Archive for the 'pre-paper' Category

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

May 9, 2006

I directed Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for my MFA thesis three years ago; it's hard to get those two characters out of my head. For that production, my priority was making them three-dimensional, human characters. Balancing Stoppard's brilliant intellectual wordplay with genuine heart. Hamlet in that play is a machine, a trap from which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to escape.

They're not the same characters in Shakespeare, of course. I still want to make them three-dimensional, human characters, but now their context is entirely different. They know why they're at Elsinore, and they remember their friendship with Hamlet. They grew up with him, and a close reading of the text suggests that Hamlet is much closer with these two than he ever was with Horatio. Horatio becomes Hamlet's friend over the course of the play. Hamlet pushes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern away.

The line that really stood out for me when I first started thinking through this production was Hamlet's line about knowing a hawk from a handsaw. It's at the end of the first conversation he has with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, after he's gotten them to admit that they were sent for. As soon as they admit this, Hamlet launches into his "What a piece of work is a man" speech — exposing his unhappiness to his friends without revealing its cause. They tell him about the players, and in the last moments before Polonius enters Hamlet says

Gentlemen, you are welcome to Elsinore. Your hands, come then. You are welcome. But my uncle-father and aunt-mother are deceived.

GUIL: In what, my dear lord?

HAM: I am but mad north-northwest. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

What is Hamlet doing here? Part of the antic disposition is allowing himself to say things that wouldn't otherwise be appropriate, including direct insults to Polonius and the King. Seeming nonsequiters and hidden messages are also common, and this at first glance seems to be one or the other. But now I think Hamlet is almost straightforwardly telling his best friends that he is not mad after all, that he's merely acting mad — as a way to get them on his side against the King. Once he realizes they are reporting to Claudius, he knows he can't tell them the whole truth. But they are still his best friends, and he sees an opportunity to find a couple of allies. Unfortunately for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet then gets caught up in the plotting around the play, and they don't manage to earn his trust before falling into the trap he springs on them.

That's Hamlet's point of view. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern famously don't have a lot to go on in this play. They have no idea that Claudius murdered Old Hamlet. They don't know about the Ghost. At first, they have no reason to doubt that Hamlet is actually suffering from mental illness — and no reason to doubt the King's word that he has sent for them out of concern for Hamlet's well-being. From their point of view, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are just trying to help their old friend.

The line that kills me is from Rosencrantz, just after the mousetrap: "My lord, you once did love me." So similar to "I did love you once," "Indeed, my lord, you made me believe so," with Ophelia. As with Ophelia, Hamlet pushes Rosencrantz and Guildenstern away. They are part of the world, part of the change that Claudius represents. Ophelia is linked with Gertrude in Hamlet's mind by virtue of her womanhood; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are linked to the King by their service to him. In trying to deny that change, Hamlet denies his closest friends.



May 8, 2006

Laertes is best understood for his function in the plot — he is an analogue for Hamlet, and the differences between them highlight something Shakespeare wanted to make clear about the Prince. Like Hamlet, Laertes seeks revenge for a murdered father. And like Hamlet, Laertes is killed in his pursuit of revenge. The chief difference between them is the delay — and the fact of this difference is a big part of what makes me believe the delay is central to Shakespeare's whole purpose with the play.

Shakespeare is careful to introduce Laertes in such a way that the audience will remember him after his absence through Acts 2 and 3. The King repeats his name over and over in that first speech, makes a big point of identifying him as the son of Polonius, and immediately invites us to compare Laertes to Hamlet when he grants Laertes' request and denies Hamlet's when they each want permission to leave Denmark.

We soon see Laertes bidding farewell to Ophelia, and cautioning her about her romantic relationship with Hamlet — there seems to be genuine affection between them. His goodbye to and from his father is much more formal and stilted. The siblings seem to get along; the father seems disconnected.

And then Laertes is gone for more than two full Acts. His return is hugely dramatic — literally breaking down the doors at the head of a mob, in full vengeance mode towards the King over the death of Polonius. This is the very image of what Hamlet can't get himself to be — the headstrong revenger, loyal to his father, hell-bent on avenging his father's murder at any cost. The King skillfully slows Laertes down, and the madness of Ophelia takes the immediate wind out of his sails. Ophelia's suicide strengthens his resolve even further, and Claudius manages to turn him against Hamlet — the true enemy who murdered Laertes' father in cold blood. It is Laertes who suggests the use of poison.

