It’s been three months since kicking off Hamlet, and at that point, nearly two decades since my last reading and teaching of the play, I began thinking this was a play about royal succession, maybe some kind of oblique metaphor or literary handwringing over the future passing of Elizabeth. That didn’t last long, and it melded into a vague discussion of what it means to be a king, and how and why Hamlet would never reach that height. I toyed with the theme of madness for a while, but I just couldn’t (and still don’t) see this play in any way, shape or form, about real mental illness (at least not so far as Hamlet is concerned… and as I’ve mentioned before, I’m not so sure that Ophelia is mad so much as situationally desperate). No, as I continued to go over this play, I kept coming back to the same motif:
Not madness, but playing madness. Playing at what isn’t real. Which is fascinating in the same way baseball is philosophically interesting. But intrinsically interesting? Not so much. I know I can’t take a three-hour long baseball game. Give me an hour-long water polo game, any day.
Where do I stand on Hamlet?
Look, I’m not going to go all Thomas Stearns on you and call the play an “artistic failure,” and I’m certainly not the next Harold Bloom, and say this is just the bee’s knees. But to be honest, I do lean little more toward the Eliot argument. This play is maddening. It’s got plot holes you can drive a truck through, and if you couldn’t get truck through, you have to avoid the question potholes in the road:
- Why is Claudius elected?
- Did Gertrude know about the murder?
- What was Polonius’ role in Claudius’ election?
- Why can Horatio and Marcellus see the Ghost, but Gertrude can’t?
- Why is Hamlet the only one who can hear the Ghost?
- What’s Hamlet’s history with Horatio? Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?
- How ridiculous is the pirate ex machina device that saves Hamlet but allows him to doom our two bumbling courtiers?
We have the long (almost laughably long) play-within-a-play. And a comeuppance for Claudius that–for the general population of Denmark, at least–doesn’t even address his most heinous crime. Even my favorite bits–Ophelia and her flowers, and the “to be or not to be” speech–work for me ONLY through wild speculation and possible over-interpretation.
And yet, it’s this cultural touchstone. It’s freaking Hamlet.
It gets revived on stage every year, and on screen pretty much every decade.
But does that make the play any good? Has it stood the test of time (or gets tested time and time again) only because actors and directors, in acts of either masturbatory or masochistic hubris (or both), feel this need to put their stamp on the puzzle, to try to solve this Rubik’s Cube of a play, one that, in my opinion, is rigged for failure… almost as if Shakespeare is playing with us, messing with us from beyond a 400-year chasm.
If Hamlet is a masterpiece, it’s a flawed one. If it is ultimately unsatisfying, and–OK, I’ll say it–a failure, it’s not for a lack of ambition. I can see how critics (as self-perpetuating on the page as the actors and directors are on the stage) see this play as all things and this character as Everyman, but I just don’t know. For me, he’s not Everyman, he’s No-Man. He’s a shell, either into which we fill what we want to see (and yes, I now see, feel, and get what Eliot was saying) or an enigma who attempts to fill himself only through the concept and conceit of artifice, playing, and disguise.
He’s not mad, nor never will be. Beyond that, I’d argue that the only times we see the real Hamlet is when he’s alone, in soliloquy (though like I’ve said before, I don’t see the “To be or not to be” speech as a soliloquy, since my take is that he’s being watched, and more importantly, he’s aware that he’s being watched), but at all other times, he’s playing a role. And if that’s the case, who is this man who is glimpsed only seven times in the play?
He’s a cipher.
So we’re left with a four-hour slog through Denmark with a zero as a hero at the center of our play. Well, babies, that just doesn’t float my boat.
So, as we near the ⅔ mark in our project, where do I rank this behemoth? I rate it third amongst the tragedies thus far (and we’ve only read four)–sacrilege, I know–and honestly, for me it only BARELY beats out Julius Caesar for that place (sue me: give me sick and twisted–truly mad–Titus over the melancholy, fake-crazed Dane… any freaking day). I do have the play cracking my overall top ten at number eight, just edging out that other hallowed acting “H”: prince Hal once he’s grown up as Henry V (but NOT as high as Hal as Hal in Henry IV, Part One which is still hanging tough at number six). By the time we’re done with the remaining “Big Four” tragedies–Macbeth, Othello and King Lear–how far down the totem pole will Hammy fall?
But that, my friends, is a question for a later month…