Jennifer D. Wade Journal

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Blog posts March 2010

Hamlet Revisited

So, I went to see "Hamlet" at the Alvina Krause Theatre in Bloomsburg. The production was a combined effort by the BLOOMSBURG THEATRE ENSEMBLE and the BU Players from Bloomsburg University. When I ordered my ticket online last week, not many seats had been filled. By the time of this afternoon's performance, not many seats were empty. Nice to see.

I have some thoughts on what, overall, was a rousing production. But, first I must correct one aspect of my previous entry. I wrote that I had never seen "Hamlet" performed on stage. Not true. I'm not sure why I didn't recall this, but I saw "Hamlet" in 1993 at Juniata College. That was five years after graduation, so I'm not sure why I went back to campus - whether it was just to see the play, or whether there was some other event and I stuck around.

In any case, I can't say that I remember much about the production. I do remember, however, that there were only four actors to play all the roles. In particular, I remember that one actor played both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. When he was speaking as Rosencrantz, he held up one hand; when he was Guildenstern, he held up the other.

As such, it's probably a good thing that I reread the play before seeing today's performance. Reading it again made me realize that I forgot a lot more than I remembered. I think that what really came through in this reading is how frequently the play mentions ears and listening and the poisoning effects words can have. This aspect is borne out literally in the poisoning of King Hamlet by Claudius spilling poison in his ear. But, we see it as Claudius speaks lies to Gertrude and Laertes, and there are many references to wind and whispers being spread far and wide.

For example, in Act I, Scene i, Horatio explains that Denmark seems to be preparing for war and says, "At least the whisper goes so."

In Act II, Scene i, Polonius speaks to Reynoldo, who he is about to send in search of Laertes to find out how he's doing. Polonius instructs Reynoldo on how to make his inquiries:

"...and there put on him
What forgeries you please; marry, none so rank
as may dishonour him;..."

Polonius later continues:

"You laying these light sullies on my son,
As 'twere a thing of little soil'd wi' th' working,"

Interestingly, I didn't really pick up on this theme during the BTE production. I think some of the passages may have been cut out to limit the running time of the play (which still encompassed about 2.5 hours plus an introduction and intermission). On a larger scale, this particular production focussed more on Hamlet himself. It really brought out his awareness of the separation of body and soul.

My other takeaway from the production concerns Hamlet's ability (or inability) to act. My thinking now is not so much that Hamlet couldn't act or was indecisive, but rather that his actions are primarily reactions. He sees the ghost of his father and reacts by pretending to be mad. This action leads to reactions by Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia, et. al, and their reactions lead to further reactions that ultimately lead to the deaths of almost all involved.

I also have a sense - and I'm not sure if it's valid - that what sets Hamlet apart is that his actions/reactions are less calculated and more impulsive, if only slightly, than the actions/reactions of others. It's not that he doesn't know what he's doing and doesn't realize that his actions will have consequences. Obviously, as in the case of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he knows they will. What I'm trying to get at is that while the other characters try to control things to the point of micromanaging, Hamlet ultimately casts his fate to the wind. In Act V, Scene ii he says the following when Horatio warns him against dueling with Laertes:

"..we defy augury: there is a
special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it
be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it
will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come -
the readiness is all. Since no man owes of aught
he leaves, what is't to leave betimes? Let be."

So, to finally answer the question that has nagged me for more than 20 years: Did Hamlet have to die? I'll say yes, because that is his fate. It is the fate for us all. We just have to be ready for it when the time comes.

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Here's to Hamlet

Nothing like a little Shakespeare to get the analytical thoughts flowing.

I haven't been close to the Bard since 2008, when I saw a very decent production of TWELFTH NIGHT at Luzerne County Community College.

This weekend, I plan to take in a production of "Hamlet" by the fine folks at the Bloomsburg Theatre Ensemble. I saw "Macbeth" there several years ago, and they did a nice job. I anticipate good things this time around as well.

I have never seen "Hamlet" performed on stage. I recall seeing - and liking - Mel Gibson's movie version, but that's as far as it's gone. I've read "Hamlet" several times, however, and the prospect of seeing the play has me thinking about what I took away from those readings. Mostly, what I took away was an overwhelming sense of indecision. Indecision on my part and also on the part of Hamlet.

To backtrack slightly, I studied "Hamlet" almost 25 years ago when I took a Shakespeare class during my junior year abroad at the University of Leeds. I ended up reading the play several times as I studied for the final exam. The exam consisted of several essay questions and you could pick three of them to answer. Obviously, they weren't going to give you the questions in advance. So, the revision process consisted of looking at questions from previous final exams to get an idea of what types of questions might appear this time around.

One of the practice questions I pored over involved "Hamlet." At issue, did Hamlet have to die? Of course, he does die at the end of the play, killed by Laertes during a duel. But, is that how it had to end for the fair prince of Denmark? Could he have lived? Or, was there something in his nature that made Hamlet's death the inevitable end?

So, I read the play and decided that, yes, Hamlet had to die. But, was that the right answer? I read the play again and decided that, no, maybe he didn't have to die. I think I even read it a third time and decided that, yes, Hamlet really, truly, had to die. And, I think the reason I thought he had to die is because of what I perceived as his tragic flaw - his inability to make a decision. He could not act.

(As an aside, nothing remotely similar to this question appeared on the actual final exam. Now THAT'S a tragedy!)

At any rate, as I prepare to see BTE's performance of "Hamlet," I've been thinking about the play all over again. I've even started to read it again, but have only managed the first few scenes so far.

Will the BTE performance bear out my earlier analysis? Or, will I find something that makes me rethink my conclusions? If the production is any good, the answer in both cases will be yes.

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