Archive for the Hamlet Category

Hamlet’s Day Off

Posted in Hamlet, Performance with tags , , on 2014/03/21 by mattermind

Ferris Bueller

It will be awhile until I get to Hamlet. But performances, of course, are going on all the time.

I’m drawn to a new interpretation with an 80’s twist…or, as the article calls it, “Shakespeare meets John Hughes.”

I’m a big fan of everything Mr. Hughes ever did. He had a magic touch for capturing contemporary teen angst in a way most adults either quickly forget or never understood to begin with.

The angsty teen? Hamlet. The jock? Laertes. The waifish wallflower? Ophelia.

I’m not quite sure about bringing that same sensibility to a play with such heavy ethical and metaphysical overtones as Hamlet. Then again, Shakespeare has already been subjected to every permutation under the sun and somehow managed to survive. He, like everyone who actually lived through the 80’s, will humbly move on.

Perhaps it’s inevitable that each generation fuses its own iconic era with the evergreen qualities of Shakespeare. I chuckle aloud imagining his plays filtered through such 80’s classics as Say Anything, The Breakfast Club and Footloose.

Only one of these was created by the genius of John Hughes. But there really was a certain innocence and idealism to that decade which has long since given way to a hip, ironic, jaded sensibility.

The world is much too with us, as another famous poet once said. I would love to experience what Shakespeare looks and sounds like through Mr. Hughes’ heartfelt, iconic point of view.

For more info and a fun read on this version of Hamlet, click HERE.


London’s Globe Theatre Is Bringing Shakespeare To North Korea

Posted in Hamlet, Performance on 2014/03/17 by mattermind

Hamlet for Babies

Posted in Hamlet, YouTube with tags , on 2010/02/10 by mattermind

“To be or not to be… that is the question.”


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead

Posted in Hamlet with tags on 2010/01/25 by mattermind

That has to be the best title I’ve heard in a lonnnnng time. The idea for a movie… not so much.

Who else but the purveyors of MTV to bring you this fine, high-quality entertainment for your (cough) enjoyment.


In the midst of the 2010 Sundance and Slamdance film festivals we’ve got good news regarding a film that premiered in Park City last year. Jordan Galland’s vampire movie “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Undead,” which has been described as a cross between Terry Gilliam, Woody Allen and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” has finally been picked up for distribution, according to Variety. Indican Pictures scored the rights, and currently plans to release the comedy in theaters on April 16 of this year.

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There Are More Plays than Are Dreamt of in Your Playbook, Chilly

Posted in Hamlet with tags on 2010/01/25 by mattermind

You’ve probably had enough of football — most of you, anyway. But I will post this and then get off the subject, just to prove that I wasn’t the only one thinking of Shakespeare in regards to the career of Brett Favre. But Hamlet? Um… I dunno.

(“Stratford-Upon-Kiln, Mississippi” was my alternate headline.)

Brett Favre: the Hero Without the Happy Ending

By John Feinstein
Monday, January 25, 2010

Perhaps the best way to describe the football career of Brett Favre is to say that he has come to embody Hamlet, Shakespeare’s greatest and most famous character.

There is no doubting that Favre is heroic. That was never more evident than in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s NFC Championship game, when he hobbled in and out of the Minnesota Vikings’ huddle but somehow managed to keep back-pedaling and scrambling away from pass rushers to throw laser beam passes while getting knocked down by the New Orleans Saints again and again.

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Calling Dr. Freud

Posted in Hamlet, Movie Reviews with tags , , , on 2010/01/22 by mattermind

Glenn Close is nine years older than Mel Gibson, give or take a few months. (Shhh — don’t tell her I said that.) This span of not even a decade makes them an odd pairing to be cast as mother and son.

What in tarnation possesses older men to insist on playing Hamlet?

That said, he hits the ball way out of the park in this version. Many a moment took my breath away. It’s a pure pleasure to watch from start to finish. But, me being me, there are still a few aspects with which I’d like to quibble.

First: I’m not terribly fond of how Helena Bonham Carter played Ophelia. Fine actress, no doubt. But her reading robbed the girl of a great measure of her innocence. She seemed far too knowing, far too insightful into Hamlet’s behavior than the role warrants.

Second: Most of the abridgements were handled smoothly, and didn’t call too much attention to their absence. Gone again, understanably, is the outer doubling with Fortinbras and the Norwegians. To the good, we have Rosencrantz and Guildenstern back, who were notably absent from Olivier’s. But I take umbrage at how the burial scene was mangled. This, I believe, is more than a quibble. Watching it, I even got angry.

