Sunday, April 7, 2013

Reading Hamlet

I started this project right before work got crazy but I have still managed to dedicate a few hours each week to The Bard. Now, please remember this is NOT a review, simply a few notes I've taken during my reading experience. I have basically transcribed the notes in my journal to this post. And this is also just a first update of how my project has begun and a few impressions I have of Hamlet so far. 

I have read the play about three times and I have seen two adaptations: The Royal Shakespeare Company's version with David Tennant (loved him) and Kenneth Branagh's EPIC movie adaptation and I feel I have only peeled the very first few layers of the play and understanding of the characters.

Hamlet is such an enigmatic character. Is he really mad or not? Why does it take him so long to act if he is most definitely looking for revenge? And if he is so obsessed with looking for proof and certainty in order to act, why does he acts so rashly and kills Polonius, for example? He is a walking contradiction and that is what fascinates us, the readers and the audience, so much.

Throughout the play we see him angry, sad, almost hopeless sometimes, mad, even cruel, but despite of all this, what left a deeper mark concerning my perspective of the character, is his absolute dissatisfaction. He conveys that dissatisfaction with his actions and his constant questions to himself. I think that dissatisfaction is important, in my humble opinion, because it makes me understand a little bit more about what drives him.

David Tennant in Hamlet (2009 - Recorded for the BBC)
He is neither a hero or a villain, although he could be perceived as both, depending on our understanding of the plot and of the performance as well. I fell utterly in love with the movie adaptation by Kenneth Branagh but his Hamlet is so aggressive, so unlikable at some points, that I do see the villain in him. On the other hand, David Tennant's performance felt much more insane, if you will, not as manic but truly afflicted and confused, and it made me look at him under a different light.

Another character that is enigmatic, to me, is Gertrude. I keep asking myself if Gertrude was involved in the plot to murder her husband. It is not clear whether she is completely ignorant or as manipulative as Claudius himself. The fact that she marries him so fast suggests that she did know.

You know what part I love? The play within a play. All of it, how Hamlet uses it to get a reaction from the King, how he instructs the actors and talks about the craft of being an actor, the do's and don'ts, the meaning behind it all. "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action, with the special observance, that you o'erstep not the modesty of nature. For anything so overdone is from purpose of playing..." (Act III, Sc. II).

I have so many more layers to peel, plot-wise and language-wise and I love that. I'm finally getting some free time and I will continue working on my project. I will update you more frequently I hope, and please feel free to give me any suggestions, pointers or simply discuss with me your impressions, opinions, etc.


David Bates said...

You have some great insights and pose some terrific questions about the play and the characters. You are so far ahead of where I was with “Hamlet” (or any Shakespeare play, for that matter) at your age!
So many directions to take this, but I’ll run with the issue of Hamlet’s delay. But I think you sum it up nicely by pointing to the intense contradictions in this guy.

I think the “delay” has been made too much of by readers and critics over the years. One can persuasively argue, I think, that Hamlet in fact acts pretty quickly once he hears from the Ghost. Years ago I recall seeing a timeline of the play in which some fellow figured out EXACTLY how much time transpired from scene to scene, and when all was said and done, Hamlet actually acts with relative speed, given the fact that he MUST know that he will die once he kills a sitting King. Also, I’ve also seen it stated that an audience in Shakespeare’s day would not have been aware of a “Hamlet problem” because they understood full well that a tragedy ran five acts, and so of course the action would be spread out (i.e., “delayed”) until the fifth act.

But on the other hand, Hamlet DOES refer to the delay himself. So … like you say. Contradictions.
I agree with you about the “meanness” of Branagh’s Hamlet. One question that’s bugged me ever since seeing it is: What on earth did Ophelia to do merit that kind of treatment? (Nothing, of course. At least, there’s nothing in the text that supports that kind of nastiness). Even if he did “love you once,” would appearing “mad” to everyone require that he be so cruel to her, for the sake of show? So cruel, in fact, as to steer her toward her ultimate choice of suicide?

So many issues, so many questions! That’s what makes it a play for the ages. I think it was Virginia Woolf who wrote that if you record your impressions of “Hamlet” over the course of a lifetime, at the end you will have effectively written your autobiography. So keep writing! :-)

Melissa Vizcarra said...

Thank you so much for the amazing comment, David!

That's a very valid point you make in relation to the delay. Of course, if a play has to have five acts then he most definitely can't kill the King in the second Act. And the consequences are so serious as to make anyone think hard about the actions to be taken. I guess what made me feel the "delay" was not reading the play itself, I took my time with it and any delay I felt was mine. I think it was seeing it in the unabridged version of Branagh that made me feel he has intently delaying his revenge with the "excuse" of certainty, of proof.

And the eternal question, what did Ophelia do to deserve such treatment? I hated the way he drove HER mad. If I can be certain of anyone's craziness, it is Ophelia's. I thought Branagh's version portrayed this cruelty in a very poignant manner. And Kate Winslet was amazing as Ophelia, especially her crazy part (I did not like the Ophelia of the RSC version, too poised and controlled).

Thank you so much for giving me your points of view! They make me look at things in a different way and explore the play from different angles :). I will continue writing my thoughts in an attempt to figure Hamlet out and maybe myself.

David Bates said...

With Ophelia, I think it's a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It's not her; it's him.

You know, something else occurs to me about Hamlet that I'd never thought of before: We never get to see what Hamlet is like before the action begins. When we first meet him, he's depressed, and after hearing the Ghost, he's in crisis mode. In this respect, he's similar to Edgar in King Lear. That's one reason Edgar is so difficult to play ... we don't really know what he was like before the play started. That's not true of all Shakespearean characters, but it's true of Hamlet, and that's part of what makes him so interesting ... there's a Hamlet we never knew, and cannot know. Which is why he's so open to interpretation.

Melissa Vizcarra said...

That is true, we don't know what he was like before, therefore there is nothing to compare him with. We don't know if he was already prone to depression or paranoia. We don't know if he was completely normal or even rather happy. I tend to believe he was quite different from what he becomes, that is why his transformation affects everyone so. But as you said, this is very open to interpretation.

Lucy said...

Great post. Somehow, I have never watched an adaptation of Hamlet, whether on stage or screen. This must change! I'd really like to get to know this play better.

Melissa Vizcarra said...

Thank you! You really have to see an adaptation, it definitely helps to understand the play better :).

jimeneydas said...

Historia del Rey Transparente es uno de los mejores libros que he leído en estos años... el otro es "Atlas leído por el cielo", de Goran Petrovic :)

Melissa Vizcarra said...

Gracias por la recomendación! Y muchas gente me ha recomendado Historia del Rey Transparente, espero de verdad que sea lo genial que dicen que es.