Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Shakespeare Hated Hamlet

Ooh. Sensationalist headline! Intellectual Tabloidism!

What in God's name am I babbling about? Well, yesterday, a friend of mine was asked, 'Why does Hamlet stop soliloquising?' And - graciously - she posed that same question to me, later that day.

It's true: Hamlet does indeed dry up on the soliloquy front. And there are a good few potential explanations for this. I'm not going to go into most of them. Scholarly, ain't I?

You see, I'm only really interested in my sensationalist one: that, by the play's closing Act or so, Shakespeare falls out with his protagonist. They have a bust-up. A spat.

Guess who wins.


Coming as no surprise from an inspired magpie such as Billy Shakes, the plot of Hamlet is assembled from a motley array of sources. The tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark, was not, in essence, a new story.

Hamlet's character had a very clear and specific role within drama of the time: the role of the revenger. There was a whole sub-genre: the Revenge Tragedy. The bloodthirsty, action-packed, minimal-introspection thriller of the age. A kind of Elizabethan Die Hard.

An Elizabethan would've known what to expect of a play about this Hamlet chap. Just as we'd know what to expect of a film called Vengeance: The Return, or something. A bit of background, some sketchy characterisation, maybe a bit of moral ambiguity (just enough to raise tension) -- and a walloping portion of chaotic violence, macho posturing and melodrama.

What did they get? Some weakass emo-kid of a hero who spends the best part of the play trying to work himself up into taking any kind of action. A hapless loser who, when he actually does take action, does so almost accidentally, and kills the wrong guy. Woody Allen standing in for Bruce Willis.

And so what's the audience's likely response to this useless failure of a Revenger? Disgust. We want our money back.

But what do people actually think of Shakespeare's Hamlet? He's a much-romanticised hero. Quite an Elizabethan babe-magnet. I doubt there's a dramatic hero with a higher profile than old Ham.

This is Shakespeare at his twisty best. Subverting audience's expectations, and - disappointing them - but actually giving them something they'll love even more.

And Shakespeare does this by moving the action and thrills into the psychological sphere. By internalising the conflict. And giving us, through Hamlet, a sequence of some of the most moving and psychologically complex soliloquies ever written. Blah blah.

The whole root of Hamlet's soliloquising? People commonly say it's his indecision, his inaction. Wrong. These qualities are symptoms, not causes. Hamlet's preoccupation is this: he doesn't actually feel as he thinks he ought to. He is not consumed by rage; his being is not eaten up by bloodlust. He's looking for these things. He's expecting them. But instead he senses in himself - with guilt, shame, horror - a kind of emptiness.

And so, terrified at this deficiency, he uses his words, his "Now could I drink hot blood" speeches, in an attempt to psych himself up. But it's empty rhetoric. Hamlet practising on himself. Trying to stir up his own emotions. Hamlet himself is well aware of the Revenger's role. Of what he should be feeling.

Jolly good, so far. This is interesting. This is realism. Strong emotions don't come out fully-formed, perfect, on demand. Feelings aren't pure, and those that say otherwise delude themselves. Romantic schmucks.

... O, from this time forth,
My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!
The above words conclude Hamlet's final soliloquy. This is the last we hear from the Prince's inner self, as opposed to his outer persona (that is, the lines he delivers in the presence of others). And it's a pretty significant final line in that respect: he's saying, from now on, I'm only interested in my Revenger's thoughts.

And Shakespeare's response?

"Sod that, mate."

Shakespeare's not interested in the Revenger. He's spent the whole of the play showing the audience that the revenge isn't the interesting thing. He's been knuckling down and busting cliches. So when Hamlet declares himself resolved in this new direction, he's no longer of any interest. Because it's the bloody thoughts that are "nothing worth", not the rest.

"You know what?" says Shakespeare (indulge me, dear reader). "If you're going to be like that, you're not getting any more soliloquies. Because they'll be boring, stale, rhetorical nonsense."

Shakespeare takes away Hamlet's soliloquies. He's not going to glamorise two-dimensionality. If Hamlet's going to make cardboard cutout resolutions, then a cardboard cutout is what Shakespeare is going to make him. Stand here, Hamlet. Jump in a grave, Hamlet. Rave a bit, Hamlet. Poison your blade, Hamlet.

Die, Hamlet.

And enjoy those lovely, Romantic flights of angels, won't you?


Sophie said...

This probably comes a little late, but thank you for this.
Very well, if irreverently said.

Billicatons said...

Thank you, Sophie - kind of you to say so.

And, yes, the irreverence. I find this is the best way to write about Shakespeare. Otherwise one starts to choke on one's rhapsodic eulogising.

Thanks for dropping by ...

Willshill said...

Great bit on Hamlet as "The Boy of Inaction". It would give one pause.
But I can't buy into the "popular" analyzation all those years of Freudianism have layered on the guy.

Olivier felt the need to offer up an apologist prologue in his film, "So oft it chances in particular men...etc."
Richard Burton, who had a successful run as the Prince on Broadway, hated the role, and thought of Hamlet as a simpering, mewling and puking non-entity (I paraphrase but I believe the gist is accurate).

Their interpretations oozed Freud,and subsequent actors playing the role have followed suit. Why not? It's become so self-fulfilling for the majority who have been steeped in trying to make "Method" work when it comes to WS and everyone's eaten up the notion--ultimately walking the other way out of boredom.

Why do I think the opposite?
Too simply put: The nature of a Paralyzed person OF action will display itself not in one way, but in many. The actor playing the role has to find those ways and make the WHYS legitimate. It's said that Burbage brought tears to the eyes of those watching. I find it very hard to picture some 'emo-kid' nebbish doing that to anyone.

The difference? All these things happen not to the whimpering boy we've come to accept, but to a Man and a Prince of the World--a world where thought is thing--and Thinking is truly an exercise worth doing. Shakespeare, after all, must have thought so; who else is Hamlet but Shakespeare himself? It bothers me that the character has been nutshelled so easily--and wrongly--over the years.

Unfortunately, for Shakespeare's sake, this will probably be the only head shake you get in the left-right direction. The 'popular' notion's had too much press already.
Your piece is certainly thought-provoking; but the possibility of its being so matter of fact reminded me of a pet peeve. Sorry for all the 'eulogizing' (LOL) I had to do to try to make it clear.

Billicatons said...

Willshill, thank you very much for the interesting comment.

As is so often the case, I cast my eyes back over my writing and am distressed at the notion I may not have expressed myself quite clearly.

I absolutely do not think that Shakespeare's Hamlet is a pathetic character. Well, hmm, maybe 'absolutely' is a strong word to use there ... But that's not what I meant to say, at very least.

And I do not follow the popular notion. The whole Freudian shebang is fair enough - and it is there in the text - but it's not that interesting, and it seems more like a Shakespearean throwaway than a crux of Hamlet's character.

I started writing a full reply to your comment, but it ballooned somewhat. So I've made it a full blog post:

Thanks again for the very engaging response ...

David said...

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