01 December 2013

The play's the thing

Normally I don't do much in the way of examining plays, opera or the like, which is not to say that I haven't been to same and enjoyed them, but my ability to actually find a production that I might like and one that  I could physically attend are limited.  Generally my television watching has tended away from the norm and went to science fiction and some fantasy series, and since my troubles I've shifted from those to the so-called 'reality ' programs all of which center around small businesses.  My viewing habits have changed radically due to those programs and a subscription to Amazon Prime and owning a Roku box.  At some point I can see a massive paradigm shift in television programming where what you watch will be directly supported by you for programs that you want to see.  The concept of ala carte television, that is picking and choosing just channels you want and ditching the rest, is something that should have happened with the advent of cable television.  Unfortunately those local monopolies acted like monopolies and gave you 500 channels of which you maybe watch something from 3 or 4.  Today I have no idea how many channels are offered by the semi-competitive subscriber based system I'm on, probably a couple of thousand when you include HD channels, and out of all of those I watch stuff from maybe 5 or 6 channels.  More specifically I watch just a few series on those channels and ignore most everything else.  With Amazon Prime I can now find programs that are offered for no charge with the Prime subscription and that has meant finding presentations from television and films that I would normally not run across.  Needless to say about 98% of that is stuff I'm not interested in.  This is, of course, just a variation on Sturgeon's Law, and that is a handy thing to keep in mind when you approach any information, program, film, novel, short story... if you see a vast warehouse of material in front of you 90% of it is crud.

Of the non-crud based stuff I've run across is a set of specials from PBS, which I don't watch, looking at the historical roots of Shakespeare's plays.  Knowing a bit of history of England and being able to see what changes were made for the information to be presented as plays is fascinating.  So is the work by the actors who have just come off a particular play or are heading towards one, or who have a background in the works in part or in whole.  In particular looking at Richard II and Henry IV/Henry V was most interesting as there are so many different aspects of history that have a vital role to play in the background of that entire set of transitions between Kings.  For all the liberties taken by Shakespeare in presentation, what we get is a view of the history that was known in that period and can examine some of what was known then that may not be that interesting to the modern viewer of the works.  Yet it is not those works that are the most intriguing, but possibly the most famous play by Shakespeare which is Hamlet.

Knowing science fiction and fantasy and seeing the strong parallels drawn by authors on historical material and then presenting new material within a future or fantasy framework means that as a reader and viewer there are different ways to present material that may not be all that obvious to the average viewer.  With that said I have no strong background in all the historical productions of Shakespeare's works, so I may just be treading on an old idea, but it is new to me and a lot of fun to play with.  For me the main aspect of the play, that of the psychological development of Hamlet, is one that has been done so well, so many times, that it is hard to see how one could improve on it for an actor or director: what we have are flourishes, some modern interpretations, and a few changes in scenes that are modern in circumstance to fit what we know or think we know about human psychology.  The fantastical element of the play is limited to just those four appearances by the late King who is known in the play as 'Ghost'.

Here is one of the key elements that really struck me: the pact with the Ghost.  It is a simple one, actually, given what goes on in the play, and I'll take it from Act I, Scene V (and I'll use this copy from the Gutenberg Project):

Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.


Murder most foul, as in the best it is;
But this most foul, strange, and unnatural.

Haste me to know't, that I, with wings as swift
As meditation or the thoughts of love,
May sweep to my revenge.

I find thee apt;
And duller shouldst thou be than the fat weed
That rots itself in ease on Lethe wharf,
Wouldst thou not stir in this. Now, Hamlet, hear.
'Tis given out that, sleeping in my orchard,
A serpent stung me; so the whole ear of Denmark
Is by a forged process of my death
Rankly abus'd; but know, thou noble youth,
The serpent that did sting thy father's life
Now wears his crown.

A simple enough proposition, really, and it is the driving force behind the entire play.  Yet do consider that Hamlet has made a pact with his father's ghost, and the ghost has also told us just prior to this of its limitations:

I am thy father's spirit;
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin'd to wastein fires
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg'd away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house

Strange that he is forbidden to tell of his after-life prison while just having told us of essential information of it.  Still the logic holds that at night it may roam and during day it is confined to wasting fires.  So those are the basic rules of it and on that hinges a view of the play based on the soliloquies of Hamlet which are internal monologues spoken out loud so that the audience can know what a character is thinking.  Thus a retelling centered on the pact and the soliloquies becomes a vital part of a review of the play, itself.  By putting the center on the pact, and what is the normal outcomes of such pacts in other works, we can come to a different telling in which the Ghost may make its presence felt beyond just the four scenes.

