This Friday, the Brown Box Theater Project presented William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Prince of Denmark in the Exmore Park. While the cuts were modern (the full play can be close to five hours long), the performances were twilight, sweet, ripe and drenched in appropriate doom. The direction by Tyler Taustin was fresh, yet perfumed with enough of the medieval to remind us that the story of Hamlet was at least four centuries old before Hamlet got hold of it. As the Prince, Jesse Garlick brought a tortured, yet at times playful Hamlet to the audience. There are times when Hamlet just cannot seem to get it together, and even with the abridged script, Garlick was able to capture the quicksilver nature of the student prince. As Ophelia, Gigi Watson was superb. Ophelia’s decent into madness was played with beauty and grace. As King Claudius, Cameron Torres offered a more modern interpretation–a generally good man, a strong and able King, who has committed an act which has the eldest curse upon it (Cain and Able), and must struggle with the conscience of a usurper. As Gertrude, Jade Guerra took a distinctly underwritten role and filled it brilliantly as a mother worried, but also as a wife who is enjoying her new husband and renewed life as a queen. The supporting cast, Ben Heath as Horatio, James Wechsler as Polonius, Felix Teich as Laertes, Emily Elmore and Nick Osborne as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Spencer Parli Tew and Margaret Clark as the Players (and others) built the foundation that allowed the play to be such a success. We are all thankful to the Town of Exmore and Brown Box for bringing this classic to us.
But, when it is all said and done, what of the play, Hamlet Prince of Denmark?
Shakespeare gives us a most abundant play, but also a most abundant character. Hamlet is a prince, a son, a nephew, and a step son given his uncle Claudius has murdered his father, a swordsman, a theater critic and philosophy student at the University of Wittenberg. And he is young.
If Lear is about old age, MacBeth about middle age, Hamlet is about youth, and how difficult it is to reconcile feelings with your intellectual ideas. While there is the notion that Hamlet is paralyzed by thought (the Coleridge view), this is only partially true. The young Hamlet is very passionate and impulsive, his ideas are constantly being displaced by emotions. For every thoughtful soliloquy, there is also a rage and riot that comes pouring out—he rages against his mother Gertrude for her marriage to his uncle, he rages against Ophelia when he believes she is part of the plot against him, he kill Polonius without even knowing who is behind the arras, he steals and forges the letter from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and he fights pirates.
Yet, twice in the play, he praises two people who have opposite qualities. He praises the actor in the Mousetrap play for his moving and emotional performance, and ten minutes later he praises Horatio for being stoic, “All passions hit you, but you are never passion’s slave.” He admires people who are able to express emotions, as well those that can heroically keep them in check.
Hamlet’s emotions are unreliable, and are constantly undercut by his intellectual ideas. He has an incredible amount of difficulty keeping himself together and maintaining a consistent point of view—until the aborted trip to England.
It is important now to return to Wittenberg, the Protestant, humanist university. Wittenberg University was founded in 1502 by Frederick the Wise, Duke of Saxony – and chief protector of Martin Luther, the university’s most famous academic, who triggered the Protestant Reformation there in 1517. Other famous students were Tycho Brahe, the astronomer and alchemist, and the fictional character that mastered all the sciences, Doctor Faustus.
Before the Reformation, the Catholic God was well known, he was heard. He was heard and known sufficiently so that moral action could be a straight forward affair. The passion plays of the middle ages, when they dramatized events such as Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, involve no intellectual dilemmas. Abraham may have had an emotional dilemma, he did not want to kill his own son, but intellectually, he understood he had to do it—devotion to God takes precedence over devotion to family.
When the Reformation did away with priests and intermediaries, disbanded the hierarchy of the church, doing away with an authoritative interpretation of God, it left people alone. Alone to be with a God that is not clearly known. Protestants do believe in God’s grace, but the principles of how grace operated were debated during the Reformation. In place of knowing, there were now a series of moral questions.
The Shakespearean scholar Maynard Mack of Yale wrote in his essay “The World of Hamlet”, that much of the play is made up of questions. It begins with a question, “Who goes there?”
Of course, it has the most famous and important question, “To be or not to be, that is the question.” Or, this may lead to the most important question–what happens to us when we are dead? That question is unanswerable.
Hamlet has been to the university, he has read, and he has taken notes, but he still does not know how to apply it to his own life, “What piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, infinite in faculties, in form and action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god, the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals, and yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”
The first part of the passage is strictly orthodox, like something he would have read at Wittenberg. Only, he no longer believes it, “what is this quintessence of dust to me?” To me. Where do I belong in all of this? Where do I fit in? As a Protestant, he is all alone. This is the lonely Protestant voice, crying out into the darkness, a voice full of the lost idealism.
But Hamlet does get it together; it happens on the boat to England when he discovers the letter Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are carrying which will lead to his execution at the hands of the King of England. Hamlet just happens to have the seal of the King of Denmark, his murdered father’s seal, which he uses to forge a new letter which leads to the death of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The ship is attacked by pirates, and Hamlet is the only one to board the pirate ship, where he convinces them to take him back to Denmark.
There has been a series of accidents, of unexpected events that no human has had a hand in that delivers Hamlet from a murder plot and brings him back to Denmark. In these accidents, Hamlet finds the design of God and indicates to him the existence of God’s providence,
“Not a whit, we defy augury. There is a
special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be
now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The
readiness is all. Since no man of aught he leaves,
knows, what is ‘t to leave betimes? Let be.”
Here, Hamlet echoes the Gospel according to St. Matthew, chapter 10: “And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul: but rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father” (King James version).
We don’t know when we die–let be. Leave it up to providence.
God governs all events. No need for explanations in theories. God provides all the opportunities. Hamlet did not do anything to set up the final scene with Claudius and Laertes. They did it already by working out the plot of the duel and poison.
Hamlet just needs to take the opportunity when it presents itself, “Readiness is all.” And Hamlet is ready. Horatio worries Hamlet will lose the duel with Laertes, who is known to be a deadly swordsman. Hamlet tells him not to worry, that he has been in continual practice since Laertes went to Paris. He is in shape, he is ready—and the readiness is all.
In the final scene, Hamlet dominates with a display of physical strength and beauty, moral certitude and intellectual certainty. He defeats Laertes and kills Claudius.
Hamlet, Prince of Denmark is play about the Protestant Conscience, led into doubt by the perplexity of the world. He tries to mend that doubt with all the humanistic learning available at Wittenberg where the texts of antiquity are available to him. In the end, he arrives at his own convictions, and then acts on them.
The lectures of Dr. Peter Saccio, as well the essays of DR. Maynard Mack and C.S. Lewis were fundamental in compiling this article.