Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Shakesblogging: Hamlet

Holy crap, what do you say about Hamlet? I have no idea, which doesn’t bode well for my attempts to teach this play. (I think my classes on it last fall were kind of a flaily mess, and I’m not sure this year will be any better.)

What I love about this play: It has so much stuff packed into it – Big Action Scenes, reams of philosophy, a play-within-a-play (with bonus theatrical in-jokes), murder, madness, skulduggery, skull-digging, and (just for the heck of it) Plot Device Pirates. Oh, and an invasion of Poland, although one might reasonably be forgiven for not noticing that part. I have trouble grappling with this play in the classroom because it feels so overwhelming and overstuffed (and I rather suspect the text we have is the equivalent of a director’s cut DVD with loads of bonus scenes that didn’t make it into the theatrical version), but it’s mostly really interesting stuff.

For some reason, most of the parts of this play that I really like are random, throwaway bits, rather than the famous ones. It goes without saying that I have much love for the ghost’s speech, perhaps the best opening of a ghost story ever:

I could a tale unfold, whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
Like quills upon the fretful porpentine....

Also, Hamlet vs. Polonius is a hoot: “My honourable lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you.” “You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal, except my life, except my life, except my life.” (Poor Polonius is still playing straight man when he’s dead: “At supper ... not where he eats, but where he is eaten.” Plus, Hamlet slips in a bonus Diet of Worms joke: seventeenth-century nerd humor at its finest.) Even more awesome is Hamlet’s reply to Claudius’s query, “Where is Polonius?” “In heaven; send thither to see: if your messenger find him not there, seek him i’ the other place yourself. Honestly? Never mind the soliloquies – they’re kind of self-indulgent – it’s the darkly hilarious Hamlet who emerges in dialogue with people he doesn’t like who really wins me over. (I also find it rather endearing that the brilliant, university-educated prince is an absolutely awful poet, like many of the Clever Young Men in Shakespeare, and no great shakes as a theater critic. You can just see the players trying to humor their patron, but rolling their eyes behind his back.)

And to single out one last throwaway bit: oh, the gravediggers. I love the way they’re keenly aware that something is not right in Claudius’s Denmark (“If this had not been a gentlewoman, she should have been buried out of Christian burial”), but the only way they can talk about them is to talk as clowns, a socially sanctioned role for the lower classes, and turn the absurdity of the coroner’s verdict into an even more absurd jest: “she drowned herself in her own defence.”

Favorite memory: This was one of the first Shakespeare plays I ever read. (Because hey, you might as well start big.) My father had gone on a business trip to England, and he brought back a children’s book called Stories from Shakespeare, and for some reason I got bitten by the bug, and decided to read the real thing. And then I tried to make my seven-year-old brother act out the fencing scene, which didn’t go very well because he would only play if he got to be Hamlet, and he always insisted on rising from the dead and yelling “OH YEAH? WHAT ABOUT THE NUNCHUCKS?” So much for “flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”


Flavia said...

Hamlet would be even better if it actually included the line, "OH YEAH? WHAT ABOUT THE NUNCHUCKS?"

Maybe in a different spot, each time.

Bibliotrek said...

My brother used to ruin all of my games with the same line! I blame the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

(While I'm delurking, I should also say that I'm really enjoying the Shakesblogging!)

Fie upon this quiet life! said...

I love Hamlet, the character. His interactions with people are superb. Can you imagine actually being his friend? God, what a relationship that would be! (Not to sound like my absurd grad student... Ahem.) Anyway, my favorite part? I really love the recorder scene. Yeah, it's famous, but it's so clever.

I find teaching Hamlet to be a lot of fun, but after three years of it, I am going to probably leave it out next time and go for a tragedy that fewer students have read, not sure what though. Maybe King Lear, which I did teach, and it went fairly well. It seems like most students come to Hamlet with preconceived notions, and it would be novel to look at a tragedy that they might know a bit less about, culturally. Then again, Shakespeare's so much a part of our culture, it's almost impossible to teach them a play that they haven't got a preconceived idea about. Except maybe Cymbeline. That's a tragedy, right? Just ask Heming and Condell. haha.

Bardiac said...

There are few early modern plays that wouldn't be better with a random inclusion of "Oh yeah? What about the nunchucks?"

I can easily imagine that being perfect in the middle of Perkin Warbeck or Gorbaduc or Ralph Roister Doister. /nod

Fretful Porpentine said...

Bardiac and Flavia -- I think all plays ever would be improved by that line! Can you imagine how much it would liven up all of Eugene O'Neill?