. 2
    Simon Clare

    My 11 year old daughter, Aurora, is playing Gertrude in her school production tomorrow. I love how Hamlet has given us a prompt for discussing political expedience, humanism and poetry all in one car journey from Brighton to Ipswich.

  3. 3
    Brian

    Isn’t it about the piscatorial situation in medieval Denmark?

  4. 4
    Ophelia Benson

    Simon – exactly. There’s so much in it. I used to puzzle over how there could be so much in it when it’s long for a play but very short for a novel.

    I hope Aurora has a great time! Lucky her.

  5. 5
    Marie-Thérèse O'Loughlin

    “My 11 year old daughter, Aurora, is playing Gertrude in her school production tomorrow…”

    Blimey, she must be a very smart girl – at only eleven years of age – to be playing Gertrude as it is such an adult role? I expect she’ll get to drink a nice glass of Ribena into the bargain.

  6. 6
    Tim Harris

    I wholly agree about the not being able to make up his mind business. Hamlet’s problem is that if he just goes ahead and assassinates Claudius without the latter’s responsibility for killing old Hamlet being recognised by many more than just Horatio, then his ‘revenge’, if one wants to call it that, is meaningless, he himself will be regarded as a mere disaffected or insane murderer, and the situation in Denmark will not have been properly rectified.
    Olivier recited that little mantra about a man who was not able to make up his mind at the beginning of his film, which I much dislike (though I love his Richard III). The best Hamlet I have ever seen – by far and by far – is Innokenty Smoktunovsky in Grigori Kozintsev’s film. His performance is wonderfully intelligent and various, and, having just emerged from the age of Stalinism, the director and actors understood the political situation in Hamlet, which most Anglophone directors and actors seem to be oblivious to, attaching importance only to the principal role and looking at the play as a whole from that single point of view. There is Kenneth Branagh’s dreadful film, in which the only (very, very) good thing is Charlton Heston’s splendid delivery of the First Player’s speech…
    The best Hamlet I have seen on stage is the black British actor Adrian Lester in a production by Peter Brook.

  7. 7
    Ophelia Benson

    Another problem with the “just go ahead and off him already” view is that revenge both was and wasn’t just automatically seen as right. It wasn’t in that it was officially UnChristian, and it was in the sense that people lapped it up as drama. There was a hot fashion for revenge plays when Hamlet was written, set off by Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy. There was a Hamlet a few years before Shakespeare’s, possibly also by Kyd – Shxpr’s new one was an elaboration and (as it were) deconstruction of the Ur-Hamlet and of revenge plays in general. If Hamlet were the kind of guy who just went downstairs after chatting with the ghost and whacked Claudius, we wouldn’t have the play – not just because the story would end in Act I but because Hamlet would be more like one of the Tarleton twins in Gone With the Wind.

    And then there’s the epistemology.

    And there’s who is loyal and who is not.

    And, according to a minority view that I think is a good deal more interesting than most minority views on this subject – theres’ the problem of who the ghost really is. We’re used to thinking that’s established by the play within the play, or at least by the time we overhear Claudius confirm that he killed his brother – but it isn’t. The ghost could be lying. The argument is that in the Elizabethan context that possibility would have been much more lively to them than it is to us, and the ghost would have seemed possibly very sinister indeed.

    And in fact everything goes horribly badly, so the sinister theory is far from disproved.

  8. 8
    Ophelia Benson

    My favorite Hamlet is Derek Jacobi in the BBC version c. 1980 – with Lalla Ward as youknowwho. Second favorite was Burton on Broadway. I too hate the Olivier version – loathe it. Love Henry V though.

  9. 9
    Tim Harris

    Yes, there is the problem of the ghost…. I have often wondered (assuming that he actually is the ghost of old Hamlet and not a devil) how HE feels at the end of the play: his son dead, his wife dead, his counsellor and counsellor’s children dead, and Denmark now in the hands of the son of his dearest enemy (who – the son – like Hamlet bears his father’s name). I am also fascinated by the pattern of three sons seeking revenge for the slaying of their fathers, the different ways they go about it and the different ways in which they succeed.