At Ophelia's funeral, Laertes argues with the priest over the reduced ceremonies (suicide being a sin), then jumps in Ophelia's grave and demands to be buried with her. Hamlet reveals himself at that, and the two revengers scuffle and have to be pulled apart.

That very night, the plan that Laertes made with the King is put into action. Laertes has an "unbated" sword — the tip is sharp, not blunted for safe fencing (and it's poisoned as well). Hamlet quickly proves the better fencer, so Laertes cheats, hitting Hamlet between rounds. In the ensuing fight, Hamlet manages to switch swords and wound Laertes. When the Queen dies after drinking the poison intended for Hamlet, the dying Laertes has a change of heart. He reveals himself and the King, then asks Hamlet to exchange forgiveness with him before succumbing to his own poison.

Laertes is energetic, bold, and passionate, and wants to do the right thing. He is somewhat given to making exaggerated or even melodramatic statements; perhaps this is due to his youth. He's clearly not the intellectual and philosophical giant that Hamlet is, but perhaps this has something to do with what allows him to be the man of action that Hamlet is not. The audience should sympathize with Laertes' desire for revenge, and should on some level be aware of the parallel with Hamlet. The way Laertes repents at the end makes him that much more sympathetic.

In some ways, the story of Laertes might be indicative of what Revenge Tragedy was all about before Shakespeare used Hamlet to transcend it.

The King

May 2, 2006

As David pointed out in the comments to a previous post, the word "Claudius" is never actually spoken aloud in the play. I'm going to follow standard practice, however, and use "Claudius" to describe him when "The King" doesn't feel right.

Hamlet says so much about the King, describes him with such strong and passionate language, that it's difficult to look at this character objectively. According to Hamlet, Claudius is "the bloat king," "a satyr," "no more like my father than I to Hercules," a "smiling damnéd villain," a "bloody, bawdy villain," a "treacherous, lecherous, kindless villain," "a mildewed ear",

…A murderer and a villain,
A slave that is not the twentieth part the tithe
Of your precedent lord, a vice of kings,
A cutpurse of the empire and the rule,
That from a shelf the precious diadem stole
And put it in his pocket…

A king of shreds and patches…

What's more, Claudius is guilty. He confesses his guilt to the audience — he knows it was wrong to kill his brother and take the throne and the Queen, and he did it anyway.

'Forgive me my foul murder'?
That cannot be, since I am still possess'd
Of those effects for which I did the murder—
My crown, mine own ambition and my queen.
May one be pardon'd and retain the offence?

Interestingly, he tells us that he cannot repent. It's not that he does repent and can't be forgiven, it's that he can't actually make himself wish he had done the right thing.

Try what repentance can. What can it not?
Yet what can it, when one cannot repent?
O wretched state! O bosom black as death!

And, of course:

My words fly up, my thoughts remain below.
Words without thoughts never to heaven go.

This is a complicated, conflicted character. He is clearly the villain in the play, the antagonist, the just target for Hamlet's revenge, but Shakespeare gives him that third dimension that allows the audience to feel for him just a bit, particularly in his honestly pained reaction to the play-within-the-play. And Shakespeare proves his brilliance once again by ironically using this stab at repentance to give Hamlet an excuse to extend his delay at a crucial moment in the story.

The King is clever, politically astute, and actively engaged in the politics and procedures of running the kingdom. He knows how to work a room, and enjoys drinking with his subjects. His handling of the Fortinbras situation (though mostly cut from my production) is masterful. He pulled off his coup without a hitch, and would have gotten away with it had Old Hamlet not come back from the dead to name names. His seduction of Laertes is likewise brilliant. This clear competence and leadership calls into question Hamlet's descriptions of the King; maybe Claudius isn't such a bad replacement for his warlike brother after all.

