Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Feasting on Ham (let)

Today I went to Office Depot and bought all the binders I'm going to need for HISTO and the Hamlet Workshop, plus a package of printer paper. Then I drove across town and picked up a very large box of Barron's Shakespeare Made Easy Hamlet books. The study notes should be here in this afternoon's mail. I am so thrilled, I am about to plotz.

This is all so thrilling that I am actually NOT going to the pool today: I want to stay home and work on my lesson plans. I've already put a lot of work into HISTO and the Shakespeare Workshop while sitting poolside, but now it's time to do some computer stuff. Meelyn and Aisling have put in a request to be dropped off at the pool, so I'll do that and give them a chance to stay for a couple of hours, but I want to be here, typing away madly while the sun shines outside. Ooooh, I've got it bad. The teaching bug has infected me again.

There were times last summer when I was knee-deep in HISTO Roman Empire that I dropped my work and went ahead to the pool with the kids, but something I have realized about myself is that I need to work when inspiration hits me. (It usually hits me in the middle of the night.) If I decide to wait, I get so lazy and unmotivated that I procrastinate, which then leads to me cussing and crying in the living room as I try to put together thirty binders at the last possible minute. So, even though the next three days are forecast for rain, I'm going with the flow of things.

I want to get started with my Hamlet lesson plans today, covering the always-popular Freytag's Pyramid. Gustav Freytag (1816-1895) was a German writer and critic who proposed a method of analyzing plots in drama and literature in his book, Technique of the Drama, published in 1863. This method is based on Artistotle's concept of "unity of action," which means that all parts of the play/novel/short story work together to bring about the resolution of the conflict, or dénouement, which literally means "unknotting" in French.

In a play, these elements are particularly fascinating because playwrights have so much more to work with than words on a page. I've typed the list of Aristotle's Six Elements of Drama below to illustrate this point.

1. PLOT – The story of the play or the order of events. The main plot in Hamlet is his desire for revenge against his uncle, Claudius, who has murdered Hamlet's father (the king), married his mother and stolen the throne. There is also a subplot enterwined with the main plot that involves Ophelia, Hamlet's fiancée, who is driven out of her mind by Hamlet's sudden hatred of her (he's really mad at his mother) and by her father's use of her to get to Hamlet.

2. THEME – What the play means as opposed to what happens (plot). Hamlet has several themes, such as death. Untimely death, undeserved death, death for revenge and honor...all those play a part in this play, for better or for worse (because obviously, I am not going to advocate getting back at those who dun yew wrong by killing them. I think my students' parents would disapprove.) Another theme in Hamlet is teen angst -- Hamlet's indecisiveness is heightened by his grief at his father's death, his rage against his uncle, the enormous sense of betrayal by his mother, not to mention his great fear that his mother is implicated in his uncle's plot to kill his father. Phew! And people think soap opera plots are involved!

There are also Catholic themes in Hamlet and a "shadow plot" -- not stated outright, but strongly hinted at -- comparing the rotten state of Denmark with its usurped throne and political machinations to Queen Elizabeth I's police state, with its cruel treatment of Catholics, during the time of the Protestant Reformation in England.

3. CHARACTER – The part an actor represents in a play; the role he or she plays. Hamlet is rich in characterization, which, due to the fact that Shakespeare wrote his plays with minimal stage notes, can be manipulated by the director to suit his/her vision of what the play is. The way the characters in Hamlet are traditionally exploited is this: Is Gertrude just an innocent fool, a shallow woman who has no idea that her brother-in-law has killed her husband? She was married to Hamlet's father for twenty years or could she have recovered so quickly from his death and married Claudius three weeks after the funeral? Or did she know what Claudius had done? Did she help him plan it out? Had they been lovers before King Hamlet died?

Different directors see this in different ways. One of the best things about watching a version of Hamlet, whether on stage or on screen, is to see how the director has approached Gertrude's character.

4. DICTION/LANGUAGE/DIALOGUE – This element has two parts: 1. the words the playwright chooses; and 2. the ways the actors deliver the lines.

For the first part, everyone knows that Shakespeare was a master of the English language -- a communicator whose ideas transcend time and make him and his works knowable to generations of people, both high and low, small and great. In his works, when a known word wouldn't work, Shakespeare frequently invented one. He coined the words "laughable," "courtship," and "luggage" among many other words and phrases.

The second part of this element deals with the way the actor speaks the words and makes the dialogue live and breathe. In Hamlet, Claudius's chief advisor, Polonius, asks Hamlet what he is reading. Hamlet's smart-alecky teenage response is "Words, words, words" in Shakespeare's script. But anyone can agree that that simple line could be spoken in a number of ways to underscore Hamlet's contempt for this man, who also happens to be Ophelia's father. The actor could say "Words, words, words" in a bored monotone to indicate that Polonius is not worthy of the time and effort it would take to speak the book's title. Or the actor could use a sarcastic tone, mocking the fact that what Polonius was really enquiring about was the title of the book Hamlet was perusing. It seems that every production addresses these three words a little differently.

5. MUSIC/RHYTHM – Aristotle, an ancient Greek, was referring to the sound and rhythm of the dialogue. Hamlet's soliloquy on suicide, the famous "To be or not to be, that is the question/Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune/Or to take arms against a sea of troubles/And by opposing, end them./To die, to sleep - no more" tolls like a death-bell as he faces his grim thoughts about his mother, his father, Claudius and Ophelia. Shakespeare caught that echo of tragedy again in Macbeth, when the wicked, suffering king contemplates the death of his wife "Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow/Creeps in this petty pace from day to day..." The dialogue in both of these speeches is heavy and full of sorrow; spoken entirely differently the light, sparkling, witty words in one of Shakespeare's comedies.

I like to consider the use of actual music as well. Obviously, this is used most often in filmed versions of the play and it's always interesting to see what kind of music each director will find fits the mood of each scene the best.

6. SPECTACLE – The involves the visual elements of the production of a play; scenery, costumes, and special effects. In Shakespeare's day, scenery was almost non-existent and the theater troupe's money went into elaborate costuming and props. In our time, especially in filmed versions of Shakespeare's plays, there is no shortage of scenery. Even high school productions have been known to build and paint some battlements for the ghost of King Hamlet to walk on. Zeffirelli's 1996 version starring Mel Gibson and Glenn Close featured scenes of an actual medieval castle and views of rainy, windswept fjords to set the mood.

On any stage, whether it is in a theater or a studio, no scenery, no prop, not a single button on a costume is there by accident. In a filmed version, every single camera angle, close up and long shot is there for a reason. Everything is geared towards moving the plot forward, creating a mood and telling the audience about the characters. For instance, if an audience saw Gertrude at the beginning of the play dressed in a plain gown in a dull color, they might infer that she felt grief at her husband's passing, or perhaps that she was trying to hide the triumph of his "accidental" death and her quick marriage. But if they saw her in an elaborate gown and jewels with her hair dressed high on her head, they might think....something else.


1 comment:

Kbg said...

Heck yes, this is FUN! And, I can't believe I am missing it! At least I get to go to the play itself with all of you...that's something, right? Thanks for doing this, btw!