    Yes, Burton was good (though I have only seen the video of the Broadway production, with its wonderful portrayal of Polonius by a good American actor whose name I can’t recall). I’m not fond of Jacobi, I’m afraid…

  10. 10
    Stephanie Zvan

    It always saddens me that Ophelia’s death isn’t recognized as a revenge of its own. It’s no less angry or tragic than Hamlet’s, but most people just look at it and say, “Oh, sad girl.”

  11. 11
    Orlando

    So good to see someone pick up on the ‘seeming’ thematic component; I usually feel it gets lost under more fashionable concerns, but it was one of Shakespeare’s faves. He returns to it even more strongly in Measure for Measure, where the heroine actually cries out “Seeming! Seeming!” to the villian’s face.

    Shakespeare loved doubles, and _Hamlet_ is stuffed full of them. Ophelia, Laertes and Fortinbras are all mirror images of Hamlet in some way. Reflections deceive, but they also illuminate.

  12. 12
    Ophelia Benson

    Exactly. The alternative is that he is in fact the devil. “The spirit that I have seen may be the devil…”

    It fits better in many ways. On the other hand it fits if it’s really Hamlet I, who is just a brutal simple-minded king, over-admired by young Hamlet. Either way there are ironies all over the place.

    Hume Cronyn, was the Broadway Polonius.

    I wasn’t all that fond of Jacobi until I watched the BBC Hamlet, but I think he was brilliant in that. He’d just done a Prospect theatre version and gone around the world with it.

  13. 13
    Ophelia Benson

    Orlando (heh!) – yes yes. (This is fun already! Should have done it long ago.) “Seeming” is all over Shxpr – the Sonnets as well as the plays. Natural enough since he was an actor as well as a playwright. And actors were deeply suspect, and “seeming” is one reason.

  14. 14
    Ophelia Benson

    Stephanie – quite. She is one of the major victims of betrayal. She betrays Hamlet by obeying her father and especially by lying to him – but he betrays her too, and horribly.

    Her brother also betrays her, by giving her such godawful advice.

    That’s another major theme: massive suspicion all around, and always misdirected. Polonius and Laertes both assume Hamlet will simply fuck Ophelia and then ditch her (very honor culture, here – typically Elizabethan), but they’re dead wrong. But their suspicion triggers horrible treatment because they force her to betray Hamlet, and he turns on her.

    It’s so artfully done…

  15. 15
    Tim Harris

    Yes, there is the problem of the ghost…. I have often wondered (assuming that he actually is the ghost of old Hamlet and not a devil) how HE feels at the end of the play: his son dead, his wife dead, his counsellor and counsellor’s children dead, and Denmark now in the hands of the son of his dearest enemy (who – the son – like Hamlet bears his father’s name). I am also fascinated by the pattern of three sons seeking revenge for the slaying of their fathers, the different ways they go about it and the different ways in which they succeed.

    I have actually seen the Kyd on stage (and read it): it is a good and stageworthy play (though of course nowhere near the level of Hamlet). Hamlet of course tries at one point to play the stage avenger (the over-the-top ‘now I could drink hot blood’ speech), but in the event cannot carry the role through. His getting the First Player to recite that speech which Heston did so well is designed mainly, I think, to get himself into the avenging mood – the speech is about yet another son – the son of Achilles – getting his revenge on an older man. Which reminds me, critics like Harold Bloom assert that the speech is a parody of the over-the-top Marlowe, which makes me wonder if they have ever really read Marlowe. Aeneas’s description of the fall of Troy, which includes the revenge of Neoptolemos on Priam, in Marlowe’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ is in fact terribly sober (I have performed it – and I mean that ‘terribly’ in its true sense).