Marrying Gertrude was a particularly good move as a way to solidify the succession, and the royal couple seem to genuinely enjoy each other — I don't think they had anything going while Old Hamlet lived, but Shakespeare leaves that possibility open. Up until he starts actively plotting to kill Hamlet, he solicits Gertrude's advice and lets her in on his plans.

And up until Hamlet becomes obviously threatening, the King could be seen as genuinely concerned for Hamlet's well-being. Hamlet is clearly a threat to Claudius  — he has a claim for the throne and the support of the people. Wisely, Claudius begins the play by denying Hamlet's request to leave Elsinore and maybe stir up the kind of rebellion Laertes will return with in Act IV. He tries to get Hamlet to accept him as a father, and while this is somewhat cynical it's also maybe a little bit generous, especially when Claudius names Hamlet his heir. The King spies on Hamlet when Hamlet begins acting mad, but does not seek to kill him until after overhearing Hamlet make a not-so-veiled threat at the end of the "get thee to a nunnery" scene. Up until this point, the King seems to want to accept Polonius' theory that Hamlet's madness is caused by love, which would mean that the King wouldn't have to worry about the threat Hamlet represents. Here's what the King says to Polonius there:

Love? His affections do not that way tend,
Nor what he spake, though it lack'd form a little,
Was not like madness.

All of this is accurate. Hamlet is not mad, and the King has seen through the act. He continues:

There's something in his soul
O'er which his melancholy sits on brood,
And I do doubt the hatch and the disclose
Will be some danger

The King is now on to Hamlet, and he manages to convince Polonius to agree to the England plan — even though Polonius does not know Claudius killed Old Hamlet, and does not know that the King will send Hamlet's death-warrant as well.

At the duel, Claudius tries to stop Gertrude from drinking the poison, but is caught in his own trap — the only way to truly stop her from putting that cup to her lips would be to reveal himself. And despite everything, he still cannot repent enough to do that. He lets Gertrude die to protect his crown and ambition. Laertes, by contrast, does repent; he admits the plot and reveals the King's treachery. And Hamlet finally kills the King.

The Kings' greatest want is the throne — which he possesses at the top of the show, so his objective throughout the play is to stabilize his position. He has changed the world, and he wants to hold on to the new reality he's created. Shakespeare's imagery throughout the play makes clear that the reality of Claudius is diseased and rotten.  It is Hamlet's task to bring the King down; Shakespeare has given Hamlet a worthy adversary.


April 22, 2006

Ophelia's the kind of character that I always find tough to crack. I feel like she's important on a thematic and emotional level, but that the role itself is almost underwritten. She's so much in the power of other characters that her actions — which are always my way in to understanding a character — seem overwhelmed by her obstacles, and it's hard to tell what she's specifically trying to accomplish. The plethora of flower images that Shakespeare associates with her from the very beginning of the play certainly make her character more vivid, but offer no easy and straightforward analytical assistance.

Ophelia is initially defined by her relationships to other people in the play. She is Laertes' sister; they seem on happy terms, able to joke together even as he warns her to watch out for Hamlet. She has something romantic happening with the Prince, and it's unclear how far this has proceeded. A case could be made that some lines imply a physical relationship is already under way, but on an explicit level it's all about his courtship of her. And she is the daughter of Polonius. I've already written about how I think Polonius does care about her, but that he has a difficult time expressing that kind of emotion. No mention is made of Ophelia's mother.

I take it as given that Ophelia and Hamlet do really love each other, and that if Old Hamlet had lived eventually they would have gotten married. A contrary interpretation is possible, but would lower the stakes tremendously.

In her first scene (other than a possible non-speaking appearance in the first big court scene), we see her exchanging farewells with Laertes, and we see both Laertes and Polonius warning her that Hamlet does not really love her. Polonius specifically orders her to stop accepting his courtship, and she meekly agrees to obey. She breaks up with Hamlet offstage, and we next see her rushing to Polonius after a confrontation with the apparently mad Prince. She describes Hamlet's mad behavior in great detail, leading Polonius to admit to her that he was wrong — that Hamlet must really love her after all, and that her rejection of Hamlet is likely what has driven him mad. So from very early in the play, the heavy weight of responsibility is placed on Ophelia's shoulders. As far as she knows, her obedience to her father caused her to drive Hamlet insane.

