“Shakespeare is Hard, but so is Life” (title of a 2002 book by Fintan O’Toole).
The 23rd of April is almost upon us (*). Those of you who have been following my diatribes on this blog, know that I've been thinking about doing this for a while. Last year I put my Shakespeare project (“re-read everything from beginning to end”) on hold. I've decided that now is the time to jump-start this project. I want to read everything, starting with the plays I haven't read in a while, or at all, and moving to the ones I'm more familiar with. I'll post individual reviews as I go through. “Hamlet” had to be the first. Why? Read on.
I’ve read several books more than once. Some of them I read countless times. Hamlet is one of them. Why do I need to read certain texts many times? What do I get from it? I've got a set of books segregated from the rest of the pack, i.e., the ones that stood the Test-of-Time, i.e., continuous re-readings. They're among my most valuable possessions. I call this bunch my "Casablanca" and "Johnny Guitar" books...I know I can (and have) re-read them a million times and they were/will always (be) fresh! I call this "phenomenon" the joy-of-anticipating-what-the-next-line-in-the-text-is-going-to-be.
I’ve read Hamlet many times mainly because of Kenneth Branagh. After watching the movie for the first time, I was made aware that my “knowledge” of the play was at the best of times just serviceable. It was a shock to the system! After watching the movie I just had to get it “right”. I positively delved into “Hamlet”. And by “delving” I mean reading the play many, many, many times just for the sake of it. What’s that elusive feeling of having read Hamlet so many times? I’m not sure. I could say it’s because I know a lot of lines by heart, or I could say it’s because I can anticipate what comes next after each line of text, or I could say it’s because I just want to be very much familiar with it, or I could say it’s because the text itself is so packed with antithesis, that there is no "right" interpretation. I just know I’m always coming back to it. Re-reading “Hamlet” is a giant pleasure for my taste-buds and allows me to try to get in touch to the text lurking underneath story and language and even understanding. The crux of the matter lies perhaps on the interpretation bit. The act of interpretation itself is a creative act. It gives me room to phantasize. As I re-read “Hamlet” now, I know as Horatio says, “What has this thing appear’d again tonight?” that Barnardo will say “I have seen nothing” and Marcellus will say:
“Horatio says 'tis but our fantasy,
And will not let belief take hold of him
Touching this dreaded sight, twice seen of us:
Therefore I have entreated him along
With us to watch the minutes of this night;
That if again this apparition come,
He may approve our eyes and speak to it.”
Each line of the play is foreshadowed by the next utterance, which I know by heart. This gives me intense pleasure...
Nowadays I don’t read Hamlet all the time. I’m saving it/him for those times when I’ll need the play’s glamour.
I don’t know how many copies I’ve got at home of the play. After having bought my Annotated Rowse, it’s still the version I’m using the most, even when I’m reading something else with “Hamlet” printed on the cover as it’s the case here with this Burton Raffel edition. Even when I’m not reading “Hamlet”, I need him close by, just in case. Life is brief and there is so much to read. But I cannot imagine that I will find another book/play to read so many times in my life (“Casablanca”, “Johnny Guitar”, “Forty Guns”, “Blade Runner” are other cases in point movie-wise, but that’s for another time and place).
The old guy that didn't dig Harry Potter all that much also makes an appearance. Yes, he has it inventing us, the modern human, and while I have my reservations on his thesis, I appreciate the poetry of that idea. Bloom’s essay that I had read somewhere else imparts nothing new to the experience (e.g. Chaucer as the literary precursor to Shakespeare, “Originality in regard to Shakespeare is a bewildering notion, because we have no rival to set him against.”), i.e., it does not add anything to the book’s fruition.
On the other hand, Raffel’s introduction states right at the start that we’re not reading an academic text, but rather a text to agile the reading of the play. My highest regards for you, Sir.
Final note. Do enjoy Shakespeare as best you can, I beg you, and it will make your mental house richer.
NB: I haven’t seen Branagh’s Macbeth by the National Theatre yet. I’m saving it for a rainy day… On the other hand I’ve watched Tennant’s Hamlet recently, and I was not convinced. The soliloquies are top-notch though.
NB2: If a robber had me at gunpoint saying I had to choose just one book to take to the proverbial desert island, “Hamlet” would probably be the one.