    Yes, Burton was good (though I have only seen the video of the Broadway production, with its wonderful portrayal of Polonius by a good American actor whose name I can’t recall). I’m not fond of Jacobi, I’m afraid…

    And at the heart of th play, there are two abused and dead women…

  16. 16
    Tim Harris

    Oh, sorry about that: I hadn’t realised I’d posted it, and so made some additions…

  17. 17
    Orlando

    If the blog mistress will permit me a moment of shameless self-promotion: Stephanie, you might like to read this: http://hoydenabouttown.com/20101103.8935/on-ophelia-who-never-got-to-be-a-hoyden/

    And Ophelia, for you, do you ever feel a bit like the guy at 1:30?: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4LSI3sGZM8w

  18. 18
    addiepray

    So much to say, where to begin? Just a few stray thoughts.
    I agree the Branagh film was dreadful (love his Henry V, each film since has gotten worse and worse) but I did enjoy the radio version he did, with Gielgud as the ghost and Jacobi as Claudius (I think). Judi Dench as Gertrude, too. Didn’t care for the Gibson movie, but I did love Paul Scofield as the ghost– always been one of my favorite actors.

    I always loved Hamlet’s first and last lines. Both contain puns, though the second (“The rest is silence”) was one I hadn’t considered until reading some of Harold Bloom’s writing on the play. But his first line “A little more than kin and less than kind” is, for me, the perfect distillation of Shakespeare’s art– a concise, multi-layered, multi-meaning line that gets deeper the more you stare at it and ponder it. Not a wasted letter. Hamlet really is a character above all the others in the play- none can match his wit or his depth, and so he must wander from scene to scene without finding solace in an equal. The “Would you play upon me as you play upon this pipe” scene embodies it perfectly.

    But I have always been troubled by the Hamlet/Ophelia nunnery scene. It seems so hard to reconcile the love he professes to her with the way he treats her. Certainly the cruelty of the scene is dissonent with his behavior in the funeral scene. The Gibson movie (which I saw most recently and so is most clear in my memory) dealt with it by having the first half of the scene, the more tender half, be directly between them, and then having Hamlet see the shadows of Claudius and Polonius, so that the second half of the scene are more performed for them.

    Anybody heard the “this American life” episode about Act V of Hamlet in prison? If not, go to their site RIGHT NOW and listen. Incredibly moving.

  19. 19
    Ysidro

    Hamlet is about a witch.

    http://www.naturalhistorymag.com/editors_pick/1966_08-09_pick.html

  20. 20
    Smhlle

    I didn’t understand Hamlet’s inaction, when I was a teen. Later, i saw a version of the play on PBS with Kevin Kline in the title role. He played Hamlet as depressed, which kind of clicked for me.

    Also, I thought it was very cool that Tom Stoppard gave Rosencrantz and Guildenstern their own play.

  21. 21
    Armored Scrum Object

    Ah crap; I was thinking of Macbeth the whole time reading the thread. No wonder I’m so confused. That’s what I get for not touching Shakespeare in over a decade.

    Are there any decent renditions of Hamlet that are readily available so I can refresh my memory? Sure, I could just get the folio text from Project Gutenberg, but since director/actor interpretation and sparse stage direction are hallmarks of Shakespeare’s work (yay! I remembered something!) I don’t think that would be as interesting as it could be.

  22. 22
    Kiwi Dave

    Much as I love the word play, thematic richness, emotional intensity and character depth of Shakespeare, my recollection of filmed and staged Hamlets (it’s a very long time since I’ve seen one) was that Gibson’s version was extremely refreshing and entertaining because he treated it as an action story – sort of Lethal Weapon meets the Bard – rather than an opportunity for actors to declaim.

    And I do find it amusing that religionistas like to quote the “more things in heaven and earth” line without realising, apparently, that it’s a line in support of the reality of apparitions by someone who’s still not entirely convinced IIRC that the ghost is real and can be trusted.

  23. 23
    Tom Goodfellow

    Nitpick; it’s Hamlet the character that is generally reduced to “can’t make up his mind”, rather than the play as a whole. This is normally used when discussing the flaw of the tragic hero, to be contrasted with Othello’s jealousy, Macbeth’s ambition etc.

    To pick up on the role of the women, is there a definitive answer on how much complicity Gertrude has in Claudius’ crime? From memory the text is ambiguous, and it is possible to play her as heartless schemer or misused innocent.

    Smhlle – Rosencrantz & Guildernstern is indeed a delight.

