H2016: The Three Uses of the Dane

Sometimes I just do Google Image searches and grab the first thing that comes up.

Sometimes I just do Google Image searches and grab the first thing that comes up.

I brainstormed for about 40 minutes this afternoon with WJC, who is playing Hamlet. We talked about a lot of aspects, but kept returning to the importance of clarifying relationships, especially Hamlet’s relationships with his two father figures, Claudius and the Ghost.

There is plenty of stage time for us to explore the former relationship. Hamlet’s first exchange in the play is with his uncle, and although he and Claudius don’t face off directly all that often, they can definitely have a “chemistry,” if that word can be applied to antagonistic pairings (nitro and glycerin? Or some slower-burning chemical formula, like…carbon and dioxide? I’m not a chemist).

But the Ghost is a different story. He only appears three times, and only two of those are with Hamlet (technically, he’s in four scenes, but 1.4 and 1.5 is essentially one encounter). Once I’ve cut 1.1, that leaves the Ghost with very little scripted stage-time. A relationship of any sort needs to be established quickly and in very broad strokes.

We can do that. If the Ghost is a devilish manifestation, he would either be the silver-tongued type, or else a monstrous and overpowering threat. Maybe both, in rapid succession, to mess with Hamlet’s mind; after all, the Ghost doesn’t merely appear to demand revenge, he’s also deliberately setting a tragedy in motion, part of which involves the loss of sanity. This contradicts the Ghost’s first caveat to Hamlet about the perils of his mission: “taint not thy mind” — but the devil is the Prince of Lies, and in this case, probably also the Earl of Irony. The instruction is part of the Ghost’s Catch-22, about which I’ve written before.

His second visitation is more challenging, because it doesn’t provide opportunities to develop relationships. Sure, the Ghost has changed outfits, but he’s saying the exact same things in 3.4 as he said in 1.5. Some productions soften him up in the presence of his wife, the Queen; but since Gertrude neither sees nor hears the Ghost, it makes just as much sense if he’s actually meaner to Hamlet in this scene. From the Ghost’s perspective, Hamlet’s purpose is “blunted,” and in killing Polonius, he’s gone seriously off the rails of their revenge plot.

After his weird appearance in Gertrude in his wife’s boudoir, the Ghost disappears for good. I can understand why Shakespeare didn’t bring him back in 5.2; the scene is cluttered enough as it is, plus he probably had to double-casting the actor with somebody in the court (The English Ambassador?). But a final hurrah from the Ghost would fit very nicely into the Graveyard scene. I suppose most funerals don’t occur after midnight, which is when the spirit is free to roam; but then, Ophelia’s funeral is unorthodox and surreptitious. Why not do it at night?

But Shakespeare doesn’t bring the Ghost back because he has nothing new to say. A production could make him a silent presence, as in 1.1; but if I want to tell a story of Hamlet’s relationship with the Ghost, it needs to be something more than a series of cameos. “Alas, poor Yorick… oh, and look, there’s Dad, too.” There needs to be something still changing; there needs to be closure.

In the end, the Ghost does not get exactly what he demands from Hamlet. He never asks explicitly for Hamlet to kill Claudius, but he says:

If thou hast nature in thee, bear it not;
Let not the royal bed of Denmark be
A couch for luxury and damned incest.
But, howsoever thou pursuest this act,
Taint not thy mind, nor let thy soul contrive
Against thy mother aught: leave her to heaven
And to those thorns that in her bosom lodge,
To prick and sting her. (1.5.81-88)

Hamlet does appear to let his mind become “tainted” by the mission, and he definitely doesn’t leave his mom alone, preferring to jump-start her conscience with verbal thorns (or daggers). Gertrude’s death is not on Hamlet’s head, but if the Ghost didn’t want her harassed, he surely didn’t want her dead, either. So an Act Five Ghost should be a fiercely disappointed one.

There’s a scriptwriting trope called the Rule of Three. It applies to a lot of different aspects of storytelling, actually, but in it’s purest form, it simply means that every story has three acts. I’d like the Hamlet/Ghost relationship to have a beginning, middle, and an end, so that almost certainly means a third appearance sometime late in the play. But until I know what I need to say about that relationship, there’s no way to know when he should reappear.

Here’s one provocative option, courtesy of David Mamet. His allegorical version is “The Three Uses of the Knife,” and I paraphrase (because too lazy to find my copy of the book): first, a young man uses his favourite knife to shave his face to meet his sweetheart; later, he uses the same knife to cut bread for her table; and finally, he cuts her throat when she’s betrayed him. That’s a metaphor more suited to Othello than Hamlet, but maybe there is an analogous version to be found in our show, if the Ghost is the man and Hamlet is his tool, the knife?


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