Monday, June 27, 2011

II.ii. O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I

The second of Hamlet's five great soliloquies, it may suffer severe cuts in adaptations where the First Player isn't allowed to perform. And yet, even the plottiest of directors will feel the need to include this sequence for "the play's the thing", leading into the crucial play within a play. What is lost, of course, is the entire idea of Hamlet comparing his true emotions to the Player's manufactured ones, a theme that goes back to Hamlet's very first scene's "trappings of woe". Shakespeare keeps asking if the representation of emotion is less than/the same as/more than actual emotion. In a later scene, Hamlet will ask the players to underplay. This seems to be all part of Shakespeare's "acting method" - to feel rather than represent, to recreate emotion within the actor rather than simulate its outward signs for an audience. But let's look at the text (in italics) for more.

HAMLET: Now I am alone.
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wann'd,
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? and all for nothing!
For Hecuba!
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,

A mirror to Act I Scene 2 and Hamlet's contention that the signs of grief are not themselves representative of his actual grief. In the Player, he sees something admirable - the ability to express emotion worthy of its subject (even if an imaginary one). One of the driving forces behind the play is that Hamlet cannot find a way to truly express his love for his father, neither in shows of grief, nor in avenging his murder. As in I.ii, he shows contempt for his own "emotionality".

That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech,
Make mad the guilty and appal the free,
Confound the ignorant, and amaze indeed
The very faculties of eyes and ears. Yet I,

These lines herald the play within the play, delineating the very effects the "Mouse-Trap" has on its diverse audience. Had Hamlet not already asked to insert lines in "The Murder of Gonzago", this might be the origin point of the idea. Hamlet, hearing himself speak these lines, would have come up with the plan a few lines later. Perhaps it could be played so that Hamlet's interest in the Italian play is just part of his morbid fascination with his father's murder, and the lines inserted are literary manipulation (Hamlet writes poetry, this we know) not intended to have a "trap" effect. Only after overhearing himself say these lines would that realization dawn on him.

A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king,
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn'd defeat was made. Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i' the throat,
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this?
'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd and lack gall
To make oppression bitter, or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!

This is the first real indication that Hamlet knows he's delaying his revenge (and that so does the play, if audience members are getting restless). Hamlet's power is that he knows himself, can criticize himself and can attempt to change based on that criticism. How does he respond to his own accusations?

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words,
And fall a-cursing, like a very drab,
A scullion!

Words are the playwright's trade, so there is an almost meta-textual beat here as Hamlet attacks his condition as a character in a play (who lives by words rather than actions). Indeed, the plan he next hatches is all about using the play's tools to push his agenda forward. Words will be his weapon since that is all his author allows him.

Fie upon't! foh! About, my brain! I have heard
That guilty creatures sitting at a play
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ. I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,
As he is very potent with such spirits,
Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds
More relative than this: the play 's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.


The irony of this speech, of course, is that Hamlet resents and aspires to the First Player's emotionalism, yet his next move is not to give in to emotion, but to intellectualism. The ploy is a reasoned one and seeks to gather more evidence, analyze facts, take nothing for granted. From the first part of the speech, one would imagine Hamlet racing out of the hall to skewer Claudius right away. Instead, Hamlet goes from high emotion to detection mode. In the following posts, we will see how actors manage this about-face transition.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Other Hamlets: Hambat

University professor Lee Shackleford and fellow blogger Snell both turned me on to this on to this one-shot comic strip at Funny Shorts almost as soon as it came out (thank you both). It's entitled "Hambat" and is quite the Frankenstein monster. It's a webcomic about a comic book character fused with Shakespeare's greatest play, told in the style of a movie trailer.But IS Batman Hamlet in disguise? Well, no. Though both have suffered the loss of a parent, and both have sworn some kind of revenge, Batman does not delay his action. Unlike Hamlet, he doesn't need to make sure his Claudius is truly guilty; he just goes into the night at takes his revenge on all criminals. Nor does Batman have an untrustworthy supporting cast. All threats come from outside. And yet, both characters are brooding avengers who put on an act when around "courtiers" to hide their true selves. Both are surrounded by corruption and madness. But it's in their differences that the comic irony comes through.
Hambat is a proactive Hamlet who through the same text actually enacts his revenge rather than delays it. Just goes to show once again how selectively cutting the play can create new and intriguing interpretations, even though some are just for fun.