  24. 24
    Rabidtreeweasel and her Badger of Honor

    Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.

    That is all.

    (Do you want to play questions?…)

  25. 25
    SAWells

    “Let not those that play the clowns say more than is set down for them.” You know Shakespeare had had that problem before :)

    I once saw the students at the Shakespeare Institute in Stratford doing Hamlet in the “Bad Quarto” version. The words are all over the shop because it was cobbled together from actor’s cribsheets and memory, but the plotline is brilliant- very fast-paced.

    “To be or not to be, Aye, there’s the point.” It has a certain charm :)

  26. 26
    Orlando

    The “Bad Quarto” may actually hold a clue for Tom’s question about Gertrude. There are several lines in it that suggest that Gertrude has left Claudius’ bed, and begun to separate herself from him after Hamlet confronts her and speaks of the murder. Given this text is almost certainly a “performance version” it might represent how the actors took the situation. Of course there’s no “right” answer, both because different versions, even during Shakespeare’s lifetime, might have done different things, and because the whole play is constructed of finely-poised dual ambiguities (wisdom or folly? mad or faking? virgin or pregnant? accident or suicide? ghost or devil? weapons accidentally or deliberately swapped?).

  27. 27
    JJMMWGDuPree

    Audiences of Shakespeare’s time would have known that The Ghost was a bad ghost, because it appeared after midnight. They would have known (elaborations of religion again) that good ghosts appear before midnight, and ones after midnight are likely to be a snare of the devil. A snare that was very successful in this case.

  28. 28
    SAWells

    Oh, can’t resist passing on this little gem- it’s a comment by SJ Perelman on the themes of Hamlet:

    “Themes”, madam? Nay, it ith; I know not “themes”!

  29. 29
    Tim Harris

    Orlando & gregorymaroda, thank you very much for the links you posted: they are all excellent! And if I had been that American anthroplogist (I am English) faced with that prissy little chauvinistic Englishmen, I’m afraid I should not have been so nice but should probably have punched him in the nose – though the article is itself, in addition to being wickedly funny, a wonderful revenge.

  30. 30
    sailor1031

    I have always been of the opinion that Hamlet’s inaction is because Claudius is deeply suspicious of him and will have him killed if he makes a wrong move. So he has to bide his time and feign madness as a defence. I think that part comes pretty straight out of the story of Feng (Claudius) and Amleth (Hamlet) in the gesta danorum…..see? who said those english literature classes sixty years ago were a waste of time?

  31. 31
    philosopher-animal

    JJMMWGDuPree: Hm, I hadn’t heard that, and I had wondered when I first read and saw the play why the characters seem to be so open to the ghost telling the truth. I still don’t get it, to be honest, other than dramatic necessity.

  32. 32
    Matty

    I have always thought of Hamlet as part tragedy part absurdity. My reasoning? The number of sheer amount of double-crosses wrong deaths and sexual innuendos that flow through the play. I often think that Shakespeare understood his audience well and wrote to the people that stood in the mud at the edge of the stage. Plays were more audience participation back then. I can imagine the hoots hollers during Hamlet as the right or wrong people got killed.

  33. 33
    sailor1031

    Matty: A prequel to life in Corporate America

  34. 34
    Dianne

    So maybe one of you historically literate types can answer this, but I always wondered about something in Hamlet: Why is Hamlet not king? He is the legitimate son of the last king and is presumably of age. Even if he’s not, shouldn’t Claudius be his regent? Did Claudius take advantage of Hamlet’s absence to seize power and now Hamlet is being expected to smile and make nice with the usurper and is unhappy about that?

    Alternatively, perhaps there is a sort of matrilineal inheritance pattern and the king is simply the man married to the queen, not the last king’s son? Did Gertrude remarry quickly in order to get a daughter that could inherit the throne before it is too late? Is Hamlet anxious to get rid of Claudius before his half sister cuts him out of the line of inheritance for good?

    Either way, it seems to me that the ghost is likely to be Hamlet. But not the ghost of Hamlet I, but rather the ghost of Hamlet II’s ambitions. Or is that just going all 21st century on the story?

