Monday, March 25, 2013

Monday March 25 2013

What an odd week.  Almost no Shakespeare out there in the world.  Well, not that I could see anyway. But quite a lot, closer to home.

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary:
  • April, which will soon be upon us, comes from the Latin aperire, to open, and is mentioned in many of Shakespeare’s plays. It is also the month in which Shakespeare was born and died, although the Dictionary doesn’t tell us that.
  • Aquilon is the north wind. In Troilus and Cressida Ajax tells the trumpeter to blow like Aquilon to summon Hector to battle.

Shakespeare sightings:
  • Not a single one this week!  What’s the world coming to?

Further this week:

 Posted this week:
  • This Monday report

Monday, March 18, 2013

Monday March 18 2013

A week of vacation and I don’t devote the time to Shakespeare?  No….to Ruby Jand’s Movie Blog. One good blog deserves another, wouldn’t you say?  And already five Shakespeare films have been posted so Shakespeare certainly hasn’t been ignored.
Otherwise it’s been a quiet Shakespeare week so here’s the short report:

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary:
  • Antenor advised the Trojans to make peace with the Greeks by returning Helen (did he ask her opinion, or simply suggest both sides quit using her as an excuse and stop fighting? The dictionary doesn’t say). He is also the one who suggested the horse stratagem.  In spite of all this Shakespeare didn’t even give him a speaking role.
  • Antonio is a name used in a lot of Shakespeare plays but not Troilus and Cressida.

Shakespeare sightings:
  • In the novel Anywhere but Here by Mona Simpson, one of the two main characters, a teenager named Ann, in an awkward situation says she “went downstairs holding my open book in one hand, I must have looked about as casual as Hamlet.”
  • We turned on the TV a minute before the news started and just happened  upon a man in the process of saying, in Swedish, “To be or not to be, that is the question” (Att vara eller icke vara, det är frågan).  Why he was saying it, I have no idea. It was on a program called Jag minns mitt 60-tal (I remember my 60’s) and it was from Hyllands hörna (Hyland’s Corner) I think, a popular program at the time.
  • There was a small notice in Dagens Nyheter that one of Sweden’s absolutely best actors, Sven Wolter, (79 years old) is doing King Lear this fall. We went immediately to Stadsteatern’s booking link but the tickets aren’t available yet.

Further, since the last report:

Posted this week:
  • This Monday report
  • Review of Shapiro’s above-mentioned book.

Shapiro 1599 A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare

A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare - 1599 by James Shapiro 2005.  Read in October 2010.

                      In the amazing year of 1599 William Shakespeare wrote Henry the Fifth, Julius Caesar, As You Like It and Hamlet. This is certainly worth a whole book and Shapiro’s is absolutely fascinating.  I was hooked by the third page of the Preface on which he writes: “…we know a great deal about Shakespeare’s career as a writer (more than enough to persuade a reasonable skeptic that he wrote his plays himself)” (page xiii).  Shapiro wrote a book about this too and a review will be coming eventually. He also wrote in the Preface: “…as much as we might want Shakespeare to have been like us, he wasn’t” (page xv). What a disappointment! But that makes the book to follow even more enticing. He promises also to tell us “how, at age thirty-five, Shakespeare went from being an exceptionally talented writer to one of the greatest who ever lived” and “how deeply Shakespeare’s work emerged from an engagement with his times” (page xvii).
                      He keeps his promise.  Dividing the book into four parts to match the four seasons he connects the plays to the war with Ireland, to Elizabeth’s advancing age, to the building of the Globe, to the change in the meaning of the word “popularity” from a kind of democracy to being in popular favor; Shakespeare was one of the first to use it in this second sense.
                      Shapiro shows how Shakespeare reveals the religious and political conflicts of the time, the changing social reality of the people and the developing importance of the theater.
                      The final part of the book deals in some depth with Hamlet, most of which was written in 1599 although it was first performed in 1600.
In the Epilogue we learn that after this incredible period Shakespeare wrote few plays for awhile, concentrating on poetry, but what he produced in 1599 proved that he “understood his age perfectly, and the depth and profundity of that understanding, which continued to draw contemporaries to his plays, has ensured that we still read him and see these plays performed today…” (page 333).
This book is a must-read for anyone with the slightest interest in Shakespeare, English history or the connection between creativity and the societies from which it emerges.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Monday March 11 2013

It almost seemed like a calm week – no Hamlet!  But of course there is always Hamlet, as you will see in the sightings below.  And contrary to expectations, we hardly waited a day before going on to the next play, which should have been Twelfth Night but in our case is Troilus and Cressida. I can’t help it – it’s not Hamlet. But it is surprisingly interesting for being one of Shakespeare’s more obscure plays.

