Monday, November 15, 2010

Hamlet: Good Grief, Sweet Prince

I saw Seattle Shakespeare’s excellent production of Hamlet this last week, and all of the good press the show’s gotten is richly deserved. Great cast, crystal clear directing, funny and somber and illuminating—a fine opportunity to reacquaint yourself with one of the best plays ever written.

But it also shows what I’ve long thought about the Prince of Denmark: he is absolutely the worst revenger in the history of Revenge Tragedies.

To recap: Hamlet is told by no less of an authority than the Ghost of his own dead Father that his Uncle is a murderous villain. On top of this, Claudius has married his mother, dispossessed the Prince, and shoots off the Royal Cannons whenever he gets drunk. Simple answer, right? Request a private conference with the old souse, run your sword through his gut, make excuses afterwards.

Instead he hatches several Cunning Plans, and the result is a stage littered with corpses—including his own.

You can blame Hamlet or his philosophy professors at Wittenberg or the Oedipal complex or the effect of Renaissance ideas on the medieval mind. Personally, I blame Horatio, the least effective sidekick in literature.

After painstaking research, I’ve reconstructed the following pages from Horatio’s private diary.

8 October: I met with H. again today to discuss his plans for revenge. He showed up with his stockings foul'd, ungarter'd, and down-gyved to his ankles. He also had stuck some straw in his hair.

“What’s with the down-gyving?” I asked.

“I merely seem mad,” he said. “When the wind’s southerly, I can tell a hawk from a handsaw.” He then crossed his eyes and shook his cheeks with a “wubba wubba” sound.

“Uh-huh.” I replied.

“My antic disposition shall confound mine enemy.”

“It’s certainly confounding me,” I admitted. “Along with Claudius, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Horatio, Marcellus, Ophelia and everyone else in the castle.”

“That’s my purpose!” he said triumphantly.

“Why Ophelia?” I asked. “Do you think she had something to do with the murder?”


“Then why are you acting crazy round her?”

He looked ashamed for a moment. “She’s great, really, but you know? All we ever talk about is her gardening and whatever hey-nonny-nonny song she's listening to. It’s just not working for me, so I thought I’d let her down easy.”

“By pretending you’re insane?”


“Well, far be it for me to give unsolicited advice, but if your Uncle murdered your Father, just kill him! C
laudius is a loudmouth drunk who’s always cadging drinks and hitting on lords’ wives at official functions. You’re the rightful heir.I can create a distraction so his guards aren’t looking. I’ll say something like ‘Help! Help! I see a ghost!,’ while you run him through.There probably won’t even be an official investigation.”

H. looked confused. “The time’s not right. What’s today, Tuesday? It’s bad luck to kill your Uncle on a Tuesday. I read that somewhere.” He suddenly spotted Polonius. “Ah-ha! Off to confound the old man!” He hitched his right stocking down a couple of inches further and raced off.

I miss Wittenberg.

10 October: Talked to H. again, who’s in a fevered excitement about the arrival of some strolling players. Hey, I love theatre as much as the next guy (particularly comical-historical-pastoral—I go nuts for that stuff!), but that’s not what has him so goofy. “My plot is laid, Horatio!,” he said, brandishing some pages he was scribbling on. “I’m going to interpolate a scene I’ve written into tonight's performance, replicating my father’s murder!”

“Wow!” I said.

“I know, right? Stuck in the middle of this old Italian tragedy like a petard in a punch bowl.” He made a “KA-BLOOIE!” sound and thrust out his hands, fingers waving, in imitation of an explosion.

I smiled. He smiled.

Then, I had to ask. “Why, exactly?”

“I’m going to watch Claudius. I'll tent him to the quick: if he but blench, I’ll know my course.”

“To cut him down while he’s distracted?”

“Absolutely!” he said. Then he looked a little shifty. “Or really soon, anyway.”

“So the ghost wasn’t enough?” He looked at me mysteriously.

“Maybe it wasn’t a ghost. Maybe it was a trick.”

“A trick?”

“Maybe it was a sprite disguised as a ghost, trying to get me to kill Claudius.”

"A sprite? Like a brownie?"

"Or a hobgoblin."

“That's pretty convoluted, even for a hobgoblin.”

“There are more things on heaven and earth, Horatio….”

“I heard you the first time. Look, if your plan works Claudius will know you put the players up to it. Won’t you lose the advantage of surprise?”

He looked confused, then shouted “I don’t have time for this!” and angrily rearranged his head straw. “I’ve got to go find those players and give them some acting advice!”

“Well, I’m sure THAT will go over well." I said.

He ungyved his right hose a bit, and was off.

This afternoon I updated my resume. I’m applying for a job with the Swedish Royal Court.

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