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It is the literary equivalent of “Da-da-da-Dum” from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “2B or not 2B.” Everyone knows it, whether they have seen Hamlet or not. It would be hard to find another phrase as often quoted or as immediately recognized by a wide public. “Call me Ishmael.” “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” “In the beginning was the word.” Even these lag behind the opening of Hamlet’s soliloquy as cultural roughage. 

Because it is so deeply buried in the culture, it is hard to even hear it anymore. It glides by not as information, but as a kind of tune, hummed thoughtlessly while sanding a table top or cutting carrots in the kitchen. 

But that soliloquy, just as the play it sits in the middle of, can be performed many different ways, with very different meanings. There are Hamlets that are Oedipal, Hamlets that are schizophrenic, Hamlets that are hot-blooded, those that are indecisive, those that are crafty — and at least one Hamlet played as a stand-up comedian. Take the words the playwright wrote and you can construe them myriad ways. In Ulysses, James Joyce has his character Stephen Daedalus prove that Hamlet is his own father. Sort of. 

Likewise, the “to be or not to be” speech can be spoken theatrically, like Master Thespian — this is too often the case — or emotionally, or enunciated with clinical precision. It can be spoken to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, or whispered under the breath. It can be done as a voice-over, as if we are hearing Hamlet’s thoughts. 

Benedict Cumberbatch; Mel Gibson; Thomas Hiddleston

(The one thing that seldom changes is Hamlet holding up poor Yorick’s skull in Act 5. Everyone has to do it, and what is more, be photographed doing it. Even publicity photos for provincial productions have to feature the Dane and his moldy jester.)

Hamlet is perhaps Shakespeare’s greatest play. It certainly has his wittiest hero: Hamlet, the Dane, is in fact too smart for his own good. In part, that’s what the play is about. 

In it, Claudius has killed his brother, the king — Hamlet’s father — and usurped the throne and queen. 

When the dead king’s ghost tells Hamlet to revenge him, Hamlet enters a storm of uncertainty: How, when, why and if to kill Claudius. In the process, Hamlet alienates most of the people he knows, even killing several. 

When Claudius contrives to murder Hamlet before the young prince can kill him, the whole Danish court is thrown into violence and death. 

You can just keep turning this play around and the light will keep catching a new facet. The more you look at it, the more you see. An actor has to decide: At any moment, is what is driving the character? 

Hamlet is the single most complex, multilayered and confusing character in any play. Is he insane? Is he pretending to be insane? Is he sane at some moments and mad at others? Is he obsessed with his mother? Is his inability to act caused by fearfulness, thoughtfulness, indecision or a desire to kill Claudius only when murder will do the most harm to Claudius’ eternal soul? 

None of these versions is ruled out by the text, but none is sufficient of itself. 

“As an actor,” one Hamlet said, “I’m going to try to illuminate as many facets as I can. But you can’t do it all, or you’ll lose focus. I feel sometimes I’m trying to cover myself with too little blanket: If I cover my head and shoulders, my feet stick out.” 

Critics have argued for 400 years about Hamlet’s inaction. But the reason the character refuses to go away is that he is at least as complex as we are in the audience: Hamlet is real. 

Hamlet has a line, when he’s talking to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “You would seem to pluck out the heart of my mystery,” and that is what most scholars and critics try to do.

Not only actors, but whole ages have their takes. In the 19th century, Hamlet was often played as effeminate, or at least as one easily in touch with his feminine side. 

Edwin Booth brother of Lincoln’s assassin, and considered the greatest American actor of the 19th century, himself wrote in 1882, ”I have always endeavored to make prominent the femininity of Hamlet’s character and therein lies the secret of my success — I think. I doubt if ever a robust and masculine treatment of the character will be accepted so generally as the more womanly and refined interpretation. I know that frequently I fall into effeminacy, but we can’t always hit the proper keynote.’’

