In high school, I made the mistake of thinking that Hamlet was an angst-ridden loser who was pissed about having to take algebra when he “knew he wasIn high school, I made the mistake of thinking that Hamlet was an angst-ridden loser who was pissed about having to take algebra when he “knew he was never going to use it.” Not that I had any problems with angst. Big fan. I just thought he failed at angst. He wasn’t the dreamy eyed poet, he was the kid in class who made everyone cringe by shooting his hand up to complain about the abstract unfairness of the school system (or universe. Whatever). I saw the beautiful words, but they only meant words, they didn’t mean anything. When I read the play again in college, the profound beauty and compassion for humanity devastated me, and I realized that it is not about angst of any variety. Hamlet still breaks my heart, probably more than any other story.
I saw a staged production of Hamlet for the first time last month. A live show is almost always a good experience, and this certainly was. I grew up living pretty near the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and I’ve gone to productions there as much as possible since high school. It’s a magical place (not so much in a ren-fest way, though a little. More in a professional-live-show-for-cheap way). It’s about three hours away from me now, so I took a couple of days, drove down, and stayed in a hostel across the street from the OSF. I’m assuming in this review that everyone has read or seen Hamlet, but if you haven’t (and this might drive some people nuts) I actually really like the Mel Gibson version. I’ve seen it a kagillion times, and I think it’s a solid version. Who better to play Ophelia than Helena Bonham Carter? (Other than Rachel McAdams in Slings and Arrows.) Anyway, like I say, seeing Hamlet in the wonderful Bowmer theater was a really good experience. I do, however, have a lot of problems with the production, all of which I will gladly share with you now.
A couple of things that don’t work in any production of a Shakespeare tragedy: hammy heroes, pyrotechnics, rapping and hip hop dancing, sign language that is not used for communication, extended martial arts scenes, and Kenneth Branagh. If I think of more, I’ll let you know. Mostly, when I see a play, I want to see the play, not the MTV version of the play. I find it insulting that directors seem to think I’ll understand Hamlet better if it’s MC Hammered at me. And I get that stage fighting is fun, but unfortunately TV fights look better. Maybe it makes it confusing that those things tend to work in the comedies, and directors get caught up in the comedy momentum. There’s some kind of self-reflexive irony framed by larger irony, though, when Polonius says, “brevity is the soul of wit,” and not only is Polonius a pompous old fool, but the entire production is also a pompous old fool.
So, in this version we didn’t have Kenneth Branagh or an extended martial arts scene, which is a mercy. They did, however, have everyone dressed like they were in an emo band. It worked at first, and then got really annoying. Also, there was this gimmick about the ghost speaking sign language, and that kind of kills me. And the play-within-the-play was a free-style hip-hop show. So painful. The thing is, it would be kind of cool to see Hamlet in all sign language with the words voiced over in the theater (or even subtitled). I would probably dig that. But, the way they did this was all wrong. The ghost said something in sign language, and then Hamlet, who apparently was the only character who spoke sign language, would say his lines. Then Hamlet would say his own lines. Fail. I’m not positive Hamlet was the only one who spoke sign language because there was a lot of exaggerated gesturing all around. Like when Hamlet mimed a shotgun to his head when he said, “To be or not to be.”
If Hamlet is not about hip hop and angst, then, what is it about? Hamlet is about being totally unprepared to face reality. Because what is more real than death? Hamlet is about the coolest kid in school (a prince, no less), not about a soulful nerd. Hamlet’s dad could beat up all the other dads; Hamlet has a beautiful girlfriend; Hamlet is spoiled, maybe even a little bit of an asshole, and then, suddenly, his father’s death forces him to recognize that the universe could be a hostile place. Don’t get me wrong – when the play starts he’s not the golden child he was the month before. He goes from being privileged and sheltered to having to face real loss, grief, and betrayal. He wants revenge, but also asks if life is really worth living in a world where those you love the most are the ones plotting against your life. But he didn’t start that way – it’s not just his nature to be melancholy. Fate cut him into shreds the minute before the play starts. Ophelia, too, (but during the play) loses the security of a happy ending, loses her love, loses her father. Both of these bright, advantaged, unprepared children wake up to the brutality of the world around them, and ultimately that awakening destroys them.
That type of tragedy profoundly resonates with me. I realized that both this play and the other favorite I saw in Ashland, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, are about rich people who trust the world to bring only good and then are crushed by reality. Maybe it resonates because of my own personal experiences, but I think there is also something about Hamlet that both transcends cultures and is immediate to American culture. As Nahum says, "Hamlet will be Hamlet. An ineffable tragedy of the human spirit that still resonates, even today." It used to be that the people sheltered from the realities of death were princes, but now look at us, with our hot running water, packaged meat, and sanitized hospitals. Tragedy and death are not part of our everyday lives, and I think many of us are as unprepared to deal with a hostile universe as Hamlet and Ophelia are. When we see our own mortality, we are not eased into it, but caught unawares by a specter we never knew was following us. We are in many ways perpetual children, like Hamlet and Ophelia.
Even then, maybe Hamlet is not tragic. Is it more horrifying to be surprised by death or to live a childhood that causes you to expect it? Although it is not my experience, the latter was probably more common at the time the play was written and probably continues to be so today. Nevertheless, that experience of betrayal by life must, on some level, be universal, whether people experience it young or old, once or many times. There is something innocent and wise and deeply human about both Hamlet and Ophelia because of it....more