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Home :: Archive :: 2009 :: December ::
Jude Law Hamlet
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 20.0594  Friday, 11 December 2009

From:       Aaron Azlant <
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Date:       Monday, 9 Nov 2009 18:47:07 -0500
Subject:    Jude Law Hamlet

[Editor's Note: What follows is a long posting. Since we are in a 
transitional state with the SHAKSPER server, rather than using the 
Papers for Comments section, I have decided to distribute the essay in 
whole here. I have not included the footnotes. Should you wish to read 
them, contact the poster for a complete copy. If you are not interested 
in reading this long post, please use your delete key. -HMC]


The current Jude Law production of Hamlet, which I saw a few weekends 
ago, gave me an excellent excuse to write a brief essay containing some 
ideas that had been percolating for some time. I am hoping to solicit 
some comment from the list. The basic thesis of my essay is that the 
dumb show in the Mousetrap scene, however inviting a cut for a director 
(such as Michael Grandage, who oversees the Jude Law production), should 
not be. This is because of the surprisingly complex workings of both the 
Mousetrap scene and the play at large, which routinely invites its 
audience to come to hasty conclusions that are incomplete in light of 
the available evidence, including some unexpected implications of the 
dumb show. I would be curious to hear what you all think of my brief piece.


IN DEFENSE OF THE DUMB

There are a number of things to recommend about the vigorous _Hamlet_ 
starring Jude Law that is currently galloping its way through the 
Broadhurst Theater in New York City. Good pacing, lighting, staging, and 
pantomiming (lots of pantomiming) -- the show is largely successful and 
has earned good press and good business.

This production is already successful enough on its own terms, in fact, 
that I can safely abuse it over a number of minor academic points, the 
better to make some very pedantic editorial appeals.
I should emphasize that this production's errors, such as they are, all 
begin with good intentions. In order to make athletic entertainment out 
of the lengthy Frankentext that is _Hamlet_ as we have it, Michael 
Grandage has done what any practical-thinking director might have done: 
he has trimmed it. This is generally not much of an issue for his show. 
No audience goes to the theater eager for the few Hamlet-less scenes in 
the play's fourth act, for instance, and decisions to cut lines there 
and to merge scenes together do not necessarily disrupt the play's 
logic, even if those scenes do add much to the play.

However, Shakespeare's text is a subtle, intricate thing, and the wise 
director looking for reductions must first make sure to do no harm. 
Needless to say, my argument is that there are places where Grandage 
might have been less bold with his excisions. For instance, he cuts 
about five superfluous-seemingly lines belonging to Claudius before 
Hamlet's first soliloquy in Act 1, Scene 2 that are perfectly healthy 
and useful tissue. Here is the original, with the struck text emphasized:

CLAUDIUS. Why, 'tis a loving and a fair reply:
Be as ourself in Denmark. Madam, come;
*This gentle and unforced accord of Hamlet
Sits smiling to my heart: in grace whereof,
No jocund health that Denmark drinks to-day,
But the great cannon to the clouds shall tell,
And the king's rouse the heavens all bruit again,
Re-speaking earthly thunder. Come away.*
Exeunt all but HAMLET
HAMLET. O, that this too too solid flesh would melt
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! God!
How weary, stale, flat and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!

One would probably have to be a bit of a nitpicking ass in order to 
express too much alarm at such editorial slicing. Fortunately, I am your 
man here, because I think that these six lines actually contribute a lot 
to the play, and that _Hamlet_ is diminished by their absence.

For one, they initiate an association between Claudius and drink that 
carries throughout the play to his death, which is partly due to the 
consumption of poisoned wine. And without this association, Hamlet's 
acrimonious salutation to Horatio in the same scene ("We'll teach you to 
drink deep ere you depart"), his later complaint that Danes are unfairly 
slandered as drunkards, and his retort to Guildenstern's announcement 
that Claudius is distempered -- "With drink, sir?" -- all become 
essentially non-sequitoral.