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary:
  • Ajax is shown by Shakespeare in Troilus and Cressida as a brutal stupid warrior which seems to be in agreement with this Greek soldier’s general reputation.
  • Aleppo, about which we hear daily in tragic reports on the news these days, was mentioned in  Othello and Macbeth. It is also mentioned in Ben Jonson’s Every Man in His Humour in which Shakespeare acted.
  • Andromache is the wife of Hector and she appears in Troilus and Cressida. The dictionary: “Her sorrows are generally symbolic of the sorrows of all women caught up in war. In Shakespeare she tries to talk Hector out of fighting Achilles…”

Shakespeare sightings:
  • While paging through Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide, which I do on a regular basis, I came across the movie Free Enterprise from 1999 with William Shatner playing himself and wanting to play the lead in Julius Caesar. And running into two sci fi filmmakers who idolize him.
  • Just now while checking that out on IMDB I see that there is a new version of Much Ado About Nothing taking place in modern times with a cast totally unknown to me, except for Reed Diamond from Homicide Life on the Street.  Here’s the trailer:
  • In Big Bang Theory, season four, Raj’s sister Priya is visiting again and romancing Leonard, to Penny’s dismay, especially when Priya talks about  The Taming of a Shrew and says she was in the play and Leonard exclaims that he had written a paper about it and they spend a few minutes quoting it at each other.
  • In the novel The Morning Gift by Eva Ibbotson as war descends upon Europe in the late 1930’s: “sparrows everywhere continued to fall.”
  • In Kate Atkinson’s novel Human Croquet we find Shakespeare here and there:
    • In a tiny illustration on the cover, inspiring expectations for him to appear in a major way (hasn’t so far but in a lot of good small ways):
    • “Some say that Shakespeare himself spent time” in the manor house in which the characters live
    • In discussing people’s weirdness the main character says to her brother Charles, “’If anyone came from another planet it was Shakespeare.’”  She goes on in her thoughts, “Imagine meeting Shakespeare! But then what would you say to him? What would you do with him? You could hardly take him around to the shops. (Or maybe you could.) ‘Have sex,’ Carmen says…’Sex?’ I query doubtfully.  ‘Well, you may as well,’ she shrugs, if you’re going to go to all the bother of time-travel.’”
    • Carmen, it is later pointed out, is a beast-with-two-backs kind of girl.
    • In considering that her world might not be what it seems to be Isobel tells herself, “…no,no,no, this way utter madness lies.”
    • In describing an amateur performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream Isobel says, “The play’s the thing but in this case a very bad thing…”
    • Debbie, Isobel’s step-mother, playing one of the characters (she never remembers which one) had gotten lost while doing the play and Debbie says, “I think she’s been too much in the sun.”
    • In trying to convince Isobel and Charles’ mother that they should have more children father Gordon says, “…you never know what they might turn out to be – Shakespeares and Leonardo da Vincis.”
    • Considering the essence of molecules Isobel ponders that in the “great void of space…there are more things than are dreamt of in our philosophy.”
  • In Dagens Nyheter’s article about the Swedish final of the European Song Contest one of the contestant’s songs was described as boring and the fact that it had gone directly into the final was because the other songs in his part of the contest were even more boring but now it was clear – and here comes the Shakespeare sighting – “i eftertankens kranka blekhet…” – with the pale cast of thought – we’re led to believe that this song doesn’t have a chance. And it didn’t. It came in last place even though it got quite a lot of votes from the European juries.

Further, since the last report:
  • Started reading aloud with Hal: Troilus and Cressida.
  • Seen at Stockholm’s Stadsteater: West Side Story.
  • Received from Martin Coyle, editor of Hamlet, Contemporary Critical Essays: an email in reply to mine in which I asked him if there were any more recent collections of essays.  Nice email but sadly, he could not give me any information other than about various editions of the complete works. But it was kind of him to answer.

Posted this week:
  • This Monday report

Monday, March 4, 2013

Who's There? Hamlet in Hamlet

“Who’s there?”
Hamlet in

                      “Who’s there?”
                      These words start the play, a play filled with questions.  These words are also used to open the introduction of the Norton edition of Shakespeare’s complete works.  I read the intro after having chosen the title of this essay so I’m not plagiarizing. Nor is it much of a coincidence.  Scholars, critics, playgoers and movie watchers have long been asking the question, “Who is Hamlet?”  And many have noted that though we can find many answers we still don’t know who he is.  Even Professor Harold Bloom writes fifty pages and doesn’t really say much.
                      So why should I try? The simple answer: how can I not? I don’t aim to solve any mysteries or come up with any eurekas but I can’t deal with the play at all until I’ve sorted out a few puzzle pieces.
                      So who’s there in the play?  Who is this guy Hamlet?  Somewhere in his roles as the son of a father, the son of a mother, a lover, a student and a prince there must be some kind of answer. Otherwise he’s a nobody, and nobody is a nobody. Not in reality. Not in Shakespeare.