  35. 35
    Ophelia Benson

    and because the whole play is constructed of finely-poised dual ambiguities

    He was very careful about that – he left almost all the questions open. The one thing he nailed down was Claudius’s murder of Hamlet Senior. There’s always doubt about whether Gertrude plotted with Claudius or not.

  36. 36
    Ophelia Benson

    @ 23 -

    Nitpick; it’s Hamlet the character that is generally reduced to “can’t make up his mind”, rather than the play as a whole.

    No not really. Quite often the play is summed up as “a man who vacillated” and the like. Sad but true.

  37. 37
    Ophelia Benson

    JJMMWGDuPree – I think you’ve read the same book on The Ghost as I have! I don’t remember author or title, do remember it’s a woman – she gave a lot of detail on the signals that we miss but an E’bethan audience wouldn’t have, that the Ghost is very sinister, i.e. of the devil. Fascinating book.

  38. 38
    Dianne

    The one thing he nailed down was Claudius’s murder of Hamlet Senior.

    I think you could even call that into doubt. I think there might be a case to be made for Gertrude’s having murdered Hamlet Sr. and Claudius feeling like he was guilty because he knew of her intentions and didn’t stop her or even simply because he wanted to be king and Gertrude’s husband and is afraid he may have encouraged her. Or maybe Hamlet Sr actually died a natural death but Claudius is being hounded by his ghost to the point that he no longer even remembers that he’s innocent. Hamlet Jr isn’t the only character who might be prone to madness. Again, that’s probably going all 21st century on the play, but one of the joys of Shakespeare is that his plays are still relevant.

  39. 39
    Ophelia Benson

    Dianne @ 34 – the way I’ve seen it explained is that the system in medieval Denmark wasn’t straightforwardly father to son, and that it was elective. Even the British system wasn’t all that regular at the time; lots of jostling and usurpation and precautionary beheading and so on. More like a bunch of warlords or crime bosses than the politely passive monarchs of today.

  40. 40
    Ophelia Benson

    :- )

    There’s a convention, though, by which what is said in soliloquy is to be trusted.

    It’s quite an interesting convention, if you think about it – a reflection on acting, from an actor. Whenever we say things to other people, we may well be lying/performing/manipulating. Certainly in Hamlet that’s almost always the case.

    But sure – that’s another possible version. It would be interesting to see it acted! (It would be tricky though, because Gertrude actually speaks very little except in the closet scene.)

  41. 41
    Dianne

    @39: So this could all be seen as Hamlet’s gambit to get himself into the kingship. He plays the lunatic to get Claudius to feel secure, then finds an opportunity to stab him and become king himself before anyone else can seize power. Or maybe he really is crazy. It might be interesting to see Hamlet performed twice in a row, once with the basic interpretation of Hamlet as crazy, the other of Hamlet as faking madness to further his plot and see which version seemed to work better.

  42. 42
    Dianne

    There’s a convention, though, by which what is said in soliloquy is to be trusted.

    Ah, but there’s also a tradition that traditions may be subverted if it makes the story better…

  43. 43
    Dianne

    If you’d told me in high school that some day I’d be voluntarily wasting time discussing Shakespearean plays for no good reason except fun I’m sure I would have thought you crazier than Hamlet, but here I am…

  44. 44
    Bruce Gorton

    I always took it that Hamlet was mad – and that everyone in the play knew he was mad, including Hamlet.

    Thus he got passed over for the throne because he wasn’t quite right in the head, his father’s “ghost” was actually a figment of his imagination (born of the sentinels’ suggestion).

    The rest basically builds up out of his paranoia over his uncle. His rant at Ophelia is a symptom of this.

    His uncle thus didn’t necessarily kill his father, and it is quite possible that he was only worried for the sanity of his nephew up until Hamlet has an episode and kills someone else.

    Basically I think I always end up with a huge heaping dose of alternative character interpretation with Claudius, where he is a good man who legitimately fears for his life and the lives of those around him, dealing with an essentially axe crazy nephew whose doubts about killing are getting more and more eroded.