As I wrote that last sentence, I realized that I've said the same thing about each of the three characters I've broken down so far. Polonius, Gertrude, and Ophelia each believe they are the cause of Hamlet's madness.

Next, Ophelia goes along with her father's plan to prove that Hamlet's madness is caused by rejected love. Gertrude's line implies that Ophelia might be able to bring Hamlet back to sanity, and perhaps that is exactly what Ophelia is trying to do. Interestingly, she begins her staged confrontation with Hamlet by returning his love letters, reprimanding him for treating her unkindly. Perhaps she is trying to provoke a display of madness here — perhaps returning the letters was Polonius' idea. On the other hand, she could be genuinely reprimanding him for his previous mad behavior towards her. In the offstage breakup, she could have told him she was only doing this on her father's orders and that she would like to stay on good terms. If so, his bizarre treatment of her would earn him this kind of reprimand.

Either way, her lines here provoke a completely unexpected reaction from Hamlet. He's relating everything she says and does back to Gertrude, and to what Hamlet sees as Gertrude's betrayal of her first marriage. Perhaps his lines about honesty are his rather oblique way of explaining to her why he can no longer allow himself to love her — a strange twist, given that she's the one who has broken up with him. He tells Ophelia that he did love her, then that he didn't, and then tells her to enter a convent (the bawdy interpretation of "nunnery" in this instance is thoroughly and convincingly debunked in the Arden). He says he's a bad person, and that she should not want to have children with him — or indeed with anyone.

Then he seems to figure out that this entire confrontation is a set-up, that Polonius is listening in (the Arden's argument against this is entirely unconvincing, especially taking into account the shift in emphasis of her lines following this moment, which show that Hamlet has suddenly put back on his guise of madness). Just before leaving the scene, Hamlet specifically says that Ophelia's womanly behavior has made him mad — I believe this is intended to throw Polonius (and, through him, the King) off the true scent, but Ophelia might well take it as further confirmation that she has caused Hamlet's madness. I've cut her soliloquy here, for which I now offer my sincere apologies to whatever wonderful actress I end up casting in this role next week.

Ophelia is flirted with quite bawdily by Hamlet at the play. She is polite, and tries to contain his antic disposition. And that's the last we see of the sane Ophelia, unless I steal a bit from the Campbell Scott Hamlet (and probably many others) and have Ophelia witness Hamlet's joking about stowing Polonius' dead body.

Ophelia's madness is no mystery. Her boyfriend murdered her father in a fit of madness, and so far as she knows his madness was caused directly by her actions. To be honest, I've never found her mad scene particularly compelling — we get it, it's sad, let's move on — and so it became an obvious candidate for the many many cuts I've had to make. It's still there, but greatly compacted. The Arden spends fifteen full pages analyzing her songs and her distribution of flowers. My feeling is that it's great to know that her reference to the baker's daughter might hint that she's lost her maidenhood to Hamlet, but that all a modern audience really needs to get is that her mind and then her life are casualties of Hamlet's delayed revenge.

That's Ophelia's function in the play — she is what's at stake for Hamlet, and she helps motivate Laertes' desire for revenge. Hamlet's inability to commit to a course of action leads directly to her death, and his understanding of this enables his transformation of awareness by the end of the play. That's all well and good, but to direct her scenes I need to know what she's trying to do herself. As of now, I think her greatest want is simply to please her father and everyone else. She wants to make people happy; she wants to do the right thing. In doing so, she accepts the changes her father pushes on her, and this causes conflict with change-abhorring Hamlet.


April 20, 2006

The facts first. Gertrude has been the Queen for a long time; she was married to Old Hamlet, and is the mother of Prince Hamlet. After Old Hamlet died, she quickly married Old Hamlet's brother — it's unclear whether this marriage took place just before or immediately following his coronation. The text does not rule out the idea that she may have had some sort of mutual attraction or even affair with Claudius before Old Hamlet died — but the text doesn't directly support this idea, either (and I don't find it all that useful as of now). The text does make it fairly clear that Gertrude had no part in and did not know of Old Hamlet's murder.

