Thursday, June 10, 2010

Reading the Classics with Paul- Hamlet Part III

We begin our final week in Hamlet with the two gravediggers.  It's a scene which sort of echoes the Porter scene from The Scottish Play in that it's kind of the last call for humor in what the author surely knew would be a long stretch of tragedy for the groundlings to stand through.  Although we do also have the fop Osric coming up in the next scene so that's not entirely accurate, but it certainly does have the feel of "the last laugh."

When I was the Assistant Director for a production of Hamlet, I remember on the tech run sitting next to the Technical Director as we ran though the technical cues for the show.  Our Gravedigger went with an extremely thick cockney accent in his performance and, as it says in the script, when Hamlet asked whose skull it was, the Gravedigger said, "A whoreson mad fellow's it was."

The Tech Director turned to me and said, "Did he just say that was Orson Welles' skull?"

I was a little surprised, in light of last week's post, to realize that our friend Professor Harold Bloom seems to have completely neglected to mention how closely Yorick's relationship with Hamlet mirrors Falstaff's relationship with Hal.  In brief, a raucous older man whose main lesson to the younger man is how essential it is in life that one maintain a high level of joie de vivre, a lesson which the younger man in both cases seems to scrap the moment the older man is out of his life.  As another aside, yes, there really was a theater teacher in Chicago about a decade ago who willed his skull to a theater so that he could play the part of Yorick after he died.  That really did happen.

The funeral enters, and Laertes gets in a hyperbolic as well as a literal fight with Hamlet.

Also in the production in which I Assistant Directed, near the end of rehearsals and smack in the middle of a frustrating night's run through of the show, the Director turned to me during this scene and said, "Paul, we're going to need to get a bier."
I said, "I know what you mean, Tom.  I know what you mean."
He turned, saw that I hadn't written that down, and said, "No, Paul, I mean a bier.  As in a bier to bring Ophelia out to the grave."

Scene Two opens with a report of how Hamlet got past the plot involving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  In this play, we don't shed any tears over them as they were fixing to betray our hero.  Our "sort of" hero.  The Protagonist anyway.  He's not been terribly heroic yet.

Enter Osric with a bit of slapstick to bridge us to the final scene which Osric toddles off to in his hat.  Just before the fight, Hamlet and Horatio give a short exchange that seems to suggest that Hamlet may be fully aware of what's coming and seems to have resigned himself to his fate.

Hamlet's apology strikes me a bit like Richard III's wooing of Lady Anne.  Not in sincerity, mind you.  Hamlet seems to be completely sincere in his apology, but I mean to say in the astonishing efficacy of the apology. Here Hamlet is essentially responsible for the death of Laertes' entire family, but Hamlet's sincere apology and explanation of his madness seems to genuinely shake Laertes' resolve, a precursor to Laertes' redemption in his final moments.

This sword-fighting part is usually far longer on stage than it is when you're reading the script.

I've seen Gertrude's drinking of the wine played several ways.  I've seen it played as though Hamlet's words to her back in Polonius' death scene struck her so to the core that she is utterly destroyed (much like Ophelia) and now she is fully aware of what she is doing when she is drinking.  In other words, I've seen it played as suicide.  I've also seen it played with complete ignorance to the poison.  One very effective performance had Gertrude well past tipsy already and while she was drinking to Hamlet's health, she was also using it as an excuse to chug a little more of the red.  I think all of these are fine interpretations.

But I know what most of you are thinking.  Why does Gertrude call Hamlet "fat" before she drinks the wine?  Goethe thought this was meant literally, as in Richard Burbage was the actor who was playing Hamlet in the original production and he was probably a portly man and probably huffing and sweaty after two bouts of play fencing on stage.  You may have noticed that in modern filmic Hamlets (David Tenant, Derek Jacobi, Ethan Hawke, Olivier, Mel Gibson, Kenneth Branagh) we do not find fat Hamlets in spite of what the text might suggest.  Many modern critics interpret this line as "he is out of training" although, personally, I think that contradicts Hamlet's assertion to Horatio in the previous scene "Since he went into France I have been in continual practice."  Take that, Hollywood and contemporary critics.  I'll accept your apology with a Jorge Garcia version of Hamlet... Or... I don't know... me, maybe?

The wounds, the Queen dies, Hamlet "hurts the king" which is usually done as dramatically as the warped little Director's mind can imagine.   In the end, Horatio stands and, recalling the beginning of the play, it almost seems as if the major character arch, the through-line of the narrative, belongs to Horatio instead of to the title character.  Fortinbras stumbles into the rather graphic mis-en-scene, a portrait of unnatural acts painted thick in stage blood.  As his gorge rises a little into his mouth, he swallows, then calls for the bodies to be borne (on biers perhaps) from the grizzly tableau.  The only ones who get a happy ending are the Gravediggers who will soon be enjoying double time on their paycheck.

There you go.  Our book group just completed what many will argue is the greatest piece of writing in the history of the English language.  I hope you enjoyed it as much as I clearly have.  Report back next week, book groupies, and I will assign our first week's worth of reading in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.



  1. Good time, thanks for the reviews. Glad to have read it. Disappointed in myself a little - I was hoping to make a little collection of the most noteworthy lines from Hamlet to kind of reflect on and enjoy. Though I still could do it. My daughter picked up Hamlet when I finished and read it also - I think she moved on into Romeo and Juliet as well. So Paulus Torchus have made a literary impact in our family through this opportunity provided. We recently rented and watched Richard III the one staged in the 1920-30s England. That was fun movie I tried to follow along with book open as they mostly quoted straight out of the play - it was very difficult and gave up half way through as they shortened by 1/2 the length play so that I just couldn't keep up. But it definitely was more appreciated when I did read along.

  2. Sorry, I got lost along the way this time.

  3. Scott, oh that's great to hear. I love that version of Richard III. I would highly recommend the BBC version of Hamlet with Derek Jacobi. We also have the David Tennant version on our Netflix queue.