December 26, 2008

Hamlet (1599? play)

Written by William Shakespeare.

When King Hamlet of Denmark suddenly dies during a time of war against the invading forces of Norway, his brother Claudius quickly assumes the throne and takes Queen Gertrude as his wife in a marriage hastily designed to keep the monarchy stable. Everything seems to be going well, until young Hamlet, son of the former King, starts to suspect his father's death was murder. Thus begins a long, tormented journey of madness, despair, and revenge.

Maybe this speaks ill of my somewhat grayer than average ethics, but I actually cared more about King Claudius and his inner circle than I did Hamlet. Sure, Claudius is a murderer and does a few questionable things in the second half, but he starts off as a strong, yet fair, leader who takes time for his subjects, deftly handles political decisions, deeply loves his new wife, and has a genuine affection for his nephew/step-son. In fact, everybody goes out of their way to accommodate the increasingly distressed Hamlet. While I've seen some dismiss the eaves-dropping performed by Claudius and his aide, Polonius, as evidence of their sly, duplicitous nature, I have to disagree. They're concerned, everybody is, with what they see as the deteriorating sanity of a friend, and do what they can, sneaky as it is, to try and understand what's ailing him so as to treat it. Thus making it all the more tragic when this very friend ultimately thanks their kindness by destroying their lives.

And that, frankly, is what Hamlet does. He lashes out, he tests and teases, he avoids blame, he throws out one accusation after another. He is not a good person. In my eye, he's the villain of the piece. Yes, his father was murdered by Claudius, but, in his quest for revenge, Hamlet not only tears apart his own family, but that of the very woman he loves, and eventually leaves his country without a leader to defend it against the invading forces. And it's ironic that Prince Fortinbras of Norway, the very man leading the assault against Denmark, should receive a final act of kindness from our "hero", because, in a mirroring quest of revenge, Fortinbras would likely have killed Hamlet's father himself, had Claudius not beaten him to it.

There really are a lot of admirable, brilliant layers to the story, but I just don't care for the hero. Even though his insanity is just a ruse in the beginning, Hamlet's long-winded monologues are grating and don't get any better as the story develops. I never get a sense of connection or relation to him as a good man who fell from grace like I did with the once noble Macbeth.

And that his entire quest should start with the words of a ghost just never wins me over. If it were a phantom that simply represents his own internal doubts and suspicions, that would be one thing, but this is a ghost seen by others (which never pays off) and his words are the first suggestion to Hamlet that something is wrong. I'm sorry, and I know I'll probably catch flack for comparing this to contemporary plotting, but that's just too much of a contrivance in an otherwise tight play.

Man, I know I'm really going to get some bad feedback for criticizing the Great Bard, but I have to be honest about how I feel. As great as the rest of the play is, and it truly is fantastic, the fact that I can't relate to the lead character just leaves it feeling cold, like all of these people have just had their lives torn apart for nothing. But I guess that's the very definition of tragedy.


Anthony Williams said...

So not to be then :p? I wish my memory of it were better but to be honest I know more about Hamburger Hamlet than Hamlet. I've seen the Mel Gibson film, which had the audacity to cast Glenn Close as Gertrude even though she's only 9 years older than he. The finer details are buried under a pile of useless pop culture knowledge :p.

NoelCT said...

Wow, I never new that there was a Shakespeare titled hamburger joint that caters to the Hollywood elite. That's just ... interesting.

As for the age of Hamlet's mom, Olivier actually cast a woman over a decade younger than him for his version. Something about enhancing the Oedipus complex, an element I didn't pick up on at all during my read.

Anthony Williams said...

Not surprisingly, I know of Hamburger Hamlet through a Star Wars connection. The day Star Wars opened, George Lucas and his wife were eating there. Lucas, busy supervising various final mixes [either for foreign or non-Dolby releases I think] had totally forgotten that the film had opened. He and his wife saw a lot of people lined up around the block outside and thought "What is this all about?" only to discover they were lined up to see Star Wars at Mann's Chinese theater.

I read about the supposed Oedipus complex in Hamlet when I checked out it's wiki. I might have to check out one of the film versions to see if I pick up on it.