It's no great leap to suppose that Gertrude had multiple reasons for marrying Claudius so soon after her husband's funeral. From the point of view of the people of Denmark, the marriage solidifies and justifies the succession, and Claudius specifically acknowledges the advice he was given to marry Gertrude. Whether or not she loved or was attracted to Claudius, she may well have seen the marriage as her duty to her country. And part of that duty would be avoiding any sign of excessive mourning for Old Hamlet.

This puts her on a collision course with Hamlet. Her first scene (and Hamlet's) sees her trying to get Hamlet to stop mourning and to "look like a friend on Denmark." Hamlet wants her to mourn, she wants him to let go. Shakespeare has set her up as the contrast to Hamlet — he refuses to accept the new order, she has embraced it. They both think they're doing the right thing, and it hurts each of them to see the other making the opposing choice.

Throughout the first half of the play, Gertrude is firmly on the side of the King; she participates in all the scheming and spying (briefing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, planning with Polonius). But she has her own reasons for this. Where the King is faking concern for Hamlet's well-being to mask his fears that Hamlet is on to him, Gertrude's concern for Hamlet is genuine. She wants to know the cause of his madness so that she can help bring him back to health. And like Polonius, she fears that she may be responsible for it:

I doubt it is no other but the main,
His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage.

She likes the idea that rejected love might be the true culprit; she later tells Ophelia she hopes this is the case so that Ophelia might

…bring him to his wonted way again,
To both your honors.

…which sounds like a hint that she's rooting for Hamlet and Ophelia to get together, as she confirms at Ophelia's funeral.

At the play, she asks Hamlet to sit by her and is later carefully polite about the thinly-veiled and deeply offensive attack on her in the play's dialogue.

Gertrude's turning point comes in the famous 'closet scene.' She has agreed to confront Hamlet with Polonius listening in, and she begins by chastising him for his rudeness — I think she's trying to break through to him, to help him by getting him to see how dangerous and offensive his behavior has become. She probably hopes that if she can get Hamlet to behave rationally, Polonius will report to the King that sending him to England will be unnecessary. Hamlet ups the stakes by threatening her physically, and her cry for help flushes out Polonius; she is horrified by Hamlet's violence against who he clearly believes is the King.

When Hamlet tells her that his father was murdered, she seems genuinely surprised and hurt — at one point he even accuses her of killing Old Hamlet, though he knows it was Claudius. But what Hamlet is really angry at her about, and what eventually causes her to break down, is simply that she went from Old Hamlet to Claudius. He accuses her of betraying her marriage vows, but what gets her is the two portraits side-by-side.

This was your husband. Look you now what follows:
Here is your husband… Have you eyes?
O, shame, where is thy blush?

O Hamlet, speak no more.
These words like daggers enter in mine ears.
No more, sweet Hamlet.

She has been living in the world of Claudius, the world Hamlet has refused to accept. She has accepted change, Hamlet has denied it. Just as Hamlet is rubbing her face in this, the ghost appears to get him back on track for revenge. Gertrude can't see the ghost, and Hamlet spends the rest of the scene convincing her he's not actually mad and getting her to agree not to tell Claudius. There's surprisingly little substance to what he asks her to do — stop sleeping with Claudius and not tell him Hamlet's sane are the only tangible tasks. The rest of it seems to be about remembering which side she's really on.

She agrees to all of it, and in a scene I've (unfortunately) cut she immediately backs up Hamlet by telling Claudius that Hamlet murdered Polonius in a fit of madness. She's on Hamlet's side now.

Hamlet's gone for Act Four, of course, and Gertrude is left to deal with Ophelia's madness (shortened), Laertes' rebellion (cut), and Ophelia's suicide (the big speech is cut). We see her briefly at Ophelias funeral, and then at the fencing match.

Does Gertrude figure out that the drink is poisoned before she drinks? In Peter Brook's Hamlet, she clearly suspected it. Maybe by drinking the poison she's protecting her son. And maybe she feels so horrible about marrying the man who killed her husband that she's ready to die. The more I think about this, the more it seems right — it's something tangible she can do for Hamlet as a result of the closet scene. I like the way that connects the dots through the play.

Gertrude's greatest want is to help her son. When he's sad, she wants to help him let go and be happy. When he's mad, she wants to find the cause and to cure him. And when it turns out that he's not mad after all, she wants to back him up as best she can.


