Hump Day Shakespearean Quote – 04 February 2015

gertrude kissing

Queen Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, had a lot to deal with, not the least of which is her seeming mad son Hamlet speaking to ghosts in her own bedchamber.  

HAMLET

How is it with you, lady? 

GERTRUDE  

Alas, how is’t with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy
And with the incorporal air do hold discourse?
Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep;
And, as the sleeping soldiers in the alarm,
Your bedded hair, like life in excrements,
Starts up, and stands on end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience. Whereon do you look? 

HAMLET

On him, on him! Look you, how pale he glares!
His form and cause conjoin’d, preaching to stones,
Would make them capable. Do not look upon me;
Lest with this piteous action you convert
My stern effects: then what I have to do
Will want true colour; tears perchance for blood.

Gertrude

To whom do you speak this?

Hamlet, Act 3, Scene iv

Ah, ‘that you do bend your eye on vacancy…’   What a lovely line. In so many ways, Gertrude’s little speech is the whole great play writ small. Who was Gertrude, though? Shakespeare never reveals much about her. What’s really important is how Hamlet sees her, and the view through that lens is dark and twisted.

Was Gertrude an adulteress? Complicit in her husband’s murder? Incestuous because she married her dead husband’s brother? All of these accusations are Hamlet’s suspicions, but a close reading of the lines of the play (in all of their various versions) doesn’t conclusively affirm any of these accusations.

I believe Gertrude was an innocent, doing what she had to do for her Kingdom (that is, marry Claudius after her husband the King had died). Her innocence parallels Ophelia’s innocence. They are the only two female speaking roles in the play: and neither are treated well by Hamlet. But can we blame Hamlet? The evil done to his father–like most evils perpetrated in this world–are seeds sown, spreading calamity (which brings to mind a great line by Hamlet in another scene, ‘Tis an unweeded garden That grows to seed.’ King Claudius’ evil act jaundiced Hamlet’s view of the world and, I believe, how he saw his mother.

The image is of the great Glenn Close from the 1990 version of Hamlet, an excellent version I think, and very much worth a view. Here she is kissing her son, Hamlet (Mel Gibson) flirting with the various incestuous memes running through this stupendous play.

Hump Day Shakespearean Quote – 21 January 2015

Hamlet

Shakespeare’s Hamlet is the crown jewel of Western Art: the superlatives thrown at it are innumerable and pretty over-the-top: ‘the greatest tragedy written in 2000 years’; ‘the first manic-depressive hero of Western Literature’; 170 new words introduced to the English language; and that freaking great ‘to be or not to be’ speech that Mel Brooks put to music.   Well, here’s a bit of Hamlet for you (there’ll be more, much more, on my blog as time goes by). The opening of Hamlet’s first soliloquy, Act I, Scene ii: 

Oh, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew,

Or that the Everlasting had not fixed

His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter! O God, God!

How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable

Seem to me all the uses of this world!

Fie on ’t, ah fie! ‘Tis an unweeded garden

That grows to seed. Things rank and gross in nature

Possess it merely. That it should come to this.

But two months dead—nay, not so much, not two.

So lovely, dark and eloquent.  

Going forward, for each Hamlet quote I share, I’ll share a few choice tidbits about this play or its history. 

Today? Hamlet is too long to perform! If you take all the versions from all the Quartos and the First Folio and mash them up all together, the play runs over four hours long, and the character Hamlet no longer makes any damned sense. In my opinion, many critics and literary historians throughout the centuries have done a disservice to this play. What does makes sense is that we’re dealing with revisions upon revisions. Yes, even Shakespeare revised his work. It just didn’t spring out of his head like, say, Mozart’s.

You see, Hamlet was first performed in the Globe Theatre in about 1600, an outdoor theatre, and because of available light, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men couldn’t perform plays over 3000 lines. Hamlet–if you add in all the different versions and texts into one giant baggy monster–is over 4000 lines long. It had to be cut. Which is why the editors of the First Folio–Shakespeare’s own fellow actors–included a shortened version of the play. In all likelihood, there were probably several acting versions of the play, all under 3000 lines.

Still, we can see by all the different versions, and the various changes and the contrary soliloquys, that the writing and creating of Hamlet gave Shakespeare a lot of trouble. What has happened over the centuries is that critics and scholars have been so beside themselves with academic ecstasy, that they just couldn’t bare to have only one of these shortened ‘performance versions’. And thus we modern theatre-goers are inflicted with monstrosities like Kenneth Branagh’s ‘complete’ movie version of Hamlet.

So–it’s okay to go and enjoy an ‘abbreviated’ or shortened Hamlet. That’s how it was presented back in Shakespeare’s time. We don’t know exactly which version or versions were performed (there were probably several). But Hamlet was always been bigger than anything: too big for performance, too big for critics and–judging by all the revision documents–too big for its author. Will Shakespeare was discovering something new as he wrote Hamlet. It changed literature; and if we look at the rest of Shakespeare’s plays, it changed him.  

The image is taken from an ‘abbreviated’ film version of Hamlet, Mel Gibson’s very excellent turn as the depressed Dane (here pictured with the superb Glenn Close as Gertrude). Perhaps Mel’s performance was so good because the actor himself pretty much went nuts later on in life.   Anyhow, don’t let Mel’s antics keep you from renting or streaming this fantastic version. It’s really lovely, dark and eloquent.