I'll be watching nine different film versions of "Hamlet" over the next few months. But before beginning, I went back to read the play.
My first exposure to “Hamlet” came when I was a senior in high school, listening to Richard Burton’s performance on a phonograph record that was probably thirty years old. It wasn’t my first Shakespeare – I believe by that time I had been exposed to “Romeo and Juliet,” “Julius Caesar” and “Macbeth.” Of the three, “Caesar” was and is my favorite. I also revisited “Hamlet” when I got to college. But about 10 years ago, I began collecting film versions of “Hamlet.” More on that later.
My aim here is to read “Hamlet” again, just for the surface details, and see if anything new pops up for me. I’m obviously not a scholar, nor an actor. I’m just an interested reader with a slight familiarity around the play. I don’t make any claims that any of these observations are new, unique, or for that matter, interesting…
If I remember correctly, the first few times I read “Hamlet,” I wondered just how much Gertrude was in on the murder of King Hamlet. Shakespeare doesn’t say – he only allows the ghost to tell his son not to harm her in his drive for revenge. The answer to this seems to be revealed later when Hamlet confronts Gertrude in the closet scene and, at the mention of murder, she seems surprised. From this point in the play on, Gertrude follows Hamlet’s direction in maintaining the fiction of his insanity. But it’s also telling that she doesn’t abandon Claudius immediately after; in fact, she seems protective of him when Laertes returns to exact revenge for his father’s death. This gives her a rich, marvelously complicated character – consider, Gertrude is a newlywed and a new widow at the same time, with unresolved feelings perhaps in both directions, and concern that her son, now a murderer in her own sight, might be insane despite any protestations to the contrary. Then again, does she suspect that what he tells her about the king might be true?
The death of Hamlet’s father is obviously a breaking point for the prince. We can assume from the play’s words and action that it changes every relationship in his life. For starters, Hamlet does not become king. One wonders how much of his melancholy stems from this. But we learn from others that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were his friends from childhood, and yet he sends them to their deaths for perhaps no other reason than their association with Claudius. We might suppose he was somewhat close to Polonius, given that he loves the man’s daughter. Yet Polonius’ proximity to Claudius makes him untrustworthy in Hamlet’s sight. We sense by his behavior later, raving at Gertrude, that it is only the ghost’s injunction to leave her unharmed that saved this relationship. I also find myself wondering what Hamlet's feelings in the past might have been for his uncle. We believe at the play's beginning that he is not at all happy with the marriage. Is his anger later because of what the ghost tells him, or might he have been unusually close to Claudius and feel betrayed? The largest break comes with Ophelia, for he turns on her for reasons that are unclear. We accept, for the sake of the play, that Hamlet wants to appear mad. Yet one would think he might take her into his confidence, given their relationship. Instead, he casts her out of his planning and leaves her to think whatever she will about his behavior.
Instead, we get the nunnery speech, where Hamlet speaks of honesty, beauty, chastity and fidelity on at least three different levels, all at the same time. He is raving, we presume, because he knows Claudius and Polonius are watching. But his anger – and it is anger – seems directed not so much at them but at her. Or is it simply because she is a woman, and she is before him, that she gets a rant that might otherwise be directed at his mother? In the end, Ophelia and the two voyeurs come away convinced that he is insane, which was his whole purpose. But it also leaves us questioning just how much Hamlet can care about anyone.
Is it just me, or does Ophelia get over Hamlet’s “nunnery” speech a little too easily? The two of them have an irregular relationship (to put it mildly) throughout the play – Polonius tells her to keep him at bay, then Hamlet has his moment of wordless distraction, which she reports to her father. Hamlet leaves her a note, after which she returns all of his notes, provoking the nunnery speech. Their next encounter, though, is when he flirts with her at the performance of “The Mousetrap,” and she seems to return this, or at least allow it. (There is no direction to spell anything out - so here I may be assuming things depending on how I've seen it depicted in the past.) One scene earlier, she was devastated. Now, is she just playing along, thinking this is yet another turn in his turbulent attitude? Immediately after, Polonius is killed, and her descent into madness is sealed. By the way – is she crazy because Polonius is dead, or because of Hamlet’s actions, or both? Hamlet seems devastated by her death, but with the kind of emotion that makes his earlier actions seem capricious. There are two ways to look at this – in real life, people seldom have plausible reasons for the way they treat the people closest to them, especially in moments of extreme anger or grief. Then again, how is one supposed to react when he learns, by way of a ghost, that his father has been murdered by the man who is now married to his mother?
Perhaps the only relationship that does not change for Hamlet is his friendship with Horatio. Why is this? Because it is Horatio who first breaks the news that the ghost of his father has been seen on the watch. We might also believe it is because, unlike Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio has no connection to Claudius. But this also brings up a set of interesting questions. We assume that Hamlet knows Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from Wittenburg, and as stated earlier, his association with his doomed friends has been longer. There is only one scene, prior to the play, when all three of Hamlet’s friends are together, and there is no interaction between them. This might lead us to believe that Horatio’s connection came later. (Interesting thought then: Would there be jealousy for the two other friends now that Hamlet seems closer to Horatio?) Horatio strikes me as someone Hamlet met at the university and has not known as long. Yet Horatio is recognized by the men on watch at the very beginning of the play. Why? We do not know.
