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Posts Tagged ‘Hamlet’

Hamlet‘ is the most popular Shakespeare play in my home. My mother used to tell Hamlet’s story to me and my sister when we were young. I used to ask her to tell us this story again and again. I don’t know how my mother discovered the story of Hamlet and where she first heard it or read it. Maybe she studied it in school. I don’t think my mother knew about the Laurence Olivier film adaptation of ‘Hamlet‘, because when I discovered it years later after growing up, I got the DVD and watched it with her. It is interesting though, that the story that my mother told was closer to the Laurence Olivier version and the ending in both the stories is the same. In the actual play, there are more events which happen in the end.

You probably know Hamlet’s story, but if you don’t, here is a brief summary. Hamlet is the Prince of Denmark. His father, who is also called Hamlet (it used to be a famous quiz question – What is the name of Hamlet’s father?), has recently passed and his mother marries his uncle, his father’s brother Claudius, and Claudius is now king. Hamlet is uncomfortable with the whole situation and is very unhappy with the haste with which his mother married his uncle. Hamlet’s friend Horatio and some of the guards in the castle spot an apparition in the middle of the night. It looks like the dead king. They alert Hamlet to it. Hamlet joins them the next night. The apparition appears again. It asks Hamlet alone to follow in its footsteps. When they move to a private part of the castle, the ghost tells Hamlet that it is the dead king’s spirit. It also tells Hamlet that the king didn’t die of natural causes but his brother Claudius killed him. The ghost asks Hamlet to take revenge. What happens after this? Does Hamlet take revenge? Are his plans foiled by his uncle, the new king? What happens to his mother? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.

The first thing I loved about ‘Hamlet‘ is Shakespeare’s prose. It sizzles in every page! It is beautiful, poetic, gorgeous, lush. It is pure pleasure to read. We don’t want to rush through the pages, but we want to savour every sentence, every word, and sometimes read a particular sentence or passage again and again. There was a time when I used to get intimidated by Shakespeare’s prose. I could understand specific lines, phrases and passages, but if I tried reading a few pages, together, it was hard to understand. It was written in Elizabethan, after all. But all that has changed now. I can understand better now and follow Elizabethan English as if it is spoken in my own time. As it is said in Ecclesiastes 3 : 1–8 :

“To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven”

I think this is my time to read Shakespeare properly, from the beginning to the end, and enjoy the Bard’s prose and appreciate its beauty.

It is also delightful and lots of fun to spot all the famous lines and quotes, and the words Shakespeare invented, as they leap out of the page – words and phrases like ‘Neither a borrower nor a lender be‘, ‘Murder most foul‘, ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy‘, ‘Brevity is the soul of wit‘, ‘The lady doth protest too much, methinks‘, and the famous ‘method to his madness‘ phrase, ‘Though this be madness, yet there is method in’t‘. There is, of course, that most famous line of all, probably the most famous Shakespearean line ever, which starts as ‘To be or not to be, that is the question‘. The monologue that follows that is as stirring and as inspiring as it was when I read it the first time. It is one of the greatest monologues ever written and spoken. It still gives me goosebumps.

I read recently in another book (if you are curious, it is in ‘On Cricket’ by Mike Brearley), this passage about Mozart –

“I read recently of Mozart’s support for democracy, not in politics itself, but in the music of his operas. How so? Mozart gave his minor parts complex characters, with complex music. They are not just pawns, either in the plot (content) or in the music they are given to sing (their form). He shifted music away from a hierarchical tradition. Rather than there being a totally dominant top line, with others in unison beneath it, supplementing, harmonizing, fitting in, in short, serving the dominant tune, Mozart gave each instrument and voice a unique line of its own.”

This holds true for Shakespeare too. He is quite democratic too because he gives beautiful lines to all characters, lines which are unique to their personalities. He doesn’t differentiate between them – whether they are major or minor, young or old, good or bad. One of my favourite passages was spoken by Polonius, the father of Ophelia and Laertes, when he gives advice to his son who is leaving for a distant land, to work and live there. It is so beautiful and inspiring. It goes like this.

