The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Sunday, 23 February 2014

Bound In A Nutshell

Part 3 of my review of the BBC Shakespeare Hamlet, which can be watched on YouTube.


The Queen informs her husband about the bloody murder of Polonius. But the body is missing - what the f*ck has Hamlet done with it? The King orders Rosie and Guildy to find out - they are still 'friends' with Hamlet, after all, he might take them into his confidence.


Rosie and Guildy bump into Hamlet in a corridor, and he has a bit of a go at them for being the King's lap-dogs, or 'sponges'.


Hamlet is recaptured by the King's troops, and - whilst still pretending to be mad - eventually admits what he has done with Polonius' corpse - he's dumped him under some stairs. Hearing of this foul deed, Claudius is now in fear for his life - so he decides that rather than being merely banished to England, Hamlet should meet with a little 'accident' en route. Who should do this wicked deed? Rosie and Guildy!


Elsewhere in Ellsinore, near the shore of Ellsinore, Rosie and Guildy have brought Hamlet, ready for him to be placed on board the first ship for England. Why England? This is never really explained in any great depth, and indeed there's quite a funny exchange about this very point in Act V scene 1, where someone points out that, being bonkers, Hamlet will fit right in.

As he waits to begin his exile, Hamlet sees the massed troops of Norway marching to a war with Poland they know they will lose, because it is too well-defended. This immediately puts Hamlet in mind of his own predicament - this army is, almost literally, taking 'arms against a sea of troubles'. They are prepared to do the right thing, even if it means their deaths, even if it changes nothing - because it is the right thing to do.

And this leads Hamlet onto another soliloquy, a follow-up to the 'to be' one, and just as good in my opinion but nowhere near as famous. It's a sort of precursor of Kipling's 'If'.

What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time, be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more! Sure he that made us with such large discourse, looking before and after, gave us not that capability and godlike reason to fust in us, unus'd. Now, whether it be bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple of thinking too precisely on th' event-

i.e. thinking too much

A thought which, quater'd, hath but one part wisdom and ever three parts coward -

Yes, okay, we got the point.

- I do not know why yet I live to say 'This thing's to do'. Sith, I have cause, and will, and strength, and means, to do't. Examples gross as earth exhort me! Witness, this army of such mass and charge...exposing what is mortal and unsure to all that fortune, death, and danger dare - even for an eggshell!

Okay, so he drifted off the point towards the end there - I'm not sure about the whole eggshell metaphor - but the point is Hamlet is no longer umming and ahhing about whether to be or not. He's decided. He's going to be. He's going to fight. He's going to f*ck em, f*ck the lot of em!

He concludes, that, to be a man, my son:

Rightly, to be great, is not to stir without great argument - but greatly to find quarrel in a straw when honour's at the stake! How stand I, then, that have a father kill'd, a mother stain'd, excitements of my reason and my blood - and let all sleep, while to my shame I see the imminent death of twenty thousand men? ...O, from this time forth - my thoughts be bloody, or be nothing worth!

Brilliant. Can't understand why it's not as famous as the rest of it. Hamlet reasons that if you are fighting evil, you shouldn't wait for 'good reason' or 'proof' - just get the f*ck on with it, man!

And, as Tony Blair discovered, WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG.


Back in the castle, and the King and Queen are getting a bit worried about Ophelia. Not only has her boyfriend dumped her and killed her dad - but now she's started bloody singing as well!

To be fair, the lovely Lalla is very good here, and by way of a contrast to Hamlet's pretend madness, the character's nervous breakdown and PTSD is very sensitively depicted. I'm not totally sure about the choice of song, though - it's a rather tawdry drinking song about a man who promises to marry a girl to get her into bed, but who, once he’s shagged her, tells her that he doesn't want to marry her now, as he only marries the sorts of girls who don't shag around willy nilly. Are we supposed to infer from this that Hamlet has in fact shagged Ophelia? I don't know. I’m not an expert!

Gertrude writes a quick postcard to Laertes, telling him about recent events and, in particular, the distressed state of his sister. 'Something rotten in state Denmark. Wish you were here.'

Seconds later Laertes walks in, clutching said postcard, in a foul mood. His sister is delighted to see him and snogs his face off. Icky. Laertes asks how Ophelia got into this state, so the King tells him it was all Hamlet's fault - and that Laertes will now be his successor.

And then Ophelia starts bloody singing again. With a hey ho and a hey nonny no..


Down at the docks, Horatio is having fun with some rough sailors when the postie arrives with a postcard from Hamlet. The postcard explains that Hamlet's boat got boarded by pirates - PIRATES! - and that he became their prisoner, until they realised who he was and, in return for the promise of some ready cash, took him all the way back to Denmark. Hamlet then goes on to say that he has some other shit-hot news but it will have to wait till he can tell him in person.

Oh, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern? They are still sailing for England, apparently. 


Laertes is having a bit of a conference with King Claudius. Why the f*ck didn't you just have Hamlet executed for murdering Polonius, rather than exiling him? Claudius explains that he couldn't have Hamlet killed, because it would upset his mother, and Claudius loves her so he doesn't really want to see her upset.

In rushes a messenger with the shit-hot news that Hamlet is back in town. And he's naked, apparently. Not quite sure about this bit, to be honest. I mean, tackle out?

The King talks some shit for a few minutes, then eventually comes up with a plan. Laertes is good at sword fighting - he should challenge Hamlet to a duel. And just to make sure that Hamlet is killed, Laertes' sword will be tipped with a poison, so that one scratch would prove fatal!