The play's first soliloquy benefits greatly and subtly by the presence 
of these lines for two additional reasons. One, Hamlet's speech, filled 
as it is with the language of disease and decay, gets a bit of kick from 
its obvious contrast with Claudius' sunny references to "jocund health," 
"smiling," and so on. And last, as Stephen Booth has noted, there are 
complex textual relationships between the two speeches ("cannon" / 
"canon", "heavens" / "the Everlasting", military language, etc.) that 
likely contribute (among other things) to an overall feeling of cohesion 
between them.

If these six lines of dialogue therefore serve unexpectedly important 
purpose in the play, then the silent dumb show that precedes Hamlet's 
staging of The Mousetrap is essential. This show, as well as the 
characters' commentary upon it, must seem like an especially inviting 
target for a director looking to trim excess for his production, what 
with its explicit redundancy of the play about to be staged. The 
importance of my argument here, however, is of such earth-quaking, 
heaven-bending magnitude, that I have no choice but to set it apart on 
its own line:

It is absolutely vital that a production of _Hamlet_ does not cut the 
dumb show out.

To explain why will require a number of tangents. First: twos. From 
"double, double, toil and trouble" to the plot of _Twelfth Night_, 
Shakespeare's career-long obsession with doubling is of a degree 
generally reserved for celebrity stalkers or the otherwise criminally 
insane. _Hamlet_ is unusually pregnant with this repetition-as-motif, 
which scales from "too too solid flesh" in the speech referenced above 
all the way to the play's extended joke on the interchangeability of 
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Many of the play's famous speeches, such 
as Polonius' paternal advice to "neither a borrower nor a lender be," 
Hamlet's famous "to be or not to be" soliloquy or Claudius' speech at 
prayer comparing his soul to his crown are either a comparison or a 
contrast of two objects. Gertrude insists that Hamlet "hath cleft [her] 
heart in twain" and he jests to Ophelia that the Queen looks merry 
despite the fact that it has only been "two hours" since his father's 
death. "Nay, 'tis twice two months," Ophelia corrects. And so on.

Secondly, Shakespeare delights generally in creating analogous 
situations between the people in his plays and those people observing 
them. Consider, for instance, the "Friends, Romans, countrymen" scene in 
_Julius Caesar_ where the mob assembled on stage stands in for the 
larger mob assembled to watch _Julius Caesar_, both of which are at last 
persuaded by Marc Antony. One way that Shakespeare accomplishes this 
special kind of experiential doubling in _Hamlet_ is to generate 
questions of interpretation, the answers to which are as obscure to any 
audience as they might be to the play's central characters. The question 
of Hamlet's motivation is the largest of these and is a general problem 
for most of the personalities on stage. Additionally, Hamlet himself 
spends much of the play attempting to infer Claudius' guilt, in part to 
establish whether his father's ghost is "a spirit of health or goblin 
damn'd."

Ophelia's mad songs are another good case study on this point. They are 
all localized in Act 4, Scene 5, and after their first verse is 
delivered, Gertrude asks what the song that she is hearing "imports," 
and in doing so, speaks for the audience. Claudius soon enters and 
provides a coarse, singular interpretation: the song is mere "conceit 
upon her father" and nothing more. However, at this stage in the play, 
Ophelia is mourning not just Polonius but also Hamlet, who, as far as 
she knows, has been sent away to England for execution. Indeed, over the 
course of the scene her verses are consistently about a lover who has 
passed away, and she responds to Claudius about as directly as is 
possible for a girl who is in the process of losing her mind. "Pray you, 
let's have no words of this," she replies, "but when they ask you what 
it means, say you this." She then launches into a final, bawdy song that 
tells the story of a man who seduces a young lady by falsely promising 
his hand in marriage before drawing a summary moral. She departs and 
again Claudius insists single-mindedly that her grief has motivated her 
insanity, that it "springs / All from her father's death." Yet although 
Ophelia's songs do reflect her father's heavy-handed advice to her in 
Act 1, Scene 3, Claudius is nonetheless much, much too narrow in his 
interpretation. The play, however, barrels onwards.