“There – my blessing with thee!
And these few precepts in thy memory
See thou character. Give thy thoughts no tongue,
Nor any unproportioned thought his act.
Be thou familiar, but by no means vulgar.
Those friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,
Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel;
But do not dull thy palm with entertainment
Of each new-hatch’d, unfledged comrade. Beware
Of entrance to a quarrel, but being in,
Bear’t that the opposed may beware of thee.
Give every man thy ear, but few thy voice;
Take each man’s censure, but reserve thy judgment.
Costly thy habit as thy purse can buy,
But not express’d in fancy; rich, not gaudy;
For the apparel oft proclaims the man,
And they in France of the best rank and station
Are of a most select and generous chief in that.
Neither a borrower nor a lender be;
For loan oft loses both itself and friend,
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.
This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.
Farewell: my blessing season this in thee!”

I used to hate Polonius because I felt that he was trying to breakup Hamlet and Ophelia, but after reading these lines, and other things he says (he also speaks the ‘method to his madness‘ line and also says ‘Brevity is the soul of wit‘), I realize there is more to him than meets the eye.

Even more interesting are the lines that the villain of the story, Claudius, speaks. He speaks one of my favourite Shakespearean lines ever –

“When sorrows come, they come not single spies,
But in battalions.”

I first heard this line when my English professor from college quoted it and it moved me so much that it has been seared in my memory. I have quoted it to so many friends since. I always thought that it was a line from ‘King Lear‘. I was very surprised to discover that it was from ‘Hamlet’. And surprise, surprise, it is spoken by Claudius! Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother follows this up later with lines which express a similar sentiment –

“One woe doth tread upon another’s heel,
So fast they follow.”

Claudius’ insightful lines don’t end here. In another place he shares his thoughts on justice and the law. It goes like this –

“In the corrupted currents of this world
Offense’s gilded hand may shove by justice,
And oft ’tis seen the wicked prize itself
Buys out the law.”

It made me remember one of my favourite lines on justice and law from a book called ‘A Frolic of His Own‘ by William Gaddis

“Justice? – You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law.”

It is one of the most incredibly powerful first lines in literature, and I wonder whether Gaddis was inspired by Shakespeare.

There is lots of stuff in Shakespeare’s play which is new to me, because they were not there in my mother’s version nor in Laurence Olivier’s version. For example, there are two characters called Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who come in many scenes. I don’t remember them at all. In the end, one of the characters says “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.” There is a play and a movie with this exact same title. I want to watch them and find out how they are connected to Shakespeare’s play. Also, in the play, there is a scene where Hamlet is going by ship to England and the ship is attacked by pirates and many things happen after that. We don’t view these scenes first hand, but they are narrated In a letter written by Hamlet. I can’t remember any of this. Also, in the story I am familiar with, Hamlet dies in the end and the play is over. In Shakespeare’s original version, there are more things happening after that. In the essays which are included in the edition of the play I read, the editors talk about the different versions of ‘Hamlet’ and how some scenes in one version are not there in another version, and how some of the film adaptations have eliminated scenes involving some of the minor characters, and how the ‘complete’ version of the play as presented in this book was never enacted during Shakespeare’s times. It was very fascinating to read.

One of my favourite parts of the book is the scene in which Hamlet gives advice to the actors who are enacting a play in Elsinore castle. I was so inspired by this scene, that once I even wrote a story based on it. Those lines go like this –

“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I pronounced it to
you, trippingly on the tongue: but if you mouth it,
as many of your players do, I had as lief the
town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air
too much with your hand, thus, but use all gently;
for in the very torrent, tempest, and, as I may say,
the whirlwind of passion, you must acquire and beget
a temperance that may give it smoothness.”

A little while later, Hamlet’s advice continues like this –

“Be not too tame neither, but let your own discretion
be your tutor: suit the action to the word, the
word to the action; with this special o’erstep not
the modesty of nature: for any thing so overdone is
from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the
first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the
mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature,
scorn her own image, and the very age and body of
the time his form and pressure.”

For a tragic story, there are many cool, stylish and humorous dialogues with Shakespearean puns in the play. For example, this one :

Polonius : “What do you read, my lord?”
Hamlet : “Words, words, words.”
Polonius : “What is the matter, my lord?”
Hamlet : “Between who?”
Polonius : “I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.”

And this one :

Polonius : “My honorable lord, I will most humbly take my leave of you.”
Hamlet : “You cannot, sir, take from me anything that I will more willingly part withal…”

And this one :

Guildenstern : “Good my lord, vouchsafe me a word with you.”
Hamlet : “Sir, a whole history.”

And this one :

Rosencrantz : “What have you done, my lord, with the dead body?”
Hamlet : “Compounded it with dust, whereto ’tis kin.”

