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3 may 2015

Hamlet is probably the most familiar literary work in the English language. It's certainly familiar to me. I've read it over and over since middle school. Actually I started with a Classics Illustrated comic book version and graduated to a chunky little mass-market Folger Shakespeare edition, and have worked my way through various scholarly editions over the years. I've seen Hamlet several times on stage and in various film versions. I've usually enjoyed reading it. I've usually been bored out of my mind watching it. I'm wondering if I need to start blaming William Shakespeare.

The most readily-accessible film versions are by Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh. Olivier's is Oedipally fraught and self-consciously tasteful. Branagh's is awkward, uneven, full of stunt casting and odd makeup choices, and outright impossible to watch: at 4:02 it's almost as long as a Yankees/Red-Sox game. Mel Gibson I'm still trying to repress. I vaguely remember not minding Nicol Williamson in a now-obscure video version from my childhood. I vividly remember Harry Hamlin's Hamlet, onstage at the McCarter Theater in New Jersey in the early 1980s. Let's just say that Harry's a lot better in Mad Men.

There's something to the position, so prominently held it isn't even contrarian, that Hamlet is a dog's breakfast of a play. Tolstoy objected to the Prince as being a dramatic cipher:

As it is recognized that Shakespeare the genius can not write anything bad, therefore learned people use all the powers of their minds to find extraordinary beauties in what is an obvious and crying failure, demonstrated with especial vividness in "Hamlet," where the principal figure has no character whatever.
Bernard Shaw (follow the same link as for Tolstoy) found Hamlet the least ideologically-questionable Shakespearean hero, but wasn't impressed:
The one play, "Hamlet," in which Shakespeare made an attempt to give as a hero one who was dissatisfied with the ready-made morality, is the one which has given the highest impression of his genius, altho Hamlet's revolt is unskillfully and inconclusively suggested and not worked out with any philosophic competence.
T.S. Eliot famously thought that Hamlet's baffled and incommensurate response to his situation, while making sense for real-life Hamlets, couldn't sustain dramatic action:
Hamlet is up against the difficulty that his disgust is occasioned by his mother, but that his mother is not an adequate equivalent for it; his disgust envelops and exceeds her. It is thus a feeling which he cannot understand; he cannot objectify it, and it therefore remains to poison life and obstruct action. None of the possible actions can satisfy it; and nothing that Shakespeare can do with the plot can express Hamlet for him.
Whatever one thinks about Eliot's "objective correlative," his insight may explain people like me who love to read Hamlet but can't work up interest in the play onstage. As Tolstoy said, anticipating Seinfeld, "precisely in this absence of character consists the genius of creating a deeply conceived character" – or at least that's how Tolstoy mocked Bardolatrous appreciations of Hamlet. Characters with no center are realistic enough. Most of us are hollow men. But we don't want to spend four hours' traffic of the stage with people like us.

Of course, few producers have inflicted four-hour Hamlets on their audiences. One of the reasons I liked Williamson's 1969 version is that it comes in under two hours. If you muster up every known line in every known version, you get the vast extent of the Branagh film, but stage companies have usually had more sense. 1987 Oxford editor G.R. Hibbard sees the textual material of the various editions of Hamlet as

a kind of quarry from which the theatre manager might extract whatever he thought most suitable to make up an evening's entertainment, provided, of course, that he included in that entertainment those scenes, such as that in the graveyard, which no audience would forgo. (20)
This cut-and-paste approach, Hibbard goes on to say, "has not, for sound practical reasons, been completely superseded even now."

One reason is that there is no definitive version of Hamlet. Not only is an "uncut" Hamlet an existential impossibility, there isn't even an authoritative text to be cut; instead there are three texts that can be sewn together in varying proportions. Hibbard himself is a fan of the mid-length Folio text, seeing it as an authorial revision of the somewhat longer "good" Second Quarto (and seeing the "bad" First Quarto as a botched attempt to reconstruct the Folio version). Hibbard relegates quite a bit of genuine Shakespearean verse to an Appendix, saying that it doesn't help the play and that Shakespeare was quite right to cut it. He has a point, and his editorial practice thus resembles the practical judgment of many a producer. The guy who isn't much help here is William Shakespeare, who never consolidated the play into a reasonable acting version.

Even the Folio text is long, and unusual for Shakespeare in containing many speeches that don't advance the action. Several of its best-known images and actions are reported at second-hand, including the initial appearance of the Ghost, Hamlet's initial mad behavior toward Ophelia, and Ophelia's drowning. Now, that's not unheard-of in Shakespeare, who lets his characters indulge in description and accounts at times: think of Titania on the "forgeries of jealousy," or Enobarbus on Cleopatra in her barge. But in Hamlet an unusual proportion of action occurs offstage, while an unusual proportion of onstage talk describes action, or is just plain talk.

