H2016: Five Hamlets, One Speech

Portrait by Hannah Tomkins

Portrait by Hannah Tomkins

Yesterday, WJC and I took at look at Hamlet’s soliloquy from the end of Act 3, Scene 2. I’ve done a lot of tinkering with the script in general, and with Hamlet’s speeches in particular, but this soliloquy is in a class by itself. Here’s the original (Q2) version:

Tis now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on. Soft! now to my mother.
O heart, lose not thy nature; let not ever
The soul of Nero enter this firm bosom:
Let me be cruel, not unnatural:
I will speak daggers to her, but use none;
My tongue and soul in this be hypocrites;
How in my words soever she be shent,
To give them seals never, my soul, consent!

And here is the version I’ve cooked up:

‘Tis now the very witching time of night
When churchyards yawn and hell itself breaks out
And poisons all the world. Now could I drink hot blood
And do such business as the bitter day
Would quake to look on.
My mother. She has sent to speak with me.
I will speak daggers to her but use none.
My tongue and soul in this are hypocrites. –
But two months dead? Nay, twice two months.
So excellent a king – the play’s the thing.
Pernicious woman – time is out of joint.
O cursed spite, that ever I – to be,
Or – now, to my mother. The rest is silence.

Apart from a few emendations for clarity, the first 6 lines or so look mostly the same. But from there, the speech quickly breaks down into a pastiche of catchphrases from H’s other soliloquies. Time is indeed out of joint; Hamlet is in a frenzy of flashbacks and premonitions, switching mid-thought between the different masks we’ve seen him (or will see him) wear. As I imagine it, it’s a dizzying moment both for Hamlet himself (realizing how out of control he has become) and for the audience (as in, which Hamlet am I even watching, here?).

For our early progress through characterization, the speech presented a chance to review and confirm some things about the Dane. Shortly after casting him, I asked WJC to describe his take on Hamlet in five key scenes (the five scenes which my expressionistic production will present from Hamlet’s “point of view”). Here’s a paraphrase of what he came up with:

  1. Act 1, Scene 2: Corrupted by the corruption in his home & mother
  2. Act 1, Scene 5: Relieved to know the source of his anxiety at last
  3. Act 2, Scene 2: Filled with doubts, paranoia, a sense of betrayal
  4. Act 4, Scene 4: Overanalyzing his overanalysis
  5. Act 5, Scene 2: Content to accept his fate; trusting in providence

The bold words are ones which I fixed upon, and have been using to focus WJC’s performance choices since then. I didn’t do this for #4 because (a) I’ve changed that scene entirely, and (b) I don’t find “overanalysis” to be either playable or watchable. So there’s a face of Hamlet missing there, but we’ll fill it in soon enough.

Actually, instead of talking about these as “faces” of Hamlet, I’ve basically started calling them separate Hamlets. I don’t believe the script is conducive to a point-by-point character arc, leading the audience through organic and psychologically plausible growth. Instead, I think the goal for an actor should be playing the Hamlet of the moment as clearly and consistently as possible, given the constraints of each scene.

The original “witching time” speech (which occurs in a scene that won’t be from Hamlet’s POV) feels like it’s separate from all the Hamlets we’ve seen thus far. His language suddenly dips into Macbeth territory, churning with homicidal and demonic imagery that only tangentially connects to its direct object, ie. Gertrude. With my radical revisions, I’ve positioned the speech as providing a chance of “gathering up” all the Hamlets we’ve seen — corrupted, relieved, paranoid — and packing them into a crucible that’s going to apply unbearable pressure to the Prince’s psyche.

As seen by a stranger, or even a casual friend (like Horatio), this form of delivery will seem random and schizophrenic. But the audience should be able to recognize the glimpses of Hamlets from past scenes. What’s more, if there are fore-glimpses of future Hamlets, they will pay off later in the play. Overall, it has the potential to be a great showcase for the performer, and also a way of reining in and unifying the many Hamlets that run riot through the script.

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3 thoughts on “H2016: Five Hamlets, One Speech

  1. Laura says:

    Given your comment in your last post about never having seen a Gertrude you liked, I’m curious how you will make one now – how will your Gertrude be related to this kaleidoscopic Hamlet?

    1. admin says:

      As an adversary.

      I don’t want to talk too much about Gertrude until I’ve cast the part (in September), so for now I’ll just say that rather than confirm Hamlet’s suspicions about her (ie. that she married Claudius out of lust), my production will show how much Hamlet has underestimated his mother.

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