CREDIT – Icon by rollinagate
So, I finally sat down and watched the Hamlet movie, start to finish. I wanted time and space to savour it, because I expected it to be rather an emotional experience. In a way, the night in August 2008 when I saw it at Stratford was the night my new life began. It was the night I realised I wanted to live dangerously, take on challenges, and one of those challenges was studying Shakespeare again, because after years of plougihing through it and pretending to love it, I’d lost touch with Shakespeare – with live, classical theatre completely to be honest. But then I read 1599 by James Shapiro, and I went to the Globe to see Love’s Labour’s Lost, and I found myself drawn into that world again.
I went to Stratford, mostly for a bit of squee, to be honest. And I fell in love. I was already a bit in love with David Tennant – why else would I book tickets a year in advance? I remember coming out of that theatre onto the Waterside, a beautiful street, the essence of England, down by the river in the summer moonlight, and walking on air because I’d been so transported by a performance. But it wasn’t just DT – it was the place, the time, the verse, the magjc of it all. I knew I wanted to be a part of that life, and within a few months I’d found a course and signed up to study Shakespeare’s plays in Stratord.
So Hamlet was an epithany for me, just as Doctor Who had been, and I want to talk a little about the relationship between the two, and The End of Time in particular. The rest is, not silence exactly, but possibly a little spoilery. So…
Seeing Hamlet just after TEOT made me look at it in a new way. It’s not just about a young man who abhors violence and doesn’t want to have to kill his uncle. It’s about a young man who doesn’t want to die. Because Hamlet‘s a revenge tragedy, the most popular form of entertainment in its day, and everybody knew that in a revenge tragedy the revenger has to die. Hamlet would have known that. Would have known that as soon as he listened to the Ghost, the clock was ticking down to the end. No wonder he goes mad (and I’m convinced that, as played by Tennant, Hamlet does lose it for a while). So he questions everything, and how much it really means to him – and he sees the people around him playing games and living lies and feels that the only people he can trust are his friend Horatio and a troupe of actors, because at least they know they’re acting, and there’s an honesty there.
To be, or not to be, that is the question. Does he care enough about honour and his dad’s sufferings in Purgatory to sacrifice his own life, a life that’s just beginning? He’s not just anybody, after all – he’s a prince, with everything ahead of him. He could do so much! Maybe he didn’t even like his father all that much. It’s quite possible. He prevaricates. He sets up an elaborate test to find out if the Ghost is genuine (in those days the belief that ghosts were doing the devil’s work was widespread). Turns out the Ghost was on the level, and then Hamlet has to come up with some other reason not to kill Claudius just yet, and like the confused young man he is he goes and blames his mother, dumping all his idealistic fury in her lap and, in the process, killing the infuriating, well-meaning, insufferable Polonius who, funnily enough, turns out to have been the only thing holding everything together. Funny, isn’t it, how that happens sometimes? And, BTW, Oliver Ford Davies is awsome.
Soon after that we lose track of Hamlet for a while. Like young men do, he goes on a road trip, complete with video diary in the movie (I thought that worked really well). Meanwhile Claudius finds himself a proper revenger, the kind of son he’d have liked to have. Do you notice how Claudius starts referring to Hamlet as "your son" when he’s talking to Gertrude? We don’t hear a lot about what’s happening to Hamlet; it’s one of the problems with the text. Because modern audiences like to think Hamlet’s a decent sort who wouldn’t bump anybody off, so when he comes home bragging that he fought off a load of pirates and got Rosencrantz and Guildernstern killed off in the process, modern directors tend to cut that bit. Partly because the play goes on and on as it is, but also because it takes Hamlet well OOC. A Jacobean audience would probably have seen it differently – if Hamlet’s a hero worth rooting for, then it goes without saying that he’s quite prepared to kill people when the occasion warrants it. The idea that Hamlet is anti-violence is a modern construction, but hey, Shakespeare’s not for an age but for all time, so why the hell not?
Undoubtedly something happens to Hamlet while he’s away from home. It’s called acceptance. Greg Doran is unusual in including the Fortinbras soliloquy that’s frequently left out because the only text it shows up in, the First Folio, came out years after Shakespeare’s death. And people think it adds nothing to the plot, but if you see the play as Hamlet trying to cheat death, it actually adds a hell of a lot. Because it’s a speech that says, finally, "Let be. People will fight and kill and struggle and wear themselves out – whole armies will battle over a piece of land that’s not worth the effort, but that’s life." It’s a stage in Hamlet’s journey that fills in the gap, that explains why he returns a changed person.
And so, via a graveyard scene that is much funnier than I remembered it being (and, significantly, the only outdoor scene in a very claustrophobic play) Hamlet reaches the point where he knows full well he’s being set up, that he’s going to his death. Horatio tries to warn him, "You will lose this wager, my lord." Hamlet’s answer shows just how far he’s come:
Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come, yet it will come; the readiness is all. Since no man knows aught of what he leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.
You know, I’ve never thought of it before (that’s what amazes me about Shakespeare – you see new insights all the time) but Hamlet says,"No man knows aught of what he leaves," and that’s very different from talking about "the dread of something after death/The undiscover’d country, from whose bourn/No traveller returns." He’s stopped worrying about where he’s going and admitted what the real issue was all along – how much did he value what he’d be leaving behind? You’d expect him to be angsting about whether he’ll go to Hell or to Heaven but instead he’s reached existential acceptance – basically, he seems to be saying, "This life is all there is, that’s why it’s precious, but when you have to go, you have to go. Let my lady paint her face an inch thick, she will come to this." Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that Queen Elizabeth was fighting her death with a ferocity that makes the Tenth Doctor look like an amateur when this play was first performed – and one of her hallmarks was make-up you could plaster on with a trowel to hide her ageing face?
Hamlet’s reached the point where he doesn’t exactly want it all to be over and done with, but he’s ready not to hang onto things any more. He wants the decision to be taken out of his hands and that is why, even though the whole duel setup stinks and he must know that, he doesn’t check the foils. He goes out fighting, as a gentleman prince should, but in the end he doesn’t kill Claudius himself. He challenges Claudius to do precisely what he’s become able to do – to accept the inevitability of his own death. It’s a remarkably quiet and low-key execution – very little of the "O damned, smiling villain!" about it (And I’m sure that Shakespeare’s audience, filled with fannish entitlement, felt very cheated at that moment and went off to do the Elizabethan equivalent of blogging about how Shakespeare had jumped the shark, betrayed the fans, set up a storyline and not delivered, and so on).
Which brings me neatly to Part Two of my story, "When RTD went to see Hamlet". Stay tuned.