Last month, I was blown away by Sport for Jove’s production of Hamlet at the Seymour Center in Sydney. Which should not be a surprise at this point, given director Damien Ryan’s consistent golden touch for inventive stagings of Shakespeare’s stalwarts.
In discussions about the show in the weeks that followed, once I had finished my obligatory gushing over the spellbinding transformation of ‘the Mousetrap’, the topic would always swing around to one divisive element – Hamlet himself. Not simply the performance of leading man Lindsay Farris, who tackles the Prince of Denmark with restless, relentless energy, but the interpretation of the character, and how that filtered through to every facet of the production.
A production of Hamlet lives and dies by its titular Dane. Short of a one-man-show, few plays are as reliant on the protagonist to carry the story on their shoulders. And Hamlet is perhaps the most studied, dissected and performed of all characters in literature. Amongst Shakespeare’s creations, we may love Rosalind, laugh at Falstaff and jeer at Iago, but we will forever argue about Hamlet. Was this Prince too decisive? Was he enough of the philosopher or the scholar? Was he too touched by madness, or not looney enough? Everyone has their own Hamlet. I cannot say if Lindsay Farris’ Hamlet was right; I can only say he resonated with me.
Why does Hamlet endure? Shakespeare gives him more lines than any other character in his oeuvre, and yet he remains beyond our grasp. In any good interpretation, even on the page, he still feels immediate to us, modern. Why have generation after after generation of creatives, critics and audiences been drawn to this verbose, ill-tempered student with a high body count?
My answer is that Hamlet is one of them. One of the players. One of us. He is a performer and a showman, acting for an audience that is as intimate as himself and as vast as any theatre could hope to hold. Denmark may be his prison, but it is also his stage.
The Hamlet we meet at the play’s opening has already been dealt a succession of punishing blows. Who was he before, when carousing in Wittenburg with Horatio, flirting in the palace gardens with Ophelia or entertaining courtiers in the banquet hall with his revered father and doting mother? In those halcyon days, how had he put that vast intellect and quick wit to use? In those memories may have lived an unburdened Hamlet whose future did not seem so carnal, so bloody and so unnatural.
Instead the audience is greeted by a Prince who has every reason to, putting it politely, lose his shit. As gently noted in Tom Stoppard’s wonderful side-quel Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead;
“To sum up: your father, whom you love, dies. You are his heir. You come back to find that hardly was the corpse cold before his young brother pops onto his throne and into his sheets, thereby offending both legal and natural practice. Now… why exactly are you behaving in this extraordinary manner?”
A few scenes later, and Hamlet has also been dumped by his girlfriend and forced by his overbearing mother and step-father to remain in Elsinore, in close proximity to every single person who has caused him pain. In short, a bad month.
Then comes the Ghost. Without the supernatural intervention, perhaps Hamlet would have eventually returned to university with Horatio – embittered, but alive. Perhaps he would have risen to his station, or (and this seems more natural to me) burnt out, drowning his grief with drink and women, buoyed by his unerring confidence in being the smartest man in any given room. We all know someone from our childhood who was dealt a hand like Hamlet’s, and was waylaid on a path like that.
Instead, Hamlet is galvanised. His grief is given purpose, and he vows to “set it right”. And yet, as rather succinctly summarised here, Hamlet never really does get around to this revenge plot. As his one aborted-for-metaphysical-reasons assassination attempt shows, simply approaching Claudius with knife in hand would have been effective. No, even in the bloodbath that forms the play’s climax, where Hamlet at last skewers his man, he is not even responsible for bringing the fatal sword or poison to the party.
What, then, is Hamlet doing throughout the play that bears his name?
Easy. He’s performing.
Hamlet is cursed with an affliction that I can understand all too well – he can better comprehend the world, and deeply feel its emotional barrage, when filtered through art and artifice. From the first, he is concerned with the divide between what “seems” and what “is”. With his dying breath, he appeals to the “audience to this act” and pleads for Horatio to “tell my story”.