Here’s why: Laertes’s actions are in part driven by the cold-heartedness of the Priest, who insists that Ophelia did not deserve a Christian burial, and indeed, was only receiving anything more than a pauper’s burial because of her connections. Laertes, in reply, defends his sister’s purity and honor, saying she’ll be among the angels singing in heaven while he rots away in hell. It’s powerful stuff.

Maybe Mel didn’t like it because he’s a devout Cathlolic. But the tone of the scene turns wrong from the moment the funeral procession comes in singing a requiem. The Priest’s lines state specifically that she didn’t get one because she didn’t deserve one, at least according to the letter of the law.

Shakespeare indicates that there is stealth to the procession, that it has to occur under a cloak of secrecy due to the circumstances. Yet in they come, this long freight train of mourners, singing away.

Laertes does not jump into the grave. And his passionate words are not what motivate Hamlet to reveal himself in a bit of a pissy who-loved-her-more sort of a duel. Leaping into the grave and grappling in the midst of a burial — yeah, that’s over the top. But it also foreshadows the duel ahead and the ever-spiraling tragedy engulfing them. It’s one of my favorite moments of the play, and this telling did not do it justice.

The finale, however, was a huge improvement over Olivier’s — with one exception. The swordfight, the death of the King, Hamlet’s final speech… these were all superlative and fitting. But whoa whoa whoa, I did not like the alternative reading of the Queen’s innocent victimhood with the poisoned wine. It’s a viable option and it deserves credence. But it sounds a sour note in my heart.

Gertrude’s pivotal moment occured just prior, when Hamlet serves as a mirror to repent and change her ways. That she does so, we can see in her tenderness for Ophelia, her devotion to her son, and (we can only interpolate) her withdrawl of affections for the King.

It would in part explain why Claudius puts up such faint-hearted resistence when she takes the cup to drink. But then again, he’s such a foul and corrupted man at this point, all he really cares about is saving his own skin.

I’m not saying that there’s definitive proof in the text for either reading. Certainly a case can be made for Gertrude’s shock and surprise at the level of treachery uncovered by her own unwitting demise. There is poetic justice in her falling victim to her own husband’s trickery.

But I guess what I miss is her own immolation as a form of ultimate repentence. That’s the note that feels more right in Olivier’s telling. First, she suspects that Claudius is up to no good yet again. Second, she willingly intercepts the cup and sacrifices herself, in her mind with the hope of saving her son.

Take that away, she becomes yet another pawn in the villainy.

But maybe that’s just me.

I recommend both Zefirelli (Gibson) and Olivier DVDs very highly. If I protest, I do protest too much. I am cruel only to be kind.

Hamlet Marathon on TNT

Posted in Hamlet, Movie Reviews with tags , , , on 2010/01/22 by mattermind

Actually, no.

In case you hadn’t guessed, that’s an obscure reference to one of my favorite lines from Alan Ball’s American Beauty. With it, Lester expresses his displeasure at being dragged to a high school basketball game to watch his daughter cheer. He’s irritated because the act feels obligatory, plus there’s a Bond marathon on TNT.

And then his world went blonde.

I mention this because I’m in the midst of catching up on a pair of Hamlet movies so I don’t get yelled at for clogging up the Netflix queue.

I watched the Olivier version last night. My initial reaction can best be summed up by this factoid from Wikipedia:

Eileen Herlie, who plays Hamlet’s mother, was 28 years old when the movie was filmed. Olivier, who plays her son, was 41.


Hamlet, um, is a student at the University of Wittemburg, people… What’s this creepy fascination to play him so old? I mean, I realize it’s a great part and all but c’mon!

Aside from the obvious age-related casting issues, I liked this filmed version all-in-all. The castle looked a wee bit too Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, but then hey, it’s a play with a ghost. I’m down with that.

But what I didn’t like, however, was how the final act played out.

The King’s murder seemed like an afterthought, hardly worthy of a mention. The gory multiple stabbings were decidedly not indicated by Shakespeare’s direction.

Hamlet did not force Claudius to drink from the same cup as his mother. We don’t even get to see the reactions of either Hamlet or the King as all the underhandedness is finally avenged.

Olivier directed it. I praise him for his emphasis on the Queen, bringing out her intential act of what suggests suicide.

But I fault Olivier for staging a flat finale that seemed to be more about Hamlet’s demise and, incidentally, his last soliloquy.

