To Be or Not To Be

From Written Images

I’m not sure I’ve talked about Shakespeare too much yet on the blog except in passing. I have a rocky relationship with the Bard. On one hand, I adore his comedies. Give me Much Ado About Nothing or A Midsummer’s Night Dream and I am a happy girl. His tragedies on the other hand…we’ve never gotten along. I did talk about Romeo and Juliet before. I try to forget Othello (or am I trying to forget the awful film version we watched?). The Scottish Play wasn’t much of a fave either though Lady Macbeth is kind of awesome in her evilness. Hamlet, on the other hand, is one I’ve always had a complicated relationship with. I read it on my own in high school (yes, I was a nerd. I was trying to convince myself I liked Shakespearean tragedy. It didn’t go well). Then, I read it as part of my Shakespeare course while in England. We even went to see it performed at Great Malvern with Ed Stoppard in the title role. I had loathed Hamlet in high school; in college, I could appreciate what was happening. Seeing it performed though was a revelation. Suddenly certain aspects of the play clicked; certain scenes became funny that weren’t when you just read the words. Even though that particular production went off the rails in the end, there were scenes that I found to be favorites. I could, at that point, grudgingly admire Hamlet if nothing else.

Fast forward to now and my summer film challenge. There was a version of Hamlet starring David Tennant and Patrick Stewart performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company that fans petitioned for, and got, a recorded version of which was released by the BBC. Tennant, at the top of my list for his Doctor, was going to finally make me appreciate Hamlet the way I should. And people, I think he succeeded. His Hamlet is, as a friend says, the closest we’ll get to a feminist one. Suddenly, that ridiculous “Get thee to a nunnery” speech made sense! He’s warning her away, trying to get her out of a situation that he knows is going to destroy more than just his uncle. He’s also a sympathetic Hamlet, a Hamlet I can actually understand is struggling between his duty to his dead father and his own conscience. I see a Hamlet that actually had a relationship with his mother before, who is hurt because he no longer knows how to relate to her after what she did in the aftermath of his father’s death. Also, I found a Hamlet who is funny, ironic, and who is no more mad than I am. This is a Hamlet who is playing a part, perhaps to protect himself from what he knows he must do eventually.

In fact, if I took nothing away from this version other than one thing, it is that a production of Hamlet with a sense of fun is ten times more interesting than one who takes itself seriously. Because, honestly, I have never noticed how witty, how funny, Hamlet is before this production. Perhaps it is Tennant’s delivery of Hamlet, his expressions as he delivers his lines that help convey that sense to the production (it doesn’t hurt that certain facial expressions or delivery of certain words had me wondering if it was Tennant as Hamlet or Tennant as the Doc that I was watching). But I found it made me like Hamlet the character and also Hamlet the play much more.

I also really enjoyed Patrick Stewart as Claudius and the Ghost. It was obvious why he earned an Olivier Award for his work with the production. I always found Claudius a hard character both to read and watch. He is on one hand, presented as a loving husband and worried new father to Hamlet when underneath he is scheming, cunning, ruthless and willing to remove any obstacle in his path. The ruthless side is, I think, often downplayed but here you catch the glimpses of it when necessary to believe this is a man who murdered his brother and married his brother’s wife. Stewart is a master at suppressed rage and once he does let it out for a moment, it is that much more powerful. He is a charming murderer; always the diplomat as he strokes Laertes’ anger at Hamlet to lead him to murder. You can never quite not like Stewart’s Claudius which makes him that much more effective as a villain.

Someday, somewhere, I will find a version of Ophelia I can get behind. This was not it. Kate Winslet remains my favorite though even Kate struggles with a character who doesn’t seem to have a true place in the play. If you remove her, what would be lost? A speech that usually gets bungled and a few mad scenes that wouldn’t be missed. The other players were decent and interesting in their roles. I did love the portrayal of Horotio though; for the first time, you really saw that Hamlet and Horatio are friends, that in a castle where Hamlet has no allies and is increasingly fighting himself, Horatio is there to lean on.

I also really loved the staging of the play. For this recorded version, the play was filmed on location rather than on the stage, allowing more movement by the characters and also adding a great mood over the play. I loved the use of security cameras, and also a hand-held camera at one point, to give the viewer a different perspective on the scene, things you cannot do when an audience is in an auditorium with one view point with which to watch. It was a unique blend of stage set and film set which I think added something to the experience of watching the play.

So, I think I’m finally square with Hamlet. The question becomes which tragedy should I tackle next to try and at least get over my dislike. Any suggestions?


One thought on “To Be or Not To Be

  1. Keep it up girl, I also have a movie, reading list challenge for the second half of 2011. It is a really nice post on your passion and knowledge of Shakespeare. I wish that I can understand and appreciate his arts like you.


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