domingo, maio 03, 2015

The Play of Plays: "Hamlet" by William Shakespeare, Jonathan Bate, Eric Rasmussen

Published 2008.

“He helps us understand the human condition. But he cannot do this without a good text of the plays. Without editions there would be no Shakespeare. That is why throughout the last three centuries there has been a major new edition of his complete works.”
(Jonathan Bate)

I studied Shakespeare at Universidade de Letras de Lisboa and have seen many plays in performance since then. We read twelve plays in sixteen weeks: “A Midsummer Night's Dream”, “Romeo and Juliet”, “Richard II”, “Richard III”, “The First Part of King Henry IV”, and “Twelfth Night” among others. I did not do as well in that class as I would have liked. In fact, I distinctly remember not studying much for the exam because the girl with whom I was studying asked me if I was interested in going out and, since I was attracted to her, I said yes. After my professor returned my exam to me, she asked me if I would visit her during office hours to discuss my poor academic performance. I told her, "I'm not going to lie. Instead of studying, I went out with a girl in our class." Her reply, "I can hardly fault you for acting upon the sort of thing Shakespeare wrote about. I am willing to give you another chance. If you do better on the final exam, I will not weight this exam as heavily." However, it has only been fairly recently that I have come back to studying Shakespeare in depth, reading the texts again, seeing as many movie adaptations as possible, and learning about the era that Shakespeare lived in. It has become quite addictive. The more you understand the language the more doors are opened up.  My view of his plays has changed depending at what stage of life I’m in. One can never grow weary of them. Studying Shakespeare is a bit like opening a Pandora's box of the best possible kind. With each layer of understanding, you uncover even more that is unfamiliar and unknown.  It's wonderful to be challenged and to know that there is no end to what I can find. After my last review on Raffel’s Hamlet book, I received a few questions about how I can I read Shakespeare in English being my mother tongue Portuguese. First of all, English is also my mother tongue. I’ve learned it when I was very young. But the question is not exactly that. English native speakers also have trouble reading and understanding Shakespeare. I don't find Shakespeare difficult to read after I get into the swing of a play; it always takes several pages before I feel like I'm reading it 'normally.' I do have to be very careful, especially if it's a play I'm not very familiar with and haven't seen performed that I'm not completely missing a secondary meaning of a conversation or section of a play. Sometimes a great deal of historical context is necessary to get the whole (purported) meaning of what's going on, so on that level Shakespeare is difficult and takes a lot of time to read. I believe that the language can be difficult for those that aren't used to it.  

I think to only look at one aspect of Shakespeare's work is really taking away from the whole. Yes, the language is important for it helps give us meaning and some of the poetry is downright beautiful. Yet, so much more happens than just pretty words, but we're dealing with a medium that is based around words. The words are important. Shakespeare really explores the question of what it is to be human and the things he comes up with still has the power to touch us to this day.

Enough about Hamlet… Let’s talk about the book in hand.

Table of Contents:

“Hamlet in Performance: the RSC and Beyond”
“Four centuries of Hamlet: An Overview”
“At the RSC”
“The Director’s Cut: Interviews with Ron Daniels, John Caird, and Michael Boyd”
“Shakespeare’s Career in the Theatre”
“The Ensemble at Work”
“The King’s Man”
“Shakespeare’s Works: A Chronology”
“The History behind the Tragedies”

Apart from the play itself, the best essays are “Hamlet in Performance: the RSC and Beyond” and “The Director’s Cut: Interviews with Ron Daniels, John Caird, and Michael Boyd”.

In “Hamlet in Performance”, Bate/Rasmussen give us an (almost) complete history of Hamlet on stage/film/interpretations. It’s this history with an emphasis on the RSC that provides a continuity which can be drawn from Burbage to Garrick to Macready, Irving, Sarah Bernhardt (in Shakespeare’s own words: “The woman more readily looks the part, yet has the maturity of mind to grasp it”), Barrymore, Jacobi, Gielgud, Olivier, Scofield, Mark Rylance, Simon Russell Beale, Toby Stephens, Branagh and Tennant (no analysis on Schofield, Burton, Warner and Williamson’s performances though; they’re just briefly referenced and then passed over):

In “The Director’s Cut: Interviews with Ron Daniels, John Caird, and Michael Boyd” we have something that alone justifies reading this edition, i.e., a round table discussion between three directors who have produced the play on stage. Ron Daniels’s contribution is based on his so-called pyjama Hamlet with Mark Rylance in 1984; John Caird directed Simon Russell Beale for the National in 2000; Michael Boyd the artistic director of the RSC tackled the play in 2004 with Toby Stephens. These discussions are an apt case in point that there’s no better people to talk about the play than those who turn it into drama. It’s utterly delicious to read about the way the three directors disagree as to how the closet scene should be played, as to how abusive Hamlet should be to his mother (cf. with Olivier’s interpretation using a Freudian reading; “This is the tragedy of a man who could not make up his mind”), as to the extent to which he is suspicious of his motives, etc. In Bate/Rasmussen’s words:

“The best way to understand a Shakespeare play is to see it or ideally to participate in it. By examining a range of productions, we may gain a sense of the extraordinary variety of approaches and interpretations that are possible – a variety that gives Shakespeare his unique capacity to be reinvented and made ‘our contemporary’ four centuries after his death.”

Simply put, it's watching the play that usually makes the difference in understanding Shakespeare’s words. I revel in the assuagement of description and the texts don't have much of it. The plays on the other hand tell me infinitely how a character is feeling or what they're thinking. In the texts there's nothing to tell me how the set looks (apart from minimalist descriptions). There is nothing to tell me how a character looks. I know we are supposed, through our “mind’s eye”, to infer many of these things from the dialogue, but to me, reading the text beforehand and then watching the play is everything.

An altogether wonderful edition, producing a good mix between helping the beginner and offering something new for the fan/scholar as myself.

“Hamlet” is, indeed, the play of plays. It's got everything. What amazes me about Shakespeare in general is his ability to create so many diverse and yet believable characters and get deep into our hearts with them. It’s been said “Hamlet” is the first modern protagonist in that he is complex and confused and demonstrates the war that goes on in each of our souls and spirits. I couldn’t agree more. I have grown to love Shakespeare's works over the decades, and have seen each performed at least once in some format and a good many several times over.  “Hamlet” is still my favourite work of literature. The works and words and characters of Shakespeare have continued to grow richer to me over time as my life experience has expanded, and I look forward to sharing my passion for Shakespeare with others of a similar ilk through my journey re-reading Shakespeare.

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