Friday, June 17, 2011

Other Hamlets: Gilligan's Island Revisited

When I posted the Gilligan's Island Hamlet parody some months ago, I did so without comment. I feel kind of bad about that. So here's my attempt at analyzing what makes the parody interesting.

First, I must acknowledge the (probably unknowing) amount of postmodernism at work here. This is a broad sitcom doing a parody of both Shakespeare AND Gilbert & Sullivan at the same time, tracing a line through theatrical tradition from the 16th to the 20th centuries. While Gilbert & Sullivan's nautical themes are a perfect choice for a play partly put on by the Skipper and his first mate, we might wonder: Why Hamlet? I'm not disputing its popularity or that the 1960s audience would know its basic plot and characters, recognize its key lines, etc. (and certainly, it may speak favorably to the state of education in the 60s that a low brow comedy program would think nothing of parodying the Bard), but it's certainly not the most light-hearted of subject matter. One might think that The Tempest would be a better fit for Gilligan's Island, after all.

The again, Gilligan's Island is about delay, just like Hamlet is. Everything in the show conspires to delay the castaways' rescue, even while dangling it in front of their noses almost every episode. Obviously, as soon as they get off the island, the show is over. In the same way, as soon as Hamlet takes his revenge, the play is over. And this is the power of Hamlet. As a play, it communicates its theme so strongly that any story of delay becomes a version of Hamlet. And as a character, Hamlet is the instrument of his own delay. He stretches the play out before him more than circumstances do (as is they case for Gilligan's Island or similar, ongoing programming like The Prisoner or Star Trek: Voyager). In fact, a LOT of television can be examined through the Hamlet filter because it employs strategies to prevent early resolution. Even romantic comedies are like Hamlet in that way, a slippery road that leads to a psycho-sexual analysis of the Hamlet-Claudius relationship. Few comparisons to television shows (and other serialized formats) hold up in the end because their protagonists are not the instruments of the featured delay. Only in the character in charge of his or her own destiny do we find the prototypical Hamlet.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

II.ii. The Players - Classics Illustrated

The originalPlot, plot, plot. The original Classics Illustrated is driven it by it rather than poetry or emotion. It's a natural by-product of the stiff and expressionless art (and the page count, but as it decompresses certain scenes, it's not as important an issue). The important thing here is that the players arrive at Elsinore and that Hamlet asks them to play a modified version of "The Murder of Gonzago". And that's exactly what we get, in just two panels. Of interest is that Hamlet sits, King-like, through the entire sequence. Gone is his enthusiasm for theater - it is not set-up with Rosencrantz & Guildenstern who have yet to appear in the comic - so he does not attempt a speech himself, nor does he ask one of the First Player. The players are not old friends here (the musician in orange seems particularly unhappy about Hamlet's choice of play), just subjects to be commanded. Unlike the live play, in which we might seek and find the moment Hamlet thinks up the Mouse-Trap scheme, the comic gives no indication. Hamlet is calm and collected, and seems to have the plan in his head before he even meets with the players.

The Berkley version
Not to say Tom Mandrake's adaptation does much better, even though the action has been stretched to a third panel. He restores the idea that the players are old friends, but things move so fast, he must have had the idea for the Mouse-Trap long before they arrived.
The cuts are not kind to this sequence and make several lines lose their meaning. "Buzz, buzz", for example, is no longer used to mock Polonius' redundant news, but it still works as a kind of interjection. "Comest thou to beard me," however, loses something in the translation. The First Player doesn't even have a beard! The line is a complete non sequitur. It's also not clear if Polonius heard Hamlet ask for the insertion of lines, though his silhouette is walking away from Hamlet in the second panel.

Both comic book adaptation fail to do this sequence justice, so we lose some of the impetus for the whole "play within a play" scene. Hamlet is not inspired by the First Player's passion, nor does he come across as a particular fan of theater (as only such a fan might have thought of the Mouse-Trap gambit). The players must show up because Hamlet needs them to enact a play that might reveal his uncle's guilt. We see here how reducing one of Shakespeare's plays to plot points proves an unsatisfying enterprise.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

II.ii. The Players - Tennant (2009)

