22 June 2022

An Antic Disposition


Romeo & Juliet and Hamlet are probably the best-known of Shakespeare’s plays, and at least the most quoted – if not misquoted, for that matter.  Romeo & Juliet is performed often, by both professional and amateur companies, because it’s pretty straightforward.  Hamlet is trickier, or has the more troublesome reputation.  The prince, too, is one of those parts any name brand Shakespearean actor is pretty much obligated to take on early, like Lear, later in life. 

Olivier’s is the one most people know; his 1948 picture is usually cited as a classic.  I wonder if I’m the only one who thinks he kind of missed the point.  Kenneth Branagh took a stab at it, but you have the unworthy suspicion Branagh is trying to knock Olivier off his perch.  I saw Richard Burton do it on stage, but unfortunately everybody in the cast was acting in a different play from everybody else – and surprisingly, the most effective performance was Alfred Drake, playing Claudius as mildly puzzled.  I don’t have a problem with Zeffirelli’s version, Mel Gibson, but they cut the play even more severely than Olivier does.  For my money, the most engaging production is the 1980 BBC Shakespeare: Derek Jacobi as Hamlet, Patrick Stewart as Claudius.  It’s the full original text, with a runtime of three and a half hours, and it’s unapologetically played as a political thriller.

Hamlet, notoriously, is open to interpretation.  The melancholy Dane, the guy who doubts himself, and hesitates.  Olivier takes for his epigraph a line from early in the play, “Oft it chances in particular men,… carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,…” and then leaves out the rogue and peasant slave soliloquy entirely.  To my mind, this has it completely backwards.  A recent production I just saw, by the Upstart Crows here in Santa Fe, edits out that same speech Olivier chooses as emblematic, but includes all of the rogue and peasant slave speech, which I think is key to the play.  “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?  What would he do, had he the motive and the cue for passion that I have?”  Hamlet, we can agree, is clearly a revenge plot.  Claudius has usurped both his brother’s throne and his marriage bed.  The prince is prompted, his word, by heaven and hell.    

It’s a misreading to suggest Hamlet can’t make up his mind.  He thinks Claudius is a rat from the get-go, and he’s furious with his mother, “to post with such dexterity to incestuous sheets,” but he’s choking on his own resentment.  Even after the Ghost shows up, he second-guesses himself: “the devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.”  The real sticking point, though, is that Claudius “popp’d in between the election and my hopes.”  Hamlet wants to be king himself, and Claudius cheated him.  In order to swing this - regicide, and a coup – Hamlet needs Claudius seen to be guilty, to be “justly served.”

If you read the whole play, front to back, or if you see a production that’s the whole thing, more or less, you notice the political machinations.  It’s not something read into the text, or grafted onto it.  It’s organic.  Watching the BBC Jacobi, or the Branagh movie (Jacobi as Claudius, all the more sinister for seeming reluctant), or the Upstart Crows, which left very little out, and moved like a rocket, with no wasted motion whatsoever, the political dimension is front and center.  Once the kid realizes he’s got a solid alibi to go after his uncle, he’s only waiting on opportunity.  But he himself understands he can’t be regarded as some cranky-pants teenager with a grudge; he has to be seen as responsible, not as settling a score, but righting a wrong.  He charges Horatio, as he’s dying, to report his cause accurately.  “Absent thee from felicity a while.”  This isn’t chump change.  The obligation is everything left to history.  How the story is told, after Hamlet leaves the stage.  He didn’t kill the guy because he screwed his mom; he killed an illegitimate king. 

There’s a terrific poem by Constantine Cavafy.  The premise is that Horatio has a dog in the fight.  After the events in question, Horatio becomes a court favorite, and if he maintains the narrative, it discredits Claudius, creates a legend around Hamlet, and legitimizes Fortinbras as heir to Denmark.  Cavafy’s an astute critic, if a bit cynical.  

What is the story, exactly?  The son of a dear father, murdered.  “A little more than kin, and less than kind,” the prince says, when Claudius calls him his cousin and his son, in the opening scene at court.  We know something’s amiss.  The question is whether Hamlet’s nuts.  The play is how he justifies crazy. 

Suppose, then, that Hamlet might be a classic example of the unreliable narrator.  He’s completely transparent, his thoughts spilling over, unpacking his heart with words, but is he trustworthy?  The rest is silence.


  1. I've always thought Hamlet was like one of those mysteries where no one is sorry the victim was killed. Certainly Hamlet is the only one who seems really upset by his father's death.

  2. Janice has a good point. The other people who talk of King Hamlet (Is Horatio the only one?) praise him in vague terms.

    I've seen other versions besides the ones mentioned here, and they range from bad to OK. I loved Jacobi and Stewart. The Branagh version has moments, though, and Richard Briers as Polonius is a revelation. He plays the character as a political schemer who guesses wrong (much like what we're seeing in the contemporary GOP) instead of a doddering old fool, and it's gripping. It makes the political themes even stronger, too.

    When I was actively involved in theater, I actually got the chance to play Claudius in a production. I jumped at the chance and loved every minute of it.

  3. (1) Almost all Shakespeare is about the political machinations of power. Even the comedies.
    (2) I have rarely enjoyed Olivier in any of his Shakespearean productions - his vanity keeps creeping out of every character. (Especially in Henry V)
    (3) One of my favorite versions of Hamlet is the movie with Ethan Hawke as Hamlet. His Hamlet makes sense - knowing what he has to do but trying to get through to it, all the TVs and media going all the time; the glamorous adulterous mother; the sleazy Uncle (Kyle MacLachlan); Sam Shepherd as the Ghost; and (at the time) a surprisingly straight Bill Murray as Polonius.
    (4) My favorite other take on Hamlet is, of course, Tom Stoppard's "Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead"... I love that play with all my heart. And the movie ain't bad, either.
    Finally, I love Cavafy's poetry.

  4. You aren’t the only one who thought Olivier got it backwards, when he chopped nearly half from the play, as I recall.

    I haven’t seen the Jacobi/Stewart version, so must correct that.

    >unfortunately everybody in the cast was acting in a different play from everybody else…

    Oh! Ouch!


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>