Posts from the ‘Hamlet’ Category

What Branagh did in four hours …

… this guy does in three minutes:

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Shakespeare Pwns Plato

Did I just use the word “pwns” in a post title? ::Looks up.:: Yeah, I did. Wow. I’m becoming more internet savvy every day here.

In Plato’s Republic, the Greek philosopher writes that, in his ideal republic, poets would not be allowed. He provides a number of reasons for this, but among them is the belief that poetry is not truth. Plato believed that there was an ultimate reality, a “form” for everything, and the best goal was to get closer to this form by doing away with representation. Poetry, he argued, was a step removed from reality, because poets sought to create representations of reality and present them as truth.

In Hamlet, Shakespeare deals with this theme. Whether he was responding directly to Plato or simply addressing the same subject, I cannot say. But Hamlet, when planning to show Claudius a play, says, “I’ll have these players / Play something like the murder of my father” (II.ii.533-4). Shakespeare didn’t make many mistakes, so the phrase “something like” is telling. Hamlet is acknowledging that the play won’t actually be the murder of his father. It will be a representation of that reality. But what purpose does this play-within-a-play serve? Its goal is to reveal a truth. And it does so. Shakespeare is, I think, commenting on the validity and effectiveness of theatre and poetry. A good poem or play can teach us a truth, even if it is fictional itself.

I’m sure most, if not all, Shakespeare lovers will agree. We learn about ourselves and our world by reading and seeing Shakespeare. Can I get an Amen?

“Hamlet” and Generational Divides

One scholarly book that I particularly enjoy is Hamlet without Hamlet by Margreta de Grazia. In it, de Grazia makes the case that the way we traditionally think of Hamlet — as a play dealing with modern concerns like metaphysics and psychology — misunderstands the play, and it actually deals with Elizabethan concerns, like succession and land. I don’t agree with most of it, but that’s part of why I enjoy it so much.

One element of the book that stands out to me is the way de Grazia deals with the problem of Hamlet’s age. The gravedigger scene would seem to suggest that Hamlet is 30, but readers and directors prefer a younger Hamlet. De Grazia finds a more symbolic purpose to the choice of 30:

Indeed the temporal quantity of “thirty” might be better understood as an indefinite verbal unit, like era or epoch, rather than a precise numerical one. In Shakespeare’s time, it was used interchangeably with generation to stand for the interval of time between parents and their offspring.

In de Grazia’s theory, Hamlet’s angst results from the fact that a generation has passed, but the proper events aren’t accompanying it. The young prince should be ascending the throne, but the old uncle does instead. The maid should be getting married, but she is rejecting marriage, and the old woman is instead getting married.

De Grazia also notes the coincidence of Hamlet’s birth and Old Hamlet’s conquest of Norway in the gravedigger scene. The gravedigger even notes that the conquered lands are to be passed on by law. It seems to indicate that Hamlet was born to rule.

Her theory can be further supported by the opening of the play-within-a-play:

Full thirty times hath Phoebus’ cart gone round
Neptune’s salt wash and Tellus’ orbed ground,
And thirty dozen moons with borrow’d sheen
About the world have times twelve thirties been,
Since love our hearts and Hymen did our hands
Unite commutual in most sacred bands.
(III.ii.150-55)

A generation has passed and the king is preparing to die.

What do you all think? Where else do generations play a role in Hamlet?

Defining Tragedy

How do we define a “tragedy”? What makes it distinct from other forms of drama?

Throughout history, the most well-known definition of tragedy has come from Aristotle in Poetics. The key element of his definition is that a character’s fall from grace “should come about as the result not of vice, but of some great error or frailty, in a character.” As this is the prevailing way of thinking about the genre, we’re taught from our very early days as students to seek out a “tragic flaw” in a character.

While I admire Aristotle greatly, I outright reject this aspect of his definition of tragedy. It’s not only erroneous, but it limits our understanding of a good play. Character traits do not file neatly into “good” and “bad,” or “virtue” and “flaw.” Just as in life, a character’s trait can, given the context of his actions and the complexity of his personality, be either positive or destructive.

