Thoughts on Hamlet (and Who) – Part One

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.


9 thoughts on “Thoughts on Hamlet (and Who) – Part One

  1. And now, what I really came to write: Thanks so much for this really thoughtful post.
    I’ve been spending some time thinking about the structure of Hamlet and how they shift between the various versions (as a matter of fact, today I checked the Three Text Hamlet out of the library) so I especially appreciated the observations on the Fortinbras soliloquy.
    I’m looking forward to reading the next post….

  2. At some point when you have a moment do look at the “Making of..” documentary on the DVD – there’s lots of Greg Doran talking, including a comment on Hamlet’s final line (on which, of course, Doran chose to end), “The rest is silence…” – GD’s interpretation being that Hamlet expects to go neither to Heaven nor to Hell nor to Purgatory, but into oblivion; he doesn’t believe in any of it any more.
    Re. Elizabeth I’s possible reaction to Hamlet, if you ever get the chance to see a copy do read Antonia Forrest’s children’s story The Players and the Rebels (and its prequel The Player’s Boy) – there’s a fantastic speculative set-piece in that about playing Hamlet before Elizabeth, just after the Essex rebellion, and WS and the cast all realising line by line how horrifically politically sensitive the whole thing has just become and being convinced they’ll all be executed as rebel sympathisers…
    Looking forward to your part 2!

  3. Oh, the Antonia Forrest book sounds fascinating – I never knew she’d written about Shakespeare. But I don’t think that would ever have happened in reality. They’d already escaped death by a whisker for performing Richard II just before the Essex rebellion. Almost certainly, that’s why we have multiple texts of Hamlet (and the 1603 Arden edition is fascinating, BTW – it’s so very different, with extra scenes of Horatio plotting with Gertrude and all kinds of interesting stuff). But, back to the point, I suspect that there were scores of different texts in circulation, all edited for political reasons. (We know, for example, that Hamlet’s remark “Denmark is a prison” caused offence at Court in the presence of the Danish ambassador!)
    I heard GD’s pre-show talk and look forward to his further thoughts on the DVD commentry. Hamlet is really an astonishingly modern character, even allowing for the rise of Protestantism at the time. I know the final line of the Tennant production was controversial – it makes it more individual and less political. I think that the Early Modern audience would have needed Fortinbras to come in and take over because it’s absolutely essential that universal order is restored – that was their problem with all the things like regicide – order was such an important value in their world-view.
    Hope to get further thoughts up tonight if time permits – I have to get an essay finished.

  4. Thanks! I did an essay on the multiple texts of Hamlet a few months ago. Spent days on end closeted with notebooks marking every difference. Also, the Cambridge edition is particularly good on the Fortinbras bit – see the introduction. Arden do a 1603/1623 text Hamlet, and I also found that extremely helpful. The 1603 version has even been performed a few times and it seemed to go down well.

  5. put me on to them – luckily we have a copy of each in the children’s collection here at work, as they’re out of print and go for fairly hefty sums on Amazon etc. at present! They’re fantastic, I wish I’d read them at school while doing English O/A levels!
    And she’s Forest, not Forrest, sorry (smacks self over professional wrist)

  6. OK, I’m obviously going loopy – having had a quick look online for second-hand copies, and been reminded that Badger Books reissued Players and the Rebels a couple of years ago, their plot summary says it is the Richard II performance that nearly gets them killed. Just shows you how flaky memory can be even when you love a story – I could have sworn it was Hamlet! Perhaps my subconscious is telling me to stop procrastinating and go and do some work.
    Must get hold of the 1603 edn, I love the sound of Horatio intriguing with Gertrude…

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