Thoughts on Hamlet
I just got back from an idyllic weekend at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I soaked up crisp air and brilliant autumn leaves, caught up with friends, ate some great meals, did some productive writing and plotting. And–the point of my trip–I had the chance to revisit two of my favorite productions from the 2010 OSF season. An enchanting, delightful She Loves Me, directed by Rebecca Taichman, and a riveting, electric Hamlet directed by Bill Rauch, with Dan Donohue in the title role. Two truly phenomenal productions with amazing casts that left me with the rush of exhilaration and wonder I get from really spectacular theater.
The night I arrived in Ashland, I picked up my tickets, then ducked out of the rain into the Member Lounge where I had a chance to read the fascinating Hamlet production notes by Judith Rosen. I’ve always seen Hamlet as a Renaissance man caught up in the warrior’s world of the older generation (the conflict between the older generation of warlords and the Renaissance politician is one I wrote about in my honors thesis). I always thought the moment when Hamlet says “O, from this time forth, My thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!” is a key turning point in the play. But I never quite made the leap Ms. Rosen made in her notes to Hamlet’s adoption of a more warrior-like approach (his father’s approach) in the latter part of the play being a negative transformation. Yet once I read it, it made so much sense.
The philosopher prince becomes the man who coolly arranges the deaths of his former friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and shows no qualms (to the evident discomfort of Horatio, who in many ways is Hamlet’s conscience). Watching the play with this in mind, so much fell into place for me, including the bitter irony of Fortinbras’s lines about “Bear Hamlet like a soldier to the platform” and the fact that the play ends with the line “Go, bid the soldiers shoot.”
Hamlet has always fascinated me. There's the sheer propulsive excitement of the story, which is both political thriller and family drama. The multitude of fascinating characters and relationships. The richness of the language. The mordant wit (which came out strongly in the OSF production). Lauren and I saw a great production in New York last fall, directed by Michael Grandage with Jude Law in the title role. Every time I see the play I discover new things in it. Hamlet has echoes of the Oresteia. I see echoes of Hamlet in all sorts of contemporary stories. There's the Lymond Chronicles with Francis Crawford haunted (metaphorically) by his dead father, questioning the behavior and past of his adored mother, driven to suicide at times. In The X-Files, Fox Mulder is similarly haunted by his his parents' legacy and questions about his father's death. Early on in the series Scully is set up to spy on Mulder, such as Polonius and Claudius use Ophelia to spy on Hamlet. In the series finale, Mulder sees ghosts that are invisible to the other characters. Not to mention that he's frequently suspected of madness...that is, mental illness.
The last time OSF did the play (another wonderful production directed by Libby Appel with Marco Barricelli as Hamlet), I was plotting Beneath a Silent Moon. I tend to pick one or two Shakespeare plays which influence each of my books, and Beneath was definitely a Hamlet book. In fact, my working title for the book was Time Out of Joint (I even have an early draft of the UK cover with that title). Charles’s struggle with his father (and ultimately the legacy of his father’s death), his questions about his parents’ generation, his suicide attempt as a young man were all inspired by Hamlet to one degree or another. Thinking about the Hamlet production I just saw at OSF, I’m particularly struck by the fact that Charles is a man with a very different world view from his father.
Do you have a favorite production of Hamlet, whether on stage or film? What books can you think of that Hamlet seems to have influenced? Writers, do Shakespeare plays (or other plays) influence you when you write?