Edwin Booth; Sarah Bernhardt; Asti Nielsen; John Barrymore

In fact, there were many notable actresses who took on the role then, most famously, Sarah Bernhardt, who said, ”I cannot see Hamlet as a man. The things he says, his impulses, his actions, entirely indicate to me that he was a woman.’’

The practice actually goes back further. In 1775, Hamlet was played by the young Sarah Siddons to great acclaim (she continued to play the role until she was 47). Two decades later, the role went to Elizabeth Powell in London’s Drury Lane theater. 

These women achieved great praise. The stuffy Dr. Samuel Johnson saw Kitty Clive in the play and compared her performance with that of the famous actor David Garrick. “Mrs. Clive was the best player I ever saw,” he noted. “What Clive did best, she did better than Garrick.” 

Ruth Mitchell; Frances de la Tour; Lisa Wolpe

In 1822, Julia Glover played Hamlet in London and fellow actor Walter Donaldson said, “Her noble figure, handsome and expressive face, rich and powerful voice, all contributed to rivet the attention of the elite assembled on this occasion; while continued bursts of applause greeted her finished elocution.” The greatest actor of his age, Edmund Kean, came backstage to congratulate her: “Excellent. Excellent,” he said. 

In 1820, the first American female Hamlet was Sarah Bartley, in New York. At mid-century, Charlotte Cushman took on the role in New York and Boston, wearing the costume Edwin Booth had lent her. 

The sentiment was not unanimous, however. The New York Mirror disapproved of Nellie Holbrook’s Hamlet in 1880. “This absolutely masculine character is not capable of proper presentation by a woman, however great or talented,” the reviewer wrote. “We are, however, free to say that Miss Holbrook’s Hamlet is eminently respectable.”

That is better than the patronizing review of critic William Winter in 1911. “It is difficult to understand why Hamlet should be considered feminine, seeing that he is supereminently distinguished by a characteristic rarely, if ever, discerned in women: namely that of considering consequences, of thinking too precisely on the event.” 

Christopher Eccleston

In the 20th century, Hamlet took a decidedly macho turn (say it like the British: “Match-oh”). He becomes a swashbuckler or a sadist, by turns. Olivier, Mel Gibson, Christopher Eccleston, who makes him look like a soccer hoodlum. 

Yet, there have been actresses who took the role. Maxine Peakes is available on DVD. Frances de la Tour, Ruth Mitchell and Lisa Wolpe played the Dane. In 1982, Joseph Papp produced a Hamlet with Diane Venora. 

“There are men who have played Hamlet very effeminate and there are those who played it macho; the male spectrum goes from the very tough to the effete and very delicate,” Papp said. “Most English Hamlets from the 19th century on were quite delicate, while American Hamlets were much tougher — like Barrymore. Diane is a strong Hamlet, but not a macho Hamlet; vulnerable, but not hysterical.

“For years I have wanted to do a female Hamlet,” Papp said. “I have always felt that there is a strong female side to Hamlet — not feminine so much as female. To me that has to do with an easier capacity to express emotion. The person playing Hamlet should be able to weep unabashedly and unashamedly. There are men who can do that, but they should be young; Hamlet is a very young person, an adolescent, a student.”

In 1937, it was Eva LeGallienne, who said, “I think psychologically one feels Hamlet was a youth … He’s still going to Wittenberg, to college, you know. He can’t be a mature man. The whole thing points to a very young youth, and therefore because a boy of that age might not be technically equipped to play the role, this is why many women in their thirties who can look like a youth, and had the technical skills to play this great role, have played it.”

Top row: Campbell Scott; Alan Mahon; Danforth Comins; Jonathan Douglas; Bottom row: Nathan Darrow; Rory Kenner; Tobias Fonsmark; Holder Bulow; Michael Benz

But, of course, Hamlet can be played all of these ways. The part is supremely plastic — you can stretch it this way and that and it still makes theatrical sense. 

