Even though I have completed a draft of my script adaptation, I feel reluctant to share it with my actors. This is partly because I’m hoping that our summer rehearsals will give them a chance to make some discoveries independent of my editorial meddling; but I realized that was not the sole reason for my hesitation. I needed more than my own permission to share the Hamlet draft with others. I needed absolution.
Gradually, as I worked my way through the First Quarto, Second Quarto, and First Folio making choices, cuts, reassignments, and interpolations (mostly stage directions. I will confess to having added maybe half a dozen lines), I could see the number of heresies increasing. Repositioning a soliloquy might be a venial sin, especially if Q1 happened to position it differently than Q2. But some of my choices became more radical, and I began to fear that my sins were approaching mortal.
So I turned to Doktor Luke, a local Shakespeare expert (PhuD and everything!), and the closest thing I was likely to find to a Doktor of Divinity. Over beers (well, I had beer; she piously preferred orange juice), I made my confession to DL, working my way from the venial sins to the more egregious acts I committed against the nebulous, ever-shifting text of Hamlet.
Some of my confessions were non-issues, earning absolution almost immediately. No Fortinbras? No pirates? No problem! And so what if I give Claudius some moments of early subtext, suggesting that he is growing wise to Hamlet’s tricks? Subtext can’t make Hamlet something other than Hamlet…can it?
After the first pint, my confession got darker. “There are some characters who simply don’t seem to have journeys,” I said, keenly aware that I was critiquing the undisputed masterpiece of English drama. “I started out just looking for minor tweaks that could make some supporting characters’ stories a bit more interesting. But then…in some cases…”
I trailed off, but like any good confessor, DL waited patiently for me to recover my resolve. I decided my first example should be a relatively minor one. “Horatio,” I said, “is a good friend, but that’s really all he is on the page. He never doubts Hamlet, even when he becomes thoroughly unbalanced. Would it be blasphemous to give Horatio room to back away from Hamlet, so long as he comes back to help him when he needs it the most?”
No, replied DL judiciously, that would not contravene the spirit of Shakespeare. But, she added, it would help the audience if we saw Horatio’s turning point(s). What makes him turn his back on Hamlet? And at what point does he decide to cast his lot with the Prince, even unto death?
Bolstered by this academic absolution, I pressed on. “I don’t think it will offend anyone to give Horatio a bit of an arc, so long as he lands where we expect him to. But how do you solve a problem like Gertrude? I could make her a martyr of sorts, drinking the poison to save her son, but…” I trailed off, but it was clear that, if I wanted my mea culpa, I was going to have to come clean. I took a deep breath.
“BUT, at the end of the play, Hamlet needs more enemies around him, not more friends. His cause needs to be more desperate than ever. So what if Gertrude promises Hamlet that she’ll side with him (in the Closet scene), but then she turns around and allies herself with the King?”
DL pondered this gravely for a few sips. “I don’t mind seeing Gertrude as a villain, especially if there are enough hints that she did know who killed her first husband. But there’s one point where I see Gertrude’s empathy and compassion come through in a way which might undermine your intent to make her villainous. When she describes Ophelia’s death, she genuinely seems to want to spare Laertes pain.”
By this point, I’d had enough beer to double down. “There are two reasons for Gertrude to lie about Ophelia’s death,” I said, dismissing any chance that Gertrude believes her version to be true (it’s clearly NOT, since Shakespeare immediately follows the speech with a graveside discussion that confirms Ophelia’s suicide). “She could be trying to make Laertes feel better. Or, she could be trying to protect herself, or Claudius.”
DL was intrigued. “Protect herself from what?”
I pointed her towards the passage, early in 4.5, when a Gentleman begs Gertrude to let the mad Ophelia see her.
She speaks much of her father; says she hears
There’s tricks i’ the world; and hems, and beats her heart;
Spurns enviously at straws; speaks things in doubt,
That carry but half sense: her speech is nothing,
Yet the unshaped use of it doth move
The hearers to collection; they aim at it,
And botch the words up fit to their own thoughts;
Which, as her winks, and nods, and gestures yield them,
Indeed would make one think there might be thought,
Though nothing sure, yet much unhappily.
To this, Horatio adds:
The subtext here is that, so long as Ophelia is left to roam around Elsinore, “the unshaped use” of her nonsense rhymes will infect the listeners with “dangerous conjectures.” When juxtaposed with the rebellion which Laertes promptly raises to avenge his murdered father, we get a fairly clear picture of political unrest, and the risk which both Laertes and Ophelia pose to the establishment — including Gertrude, who immediately relents when presented with this politically slanted argument.
So, in answer to DL’s question, Gertrude’s prettified account of Ophelia’s death could be part of a concerted effort to disguise not merely suicide but political assassination. As Claudius neutralizes Laertes’s threat by wooing him to his side against Hamlet, Gertrude could be instrumental in neutralizing Ophelia’s threat by orchestrating an “accident” by the stream. This would obviously replace Gertrude’s moment of compassion with a moment of pure villainy — enough, I think, to condemn her to a just demise in Act Five.
Is this what Shakespeare intended? Absolutely not. Are Shakespeare’s intentions ambiguous enough to afford this possibility? Sure — although, I’m the first to admit, that doesn’t mean you should do it. DL couldn’t grant me absolution for the ideas, though she did admit that they were intriguing enough to make her, as a Shakespeare fan, want to see how they played out onstage.
So the question is, how badly do I want to see them played out? Will I risk my only shot at producing Hamlet on a series of radical character experiments?
Or, to play devil’s advocate: why else would I want to produce the play?