Monday, January 14, 2013

What To Do About Hamlet

What to Do About Hamlet

                      Hamlet is scary.
                      How in the world can I write about this play, this incomparable giant in the world of English literature?  What can I write that others more knowledgeable and scholarly haven’t already analyzed inside and out? Googling Hamlet, I get 54 million hits.  Googling “analyzing Hamlet”, half a million hits come up. I’ll get lost in the jungle!
How can I possibly approach the immensity of Hamlet’s cynicism, pain, bitterness, and enthrallment with death? How can I delve into the depths of the characters of Ophelia or Gertrude or Claudius?
                      I already have a relationship with Hamlet of course.  Anyone growing up in an English speaking world can recite half the play by heart without knowing it, simply by saying the hundreds of quotes that have become everyday expressions: Neither a borrower nor a lender be; to thine own self be true; something is rotten in the state of Denmark; the time is out of joint; what a piece of work is man; to be or not to be; to sleep, perchance to dream; ay, there’s the rub; get thee to a nunnery; the lady protests too much, methinks; I must be cruel only to be kind; alas, poor Yorrick. I know him, Horatio; the readiness is all; the rest is silence; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead; of death put on by cunning…etc. etc. Whole books have been written about the “To be or not to be” soliloquy alone!
                      I have read the play in its entirety at least twice, once in Swedish. I have seen Branagh’s film five or six times and at least as many other versions once or twice.
                      So my awe in facing the monumental force of Hamlet is not for lack of familiarity. On the contrary. That is one of the problems. I’m all too aware of the enormity of the play.  I can’t even say, “OK, I’ll just write about my first spontaneous reactions” because they were many readings/viewings ago.
                      But come on! It’s just a play! It won’t bite! Just choose one of the five million aspects of the play that are fascinating and write about it! Never mind that everyone else has already written about it – it will be Ruby’s take on it and therefore relevant enough.
                      Hamlet is like the universe. It can absorb whatever is thrown at it. It can survive whatever nonsense or profundity is offered.
                      So just do it. Come on, it won’t hurt.  Well, yes it will, but it will feel good when it’s done.
There. Hamlet, here I come.
I’m…ready for you.
                      Yeah, right.  


  1. What to do about Hamlet? Tough question. Let's listen to some music, shall we?

    There are two fascinating symphonic poems inspired by the play and/or the title character, neither of which is especially overplayed or overrecorded. In fact, both are nearly forgotten. Yet both, I think, are worth hearing.

    Here is Liszt's Hamlet with Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic:

    And here is Tchaikovsky's Hamlet with the scary Valery Gergiev and the London Symphony:

    Liszt composed his poem in 1858, apparently under the influence of a specific performance of the play with Bogumil Dawison in the title role which he had attended some two years earlier. In a letter Liszt said that Dawison "did not create an uncertain dreamer crushed by the weight of his mission, as has been generally envisioned ever since Goethe produced his theory (in Wilhelm Meister); instead he presented an intelligent, enterprising prince, full of significant political concepts, who is waiting for the appropriate moment to wreck his vengeance and achieve his ambition of being crowned in his uncle's stead."

    I don't think the music fits such an interpretation, but hear and see for yourselves.

    Tchaikovsky's Hamlet, composed in 1888 by the way, has been heavily criticised for not being anything as tuneful and tightly organised as his earlier and far more famous Romeo and Juliet. Few people seem to reflect how extremely different the original plays are; it would be a colossal blunder if any two musical works inspired by them have anything in common.

    For example, Mily Balakirev, who was always fonder of commenting on other people's work rather than doing his own, once wrote with fine sarcasm that the lyrical theme refers to Hamlet's offering Ophelia an ice-scream. It never occured to him that the bitter love story (if it may be called thus) between Hamlet and Ophelia is a very different affair than the all-consuming, Tristan-and-Isolde-like passion between Romeo and Juliet.

    Since I detest anatomizing program music theme by theme, bar by bar, and so on, I skip this part deliberately. There is very little left by both composers in this respect. Liszt said that the gentle clarinet after the climax refers to Ophelia and that's all. Tchaikovsky was even less explicit. It's up to the listener to supply the rest - everything, that is.

    Give an ear. See if the music can enhance the reading.

    1. Thank you, Alexander, both for the links and the information and insights. Music is generally the answer to most questions...I'm listening to the Tchaikovsky as I write.