I am reading Pride And Prejudice by candle light. I wish Elizabeth and Mr. Darcy would have angry sex already. All these snippy comments and drawn out pauses and coldness needs to just stop and they need to fuck. Like animals. All night long. In the dirt. Or against a tree.
I inadvertently wax academic, just imagine I’m slurring my speech. But damned if I’m going to back down from a brawl with some debauched theater person. Emotions were meant to be discussed in abstract, not experienced.
That’s the heart of it. You’re comfortable with a boring, inactive protagonist who doesn’t exist in the text. But there’s no evidence the author shared your view. There’s evidence to the contrary.
Shakespeare is dead. So is his entire Elizabethan audience.
And with them died a native enjoyment of the play, yes.
They’re mouldering in their graves. Most of them have fully mouldered. So it’s not clear why Shakespeare or the Elizabethan audience get a special say in how to interpret Hamlet.
Because you can interpret it wrong. You can screw it up. You can objectively ruin the ending. Plays and movies aren’t like novels or poems: you have to watch the damn things in real time. The dramatist needs you to cry and laugh and wince at the right moments to keep your attention. It ain’t Ulysses. If you mistake authorial intent, you can (centuries later) end up interpreting Dumb & Dumber as leaden drama. You can perform Precious as broad comedy. You can spoil The Sixth Sense by showing the psychiatrist as already dead. 400 years later, you can perform Hamlet as a depressed loon who won’t get off the dime. Hamlet is a murder mystery, Which means certain information needs to be revealed at certain times. The importance of that information is lost on 21st century critics because there’s a yawing theological/metaphysical gap between then and now. Elizabethans didn’t know if the Ghost was a lying, malevolent demon (sorta like the Macbeth witches) or was his father back from the grave to right a horrible wrong. Neither does Hamlet.
Doesn’t that fall, in large part, to individual director?
No. It’s like you’re an interior decorator and I’m a general contractor and we’re discussing the architect’s plans. You’re walking around the building site asking, “Why don’t we curve the roof inward? toward the building? It’s a new interpretation.” I’m telling you it will ruin the house. The architect designed elements of the building to produce a specific product. The roof is pitched upward so snow and rain will run off and not cave the damn thing in. The architect is the playwright and the audience are the future residents and not the readers of the play. We have to be Scalias with Shakespeare. We have to be strict constructionists. We have to make the house he’s telling us to make or it won’t function correctly. Hamlet is a whonunnit. And if we already know Who Done It, then of course you’ll all be confused as to why Hamlet won’t slice his uncle’s throat already. You academics think he’s inactive or insane when, in fact, he tries very hard to find out if his uncle’s a murderer. He uses all sorts of clever tactics. But he’s got obstacles. He can’t just go up and ask the murderer if he did it. And if you have Claudius looking daggers at Hamlet straight out the gate, as countless productions do, then the cat is outta the bag, for everyone.
To current day audiences?
Current day audiences are ruined by the time they’re five years old. We’re saturated. There’s no mystery. The usurping-uncle-who-kills-the-father-who-must-then-be-avenged-by-the-son-to-put-the-kingdom-aright is boilerplate by now. Ever seen The Lion King? Does anyone have second’s worth of doubt about Scar’s innocence? That’s how Hamlet gets warped into themes like maturity or inaction. Simba goes into the jungle and grows up.
To the centuries of performers, critics, and editors who have shaped the play into what it now was?
You mean like the Victorians who rewrote the genders and the ending? You mean the Freudians who’ve inserted weird, distracting subplots? You mean the amateurs like Harold Bloom (yeah, I said it) who engage in quantum leaps of critical absurdity? You mean like the Olivers and the Mel Gibsons and the Ethan Hawkes who told us it was Colonel Mustard in the study with a candlestick about three minutes after we bought our popcorn?
Hamlet is not Our Greatest Work primarily because it is a great play. Hamlet is a great play because it is Our Greatest Work.
Which is a bit like saying the Chrysler Building doesn’t need to hold people. It’s a beautiful structure and whether the elevator functions is incidental to its greatness. No, it’s a great work of architecture, first and foremost, because it’s an impressive building.