And a page later :

Rosencrantz : “My lord, you must tell us where the body is and go with us to the King.”
Hamlet : “The body is with the King, but the King is not with the body. The King is a thing –”
Guildenstern : “A thing, my lord?”
Hamlet : “Of nothing.”

Towards the end of the play, Horatio speaks these legendary, moving lines –

“Good night, sweet prince,
And flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.”

Those lines always make me cry. They made me cry this time too.

The edition of the book I read has a beautiful, insightful introduction (I read it in the end, because it was an analysis of the play), two essays on how ‘Hamlet’ has been performed on the stage and adapted for the screen, the various text versions of ‘Hamlet’ and the differences between them, and an essay on the sources from which Shakespeare borrowed the story of his play. There is an excerpt from one of the sources and it was very fascinating and interesting to read. Shakespeare’s version is, of course, better. As the editor says in the essay :

“From the extensive similarities between ‘Hamlet’ and this German play, we can see that Shakespeare inherited his narrative material almost intact, though in a jumble and so pitifully mangled that the modern reader can only laugh at the contrast. No source study in Shakespeare reveals so clearly the extent of Shakespeare’s wholesale borrowing of plot, and the incredible transformation he achieved in reordering his materials.”

There are many film adaptations of ‘Hamlet‘. I have seen only one, the 1948 version, directed by Laurence Olivier. It is beautiful and brilliant and though it cuts out some of the minor characters and the scenes in which they appear, it is mostly faithful to Shakespeare’s original. It was the first Shakespeare film adaptation to win an Oscar and for a long time it was the only one. Here is the link to the ‘To be or not to be‘ monologue from the film, enacted by the peerless Laurence Olivier.

One of my friends, who majored in film studies, tells me that there is a Russian film adaptation of ‘Hamlet‘, in which the script was translated to Russian by Boris Pasternak and the film was directed by Grigori Kozintsev, and this version is even better than the Laurence Olivier version. It is hard for me to be believe that there is a film adaptation of ‘Hamlet‘ which is better than Laurence Olivier’s. But I trust my friend and hope to watch Grigori Kozintsev’s version sometime.

There is a contemporary novel version of ‘Hamlet‘. It is called ‘The Story of Edgar Sawtelle‘. It is the debut novel of David Wroblewski. It is beautiful and it is one of my favourites. If you like a reimagining of Shakespeare’s plays set in the contemporary era, this is a great book to read.

So, that’s it. That’s the end of my long rambling on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet‘ ☺️ Hope you liked it.

Have you read ‘Hamlet‘? Have you watched it enacted on the stage? Which is your favourite film adaptation of this play?

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Read this passage in the introduction to a book I am reading now called ‘How to read Shakespeare’ by Nicholas Royle. Thought you might like it J

 

 

 

POLONIUS : What do you read, my lord?

HAMLET : Words, words, words.

POLONIUS : What is the matter, my lord?

HAMLET : Between who?

POLONIUS : I mean the matter you read, my lord.

 

(Hamlet, 2.2.191-5)

 

 

Hamlet, the stage direction tells us, is ‘reading on a book’ (2.2.167). They are just words, he suggests, all of them the same, they go on and on and on. The bumbling old Polonius politely asks what the words are about, ‘What is the matter, my lord?’, but Hamlet apparently misunderstands him. He interprets the word ‘matter’ in the sense of ‘issue’ or ‘something of concern’. ‘[Matter] between who?’ Hamlet asks. Or in other words : I’m sorry, I was so immersed in my reading, despite the fact that reading is impossible in my current state of deep grief and melancholy, it’s all just words, words, words. I didn’t realize there was a problem (since my uncle murdered my father, married my mother – it’s called incest – and took over from my father as King and pretty much no one seems to think anything of it, why should there be anything the matter, for example between me and the King, or me and all the rest of you? Honestly, I really hadn’t noticed there was anything wrong). No, I don’t mean that, says Polonius, ‘I mean the matter you read.’ If we have been reading or watching the play from the start, we know that Hamlet has earlier claimed that he is going to put on ‘an antic disposition’ (1.5.179), in other words to act in clownish or apparently mad fashion. How ‘antic’ is he being? How should we read his words? Is Hamlet being funny or deadly serious, calculating or distracted, mocking or indifferent? How might a particular director or actor choose to play him here?

 

 

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