Wednesday, January 30, 2019

On the Coffee Table: William Shakespeare

Title: The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark
Author: William Shakespeare
It's Hamlet, arguably the most important literary work in the English language.  It's been in print and in performance for four centuries plus.  Do we really need a plot synopsis?  Surely, you read it in high school or you've watched one of the numerous film adaptations or even been lucky enough to see it on stage, right?  No?  Well, alright...

A ghost appears at Castle Elsinor.  Denmark's most recently deceased king has returned as specter to tell his son, college boy Hamlet, the true tale of his passing.  He was murdered by his own brother!  The brother, Claudius, then married Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, and claimed the throne.  Hamlet was already put off by Mom's too-quick wedding - less so by his own political usurping, interestingly - so this new info only fuels his angst.  He considers murder.  He considers suicide.  He decides on feigning madness in order to mess with everyone (typical teenager...), then schemes with a theatre troupe to trick Claudius into confessing.  Gertrude tries to talk some sense into him but, still enraged, Hamlet "mistakenly" kills Polonius, Claudius's top advisor.  The killing wasn't the mistake.  The target was.  In an effort to cover his own crimes, Claudius ships his nephew off to England with instructions to behead him.  It doesn't work out.  Hamlet returns and now also has to confront Polonius's understandably angry son, Laertes.  Everyone is also upset because Ophelia, Hamlet's "girlfriend" and Laertes's sister, has killed herself.  Hamlet and Laertes duel and everyone in the room dies - only a slight exaggeration.  Rufus Sewell... er, Fortinbras, King of Norway... arrives upon the final, gory scene and restores order.

Oh, so you do know the story.

I don't really mean to be so irreverent.  In my opinion, plot isn't The Bard's strength.  Romeo and Juliet?  Two stupid teenagers fall in love and are dead by their own hands two weeks later.  Macbeth?  Just kidding.  I adore that one.  Hamlet?  The character has been portrayed as both wimp and goon over the centuries but seriously, in the final analysis, the guy is such an asshole!  Poor Ophelia.  If her suicide is over heartbreak, what a waste.

I guess I do mean to be irreverent.

But yes, obviously, the play is amazing, entirely deserving of its stature in world culture.  What is The Bard's genius?  Ask a thespian and s/he will speak of the rich, dynamic characters and the performance instruction subtly embedded throughout.  Ask a literature professor and s/he will speak of the life-altering language.  One can hardly read Hamlet without noting the lines that will live on in reference forever: "Good night, sweet prince," "What dreams may come," "to thine own self be true," etc.  The correct answer is both, of course, and undoubtedly more. 

I hadn't read Hamlet since high school, myself.  Since then, I've seen both the Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh films.  I've seen The Lion King as well as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the latter on both stage and screen.  Hamlet is everywhere if you're looking and, again, deservedly so.  However, I've never seen the play performed live on stage.  I would like to, naturally.  Reading Shakespeare silently on the couch doesn't quite get to the heart of the matter.  At the very least, his work should be read aloud.  We're not that family - yet.

One final note, only a slight tangent, in case you have any doubt of my deep love for Shakespeare.  We recently watched Shakespeare in Love for family movie night, our daughter's choice and her first time seeing it.  For my wife and I, though, it holds a special place in our history.  We went to see it on our first date 20 years ago.  In the years since, much has been made of the controversy over that film winning the the Best Picture Oscar over Saving Private Ryan.  Apparently, Harvey Weinstein worked his sleazy magic in staging that coup. 

Overall, I would mostly agree with those who say Ryan should have won.  It is an unforgettable and undeniably powerful movie.  Its champions rightly point to the hyper-realistic opening 20-minute rendering of the D-Day invasion as one of the greatest film segments in cinematic history.  However, I assert that Shakespeare in Love contains a segment of comparable, if qualitatively different, magnitude.  Hugh Fennyman (played by Tom Wilkinson), Shakespeare's financial backer, is witness to the very first rehearsal of Romeo and Juliet's famous balcony scene.  The look of astonishment and wonder on Fennyman's face is every bit as potent as the hellfire on the beach of Normandy.  The horror of the one doesn't exceed the magic of the other.  The overwhelming death in the one is not inherently more relevant than the celebration of life in the other.  War is not greater than art.  Ryan may still be the better movie - and I think it is - but the D-Day scene is not the reason why.


  1. You should see the David Tennant Hamlet.
    And have you seen 'George Lucas in Love'?
    Now I want to dig out our copy of Shakespeare in Love. Haven't seen that in a while.

    My first Shakespeare was Macbeth. I think I was 12, and I wasn't blown away. Then I had to read Macbeth for school three or four times, and I got sick of it. And I hated Romeo and Juliet before ever reading it because the idea that they die was so stupid to me as a 15-year-old. My opinion of Shakespeare was that he was overrated.
    Then I read Hamlet... I was 17, and it was like the whole world shifted. And, well, R&J is still not my favorite, but I get it, and it's not wrong.

    1. I have had glimpses of Tennant's Hamlet but have yet to sit through the whole thing.

      Macbeth was my first exposure to Shakespeare and I think that is part of my affection. I'm also a sucker for mysticism in general so I love the witches, the ghosts, the visions and so forth.

      I have always respected Shakespeare but I didn't fall in love until experiencing the work as a director. When we did R&J with our students, a big part of the job was getting them to understand and appreciate the language. That required digging pretty deep on my own part. It was a more intimate view of the material than I'd ever experienced before and the journey was transforming. Previously, I'd heard stories about actresses who'd played Juliet recalling her final monologue on their own death beds. It had always seemed like a romantic exaggeration to me but now I understood. And I believed it.

  2. I adored Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The 'tennis/question' match is unforgettable. I also loved Romeo and Juliet, the Zefrelli version, and Kenneth Brannagh's Henry V and Much Ado About Nothing. Shakespeare in Love is also one of my faves. But I have not seen the true version of Hamlet either in film or on stage. Do you have a version you like?

    1. RosenGuil will always be my favorite Hamlet interpretation. The film version is so perfectly cast as well.

      For Hamlet, I claim no encyclopedic knowledge of the films though I'd take Brannagh over Gibson. The Gibson version isn't bad, an excellent exploration of Ham as tough guy. But the Brannagh is the unabridged version which I appreciate.

  3. I always thought Hamlet should have gone to Verona instead of England, fallen for Juliet, never returned to Denmark, and lived happily ever after. Could have saved about 10 lives.