April 18, 2006

The next question on the Pre-Paper is this:

9. Character: what is each character's greatest want and what do they do to achieve it?
(include 5 key moments, text revelations, function in play, name, status)
Please identify main character and why you came to this conclusion.

I'm going to take the characters one at a time. Completely arbitrarily, I'm starting with Polonius.

First, the facts. He's the father of Ophelia and Laertes. No direct mention is made of their mother; we can assume she's been dead for some time. Polonius is the chief advisor to the King, perhaps the equivalent of the Secretary of State. He is not aware that Claudius murdered Old Hamlet, though Claudius trusts him with everything else. It's unclear whether Polonius served Old Hamlet in a similar capacity, or whether he's always been attached to Claudius. Lines suggest he has a gray beard, and is generally considered to be an old man.

The cliché is that Polonius is a babbler, that he talks and talks without saying anything, and that perhaps he's even senile — this was how he was played in the Olivier Hamlet. I much prefer Richard Briers' take in the Branagh Hamlet, which has Polonius as a clever and manipulative schemer. Hume Cronyn was quite good in the Burton Hamlet, and probably came closest to what I'd like to do.

Let's look at what Polonius actually does in the play (I'm using my cut for this, but I may mention one or two instances from the full text as well):

Very early on, the audience is given two pieces of information about Polonius: he is near and dear to the King, and he is the father of Laertes.

Soon after, we see Polonius in his first real scene giving advice to Laertes and bidding him farewell. The advice is overlong, and can be taken as an example of his tendency to babble. It's also formal; the standard father-giving-advice-to-son schpiel. It could be played in a variety of ways: sweet, genuine, distracted, hypocritical, whatever. As of now, I like Bill Murray's take on this (kind of a surprise) in the Ethan Hawke Hamlet that has Polonius falling back on this formal way of saying goodbye because he's completely uncomfortable with actual emotional communication. This fits the dialogue well, and sets up what I think happens later on.

Continuing the same scene, Polonius then confronts Ophelia over her relationship with Hamlet. He quickly gets her to reveal what's been going on, then orders her to stop accepting Hamlet's courtship. He tells her not to take what Hamlet says to her so seriously, implying that Hamlet would never marry Ophelia and that his courtship of her is nothing more than a ploy to get her into bed.

In a scene I've cut, Polonius sends a spy to check up on Laertes. Afterwards, Ophelia rushes in to tell Polonius that Hamlet confronted her with his mad behavior — Ophelia is clearly shaken. Polonius' first reaction is to pump her for information (rather than, say, comforting her). But here's the interesting thing, something I think most productions of Hamlet overlook. Polonius actually apologizes to Ophelia in this scene, admitting that he was wrong about Hamlet! He now believes that Hamlet's madness (which must have been manifesting itself in other ways in the two months since the ghost's appearance, since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have already been sent for and are about to arrive) is the result of Ophelia's rejection — in other words, Polonius believes that he inadvertantly caused Hamlet to go mad.

This drives everything Polonius does for the rest of the play. He goes straight to the King with his new theory (and a letter from Hamlet to Ophelia), saying he's found the cause of Hamlet's madness — it's clear that the King has been trying to discover the cause for some time. But then he blusters again before presenting the letter, another example of the blabbering fool that feeds the cliché. But just as with Laertes, the blustering comes at a point of high emotion, and in this case Polonius has real cause to be unsettled. Not only did he possibly cause the Prince to lose his wits, but he also has to tell Hamlet's parents that Hamlet is in love with his own daughter (something that they've clearly never discussed before, even though Gertrude will later say she hoped that the two would eventually marry). It's awkward, and it's emotional, and Polonius beats around the bush a bit before he can bring himself to say it. He shows them the letter, then very carefully frames his theory — telling the King and Queen that he ordered Ophelia to reject Hamlet's affections out of loyalty and duty to the crown, because Hamlet is too noble for the likes of Polonius' daughter.

Soon enough, Polonius gets a chance to try to confirm his theory — and I get the sense that he thinks he can make up for his mistake, for driving Hamlet mad, by being the one to figure it all out and possibly find a cure. He tries to get Hamlet to reveal the cause of the madness, but Hamlet runs rings around him while dropping a couple of tantalizing hints about Ophelia.