As was mentioned in the episode there have been productions in which there is no actor playing the Ghost, presumably with someone out of sight giving the lines to which Hamlet responds.  The audience is then left to decide if Hamlet is going slowly insane or if he can just see the Ghost and the audience can't.  Either way it is an effective staging for the play and allows for a view of Hamlet the Prince that you don't get with the physical presence of the Ghost.  My thought was that the best way to stage the play was to take advantage of some of those soliloquies that seem to have an internal structure in which Hamlet is speaking and then answers himself.  Thus to properly set the stage for a modern production with the Ghost as absent is to have the actor playing Hamlet record the lines of the Ghost with a somewhat lower pitch to them, as his father is usually depicted as not a frail old man but a sturdy man in his middle age.

With that established in opening scenes the actor who is playing Hamlet the Prince can now utilize the voice of his father in those spoken internal monologues and even in some of the directly spoken dialogue.  In fact it is the latter when speaking with the Players in Act II, Scene II when speaking in the AEneas' tale to Dido:

  'The rugged Pyrrhus,—he whose sable arms,
   Black as his purpose, did the night resemble
   When he lay couched in the ominous horse,—
   Hath now this dread and black complexion smear'd
   With heraldry more dismal; head to foot
   Now is he total gules; horridly trick'd
   With blood of fathers, mothers, daughters, sons,
   Bak'd and impasted with the parching streets,
   That lend a tyrannous and a damned light
   To their vile murders: roasted in wrath and fire,
   And thus o'ersized with coagulate gore,
   With eyes like carbuncles, the hellish Pyrrhus
   Old grandsire Priam seeks.'

That all done in the somewhat lower voice of his father which would be scene appropriate for Hamlet to speak in a voice of a character in a play.  It would be somewhat unnerving to Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, perhaps, but would they truly recognize the voice of the late King transfigured through Hamlet?

Then the soliloquy just after and I will use bold to indicate the shift in voice from Hamlet to his father:

Ay, so, God b' wi' ye!
Now I am alone.
O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!
Is it not monstrous that this player here,
But in a fiction, in a dream of passion,
Could force his soul so to his own conceit
That from her working all his visage wan'd;
Tears in his eyes, distraction in's aspect,
A broken voice, and his whole function suiting
With forms to his conceit? And all for nothing!
For Hecuba?
What's Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba,
That he should weep for her? What would he do,
Had he the motive and the cue for passion
That I have? He would drown the stage with tears
And cleave the general ear with horrid speech;
Make mad the guilty, and appal the free;
Confound the ignorant, and amaze, indeed,
The very faculties of eyes and ears.
Yet I,
A dull and muddy-mettled rascal, peak,
Like John-a-dreams, unpregnant of my cause,
And can say nothing; no, not for a king
Upon whose property and most dear life
A damn'd defeat was made. Am I a coward?
Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across?
Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face?
Tweaks me by the nose? gives me the lie i' the throat
As deep as to the lungs? who does me this, ha?
'Swounds, I should take it: for it cannot be
But I am pigeon-liver'd, and lack gall
To make oppression bitter; or ere this
I should have fatted all the region kites
With this slave's offal: bloody, bawdy villain!
Remorseless, treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain!
O, vengeance!
Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder'd,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words
And fall a-cursing like a very drab,
A scullion!
Fie upon't! foh!—About, my brain! I have heard
That guilty creatures, sitting at a play,
Have by the very cunning of the scene
Been struck so to the soul that presently
They have proclaim'd their malefactions;
For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak
With most miraculous organ,
I'll have these players
Play something like the murder of my father
Before mine uncle: I'll observe his looks;
I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench,
I know my course. The spirit that I have seen
May be the devil: and the devil hath power
To assume a pleasing shape; yea, and perhaps
Out of my weakness and my melancholy,—
As he is very potent with such spirits,—
Abuses me to damn me: I'll have grounds
More relative than this.—the play's the thing
Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king.

With Hamlet there is internal structure to his thoughts that are both question and response, and even he realizes that the thoughts in his own head now settle within him to begin the process of answering to him.  With his father now an active voice there is an active role for him in the play beyond mere Ghost as he speaks to his son within his own thoughts.  Indeed for what is Hamlet but the man who would be King if all had taken its natural course?  This is something that Claudius knows and fears, and takes active steps to counter in the play, itself.  Yet Hamlet's father existed in a court where there was intrigue and Hamlet is no stranger to it, but how does one deal with such intrigue when it is pointed at oneself and has already taken his skilled father?  It would not be surprising to hear Hamlet begin to grow into the role of not just a revenging son, not just a Prince revenging his King, but as the Prince who is heir to the throne of Denmark beginning to grow out of the shell of being the young Prince.  Yet this is not Henry IV, where the son has support from a somewhat errant older fellow, but a young man who is possessed of revenge and who has revenge possessing him.  Staged like this we not only get the tormented problems of Hamlet, but also his father being in the torment with him: being there with his son is to be in the wasting fires.