An important thing to remember as we get into this section with the Tennant version is that this adaptation placed Hamlet's meeting with Ophelia (and "To be or not to be") BEFORE this part, not after. In other words, the relationship between Hamlet and Polonius is different. The older man has just seen his daughter violated, while Hamlet knows her father was spying on him and had used Ophelia to betray him. This gives the metaphor of Jephtah more resonnance. In the play as usually structured, it comes off as playful if prophetic mockery. Here, Hamlet has a right to say it in anger, and it becomes bitter reproach, though Polonius still fails to get the reference. The minor cuts made to the exchange (the rest of the pious chanson) make this more plain, and Hamlet simply snaps Polonius' tie instead, and "that follows not" becomes an overt comment on Polonius' parenting skills in response to "a daughter I love passing well". Not only does Polonius' response not follow Hamlet's set-up, but it is not coherent with his behavior as a father. Polonius was right then to enter the scene already on the defensive, though he distractedly forgets about the danger once he gets into defending the players' quality. This Polonius gets lots in the possible genre combinations theater might produce, and is unready for Hamlet's attack.

The players' entrance (heralded in the previous sequence by car horns) suffers minor trims (the "beard me" comment, for example), but Hamlet still welcomes "my young lady". This character is a grown man, and the idea of his cracked voice is a good joke. Hamlet then jumps on a trunk and starts the Pyrrhus speech, but he doesn't remember the words as well as some Hamlets do. There is a lot of prompting from the entire troupe, played for comic effect. Hamlet is a surprisingly bad actor here, doing many of the things he complains bad actors do - sawing the air with his hands, for example. Though it makes Hamlet more believable (at least by our 21st century standards), I'm not sure this layer of irony helps the play. Though he may not be a trained actor, the Hamlet of the play is still a consummate one, creating a vast performance for all of Elsinore. Not that this take on it is actually incoherent with the text. Hamlet may know what he likes in theater and still be unable to render it himself. The scene is a very human one, in which the prince gets prompted so many times, he abandons his attempt and lets the real actors finish, sitting on the floor, like a child. Despite his many hesitations, Polonius, even the sycophant, raves about the performance. Hamlet shushes him rudely.
While the players are played by actors who hold other small parts (Reynaldo, the priest, etc.), just like they do in most theater productions, the First Player is played by the great John Woodvine, who has no other role (nor should he). Woodvine mimes some of the actions described in the speech and uncovers some of the play's themes through judiciously placed pauses. He talks of a "painted tyrant" which brings us to the just-mentioned images of Claudius sold to the population. He plays Pyrrhus' moment of doubt, with the sword sticking in the air, putting Hamlet squarely on Pyrrhus' side. Hamlet is a hesitating avenger like Pyrrhus, which makes the pitiable Priam Claudius, and poor Hecuba Gertrude. In that moment, might Hamlet's doubts seem to stem from an inability to hurt his mother by twice widowing her? Where I usually read the parable of Claudius killing Hamlet Sr. and an ironic mirror of both Claudius and Gertrude's actual reactions, Woodvine manages to create a different picture, one that creates even more doubt, doubt that must be resolved through the "Mouse-Trap".

In the end, the players are sent off to their quarters with Polonius, but Rosencrantz & Guildenstern stay behind. Hamlet, eager to "unpack his heart with words", curtly dismisses them, his attitude belying his words of welcome. He shows them the way out, purposely forgetting his previous accusations and leaving his conflict with them unresolved­. Hamlet dismisses them and their subplot as unimportant, as he is seized by a different impulse, a small but telling example of Hamlet's breaking of dramatic rules as he continually expands his self beyond the play's boundaries.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

II.ii. The Players - Fodor (2007)

Polonia walks into the room to announce the players' arrival. She seems disinterested and impatient in a way that reminds of Much Ado About Nothing's Beatrice taking pleasure "upon a knife's point". Hamlet and Horatio openly hate her. As she goes through the players' list of qualifications, it sounds like sarcasm, but it goes on so long, Horatio seems to wonder if she's for real. And then the players come in. Electronic music blares. The picture is polarized. We're in an 80s music video. The self-satisfied Polonia smiles and appears to find them cool. She blushes and fans her face. Our three players (two men, one woman, sizzlingly intense) are hot! They're radioactive! And it certainly seems like Polonia has fallen under their spell. It's the sycophant in her. Just as she's latched onto the King and the power he represents, so does she succumb to the players' star power.
In fact, everyone does. Hamlet is up and excited. Horatio smiles expectantly. The prince asks for a speech, and the players merely stare at him impassively. It's this uncomfortable moment that may prod Hamlet into starting the speech himself. Horatio smiles kindly at Hamlet's attempt, encouraging where the players are not (indeed, they're rather sinister). As Horatio becomes more and more apprehensive about the players' non-reaction (a complete inversion of the emotional Player that gives Hamlet reason to soliloquize), the prince recites his portion of the Priam speech with smiles. He enjoys the words, but doesn't perform them as so many other Hamlets do. Polonia applauds him for it, one might say sarcastically.

