Sunday, May 19, 2013

Other Hamlets: Kill Shakespeare

What happened to Hamlet on his way to England? The play tells us through a letter to Horatio, but writers Conor McCreery and Anthony Del Col, along with artist Andy Belanger, have a different idea. In the 12-issue comics series Kill Shakespeare, they basically use Hamlet's exile as a launching pad for a story in which Hamlet finds his way to the shores of a fable-land where all of Shakespeare's creations co-exist. A prophecy proclaims him the "shadow king" that must one day find the lost creator, William Shakespeare, and two factions try to lay claim to him. On one side, Richard III, Lady MacBeth and Iago, on the other, Falstaff, Juliet and Othello. The first wants to kill Shakespeare and steal his power over creation, the other to convince Will to rid the land of evil.

It's a fun exercise, more approachable than League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, though more contained than Fables, its two most obvious antecedents. McCreery and Del Col make a lot of references to the Shakespearean canon, not just with the characters, but in tropes (there's a play, cross-dressing, a tempest on the horizon), details (place names are in-jokes, Hamlet and Juliet speak through a chink in a wall, some of the action takes place on Twelfth Night), and dialog (many lines are referenced). It certainly keeps readers who know their Shakespeare interested. But they also don't mind fiddling with the stories so they can interact regardless of their fates in the original plays.

Of course, we're here to talk about Hamlet specifically, and there are some interesting changes made to his particular tale that can inform a new staging of the play. Elsinore is translated as Helsingor, and its king dies a month ago. Since then, Hamlet's mother has wed the king's brother and events have quickly spun out of control. Hamlet, believing he is killing Claudius on behalf of his ghostly father, accidentally murders Polonius...
The writers make certain choices that change the tenor of the play. For one thing, it takes three days for Hamlet to admit his crime and return the body to Polonius' family. You shall indeed "nose him". Second, this weighs far more heavily on Hamlet than in the play, and his exile is more or less voluntary. Though Claudius officially sends him away and decrees he shall never return on pain of death, Hamlet's guilt is a major motivator. As he prepares to leave, he says goodbye to his father's tomb and feels as if he's been set free. This is not the Hamlet whose thoughts are bloody, so the comic becomes his journey to his eventual return, changed and ready, to Denmark's shores. In fact, when he is visited by other spirits (attempting to draw him to the land of Shakespeare), he protests again and again that he is no killer.

An important difference in the comic is that Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Hamlet's true friends.
They expose Claudius' plot and suggest Hamlet raise an army to regain his throne. But Hamlet accepts his punishment for the murder of Polonius and finds himself unworthy of the Danish crown. If there is a parallel with Act IV Scene 4, it's that Rosencrantz shows Hamlet how to make a difficult choice by betraying Claudius. But fate (or rather, the forces who want to control the "shadow king") intervene and leads pirates to Hamlet's ship. His friends are killed in the melee and he is cast away on alien shores. This is all part of issue 1's introduction, and from there the story proceeds apace.

Issue 7 is another important issue for Hamlet scholars. A dark troupe of players throw Hamlet on the stage in an effort to manipulate him and force him to play a part in The Murder of Gonzago. It's not clear if he also had the play presented before the Royal couple before killing Polonius, but he presumably did. He plays the role of the assassin, forcing him to connect his own murder with that of Claudius. Up to this point, Hamlet has been unwilling to accept his destiny, a mirror of his reticence to do the same in Helsingor, so forces are pushing him to confront his demons. He runs into a Hall of Mirrors where he does just that.
There he confesses his murder to Juliet, a five-fold crime in his eyes because it struck more than just Polonius. Ophelia and Laertes lost a father, Gertrude lost a son (he believes Gertrude now sees him as an abomination), and Hamlet is the last victim, having forsaken his own self as penance. He also explores his feeling towards his father, a cold and distance man of violence who was so paranoid as to wage war on all his neighbors until only internal threats were left, a man suspicious of his brother, yes, but also of his own son. Hamlet Sr. is painted as a Richard III, someone who might well have done away with Claudius and Hamlet if he feared, rightly or wrongly, they coveted the throne. Did Claudius only kill his brother in preventative self defense? Or is Hamlet only justifying, once again, why he hasn't killed Claudius in his father's name? Hamlet comes out of the experience ready to be a hero, but no to go back home.

The idea that Hamlet is the only character that can find Shakespeare is a perfectly legitimate one, even an obvious one. He is the character that perhaps most escaped his author's control. Hamlet's delays in the play are an overt attempt to stymie the play's inevitable tragedy. Hamlet does not want to die and forces his author to keep him alive and interesting. When we finally encounter Will in the final act, he admits to having given his characters free will, a Judeo-Christian allegory sure, but also commentary on how alive his characters seem. After his first few plays, imitating the "cartoons" of Christopher Marlowe, Shakespeare found a way to make his characters truly life-like, able to hear themselves speak and change in response to their own thoughts. In the world of Kill Shakespeare, it's caused a civil war, strife in the land at the hands of the more evil characters, but also the chance for redemption.

Though the series ends at issue 12, Hamlet does not return to Helsingor. Not yet. A new series, subtitled The Tide of Blood, has since begun publishing, continuing Hamlet's story. We shall have to return to this book again one day...

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