"I suppose every man thinks that Hamlet was written for him, but I know he was written for me." - Edward Thomas
There was a very clear moment when my life honest to god changed. It is clear in hindsight that this was a turning point, but the memory has remained sharply locked in my mind, crisp for over ten years. I want to say that I didn't know at the time what a big moment it was, but I think some part of me did. There was, I guess, some electricity.
I was not quite 16 years old (which makes me a sophmore in high school, I think) sitting at my kitchen table on a sunny morning-- Or maybe it was evening, given that the article I'm about to mention was published on a Tuesday and a) would not have still been on the kitchen table the following weekend, b) I certainly did not get out of bed early enough to read the paper before going to school in the morning, and c) the sun came up way after I left for school in those days... Okay so maybe the details of this momentous moment are a little fuzzy, but the sentiment is real, so let me paint the picture and it'll be fine: So I'm sitting at the kitchen table, flipping through the Style section of the Washington Post. I only read the Style section, since I am not quite 16, and very interested in style. I'm also, at not-quite-16, very interested in theatre. I like acting, and reading plays. I like Chekov, after stumbling onto Ivanov for a project my freshman year. I like musicals, and goofing around, and reading. I understand that Shakespeare is for sophisticated theatre people, which I rather feel myself to be. I am smart, and I read Romeo and Juliet, and I've seen that Leo DiCaprio version, so like, I get it.
So I'm reading the newspaper and I come across this article titled HAMLET RETOOLED AS ACTION HERO and I like, die, I guess. Re-reading the article now, I quite wonder what set my blood boiling so. I remember it was accompanied by a picture of the actor in the title role-- Karl Miller, who in many ways shaped my future, though through no purposeful action of his own, and was, it might be worth noting, 26 at the time of this production-- and he was striking. The article itself is a mixed review. Good bits, middling bits. But something really struck me in there. I had never seen Hamlet, and this article, short though it was, mixed as it was, lit me up. I said to my mom, "I've got to see this production."
She called the theatre and got two tickets, and my dad took me, and everything turned left. There's a Sliding Doors version of my life where I never read that article, or where I don't make it to see that show, and... I don't go to the college I go to, and don't pursue the things I pursued in late college and high school, and am a completely different person.
But I did get to go, and Dad and I sat in the upper part of the house, and at intermission I snuck down to a closer seat, and at the end of the show I went all the way down because I felt a need to touch the stage.
I can only remember certain moments of that production-- many of it's finer details and choices have blurred in my memory. But I do remember the first image of Hamlet sitting at the edge of the stage. I remember clearly the lurking image of the ghost, the appearance of Hamlet after the murder of Polonius, wrapped in a bloody sheet. I remember watching Karl Miller skulk at the back of the stage, drawing my attention away from everything else. How magnetic he was! How natural and lively! I had never seen Shakespeare like this, live and in the flesh and so so vibrant.
I walked out of the theatre positively giddy. I was vibrating. My dad had to listen to me blabber on about a play I barely knew, how impressed I was, how moved. I can barely remember what I had to say, only that I was exuberant.
The fact of the matter is, I fell in love.
And I never fell out. I was immediately entranced, immediately enraptured. It was the language, sure, but also the character, the feelings, the attitude. The story. My heart was full of Hamlet, and Hamlet, and like Edward Thomas, I am sure he was written for me. Once, when I had delusions of acting, I may have thought he was written for me to play, but I know now he was written for me to experience and luxuriate in. I could spend my whole life in Hamlets, and be quite content. I have done a monstrous amount of reading and research on this play... I used to spend afternoons in college libraries simply reading scholarly interpretations and taking notes. I have now seen Hamlet about eight times, live on stage. I have seen many, many filmed versions. Variously good, variously professional. But if a production of Hamlet comes to my attention, and it is reasonably accessible, I will go. I can do that because it is a play of infinite variety-- there are a million ways to read and interpret it. It’s never boring. Every production is different, and has something of interest for me. I'm at a point where I have my own thoughts, but I still love to see the thoughts of others. I love to see different actors take on the role and make it their own. Hamlet is, as a man, deeply complex and often contradictory. You can choose any one moment and make it the basis for your entire performance. I love to see what people choose. I want to be surprised by choices, moved by emotional beats. I'm looking for certain things, but am excited to see what's on offer.
I could parse apart this play for hours, days, months, years. I already have, in my life. I have opinions. I have seen it enough and thought about it enough to know what I want. I am tired of seeing 45 year olds play Hamlet (a role, ideally, in my book, for someone 26-32). I am tired of very modern productions with cell phones. I am tired of modern competitive fencing being used for the duel at the end. I look for a Hamlet who is so dynamic you can't ignore him. I look for bold, sporty Laertes' and gentle, weak Ophelias (lots to be said about her, but I won't start that here). I look for Horatios-- often ignored, but vitally important to our ability to access Hamlet and his mind and emotions.
