Bird Brian is right: being drunk is the best time to take on these unbelievable yawning Grand Canyons of literature. I'm hammered, in the best way, a long slow dinner of courses and cheese, slowly stewing in dessert wines and conversations. It's a thousand degrees outside, but I've got my warm laptop on my lap, and I'm smoking, which makes typing weird, but that's totally cool.
I thought of writing something for Hamlet a month or two ago when I saw the best production I've seen, maybe full stop. It was at a local theater, the Theatre in the Round, which is this old school non-profit theater over on the West Bank, which is the edge of the University's gravity. Imma name drop in this super local manner here, so here me out. I have a friend on the board of the theater, whom I know from when I did a semester in London, so I've been going desultorily to productions when I remember, mostly to represent. Earlier in the season they did Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, which I have actually read, perversely, but never seen. That was good. It put the Danish Prince in my mind. So.
So. Then a month goes by and I'm sitting in the theater excited for the play to start and then the lights go dark and then holyfuckingshit. I'm writing this mostly because I got to the day on the facebook book challenge that goes: Book you tell people you’ve read, but haven’t (or haven’t actually finished)
. I've never read Hamlet. I probably never will. I hate reading plays. I've only done it when I've had to, like for class. I actually envy people who can read scripts and see their worth, because it's all just blahblah blah scene change blah exeunt chased by bear. I can't feel it. As much as I feel dialogue in a novel, and I do, it's like a thing, I don't feel dialogue in a play.
So. Hamlet. They walk out on stage, those soldiers on their watch. "'Tis bitter cold and I am sick at heart," and the other pats his arms with the cold, I am there, in the horror of the king dead and resurrected, in the ghost in the battlements who is the sign of the rot in the country. Hamlet spoke too fast, I admit, tumbling over his lines so he could get the running time under three hours.
Here's where I watch closely when I watch Hamlet: Ophelia. Every Hamlet has to decide if he believes that he knows that Polonius is watching when Hamlet talks to Ophelia. Whether he cues the audience in or not is another game entirely, but he has to know that. This Hamlet, holyfuckingshit, you could see the shift, subtle, a flick of the eyes, not the broad mannerisms of someone pitching for the cheap seats, but a shift nonetheless. Get thee to a nunnery, he says, quiet, intimate, so quiet that maybe the listeners cannot hear. Get thee to a nunnery, he says, like a hope that she would be out of the palace game, that she would be safe from the coming storm. Run
he said, but she didn't understand and she shattered into a thousand pieces.
Ophelia. I don't envy any actor who has to play Hamlet, who has to act through the thousands of cliches that were born in his monologues. To be or not to be...we have heard this all a thousand times before, and it takes prodigious skill to keep me from thinking...the undiscovered country...this infinite jest...and all of the arts and crafts that have spun out of these words. You have to keep me there, with Hamlet, and that is a hard thing. Ophelia, that is even harder. She comes in with her insanity and flowers, and every moment is the cliche of the broken mind, and it is awful that the broken heart is cliche, but that is what it is. Here is rosemary for remembrance. It is a document in madness.
And then, the scene where the queen recounts Ophelia's death, with her skirts billowing and then waterlogged and then under...I wept and closed my eyes. On the insides of my eyelids I say the painting by Millais:
For the artist, the model spent weeks in a bathtub with candles under it to keep the water warm. Love, and art, are horrible things.
Her grave yawns, and I mean that sleepily, like someone tired, exhausted. Hamlet sits before it, after all the silly pirating adventures that tend to get cut in production. Let's face it: the plotting in Hamlet is less than awesome. But Hamlet sits by her yawning, sleepy grave, and he jokes, and you can't blame it all on the gravedigger funny though he is. Death is a funny if it's not yours. Death is something to whistle past, cheerful, and Hamlet does. Until he doesn't, until the flesh is flesh he knew, and the squabble with Laertes is a chess game with fists, one with Death, one where even if you win, you lose.
He loses. I have less interest in Hamlet's Oedipal crisis, but that is another thing: is the ghost on stage, something the audience can see when he treats with Gertrude, his mother? Is it a personal madness, or a collective one? Are we mad along with him?
I'm getting tired, and dehydrated. I need to wrap this up. Hamlet is the best play I have never read. I have this thing where I flip out when people use the word "universal" to describe why certain fictions are important. "Shakespeare is universal," people say, when what they mean is that Shakespeare was a bad motherfucker who could make the specific expansive. He could make the story of a man marrying his bother's wife, and her son's unhinging play like something that made sense to me. Not just made sense, but cut me down the middle, so that when he died, I hovered over the stage with Horatio:
Now cracks a noble heart. Good-night, sweet prince;
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
And the rest is silence, which is all we have left.