I bring this up to emphasize the fact that interpretative work in 
_Hamlet_ is a tricky business and that, like Polonius before Hamlet, one 
must constantly be on guard against misdirection. "In what particular 
thought to work I know not," says Horatio in the play's opening scene 
when he, like the audience, fails to make sense of the first appearance 
of the ghost. So too does an audience also struggle routinely throughout 
_Hamlet_ to make full sense of the available evidence before it is 
pressed onwards by the play (a push that is especially effective in a 
brisk _Hamlet_ such as Grandage's). In this context, it is worth 
examining Claudius' decision to send Hamlet away to England, which is 
not an item that begs interpretation, but is nonetheless a point of 
mischief in the play. Because Claudius later refers to Hamlet as the 
"violent author / Of his own just remove," because he twice emphasizes 
his need to deport Hamlet in the same breath that he also discusses the 
murder of Polonius, because he also describes his plan as "sudden," and 
because Act 4 also contains a number of related events --  the first 
confrontation between Hamlet and Claudius over this plan, the first time 
that Claudius' intention to have Hamlet killed is revealed as well as 
the actual exile of Hamlet -- the King's decision is made to seem 
entirely the natural consequence of Polonius' murder. This sense is 
furthered by the fact that Hamlet reminds Gertrude that he will be sent 
to England in the Closet Scene, with Polonius's fresh corpse in full 
view on stage (an exchange that is also unfortunately cut by Grandage). 
Yet Gertrude's response -- "Alack, / I had forgot: 'tis so concluded on" 
-- might as well stand in for the audience's. In fact, Claudius' initial 
decision to send Hamlet abroad arrives an act earlier, just after the 
King covertly watches his nephew deliver abuse to Ophelia in Act 3, Scene 1:

KING CLAUDIUS. Love! his affections do not that way tend;
Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness. There's something in his soul,
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood;
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger: which for to prevent,
I have in quick determination
Thus set it down: he shall with speed to England...

Claudius repeats this intention once again after The Mousetrap is 
staged, but the amount of time that elapses between these brief, almost 
incidental mentions and the intense later focus on Hamlet's "just 
remove" also helps along the misperception that Hamlet is entirely its 
"author."

As noted, the related questions of Claudius' guilt and of the nature of 
the Ghost are similarly challenging and, like Ophelia's songs, beg 
interpretation, although over the entirety of the play. Indeed, the 
point of The Mousetrap is that it is designed by Hamlet to test both of 
these matters at once, since his assumption is that confirmation of the 
murder will also establish the Ghost's benevolence. This confirmation is 
necessary because, for much of the play, the sum of Hamlet's -- and an 
audience's -- hard evidence in favor of the idea that Claudius has 
murdered King Hamlet is the testimony of the Ghost.

However, if that testimony is not quite suspect, it is certainly to be 
treated with skepticism. In the scene where Hamlet first encounters the 
Ghost, he opens two possibilities, that its intentions are "wicked or 
charitable," and the play preserves these options to the last. This 
ambiguity actually begins well before Hamlet's encounter with the Ghost: 
Horatio describes its final exit in the play's opening scene by noting 
that "it started like a guilty thing / Upon a fearful summons." This 
shading (so to speak) is reinforced in the first lines of the Ghost 
during its meeting with Hamlet: he begins the conversation by noting the 
inevitability of his own return to "sulph'rous and tormenting flames," a 
description that both calls to mind and conflates the respective 
landscapes and spiritual functions of Hell and Purgatory. Immediately 
afterwards, the Ghost suggests that its soul is, in fact, waylaid in 
Purgatorial fire:

I am thy father's spirit,
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confin'd to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purg'd away.

