Last Week I wrote about Elegies: A Song Cycle and why it is one of my favorite musicals. Today I’m going to write about one of my least favorite shows and this is probably going to surprise you.
I hate Hamlet.
There. I said it!
It’s true! I hate Hamlet. I blame a professor from my college years for this mostly, and then everyone that has ever produced Hamlet incorrectly.
I love Shakespeare, I was even blessed enough to play one of his more beloved characters of all time: Puck. But that’s another story.
For those of you that have been living under a rock for the last 394 years, Hamlet is a play centered on the fictional Prince of Denmark Hamlet. It opens with two guards men outside the palace informing Hamlets best friend, Horatio, about seeing the ghost of King Hamlet the night before. At the stroke of midnight the ghost of King Hamlet appears terrifying the guards men. Horatio informs Hamlet of the sighting, and Hamlet, stricken with grief, resolves to be present when the ghost next appears. Coming face to face with the ghost of his father, Hamlet learns of a “murder most foul”, wherein poision was poured into the ear of King Hamlet allowing for his brother Claudius to marry the queen and thus become King himself. The ghost of King Hamlet instructs his son Hamlet to “avenge me!”
The rest of the play Hamlet emotes over his own inaction, yells at his girlfriend, then eventually loses all sight of reality.
In college I took a class called “Script Analysis.” It’s to teach you how to pull apart a script piece by piece or beat by beat. You tear it apart to figure out all the pieces of the show, the domino effect that leads from one beat to the next, how a sentence in scene one foreshadows a sentence in scene eight, and so on.
Hamlet was taught ad nauseam. Not only did we have to read it, write a review and a paper, but also watch three movie versions of it. At first this was a valued exercise. But, as is usually the case, it did not end there. We were then instructed to watch three different versions of Hamlet and compare and contrast them to each other in a paper. The first one was directed by Laurence Oliver produced in 1948. It was black and white and it was just silly.
What we saw was an over dramatization of Hamlet brooding. Scholarly you can look at Hamlet’s erratic behavior as highly calculated to illicit the truth without having to ask the difficult questions himself and be charged with treason and slander. But this movie did not show that side of Hamlet.
When presented with Hamlet, many recall the iconic scene where Hamlet is holding a skull and lamenting over his lost friend Yorick. “Alas, poor Yorick. I knew him Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest of most excellent fancy: he hath borne me on his back a thousand times…”
In this movie variation, the direction is all wrong. It just is. This is not a speech of sadness, but a speech of love and admiration. Hamlet is not emoting his broken heart, but his lovely memories and we were forces to watch the actor emote over this skull as though this were the end of all good things.
Do you know why, when we think of Hamlet we think of this scene, with him holding the skull? I’ll tell you….it’s because of the freaking cover of this movie!
The second movie variation we needed to watch was the Mel Gibson Hamlet. And even this was just wrong. Gibson has never been one of my favorites, despite my love of Braveheart, and I watched him not act but portray his own insane self. Of course, at the time we didn’t realize just how crazy Mel Gibson really was, that came years later after the success of Passion of the Christ. Now I look back on that movie and realize it was a foreshadow of what would come.
Finally, Kenneth Branagh. This is the movie that wouldn’t end.
I commend Branagh for being true to the script, but my goodness!!!!!!!
This four hour movie was what sealed the deal for me. About three hours into the movie I found myself almost ripping my hair out.
It’s not for the fact that anything was wrong with this movie. In fact, quite the opposite. This movie is a stunning labor of love of one of Shakespeares most popular plays. But at this point, all my love for Hamlet was gone.
I simply couldn’t care anymore. Not even a little. All I could see was an overly emotional, confused, and brooding teenager who was unhappy that his mother had remarried. Who was to even say that what the Ghost of King Hamlet said to Hamlet was even true! What if it’s just what Hamlet wanted to hear!?
“To be, or not to be: that is the question: Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing end them? To die: to sleep; no more…”
So, this leads to the question: Do I really hate Hamlet, or do I hate that it was ruined for me at a young age?
I think there’s a nugget of truth in the both statement. On one hand, I despise Hamlet for his emoting, his brooding, his “I’m-an-emo-teenager-who-just-wants-to-die” attitude. I’m sorry your dad is dead and your mother is remarried to your uncle. That’s just freaking weird. And yes, it’s really weird at how quickly she was remarried after the funeral. That has to be difficult to deal with, but give it a rest. Either move on in your life or do something about it. There’s no reason to carry on your whining for five acts only to end in tragedy. This whole thing could have been avoided if you just marched into your Uncles’ quarters at night, telling him you know what he did and demand he stand trial. Problem solved, no one dies except the murderous uncle!
On the other hand I do not hate Hamlet so much as I hate how overdone and overly emoted it is. People look at Shakespeare as something difficult to understand, but really half the problem is how Shakespeare is taught in schools. Shakespeare has never been meant to be read, but to be heard. So when a young student sits down to read it, no wonder they’re confused! The lofty language makes no sense without someone knowing where to put the emphasis and the action associated with it. This results in Hamlets that are overdone.
So, how should we teach Shakespeare to our children? Simple: Hire Patrick Stewart! And if you can’t afford him, you can rent his movies. He’s played both King Hamlet and King Claudius! Of course, I haven’t seen his Hamlet, but I have a feeling that movie could turn the tides of my love-hate relationship with Hamlet.