    Hamlet, the character, is freaking scary.

  45. 45
    Ophelia Benson

    @ 42 – absolutely. It’s worth knowing about the conventions, thinking about what Shxpr seems to have intended (it’s all nonsense about “the intentional fallacy”), trying to figure out how we’re being nudged to see things this way not that way, and how in some places we’re being allowed or even encouraged to see things in a multitude of ways – but that doesn’t mean we can’t ignore all that and come up with a wilder interpretation.

    But I do think it’s interesting how minimal the nailing down really is. There’s one place where Hamlet invites Horatio to do some nailing down for us – I’ve forgotten the line, but in the Osric scene, just before the last scene, he says basically: “So you agree that’s how it is, right, and I have to kill him?” And Horatio doesn’t answer. That’s a major dog that didn’t bark in the night.

  46. 46
    Ophelia Benson

    @43 – I know – I got interested in all this long after I was out of all school; it’s totally for its own sake.

  47. 47
    Ophelia Benson

    Bruce – for the ghost as figment interpretation you have to explain away the fact that Marcellus and whatshisname and Horatio all see it too. Or just produce a version with those scenes cut.

  48. 48
    Ophelia Benson

    (There’s also the problem that those three see the ghost but then later Gertrude doesn’t. What’s that about? Is she blind to it because she’s guilty? Is Hamlet hallucinating this time but not the previous time? Did Shakespeare forget?)

  49. 49
    Bruce Gorton

    Ophelia Benson

    I was actually going to bring that up – it is wierd how Hamlet Snr doesn’t appear to Gertrude. I think it is why I tend to overlook those earlier scenes.

    Actually, come to think of it, it could have been guilt couldn’t it? Perhaps it wasn’t Claudius who killed Hamlet Snr (how would he have gotten that poison into his brother’s ear anyway?) but rather Gertrude.

    As she was the actual killer, she couldn’t see Hamlet Snr, while Claudius maybe could but Snr simply assumed he was the killer, so never bothered appearing to him.

    After all wasn’t it a belief at the time that poison was a “woman’s weapon”?

  50. 50
    Ophelia Benson

    I suppose the problem with that interpretation is that it doesn’t seem very productive. With Claudius, you see, the original crime leads him to more and more and more, along with the tortured conscience. He gets R&G killed in trying to kill Hamlet, he gets Laertes killed after involving him in a cowardly murder, he lets Gertrude drink the poison rather than risk himself by stopping her, and of course he finally succeeds in killing Hamlet. None of that applies to Gertrude.

  51. 51
    Bruce Gorton

    Ophelia Benson

    I can see your point there. That said, it is giving me a lot of ideas for something to write. It has been a while since I have tried writing fiction.

  52. 52
    mck9

    In high school I once had to write an essay on Hamlet. Knowing that the conventional wisdom presented him as indecisive, I decided to play the contrarian. In my analysis, Hamlet’s tragic flaw was that he was too rash and precipitate in his actions. I cited his killing of Polonius, and his frame-up of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

    Of course that was too simple. I was just a teenager being a wise-ass. Since then, however, I have come up with a different conclusion: Hamlet was bipolar, a.k.a. manic-depressive. Sometimes he was brash and precipitate, and other times he was brooding and angsty. His madness was not altogether feigned, nor was it a surprise to those who knew him.

    Hamlet is often regarded as the closest thing to a self-portrait that Shakespeare ever wrote. It is also widely suspected that many artistic geniuses were bipolar. Shakespeare may have been one of them.

  53. 53
    Ophelia Benson

    Yes!

    This is why I loathe the Olivier (film) Hamlet and love the Jacobi one. The Olivier is all one note, and the note is very boring. Jacobi plays it as wildly mercurial, and that’s a much better fit, and also way more interesting. He is indeed manic a lot of the time, and despairing at other times, and resigned at the end. Jacobi has a way of combining high notes and low notes in one word – Burton had it too, and maybe Jacobi picked it up from him. He was very influenced by Burton-as-Hamlet – the earlier production, not the New York one.

