Blog #64 – Alas Poor Hamlet – a review


Alas Poor Hamlet…
All great art is susceptible to many interpretations. That’s certainly true of Hamlet. But a recent staging in New York City 1. goes rather far to undermine Shakespeare‘s own reading of the story and presentation of it in the play he actually wrote. In Shakespeare’s presentation, Hamlet is a deeply thoughtful individual, thoughtful perhaps to the point where action is paralyzed, but thoughtful about some of life’s great and real questions. Whether and if so then how, to avenge his father’s murder is the embodiment of his deepest philosophical and emotional concerns, and produces some of the most eloquent poetical language dealing with philosophical problems in the English language.
Let me call the New York presentation “Hamlet as Neurotic.” The fulcrum of the imaginative re-interpretation, perhaps unintended, comes from a simple change in the play: delete the ghost scene, in which Hamlet addresses his father’s ghost and is told that his death was murder and his uncle the murderer. Absent that knowledge, the motivation for Hamlet’s conduct becomes his mother’s too rapid remarriage after Hamlet’s father’s death. Hamlet, unaware of the murder and its perpetrator, simply cannot deal with his mother’s conduct. Oedipus would understand; Freud could deal with it in one or two standard sessions on the couch. But Hamlet can’t get over it. He bemoans at childish length his mother’s unseemly speedy remarriage. Symbolically, an otherwise utterly irrelevant wedding cake, is never touched or even noticed by anyone in the cast, but hovers center rear stage throughout, presumably in the subconscious of the characters and the audience.
Pushing the reinterpretation – rewriting is perhaps the better word – Hamlet’s neurosis is acted out in modern dress. The men wear sports jackets, Hamlet is sloppily dressed, virtually in a t-shirt for much of the time, although always incongruously addressed as “My Lord” even by his closest friend, Horatio. The incongruity between the acting and the words, between the performance and the implications of the text, are constant. Hamlet is a balding teenager, petulant, verbose, undisciplined, impulsive simply unable to deal with his reactions to his parents’ behavior , shocked at his imaginings of their sexual behavior.
The setting is completely re-interpreted as well – not Elsinore Castle, but apparently a table in a white-cloth restaurant– in which the actors come and go quite unconcerned with where they are. Chairs are placed around the table, which is present throughout the play, and used primarily for the actors to lean on perhaps when their lines get to heavy for them to bear otherwise. On the other hand, the player’s great Hecuba speech is delivered by the player king sitting down on one of the chairs; when Hamlet later hectors the players on how to act, they all have to stand up.
Indeed, Hamlet is changed in the presentation from a sweet prince, and a deeply self-contemplative one, to a thoughtless balding young man displaying for all to see a neurotic relationship to his parents, spouting words at the top of his voice at a rapid pace without pause for breath, let alone thought, with a sense of humor up to making snide jokes showing off his wit but hardly with the corrosive impact revealing actualities below the surface, as the text would allow.
It just doesn’t work. One would expect Freud, not Fortinbras, to come in at the end to explain why those five corpses are lying there, and then clean the mess up. Shakespeare was dealing with great issues, public and private, of morality, religion, philosophy ambition, self-awareness, power. Modernizing the play to refocus its central issue from the relationship between thought and action to a focus on troubles with personal relationships within a family strips the play of its major, and still current, meaning. Reading the text after seeing the play shows how great the loss is.

The reference is to the Classic Stage Company’s May 2015 production, directed by Austin Pendleton, in which Peter Sarsgaard plays the title role. The Review by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, April 15, 2015: ‘Hamlet’ as an After-Party That Got Out of Hand,” makes some of the same points made here.
The production is very competently handled, the imagination and willingness to try something clearly risky are commendable, and the Classic Stage is a real contribution to the New York theater scene. In this case (rare, for the company) the risk resulted in a loss. You can’t win them all.
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1. The reference is to the Classic Stage Company’s May 2015 production, directed by Austin Pendleton, in which Peter Sarsgaard plays the title role. The Review by Charles Isherwood in the New York Times, April 15, 2015: ‘Hamlet’ as an After-Party That Got Out of Hand,” makes some of the same points made here.
The production is very competently handled, the imagination and willingness to try something clearly risky are commendable, and the Classic Stage is a real contribution to the New York theater scene. In this case (rare, for the company) the risk resulted in a loss. You can’t win them all.

3 thoughts on “Blog #64 – Alas Poor Hamlet – a review

  1. Hamlet and Herbert Marcuse: Let’s view Hamlet, as a serious student-prince whose uncle criminally deprives (i.e. alienates) him of his birthright (to become politically autonomous, free, i.e. king). His insight into the power of the aesthetic dimension leads him to ingeniously utilize talents of wandering actors and their dramatic artistry to confront those who were guilty in the audience with the unnerving and estranging truth. The impact of art shatters the conscience of the powerful who were unjustly established. Power in its fervent attempts to sustain itself becomes inadvertently self-destructive. Yet no happy ending is assured for the oppressed Hamlet, given dialectical unity-in-difference of noble humanity and the quintessence of dust. The discovery of the authentic conditions of liberation remains the critical philosopher’s humanist task.

  2. But Hamlet wasn’t deprived of a thing; if anything, he was a spoiled brat. Herbert once commented, at a particularly painful moment in his life, that men would not really ever be free till they had conquered death. Hamlet might agree. I wonder if Marx would.

  3. You’re right about the death problematic. It generally bestows a tragic sense of life. But a life lived well does free one to see one’s future oblivion as peace. Murder and killing have marred Hamlet’s ability to “conquer” death. It conquers him. Marx on the other hand must have known his work was worthy of enduring remembrance, even if certain aspects of his life were less deserving. Does his philosophy of labor sublate the old religious doctrine that Works, if excellent, may bring a recompense of grace?

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