Son of a father
                      We meet the father, as a ghost, before we meet the son.  We meet the son grieving the death of his father.  Excessively, say his mother and stepfather.  Hamlet’s first long speech insists that his grief is deeper than what can be seen.  His stepfather/uncle Claudius then calls it “unmanly grief” to which Hamlet does not reply but here is one of the key issues in Hamlet’s relationship to his father. Old Hamlet was a soldier, and an aggressive one.  We have already seen that: “He smote the sledded Polacks on the ice,” and that he was valiant: he “did slay this Fortinbras” (Horatio in Act 1.1). Hamlet, in his first soliloquy, calls his father Hyperion, the Titan sun god, and then – and this is important – says that Claudius is no more like old Hamlet “than I to Hercules.” He says to Horatio that his father “was a man…I shall not look upon his like again,” (Act 1.2) especially not in himself.  Adolescent Hamlet does not live up to his macho father.
                      He tries, though, in his meeting with the ghost, or at least he promises:

Haste, haste me to know it, that with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love
May sweep me to my revenge. (Act 1.5)

                      This satisfies the father who finds him “apt” but even here we see the hesitation, the contradiction. As swift as meditation? Meditation, by definition, takes time. And that’s what happens. Hamlet dithers around, not avenging his father as a son should, must, according to their rules, so he asks himself, “Am I a coward?” and the answer, in his mind, is yes: “I am pigeon-livered and lack gall…what an ass am I” who resorts only to words like a whore or a scullion (Act 2.2).  He sees himself in these despised female roles instead of the aggressive masculine avenger role demanded of him.  By society, to be sure, but more importantly of himself.
                      Much could and should be said, and has been said, about Hamlet’s idealization of his father as a husband and a king but here it would only emphasize his sense of inferiority.  This can be seen in his other roles as well.

Son of a mother
                      If one’s father was a perfect example of a masculine man, what does one do with a mother who, immediately upon becoming a widow, marries someone else, someone not nearly as manly, someone who instead of a warrior is…a statesman? A talker? Someone who is in fact more like young Hamlet than old Hamlet?
                      In this convoluted situation one (read Hamlet) would hate her and use society’s worst weapon against her – her sexuality.
                      And this is what Hamlet does.   Almost in the same breath with which he expresses his grief over the death of his father Hamlet rants against the marriage of his mother and uncle.
                      Hamlet is very clear on the question of incest here and considering his vulnerability as a grieving adolescent that’s reasonable but the issue was very ambiguous. In some times and societies a widow was expected to marry the brother. In this case it could also be seen as necessary – Denmark was again being threatened by Norway and a strong king united with a strong queen was vital. Immediately. Claudius himself expresses this: “…now our queen, / Th’ imperial jointress of this warlike state” (Act 1.2). But Hamlet doesn’t see this.  He sees betrayal: his perfect father loved his virtuous (though lusty) wife who jumps from royal bed to incestuous bed. We already see that Hamlet is confused about his mother. His father loves her devotedly, or seems to, but Hamlet sees her devotion as “hang[ing] on him/ As if increase of appetite had grown/ By what it fed on” (Act 1.2). “Appetite”, i.e. lust, not love. But in her marrying Claudius she is frail: “Frailty, thy name is woman.” Too weak to…? Yes, to what? Withstand the pressures of state, in need of a royal couple? Why not? But Hamlet more likely sees her frailty as giving into Claudius.  There is, in any case, a hint of Hamlet feeling, in spite of his harsh words, that it isn’t entirely her fault, but it is her weakness.
                      Almost a whole page about Hamlet’s mother and I haven’t even written her name.  Gertrude. The Queen of Denmark. It is important to remember that.  She’s not only a mother and a wife but a head of state.
                      But Hamlet doesn’t see this, he sees her only as his mother and his father’s wife, and he sees her as failing at both.  We can almost excuse him. He’s blinded by grief and resentment.  He’s neither the first nor the last to hate and resent both remarrying parent and married stepparent. And it is as son to a mother that we are dealing with Hamlet here.
                      Shakespeare doesn’t tell us much about their relationship when Hamlet was a boy.  As a queen she probably didn’t have much to do with him but there is no indication in the play of any earlier conflict.  The problem though is that Gertrude did not maintain the role Hamlet demanded of her, grieving widow.  He’s selfish, as children and grievers tend to be. He’s confused and scared (ghosts will do that to a person).
                      Hurting, frightened, feeling inferior and inadequate, unsure of his masculinity, Hamlet does what young men (and old) do in that situation.  He becomes violent.
                      The closet scene.
It is very important to read this scene, Act 3.4, carefully.  Gertrude is often interpreted as weeping and wailing and repenting her own evil.  This is wrong.  She is angry.  Here, more than ever, she is authoritative. She loves her son but she is hurt by and tired of his outrageous behavior.  “Have you forgot me?” She is saying, “I am your mother, you are a child. I am a queen, you are my subject.”
Hamlet’s reply: “You shall not budge,” and Gertrude’s “thou wilt not murder me? Help, help, ho!” is usually shown by Hamlet throwing her down on the bed then killing Polonius. When Hamlet then replies to her horrified reaction that it’s no worse than killing a king, Gertrude is stupefied. “As kill a king?” We believe her – she hadn’t known Claudius had killed old Hamlet, but young Hamlet still rants on about her dreadful act and Gertrude is truly puzzled at his passion: “What have I done…Ay me, what act,/ That roars so loud and thunders in the index?”
Hamlet tells her. And tells her. And tells her. You betrayed my perfect father with disgusting Claudius and it can’t be for love (would that have been OK?) because you’re too old (ah, kids, they say the silliest things).
Now is when Gertrude is usually shown as weeping and wailing and repentant. Yes, she knows her hasty marriage is a problem and his words make that impossible to ignore: “Thou turn’st mine eyes into my very soul…” Yes, his words are painful, “These words like daggers enter in mine ears. / No more, sweet Hamlet.”  Yes, she wishes he would shut up.  She is well aware of the Christian view of women’s sexuality as evil and sinful and society’s bawdy acceptance of lust. She is troubled by her own role in this painful paradox and so Hamlet’s neurotic accusations hurt. Her “heart is cleft in twain” as indeed is unavoidable in a society (like our own) that demands that a woman is sexy and sexless at the same time. 
But she is not reduced to a blubbering old sexpot as she is sometimes portrayed.  As soon as Hamlet starts acting like he’s seeing a ghost, which we know he is but she doesn’t, Gertrude takes over again and tries to calm him down and to bring him back from his madness. And when they have calmed down somewhat, Gertrude says, “What shall I do?” The portrayals I have seen show that Gertrude is more or less begging Hamlet to guide her but I think this is wrong. I think she is asking herself, what do I do now with this cruel mad hurtful son?
It’s an exhausting confrontation for both of them and though there is much more that could be said, here I will have to limit myself to the observation that in the end, Hamlet’s rage at his mother has been spent. His last words to her, when she has died and he is dying, are, “Wretched queen, adieu.” No longer hateful, or incestuous, but wretched.

