Dear reader: If you don’t know by now that next April marks the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, well – you actually do!
It will be a wonderful occasion – after all those years, and the countless words spilt on innumerable pages, real and surreal, he remains the greatest writer ever, and that is saying a lot. Not everything he wrote had the golden touch of his best but in a relatively short life, he produced so much outstanding literature it is difficult to credit, though it is true.
It is also true that there is a lot that is unknown about Shakespeare. That has allowed people who should know better to create fabulous alternative authors, from Bacon to other nobles otherwise unheard of. Not too long ago the film Anonymous put just such a case. Trying to be as generous of spirit as possible, that is complete rubbish.
Shakespeare wrote some of his plays with others, but it did not take long for him to be regarded as the senior partner in that kind of enterprise. He had a gift that was just astonishing, even to his peers. It is also true that theatrical practice at the time meant companies “woodshedded” their productions. Shakespeare as an actor as well as playwright would have taken a full part in these and no doubt there would have been changes to lines and scenes as a result. Plays were more of a collaborative enterprise then than they typically are today. That is a very far cry from a secret author cunningly slipping scripts to an otherwise undistinguished actor and entrepreneur.
Shakespeare’s work seems inexhaustibly multifaceted. A few of his plays have been portrayed as both comedies and tragedies, and I’ve written a blog post about this (“Toiling with Troilus”), but more nuanced interpretations of his work allows for remarkably wide-ranging productions. Baz Luhrman’s Romeo and Juliet credably set the famous romance in modern Venice, California’s gang turf (to be fair, Bernstein’s West Side Story did the same on New York streets without crediting the Bard). Productions change their historical garb with remarkable ease, and make their cases to be understood and appreciated.
Even so, there are those who don’t like him.
Recently I had a brief conversation with a dramatist and actor who found him “too wordy”. Wow! It reminded me of the joke about someone who saw a production of Hamlet and was bored – “It’s full of cliches”.
An Irish critic titled a book on the plays Shakespeare is hard – but so is life. What was easy for readers and viewers to comprehend in Shakespeare’s lifetime now needs guidance to fully appreciate. But to suggest he is boring is just wrong. Part of the reason for the bard’s success was that he did it all – actor, theatre impresario, writer – so knew how to put “bums on seats” in competition with other attractions seeking punters’ pennies – bear-baiting for example. The groundlings – illterate kids and the like – needed excitement and Shakespeare gave it to them. The literate wanted more, and they got it too. But for us, changes in our spoken and written language and in theatre convention really mean using critical editions, and then our brains, to get what is there to be got.
There really is a very great deal. In “Toiling with Troilus” I’ve tried to show my appreciation of Troilus and Cressida, a play even many educated people have never heard of. This time I’d like to wander around Hamlet, arguably the world’s best-known dramatic work, and in its “existentialist” cloth, as fresh and relevant as when actors first trod the boards reciting the lines.
Discovering the “real” Hamlet is a detective story and no single explanation or text is ever likely to please everyone. Harold Jenkins’ wonderful Arden edition is my favourite and persuasively suggests that one printed edition, from Germany, was actually an inaccurate theft – a so-called memorial reconstruction – by one of the actors who appeared in the first production of the play. Jenkins even shows the role played by the actor who was the thief, as the man remembered the lines of the play closest to his own, and flubbed those where he was not involved. There is more in Jenkins’ absorbing account.
It is a commonplace to say that Hamlet the character was indecisive. That is not entirely fair. Hamlet was caught in a difficult situation. His father the king had died suddenly and he, the inheriting son, was deprived of the crown by his uncle, who had married his mother with unseemly haste after his father’s death. Brooding on this, he is confronted by the ghost of his father who says he’s been murdered, and insists on revenge.
Rationalist that he is, Hamlet needs to decide whether this vision is real or not, and if real, whether it might be a trick by a demon rather than a true visitation by his departed father. He cleverly lays a trap for his uncle to find out, meantime feigning madness to keep the villain guessing. Once he realises the truth, he passes up the opportunity to kill the uncle at prayer as it was believed that was a ticket to hell, and in the end only manages to exact revenge at the cost of the kingdom to the Swedes, his own life, the lives of his betrothed Ophelia, her brother Laertes and their father, the pompous Polonius.
What presses on Hamlet all this time are circumstances beyond his control. He is not helpless, but he cannot manage what comes at him.
This is a very contemporary dilemma. The so-called 12-step programmes used to recover today by sufferers of complaints ranging from alcoholism and drug addiction to food issues and more begin by sufferers saying they had admitted powerlessness in the face of their addiction “and that our lives had become unmanageable”. That first step however only introduces a stark reality of “recovery” – at no point in the remaining 11 steps does life become “manageable”. Instead it is necessary to “turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him”.
Life thus remains unmanageable by the sufferer alone. As Catholic theologian Richard Rohr emphasises, life is only managed through turning to a force greater than oneself, a “higher power”. When I jest with my friends that my tiny bubble of the universe is “completely unmanageable” my tongue is firmly in my cheek but. . .
Seen coldly, life – life, not one’s daily chores – is ultimately unmanageable for everyone. However much we might think we are taking care of everything, the reality is that everything is actually taking care of us. Whatever we think we are doing, in the end, we end. As Celine’s most famous aphorism put it, “The truth of this life is death”.* Celine endlessly mocked the perverse delusions of madly avoiding confronting the truth about our lives and ourselves.
Hamlet, something of a genius, nimble as nimble could be, is nonetheless overwhelmed by a chain of challenges that finally destroys him. As he avoids one calamity after another, he dismisses as foolishness the looming presence of the cunning son of the Swedish king, who uses an excuse to entrap and ultimately subjugate the Danes. Honoring the fallen prince fits in perfectly with the Swede’s perfidious plan.
The tragedy of Hamlet is not that he cannot bring himself to act, but that he feels unable to act – trapped in a web of circumstance that try as he might, he cannot shake loose. The famous “To be or not be” speech is a meditation in the face of this harsh reality of trying to “take arms against a sea of troubles” and end them at the price of losing his life, or surviving but enduring that sea. Hamlet wants to live, and he wants to exact revenge, but his own cunning plan comes to nothing though he manages to kill his uncle in the mist of a general slaughter.
Hamlet is a brilliantly constructed play and is full of wonderful lines that have kept their magic for more than 400 years now. Many of these are mysterious**, still the subject of conjecture, while others resonate within us for their wisdom. A good production shows that life really is unmanageable – by us. The Great Dane barks up the wrong tree by trying to handle it all himself.
Of course, it is pretty wordy. ..and full of cliches.
Thanks for reading.
*Celine used this famous phrase first in his doctoral thesis on the physician Semmelweis, who discovered the principles of antisepsis at the cost of his own life. Celine then plagiarised himself in this first novel, Journey to the end of night.
** “I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.”