My favorite casting in this filmed version was of Laertes. Unlike Horatio, who was preposterously too old as well and looked a bit like a Latin Lothario; and Ophelia, who seemed a little too blonde for my tastes.

The ghost, it should be mentioned, was superbly done.

The Mel Gibson version “airs” tonight.

A Small Rewrite

Posted in Hamlet with tags , on 2010/01/14 by mattermind

Hilarious sketch from Comic Relief. Enjoy!

Good Night, Sweet Prince

Posted in Hamlet on 2010/01/09 by mattermind

Hamlet, Act V: Scene 2

  • Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest!

It is wise that Shakespeare saved the climax of the play till the bitter end. He must have realized that without Hamlet, the whole enterprise would turn to dust. Aside from being the lead character in this eponymous drama, he is the heart and soul — the moral center — of all that whirls around him. (Good to steer clear of the German director’s cut, methinks.)

I was surprised at how completely I’d forgotten the concluding scene — and how little I was looking forward to it. This is not my first encounter with Hamlet, though it has been awhile.

We typically remember the big setpiece finale and lose much of the details leading up to it. But in this case, I’d conveniently dropped the dubious swordplay from my memory. I wonder why.

This go-round, however, I was surprisingly reminded of the end of the Odyssey, for some unknown reason, a trick perhaps of my own metaphorical mind — the scene where Odysseus and Telemachus (and Athena) set a trap for all the rapscallions and weasels who have crashed the pad and harassed poor Penelope while the master was away.

Maybe it’s the vengeance theme, maybe it’s the scheming, maybe it’s all the carnage that concludes the epic journey that brings us to the end. I won’t harp on the comparisons because they are in all likelihood meaningless in regards to Hamlet. I simply note them in passing, in case others might have thought of them too.

By the end, I had come to feel sorry for Gertrude. Ever since Hamlet confronted her in her room (and Polonius bit the big one by yelling from behind the tapestry), she has softened somehow. She never fails to call Hamlet sweet and dear, to gently defend him in front of Claudius. We are never told if she has stayed away from the defiled marriage bed and made confession, as Hamlet advised. But her sorrow at the graveyard touched me. Minus Claudius’ treachery, she might have become a doting grandmother and a much-needed guide for her inexperienced daughter-in-law.

When she drinks from the poisoned cup, it certainly seems like suicide to me. Claudius makes a half-assed attempt to warn her away, only to have her defy him in the boldest language she’s used anywhere before:

QUEEN: The queen carouses to thy fortune, Hamlet.

HAMLET: Good madam!

KING: Gertrude, do not drink.

QUEEN: I will, my lord; I pray you pardon me.

Pardon her for drinking? Or pardon her from checking out from all this vile underhandedness?

Carouses is an intriguing word here. A double-entendre, perhaps? It might be a modern shading to associate too strongly this “carousing” with her previous licentiousness. I can’t be certain if she’s mocking her prior behavior, or indicating that she’s doing the dirty work herself so Hamlet doesn’t have to.

I’m reading too much into it, maybe. But with Shakespeare, there’s a rule like Occam’s razor or Anselm’s ontological proof of God: if a more complex, more all-encompassing reading of a line exists, Shakespeare probably had it in mind.

Whether she knows it or not, however, Gertrude kills herself, doubling the suicides by women who are bystanders by and large to the mayhem caused by men. She is joined with Ophelia in the manner of her demise, the same way the fates of Laertes and Hamlet intertwine to symbolically do them in. Both kill the other at a game gone awry; both forgive while comprehending the motivations that drive the other to do what he has to do.

I laugh, however, at Shakespeare’s sly insertion of the word “almost” in Laertes’s line:

LAERTES: And yet it is almost against my conscience.

But almost it is, for if it were more he would withdraw from the plan and confess there and then. But Laertes, sadly, is a man of almosts — it ought to be his epitaph. For earlier, at the graveyard, he basically said the same: Hamlet, I love you, but. Let me get advice on how I can clean up my honor and save face before I truly forgive. Ick.

He is the son of Polonius, true. Politik runs in the family. Thus, I fail to fully accept his last-second bid to Hamlet that they let bygones be bygones, diverting all blame to Claudius who masterminded the nefarious hatchings and schemings. A greater soul might have pulled the plug from the bunghole at any time.

Which begs the question, why doesn’t Hamlet? He tells Horatio that he has not such a good feeling about the clear setup his dear uncle has arranged for him. It’s such a fraud, a con, a ruse, an obvious bating; Shakespeare emphasises this by having messengers appear to Hamlet twice: ya sure you’re coming, there, fella? The king would love to see you there!