The Ghost has powers not granted to the living and has already warned Hamlet about certain things, the main one is not to confront his mother.  What the Ghost can see is a future for Hamlet and is trying to find that path which will lead to the fruition of the plan and save his son, both at the same time.  Yet he can not be the one to exact the actual revenge and must have his son do it for him.  This is torment to him, the warrior king reduced to spirit in torment that must have revenge upon his slayer by the only one who would do so.  Would he not exercise any of that to be with his son as much as able to try and help him through this deed which is a revenge murder, not something done in the heat of battle?  It is the necessity of being a King to have unpleasant tasks that must be done by the King and King alone, not one that you can hand off to an underling so sensitive is its nature.  His son steps into the den where knives aplenty are turned against him and where even small pieces of advice could mean the difference between success and failure if his son but has the wits and reason to listen to the inner responses to his inner questions.  In most normal 20th century staging this is something that Hamlet must grope towards, but in such a staging as this Hamlet is guided to be that one that will exact revenge not only for his father but with some help from him, as well.  Thus this requires that the scenes be played as true to original as possible, and to strip out the 20th century Freudian conception and to turn Hamlet into someone who will start the process of revenge in a cold and calculating manner.

And yet he gets the singular opportunity to end this all after the staged play with King Claudius in prayers.  Yet, in the witching hour at night, is the prime time for the Ghost and this is when the internal monologue allows this viewpoint to come forward:

Now might I do it pat, now he is praying;
And now I'll do't;—and so he goes to heaven;
And so am I reveng'd.—that would be scann'd
A villain kills my father; and for that,
I, his sole son, do this same villain send
To heaven.
O, this is hire and salary, not revenge.
He took my father grossly, full of bread;
With all his crimes broad blown, as flush as May;
And how his audit stands, who knows save heaven?
But in our circumstance and course of thought,
'Tis heavy with him: and am I, then, reveng'd,
To take him in the purging of his soul,
When he is fit and season'd for his passage?
Up, sword, and know thou a more horrid hent:
When he is drunk asleep; or in his rage;
Or in the incestuous pleasure of his bed;
At gaming, swearing; or about some act
That has no relish of salvation in't;—
Then trip him, that his heels may kick at heaven;
And that his soul may be as damn'd and black
As hell, whereto it goes
. My mother stays:
This physic but prolongs thy sickly days.

This is the heart of the Ghost guidance staging: the one who points out that this is not success but grossest failure is Hamlet's father.  Revenge, you see, is a dish best served cold when one of treachery is not prepared to meet his maker but, instead, finds his death at the hands of his un-maker to bring justice to one who can place himself above normal justice.  And, really, are not these parts highlighted those of someone else speaking within Hamlet as part of the question and response that makes up Hamlet's thoughts?  Revenge can only served hot if it means justice in disposition, when there is reward to the one who has betrayed and wronged, then there is no justice at all.

At this point when Hamlet confronts his mother the idea of it happening in a space off the bedroom where personal business is transacted, letters written and talking with close friends done, one where he is coming into being as a person of revenge.  Instead of the heated bedroom romp that it was changed into during the 1920's, it becomes a focal point of coldness and Hamlet has gotten a bit too far in the role of avenging son.  A Queen has maidservants, ladies in waiting and others of the Chambers who would normally assist her and be there, but in the private Closet there is supposed to be no one who shouldn't be there.  Mind you in the heat of the moment he has forgotten his own father's warning about doing this: thus not only trying on the role of avenging son but the heat of lost opportunity drive him. 

Killing Polonius is, however, something that would be true to form for a Prince who is seeking privacy with his mother in the one place in a castle that should be private to them both.  Save for the King, of course.  For Hamlet this is not just the heat of missed opportunity but operational security and removing a listener who is a spy.  Actually that is relatively chilling and the King takes it that way as Hamlet wanted to be private with his mother and that meant no one else was to be there: not even him.  Still that gets a bit ahead of the story and what Hamlet does next, with his mother having to sit still on her chair, is listen to her son... with a corpse and, as we see later, the Ghost of Hamlet's father:

What have I done, that thou dar'st wag thy tongue
In noise so rude against me?

Such an act
That blurs the grace and blush of modesty;
Calls virtue hypocrite; takes off the rose
From the fair forehead of an innocent love,
And sets a blister there; makes marriage-vows
As false as dicers' oaths: O, such a deed
As from the body of contraction plucks
The very soul, and sweet religion makes
A rhapsody of words: heaven's face doth glow;
Yea, this solidity and compound mass,
With tristful visage, as against the doom,
Is thought-sick at the act.

One can picture Hamlet ticking off on his fingers: an act that blurs, calls virtue hypocrite, takes the rose of innocent love and sets a blister there, makes false marriage vows, such a deed rips the soul from the body against all religion.  Point by point he tells his mother of the case against her.  This is not the stuff of running around a bedroom, but of a judge speaking a verdict and going through the particulars in a cold, matter of fact manner that chills one to their bones.

