Our Hamlet

First of all I’ll assume that the reader isn’t a seni kaki and wouldn’t mind a refresher synopsis of the play. By all means, please, if you already know the story, scroll straight down. If you don’t know it, let me say that Hamlet is a damn good yarn, although for the sake of brevity (not, usually, the soul of Jit), I’m omitting all the parts I’d never consider playing. Here goes:

It stinks in Denmark. The King is dead – silly old bugger fell asleep in the garden and got bitten by a snake. His brother Claudius married his queen, Gertrude, and is now king. Denmark is on high alert (Code Red as the Bushamericans now say) because Young Fortinbras of Norway might attack. Things are made even tenser when a ghost is seen grandstanding in the grounds of Elsinore Castle. The late king’s son, Prince Hamlet, is bummed out that his mum married Uncle Claudius within a month of dad’s death.

Meanwhile, Hamlet’s girl, Ophelia is being told to dump him by both her brother Laertes and her dad, the Lord Chamberlain Polonius.

Hamlet and his buds meet the ghost (who turns out to be – duh – his dad’s). Hamlet learns that his dad was poisoned by Claudius and that he must avenge the murder. But he’s to leave his mum to her conscience and heaven.

Then Ophelia tells Polonius that she just met Hamlet all raggedy and weird. Polonius tells Claudius that Hamlet’s just upset about being dumped but Claudius asks a couple of schmoes to go spy on Hamlet anyway.

Hamlet decides to confirm Claudius’ crime by using the fool-proof procedure of putting on a play.

Things get sneaky. Claudius and Polonius eavesdrop on Hamlet and Ophelia. A suspicious Hamlet gets snippy with his girl.

Claudius gets paranoid. He plans to send Hamlet to England.

Meanwhile, Hamlet’s play, with its re-enactment of the King’s murder, gives Claudius the runs. For Hamlet this confirms Claudius’ guilt but Hamlet acts, like, dum-dee-dum.

Claudius hides in his room, prattles about not being able to escape divine justice and gets down on his knees to pray. Hamlet sneaks into the room and barely restrains himself from dicing Claudius – if the bastard died while praying, he might mati syahid. We can’t him in heaven now, can we?

Gertrude gives her son a hard time but Hamlet cuts her short by calling her a ho. She cries out and, in the only incidence of latah in Shakespeare, busybody Polonius hiding behind the drapes echoes her cry: ‘Opocot!’ Hamlet hears this and, in my version, flings deadly shurikens at him.

Hamlet keeps ragging on his mum but dad’s ghost shows up to tell him to ease up. Gertrude begins her redemption by agreeing to find her own apartment and moving out.

Claudius learns of Polonius’ death and freaks. He’s gotta get this crazy mixed-up kid outta here! Claudius also asks the schmoes to find out where Hamlet put Polonius’ body so that CSI can take a look.

Claudius and Hamlet circle each other – Hamlet tells where Polonius’ body is and Claudius urges him to go to England for his own safety and to check out what’s new on the West End, you know, get some ideas. So, off goes Hamlet with the spying schmoes.

Fortinbras marches across Denmark to fight the Polish. This makes Hamlet indulge in a little pissing contest but when he compares his honour against Fortinbras’, H comes out short.

Meanwhile Ophelia’s pretty shaken up about her father’s death and her brother, Laertes, storms through Elsinore’s reception area to have an unscheduled word with Claudius about Justice for his father. Claudius tells Laertes who killed his dad and they plot the death of their common enemy, Hamlet, in a fencing match. Oh, and by the way, Ophelia’s dead.

Hamlet talks to a skull about mortality (who better?) before attending O’s burial. He has another pissing contest, this time with Laertes, over who’s more bummed-out by O’s drowning. Of course H is bummed –  turns out that while offstage, he barely escaped death in England and had to have the lap-dogs put down. Boy, does he want to kill that Claudius!

So Hamlet goes to the castle for the climax. He fights Laertes! Gertrude drinks poison! Hamlet wins two rounds but is nicked with a poisoned sword-tip in round three, but then they swap swords and H comes right back to nick Laertes! With the last ounce yadda-yadda, Hamlet stabs Claudius and thus ends a palace massacre unmatched until Nepal’s recent pizza party.

Then some minor characters come on to sum it all up and give members of the audience a chance to sneak off to their cars before the rush begins. Some sense of balance has been retrieved and five hundred years later, the lapdog schmoes will get their own play.

And there it is, the story.

Who did Shakespeare plagiarise this time?

When Shakespeare was writing Hamlet, available source material included something called Historiae Danicae by Saxo Grammaticus which had a popular legend just like Hamlet, and de Belleforest’s Histoires Tragiques which expanded said legend. Is the story historical? Did it really happen? As your appointed mythmakers, playwrights and politicians hate it when historicity is queried. It was, as we say, a True Legend, like Camelot or Hang Tuah, and let’s leave it at that. And it went something like this.

The 12th century tale plays out in a bloody, battling Jutland populated by people with names like Koll and Rorik (by Crom!) and tells of Feng’s deep envy of his go-getting brother, Horwendil – his high-position and his wife Gerutha (with whom Horwendil has a son, Amleth).

Feng, fully aware that he has the name of a True Villain, butchers Horwendil and marries Gerutha (perhaps thinking she owned the airline). Feng tops this fraticide with cunning righteousness, claiming that his brother had been rough with Gerutha and he, Feng, was merely rescuing a potential battered wife.

