Shakespearing #23.1 by John King

Four Observations About Hamlet

Wow, a whole five weeks have passed since I borrowed David Foley’s Shakespearing.

I promised I wouldn’t do this again.

But then, again: Hamlet.

Hamlet is my play. Don’t even try to argue that with me.

Observation #1

C. S. Lewis is not the only twentieth-century writer who deemed Hamlet a failure. In his essay “Hamlet and His Problems,” T. S. Eliot thought it failed because it lacked what he called an objective correlative.

The Sacred WoodHe famously opined,

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

This was, if you ask me, Eliot’s way of turning Joyce’s penchant for epiphanies into a craft rule, since Joyce never published an essay for the dramatic fulcrum of his fiction. What is hysterical about this whole essay is the fact that Eliot overlooks what is probably the most famous objective correlative in the history of Western literature: Yorick’s skull.

Hamlet BernhartDon’t get me wrong. I love the term “objective correlative,” because it steers students away from indiscriminately slugging the shit out of every literary text with symbolism like some sort of hammer. But Yorick’s skull.

Observation #2

 Mel Gibson is not only my Mad Max, but he is also my Hamlet.

HamletKenneth Branagh sounds as wonderful as Brahms, but dramatically in Hamlet? Meh. As a director of Shakespearean films, his quality has consistently declined with each movie since his triumphant Henry V.

hamlet branaghEthan Hawke: when you wear a goofy knit cap, that accessory shouldn’t be a better actor than you are.

Hamlet and his Stupid HatOlivier: solid, but not my Hamlet.

Hamlet OlivierOf course, Mel looks so good because the cast and the director had a clear vision, too. Franco Zeffirelli is a wonder. All three of his Shakespeare films (Shrew, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet) are glorious. As a director of operas, Zeffirelli knows the difference between cinematic art and the bombastic opulence appropriate for the opera house. (I am looking at you, Branagh.)

Hamlet is introspective, to the degree that such introspection seems like the point of the play, thus alarmingly separating action and character, as David noted in Shakespearing #23. Hamlet even gets introspective about his introspection:

Why, what an ass am I! This is most brave,
That I, the son of a dear father murder’d,
Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell,
Must, like a whore, unpack my heart with words[.]

What is wonderful about Mel Gibson’s performance is the real sense of menace.

hamlet mel gibson swordIf we don’t believe Hamlet might kill his uncle, then Shakespeare seems to have created the first emo character, followed hotly 142 years later by Goethe whose young Werther would sublimely and ineffectually whine about the unobtainable woman of his dreams. Mel Gibson’s body language mixed with his intelligence and, perhaps, a tint of madness, make his Hamlet so memorable, and was part of my turning towards Shakespeare back in 1990.

Observation #3

My senior year English teacher, Cheryl Musgrave, raised an eyebrow as she inflected a single syllable in Hamlet’s pre-Mousetrap banter, letting me know that Shakespeare was not G-rated, and thus might be my kind of guy:

Lady, shall I lie in your lap?

No, my lord.

I mean, my head upon your lap?

Ay, my lord.

Do you think I meant country matters?

Such encouragement helped prime me for the film the next year.

 Observation #4

Once in the oughts, I encouraged a gaggle of friends to see what turned out to be the worst performance of Hamlet in all of history, held at the theater at Florida Atlantic University.

The actor playing Hamlet (charisma score: -50) seemed to be channeling early William Shatner if William Shatner thought he was Marlon Brando. Listening to the Danish prince lecture the players on how to act was excruciating.

The only great actor in the troupe played Polonius as a dandy with a cockney accent and a lisp. After the third act, there was nothing to root for in the play.

And then: the actress playing Ophelia, because of the idiotic set design, had to actually walk at Ophelia’s funeral.

A month later, I attended a one-woman show by RSC-alum Estelle Kohler in that very same theater. In the row behind me, the boob who played Hamlet chuckled as if knowingly at Kohler’s observations, for the both of them, you know, have heard the chimes at midnight.

All I can say is (to quote Paul from Barefoot in the Park) that it was harder to watch him doing what he was doing than it was for him to do what I was watching.

My friend Chris Robé stayed after intermission, wanting to see the bitter end. “This is so punk rock in its awfulness,” he said. “I don’t know when I’ll see anything this bad again.”


1flipJohn King (Episode, well, all of them) is a podcaster, writer, and ferret wrangler.