This makes the visitation when Hamlet is disobeying his father to see his mother to be all the more important, not less, as he utilizes the deep power of the witching hour to try and set Hamlet's course straight by a direct appearance:

Do you not come your tardy son to chide,
That, laps'd in time and passion, lets go by
The important acting of your dread command?
O, say!

Do not forget. This visitation
Is but to whet thy almost blunted purpose.
But, look, amazement on thy mother sits:
O, step between her and her fighting soul,—
Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works,—
Speak to her, Hamlet.

Of course this can be staged as all the prior visitations of the Ghost in this staging so that it is the recorded voice of the actor played off-stage.  The added bonus is that the one who has blunted the purpose is not Hamlet, directly, but Hamlet following the internal voice of his father.  It becomes a long list of particulars this accessory to regicide business, and Hamlet gets into it pretty deeply. But raging against the Queen is revenge and hatred somewhat misplaced as she did not do the dirty deed of killing King. 

This is why the Ghost warned Hamlet against such a meeting as it was sure to get emotional in some way, although not by the form we have come to expect in a modern staging of the play, to be sure, the confrontation is still there and extreme in its character.  The Ghost knew what it meant to kill in cold blood, it was a pretty nasty era to live in, after all, and you didn't get to the top without some large amount of bloodshed going along with it.  To do the necessary work Hamlet must now be pulled back from the brink of talking himself into killing his mother and, perhaps, starting a murderous rampage that would not properly get the King as he has too many guards.  That is the wisdom the Ghost brings in the play as it is, but in this sort of telling it becomes something quite other.

Throughout the rest of the play when there is an internal monologue or the time where Hamlet appears to reached a decision, the voice of his father would be used.  In time, as we no longer see the Ghost, the actor might, by the end, be speaking in his father's voice entirely and be the Prince prepared for the tasks of a King, even recognizing that if his own life is forfeit to the task, it must be done well or not at all.

This gives rise to a very subtle and yet potent variation of this staging, and one that plays into the heart of revenging the spirit of the dead.  It hinges on exactly what has gone on in all the regular presentations of the play in the form of the Ghost.  The Ghost is seen by others, or can be seen by others, but that is selective by the Ghost as witness in Act III, Scene V which up to the 20th century has traditionally taken place in the Queen's Closet which was a personal office.  Now if that is the case then the Ghost can also appear only to the audience and not to any of the other actors as a silent and on-stage  presence. 

That, in itself, would be a bit creepy.

What would be even more disturbing would be that at those points as I've previously outlined, instead of having the actor change his intonation of voice without his father present, would be for his father to lay a hand on his shoulder for each of those parts and for the actor to come to resolve in his own voice.  Here the guidance is direct and the audience is allowed to see the full activity of the Ghost throughout the entire play.  Castle Elsinore is the wasting fire and having to be there and during most times be unable to do much and only guide the thoughts of his son when there is opportunity would be further torment to him.  With such staging would come the actor playing Hamlet to have the voice of manhood as guided by his father, so that when conclusion comes to internal thoughts it is the learning of Hamlet of what to do in his position with so many hostile people around him.

It seems such an obvious way to stage the play that it must have been done before.  But this is not the pre-Freudian nor post-Freudian way of doing it, of course, and staged like this it would have a deep impact on any audience of any era.  Once the mother fascination is removed and Hamlet becomes dedicated to the deed of revenge, he is no longer that young man who is seeking to get himself up to the task, but one who has help to work through these questions as they are ones which not only plagued that era but all eras.  Which is why I'm sure that this is not new to me as it could have been done at any time since the first staging of the play.

Hamlet as the instrument of revenge is not done by a relatively unsettled spirit, but by one who has compassion and wisdom of experience: he was a King, after all, and the ways of being a King did not leave him.  He truly does want his son to succeed not just in the deed, but as a man and to take the throne as the rightful Heir.  His son needs seasoning, however, beyond just warfare and going after bandits and such, but to deal with the intrigue of the Court when it is running cold and villainous.  The Ghost was the man who failed at that, and he can see the many paths his son might take that lead to ruin of him as a kinslayer and Kingslayer will have few compunctions about removing the rest of the prior royal line.  While Hamlet is 'of age' and a true young man, he doesn't have that necessary depth of understanding to deal with all aspects of intrigue within the Palace walls.  He has experienced it, yes, but when a child largely protected from it and as a young man kept from it in many ways, but poor Yorick needs to be kept buried and Hamlet to deal with life and death, both after having his father slain.  And yet in the famous soliloquy there is this:


But that the dread of something after death,—
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn
No traveller returns,


But that is not the case with Hamlet, now, is it?

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