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Note from Hamlet Artistic Director Brian Kulick
I often wonder: after all these centuries, is HAMLET still a play? Or has it become something of a sporting event? In other words, has our watching of HAMLET changed from the days of its original Elizabethan audience? Has HAMLET become more a boxing match between the lead actor and the play, where each soliloquy is more like another round than act? Do we find ourselves still lost in the play’s unfolding or have we become commentators, assessing each micro move of Hamlet in a stream of consciousness that runs parallel to our viewing and goes something like, “Well actor X didn’t knock me out with his ‘Oh This too too solid flesh…’ but let’s see what he does with ‘Who is Hecuba to Him and He to Hecuba…’ And, of course, there is that Everest of a soliloquy called “To Be or Not to Be,” perhaps the six most famous sequence of words in the entire English language. How can anyone, these days, say those words “trippingly on the tongue”? And yet they do and we still come to see our generation’s contender for the Hamlet Hall of Fame.
How did this strange phenomenon come about? When was it exactly that HAMLET was conferred with this extra-theatrical status? Such a genealogy is too complex for the brief borders of a note like this. Suffice to say, as T.S. Eliot did, that HAMLET is to theatre what the Mona Lisa is to painting. Eliot’s wry observation is intriguing on several counts. The first, of course, being the seemingly self-evident nature of his claim that both Hamlet and the Mona Lisa are indeed cultural ubiquitous, having escaped the page and canvas of their respective mediums and finding themselves part of our collective cultural consciousness. But, secondarily, the comparison draws our attention to the question of how these two cultural icons rhyme and how that “rhyming” might have something to do with their “extra-curricular” activity. What do these two works have in common that allows them to escape from the cultural din of the centuries and somehow stand out, becoming truly unique aesthetic entities that hold us in their respective thrall?
I wonder if part of this is due to their inherent mystery. When one looks at the Mona Lisa one can’t help but ask, “Is that a smile on her lips? And if so, what exactly is she smiling about.” This simple curve of the lips has driven art critics mad, leading them to all manner of speculation. The most recent being a theory that the Mona Lisa is actually Leonardo Da Vinci in drag and that is at the root of that ever so seemingly sly smile of hers (or should we now say his). Hamlet has his own mystery; something he shares with many of Shakespeare’s other major creations. These fictional creatures refuse to fully explain themselves of their actions to their fellow characters or to us. Shylock and Iago refuse, point blank, to tell us why they are driven to do the things they do. Like the Mona Lisa‘s smile, it is their secret and they guard it with great tenacity. But in the realm of such mysteries, it is Hamlet who is the true prince. Why it takes him so long to act has filled libraries with book after book of critical suppositions. At one famous juncture, Hamlet taunts his friends Rosencrantz and Guldenstern, encouraging them to play a simple recorder. The two demur, saying that they “know not the stops.” This elicits Hamlet’s famous response:
“Why, look you now how unworthy a thing you make of me: you would play upon me! You would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery, you would sound me from my lowest note to my compass. And there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ. Yet cannot you make it speak. ‘Sblood! Do you think I am easier to be played in than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you fret me, you cannot play upon me.”
This is Hamlet’s challenge to us and every actor who dares to “fret him;” Knowing Hamlet’s “true stops” is further complicated by the multitude of interpretations that have subsequently come between us and the play, further obscuring a clear view of what the work might have originally meant to an Elizabethan audience. One of the biggest interpretational encumbrances has been Goethe and his fellow romantics, whose writings on the noble Dane have been so persuasive they have, in essence, co-opted this Renaissance revenger and turned him into a romantic hero. In such readings, Hamlet becomes a noble, Christ-like martyr and the complex Renaissance notion of his melancholy is reduced to a blanket sadness that is as monochromatic as his “inky cloak.” In truth, Shakespeare’s Hamlet bares a closer resemblance to the relentless Renaissance revenger that is found in Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy (the play that started the whole Elizabethan fad of revenge plays). Current interpretations veer between either this variation of a Renaissance revenger or hold to the older romantic hero mold. But when one spends time with the text, one discovers that Shakespeare’s Hamlet oscillates somewhere between these two poles of being. It is not just the time but Hamlet himself who is “out of joint.”
He is a young man who veers from the profound reflection of “To be, or not to be” to the rash and impulsive stabbing of Polonius behind the arras. What Hamlet seems to be searching for throughout the play is a balance between thought and right action; a balance that he finds in his friend Horatio who he commends in the following fashion:
“…Blest are those
whose blood and judgement are so well commingled
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my hearts core…”
It will take Hamlet the entire play to find such balance. He seems to have finally attained it when he puts aside his worries and accepts Osric’s invitation to fence with Laertes. Horatio sees Hamlet’s momentary panic and says he is happy to intervene on Hamlet’s behalf, but Hamlet summons up his resolve and tells us:
“We defy augury. There’s a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come. It it be not to come, it will be now. If it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.”
Such a sentiment as “the readiness is all” would no doubt make sense to a certain segment of Shakespeare’s audience that was being raised to be a new kind of hero: the scholar/warrior.
For them this adage would be seen as part of an education for a renaissance prince and the play itself might finally be nothing more than a dramatic tutelage for the newly crowned King James. But such potential nuances are lost to a modern audience; time and performative tradition have become co-authors to the text, forever altering it from whatever its original intentions might have been. Such is the case with the two words that follow Hamlet’s “The readiness is all.” These two words, “Let be” finish this final train of Hamlet’s thought. When we hear them, it is hard for a modern audience to not think of this as Hamlet’s final summation, an answer to this earlier vexing question of “To be, or not to be.” These two words conjure up an almost Buddhist-like relationship to the world and its affairs. But “Let be” is also Elizabethan slang for, “Shhh, someone is coming” which is indeed what happens right on the heels of this line. So what, in deed, does something like “Let be” finally mean? Is it a piece of semi-oracular wisdom or a simple injunction for silence? We will never know. Hamlet is mum on this point, as he is on so many others. There he stands, a smile on his face, provoking us to return again to the text and a find our own answer. Perhaps we should say, it is the mystery rather than the readiness, that is all.