                      We only see Hamlet and Ophelia together in two scenes and if we only had what we see there to go on we could only say, “She’s better off without him.”  Maybe she is but that doesn’t mean they didn’t love each other. Not that it did either of them any good.
                      From what Ophelia says at various times, Hamlet has been a loving and honorable wooer.  He has been generous with his feelings: “He hath…of late made many tenders/ Of his affection for me” (Act 1.4).  He has been “honourable” and he has been serious: he  “…hath given countenance to his speech…/ With all the vows of heaven”  (Act 1.4). Ophelia at least has seen nothing mad, insulting or untrustworthy in Hamlet’s feelings for her before the play opens.  Still, she obeys her brother and father and breaks with him.
                      And he goes mad.  He comes to Ophelia, pale, shaking, his clothes disheveled, looking “As if he had been looséd out of hell/ To speak of horrors” , “he raised a sigh so piteous and profound” and then he left her, his eyes lingering on hers (Act 2.1).
                      “Mad for thy love?” Polonius thinks immediately. Ophelia thinks this might be the case. Very possibly but another possibility to consider is that Hamlet regards her not only as a sweetheart but as a friend he can turn to with his torment, but since she has broken with him, he finds he cannot speak to her, of their love or anything else.
                      In the next scene Polonius reads Hamlet’s letter aloud to Claudius and Gertrude. It’s clearly a love letter:
 “To the celestial and my soul’s idol…

…Doubt thou that the stars are fire,
Doubt that the sun doth move,
Doubt truth to be a liar,
But never doubt I love.
O dear Ophelia, I am ill at these numbers. I have not the art to reckon my groans. But that I love thee best, O most best, believe it. Adieu.
Thine evermore, most dear lady, whilst this machine is to him. Hamlet.” (Act 2.2)

                      From the anguish of the tone it seems that he gave this letter to her after she had broken with him. And his love and anguish seem to go deep. Why then do we hear nothing at all from Hamlet himself about Ophelia?
                      Several major scenes pass, including the meeting with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in which Hamlet describes Denmark as a prison and thereafter proclaims, “I have of late, and wherefore I know not, lost all my mirth” (also Act 2.2), Hamlet’s fishmonger dialog with Polonius, the players’ arrival, and Hamlet’s “Am I a coward/the play’s the thing” soliloquy.  Only thereafter, and after “To be or not to be”, in which Ophelia herself is not named but “the pangs of disprized love” are among the slings and arrows listed, do Hamlet and Ophelia meet on stage for the first time.
                      It’s a heartbreaking scene. Ophelia must reject the love she believes was real. Hamlet contradicts himself from one line to the next.  He did love her, he didn’t. She’s beautiful but beauty can’t be trusted. Love is only bawdiness. Love is a sin. I am worthless. All men are worthless. Women can’t be trusted, they hide themselves under cosmetics. Go to a nunnery, don’t marry. Don’t have kids. Marry a fool. No more marriages. Nunnery/brothel?
                      No wonder Ophelia despairs over the young man she has loved!

