Friday, June 15, 2007

My friend Hamlet

At the end of August, I'll be teaching my second Shakespeare Workshop to a group of middle-school and high-school aged homeschoolers. The first Shakespeare Workshop happened last February (Twelfth Night) and the weather did its best to make sure that nothing went as I had planned, including a freak snowstorm that had me, with a low-battery cell phone, driving Meelyn and Aisling and my friend Celia's two kids on a homeward journey that usually takes us twenty-five minutes, but on this particular day took three hours. I had to keep getting out of the van in my tennis shoes to clear the ice off the windshield, thinking, "No one, not even me, likes Shakespeare this much."

I'm hoping that we won't have to deal with snow in central Indiana in late summer.

The next Workshop's play is going to be Hamlet, which will be performed at the Indiana Repertory Theater throughout the month of October. I am excited about this because Hamlet is one of my favorite of Shakespeare's plays, especially to teach to young people. Hamlet was, after all, a young man of nineteen or twenty, despite evidence to the contrary provided by Sir Laurence Olivier and Mel Gibson, both of whom played the title role as men in their forties. As much as I like Mel Gibson, I found this to be a definite test of my credulity; the fabulous actress Glenn Close played the role of Gertrude, Hamlet's mother, in the Franco Zeffirelli-directed film and all I could think throughout the whole thing was that Gertrude must have given birth to Hamlet when she was sixteen months old because they did not look like mother and son.

I can't even speak about Sir Laurence Olivier. I know that his version of Hamlet (which he both directed and starred in) is supposed to be the benchmark of all filmed Hamlet productions, but frankly, his acting makes me want to lie down on that bench and take a nap. It seems to consist a lot of looking broodingly into the middle distance with various pained expressions. I couldn't decide if he was wondering whether to out his usurping uncle Claudius as his father's murderer or if he should take a stool softener to help him deal with that chronic constipation he seemed to be suffering from. Whatever.

Sir Laurence Olivier's Hamlet could have
benefited from using these suppositories,
guaranteed to remove that pained expression
from one's face. Image credit:

Anyway, I am particularly looking forward to the first day of this workshop because I'm looking forward to asking the students this question:

Imagine that you are a university student, far away from home, and you receive word that your father, the king of your home country, has died. This shocks and saddens you, but death in your time period isn't particularly unexpected - mortality rates are high and people don't tend to live all that long. So you travel home, grieving, and find that an unpleasant surprise awaits you.

First of all, your father's brother has decided to take your place as the king of the country. You are, after all, just a teenager and he is a grown man who feels that he is more capable of ruling than you are. There are laws that supposedly govern this sort of behavior, but you can immediately see that the laws are moot because your uncle has become king with the full approval of your mother, who married him just a few weeks after your father's death.

You had expected to find your mother dressed in mourning, a grieving widow. She and your father were truly in love with one another, after all. You are shocked and repulsed to find her giggling and hanging on your uncle's arm, as giddy as any happy new bride. All of a sudden, the idea of you and your mother comforting one another in this desolate time seems silly, because she has recovered from her first husband's death with an offensive quickness.

You still carry a heavy burden of sorrow. If you had lived in our times, you would have been sent to the doctor and given a prescription for Zoloft and that would have helped to lighten your mood, but that wasn't available and your episodic depression is being made worse by the thought that your uncle has stolen your throne and the fact that your mother is nuzzling your uncle's beard with her cheek and whispering little something-somethings into his ear at the dinner table. Frankly, it's about more than you can stand.

But even stranger things happen next. Your friend from college, Horatio, comes to you and tells you that he has seen your father. But not in the past! Like, yesterday. Walking on the battlements of the castle during the third watch. You are very surprised to hear this and you make plans with Horatio and the two guards to be on the battlements tonight to see this ghost for yourself.

Sure enough, the ghost appears that night. and it does appear to be your father. You follow him and he tells you that he is indeed your father's spirit, languishing in purgatory because of the sins staining his soul at death. He says that he was unable to have the comfort of the sacraments before his death because his death came upon him very suddenly, and it wasn't from a snake bite, which is the rumor going around Denmark; it was because of his brother - your uncle -who poisoned him, usurped the throne and married his wife - your mother - so quickly that, as you said, "The funeral baked meats/Did coldly furnish forth the marriage table."

You've already been suffering from this terrible depression, due to your grief over your father's death and your inability to understand why your mother seems to have completely forgotten your father and has married again so quickly, especially since it is to the uncle who has stolen your throne. But this news, this news of your father's murder...well, that just about sends you over the edge.

Now you know that your uncle is not only a usurping pretender to the throne, he's also a cold-blooded murderer.


(What about your mother?)

Could your mother have played a part in all this? Could she have encouraged Claudius to murder your father and take the throne? Were they having an affair before your father's death? Is she just as guilty of your father's death as Claudius?

(Is your mother capable of coldly plotting your father's death?)

Or could Claudius have used her, seeing her innocence as a shield to bolster his own position of power?

(Or is it possible that she could be so smitten by a murderous traitor?)

Who could think thoughts like this and just go about as normal? You descend even further into your grief, causing your mother to worry fondly over you, Claudius to be annoyed by you, and your fiancee, Ophelia, to believe that you no longer love her. You can't decide what you should do. Your father's ghost wants you to avenge him, but you're worried that perhaps this apparition isn't really your father's ghost at all, but rather a demonic manifestation sent from hell to trick you and drive you mad. Sometimes you think you are going mad. Your mother.....could she have?...Sometimes it seems like suicide is the only way out of your problems, but you feel the need to take some sort of action: there must be something you can do to find the truth.

Ahh, Shakespeare. Hamlet! There's something there for everyone: murder, intrigue, sudden death, sorrow, spying, plotting, doubletalk, dark humor and, er....a few dirty jokes.

I can hardly wait!

1 comment:

Kbg said...

You have such a way of taking a subject and making it absolutely tantalizing...very good little teaser on Hamlet! (No matter how educated and interesting you are on the subject of Shakespeare, I am still not riding with you to Stratford! LOL! The thought of all that luggage and STUFF! YIKES!)