We next see Polonius introducing the Players, talking them up to Hamlet — perhaps trying to ingratiate himself to the mad Prince? He complains that the Player's speech is too long, then immediately compliments it — catching his own mistake and continuing to try to please Hamlet? He seems genuinely moved by the end of the speech, and at the same time uncomfortable with the emotions that have thus been brought out.

Polonius sees the Players well bestowed, then reports with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to the King. He now begins a new scheme for proving that he was responsible for the madness by loosing Ophelia to Hamlet, spying on their confrontation with the King. After Hamlet rants at Ophelia and probably reduces her to tears, he offers her no emotional comfort. The King is not convinced that love is the cause, and resolves to send Hamlet to England. Polonius disagrees but consents, asking only that he can try one more time to prove his theory (by using Gertrude instead of Ophelia to confront Hamlet this time) before Hamlet is sent away.

After the play and a couple of quick bits (that I've cut) setting up the closet scene, Polonius hides behind the arras to spy on Hamlet's confrontation with Gertrude. When Gertrude cries for help, Polonius thinks that Hamlet is about to kill her and so reveals himself and gets killed — it's not a stretch to say that Polonius actually sacrifices himself to save the Queen.

So what does Polonius want? To please the King. To prove his loyalty, perhaps something to do with stabilizing his position at court. To prove the cause of Hamlet's madness is love for Ophelia. Ultimately, what Polonius wants is to take responsibility upon himself for everything he possibly can, including:

  • Laertes' life in Paris
  • Ophelia's love-life with Hamlet
  • having caused Hamlet's madness
  • discovering the cause of Hamlet's madness
  • proving that the cause is love
  • the King's safety with regard to Hamlet
  • Gertrude's safety from Hamlet in the closet scene

He's emotionally withdrawn, preferring analysis and spying to actual emotional connection. Maybe he has Asperger's Syndrome. But I do get the sense that he cares about people, and that he's deeply mortified that he caused all this chaos. His desire to take responsibility can be seen as controlling and manipulative, but it's also very sweet in its way.

I'd like the audience to care about Polonius, to see him as someone who means well despite his fear of emotions. That way, his death will have greater weight, and both Ophelia's madness and Laertes' vengeance will feel justified.

Pre-Paper Part Six: Conventions

April 17, 2006

8. Conventions unique to the play (called for in the text).

  • There is a ghost, come back from the spiritual plane to deliver a message to Hamlet.
  • The ghost can be seen by some characters and not by others, and can always be seen by the audience.
  • Hamlet and some other characters can address the audience directly. (Another choice here might be that these characters think out loud, but I find it to be much more effective and true to the language to deliver the soliloquys and asides in direct address). Other characters presumably cannot overhear these speeches.
  • A nonlocative stage — time and place are only fixed for the length of each scene. The set does not fully embody everything that would be present in the scene — many details are left to the imagination. The same part of the stage can represent any number of different locations. Any amount of time can pass between scenes.
  • Sometimes there might be more imaginary people in the scene than there are actors to portray them — in which case these extra people might be imagined to be the audience, or in the direction of the audience. Examples include courtiers during Claudius' first speech and the duel, and soldiers in the Fortinbras scene in Act Four.

Pre-Paper Part Five: Genre

April 16, 2006

7. Genre: what kind of play is this? How does genre relate to main action and theme?

"The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark" is the play's title in the First Folio, and you know it's not a Comedy because everyone ends up dead instead of married. Tragedy is a fun idea to discuss. I follow the line of thinking that says Tragedy works by giving the hero a tragic flaw, something that simultaneously defines the character, makes the audience care about the character, and brings about the character's downfall — it's that paradox that sucks people in. Hamlet is defined by "thinking too precisely on th' event," his delay together with his uncanny ability to articulate the inner workings of the human mind in torment (and for me, for this production, I'm connecting this to the idea of denying change). We love him for this, we're fascinated by him because of it, and yet it is this exact quality which brings about his downfall. By thinking instead of acting, he delays too long and kills Polonius instead of the King, and thus brings about the deaths of his girlfriend, his mother, his best childhood friends, and himself. Along with the tragic flaw, the protagonist of a tragedy needs a certain measure of self-awareness, and Hamlet is perhaps the most self-aware character in all of literature.