I don’t for a moment believe that Hamlet stalls his revenge because of a desire for evidence (even in pre-CSI centuries, there a better modes of criminal investigation than staging plays). Hamlet knows what he must do, but the act itself escapes him. Passions tumble within him, but he cannot coalesce them into action. Instead, they spill out out in a series of feints and performances for the denizens of Elsinore, an increasingly confused and disturbed audience. He doesn’t mean everything he utters to Ophelia in the nunnery scene, but that interaction becomes his personal canvas for an expression of how she (and his mother) have wounded him – especially when he is sure Polonius and the King are couched in the cheap seats.
Hamlet is not going mad – he’s just trying it on for size. But, of course, if the outcome on those around him is the same, what exactly is the difference? Only we, and sometimes Horatio, are privy to Hamlet’s outstanding, noble mind. He gives the most eloquent expression to those thoughts about life and the undiscovered country beyond that have flitted through each of our minds at one time or another. In his amateur musings reside some of Shakespeare’s greatest poetry. But in practice, Hamlet has reacted as so many of us to when confronted with crisis – he dithers, disappears into himself and acts like a right asshole to those who dare come into contact with him.
The change comes with the arrival of the players. No other character entrance gives the prince so much joy. But then, he bids them perform, and suddenly he is carried away by the too-familiar drama enacted before him; Hamlet sees himself trapped in the pause of Pyrrhus’ sword over Priam head. In the speech, it is only a moment – our Hamlet’s pause is five acts long. His request was no trick of fate, but a self-administered admonishment. The depth of emotion with which the Player King delivers his monologues on Priam and Hecuba rattles the rogue and peasant slave;
“All for nothing! For Hecuba?
What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have?”
It is at this moment that Hamlet resolves to re-write ‘The Murder of Gonzago’. No longer to “unpack my heart with words”. It is through seeing the murder of his father and the betrayal of his mother played out on stage that Hamlet can actualise it, and direct his response. He trusts that Claudius will be as affected by truth expressed in art is he is, affirming his guilt. It takes a play to make the bellows of the supernatural – the prompting of heaven and hell – real. But isn’t art always a round-about way to give our thoughts a voice?
Hamlet loses faith in his fellow man, in religion, in his senses, even in words, words, words – but he never doubts the power of the theatre.
As the play rattles towards its climax, Hamlet forges a strange path for himself (and not just because he gets to hang out with pirates). He is shadowed throughout the play by two similar sons of fallen fathers; Laertes and Fortinbras. Both are simpler beasts than Hamlet, and both more effective in pursuing their ends. Both would make for more conventional protagonists, in a more conventional story. History is scattered with songs for ‘heroes’, from Achilles to Roland, who would, like Fortinbras, send twenty thousand to death for worthless plots of land where fantasy and the trick of fame are at stake. Laertes is a noble avenger, driven to do the wrong thing for the right reasons, and feels himself justly punished with death for his own part in the King’s treachery.
But this is not a conventional story, and Hamlet is not a conventional hero. No other character quite comprehends him. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern assume he is ambitious, but he covets no earthly prize, merely pores over questions. Fortinbras, in the play’s last lines, presumes Hamlet would have “prov’d most royally” on the battlefield, but an staggering talent for collateral damage does not make him a warrior or a leader. Perhaps we do not understand him either. But it won’t stop us from trying.
There is promise in Hamlet. There are the ingredients of a better man in him, perhaps even one of Plato’s much-dreamed-of philosopher kings. But it is doomed to be unfulfilled. Hamlet will never reach his potential, because Hamlet is always trapped in the tragedy of his own devising. As this play comes to a close, with his dying breath Hamlet bids a new one begin; the story we have just watched must be retold;
“Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.”
It is not enough for these events to have taken place; to be. Only through performance does Hamlet believe we could possibly understand him, and his story, because it is only through performance that Hamlet himself could make sense of the world. Through Horatio, his scribe, he passes it on to us. And it’s a damn good story.
“Let me speak to the yet unknowing world
How these things came about: so shall you hear
Of carnal, bloody and unnatural acts;
Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters;
Of deaths put on by cunning and forc’d cause;
And, in this upshot, purposes mistook
Fall’n on the inventors’ heads: all this I can
Hamlet should have been born an actor, not a prince. Leave the wars to Fortinbras, and the revenge to Laertes. With the players, holding a mirror up to nature, Hamlet was home.
It’s no wonder, then, that players throughout the centuries have returned his love.