Summer/Fall 2005

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Stuff that Happens
Stuff that happens before the play
  • Hamlet, King of Denmark, dies.
  • Claudius, his brother, is crowned King and marries the dead king’s widow, Gertrude.
  • Prince Hamlet returns to court at Elsinore from studying at Wittenburg.
  • The ghost of the dead king appears on the battlements two times.
Stuff that happens during the play
  • Two soldiers bring Horatio, Hamlet’s friend and fellow student, to the battlements where the ghost appears again but does not speak.
  • King Claudius addresses his court and grants permission for Polonius’s son Laertes to return to France, but Claudius beseeches Hamlet not to return to school in Wittenburg.
  • Laertes says goodbye to his sister Ophelia and gets much advice from his father before departing for France.
  • Ophelia tells her father that Hamlet has “made many tenders of his affection” towards her. Polonius says “do not believe his vows” and tells her to stop speaking to Hamlet.
  • Hamlet goes to the battlements where the ghost appears again, claiming to be Hamlet’s dead father, and tells Hamlet that Claudius murdered the King by pouring poison in his ear. The ghost asks Hamlet to “revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.”
  • Hamlet makes Horatio and Marcellus swear not to speak of the ghost and tells them he will “put an antic disposition on.”
  • Polonius sends his servant Reynaldo to Paris to check up on Laertes.
  • Ophelia tells her father that Hamlet came to her chamber acting strangely after she “did repeal his letters and denied his access.”
  • The King and Queen welcome Hamlet’s friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and ask them to discover what’s troubling Hamlet.
  • Fortinbras of Norway vows to keep the peace with Denmark and requests permission to march his army through Denmark to battle Poland.
  • Hamlet calls Polonius a “fishmonger,” greets Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and asks them if they were “sent for” or if “it is a free visitation.”
  • Players arrive at Elsinore; Hamlet knows them and requests a performance of The Murder of Gonzago with the addition of “a speech of some dozen or sixteen lines which [Hamlet] would set down and insert in’t.”
  • Hamlet tells the audience that the players will “play something like the murder of my father.” in front of Claudius because the ghost “may be the devil…and perhaps…abuses me to damn me.” Hamlet will watch how Claudius reacts to the play to know for sure if the ghost speaks the truth.
  • Discoveries, drowning, plotting, poisoning, and other tragedies ensue.
Notes from the Director
words, words, words

Though it began obscurely enough, Hamlet is inherently a big bang affair, its own constantly expanding universe. The story first appears in Danish at he end of the tewlfth century; in its French translation of 1570 it is already twice as long. Shakespeare’s famous “good” quarto version, though generally believed to be based on his own manuscript, is much too long for theatrical performance. The Folio version of 1623 is considerably shorter, and is closer to a playing script – yet it also includes many lines which appear for the first time. Even when Shakespeare needed to make his play shorter he couldn’t resist adding to it. In the fifth act, when any reasonable dramatist would be thinking of winding things up, Shakespeare introduces the gravedigger and Osric, two exotic characters that contribute almost nothing to the plot. The playwright postpones his ending almost as long as his prince postpones his revenge. You sense that given world enough and time, they both might have gone on talking forever, and you rather wish they had.

In the four centuries since its first performance (probably in 1601), Hamlet has continued to expand exponentially, working its way into the bloodstream of our entire culture. It now offers a sequence of scenes that read like a list of Shakespeare’s greatest hits: ghost, nunnery, mousetrap, closet, mad scene, graveyard, and the final duel. Its famous lines come so thick and fast that, as John Harrell pointed out to me, sometimes a single sentence will deliver two separate household phrases:

But to my mind, though I am native here
And to the manner born, it is a custom
More honored in the breach than the observance.

Hamlet himself, at the moment of his death, is desperately concerned that he will be forgotten. He needn’t have worried. We have been retelling his story ever since he first expired on the stage of the Globe, not only in stage productions but in films, lectures, critical essays, and conversations in and out of class. As the American Shakespeare Center blurb for this production notes, Hamlet is “the world’s most discussed play.” It is also Shakespeare’s longest, most unstable, and least contained.

The overwhelming proliferation of Hamlet, which seems to spill out in every direction, almost demands that any new production create at least a clear and strong interpretation, and preferably a new one, of this most protean play. Alas, that is not what we offer here.

Rather than adopting a rigorous point of view, we have chosen to let the playhouse itself serve as the container of this most uncomfortable play. The Blackfriars is not the Globe, but it bears a more than cousinly relationship to Hamlet’s original stage. It opens the doors to a number of possibilities while radically limiting others. There will be no special lighting, no electronic thunder, and no chemical fog to usher in our ghost. There will be only the most minimal indications of place settings. There will be very few supernumeraries – our prince, as he says, will be most “dreadfully attended.” On the other hand we have a space which encourages fluid movement and continuous conversation with the audience. There is one great place to hide, behind a curtain prominently placed upstage. Above, a roof fretted with golden fire. Below, a trap door leading to a cellarage, the fires of hell, an open grave. There’s an upstage wall, both rich and gaudy, a grand façade. Whatever else it is not, the Blackfriars is always dressed, cap a pie, as a theater, a place “to act, to do, to perform.” Why it almost seems as though everything in the Blackfriars was designed to support the action and the world of this play. Amazing, is it not?

In the early days of our rehearsals, attentive to the promptings of both play and playhouse, it has sometimes seemed to me that we are as much ritual practitioners as exploring artists. The play is that familiar and that deeply engrained in our consciousness. Hamlet accommodates itself so naturally on this stage that I sometimes think the play has found its home at last, and perhaps now it will settle down to a well deserved rest. Yet even here – perhaps especially here, Hamlet also feels surprisingly fresh and clean. And if there’s one thing we know about this death haunted hyper-alive play (and its death haunted hyper-alive hero), it’s that it will go on expanding and changing. In truth this production only participates in the play’s still proliferating universe. At the heart of Hamlet is a restless, perturbed spirit. The play haunts us like the ghost haunts Elsinore. ‘Tis very strange, assuming a questionable shape to assail our eyes. We go on remembering it so long as memory holds a seat in our distracted globe. And then, perhaps, we forget. But soft, behold, lo where it comes again!

Murray ross