I’m not totally sure what you mean by “win” in this case. … If you mean something more conventional by “win”, I’m not sure I agree. Similarly, the fools don’t always come out poorly in Shakespearean tragedy. At least, they tend to survive.
I could have been clearer there. I mean that during individual scenes (contra madness theory), Hamlet achieves his short-term objectives. In a battle to hide information from Polonius, he fends the old man off. He smokes out his mother’s innocence. (He doesn’t know! Neither do we!) He dispatches his deceitful college buddies. He finds out if Claudius is guilty. In every pure exchange of wits, he wins. Fools and crazies don’t operate on that level in Shakespeare. Making violent choices which then lead to premature death is a necessary end for a protagonist in a Shakespearean tragedy, full stop. (Othello, Macbeth, Romeo, Juliet, etc.) Such behavior indicates neither indecision nor madness.
I’m clearly not saying that Hamlet can’t be played with a sense of urgency—but the text doesn’t require it.
The text tells us exactly how the play should be performed. The character is another matter. An indolent, indecisive shmuck though, he is not.
We should maintain some critical distance from Hamlet. Is Hamlet as crazy as Polonius thinks he is in the way Polonius thinks he is? Clearly not.
There. How many pixels did that take?
But is he a beacon of rationality? Hardly. He certainly exhibits some bipolar tendancies.
Wrong. Again, if that’s the standard, then Macbeth, Othello, Romeo, Juliet, all tend toward bipolarism. Man, this stuff is all crystal clear once you get paid to put butts in seats.
So Hamlet decides that his uncle killed his father.
But how long did it take him to get to that point? Do you know how hard he has to work, how crafty he has to be to gain that information? It takes half the freaking play.
He shouts at his mother in a way that was probably less awkward before Freud invented new ways to feel uncomfortable.
“Interpretation.” So, yeah.
He sees a ghost.
A ghost that, if you’re following the logical syllogism of the play, is real, and turns out to be a reliable source of information.
And he stabs a curtain, killing his girlfriend’s father. Is that really calm, healthy decision making?
Now who’s being oversimple? A lot to unpack there: Is he calm after seeing the spectre of his dead father? No. Should he be? No. Does it make him insane? No. Is killing the ostensible-usurper “healthy decision-making”? If the Ghost is telling the truth… yes. (And by the way, this “healthy decision-making” seems an odd standard for tragic protagonists. They all have some baggage, whether it’s anger or jealousy or ambition. But the issue at hand is insanity.)
I will, of course, agree that it is neither helpful nor enlightening to treat Hamlet’s actions as uncaused, inexplicable, or totally random.
But will you concede they are the exact opposite? That they are directly caused, explainable, specific and necessary?
And, while I’m not inclined to call Hamlet’s actions pathological, I also wouldn’t say Hamlet is in sound mental health.
You’re conflating the ruse of madness for being in extremis.
He is not a cold-blooded revenge machine.
He’s cold at dispatching two unsubtle, treacherous toadies (R&G). He’s cold toward his girlfriend because he doesn’t know which side she’s playing for. But he’s hot once when he thinks he’s caught a guilty party. He’s hot once he sees his mother poisoned. He’s both, as circumstances dictate.
Really, though? Even 400 years ago, I bet the “maybe his soul will go straight to heaven” would have sounded somewhat lame.
Are you implying the Elizabethans didn’t take theological dogma seriously? Cause you would be the first.
Revenge is, at all times, theologically problematic.
Yeah, but we’re not at the Council of Trent, we’re in Elizabethan London. And they address some of those theologically-based problems in the chapel. But it’s a revenge play. It’s the best revenge play. It’s the only revenge play. It’s a political Kill Bill.
Surely if that were all that was stopping Hamlet from acting, he could have found an easier way around it and avoided a side trip to England.
Again, you’re mistaking obstacles from inaction. But we can both agree that England is where the play looses steam.
Much of the intrigue in Hamlet is internal. Half of the violence in the play is in his head.
We have no record of Shakespeare’s stage directions. We have what was added afterward. There’s no indication that what happens “in his head” isn’t meant for prying ears. Spying is the play’s single most common activity.
Squashed? I’m just getting warmed up.