O, what a noble mind is here o'erthrown!
 The courtier's, soldier's, scholar's, eye, tongue, sword;
 Th’ expectancy and rose of the fair state,
 The glass of fashion and the mould of form,
 Th’ observed of all observers, quite, quite down!
 And I, of ladies most deject and wretched,
 That sucked the honey of his music vows,
 Now see that noble and most sovereign reason,
Like sweet bells jangled out of tune and harsh;
 That unmatched form and feature of blown youth
Blasted with ecstasy. O, woe is me,
To have seen what I have seen, see what I see! (Act 3.1)

                      In Olivier’s film version of Hamlet this soliloquy is cut and Ophelia is simply left weeping piteously on the floor. That’s one of the reasons I don’t like the Olivier version.  Ophelia is not a wimp. In this soliloquy she reveals herself as a very unhappy (of course) but astute and analytical young woman.
                      One would wish to spare her further painful confrontations with her hurtful lover but no.  They meet at the play.  She tries to remain aloof but Hamlet is all over her, manic and insistent.  Their exchange is bitter. And it ends with Ophelia’s last words to him, “Oh, the king rises.” They never meet or speak again.
                      If we can disregard Ophelia’s later song about the maid whose lover would have married her if she hadn’t gone to bed with him as just that, only a song and not her own experience – as in many cases in the play, Shakespeare leaves us uncertain - and even if it has happened, the scene at the production of “The Mousetrap” ends what was surely at one time a tender love relationship that could have led to a happy marriage, as Gertrude and probably the two young lovers had hoped for.  If Laertes and Polonius hadn’t pushed Ophelia into breaking with Hamlet and thereby convincing him that women and their love cannot be trusted, it might have been that Ophelia’s love and friendship could have helped Hamlet through his torment. If only.
                      Instead she is driven to madness and death. Hamlet too.  Because surely silly Polonius is partly right in interpreting Hamlet’s irrational behavior at least partly caused by Ophelia’s rejection.
Hamlet as a lover is as complex and tragic as he is as a son.

                      Love and hate as intertwined in each other are thus a major part of trying to figure out who Hamlet is. I could end this essay here feeling that a significant start had been achieved in defining Hamlet.  But love isn’t everything, not even together with hate. Two more facets must be looked at, however briefly.
                      Hamlet is a student. This is established early in the play.  And not just some schoolboy.  He is, or was, studying at one of the most prestigious and demanding universities of the time (i.e. Shakespeare’s time).  This is the dawn of the era when discussion, debate and analysis were not limited to theological issues and biblical texts but to the material world around us and to the essence of the human condition.  In all of his soliloquies – in fact in almost everything he says in the whole play – Hamlet is intellectually working his way through sticky, even painful issues.  Death versus life, of course, love and/or hate too, sublime love versus foul sexuality, political power versus resistance, structured society versus chaos.  There isn’t much he misses and he does it according to the rules of academic debate.  He thinks. He reasons. He’s a scholar.  Even about his most passionate obsessions.  This, he thinks, is his weakness.  A man who thinks instead of acting is unmanly.  In spite of the admiration and respect expressed by others throughout the play for his role as a student, the demands on him are to abandon his studies.  The ghost doesn’t say, “Go back to school.”  Claudius and Gertrude don’t say, “Go back to school.” They tell him to stay. So he stays. He becomes a dropout.  But he can’t stop thinking. He is a scholar to his very depths.  Is it this which is his downfall? Or is it this which lifts him above his own disgust and despair? Is the answer to both questions yes?

Finally I would like to look at one of Hamlet’s most visible roles that somehow disappears in the shuffle.  How can we miss it?  Already in the title we’re told he’s a prince.
To be sure, this is mentioned frequently throughout the play. Laertes and Polonius insist on telling Ophelia she isn’t good enough for him because he’s a prince and she’s just a….whatever she is. Daughter to a royal advisor who is undoubtedly of the aristocracy anyway.  And Gertrude doesn’t see any problem.
The other princely aspect is that Hamlet is always “my lord” and never the 16th century version of “dude”.  His friends are not his equals and he doesn’t treat them as such.  They are there to serve and support him (Horatio) or betray him (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern).
What I find puzzling though is the primary role of prince – to succeed to the throne at the death of the king – doesn’t even seem to be an issue here. King Hamlet dies, Prince Hamlet should become Hamlet II. Right?  But nowhere can I find does Hamlet express any serious interest in becoming king himself, no personal resentment except for a brief mention in Act 5 that Claudius took the throne that should rightfully be his.  Hamlet, in spite of his title, is not the once and future king.

So who’s there?
                      In trying to clarify the character of Hamlet, even a little bit, we find that we can. Sort of. To a point.  But not really. Of all the words, words, words at Hamlet’s command, constant and harmonious are not among them. He is an explosive bundle of obsessions, pain, wit (both in sense of humor and intellect), grief, anger, cruelty, sarcasm, longing.  He is, in every way, brilliant.
                      But he is also young (even if we see him age inexplicably in Act V).  He is growing up.  He is struggling to wend his way through the turbulence of his structured childhood falling apart and giving way to life in all its tormenting ambiguity, in all its contradictory demands on a young man.
                      It’s enough to drive anyone mad. And that’s been the big question for a few hundred years. Is Hamlet crazy? Well, it depends on your definition. There is, Polonius points out, a method to it anyway.  He is driven, like Ophelia, to whatever diagnosis is applicable by the conflicting demands put on him and in the end none of the roles he has tried or been forced to play have brought him any peace.  He dies, which is what the whole play has led up to, and he is resigned – “let be” – and he anticipates nothing more, or so we could interpret, “The rest is silence”.  But though he says it he doesn’t want silence for those left living. He wants Horatio to tell his story and Horatio will. Supportive loyal friend that he is however, in the end, Horatio loses the role of historian to the military hot-headed Fortinbras who steals Hamlet’s identity by turning him into a soldier, the least of the roles he has been asked to play.  The silence that should have brought Hamlet peace denies everything he was.