    The madness is another of the questions never answered. Is he just pretending? Is he really mad? Is it both? It’s never settled, so we can think what we like (and actors can decide how to play it – that’s Sxhpr being kind to actors again).

    People now would be checking for PTSD.

  54. 54
    Ant (@antallan)

    I don’t often feel culturally impoverished, but I have never watched, read or performed Hamlet

    *hangs head*

    /@

  55. 55
    Marie-Thérèse O'Loughlin

    Great stuff to date on Hamlet.

    Here’s an interesting PTSD (causation factor) thesis on Hamlet’s Suffering at Timothy Slattery’s, that I came across upon googling.

    https://sites.google.com/site/timothyslattery/hamlet-sufferings

  56. 56
    Ophelia Benson

    Ant – oh…I really do recommend fixing that.

  57. 57
    Ant (@antallan)

    OK… so I was debating between getting the Penguin Hamlet and the omnibus of Hamlet, Othello, King Lear and Macbeth (the last of which I have read and seen!), when I found this: Five Revenge Tragedies:

    As the Elizabethan era gave way to the reign of James I, England grappled with corruption within the royal court and widespread religious anxiety. Dramatists responded with morally complex plays of dark wit and violent spectacle, exploring the nature of death, the abuse of power and vigilante justice. In Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy a father failed by the Spanish court seeks his own bloody retribution for his son’s murder. Shakespeare’s 1603 version of Hamlet creates an avenging Prince of unique psychological depth, while Chettle’s The Tragedy of Hoffman is a fascinating reworking of Hamlet’s themes, probably for a rival theatre company. In Marston’s Antonio’s Revenge, thwarted love leads inexorably to gory reprisals and in Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, malcontent Vindice unleashes an escalating orgy of mayhem on a debauched Duke for his bride’s murder, in a ferocious satire reflecting the mounting disillusionment of the age.

    I don’t know any of the others, but sounds like an interesting quintet. What do you think?

    /@

  58. 58
    Ophelia Benson

    Hmm. I think the others are all a good deal less readable. They are all interesting though – but their interest to me, at least, depended on an already intense interest in Hamlet – I approached E’bethan/Jacobean revenge tragedy via interest in Hamlet as opposed to going the other way around. So take that into account.

    The omnibus might come in handy because it will be King Lear next! :- )

  59. 59
    Ant (@antallan)

    * HTML fail. Sorry.

  60. 60
    Ophelia Benson

    Oh I tell you what though – if the Penguin still has the intro by Anne Barton, get that. It’s a great critical essay. She’s terrific, and then she’s married to John Barton who directed like a squillion Sxhpr plays for the RSC. He was an English dept guy first, at Cambridge, and then moved over to directing. Many RSC biggies were his students at Cambridge – Ian McKellen for one. Anne B was at Oxford I think.

  61. 61
    Ant (@antallan)

    Ah, the new edition doesn’t. But I found a VG copy of the Anne Barton edition for a penny … plus £2.80 p&p! I’ve ordered that.

    I put the quintet into my saved for later list… if I enjoy Hamlet, I might be up to the challenge.

    I haven’t read/seen/performed KL either — but I did see Throne of Blood many moons ago! ;-)

    /@

    PS. At school I played Egeus in AMND, well enough to surprise my English teacher… but the school never put on any of the tragedies. I guess the teachers thought they would be too heavy for a school play.

  62. 62
    Ophelia Benson

    It was the same at my school, we didn’t get any of the big tragedies (or the best comedies, or the great history plays) until Hamlet in senior year. No wait, we got Macbeth before that. But none of the other really great ones.

  63. 63
    Tim Harris

    @Bruce Gorton:But Claudius’s ‘O my offence is rank’ speech makes it absolutely clear that he did kill his brother. And to pick up on the ghost, if as somebody says that audiences of the time would have known that a ghost who appeared after midnight was a devil, then surely Hamlet and his companions would have known that, too.

    It has always seemed to me that the director’s task in putting on Hamlet is to get away as far as possible from seeing the play through Hamlet’s eyes, something that I think Granville Barker asserts that we are all too prone to do. (Thus, the main problem with Olivier’s film).