Butthe King isn't one of those rubbish villains who hasn't got a plan B. Just in case Hamlet looks like he is winning the duel and Laertes doesn't scratch him, they will offer Hamlet a refreshing glass of water to quench the thirst he will have worked up. This water will also, of course, be poisoned. With an unction incurable and instantaneously fatal.

Laertes agrees it is a good plan. They have thought of everything. Nothing can possibly go wrong.

There is a willow grows aslant a brook...

And then Gertrude rushes in with the bad news. Apparently Ophelia was wandering the garden in her nightie, pale and gaunt, in a sort of sleepwalk Lady Macbeth-style, singing quietly to herself, when, reaching for a flower overhanging a misty, stagnant pond, the branch she was standing on broke and she slipped into the water, and then lay there, still singing sad songs peacefully to herself as the water slipped over her head and she drowned, her hair floating around her like water weed.

I mean, wow. How f*cking goth is that? That is like so totally goth. That is goth up to eleven. It’s like, oh, something out of a Nick Cave video.

(Note: it is also quite pre-Raphaelite as well as being goth)


Getting near the end now. A couple of gravediggers are digging a grave for Ophelia - 'Do you dig graves?' 'Yeah, they're all right, yeah'. They are a little resentful that Ophelia is being given a Christian burial when she committed suicide, and they conclude it's one rule for the knobs and one for the nobbed.

Hamlet wanders in, in another of his funny moods, and one of the gravediggers hands him a skull he has dug up, saying that the skull belonged to Yorick. And this is where I'm afraid I'm going to have to take issue with REDACTED, because the play makes it clear that the same gravedigger has been working in the churchyard for twenty years, and so he can remember that he dug a grave for Yorick in the same spot, which is how he identifies the skull.

Alas poor Yorrick - I knew him, Horatio. A fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy.

Incidentally, there are no Welsh people in this play. The only Shakespeares with Welsh people in are, I think, Cymbeline, Henry IV, Henry V and the Merry Wives of Windsor. Look you!

Anyway, Hamlet concludes that death is final, there is no afterlife... and then, when the King and Queen walk in with pall-bearers carrying Ophelia, he suddenly realises who the grave is for.

Sweets to the sweet! Farewell!

Laertes is not entirely chuffed to see Hamlet - the guy who he thinks is responsible for his sister's madness and eventual death. Hamlet, however, is distraught to see Ophelia dead, and they end up having a 'okay, who feels the worst right now?' competition.

It looks like it's going to end in fisticuffs, until Horatio says 'Leave it! He's not worth it!' and drags Hamlet away for a quiet drink in a nearby pub. They have pubs in this castle, okay? It’s f*cking Denmark.


Over a couple of shandies, Hamlet explains that when he was with the pirates, he found a letter from the King ordering Rosie and Guildy to kill him before they reached England. This discovery has only made Hamlet more determined to wreak his revenge...

...and then it comes time for the big duel, which, in the BBC production, takes place in a big hall.

I'm not going to go into any great detail. Suffice it to say that Hamlet behaves very nobly and honourably towards Laertes, and tries to apologise, but Laertes mind has been poisoned towards Hamlet by the King, and so a swordfight is inevitable (and a good way to end a play).

Of course, being Shakespeare, it's one of those incredibly chatty swordfights...

A hit! A very palpable hit!

...whilst the King watches, keeping a devious eye on the cup of poisoned 'water' he has prepared for Hamlet if Laertes doesn't scratch him with his pre-poisoned sword.

With Hamlet winning, a bell sounds 'ding-ding' to mark the end of the first round. The next bit, though, is a bit confusing. The Queen is mopping Hamlet's brow, when the King asks her to give Hamlet the poisoned water. However, for some reason I'm not entirely clear about, the Queen drinks it. Is it an accident? Or suicide? Or does she do it to save her son’s life?

Or maybe it's a bit of all three at once. That said, after drinking it she does seem to offer the cup to Hamlet, who refuses it, so maybe it's all a big cock-up. Whoopsadaisy!

Anyway, with the Queen fatally poisoned but not actually quite yet dead if looking a little green around the arras, the fighting resumes - and Hamlet is wounded with the poisoned sword. And then Laertes is also wounded with the poisoned sword. It's all a bit mad and violent and bloody, basically.

And then the Queen dies.

Seeing that he has been scratched with the poison, Laertes explains to Hamlet that he too has been 'slain', telling him all about the King's 'poison the little sod' plan. 'The king's to blame'. And so Hamlet, finally getting his f*cking act together after four hours, stabs him.

And then the King dies.

And then Laertes dies (after neatly observing the inherent irony of the situation).

But Hamlet? He's not quite dead yet. His chum Horatio is so distraught at his fate that he too tries to drink the poison, but Hamlet tells him not to be so bloody stupid; if there's no-one left alive, no-one will be able to tell the story of Hamlet, will they? And it's a bloody great story.

And then Hamlet dies.

The rest is silence!

By which he means not that the rest of the play is silent – there’s still some dialogue to go - but that he has now finally, found an escape from his sorrows. At last, he will try and get some rest.

And then Fortinbras, King of Norway, saunters in to discover dead bodies scattered about the place. Horatio explains what has been going on, and Fortinbras announces that Hamlet should have a soldier's burial. He also mentions that he, Fortinbras, will now be King of Denmark, since all the other candidates are lying about the place turning green with their tongues hanging out.

And then, just when things can't get any more dramatic, an Englishman runs in with the news...

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead!

Apparently he killed them on the orders of the late King (who was presumably trying to cover his tracks re: the murder of Hamlet)... who is unfortunately no longer in a position to thank him.

And on that bombshell, they carry out Hamlet's body, a drum sounds, all goes dark and...

The end!!!

And that’s it. That’s all of Shakespeare.

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