Works cited:
The Norton Shakespeare, based on the Oxford Edition. Ed. Greenblatt, Stephen et al. Second edition. 2008.
While not quoting other scholars, I am indebted to the following for information and inspiration:
·         Bloom, Harold. Shakespeare - the Invention of the Human. 1998.
·         Bruster, Douglas. To Be or Not to Be. 2007.
·         Coyle, Martin, editor. Hamlet – Contemporary Critical Essays. 1992.
·         Dotterer, Dick, editor. For Women: Pocket Monologs from Shakespeare. 1997.
·         Earley, Michael and Philippa Keil, editors. Soliloquy – The Shakespeare Monologues, the Women. 1988.
·         Erickson, Peter. Rewriting Shakespeare Rewriting Ourselves. 1991.
·         Greenblatt, Stephen. Hamlet in Purgatory. 2001.
·         Greenblatt, Stephen. Introduction to the Norton Edition.
·         Knight, Wilson. The Wheel of Fire. 1930 and 1989.
·         Kott, Jan. Shakespeare Our Contemporary. 1964.
·         Neill, Michael. “’He that knowest thine’ – Friendship and Service in Hamlet”. From A Companion to Shakespeare’s Work – the Tragedies. Edited by Jean E. Howard and Richard Dutton.  2003, 2006.

Spin-offs and Hamlet related films seen:

·         Withnail and I, 1987.  Director: Bruce Robinson. Cast: Withnail - Richard E. Grant; “I” -  Paul McGann. I don’t remember where I read or heard about the Hamlet connection in this movie or if I remember it from seeing the movie about twenty years ago.  The only connection is at the end when the out of work actor Withnail quotes the “I have of late” soliloquy. It’s very appropriate to his despair at that point. 
·         Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, 1991. Director: Nicholas Meyer. Cast:  the original TV cast plus Chang – Christopher Plummer and many others.  If I remember correctly Chang is the only one to spout Shakespeare quotes but he certainly spouts a lot of them.  I knew it! Science fiction and Shakespeare are a given!
·         The Glass House, 2001. Director: Daniel Sackheim. Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Leelee Sobieski, Diane Lane, Bruce Dern, Kathy Baker. The most obvious connection to Hamlet is that Sobieski gets a school assignment to write about it, Skarsgård writes the paper for her plagiarizing Harold Bloom (how cool is that!) and she gets caught.  Otherwise there are some parallels to brother murdering brother (in this case best friends) to take over kingdom (money) and offspring (daughter) getting revenge.  You don’t have to run out and buy the DVD or anything but if you come across it it’s watchable.
·         To Be or Not To Be, 1942. Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack and a lot of other actors I’ve never heard of.  World War Two, Poland, a troupe of actors who end up playing the roles of their lives. A touch of humor, a touch of tragedy, a lot of history and beautifully filmed in black and white. Carole Lombard is superb.
·         Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, 1990. Director: Tom Stoppard. Cast: Rosencrantz – Gary Oldman; Guildenstern – Tim Roth; the Player – Richard Dreyfuss; Hamlet – Iain Glenn; Claudius – Donald Sumpter; Gertrude – Johanna Miles.  This is such an ingenious film and the acting is so good that it can be thoroughly enjoyed even without having a clue about Hamlet.  But knowing the play makes it even more brilliant. A must see, again and again, and again.
·         In the Bleak Midwinter, 1995. Known as A Midwinter’s Tale in the US. Director: Kenneth Branagh.  Cast: Michael Maloney, Julia Sawala, Nicholas Farrell, Richard Briers, Celia Imrie, Mark Hadfield, Jennifer Saunders, Joan Collins, John Sessions, Gerard Horan. This is a movie for actors who love acting, movie lovers who love Shakespeare and everybody who likes a happy ending.  An out of work gang of actors doing Hamlet doesn’t seem to be a perfect set-up for a feel-good movie but Branagh makes it work.  Like he does everything.

