H2016: Hamlet’s “Journey”

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet in a straitjacket, in the 1992 RSC production.

Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet in a straitjacket, in the 1992 RSC production.

Shortly after I cast Hamlet, Ophelia, and Claudius, I asked the actors to draw up a short list of milestones on their characters’ journeys through the play. I tried to keep it very confined: “Write up three, or maybe five, stages to your journey or transformation. Where do you begin? What happens to change you? Where do you end up?” I know that it’s an exercise in madness to try reducing a figure like Hamlet to three bullet points, but I was mostly trying to find out what aspects of the characters were most important to the actors, so I didn’t bulldoze over those traits in my adaptation or direction work.

Any theatre practitioner who is familiar with Stanislavsky’s groundbreaking work on characterization will recognize the concept of the “character arc” or “through-line.” The fact that Stanislavsky’s “method” was invented 300 years after Shakespeare’s career has not stopped subsequent generations of actors from using it to shoehorn his characters into beginnings, middles, and ends, all supported and directed by given circumstances and superobjectives.

However, this was not my intention. I don’t believe that Shakespeare’s Danes experience psychological growth in the same way as Chekhov’s Russians, Ibsen’s Norwegians, or even Beckett’s…Godotians. Drawing lines from A to B to C is not the responsibility of the Shakespearean actor, though they’re welcome to try. Instead, it is a collaborative game between the director and the audience, with most of the heavy lifting happening in the audience’s imaginations. Give them a series of snapshots, presented chronologically, and they’ll decide where the camera was positioned each time, and where it had to move in order to present the given sequence.

In effect, the word I used to describe what I was looking for — “journey” — was a canard. And I knew that what I received from the actors wouldn’t resemble a roadmap in the slightest. The goal is to make each scene, or even each moment, as clear as possible on its own terms.

So, working with WJC, we narrowed his task down to five specific scenes which, in our production, will peer the deepest into Hamlet’s psyche. Well, four and a half — one of them was another trick, of sorts, as I’ll explain. Here’s what WJC came up with:

  1. In 1.2 (prior to Horatio’s entrance), Hamlet is “corrupted by the corruption of his home and his mother”
  2. In 1.5 (after the Ghost’s revelation), Hamlet is “relieved that the source of his anxiety is clear”
  3. In 2.2 (around the arrival of R&G), Hamlet is “filled with doubts, paranoia, betrayal…unsure if he can trust his senses”
  4. In 4.4 (“How all occasions do inform against me”), Hamlet is “overanalyzing his overanalyzing, and lamenting his humanity while swearing action”
  5. In 5.2, Hamlet is “resigned to fate, and willing to relinquish control”

These are all fine, succinct expressions of where Hamlet stands at each of five turning points. What they don’t do, at least not very yet, is coalesce into an actual journey. The first two points are almost contradictory — first he’s corrupted by his home, but wait! His anxiety is coming from a different source! — and the third, fourth, and fifth points require enormous leaps of internal logic before they can begin to connect. But that’s all right, because connecting isn’t what I asked for. Like I said, it’s not the Shakespearean actor’s job. Every time he enters the stage, he’s got a different job to do, and although they obviously shouldn’t be TOO different (lest we think you’re playing multiple roles), they don’t need to be a flowchart, either.

Having said that, some of these points are more playable (or watchable) than others. “Corrupted,” “relieved,” and “resigned” are challenging states to portray, but once you’ve found a way to make them active, they can be pretty excited. Likewise Point #3, which contains a lot of similar words for the same state (suspicion). But Point #4 is a trap; “overanalyzing” (or even just “analyzing”) isn’t an active, playable state, it’s a feedback loop. Maybe that’s exactly what’s happened to Hamlet by Act Four — he’s become so suspicious that he’s even started doubting his own thoughts — but it’s the choice that hobbles so many productions of Hamlet as they round the track towards the final lap. If you don’t at least give the audience an opportunity to imagine there’s some forward momentum, then they’re going to stop actively writing into Hamlet’s journey, and just passively sit back and wait for the catastrophe to strike.

(Point #5 — “resigned to fate, and willing to relinquish control” — sounds pretty similar, but I think it’s slightly different when the resignation is an active choice, not just a gradual mental breakdown. Also, if it happens in the final scene of the play, well, we’re nearly done anyway).

Luckily for me, and for WJC, and for all of our future spectators, the risk for overanalysis is low. I want an active Hamlet, pressed in (corrupted, suspicious, etc.) by his circumstances but always on the prowl for a way out. He won’t have an opportunity to halt and catch fire in 4.4, because I’ve decided to cut the soliloquy where that short-circuit usually occurs. In fact, I’m moving a different soliloquy into its place…and while the transposed speech is also sometimes criticized for celebrating paralysis, it’s actually a much stronger push for Hamlet to lead us, guns a-blazing, into the play’s final act.


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