H2016: Things Rank and Gross in Nature Possess it Merely

PuppetPossessionAuditions for Hamlet and Ophelia are tomorrow, but I’ve already written all I have to say about what/who I’m looking for, so I’m going to distract myself by talking about some more Big Picture stuff. This stems from an email discussion I had with a local artist and fellow Shakesgeek.

I’ve already talked about the ambiguous nature of the Ghost, and how the threat of supernatural infection should be pervasive in rotten old Denmark. The first lines that point directly to this infection are not Hamlet’s, but since I’m cutting Act 1, Scene 1, that’s how it’s going to play out in my production. Everything will seem hunky-dory at Claudius’s house, right up until Hamlet gets a chance to take the temperature:

HAMLET: 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.

The first two lines, by his own admission, refer to a personal angst about the world. But the rest of these lines — the unweeded garden, full of rank, gross “things,” don’t have the same subjective condition. It’s obviously still just Hamlet’s own perspective, but in an expressionistic production, it’s also my cue to make the whole world of Denmark look and feel like an unweeded garden.

But that’s more than just about painting the set mossy green, or having a few plastic weeds sticking out between the flagstones. The metaphor is psychic and moralistic; the weeds are monstrous thoughts which creep into the Edenic landscape of the soul. Hamlet feels the weeds in his own mind, and eventually embraces them (“Now might I drink hot blood” etc.); but he also senses them in other people, particularly his mother and stepfather, and it makes him more than a little bit paranoid.

To Shakespeare’s audience, this general, creeping corruption can be explained by Claudius’s crime. According to the Elizabethans, kings sat near the top of the Great Chain of Being, and when somebody beneath a king (ie. any other human) acts violently towards their superior, the very fabric of nature is disrupted. The alleged results vary, and Shakespeare’s royal tragedies run the gamut: storms, earthquakes, animals going crazy, two-headed calves born, and the dead rising from their graves. The psychological consequences are more subtle, but arguably Lady Macbeth would never have started sleepwalking if she hadn’t been party to regicide.

To a modern audience without much investment in the monarchy, the Great Chain of Being is a quaint, archaic concept. So, too, I suppose, is the Devil, but I think it’s more accessible, thanks to the sort of horror movies we consume. In my Hamlet, the origins of the Unweeded Garden of the Soul stem not from Claudius, but from Hamlet’s father. In death, he continues to exert influence over his son and his subjects — which, even to the Elizabethans, must have seemed a little bit wrong. It doesn’t matter if he’s the actual Devil, or merely doing the Devil’s work. Once he manifests his ghostly presence in the world, he plants the seed for all the corruption that follows.

The First Evil claims a body.

The First Evil claims a body.

Another reason I’ve gravitated to Hamlet’s quote above: the word “possess” has a useful double meaning. In those aforementioned horror films, ghosts and devils can both possess people, using their bodies to achieve on earth what their incorporeal forms cannot. My Shakesgeek friend (who is also a bit of an SF nerd) specifically cited The First Evil, a villain from Buffy the Vampire Slayer who takes the form of Buffy’s deceased friends in order to manipulate the living. Could Hamlet’s Father’s Ghost be an agent of the First Evil? Could his influence extend to possess others in Denmark, to use them as pawns against Hamlet — or even to use Hamlet himself in the service of evil and chaos?

Believe it or not, there is some precedent for this in Hamlet history. Here, Anthony B. Dawson writes about Richard Eyre’s 1980 production at the Royal Court (this production also cut 1.1, by the way):

There was to be no visible Ghost. What exactly Horatio and the others might have seen on the battlements, if anything, never became clear, but what the audience witnessed certainly was. The Ghost was inside Hamlet. No longer an objective, if ambiguous, fact, he became an inner torment speaking in a strange, distorted voice, which was wrenched out of Hamlet in the midst of extreme pain and violent wretching.

It may be asking a lot of my cast, to have them imagine and portray the effects of a devil-ghost playing hot-potato through their heads. On the other hand, if we can pull it off, it will definitely achieve the creepiness I’ve been searching for.

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