Jan Kott, Brecht, and rethinking the plot summary

April 10, 2006

Finally picked up a copy of Jan Kott's Shakespeare Our Contemporary, on the repeated advice of Lucas Krech. It's fantastic — essentially advocating the idea that great art is that which speaks in a particular way to each new and different age or generation. Or turned around: in whatever time and place you find yourself, you can find your own way of approaching and understanding the great works of art. He's writing in mid-20th-century Poland, and he talks a lot about the politics of war in Shakespeare. He quotes — as do many other people writing about Hamlet — Brecht's Little Organum for the Theatre, in which Brecht breaks down the plot of Hamlet from an unashamedly political point of view:

After some hesitation as to whether he should add one bloody deed to another, Hamlet…meets at the sea shore young Fortinbras… Following his example he turns back, and, in a scene of barbaric slaughter, kills his uncle, his mother, and himself, leaving Denmark to the Norwegians. Thus we observe how… the young man, already somewhat stout, badly misuses his new knowledge aquired at Wittenberg university. This knowledge gets in the way… His reason is impractical when faced with irrational reality…

Here's the thing. I don't agree with Brecht's take on Hamlet as a legitimate straightforward analysis of Shakespeare's play as written. It willfully ignores many central aspects of the story, and overemphasises others. But it's all done for a very specific purpose — finding a way in to the play that will reveal its special relevance to a particular group of people in a particular time and place. And there's something about that purpose that appeals to me very strongly.

Of course, I'm working in a completely different time and place for a completely different audience. I'm going to choose different aspects of the story on which to focus, and different aspects to downplay. This is all as it should be, so long as I am similarly striving to bring the play to life in the most compelling possible way for this specific audience (and maybe with a little more respect for the source material).

Much as I may disagree with the specifics, reading Brecht's biased and somewhat devious plot summary makes me rethink some things about the way I'm working. Just yesterday I wrote that the reason a director should write out a plot summary is merely to wrap her mind around the narrative of the play — I even said it probably wouldn't make for interesting reading. Brecht uses the plot summary to state his point of view about the play, his directorial focus, and it makes for very interesting reading indeed. So here is a revision of my plot summary of Hamlet, dropping all pretenses of objectivity:


Hamlet, the son of the king of Denmark, is away at school when he hears of his father's death. By the time Hamlet completes the long journey back to Elsinore, nothing is as it should be. His mother, Gertrude, has already remarried. And the man who is now Hamlet's stepfather is the old king's brother, Hamlet's uncle Claudius. To make matters worse, Claudius has become king.

The worst part of all of this for Hamlet, though, is that he is denied the opportunity to grieve for his father. The court is busy celebrating the wedding and coronation, and Gertrude will not make any display of unhappiness. The only other person Hamlet might turn to is Ophelia, his sometime girlfriend when he is home from school. But Ophelia has been ordered by her brother and father to reject Hamlet's advances, so he is left without anyone with whom he can share his grief.

Despairing, Hamlet makes a show of mourning and asks to be allowed to return to school. Claudius denies this request, and both Claudius and Gertrude order Hamlet to let go of his father and move on. Soon, Hamlet encounters his father's ghost — but instead of the kind of reconciliation and farewell that would allow Hamlet any sense of closure, the ghost tells Hamlet that he was murdered by Claudius and orders Hamlet to take revenge.

Hamlet is now caught in a perfectly constructed trap. He has vowed to take swift revenge — to kill Claudius. But on some fundamental, emotional level, to take revenge would mean accepting his father's death. To kill Claudius would be to participate in the foul, diseased world which Claudius is creating, and to abandon the more innocent world in which Old Hamlet lived and reigned in Denmark. On the other hand, Hamlet cannot simply go back on his vow and decide not to take revenge — not just because Claudius is guilty, but also because letting him off the hook would be another way of accepting Old Hamlet's death. The only thing Hamlet can think to do is to put on an act of madness, which allows him to sarcastically criticize everyone for all of the changes that they have so blithely accepted. It also allows him to suspend his state of indecision, his refusal to commit to any course of action that would be tantamount to accepting his father's death.

After much wrangling and plots and counterplots on each side, and immediately after passing up a perfect opportunity to kill Claudius, Hamlet finally catches someone spying and stabs him through a curtain. Instead of the king, however, Hamlet has killed Polonius, Ophelia's father. Claudius sends Hamlet away. Before he can return, Ophelia goes mad and drowns herself. Laertes, Ophelia's brother, takes on the role of revenger against Hamlet and lays a plot with Claudius.

When Hamlet returns, he happens upon an empty grave, where he takes a particular interest in a skull — the reality of death is settling in on him, and he is beginning to accept the loss of his father. But then he discovers that the grave is Ophelia's, and that she killed herself because his delay led him to kill the wrong man. Too late, he realizes the cost of what he has allowed to happen.

Claudius and Laertes hatch their plot, and the resulting violence carries both of them with it, along with Hamlet and Gertrude as well. All the deaths in the play — besides Old Hamlet's — are the tragic result of Hamlet's refusal to accept his father's death.

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4 Responses to “Jan Kott, Brecht, and rethinking the plot summary”

  1. David Abad Says:

    The two summaries in combination are very interesting, and I suspect that both the more objective summary and the more subjective summary are useful in different ways. Clearly, you were able to focus more on the spine you’ve chosen in the more subjective summary.
    I’d like it if you would reconsider the assertion you make several times in each of the summaries that Hamlet’s uncle is named Claudius. I suggest that what it means to say a character in a play has a particular name is that, at a minimum, at least once in the dialogue of the play the character is called by, or referred to by, that name. This isn’t the case with the character of Hamlet’s uncle and the name Claudius.

  2. joshcostello Says:

    Absolutely — both were incredibly useful in different ways. I’m glad I ended up doing that twice over. I think it’s probably better that way, as opposed to trying to cover both sides in one go.

    And that’s a fascinating point. Yeah, no one ever says the word “Claudius.” Don’t know quite what to make of that. But it’s definitely easier to use “Claudius” when writing about the play than to keep saying “Hamlet’s uncle.” Though I suppose I could just say “the King.” Any thoughts on why Claudius is never named in the dialogue?

  3. David Abad Says:

    Well, my own practice is to always call that character “the King”. Since, as Arden notes on p. 163, the name Claudius appears only in the stage direction at the beginning of I.ii (“Enter Claudius King of Denmark”) and in the speech heading immediately following that stage direction, my own supposition is that Shakespeare had a passing whim that the King was going to be named Claudius, but abandoned the name as he went on writing and found he had no use for a name for the character.


  4. […] This reminds me a lot of my attempts to summarize the story of the play as a pre-rehearsal directing exercise. […]


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