    Another thing that interests me is Hamlet’s ‘sea-change’ (the sea is always a place of change in Shakespeare) and decision to return to Denmark, the ruthlessness that accompanies this which shocks Horatio (‘So Guildenstern and Rosencrantz go to it?’, which provokes a rather blustering response from Hamlet), the and sense that he has killed something in himself, and is ready to die.

    @Ant: The Revenger’s Tragedy, by the way, is great fun; I saw it done very well by some young actors in London, and it had me in stitches throughout, though the good burghers of Richmond didn’t seem to know how to take it. Middleton’s great tragedies, though, are ‘The Changeling’ and ‘Women Beware Women’, which are brilliant in a very unShakespearean way.

  64. 64
    Ant (@antallan)

    @ Tim : Thanks (I think).

    /@

  65. 65
    Orlando

    @45, you nailed a really important example there of this refusal to resolve either/or questions. In the same scene Horatio, after hearing about the death of R&G, exclaims, “Why, what a king is this!” It might most obviously be taken as referring to Claudius, but in the RSC version with Sam West as Hamlet, I remember a strong sense that Horatio was actually expressing a growing disgust at what Hamlet himself was becoming.

    My favourite Hamlet was David Tennent, but if I could direct it myself I would want Billy Boyd, because he can give that sense of someone who was naturally a whole lot of fun before things happened that knocked the stuffing out of him. I always think that you can find out a lot about people by asking who they would cast as Hamlet.

  66. 66
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    … oddly, some large part of me dismisses all of this talk. I’ve played Hamlet in local theater, and I dismiss it. Most of what I think is that it is all rich people whining about rich people problems, and dying over the sort of wealth that whole communities of people struggle to secure for their collective selves. These sorts of stories thrive on the self-hatred of the poor, that they would elevate the whining of rich people to high art.

    I don’t care about the royalty of Denmark, when all I can think of is the thousands of peasants who lived and suffered and died in anonymity so that the royals could play out their dramas and become immortal for their narcissism.

  67. 67
    sawells

    Ooh, Revenger’s Tragedy! Yes yes yes. Is great fun, and includes the line “Suh, suh, suh, thump: now he is dead!” Also, skeletons with contact poison.

  68. 68
    Tim Harris

    A favourite quotation: Niels Bohr, who took Werner Heisenberg to Kronberg castle (it has a lot or relevance to why people are or become religious, I think):

    Isn’t it strange how this castle changes as soon as one imagines that Hamlet lived here? As scientists we believe that a castle consists only of stones, and admire the way the architect put them together. The stone, the green roof with its patina, the wood carvings in the church, constitute the whole castle. None of this should be changed by the fact that Hamlet lived here, and yet it is changed completely. Suddenly the walls and ramparts speak a different language. The courtyard becomes an entire world, a dark corner reminds us of the darkness of the human soul, we hear Hamlet’s “To be or not to be.” Yet all we really know is that his name appears in a thirteenth-century chronicle. No one can prove that he really lived here. But everyone knows the questions Shakespeare had him ask, the human depths he was made to reveal, and so he too had to be found in a place on earth, here in Kronberg. And once we know that, Kronberg becomes quite a different castle for us.

  69. 69
    Musical Atheist

    A really good edition is the Arden Shakespeare. That’s a very readable major scholarly text and has short notes on each page for obscure words and idioms, and long notes at the back going into a lot of historical and interpretative detail, as well as a substantial intro. It’s based on the Second Quarto (1604-5) and Folio (1623) texts. The 1982 Routledge edition of Harold Jenkins is very good, but there’s a newer edition (Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor, Thomson Learning, 2006) which includes and develops Jenkins’ research.

  70. 70
    Musical Atheist

    I just looked out some old study notes which reminded me of the long forgotten (by me, I mean) suggestion that Hamlet refers to the recent political crisis surrounding Mary I of Scotland’s alleged participation in the murder of Darnley, her first husband, with her second husband, Bothwell, whom Mary married three months after Darnley’s death, and Elizabeth I’s long imprisonment of Mary before finally and reluctantly executing her in 1587.

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