Friday, May 28, 2010
Reading the Classics with Paul- Hamlet- Part 1
A few notes about the text before we get started: first of all, yes, there were different editions in the early printing of Shakespeare's plays some of which had textual variants although there is almost universal concord in the current editions you're likely to own. Don't panic! The variants are really not all that important unless you're an extreme theater or language geek (both of which I am undoubtedly, but I promise to keep comments on the subject to a minimum.) In short, don't worry about it.
Also falling squarely in the "don't worry about it" category is for those who are supplementing this reading with a viewing of a production of the play (there is nothing wrong with that. It is a play, after all, which was written to be watched.) You should probably know that productions of the entire play are rare these days. Famously, the Kenneth Branagh film version is the entire text and spans over four hours. Most film versions confine themselves around the traditional two hours, but cutting some material. If you're looking for the best, I personally think the Derek Jacobi BBC production (which is available on DVD) is the best film version, although I've not yet seen the David Tenant version. I hear very good things about that as well.
For fun, I'll say that the two worst, in my opinion, are the MST3K version and the Ethan Hawke version. The former I recommend for hilarity, the latter I recommend you avoid like the avian 'flu.
What is usually cut is the great portions about Fortinbras and the stuff with the ambassadors. Which I imagine we will largely skip in our commentary on the text as well. I see no problem with referring to productions while reading this as plays are 1) clearly in the category of literature (to deny that would be to throw out Wilde, Shaw, Ibsen, Beckett, Shakespeare, Moliere, Brecht, Sophocles, and so many more from the heading of literature and I would be willing to say that only a buffoon would do something like that) and 2) clearly meant to be watched. I would add, however, that the language is very important to the enjoyment of this work, so it's probably a good idea to read along as well.
We open on the guard, Horatio and the first coming of the ghost, which acts as a hook to draw the audience right into the story. I wonder if Horatio is just cold or filled with dread when he says that "a piece of him" is there. Horatio is sort of a young skeptic although he starts mentioning God and omens as soon as the ghost shows up. He gives some Fortinbras exposition and suggests this may be an omen of war.
Meanwhile, back at the castle, Claudius gives Laertes leave to return to his studies in France, goes on with an ambassador for a while, both of which, if I were directing, I would interpret as snubbing Hamlet by putting other business before him publicly. Hamlet is unhappy (get used to that) because his father died and his mother married his uncle so soon after that the funeral baked meats did coldly furnish forth the marriage supper. Hamlet gets a little snarky. Before they leave, Claudius makes a passing reference to Denmark (which is Claudius) drinking today. Also get used to that. It's not the last time it's mentioned. Claudius seems to be a bit of a tippler.
One of the textual variants occurs in this first soliloquy. Hamlet says in the later editions "O that this too too solid flesh would melt..." but in earlier versions says "O that this too too sallied flesh would melt..." Sallied meaning "sullied." In the production I spent two years of my life working on, the actor who played Hamlet liked "sullied" better as it was more of a foul word to be spat out of the mouth. Which reminds me, much to the chagrin of Laurie, I find myself reading most of the text out loud as I'm reading this. I would recommend the same to all of you as it was composed for the tongue.
Don't miss Hamlet's mentions of God and religious obligations which stand in contrast to Horatio's doubting spirit, possibly a device to give more weight to Horatio's telling Hamlet that he's just witnessed the ghost of his father. When the skeptic tells you they've just seen a ghost, you take notice.
Enter the Polonius Family. Laertes is about to depart. We get the impression that he is a man who values virtue and morality from his speech to Ophelia (although I've seen Ophelia's response played as a reprimand suggesting hypocrisy before, I don't think the text supports that choice. My friend Tom Bradac who is the head of Shakespeare Orange County and former president of Shakespeare America used to have a phrase he told me over and over through the years. He would say "There is no subtext in Shakespeare." Meaning this: what the characters are saying is exactly what the characters are meaning) which makes Polonius' later checking up on him seem a little comical. Polonius in his comedically long-winded advice (notice he begins by stating that the wind is in the sails and that Laertes should haste to leave, then goes on to give 20 lines of advice) says a lot of financial wisdom, ending in the oft quoted (I just quoted it myself the other day to my step-daughter upon her graduation) "to thine own self be true." Polonius is one of the characters that flesh out quickly. He's pompous, verbose, long-winded, thinks well (possibly too well) of his advice, very concerned over finances, and, in spite of all of this, completely lovable. Which... kind of sounds like me.
The second ghost scene begins with the King drinking at the blast of trumpets. The ghost tells Hamlet about his murder, which makes Hamlet's hair stand up like a fretful porpentine. Claudius did it by pouring Draino in his ear and clearly this is not a murder mystery because upon revealing that we still have four acts to go.
What an awesome word is "unaneled!" If you're anything like me, you'll now wait for years for the opportunity to use that word.
There's the swearing bit at the end of this scene and then we go into Act II. Skipping Reynaldo, Ophelia tells Polonius about Hamlet's recent distracted behavior. This is misinterpreted as being crazy in love with Ophelia and Polonius scampers off to tattle to the king.
If you've never seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, do yourself a favor and rent it as soon as you're done reading Hamlet.
Polonius goes on and on and on about that letter. The King hides and Hamlet enters reading a book and cleverly mocks Polonius for a while. Hamlet gives the really fantastic "I have of late- but wherefore I know not- lost all my mirth" speech in the section where, don't miss it, the text stops being in iambic and is in plain prose for a bit. Let that be a lesson to us all. Speaking in prose = crazy.
The actors arrive and give a Pyrrhus speech which Hamlet loves but Polonius doesn't until Hamlet accuses him of being a Philistine. And we end this week with the setting up of the rat trap.
We are going to be ambitious and read Acts III and IV this next week.