As I write this post, I’m in my office adjacent to the Boardmore Theatre. The walls are thin enough for me to hear the school matinee of Bluenose in progress. Every minute or so, an auditorium full of elementary school kids erupts in laughter — usually when one of the pirate-clowns smacks another on the head, or else cracks a joke about underpants. It’s a great sound — over 300 kids laughing spontaneously — and it’s making me think about what humour can be mined from Hamlet, a play whose most famous clown has been dead for twenty-three years before we meet him.
Shakespeare included comic relief in nearly all of his tragedies. Even Macbeth, the shortest and bloodiest of all his scripts, finds time in Act 2 for the hungover Porter to riff comedically on some of the play’s themes. Hamlet holds the clowns in check until Act 5, when it gives us three in rapid succession: the Gravediggers (listed in the play as “First Clown” and “Second Clown”) and Osric, the fop, who is the last of many characters to suffer the sting of Hamlet’s wit. Not to knock Shakespeare or anything, but four acts seems like a long time to wait for some chuckles.
A few other characters seem to have comic potential, but productions handle them differently, depending upon the overall mood or style intended. Buffoon Number One is Polonius, of course; like Osric, he is the butt of many jokes, and not only Hamlet but even the King and Queen seem to find his loquacity tiresome. But Polonius also has the potential to be a calculating adversary for Hamlet. If you toss in his Machiavellian approach to parenting (especially hiring a spy to watch his son in France), Polonius starts to look more like a villainous foil for Claudius than a source of comic relief.
He could be both, of course; just as Hamlet changes masks whenever the need arises, other characters like Polonius could become chameleons, if the actors who portray them have sufficient range. But Polonius is a special case, because he is the first to die at our hero’s hands. The impression(s) he gives off prior to his accidental death will affect our response to Hamlet’s actions. Killing a scheming sycophant? No biggie. Stabbing a senile windbag? Maybe not so great.
Similarly, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern often come across as goofballs on the modern stage, but the more empty-headed they are, the lower Hamlet sinks in our esteem when he reveals that (a) he’s gone out of his way to have them executed, and (b) he doesn’t feel even the slightest bit bad about their deaths. When we laugh at characters, we like them; and if our last impressions of R&G were fond ones, then Hamlet’s machinations start to seem exceedingly cruel.
The last candidate for humour in Hamlet is the least likely of all — the Prince himself. Is it possible for us to laugh at Hamlet’s emo self-absorption, while still sympathizing with him and wanting him to succeed? I think it may be, providing Hamlet can laugh at himself. Lines like “Why, what an ass am I!” usually get played straight, but it’s easy to see a layer of self-deprecating laughter under them. One of the greatest challenges I can imagine for an actor playing Hamlet would be to find moments where he doesn’t take himself seriously.