Film versions of Hamlet seen in order seen this time around:
·         BBC, 1980. Directed by Rodney Bennett. Cast: Hamlet – Derek Jacobi; Claudius – Patrick Stewart; Gertrude – Claire Bloom; Ophelia – Lalla Ward; Horatio – Robert Swann; Polonius – Eric Porter;  Laertes – David Robb; Ghost – Patrick Allen; Rosencrantz – Jonathan Hyde; Guildenstern – Geoffrey Bateman; Fortinbras – Ian Charleson. This is probably the best production of the BBC box and with actors like Jacobi, Stewart and Bloom it would be hard not to be.  It’s not perfect – Jacobi overdoes it at times (and besides I can’t stop wondering why he believes someone else wrote Shakespeare’s plays) and Stewart is too macho and not remorseful enough, but the production doesn’t cut major parts, the minimalist stage settings emphasize the play’s stark grimness and when the play is over, a feeling of overwhelming sadness lingers.
·         Zeffirelli version, 1990. Directed by Franco Zeffirelli. Cast: Hamlet – Mel Gibson; Claudius – Alan Bates; Gertrude – Glenn Close; Ophelia – Helena Bonham-Carter; Horatio – Stephen Dellane; Polonius – Ian Holm;  Laertes – Nathaniel Parker; Ghost – Paul Scofield; Rosencrantz – Michael Mahoney; Guildenstern – Sean Murray; Fortinbras – nobody, the role was cut; gravedigger – Trevor Peacock. This is quite a good version in spite of Mel Gibson, one of my least favorite actors. He does OK here but there are so many actors who would have been better.  Helena Bonham-Carter gives, as always, an outstanding performance although many of her (Ophelia’s) most important lines were cut. In fact much of the play’s scenes were cut or mixed up, making this a good action drama but not the profound masterpiece that Hamlet is. Like all of Zeffirelli’s films this is lavish and colorful and somewhat likeable.
·         Almereyda version, 2000. Directed by Michael Almereyda. Cast: Hamlet – Ethan Hawke; Claudius – Kyle MacLachlan; Gertrude – Diane Venora; Ophelia – Julia Stiles; Horatio –Karl Geary; Polonius – Bill Murray;  Laertes – Liev Schreiber; Ghost – Sam Shephard; Rosencrantz – Steve Zahn; Guildenstern –Dechen Thurman; Fortinbras – Casey Affleck (barely); gravedigger – Jeffrey Wright. Hamlet in a techno corporate setting works just fine.  Ethan Hawke is a very convincing Hamlet, young and sullen. Julia Stiles is also sullen. It fits Ophelia.  Much of the cast is good, though MacLachlan and Venora are disappointing as Claudius and Gertrude. The visual aspect is very effective. In spite of the flaws, I like this version.
·         Olivier version, 1948. Director: Laurence Olivier. Cast: Hamlet – Laurence Olivier; Claudius – Basil Sydney; Gertrude – Eileen Herlie; Ophelia – Jean Simmons; Horatio – Norman Wooland; Polonius – Felix Aylmer;  Laertes – Terence Morgan; Ghost - not listed ; Rosencrantz  - nobody, the part was cut; Guildenstern - nobody, the part was cut ; Fortinbras - nobody the part was cut ; gravedigger - Stanley Holloway. Oh I know it’s a classic and won Oscars for best picture and best actor but it just doesn’t hold up.  From the very first frame you can see it’s a fake – Denmark doesn’t have any mountains! Heaven knows I don’t demand strict realism in the movies I watch but there has to be some logic.  The swirling fog in the enormous castle with endless stone staircases is dramatic enough.  And Olivier? Either expressionless to the point of ho hum to hammy to violent and incestuous. And a vampy, lascivious Gertrude. So, so wrong. I’ve tried to like this film, really I have. But I don’t. Sorry.
·         RSC version, 2009. Directed by Gregory Doran. Cast: Hamlet – David Tennant; Claudius – Patrick Stewart; Gertrude – Penny Downie; Ophelia – Mariah Gale; Horatio –Peter de Jersey; Polonius – Oliver Ford Davies;  Laertes – Edward Bennett; Ghost – Patrick Stewart; Rosencrantz – Sam Alexander; Guildenstern – Tom Davey; Fortinbras - Robert Curtis; gravedigger - Mark Hadfield.  A very intense Hamlet set in the here and now.  David Tennant crackles; he takes Hamlet’s madness further than most.  Penny Downie is the best Gertrude so far and generally this is a powerful production. Worthy seeing many times.
·         Brook version, 2002. Director: Peter Brook.  Cast: Hamlet – Adrian Lester; Claudius – Jeffrey Kissoon; Gertrude – Natasha Parry; Ophelia – Shantala Shivalingappa; Horatio – Scott Handy; Polonius – Bruce Meyers;  Laertes – Rohan Siva; Ghost – Jeffrey Kissoon; Rosencrantz – Asil Raïs; Guildenstern – Rohan Siva; Fortinbras – nobody, not included; gravedigger – Bruce Meyers.  Adrian Lester is the star of the production and he really is a star. A subdued, thoughtful, anguished Hamlet who is mostly in control but sometimes not. It is painful and beautiful to watch Adrian Lester.  The other stars of the play are the colors. Minimalist but intense. Red, black, white, gold. A disappointing Gertrude, she doesn’t seem to even like Hamlet. Otherwise, a very strong production, with a strong international cast from several continents.
·         Kevin Kline version, 1990. Director: Kevin Kline. Cast: Hamlet – Kevin Kline; Claudius – Brian Murray; Gertrude – Dana Ivey; Ophelia – Diane Venora; Horatio – Peter Francis James; Polonius – Josef Sommer;  Laertes – Michael Cumpsty; Ghost – Robert Murch; Rosencrantz – Philip Goodwin; Guildenstern – Reg E. Cathey; Fortinbras – Don Reilly; gravedigger – Macintyre Dixon. After a stiff start this version takes off. Kline does a fine interpretation, the cast is generally good, though Gertrude tends to be negligee-off-the-shoulder and not as good as the role demands. Diane Venora is possibly the best Ophelia ever. The dark minimalist stage setting works very well.
·         Branagh version, 1996. Director: Kenneth Branagh. Cast: Hamlet – Kenneth Branagh; Claudius – Derek Jacobi; Gertrude – Julie Christie; Ophelia – Kate Winslet; Horatio – Nicholas Farrell; Polonius – Richard Briers;  Laertes – Michael Mahoney; Ghost – Brian Blessed; Rosencrantz – Timothy Spall; Guildenstern – Reece Dinsdale; Fortinbras – Rufus Sewell; gravedigger – Billy Chrystal.  What can I say? The competition is tough but Kenneth Branagh just can’t be beat.  It seems this movie will always have the top listing in my heart. It’s flawed, yes, but each and every one of the cast – especially Branagh of course but also especially Julie Christie – are just so good!  In his introduction to the DVD Branagh says an actor doesn’t play Hamlet, Hamlet plays the actor.  This could be said of them all. “Natural” doesn’t even begin to describe it. OK, I’ll quit there.