But at this crucial turning point, Hamlet makes memorable reply:

HAMLET: Not a whit, we defy augury. There is special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves knows, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

So even though Claudius has never given him reason to trust anything he’s ever done before… even directly after the little ship voyage that went awry… he still bucks up for what lies ahead — even when his intuition bids him do otherwise. It begs the question if we should have trusted him when he said he didn’t care a jot if his James Bond maneuver on the boat sent Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their deaths.

Nothing good comes from evil.

I hadn’t thought of it before, but a Dante-esque quality pervades the punishments people suffer in Shakespeare for their sins: Polonius stabbed behind the tapestry while engaged in the idiotic spying he loves so much, Ophelia a sad and quiet suicide by madness and drowning, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern executed from a twisted order, Laertes the victim of his own rigged game, Gertrude a willing participant in the poisoned vice directed at Hamlet by her husband, Hamlet by the man who seeks revenge for the murder of his own father.

And of course Claudius, by the dipped sword that Hamlet unwittingly used to slay Laertes; then, sensing that maybe that alone would not be enough to account for such criminal behavior by a king, Hamlet forces him to drink from the cup that was meant for him, the grog that killed his mother, his father’s betrothed, his uncle’s wife, the queen.

Man, that’s good. That’s way, way, way beyond good.

You can shrug away Shakespeare’s brilliance. Call him a misogynist and evict him from the canon — if a canon exists any longer. But to deny Shakespeare’s mastery is to spray graffiti in the Sistine Chapel, to piss on the score of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

For every crap movie with a Deus ex machina (look it up) ending, for every half-baked story like Wicked that pulls a happy ending out of its ass, for every dunder-headed sequel that gets foisted on a witless audience, for all the times when you suffer through a story when X doesn’t combine with Y to add up to Z — there’s Shakespeare. Or Hamlet, anyway. I can’t presume about the rest.

This is plot and character taken to their highest levels. Where the sum of the parts equals more than the products multiplied. When meaning is logarithmic, exponential. When you have to stand back and say, wow. So that’s what genius looks like. If we denigrate that, we deserve what we get. You can’t maul the Master, henpeck him from the pantheon and think you’ve done your school, your university, your life a favor.

Hamlet is the read of a lifetime. A book that steadies you from the garbage masquerading as news these days — or any days. From Tiger Woods and his legion of mistresses. From politics as usual. From little league coaches who play their son at a position he doesn’t belong, let him hit cleanup while the rightful slugger sits on the bench.

You might say, what good does reading the classics do? How can Shakespeare help me get on with my life? Well, think of all the metaphors this one play — just this one — gives you as you open the door and set out into the world. Will you be a Claudius? A Gertrude? A Polonius? A Horatio? Or do you aspire to be a Hamlet? Do you dare so much?

Shakespeare is a universe, Mr. Bloom. An I’ve only finished this one damned play!

Grave Thoughts

Posted in Hamlet on 2010/01/08 by mattermind

Hamlet, Act V: Scene 1

  • Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio

Of all the barnacles that have encrusted the staggering greatness of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, more have accumulated around the graveyard scene than for any other save the immortal “to be or not to be” soliloquy. Yet I found it, in this reading, to be the most moving of the play by far.

The skull, as prop, has usurped too much screentime. It has distracted us from weight of what’s transpiring around us. And that, perhaps as well, is yet another hallmark of Shakespeare’s greatness: he breaks up the brooding and lament with the gravedigger’s nonchalance. The skull is a prop, no doubt. As are the lyrics of the songs. But this is no mockery here. This scene is meant to move.

And move it does. For we all fear death, and Hamlet too, though not in a distant sense, but in the very real awareness that our end can come at any time. We are not told what has brought Hamlet and Horatio to the mourning end of town, and at the hour when poor Ophelia is being taken to her grave.

When the procession (such that it is, for she is considered a suicide and not entitled to a proper burial except by stealth) arrives, Hamlet does not know the case, but just the cause. Shakespeare deftly allows us the advance knowledge to let our hearts break as Hamlet discovers who it is that died.

Until that moment, the puns barb death as an abstract. For the gravedigger, it means employment. For Horatio, a distant inevitability. For Hamlet, moreso than the others, there is a morbid curiosity:

HAMLET: How long will a man lie i’ th’ earth ere he rot?