But this divigation has gone on too long. Back to the soliloquy. To be or not. To be? That is the question. Nothing can stale its infinite variety. Let’s take a few different versions. Olivier, in his 1959 film, does it mostly as a voice-over, set on a precipice overlooking roiling surf. It is Hamlet on the edge of a breakdown. (Link here).

Gielgud was an enunciator. The clarity of his delivery overtakes the overt emotionalism that Olivier brought. (Link here).

Kevin Kline gives it the Master Thespian touch, emphasizing every word as if it were the most important. It becomes monotonous. But, soft, he doth drop a tear. (Link here). 

In the entire opposite direction, Benedict Cumberbatch speaks the lines as if they were spoken off the cuff. This is the way real people speak. I especially love the way he makes sense of the line: “to sleep. No more.” He makes it into “death is to sleep, no more than that.” His is my current favorite version. (Link here). 

One last version. John Barrymore was the great Hamlet of the early part of the 20th century. The bulk of his career was before sound film, so it was only in his decline that he filmed the speech — or part of it — in a silly comedy starring Kay Kyser as a hick bandleader attempting to learn to be an actor. He hires Barrymore, playing a parody version of himself, to be his mentor. At one point, the comedy stops and Barrymore gives his bit of the soliloquy and you can see the majesty of his talent peek through the alcoholic puffiness. The take is almost ruined by his uncontrollable eyebrows, looking like two marmots fighting over a cheese. But the words, the words, the words. (Link here). 

Papa Essiedu, Simon Russell Beale, Paul Giamatti, Grantham Coleman

As for the words, they can be difficult for modern listeners. What the hell is a fardel? Would you bear fardels with a bare bodkin? Sometimes you wonder what Shakespeare meant, although the problem isn’t as apparent when the words are spoken on stage, as when you read them in text. An actor can make the meaning clear in context. When Hamlet says, “with a bare bodkin,” he draws his dagger and the audience understands. 

But language has changed in the past 400 years and even words that are still in current usage often had different meanings then. A careful reading of Shakespeare’s work demands an attention to lexicographical detail, if we are to avoid confusion. 

And even when we know what the words mean, we are still faced with the fact that the Bard often uses the words metaphorically, as when he has Hamlet talk of “taking his quietus,” which doesn’t literally mean to kill himself, but rather means, having finished an enterprise, or having paid off a longstanding debt. Such is life, he implies.

The most famous soliloquy in Hamlet is a profound meditation on death and suicide — the question Albert Camus said is the only philosophical question that really matters. But what do the words mean?

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; and by a sleep to say we end/ The heartache and the thousand natural shocks/ That flesh is heir to, ‘tis a consummation/ Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep:/ To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub;/ For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/ When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,/ Must give us pause: There’s the respect/ That makes calamity of so long life;/ For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,/ The Oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,/ The pangs of despised loved, the law’s delay,/ The insolence of office and the spurns/ That patient merit of the unworthy takes,/ When he himself might his quietus make/ With a bare bodkin? Who would fardels bear,/ To grunt and sweat under a weary life,/ But that the dread of something after death,/ The undiscover’d country from whose bourn/ No traveler returns, puzzles the will/ And makes us rather bear those ills we have/ Than fly to others that we know not of?/ Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;/ And thus the native hue of resolution/ Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,/ And enterprises of great pitch and moment With this regard their currents turn awry,/ And lose the name of action.

Alec Guinness, Peter O’Toole, Derek Jacobi, Jonathan Pryce

A quick glossary: 

Rub – actually, an obstacle on a lawn bowling green.

Shuffled – cast off, like a snake skin

Coil – Turmoil

Respect – consideration or regard

Of so long life – long lived.

Time – The world as we know it.

Contumely – Contemptuous insults

Despised – Rejected.

Office – Office-holders; bureaucrats.

Spurns – Insults.

Quietus – the paying off of a debt; the resolution of an enterprise.

Bare – used here, “bare” may mean “mere.”

Bodkin – a sharp object, sometimes a hatpin, but here a dagger.

Fardels – Burdens, as a bindle or an army’s dunnage.

Bourn – Region; boundary.