Hamlet is also a Revenge Tragedy, though one that transcends the genre. Revenge Tragedy was familiar to Elizabethan audiences — who had seen an earlier version of the story of Hamlet on stage a decade or so earlier. Typical conventions of Revenge Tragedy, present in other plays from the period immediately preceding Shakespeare's Hamlet, include a ghost urging revenge, some form of delay (usually just to allow for plot complications), and the death of the revenger. The traditional theme of the Revenge Tragedy is that revenge is a sin; this is compelling because even though we know that answering violence with violence can only lead to a downward spiral with nothing getting solved, it's easy to sympathize with someone trying to right a wrong. On the most surface level, Shakespeare's Hamlet follows these conventions and fits the definition. But most Revenge Tragedies don't delve anywhere near so deep into the human psyche. Shakespeare saw in the idea of Revenge an opportunity to explore humanity's relationship with death and our fear of the unknown — our fear of change.

Pre-Paper Part Four: Main Action and Theme

April 15, 2006

These are two of the big ones, on which all else depends. I've already talked a lot about the Main Action, but it always bears repeating. One of the chief tasks facing the director — in rehearsals and design meetings, and also press interviews and so forth — is to constantly articulate ideas, and the Main Action is the central idea of the production. The more I talk about it, and the more I write about it in this blog, the better able I'll be to articulate it and everything that flows from it in rehearsal. When I'm directing a production without writing a blog about it, I drive my wife and friends crazy just trying to practice talking it all through. (Okay, maybe I'm doing that now anyway…)

I haven't talked as much about Theme. There are many ways to define Theme, and most plays worth talking about have multiple themes that could be seen as central. Just as I find it useful to narrow the Main Action down to one simple sentence, I also find it useful to choose one Theme to bring to the forefront in each production. Different productions of the same play might choose different themes (though secondary themes in each production don't need to be ignored or suppressed). The Theme, for these purposes, is a simple statement of the moral or lesson implied by the story of the play. It can be instructive, cynical, optimistic, or mind-blowing — it can be anything, so long as it is what you understand to be the message of the play, inherent in the text. I like to look at it as the result of the Main Action: if you perform this action, this will be the result. Often this is accomplished with a twist, in that the result of the Main Action is the opposite of what you would expect or what the main character intended.

One more point before I get to it. The pre-paper outline asks for three examples of lines from the text that best illustrate the Theme (it asks a similar question for each Character). This is incredibly useful for a director. If you know the three most important moments in the play for the theme, plus the three most important moments in the play for the plot (the turning points), and the three most important moments of the play for each character (and so on like this), you know how to stage the play. Put those important moments into focus: set them off from every other moment by giving them unique and interesting staging or by suddenly changing the rhythm. (Also be sure the set is designed to give you opportunities for staging these important moments.) That's where all this analysis turns into something tangible and effective on stage.

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April 14, 2006

The next question in the pre-paper is about circumstances. The term "given circumstances" goes back to Stanislavski (I believe; someone correct me in the comments if I'm wrong) and means all the objective facts you can glean from the play itself about the characters, their relationships, their situation, and the past — everything given to you by the playwright. Where is this scene taking place? How long have these characters known each other? Are they aware that someone else is within earshot? What time is it? In most cases, given circumstances need to be supplemented with circumstances implied as opposed to given by the text, plus those simply made up by the actors and director to fill in the blanks.

Two things Jon Jory says about circumstances really stick in my mind. First, finding the given circumstances drives you like a nail into the text. There's no better way to get to know a play than by reading through it and writing down all the given circumstances (and then going back through and asking yourself questions about them). The second thing might be even more important: an actor needs a critical mass of given circumstances in order to play a scene with any specificity. Oftentimes, vague and disconnected acting is a result of the actor not really knowing the circumstances. In rehearsal, when I spot an actor making vague choices and seeming unsure, I can often fix the problem by talking briefly about the relevant circumstances.

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