Monday, 1 December 2008

Hamlet -- regurgitated

Now, many months back (in the sun-soaked days of June), the Intellectual Hooligan penned a paragraph or ten on the subject of Hamlet. It's a play. You may've heard of it.

The collection of paragraphs was entitled: Shakespeare Hated Hamlet

(Provocative? Me?)

Since then, the kind folk at Bardblog saw fit to include the post in their Shakespeare blog carnival. To them I raise my glass: many thanks.

Last night, I received a lengthy and considered comment on that original post from an individual named Willshill. Read it, if you please ...

... And I started replying to Willshill. Indeed, I notched up a few paragraphs in my initial reply. But – as ever, as ever – I found myself with too much to say.

So this post was born:


… Hamlet – Regurgitated

The story of Hamlet wouldn't have been new to Shakespeare's audience

As a result, they would have had expectations of a play called Hamlet

Specifically, they'd have been expecting a bloodbath. Low on the thinking, high on the gore. Like turning up at the cinema to a popular thriller.

Even more specifically, they'd have had expectations of the Hamlet character himself. They'd have expected him to be a heavyweight. A fighter. A Bruce Willis in Die Hard type chap.

This is because Hamlet fitted into a hackneyed type of character in Elizabethan drama: the Revenger. There was a whole genre of Revenge Tragedies – basically, an excuse for a slaughterfest. Everyone dies at the hands of the bloodthirsty hero.

SO ... audience turn up at Hamlet expecting a thriller. A simple, easy-to-understand, eye-for-an-eye, gaping-flesh-wound type play.

The (amazing, inspired) first line of the play – 'Who's there?' straight away alerts us to the major theme of the play (one of Shakey's faves): identity. Nobody knows who is who.

This extends to the audience themselves. They do not know who is their hero. They are expecting – remember – a macho killer.

(It's easy for us to forget this, because we're so familiar with Hamlet, thanks to centuries of Shakespeare reverence. So Shakespeare's Hamlet is the one conjured up in our minds. But the original audience would have had utterly the opposite preconception.)

When Hamlet does show his colours, in Shakespeare's play, it becomes clear, fairly quickly, that he is not the Revenger the audience has been expecting. He is all talk and thought. He hesitates. He doesn't do anything.

This is a major, major subversion.

Imagine turning up to the latest Saw movie (I've never actually seen any of these, so forgive me a rather vague analogy) and finding that instead of horrific violence, you got some guy who kept rhapsodising about the nature of life and death, and whenever he did kill someone, it was pretty much by accident and almost comical.

This is what Shakespeare was doing. Audience-baiting of the highest degree.

Hence my irreverent turn of phrase: he gave the audience an emo-kid rather than a muscleman.

But where he is brilliant – of course – is in showing us that this is far, far more interesting than the tedious revenge tragedy we were expecting.

Showing us that drama just as powerful may be created without a barbaric, raving lunatic of a lead character.

(Taking Arnold Schwartznegger out of Terminator 2 and replacing him with, oh, I don't know – Jake Gyllenhaall).

I believe, then – to bring this back round to Willshill's thought-provoking comment – that Hamlet is emphatically not a paralyzed person of action. Indeed, the point is (in my reading) that he's not a person of action, full stop. He never has been.

He's not paralysed by indecision, or freudian tension or cowardice or anything; he is simply not that kind of guy.

Because, to be fair, how many of us are?

The audience's gut reaction, perhaps, would be disappointment: Hey! No fair! Where's the blood, the drama, the melodramatic rhetoric? What's all this realism? We came here expecting good, honest, simple blood'n'guts!

But Hamlet's enduring appeal proves: psychological tension and complexity is more interesting. No surprise.

In my original post, then, I wanted to bring it around to the fact that – when Hamlet does finally start acting like the cliched revenger ("Now could I drink hot blood!" he cries – pretty extreme (and pretty unconvincing), from the guy who gave us 'To be or not to be?' an act or two ago, right?) – when Hamlet starts to go into cliche revenge mode – then Shakespeare loses patience with him.

After all, everyone knew how the story of Hamlet ended. And there really did have to be a bloodbath. Old Bill Shakes couldn't avoid it in the end.

But once Hamlet starts acting like a cutout figure (acting, in other words, in the way that a lesser playwright would've made him act throughout the play) – it's at that point that Shakespeare takes away Hamlet's soliloquies. Because he's become two-dimensional. Boring.

1 comment:

Willshill said...

Thanks for the lengthy and additionally enlightening response.
The theory on audience-baiting and how WS used structure to brilliant effect I find particularly insightful. It reeks of verisimilitude--the good kind--as does the majority of your response.
But I'm still not completely sold on the lack of paralysis.

You mention 'psychological tension'. Following the line of thought, is this tension not created as the result of Hamlet's inability to act immediately?
And why is this so? I don't believe it's because he's simply not that kind of dude. Certainly events, his questioning the honesty and very nature of his father's ghost-very serious business, that--"To Act, or not to Act, That is the Question"-- and the charge of that 'apparition', not to mention the very real paralyzing affect of what is no longer referred to as "melancholia", all have a 'stunning'--forgive the punning--affect. (Melancholia viewed to be much more physical--Humours- and debilitating , than what we now commonly dismiss offhand as mere 'depression'. And the mysteriousness of its highly superstitious--yet 'possible' roots, as they could affect the Spirit, were then enough to "give one pause".)
Polonius, in fact, is consumed by the root cause of this behavior, and his interest is no less spurred on by that of Claudius. Clearly there's evidence of something being truly wrong with Hamlet as regards this. Hamlet uses the actual previous and ongoing existence of his condition and behavior as an underpinning for the apparent veracity of his (of course,somewhat overdone at times) 'antic disposition'
Just a few thoughts.

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