The players move to a carpet that will act their stage and face each other. Horatio shares a gleeful smile with Hamlet at their eccentricity. As Hamlet places himself in the center, the players start to walk around him, in various directions, reciting what I imagine is the Priam speech in German, sharing lines among them. The soundtrack has the quality of chanting monks. The bizarre ceremony sends Hamlet into a flashback sequence featuring his father's funeral as each character, in turn, kisses the corpse on the lips. A cacophony of bells, children's laughter and German words scores this seance which conjures up the oft-seen ghost(?) of child Hamlet. And this time, Horatio sees him, touches him, shakes him.
She leaves the silent but laughing child to support his adult self as he comes out of the trance and feels faint. Hamlet then gets a clear vision or the players, matching each one with the role of King, Queen or Ghost, and we understand how and when Hamlet got the idea for the "mouse-trap". He goes on to ask the First Player to play "The Murder of Gonzago".

Now, this is a very strange sequence and one that doesn't really work for me. It fits the "horror story" aspect that Fodor tries to bring out of the play, but robs us of Shakespeare's words and their intended performance. What we have instead is creepy German performance art, confusion where ironically things become clearer for Hamlet. His lost childhood appearing to Horatio in the flesh isn't explained, nor can it be.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

II.ii. The Players - Kline '90

I've generally been very critical of this version of the play, but there is much to like in this section. Polonius, as played by Josef Sommer, is largely harmless, if tedious. He enters and lists the styles the players are wont to play without reading them from a poster or flyer. Indeed, he seems rather enthusiastic where other performances make him more critical of these lower class people. But he was once an actor, after all, as revealed just before the play within the play. Sommer uses that past experience, but Hamlet has no patience for him. Here, he stops the man's mouth, then ears, then eyes. A comic though pregnant gesture invoking the three wise monkeys who saw no evil, heard no evil and spoke no evil. On the one hand, this is an accusation. Polonius does not perceive or acknowledge the King's evil. On the other, an ironic reversal of the image's "wisdom". Polonius misperceives every situation, and goes on to prove by missing the point of Hamlet's image of Jephtah. Throughout this sequence, Polonius will try to be pleasant, but Hamlet will continually attack him or give him hard looks. Polonius never seems to understand what he's done to deserve this treatment (as indeed, he doesn't see his own complicity in the evil rule of Claudius).

The Players as we start to notice cuts - the Jephtah sequence is not entirely played out, Hamlet does not tell us anything about various players - but the First Player's speech is still retained. As Hamlet speaks to the First Player (Clement Fowler), the others quickly set up a working stage, from which Hamlet plucks a prop dagger with which to act the first part of the Priam speech. Polonius is sincerely enchanted by the performance, even if he is startled by Hamlet running at him with the dagger (as if old Priam himself, but really as his future self).
Fowler does an excellent job with the speech, emotional rather than declamatory from the first line, using the knife to mime and underscore the action. Polonius' interjections and Hamlet's ripostes are a bit awkward because Polonius doesn't seem to deserve the prince's harsh words. To me, he appears to be polite, even when he says the speech is too long. There, he seems to apologize because he has to help the players settle into their quarters, and this whim of the prince's is making him late for affairs of state. His tone does not suggest criticism, and indeed, at the end, he applauds. His "prithee, no more" takes the bent of a respectful request, as if to say, "please, don't hurt yourself on our account, you've done enough." There is a hint of embarrassment, as Polonius is not a man free with his emotions and is made uncomfortable by them, but he does not seem to find them irksome. Strangely, perhaps, they've cut the "use them according to their desert" business which would have given Hamlet another stab at him, though again, this supports this Polonius' openness towards the players.

Hamlet, for his part, is touched profoundly by the Player's performance. Tears stream from his eyes during, and he gives a curt farewell to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, cutting their line off, because he must reflect on what he's just seen and heard before the feeling, and his burgeoning plan, is forgotten. There is a dramatic momentum that is kept through this staging, as Hamlet is too distracted to really finish the sequence before heading into the next.