H2016: Rehearsal Day 1 (Part 2)

PaulMcCartneyThe second half of yesterday’s somewhat informal rehearsal was mostly dedicated to Hamlet’s first soliloquy, which looks like this in the original (Q2) version:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix’d
His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on’t! ah fie! ’tis an unweeded garden,
That grows to seed; things rank and gross in nature
Possess it merely. That it should come to this!
But two months dead: nay, not so much, not two:
So excellent a king; that was, to this,
Hyperion to a satyr; so loving to my mother
That he might not beteem the winds of heaven
Visit her face too roughly. Heaven and earth!
Must I remember? why, she would hang on him,
As if increase of appetite had grown
By what it fed on: and yet, within a month–
Let me not think on’t–Frailty, thy name is woman!–
A little month, or ere those shoes were old
With which she follow’d my poor father’s body,
Like Niobe, all tears:–why she, even she–
O, God! a beast, that wants discourse of reason,
Would have mourn’d longer–married with my uncle,
My father’s brother, but no more like my father
Than I to Hercules: within a month:
Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears
Had left the flushing in her galled eyes,
She married. O, most wicked speed, to post
With such dexterity to incestuous sheets!
It is not nor it cannot come to good:
But break, my heart; for I must hold my tongue.

When I emailed by adaptation script to the actors, WJC’s first typed reply was simply: “What did you too to “too too solid flesh?!?” His reaction will probably not be unique, since it is a much-beloved introduction to a character whose defining cultural characteristic (after skull-bearing) is soliloquizing.

What did I do to “too too solid flesh”? For one thing, I changed “solid” to “sullied,” although I confused WJC by going back and forth on this point a bit first. Both “solid” and “sullied” work, but for very different reasons. I ultimately chose to make Hamlet yearn for purification, not disintegration, because I intend to highlight the play’s themes of corruption and infection wherever I can. This, the first truly famous and resonant line in the play, can go a long way towards establishing those themes as central.

To go along with that, I made a semi-radical change to lines 3-4. Instead of letting Hamlet’s first private comment be about suicide (framed obliquely as “self-slaughter”), I substituted the First Folio’s lines:

Or that the universal globe of heaven
Would turn all to a chaos!

I’ll be the first to admit, these lines are not as poetic as the Q2/F version. They are also curiously vague, like an angsty teenager wishing that life would just stop, or (to pin down the metaphor) roll back to the primal chaos before God even started to make sense of the world. Despite its awkward bluntness, I think this sentiment is stronger for an Act-One Hamlet who senses the fundamental wrongness of the state, but lacks any agency to change his situation.

So far, WJC’s take on Hamlet’s characterization has lined up fairly well with this idea. Hamlet is, according to WJC, a firm believer in God and in order. From his perspective, the status quo in Elsinore is godless and redolent with chaos. In his impotent frustration, it’s easy to imagine this bright, fussy young man might wish for a deluge or an apocalypse to wash away all the putrescence. Be careful what you wish for…

Just as with my work on Ophelia’s soliloquy, we began by scanning the speech, to determine how much is smooth verse (de-dum de-dum de-dum de-dum de-dum), and how many lines are rough, or irregular. We were both surprised to discover that, for a speech whose content or thought-line is so disjointed, much of the rhythm is smooth and regular. I proposed that this might be due to Hamlet’s paralysis; when we meet him, he has had two months (“nay, not so much, not two”…okay Hammy) to lament his sorry state. Many of his complaints, then, must be standard issue for him by now: “So excellent a king; that was, to this…” and “A little month, or ere those shoes were old / With which she follow’d my poor father’s body” and “Ere yet the salt of most unrighteous tears/ Had left the flushing in her galled eyes” are not NEW thoughts. They disturb Hamlet, yet in a way, he can take comfort in them.

Our other observation involved the progression of ideas within the speech. Hamlet has two main sources of distress, at this point — as Gertrude later summarizes, “His father’s death, and [her] o’erhasty marriage.” WJC believes (and I agree) that, of those two points, the latter is more troubling to Hamlet than the former. And the speech supports this, by starting with an elegy to his father, but ending with a vituperation of Gertrude (with some invective towards Claudius thrown in, for good measure). The best way to track this involves Hamlet’s repeated references to his timeline: “But two months dead” occurs on line 10, and refers exclusively to the King’s death; however, Hamlet switches 7 lines later to focus on the remarriage, which occurred “within a month.” He mentions the “little month” twice more in the speech, but never returns to his original chronology of grief.

From there, we moved into a more general discussion about Hamlet’s journey in the play, plus we talked about sin (specifically the Seven Deadlies), and finally (since KO was still in the room) about Hamlet and Ophelia’s relationship. These topics all deserve their own posts, but since I have no further rehearsals scheduled until the middle of next week, I should have time to catch you up on all of them — plus some more line-by-line entries. And did I ever tell you about the time I saw Ser Jorah Mormont perform Hamlet? Stay tuned!

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