Saturday Apr 13

RobinRussin “Who’s there?” These are the first words spoken in Hamlet, a question barked by an anxious soldier standing guard at midnight on a dark battlement. It is a question that opens up the many themes of the play, and a clue as to why Hamlet, for all its age and apparent familiarity, remains the complex and yet most urgently contemporary of plays. Hamlet, above all other works of theatre or literature, challenges our assumptions about our world, our values, our lives, our sexuality, and our basic humanity. This special section on Connotation Press grows out of a course I teach on the play, and features some of my students’ most interesting essays about the many questions the play explores.

Most people think of Hamlet as the dilemma of a young man who must decide whether or not to kill his uncle in retribution for his father’s murder, and of course that is the central plot. It’s also a terrific entertainment, containing one of the greatest ghosts in literature, suggestions of incest, sword fights, poisonings, plots of revenge, fits of madness, high court drama, family strife, international intrigue, low graveyard humor, skulls, dead bodies, betrayals, unrequited love, and theatre in-jokes. We all remember “To be or not to be,” one of the central questions of human existence, as well as the famous aphorisms--“Brevity is the soul of wit,” “Neither a lender nor a borrower be,” “To thine own self be true,” etc. But underlying all this plot, entertainment, and quotable lines are layers of doubt and ambivalent meaning. Hamlet’s soliloquy, the most famous passage in the English language, might be only an elegantly tortured meditation on suicide and the fear of what lies beyond; but it may also be a performance to mislead those he knows are secretly listening behind the wings and plotting to do him harm, or even a challenge to the young woman he once loved but now thinks has betrayed him. And as for all those sage words of advice, they come from the lips of the most foolish character in the play, Polonius.

In short, first impressions are rarely correct or unambiguous; everything is up for debate. For instance--and for starters--is the ghost the “honest ghost” of Hamlet’s father, come back from Purgatory to demand justice--or is it a demon come from hell to snare Hamlet’s soul? This question opens up more than a debate about the ghost itself, for at the time the play was written, Catholicism had been driven underground in favor of the new, state-backed Protestant religion--which explicitly denied the existence of Purgatory--and yet many secretly clung to the old religion, as had Shakespeare’s father. The uncertain nature of the ghost reveals a theme of deeper moral uncertainty, against a background of sectarian strife and political repression with stark contemporary resonance. Shakespeare also raises a question as to the morality of revenge itself--isn’t revenge the province of the Lord? Would an honest ghost ask his son to commit murder? Wouldn’t that condemn his son to hell? And beyond that--does the ghost in fact ask Hamlet to commit murder at all, or is that only what we (and he) assume he means by “revenge”? Similarly, did Ophelia die by accident, or by her own hand--depending on which, can she be buried in sanctified ground? Is Gertrude telling the truth about witnessing Ophelia’s drowning--and if so, why did she not come to her rescue? Hamlet again and again accuses women of being morally frail breeders of sinners--but then, why does he refer to his own soul as feminine? Again and again these and other questions are raised, and left open for interpretation. Everything in the play is driven by a very modern sense of disquiet--about the loyalties of friends, family and lovers; the nature of sanity; the role of women in the world; the value of honor, faith and even life itself; the finality of death; and the ability or inability for any of us to truly know the inner lives of those around us, even those we hold closest to our hearts.

Nothing is as it seems: Hamlet himself is clearly a hot-headed if sensitive adolescent, a precociously intelligent young student; yet, as the play progresses, he seems to age into the maturity of a experienced, grown man--which is why, by the way, he can be played by actors of almost any age. He is also both the most rational and the most insane of characters. Claudius is both a capable king and loving husband, and yet a feckless murderer. Hamlet’s mother Gertrude is both the great queen, the necessary “imperial jointress to our warlike state” (as Claudius calls her in justifying their marriage) and yet she is also alarmingly naive and clueless as to the machinations surrounding her. Polonius is a seasoned, wily advisor who is simultaneously blind to the truths staring him the face. His son Laertes is an honorable young man who, when pressed, is willing to use poison or cut someone’s throat in the church if necessary to get his revenge. Man himself is “in action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!” --and yet he is also no more than “a quintessence of dust.” He reasons out and dictates his own destiny, and yet is constrained by divine intention.

Among other things, what makes the play so contemporary is that it is also about paranoia. Everyone is watching everyone else, spying, being spied upon, plotting or being plotted against. Hamlet’s Denmark is not only rotten and out of joint, it is a foreshadowing of our own Big Brother world, where we are all on display for other eyes, and forced into the position of being actors in their drama, where reality becomes less real than its pretended, play version enacted for others. Hamlet’s college pals are really spies engaged by his uncle. His girlfriend is forced to spy upon him for her father--who has also sent an agent to spy on his son. And Hamlet spies on them all in one way or another.

This brings us to our essays. Cat Priamos, in “Hamlet Metatheatre,” unpacks how the play uses the idea of watching and being watched--of theatre as a vehicle to expose reality, both on stage and off. Jonathan Le provides a young actor’s perspective on how he would play the central character, in his “To Be or Not To Be.” Latisha Plance looks at the layered and often misunderstood roles of the women in Hamlet in “Frailty, Thy Name is Woman.” And Alix Conde elicits an often-overlooked lesson from the play, about the price of generational conflict and repression, in “Arrested Development.” Each of these authors brings a fresh and thoughtful approach to an essential aspect of this most essential of plays. My hope is that these essays will encourage the reader to go back to the play with fresh eyes, a deeper appreciation, and a renewed desire to find out...who’s there?