It’s been nearly two months since my last Shakespeare blog. I actually read Hamlet nearly a month ago, but I’ve hardly had a moment to pause since then and sit down to write about it. So, with the gap between reading the text and writing this blog, my thoughts might not be the freshest!
Where some of the ‘great’ Shakespeare plays that I’ve read (or re-read) in this challenge have proven to be a bit underwhelming, it is undeniable that Hamlet is simply a phenomenal play. I love plays that grapple with what it is to be human and make us consider our place in society. Hamlet certainly does this, covering a bit of everything really – love (both familial and romantic), grief, revenge, power, morality, mortality, sanity, guilt, shame, friendship, honour, pride. Just everything.
It struck me on reading the play afresh that Hamlet (the character) is often far too cool in his presentation! (Partly because he tends to be played by quite big-name actors.) As I was reading it this time, I was seeing Hamlet as a bit of an emo/goth-type kid, maybe a bit of a geek – someone who likes philosophy and playing fantasy games but doesn’t quite know how to sustain meaningful relationships with people in the real world. When the ghost of his father appears, it is almost like the fantasy games he plays online have come to life and he is excited by the prospect of becoming a real-life hero of his own RPG adventure. As time goes on, however, it starts to dawn on him that this is so much bigger than fiction and he doesn’t quite know how to process the whole situation.
My instinct from this reading was that Hamlet very rarely puts on any acts of madness. There are a few obvious moments with Polonius but aside from that Hamlet seems quite genuine throughout. Often confused and erratic but who wouldn’t be under those circumstances?!
I would like to see Old Hamlet portrayed as younger than he often is. In many productions I have seen, he is well into his 60s or older. I feel an Old Hamlet in his late 40s to 50s makes Hamlet much more evidently father-less – he has lost his father before he should have done. This also adds a bit more bite to the early scene where Claudius and Gertrude are both telling Hamlet to essentially get over the loss of his father – fathers are meant to die, yes, but Hamlet deserved a many more years with his one.
I did also get a sense from this re-reading of the play, that the martial nature of the court environment is really crucial. This is obviously a military state. From the first moment, when we see the guards patrolling the battlements, to the last, when the armies of Fortinbras arrive. It is a society founded on martial principles and one that doesn’t really know how to function in times of peace. Since the climax of the play is a fencing match, it is also crucial to establish that prowess in combat is a vital source of power and prestige within this world. We hear that Old Hamlet defeated Old Fortinbras in single combat and, in many ways, this seems to be the template for kingship. Furthermore, this highlights Hamlet’s otherness. He is an academic, a thinker not a warrior, a prince born into the wrong kingdom for his style of statecraft.
When I think of my favourite plays of all time, I have to say I find it hard to look much beyond Hamlet. As unoriginal as that is, I just find it to be the most fascinating of pieces, that never ceases to throw up new ideas and possible interpretations. I would absolutely love to direct this play. In fact, I would be deeply disappointed if I never got the opportunity to direct it.