aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

The play's the thing

Hamlet is like The Maltese Falcon. So many quotations and allusions from each have been lifted and re-delivered, out of context, by so many speakers and writers, that to see a performance or read the script of either is a bit jarring. For in both scripts, the lines we have heard so many times, packed with such significance, don't signify anything else; they're just dialogue.

This has a further problem. Many productions of Hamlet linger over these bits as if they were crystal stuck in the muddy matrix. They emphasize these lines too much. The actors try to convey the sense of multiple significance you get when these sames lines occur in other performances. This makes the performance slow and labored. One gets the idea that Hamlet is a boring play, studded with purple passages -- because that's the way it's being acted. In fact, Hamlet is anything but boring, and the purple passages, if taken in stride, move the action along quite nicely.

Some things to consider when you read or perform Hamlet:

1. C.S. Lewis points out that the play is obsessed with death. Not with dying, which any tragic hero is ready to do without thinking twice about it, but with being dead. This is why the play starts off with an encounter with a ghost. It's why Hamlet keeps speculating not only on what happens to one's self after death, but to one's body. There are constant references to corruption, in all senses. The gravediggers and the skulls and the fight between Hamlet and Laertes in Ophelia's open grave -- these all point up a constant theme.

2. Along with the theme of corruption, there is a lot of talk of madness. Lewis points out that the play isn't about Hamlet's character, his personality, so much as about a situation. Hamlet is man who has lost his way. He doesn't know what is real or who is real or which thoughts of his own to trust. At one point, he feigns madness; meanwhile, Ophelia goes crazy for real. And many of the characters are presenting false fronts to each other. It's a house of mirrors, with deadly and eternal consequences.

3. Sin and redemption are not just conventional attitudes in Hamlet. It was written in an age when people took this very seriously. Catholic or Anglican, everybody assumed that what the Church said about heaven, hell, and purgatory was real and true. Dying without confession and absolution was a serious concern. Suicide was considered a mortal sin. Ophelia's burial bends the rules a bit because she's an aristocrat, but still, it consists of what are called "maiméd rites." It's not only scandalous that she should be buried so, but underneath it all, there is real doubt about the fate of those suspected of self-murder. Meanwhile, even though people "believe," they still doubt. Hamlet doubts what he has seen, he doubts what the Church teaches -- but it still worries him.

4. There is an awful lot of politics going on. We think of Hamlet almost as a drawing-room play, with a limited set of intensely inter-relating characters, but Shakespeare sets it amidst a lot of other stuff. He goes to great lengths to set up the political situation between Denmark and Norway, for instance, and between Denmark and England. The king employs Swiss mercenaries as his personal guards. Popular opinion and the fear of revolt in Denmark is cited. The pressures and possibilities of these relations act upon the members of the royal court, who have to pursue their private affairs while remaining conscious of their public position. Meanwhile, Denmark is being affected by new ideas being brought in from France and Germany, represented by the undergraduates Laertes and Horatio, respectively, and by the other members of Hamlet's peer group. This makes the play doubly claustrophobic: both in terms of the intense goings-on between the characters and by their social position.

5. Shakespeare throws some candy to his first hearers which may not mean much to us. The sweet bits don't affect the play, but for those tuned into the social scene and slang of his day, they would have added a bit of extra relish. Hamlet's talk of acting and actors directly relates to comments about the theater current in his day, to the Lord Chamberlain's Men in whom he had a partnership, and to his feud with Ben Jonson. Some of Hamlet's dialogue with Ophelia is frankly obscene, but we don't normally get the joke. Polonius was widely assumed to be a burlesque on the Queen's principal advisor, Lord Burleigh. The duel in which Hamlet and Laertes exchange rapiers was in fact illustrated in a popular fencing manual of the day.

6. Most modern actors don't understand blank verse. The verse is to be pronounced in the meter, but the unit of thought is still the sentence and the paragraph, and must be construed as in prose. Dallying over the delicious doesn't make the delivery better, it means you lose the drift of the conversation. C.S. Lewis points out that Wagner's Wotan is not a dramatic portrait of a baritone: everybody sings their dialogue in opera. So here. Noble people in Elizabethan plays speak in verse, but we are to understand them as speaking normally. It's a convention. When the traveling players perform their play within the play, they speak in a different meter, in order to point the difference. In addition to not understanding how to deliver blank verse, the pronunciation and rhythm of Modern English is much different from Elizabethan English, which means most modern actors don't get the pace right. They either break up sentences into fragments or rush through in a trot, out of breath. Either way, the sense is lost.

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