Conscience – Used in an older sense of consciousness; thought.

Native hue – Natural color.

Cast – shade of color.

Pitch – The height of a soaring falcon’s flight; before falling on its prey. 

Moment – Importance.

Regard – Consideration.

It is poetry, in iambic pentameter, with rhythm and melody. But we can translate the whole into modern American tapwater. And so, if we take the poetry out of this soliloquy, what we are left with is the bare-bones meaning:

The only question that counts is suicide: Should one put up with the suffering of life or do something about it and end it all? Death is like sleep: And if as in sleep, the troubles go away, that would be wonderful. But when we sleep, we also dream. And if we dream after death, the way we do in sleep, well, that’d make you stop and think wouldn’t it? That’s why this disaster we call life goes on: For who would put up with life’s crap if he could end them all through suicide? Who would bear the burdens of life but that the threat of something much worse after death makes us hesitate and makes us put up with the troubles we have rather than fly to others we don’t know anything about? And so, thinking makes us cowards; And the will to action is weakened by thinking, And what mighty deeds we would perform come to exactly zip.

And that is why Shakespeare is Shakespeare. 

The Arnold, Buster Keaton, David Bowie, Weird Al Yankovich

Photo at top: Top row, L-R — Lawrence Olivier, John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Nicole Williamson; bottom row — Kenneth Branagh, David Tenant, Ethan Hawke

Click on any picture to enlarge

 

Shakespeare is the 900-pound gorilla of culture. He’s the Big Boy to whom others are compared, and never the other way around.

He is the premier poet of the English language, acknowledged by even those who don’t read poetry or go to plays.

Author of Hamlet, Othello, Romeo and Juliet, Henry V and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, he is the oldest English writer whose works are still regularly staged in the theater. The best plays — and yes, he wrote a few clunkers — are wise, witty, deep and profoundly moving. No one tells us more about being human.

Shakespeare is also the source for the largest single section of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

You can hardly get through a day without encountering some echo of the Bard’s pen: If something is a “foregone conclusion,” or has come “full circle,” or is a “sorry sight,” you can thank Shakespeare. Or thousands of other phrase-habits, such as when something is “in the wind,” or if you speak the “naked truth,” or have a “heart of gold.”

It all flows from the great fountain of the English tongue.

Can you imagine modern life without these words coined by him: addiction, admirable, anchovy, aerial, arouse, auspicious — and we haven’t even left the “A” section.

In fact, Shakespeare is so pervasive, he’s more often misquoted than anyone else is quoted at all.

And he didn’t get that way by accident: He really is the best.

“Shakespeare to me is like the Bible,” says Mike Elliott, 58, of Mesa, who goes regularly to Shakespeare performances with his wife, Debby. “He is always relevant, always speaks to us, reaches out to us and still connects with all the issues that face human beings no matter where or when they live.”

He enjoys reading the plays and poetry, but, he says, “they really come alive when we see them.”

And the plays provide an antidote to what Elliott calls the “entertainment bottom-feeding” that clogs our TVs and movie screens.

“It’s really simple,” says Jared Sakren, artistic director of Southwest Shakespeare, whose production of Hamlet opens this week at the Mesa Arts Center. “His writing touches on the universal, so that his characters, what they say and what they feel, is understandable to any audience.

“He touches on experience we, as human beings, all understand, except he says it just a little better than we can say it.

“Perhaps more than just a little better.”

The problem is that sometimes the great Shakespeare plays scare off potential theatergoers. Perhaps it’s that Shakespeare is too revered and not enough enjoyed — too much like going to cultural church.

And that’s a shame, because that isn’t what Shakespeare is about: If any great author ever aimed at the broadest possible audience, it was the Bard. He was no snob: His fart jokes prove that.

Then there’s the problem of Shakespeare’s language, so dense, and to our ears, so often archaic, with those “sirruhs” and “prithees.” His language is not ours.

But language is the heart of Shakespeare, and to get to know his language is to understand his theater — because Elizabethan theater was different from theater today.

