06 February 2006

Hamlet: Why Shakespeare rocks! Part 1

It wasn't until relatively recently (November 2004 to be precise) that I had the pleasure of sitting through a mostly-intact version of Shakespeare's Hamlet for the first time. Oh, and the second as well. In one week. That's right: I had to sit through two four hour plus performances of the play by two different directors in the space of four days. It was hell.

As far as plays go, I definitely believe that Shakespeare (or any other playwright for that matter) should not be read silently, but aloud. Not Read aloud, but acted on stage.

HOWEVER, since Hamlet is perhaps the most famous play ever written and definitely the most (mis) quoted (ok, perhaps Romeo and Juliet gets that honour, but only just), there's a certain feeling of terror that grips most actors wanting to tackle the roles therein. In short, the lines can almost never live up to expectation, because it's hard to do something new with them, or fulfill people's expectations.

But all that aside, Hamlet is a masterpiece. Forget existentialism, the Oedipal complex, and all that modern crap that people try to tack on to the play; Shakespeare never read Freud, nor was he awre of the works of Sartre. If he was aware of such things, it was not as philosophies. What the play does, is address human frailty, and it does it in ways that no other work I've read does. In essence, I think this comes out best in three of the speeches. ahem ahem:

O, that this too too sulleid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't! ah fie! 'tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month
-- Let me not think on't--Frailty, thy name is woman!--
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow'd my poor father's body,
Like Niobe, all tears:--why she, even she--
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn'd longer--married with my uncle,
My father's brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.

So, your dad just died two months ago, and your mother has married his brother. Now if anything, that's enough to screw with your head. Freud aside, these are words of anger, denial, disbelief, and conflict. In other words, GOOD DRAMA.

But is it realistic? Well, considering that none of us are Danish Princes who have recently been put into this situation, or are likely to be any time soon, then no. the setting isn't. But let's not forget that this was written to appeal to your everyday average londoner nearly half a millenium ago. Escapism is the order of the day; people didn't want stories about peasants and back-alley salesmen, they wanted tales of royalty and high adventure.

So peel all the royalty away, and think of it as a normal person might. I don't know what you'll find, but personally, I believe there's a great deal of humanity in the words. Now try reading them out loud. And again. I know they don't make much sense, but how do they feel? Read the monosyllabic words slower than the polysyllabic ones. Feel the vowels and the consonants. Feel the rhythm of the speech. Now imagine you've just lost YOUR father, and your mother has just remarried your uncle. There you go!

Thus endeth part 1. Stay tuned for two more installments featuring To be, or not to be.

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