As for the son, here’s a translation: “Amleth beheld all this, but feared lest too shrewd a behaviour might make his uncle suspect him. So he chose to feign dullness, and pretend an utter lack of wits. This cunning course not only concealed his intelligence but ensured his safety.”

So like Hamlet, Prince Amleth fakes being whacked-out, all the while hatching and executing his revenge. (Except, in Historiae Danicae, Amleth’s crazy-act has less to do with brilliant rhetorical mania than sitting around, rocking in his own crap. It would seem he was being, dare I say it? – The Autistic Formerly Known as Prince).

It was a pretty well-known story and Shakespeare probably didn’t need to track down some dull academic site to get the details. We should also be aware of the long tradition of Revenge Plays. These plays are exactly what they sound like – they’re about Revenge. From Oresteia to Chas Bronson’s Death Wish, revenge obviously has a primal appeal for us. After all, Right and Wrong mean nothing without systems of redress in life or after.

Anyway, Revenge Plays were hot back in Shakespeare’s day, like blockbusters, and the gossipy sleuths of academia make claims that he might’ve seen (or read reviews of) a popular contemporary Revenge Play called The Spanish Tragedy, by one Thomas Kyd. Academics refer to The Spanish Tragedy as the ‘Ur-Hamlet’, in part to be cute and offset their physical unattractiveness, but also because the earlier play reads like a proto-type for Hamlet.

So let’s say Shakespeare saw Tragedy and decided to re-make it. Question is, why? At a time of gentlemen spies and purple palace intrigue, he certainly saw in the play a crowd-pleaser. Also, I’m thinking, he must have seen that the incest angle would have had a powerful charge for Elizabethan audiences. It was, after all, the annulment of Henry VIII’s marriage to his brother’s widow that led Elizabeth to the throne. (Hello? Who saw A Man for All Seasons?)

But mainly Shakespeare must’ve seen in Tragedy‘s basic outline an undeveloped property. Our Bard was an embellisher, and he would have seen many possibilities in the prototype. He’d have been delighted to elaborate on themes of love and betrayal, kingship and statehood, morality and conscience etc. He certainly went to town with the device of Feigned Madness.

So when I watch Hamlet, I look for Shakespeare in everything apart from the story.

So how did this small ham become such a big deal?

It took time. In the starchier, JAWI-esque time right after Shakespeare’s, all plays were seen as frivolous or even immoral and later, when they were produced once more, much of the writing on Hamlet involved technical analyses of it as a play – problem scenes, suggested edits, tips on staging etc. Then, I think, people starting seeing something in the play beyond the intrigue and sex and violence and even the intoxicating language.

Perhaps more than any other hero extant, Hamlet bares the Individual and all his internal contradictions. The central figure’s appeal grew in proportion to the time’s capacity for self-reflection. By the 18th century, all kinds of big literary stars were weighing in to expound on Hamlet and their influence resonate till today.

For Goethe, Hamlet was a goody-goody- “a fine, pure, noble and highly moral person” but ineffectual – “how he twists and turns, trembles, advances and retreats, always being reminded, always reminding himself, and finally almost losing sight of his goal, yet without ever regaining happiness.”

Coleridge zeroes in on the “overbalance of the imaginative power” in the “everlasting broodings and superfluous activities of Hamlet’s mind…” He also makes much of Hamlet’s inwardness and vacillations: “It is in the nature of thought to be indefinite – definiteness belongs to external imagery alone…  the sense of sublimity arises, not from sight of the outward object but from the beholder’s reflection upon it – not from the sensuous impression but from the imaginative reflex.”

I suspect these archetypes helped create those faggy, bangs-and-tights Hamlets that we see posturing in olde photos of The Theatah. Later Eliot started poking at this pallid, melancholy image and its creators: “These minds often find in Hamlet a vicarious existence for their own artistic realization. Such a mind had Goethe, who made of Hamlet a Werther; and such had Coleridge, who made of Hamlet a Coleridge; and probably neither of these men in writing about Hamlet remembered that his first business was to study a work of art.” Ooh – Burn!

But Hamlet isn’t a big deal because poets and philosophers can appropriate themselves through him but because we all can. If Shakespeare is theatre’s Michelangelo, then Hamlet is his David, potent not for it’s perfection (or endowments for that matter) but by the infinite projections it accommodates.

It follows that if we project ourselves onto Hamlet then we also bring the tenor and trends of our times. And all manner of cans of worms are opened. Ernest Jones’s influential Freudian analysis (Hamlet and Oedipus) not only gave Hamlet’s feelings for Gertrude an ancient/new twist, it posited that Hamlet was essentially a failed villain, despising Claudius for getting there first. There have been Marxist Hamlets, existential Hamlets, gay Hamlets, Hamlets of colour, Thatcherite Hamlets, corporate-raider Hamlets, rock n’roll Hamlets, Goth Hamlets. There was even a Hamlet with a heart condition (excess adipose tissue – thereby explaining his difficulty breathing). And, I swear it’s true, there was a silent movie where Hamlet was a woman raised as a man and conflicted by loving Horatio! When Horatio clutches this dying Hamlette, he accidentally grabs her boobies and the subtitle says something like, “Ah Hamlet, I’ve found your tragic secret!”

First Published: 14.02.2005 on Kakiseni

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