The play, however, refuses to let its audience settle decisively upon 
such a comfortable conclusion. These lines follow a brief scene where, 
like the play's opening scene, the return of the Ghost is presented as 
an event with ominous overtones. Hamlet's reference in this scene to the 
"questionable shape" of King Hamlet's ghost is intended to mean that it 
has returned question him, but this also accents the uncertainty of his 
father's spiritual status. Additionally, at least part of Horatio's 
cautionary speech -- that it might draw Hamlet toward madness -- turns 
out to be at least partly fulfilled, if not necessarily in the manner 
expected. Furthermore, any emphasis upon "sulph'rous flames" or "foul 
crimes" in this context is likely to push an audience towards -- if not 
to -- a worst-case conclusion.
Hamlet's instinct following the staging of The Mousetrap is to declare 
that he will "take the Ghost's word for a thousand pound," echoing his 
earlier declaration after his meeting on the platform, that "it is an 
honest ghost" that he has seen. Like Claudius' interpretation of 
Ophelia's songs, these are hasty, although unlike Claudius, Hamlet 
ultimately reverses himself in both instances. And although the play's 
audience does receive late confirmation from Claudius at prayer that he 
has committed the murder, it is important to note that Hamlet never does.

This essay has been dancing around the topic of The Mousetrap and its 
attendant dumb show for some time now and is at last ready to address 
these issues directly. In a play filled with nuanced scenes, the one in 
which the play-within-the-play is performed is perhaps the most 
unintuitively complex, and it is worth examining just what is presented 
on stage while it is performed. The Mousetrap  is offered by the play as 
a simple analogue to the action of Hamlet, though in reality it performs 
double duty. Following the dominant motif of the larger play in which it 
resides,  each character in The Mousetrap maps to two different 
characters in _Hamlet_. Lucianus, like Prince Hamlet, is both a regicide 
and a nephew to the king, and like Claudius, he is a regicide who 
murders by pouring poison into ears. The Player King, like Hamlet, is an 
erratic melancholic, and like King Hamlet, he is poisoned in his ear 
while reclining in his orchard. The Player Queen, like Ophelia, attends 
to a character that is "far from cheer and from [a] former state"; like 
Gertrude, she remarries a regicide. What Claudius observes, therefore, 
in The Mousetrap is a complicated refraction of the world of _Hamlet_: 
not just a simple depiction of his own crime, but among other 
permutations, the illustration of a nephew (like Hamlet) murdering an 
uncle (like himself).

An extremely late-breaking thesis of the current essay is that an 
audience is likely to receive definitive interpretations by characters 
in _Hamlet_ with some quiet uneasiness, even if it is not wholly sure 
why in the moment. As noted, if Claudius' coarse pronouncement that 
Ophelia's songs are all due to filial grief is too simple -- and is 
likely to feel at least slightly so to an audience -- so too is Hamlet's 
confident declaration that Claudius confirms his own guilt with his 
abandonment of the play, which could very well stem from two possible 
motivations. The fact, then, that Claudius sits without difficulty 
through the dumb show, which also depicts his crime (and is thus a 
doubling of the action of The Mousetrap), adds to a small but 
non-negligible sense that Hamlet's ringing pronouncement is somehow 
incomplete.

This may well be a lot of prose to expend in defense of a few moments of 
dialogue-less action, but I also believe that this sense of 
incompleteness is in fact a major virtue of _Hamlet_ and is to be 
generally preserved. To phrase this another way, one of the greatest 
strengths of the play is its ability to indefinitely prolong 
interpretive questions both large and small. In this context, it is 
another slight misstep of the Grandage production to have his Gertrude 
decisively reject Claudius after the Closet scene; Hamlet begs her to 
avoid the conclusion that it is his madness and not her "trespass" that 
colors their meeting, but that option is still available to her all the 
same. Along similar lines, it would take a much longer essay to discuss 
the many motivations of Hamlet, which characters and audience alike seek 
a definitive word upon in vain. That kind of seeking, I submit at last, 
is one of the major reasons that a modern audience still attends regular 
productions of a play that is over 400 years old, to include the one 
presently playing in New York at the Broadhurst theater. And if, like 
Polonius' man Reynaldo, I have oversold Mr. Grandage's faults in public, 
it is only because, I am also convinced of his essential soundness.

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