Seen on stage: no, amazingly.

Monday March 4 2013

And now we’re done with Hamlet for this round.  It’s like seeing your best friend off on a two or three year voyage.  Who knows when we’ll get back to him in the cycle?  At the moment it feels like I want to spend the rest of my life reading and analyzing Hamlet but I know there are a lot of other good plays left! And to get back to.  And Hamlet will undoubtedly keep in touch by sending postcards in the form of Hamlet sightings. It’s been great having you with us, Hamlet. ‘Bye for now.

From Davis and Frankforter’s The Shakespeare Name Dictionary:
·         Ajax, famous for his strength, courage and stupidity, is not an admirable character in Troilus and Cressida, which incidentally is the next play we will be reading.
·         For that reason I’ll take another one: Alexander, Cressida’s servant, describes Ajax in less than admiring words.

Shakespeare sightings
·         Messenger of Truth by Jacqueline Winspeare, mentions star-crossed lovers.
·         In the movie The Emporer’s Club classics teacher Kevin Kline has the boys play different parts of  Julius Caesar.
·         In Barbara Kingsolver’s latest novel, the incredibly good Flight Behavior (read it!) the main character Dellarobia, a high school English major (nearly a dropout) names her daughter Cordelia but doesn’t think about King Lear until Professor Ovid Byron points it out to her.
·         In season four of The Big Bang Theory the university president comes to the café and Sheldon compares him to Henry V, slumming it among his troops.
·         The Finnish rock group Lordi are releasing a new CD with the title “To Beast or Not to Beast”.  There’s no song with that title that I can find but track 4 is “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and the sample starts at about 1 minute 40 on this link Now before you check this out, a word of warning to those of you who are not Finnish hard rock experts.  This group won, against all odds, the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006; here’s the link to that. Those of you who don’t live in Europe, and those of you who aren’t into the ESC, don’t even ask. But to be honest, I was one of the millions who voted for it….It was just too weird not to.
·         Michel Houellebecq won the award for the best French novel of 1998, Les particules élémentaires and I’m plowing through it (don’t ask me why, it’s too complicated). I’m not going to give you the whole quote, it’s too long (it’s on page 167 if you’re interested) and I’m not sure I understand it, partly because my French isn’t that good and partly because the book is more or less incomprehensible, but it’s something about Nietschze’s take on Shakespeare’s clowns.

Further, since the last report:
  • Watched: Hamlet with and directed by Kenneth Branagh
  • Finished reading: Hamlet, Contemporary Critical Essays, edited by Martin Coyle.
  • Started but didn’t finish Falling for Hamlet by Michelle Raye.  As you know, I’ve made many claims that, yes, you can do that to Shakespeare but please! Whatever you do, do it well!  This teen novel starts with, “Frailty, thy name is woman – William Shakespeare” followed with “Willie, thy name is sexism – Ophelia”.  The next line should have been, “Michelle, thy name is sexism and stereotype”. A more evil bitchy Gertrude and a more perfect manly Hamlet, Senior and a more banal boy-girl love affair I have yet to see. A pity. The idea was good. The whole story told from a present-day, texting teenage Ophelia’s point of view, an Ophelia who hasn’t died but gone into hiding.  Sadly, the book is unreadable, the characters completely uninteresting. Even more sadly, in her “Author’s note”, Raye seems to sincerely love Shakespeare and want to share him with her young students.  My advice: read the original with them and let them discover the complexity. Sorry, fellow Shakespeare lover.
  • Blogging Shakespeare posted “Doing Something About Hamlet”

Posted this week:
·         This Monday report
·         “Who’s there?” – Hamlet in Hamlet