We live in a visual culture, and we expect certain things from our plays, such as costumes and stage sets. We expect our actors to show us what is happening rather than telling us about what is happening.

It was different in 1600: Elizabethan culture was a verbal culture. There’s a reason there are so few great — or even good — English paintings from the time: Their genius was not visual. They ate, drank, dressed and lived words.

“A rhapsody of words,” as Shakespeare has it in Hamlet.

Even the least educated audience member — one of the “groundlings” standing in the bottom of the theater in the cheap-ticket area — would have come expecting to hear great rhetoric and great poetry.

And Shakespeare delivered.

To us, used to text messaging and the grunts of teenage children telling us where they’re going when they leave the house, Shakespearean language seems flowery and elaborate. But that’s the very glory of the work.

“Zounds! I was never so bethumped with words since I first called my brother’s father dad,” as he wrote in King John.

And being “bethumped with words” is what going to Shakespeare is all about.

* “If music be the food of love, play on.”

* “Put up your swords, for the dew will rust them.”

* “O! For a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention!”

Shakespeare’s audiences attended the theater with their ears, just as we go with our eyes. It takes a little readjustment to absorb all the Bard has to give us.

“His audiences expected poetry — even more, they expected rhetoric,” Sakren says.

“Elevated language and the uses of language they understood better than we understand now. So poetry does become a game played with language.

“They understood the rhetorical forms, they were taught them even in elementary school.”

So in As You Like It, when Rosalind says, “No sooner met, but they looked; no sooner looked but they loved; no sooner loved but they sighed; no sooner sighed but they asked one another the reason; no sooner knew the reason but they sought the remedy.” It’s a sentence that uses classical rhetoric rather than naturalistic speech. These are the patterns of language that keep us attentive to the climax: We are hooked on the sentence just as we might be hooked by a plot — to find what comes next.

There are other things that make Elizabethan theater different: The plays weren’t divided into acts and scenes, as plays are now, but played through more like movies do.

And because Elizabethan theater didn’t use scenery — which would have been needed to change between scenes — the plays could, and often did jump from place to place with the alacrity of film. If a scene was needed with just three lines, so be it; it was done, then on to the next. Just like movies.

This makes for a fleetness of storytelling that more equipped theater cannot match. Shakespeare moves at the speed of his own imagination, unhindered by props and curtains.

But the lack of scenery also helps explain the words: If he can’t up-curtain on a drawing room or battlefield, Shakespeare will instead describe his setting in words, painting verbal pictures of what his audience needed to imagine.

“Think, when we talk of horses, that you see them printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth; For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings, Carry them here or there; jumping o’er times, Turning the accomplishment of many years Into an hour-glass,” as the narrator exhorts in the prologue to Henry V.

But the point of all these words is the illumination of human life and character.

The great literary critic Harold Bloom goes so far as to say Shakespeare invented modern human beings.

What Bloom means is that Shakespeare provided a model for reflexive thought. Before him, people acted and reacted. After him, they had a vocabulary for discussing their inner lives.

“This is the first time onstage that you get the full interior of the human psyche and psychology,” Sakren says. “He takes us on a journey inside the human mind and elevates what we know of humanity instead of reducing humanity to simple actions or plot points.”

So, in Hamlet, we don’t just see the revenge acted out, we hear the revenger’s thoughts and second thoughts, his weighings and balancings, his fears and rationalizations.

“We get a view of the inner workings of the human soul,” Sakren says.

Shakespeare’s characters are so multidimensional that we can never fully understand them — any more than we can fully understand any real person. There is always something deeper and more complex, even contradictory.

Emerson said of Shakespeare, “His mind is the horizon beyond which at present we do not see.”

In other words, we can’t explain Shakespeare, but he can explain us.

****

Jared Sakren’s  Top 5 Shakespeare plays

* Hamlet.

* The Tempest.

* Othello.

* As You Like It.

* The Merchant of Venice.