Big Questions

When I met with my core actors for coffee this week, I began our Danish klatch by inviting them to ask the Big Questions about the play. “I may not have answers yet,” I warned, “and in fact, I may decide that we’re not going to provide clear answers to some questions, because I want the audience to have an active role in the Hamlet puzzle.” But, I explained, it would help me to know where to focus my directorial efforts if I knew which questions my cast found especially important.

Because, let’s face it, there are a lot of questions. Here is some of the ground we covered (I’ll use the actors’ initials for these sorts of reports, and try to provide a key whenever I remember):

1) What is Denmark’s political situation in the play? Did Claudius usurp the throne from Hamlet?


Basil Sydney as Claudius.

This was TP’s first question, and I’m glad he threw it on the table early, because it’s an important matter of circumstance that I tend to ignore when thinking about the play. Not only does it help to establish Hamlet and Claudius’s relationship, but it affects how stable Claudius’s regime is, which will inform not only his own actions, but the actions of others, especially Hamlet and Laertes.

Twice in Hamlet, Shakespeare uses the word “election” to imply that inheritance was not guaranteed, but that Denmark’s government relied upon some sort of council electoral process, if not an out-and-out democracy — to choose new monarchs. If that’s true, then Claudius’s crime is an entirely private matter; but if the popular expectation was that Hamlet would automatically succeed his father as Denmark’s king, then Claudius has committed both a private crime (regicide) and a potentially very public one (usurpation).

John Dover Wilson (What Happens in Hamlet) believes usurpation is a very important motivating factor in the early parts of the play; and, since the two “election” references do not occur until Act 5 (and only one of them refers directly to Claudius’s ascension), Wilson believes that Shakespeare trusted his audience to know a coup when they saw one. If there was any sort of “election,” then, it may have been a spontaneous event in camera, performed while Hamlet was absent from the country, perhaps.

As we agreed, this raises the stakes for Claudius, who needs to protect his throne from any accusations of usurpation; and this, in turn, raises the stakes for Hamlet, who is smart enough not to bring the matter up explicitly. Since it also smacks of conspiracy, it invited us to wonder who might have been in on the coup. How did Claudius, canny bastard that he is, secure his changes of ascension before murdering his brother? Would it be enough to have Polonius’s support? And Gertrude’s, if their love was sparked while Hamlet Sr. was still alive?

This line of discussion led to an interesting subtext for the entire conspiracy: what if Hamlet Sr. was a bad king? What if Claudius and his conspirators agreed that his assassination was in the best interests of the nation — acting, as TP put it, more like Brutuses than Macbeths despite the enormity of their deeds? This reading may be at odds with some of Hamlet’s idealized memories of Dad, but it falls in line with my own ideas about making the Ghost malevolent and unpredictable. All the Game of Thrones enthusiasts at the table acknowledged some shades of Aerys Targaryan, and then we moved on.

2) Is Hamlet mad?

HamletMadWJC laid this Big Question on the table, and for awhile all we could do was pass around synonyms for insanity, to see which ones felt most appropriate. TP posited that, without any doubt, Hamlet is unstable — but does that equate to madness? Then there is the Elizabethan concept of melancholy — a term which, in the interim, has become almost synonymous with Hamlet. In Shakespeare’s time, melancholia was a diagnosable condition, caused by an imbalance of the four humours, and manifesting a distinct set of symptoms — all of which Hamlet readily admits to as early as Act 1, Scene 2.

I’ve seen a couple of performers really delve into Hamlet’s melancholy, with mixed results; probably the strongest performance in this respect is Kevin Kline’s Hamlet, who weeps openly while he soliloquizes. Although I’ve always admired Kline’s performance, I am on record as stating that I want an active Hamlet in my play, and while that might not be incompatible with melancholy, it makes for an awkward match.

Some scholars dismiss the possibility of genuine madness because Hamlet tells us that he’s faking. But most actors want their cake and eat it, so in some scenes they will strive to demonstrate an “antic disposition” — that is, a calculated and usually over-the-top madness — while in others, they’ll try to sell a more authentic instability. This might create a fun puzzle for the audience, but it can just as easily be irritating, because it does not provide a baseline from which the audience can judge the Prince’s sanity.

So I told the cast that, although I was interested in seeing a Hamlet that can move through different stages or forms of madness, it was more important to me that we get to know the real Hamlet early, and check in with him often. Easier said than done, of course, especially since we only meet Hamlet after the first two tragedies have struck him (ie. his father’s death and mother’s remarriage). But we didn’t sign on to Hamlet because it’s easy.

3) How much does Ophelia fight back?

Mignon Nevada plays Ophelia in the operatic version of Hamlet, 1910.

Mignon Nevada plays Ophelia in the operatic version of Hamlet, 1910.

This was KO’s question, of course, but she was perhaps inadvertently opening a bigger can of worms for me about the extent to which all our characters should be allowed to play against the grain. Taken at face value, Ophelia’s character submits left, right, and centre — to her brother’s wishes and her father’s instructions about Hamlet, and to her elders’ reprehensible plot to use her as bait for Hamlet. She takes Hamlet’s abuse without complaint (in fact, she seems to pity him), both in supposed private (3.1) and in public (3.2). And, although her mad scene can certainly be read as a cry for help, it’s hard to stage it as active resistance; the closest she gets is the vague (though prescient) threat: “My brother shall know of this.” And then she’s drowned, in what can arguably be considered the most passive of all deaths.

I know that KO doesn’t want to travel this easy narrative current, and neither do I. So the Big Question here is really not about the interpretation of Ophelia’s character as written; it’s about how much latitude my actors get to re-invent their characters. Almost any like in Shakespeare can be delivered against the grain. Body language, stage composition, and vocal intonation can all turn a submissive “I shall obey, my lord” into a bitter, defiant, even dismissive “I shall obey, my lord.”

For now, I think the answer to KO’s question has to be, “as much as we can get away with.” Playing these characters against expectations is quickly becoming one of the foundations of my vision for the play, because it’s exciting to me to find out how elastic the script can be. But we’ll reach a point, with Ophelia or any other character, when we can’t “get away with” any more resistance, lest the play’s logic and consistency dissolve.

My other comment to KO was to remember our audience. We’ve already talked about how setting can influence characterization, but whether we set Hamlet in 1920s America or 12th Century Denmark, our audience is going to be composed of 21st century Capers — mostly students. So I told KO to think about what aspects of Ophelia’s character might be most relatable to modern girls. I suggested she check out Mary Pipher’s sociological study, Reviving Ophelia, which (I think) uses the character as a metaphor for contemporary struggles amongst young women. Not to say that our Hamlet has a social agenda (yet) — but it never hurts to establish some connections with your audience before you charge off into dreamland.

WJC: Wesley/Hamlet
KO: Kathleen/Ophelia
TP: Todd/Claudius


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