'Tis I, Hamlet the Dane!
I don’t suppose my relationship to William Shakespeare is all that unique. When I was about fourteen, I decided I needed to become acquainted with The Bard and checked out a massive tome from the library to accompany me on our annual family fishing trip. I don’t know the criteria for inclusion, but it was not complete. In a week I plowed through Romeo and Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Richard II, and Hamlet. All four plays have cropped up at different points in my life, but Hamlet is the one that has resonated most vividly.
My first reading proved incomprehensible. All I really remember is sitting my tent trying to stay awake. But my first real connection came as a freshman in college, when I was cast in the spring production. The director/professor was exploring competing interpretations and themes within the text, so he was directing two different productions as a repertory cast. In the first cast I played The Ghost, The Player King, and the Gravedigger. In the second cast I was the Bernardo and The Player Villain. The experiment continued into my sophomore year when we took the productions on a Midwest tour, and in one disastrous performance I picked up the role of Osric.
The only thing I remember clearly from this first exposure was that I was the only one required to wear white tights, and that I routinely woke my roommate by reciting my lines in my sleep. Apparently in my dream state I saw Bernardo as one of Scarlet O’Hara’s beaux and used a genteel Virginian accent. This was not something I dared implement in actual performance.
What made the strongest impression in that iteration was the romance of the story. I carried that romance into my professional acting life when I brought in “Solid Flesh” to a monologue class. While the teacher had little to say about my actual rendering of the speech, he did let me know that no director, EVER, would cast me as Hamlet. EVER! Further interactions with this particular instructor will be saved for later posts, but his prophesy has proven to be true. At least to date.
But I did manage to play Laertes in a roundabout way with a notorious theatre company, in a late-night production of Dogg’s Hamlet. Not really Hamlet but close enough to delve a little more deeply into the text. And when I say a little, I mean a very little. As a character, Laertes is required to do some of the heaviest dramaturgical lifting. He’s drawn with overbold strokes, and just as the audience energy might begin to flag, he’s trotted out and required to reinvigorate the audience and spring them to a rousing finish. It’s a thankless role and one that is almost always miscast with an actor who really sees himself as The Dane. I speak from experience on that point.
I had the great opportunity of playing Guildenstern in an unfortunately conceived production. The idea was that Hamlet is eternal, and that the characters are doomed to relive the play. We were costumed and made-up in zombie glory. Reviews were not particularly kind, and although I had the smallest speaking role in this production, the critical consensus was that Guildenstern was the Danish court concubine. With decaying flesh and eleven lines, I established a sexual connection with not only Rosencrantz, but Hamlet, Claudius, and Gertrude. Mind you, this production included a scene in which Gertrude was sodomized and a pregnant Ophelia lay on stage masturbating, yet I was the sexual epicenter for this production. What can I say? When you’ve got it, you’ve got it.
My final performative connection to the play came with an audition. For a production of Richard II, auditioning actors were asked to bring in two monologues demonstrating risk and range. I prepared an Iago speech and Ophelia’s mad scene. When I announced my second piece, the auditors actually groaned. But I must say, I won them over because as I bid them, “Good night! Good night! Good night…” I received a round of applause, and an offer to join the production. I turned down the offer, and if memory serves it was my final audition from the era.
Of course, over the years I’ve seen a number of productions. Of the major film renditions, I’ve liked Mel Gibson’s Hamlet the best and Richard Burton’s Hamlet the least. Once considered definitive, I think today the less said about Olivier’s Hamlet the better. For me, Kate Winslet defined Ophelia and my college buddy Michael Joseph Mitchell was the best Polonius to ever trod the boards. Gertrude is every bit as thankless as Laertes, and I’ve yet to see an adequately cast Claudius. The King requires James Earl Jones gravitas, charisma, and voice and is the most difficult role in the play, and perhaps all of Shakespeare. The chapel scene is unplayable.
There’s an old adage that every production of Hamlet, no matter how weak, manages to get something right. I’ve seen enough productions to agree with that statement. But there’s a long way between getting something right and getting it all right, and to that point I think it’s quite possible that Hamlet is a Gordian knot of a play. The chief flaw I’ve seen in almost every production is that too much emphasis is placed upon Hamlet. He has the most lines filled with some of the most beautiful English every committed to writing. There’s enough ambiguity in the role to permit an endless variety of interpretations, which in turn attracts narcissistic actors (I speak from experience here) who eat up all of the oxygen in the rehearsal hall the best directorial intentions. The dirty little secret of Hamlet is that in the end virtually every other character on the stage is more interesting than Hamlet. With a few exceptions, (Polonius, The Gravedigger, Fortinbras…maybe Horatio. Maybe) all the other characters struggle with the contradictions between who they should be and who they actually are. Claudius knows he’s a fraud trying to be a righteous king. Laertes keeps up the pretense of virtue for his father’s sake if not his sister’s but he’s a libertine. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the definition of false friends. Bernardo is a coward masquerading as a soldier, and poor Gertrude and Ophelia are destroyed because they put too much stock in how men define them. All great acting meals for any actor.
Despite the whole “To be, or not to be…” thing, Hamlet’s conflict is all external, centering on what he does, not who he is. He is prince. He knows that in his bones. He’s prince and he so he’s good. He’s entitled to do whatever he wants. He’s very clear on that point, and Hamlet makes sure we as an audience know that.
As strenuous as the task admittedly is, the actors playing Hamlet knows their main job is to charm the audience into buying the story. There’s plenty of material there for an actor to do that; plenty of wit and humor, tons of opportunity to emote, plenty of athletic theatrics. And who doesn’t look fantastic in black? Everything an actor needs for success is given on the page. All you need to do is get plenty of rest and say the words in the right order.
As a twenty-first century audience, we’re primed to admire the talent and stamina the role requires. But unlike other Shakespearean heroes like Juliet, Othello, Lear, we’re not given much to sympathize with. Hamlet’s charming, but he’s almost never very likeable. Without giving much of it a second thought, he does some horrific things. He’s responsible for a number, if not all of the deaths in the play one way or another, including his father. Would Claudius have had the courage to kill Hamlet, Sr. if Junior had recognized his responsibility and put his student days behind him and returned to court? How ever the character is defined, Hamlet’s narcissism ensures the audience doesn’t identify with him. We can’t. And despite centuries of preconditioning, I really don’t think we’re supposed to.
And perhaps that’s what makes him the most vivid human portrayal in the English language. With a decade’s long relationship to this text, I’ve come to the conclusion that with Hamlet, Shakespeare is holding a mirror up to nature (to borrow a phrase). Endemic narcissism is devouring us and will be the destruction of us as individuals and perhaps as a species.
Hamlet fascinates us because it is us.