An odd thought to be having at that moment. But he is wrestling with the senselessness of the fact that robs life’s accomplishments of meaning. Even Alexander the Great is but reduced to dirt in the end.

I couldn’t help but be reminded of the lines of Ozmandias, one of the great (and short) poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley that we had to read in high school. Maybe because it is so short. But I never forgot it nonetheless:

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: “Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!’
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away”.

As Harold Bloom would say, leave it to Shakespeare to usurp even the greatness that followed him. For when you read Hamlet say it better, it leaves you feeling that even Shelley’s words can’t hold a candle to the Bard’s:

HAMLET: Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest [RIP David Foster Wallace…] , of most excellent fancy. He hath bore me on his back a thousand times. And now how abhorred in my imagination it is! My gorge rises at it. Here hung those lips that I have kissed I know not how oft. Where be your gibes now? Your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one now to mock your own grinning? Quite chopfallen?

Neither the jester nor the world conqueror fares any better in death. And Hamlet is upset at that — not the reality of death, which he accepts, but that it undercuts every ambition a noble soul might have. This is the full flush of his earlier equivocation, the embodiment of his existential dispair. For if all human actions lead to the same grave place, why engage in the charade? Why partake of the tomfoolery? What, in God’s name, are we here for?

But such musings take a turn when the procession arrives. Hamlet and Horatio steal themselves away to overhear. It is now that the fates of Laertes and Hamlet truly become intertwined, not as fated foes but as secret brothers who ought to have been joined in law by Hamlet’s marriage to Laertes’s sister. And but for the crime of Claudius, it would have been!

Now in my edition of the play (Penguin hardbounds, as pictured earlier), a curious specification arises that is absent in another that I checked. When the mourners arrive, they are accompanied by a man described as: “a Doctor of Divinity as Priest.” Now I’m not trying to gloss the play or provide a commentary for each and every line. But Penguin insists on using DOCTOR to distinguish his lines where the other version merely says PRIEST — and I find that to be an outrageous simplification of Shakespeare’s intentional differentiation.

My point: first the gravediggers, then the “Doctor of Divinity” assert Ophelia’s disqualifications for proper burial because she is considered a suicide. (This becomes important, so bear with me.) The Doctor is practically a Pharisee when he sticks to the letter and not the spirit of the law, saying:

DOCTOR: Her obsequies have have been as far enlarged

As we have warranty. Her death was doubtful,

And, but that great command o’ersways the order,

She should in ground unsanctified have lodged

Till the last trumpet.

This sends Laertes into an outrage of florid protestation. He knew his sister and her purity and worthiness as the “Doctor” does not. His words send shivers through my heart:

First, a calm rebuttal:

LAERTES: Must there no more be done?

He is answered with cold, bureaucratic legality:

DOCTOR: No more be done.

We should profane the service of the dead

To sing a requiem and such rest to her

As to peace-parted souls.

For grieving Laertes, this assertion is just too much. He launches forth:

LAERTES: Lay her i’ th’ earth,

And from her fair and unpolluted flesh

May violets spring! I tell thee, churlish priest,

A minist’ring angel shall my sister be

When thou liest howling.

Wow. And it is these words which waken Hamlet to the news!

And not only this — his very mother confesses that she fully anticipated seeing Ophelia married to her son! Thus, Polonius and Laertes were BOTH wrong!!! They advised Ophelia against believing her heart and Hamlet’s professions of love, that he was above her station and couldn’t possibly be true to his vows.

QUEEN: I hoped thou shouldst be my Hamlet’s wife.

I thought thy bridebed to have decked , sweet maid,

And not have strewed thy grave.

Oh, the pain that must be coursing through Hamlet’s heart!  The passion that surges through this scene as he observes Laertes speak and act so eloquently on Ophelia’s behalf.

LAERTES: Hold off the earth awhile,

Till I have caught her once more in mine arms.

And he leaps into her grave!

This drives Hamlet to forget his place and reveal himself. When it comes to caring for Ophelia, no one has loved her more than he:

HAMLET: I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers

Could not with all their quantity of love

Make up my sum. What wilt thou do for her?

Hamlet is challenging Laertes when in fact they share so much. If only they knew (and they will before the play ends), they would lay down their arms and avert the further impending tragedy.

But Claudius has too much to gain from their continued rivalry. With ruthless calculation he reminds Laertes:

LAERTES: Strengthen your patience in last night’s speech.

We’ll put the matter to the present push. —

For that bastard, there’s no letting up.