Consider Hamlet and Othello. If these characters have “tragic flaws,” Othello’s might be his gullibility, and Hamlet’s his tendency to overthink things instead of acting. (You may think their “tragic flaws” are other things, but humor me for now.) Imagine if the two were to switch places. Hamlet, in thinking, sees right through Iago’s lies, and Othello goes inside and kills Claudius ten minutes after seeing the ghost, thus saving a great deal of bloodshed. Their flaws are suddenly strengths.

So what is tragedy? There are any number of definitions that have been offered. One comes from G.W.F. Hegel:

Tragedy is the conflict of two substantive positions, each of which is justified, yet each of which is wrong to the extent that it fails either to recognize the validity of the other position or to grant it its moment of truth; the conflict can be resolved only with the fall of the ‘hero’. Within such a conflict each of the opposed sides, if taken by itself, has justification, while on the other hand each can establish the true and positive content of its own aim and character only by negating and damaging the equally justified power of the other. Consequently, in its moral life, and because of it, each is just as much involved in guilt.

(The quote is not from Hegel, but from Mark W. Roche, explaining Hegel’s thoughts on tragedy.)

This one has merit, but it applies very much to social and political tragedy, and not as much to psychological tragedies, like Macbeth.

How do you define tragedy?

The 10 Best Hamlets

The Guardian recently did a story on what actors they consider the best 10 Hamlets of all time. And it’s a pretty non-traditional list. No Kenneth Branagh. No Derek Jacobi. But some pretty unexpected names on there. I give them huge credit for putting Innokenti Smoktunovsky, who was in the 1964 Russian film version of the play. If you haven’t seen it, you should. Even in a language you don’t speak (and I don’t know a word of Russian; if it hadn’t been for the subtitles, I’d have sat in front of the TV the whole time going, “Shto?”), it’s marvelously effective.

Who do you think should be on this list who isn’t? Or shouldn’t be who is?

Empson on Hamlet’s Delay

In his 1986 book, Essays on Shakespeare, the scholar William Empson proposed that Hamlet’s delay to take revenge in the play that bears his name is an intentional absurdity. Many scholars have attempted to analyze why Hamlet delays, approaching it as a psychological problem on Hamlet’s part, but Empson views it as an intentional dramatic absurdity.

Empson begins by referring to the Ur-Hamlet, an earlier play that dealt with the Hamlet story, the script of which doesn’t survive. A few contemporary references show that, by 1600, the Ur-Hamlet was a bit of a laughingstock of the theatrical world, largely because of that outrageous delay. Everyone in the audience knew there was a revenge coming, but something was preventing it from happening.

Empson believes that Shakespeare’s approach to the Hamlet story was to attempt to overcome this problem, and in order to do so, exaggerate it. You know how when, there is some implausibility in a work of fiction, it becomes plausible when a character acknowledges its implausibility? The author knows it’s not working, the characters know it, and so, since the oddity is canonized and is not being passed off to the audience as believable, it becomes believable.

This is how Empson imagines Hamlet. Hamlet, according to Empson, “walks out to the audience and says, ‘You think this is an absurd old play, and so it is, but I’m in it, and what can I do?” In other words, audiences came to the theater not to understand why Hamlet delayed, but to see what Shakespeare did with that delay. And, in this theory, when Hamlet wonders out loud why he’s delaying his revenge, he is not so much saying, “What’s wrong with me that I haven’t done this yet?” but, “What’s wrong with this play that its main character hasn’t done this yet?”

It’s a pretty non-traditional view, but a pretty fascinating one, isn’t it? I don’t know if I agree completely, but given that the Hamlet story had been on stage before Shakespeare’s play, it’s probably at least partially true.

What do you folks think?

Klingon Hamlet in Performance

Susan and I talked about it a little bit in our third podcast, but here’s a full article from the Washington Post about the Washington Shakespeare Company producing the Klingon translation of Hamlet on stage.

How wild is this? I can be accused of being a bit too much of a Shakespeare traditionalist (though in some ways I’m anything but), but this just fascinates me. People make fun of those who originally translated Hamlet into Klingon, but it must have been a labor of love. To translate poetry, even into an invented language, is an incredible effort, and I admire those who did it.