Because I know what I'm looking for, I am also a bit of a snob. I accept this, because my main man Hamlet is also a snob (some people call this an interpretation, but I say it's right there in the text). My interpretation is deeply influenced by that first production I saw, though it has deepened (and gotten more shallow and weird) with time. That first production convinced me Hamlet was in many ways about violence, surveillance, and action. Further reading and thought has convinced me that if I ever directed Hamlet, he would wear tennis whites for the mad scenes. He seems like a guy who plays a lot of tennis, in lighter times. In some ways, that's the depth of my takes. I think the most important thing is to treat Hamlet the man as a man (take him for all in all), and Hamlet the play as a story. It's easy to get bogged down in the weight and history and Importance. I'd prefer if you didn't.
Hamlet is a man of action, not indecision. He waits, but does not waffle. Also, he's mean. I love that he's mean. He's a snob, an elitist, a rude intellect who is crummy to anyone he thinks is below him. He is by his own admission proud, vengeful and ambitious. Harold Bloom, a scholar I generally don’t like, talks in The Invention of the Human about how Shakespeare’s great characters all have shades of the same great intellect— Hamlet, Iago, Falstaff, Rosalind. The question is whether they use that intellect for good or bad or mischief or what. What’s entrancing about Hamlet is that he uses it for all those things. He’s a jerk and I love him!! He is magnetic, would be blast at a party until the exact moment he wasn't. He can be callous and dismissive. He likes jokes, and art, and theatre. And he is sad. He is simply quite sad. By the time we meet him he is tired, and stressed, and sad. That sadness is what makes the play such a wonder-- that difficulty with grief, the pains of the world moving on around you.
Shakespeare's great gift was that he wrote people-- people who could be sad and joke at the same time, people who shoulder grief and people who are broken by it, people who love and hurt and are difficult. All that, couched in poetry and sex jokes and violence. Hamlet is the apex of all that. It’s got everything— ghosts, murder, insanity, sex, puns, a play within a play, commentary on acting styles, breaking up with your girlfriend, having a hard time adjusting to your step-dad, being mad at your mom, showing your best friend from college around your shitty hometown, being frustrated that you don’t get to be king, skeletons, hiding a body under a staircase, a fight in a grave, a taunt to “eat a crocodile”, poison, flower imagery, a middling-to-bad relationship with your dad, musical instruments, fashion critiques, brothers who just want to go to France and get drunk, bad dad advice that the world now takes as really good advice, invasions by foreign powers, political machinations, stabbings. Soo…. it's the best.
AND Hamlet literally spends like, a month with PIRATES in the middle of act four!!!
what. a. play.
As last year came to a close and I considered what I wanted to do next, I began by thinking of what other directors I could cover. My heart continually leaned towards Kenneth Branagh. After the extravagance and wonder of a year with Joel Schumacher, Ken Branagh's equally extravagant taste appealed to me. I love his style and panache, his hamminess, his theatricality. And I love him. Kenneth Branagh is like, My Type, and also My Guy, and he directs himself so often it seemed like a win-win.
So as I looked through his filmography, so much of which is Shakespeare, I started thinking that I would have to break any piece on his Hamlet (which is four hours long and includes an intermission) into two. And then I thought, god I could spend a year on his Hamlet. And then I was like........ I could just....... spend a year on Hamlet.
And the idea took hold.
So that's what I'm going to do. Not a whole year on Kenneth Branagh's Hamlet, but a whole year on Hamlet. In general.
Everything that there is to say about Hamlet has already been said, and by people smarter and more eloquent and more worthwhile than me. That’s the fact of four hundred years of scholarship. There is nothing new to be said. But I have not said what I have to say, in my way, and as a different kind of poet once said, “Anything you do / Let it come from you / Then it will be new.” So fuck it, I’m gonna write about Hamlet.
I have chosen thirteen filmed productions (some movies, some filmed stage productions) to watch and look at and think about. They are spread across time as best as I could manage (though god did 1964 have a ton of Hamlets-- though so it goes, for so recently did Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Oscar Isaac and Andrew Scott all do Hamlet within a year of each other). Some I have seen before, some I have not. Some I may not be able to find to watch at all! This is why my chosen twelve productions will turn into ten somethings-or-other, written and posted here on my little website. One a month for the rest of the year. A casual schedule with lots of room.
As before, this is an exercise in keeping my brain active. I miss the technical, interpretive part of brain that was so active in college classes, when I actively fought with my Shakespeare professor over her stagnant, obdurate, and intransigent readings of the plays. Ah, those were the good ol' days, and I'd like to revisit them by ostensibly arguing with famous directors and actors of stage and screen over points of interpretation and adaptation. I intend to go through them chronologically, because it's true that interpretations come in waves, influenced and in response to each other. The way Hamlet was read in the Victorian era is different than in the first half of the twentieth century, let alone today. That sort of thing is interesting to track. And you'll notice they come in waves-- the world was hot for Shakespeare in the 60s and 90s, and almost not all in between that.
So here are my Hamlets:
Congrats to Ethan Hawke for being within a reasonable age for this role!!!
Anyway, that's the list. Some will get knocked off, some will make it through. Either way, I think it'll be fun (for me)! Hamlet means a lot to me, and I really love it, and I’m about to get REAL ANNOYING about it. So if you’re interested in getting annoying and talking Shakespeare minutiae, you’ve come to the right place. That’s what this will be. I’m talking breath examination, baby. I’m talking punctuation.
I’m thrilled, and I hope my pretentious little adventure provides some level of minor insight and maybe even interest. Here’s hoping.
See ya in 1948, suckers!!