As a villain, Claudius more than does the job. His moment of confession, when Hamlet comes so near to killing him, is compelling on several levels. We see that Claudius has some regrets for killing his brother, and that he blames his lust for power. (Left unstated, at least by him, is whether lust for Gertrude entered into the picture – for the ghost, there is little question that this was his brother’s motivation.) He wants forgiveness, but immediately after, he contrives a way to kill Hamlet without having to do the dirty business himself. When this fails, he hatches another plot. Why? Because he knows Hamlet is on to him. What could Claudius have thought when he sat down to enjoy a play, staged for his nephew’s benefit, and saw an exact representation of the dark deed he has so far gotten away with? “He knows! But how could he know? Who else could know…”
I don’t know how many times I’ve heard throughout my life that Hamlet is so endlessly compelling because he is a complete portrait of a man in thought, the classical Renaissance man. Some go so far as to say a completely rational man, or as Ophelia terms him: courtier, soldier, scholar, “expectancy and rose of the fair state, the glass of fashion, and the mold of form.” His manner and words testify in our time to Enlightenment. (Incidentally, I don’t think Hamlet would have made a very good king. People often speak of wanting intellectual leaders, forgetting that at the end of “Hamlet,” practically everyone is dead as a result of both his vacillation and action.) One of the reasons we sympathize with Hamlet is because he has some of the melancholy about him that we associate with modern life.
But how is he spurred to action? By a completely “irrational” moment – the appearance of the ghost of his father. Lost in the discussions of Hamlet’s rationalism is the fact that “Hamlet” the play is a supernatural work. Hamlet’s later action, his inability “to make up his mind,” is caused because he doubts the truth of what he has seen and heard. (By the way, I’ve often felt there is very little set-up in the play itself for Hamlet’s question as to whether he has seen his father or “the devil.”) But he never doubts that what he has seen was real. He as much as says so when he chides Horatio that “there are more things in heaven and earth” than can be rationally understood.
We know that Hamlet hesitates in killing Claudius later because he does not wish to enact revenge on his uncle while the villain is in the act of prayer. That would seemingly forgive him of all sin and “send him to heaven.” Heaven figures greatly in the play. The ghost tells Hamlet to leave his mother to either its accusations or its mercy. The sensibilities of the characters are all calibrated to a pseudo-Catholic-Christian context. As Stephen Greenblatt wrote in “Hamlet in Purgatory,” the appearance of the ghost wailing at his imperfections means that he is in Purgatory, waiting for his sins to be “burned and purged away.”
But Hamlet being a rational man, we suppose, he forgets one of the most vivid Old Testament commands of Jehovah Himself: “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” The Biblical reason for this injunction is that mankind is not righteous as God is, does not know all the facts of any given situation, and can easily overreach into unrighteous judgment or willful violence for ends other than retribution. God corrects, while man inflicts. Of course, Hamlet’s call to revenge came from his earthly father, not his heavenly one, which might in fact explain Hamlet’s skepticism later about whether this truly is his father’s shade moving him to murder. But one might assume, from a theological standpoint, that Hamlet cannot trust God to judge Claudius. God offers mercy and grace, and there is little room for that in the heart of a son robbed of his father. Monarchs cannot go unmourned. Hamlet is also caught up in the exuberance of the events around him, which is why he is able to say unashamed that a divinity shapes his ends - indeed, shapes everyone’s.
But why do I care so much about the play? Because it was some years later when Hamlet spoke to me personally. I began collecting films of “Hamlet” more than a decade ago, for various reasons – actor’s performances, cinematic history, curiosity. It was while watching Kenneth Branagh’s “Hamlet” that I came across this familiar passage:
“I have of late—but wherefore I know not—lost all my mirth, forgone all custom of exercises, and indeed it goes so heavily with my disposition that this goodly frame, the earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most excellent canopy, the air—look you, this brave o'erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted with golden fire—why, it appears no other thing to me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors. What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty! In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world. The paragon of animals. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? Man delights not me.”
It came to my mind that I was feeling the same way, and for the same reasons. I had recently lost my father. He wasn’t murdered, and his ghost had not visited – in fact, I was disappointed when I could no longer feel his presence in the world. I frankly expected more of him. It was only some time later that I did feel something – the part of him that he left with me every day he was alive. My father died of the lingering effects of a stroke, and by the time he was gone he no longer had the power of speech. By the way, he had no patience for Shakespeare.
But I didn’t need a ghost come back from the grave to tell me the world, beautiful though it may be, is a cruel place. And so, I felt a sudden brotherhood with the black prince of Denmark; both of us mourning our departed fathers, appalled that the world could dare to go on without them, groping our way forward with frustrated ambition dogging us the whole way.