Sometimes the gab is lovely, as when a character named Marcellus that we've barely met and won't see again tells a pointless story about Christmas cock-crows:

Some say that ever, 'gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour's birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long;
And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad,
The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow'd and so gracious is the time. (Act 1, Scene 1)
That's sweet but unnecessary, and it sets the tone for the rest of the play: there's always time to talk stuff over. Some of the later chatter isn't sweet, while being even less necessary. Take Claudius's conversation with Laertes in Act 4, Scene 7. Remember that this is a crucial exchange, which sets up the whole fifth act and its multiple murders. Claudius is fearful for his life now that Hamlet is back on the scene after the failed attempt to get the English to kill him. Laertes, though he doesn't know yet that his sister is dead, is hopping mad at Hamlet for, like, killing his father.

So what do they discuss? Sports. Claudius starts talking about an excellent jouster:

Two months since
Here was a gentleman of Normandy.
I have seen myself, and serv'd against, the French,
And they can well on horseback; but this gallant
Had witchcraft in't. He grew unto his seat,
And to such wondrous doing brought his horse
As had he been incorps'd and demi-natur'd
With the brave beast. So far he topp'd my thought
That I, in forgery of shapes and tricks,
Come short of what he did.
Lamound, right? asks Laertes. Yeah, Lamound the Norman. Dang, I saw him play against the Packers. Quite a pass rusher, that Lamound.

Seriously, what are these guys on about? In Branagh's film, where the scene shows up at about the three-hour mark, it's a petrifying gabfest. Even the actors seem aware of how tedious it is.

G.R. Hibbard, as I've noted, sees Shakespeare as having improved the play aesthetically via revision into the Folio version. Other editors haven't been so sure, and as Zachary Lesser notes, current editorial practice seems to have given up making choices, surrendering to the plausible notion that all three Hamlet texts show coherent stage versions of varying quality. In the end, any producer (or editor, or for that matter, reader) must carve some version of Hamlet out of the dark materials of the early printed versions. After that, taste is in the judgment of the beholder.

Last night in Fort Worth, I saw a rousing production of Ambroise Thomas' 1868 grand opera Hamlet, with baritone Wes Mason as an athletically insane Prince and soprano Talise Trevigne as Ophélie, whose part is arguably more important than Hamlet's. Thomas' opera, with a libretto by by Michel Carré and Jules Barbier, is in turn based on a French stage version by Alexandre Dumas père.

None of these Frenchmen was a Shakespearean textual scholar and most of them didn't even know English, so Thomas' Hamlet can seem like the result of a highbrow game of Telephone. Yet it's a serious artistic attempt to carve viable drama out of Shakespeare's jumble of characters and plotlines. For all the rottenness in the state of Denmark, Shakespeare's Hamlet is low on conspiracy. Claudius has killed the king, but the king's ghost is the only person who seems to know this, and he's choosy about revealing it. Meanwhile, Hamlet and Ophelia seem a bit flirtatious, but for the most part are notably inexpressive lovers, even before he goes all get-thee-to-a-nunnery on her.

In Thomas' Hamlet, the Prince and Ophélie start the play actually engaged, and sing a tender love duet. Ironically, the most doggerelly bit of the English Hamlet:

Doubt thou the stars are fire;
Doubt that the sun doth move;
Doubt truth to be a liar;
But never doubt I love. (Act 2, Scene 2)
becomes the big lyrical number in French:
Doute de la lumière,
Doute du soleil et du jour,
Doute des cieux et de la terre,
Mais ne doute jamais de mon amour! (Act 1)
(Still more ironic is that in Shakespeare, Hamlet never speaks those lines. He writes them, and they are relayed by Polonius, in the strange way the play has of giving us things second-hand.)

The French adaptors add exigency to the plot by making Gertrude and Polonius co-conspirators in the murder. Talk about objective correlative! Not only has Mom emulated Clytemnestra, but Girlfriend's Dad has emulated … I don't know who exactly, but somebody really bad.

Hamlet still gets to mope around a little, and sings the aria "Être ou ne pas être," but the plot moves briskly, and there's little other stopping to philosophize. Hamlet has ample reason to reject Ophèlie, and she in turn has ample reason to go mad. The centerpiece of the show is the brief Act 4, where Ophèlie, quite bonkers, strolls down to the riverside, entertains some peasants with a folktale, and drowns herself, whereupon the peasants fish her out so she can reprise "Doute de la lumière" and drown herself again. Thus one of the most vivid scenes on the French stage, and one of the most enduring subjects in Western art – the death of Ophelia – is based on a scene Shakespeare doesn't portray; he assigns it instead to a report by the Queen.

The Fort Worth production, which originated in Washington DC and Kansas City, featured some goofy stuff like furtive beggarwomen harassed by Danish stormtroopers in the lobby before curtain, and a massive audience-interactive coronation just after curtain. The first, second, and fourth acts were stirring, but the third was talkier. It still came in at about three hours, but that was still a half-hour too long. I was comfortably napping by the fifth act when a really loud gunfight broke out on the stage apron: fortunately just Hamlet and Laërtes firing blanks at each other, but enough to ensure my attention for the remainder of the show.

I give it four stars. Almost as memorable as Gilligan.

Shakespeare, William. Hamlet. 1623. Edited by G.R. Hibbard. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1987. PR 2807 .A2H5