The random witterings of Jonathan Morris, writer.

Saturday, 22 February 2014

To Be Or Not To Be

Part 2 of my review of the BBC Shakespeare Hamlet.


Back in the castle, and we have a slightly pointless scene where Polonius arranges for a young chap - Raymond, I think he's called - to go France to check up on his son, Laertes. He will achieve this by going round spreading rumours that Laertes is busy drinking and gambling and quarrelling and drabbing, the idea being that if his son isn't misbehaving, someone will defend him. Good plan.

Anyway, this spurious nonsense aside, Ophelia rushes in, distraught, and very wet-nosed. Apparently she's just met Hamlet, and he has been simply frightfully beastly towards her. Apparently he ran into her bedchamber, all wet, wild-eyed and covered in mud, and grabbed her by the arm and shouted things at her which she, a poor, simple girly girl, couldn't understand.

Polonius, being a random old bugger, reassures her that this sort of behaviour is perfectly normal for a young boy in love, overwhelmed by passion, romance, and the urge for a shag.


It then falls to Polonius to tell the King and Queen the bad news about their son (i.e. that he has gone bonkers). This scene is a bit cock-eyed, to be honest, as the King and Queen already know that their son has been acting oddly c/o Rosencrantz and Guildenstern... but nevertheless Polonius's attempts to let them know, whilst trying desperately hard not to cause them any displeasure, is hilarious. Basically, he starts talking so much they lose track of what he’s actually on about...

Brevity is the soul of wit

And it should be noted that this expression is used ironically - it's what Polonius says after he's gone on for several minutes without ever quite touching upon the actual matter in hand.

More manner with less art.

Polonius then presents the King and Queen with a love letter sent by Hamlet to Ophelia, to show how affectionate he was towards her before this sudden, recent dramatic change of personality.

The King remains unconvinced that Hamlet is really mad - and tells Polonius to question Hamlet... and indeed, when Hamlet enters, nose buried in a book, Polonius tries to get through to him, but finds it impossible because all Hamlet will talk about is how awful people are.

Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.

Polonius thinks that maybe if Ophelia were to have another word with him, that would cure Hamlet of his ennui, angst and teenage melancholia. He dashes off to arrange this as two of Hamlet's old friends, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, walk in. They too find that Hamlet is in a foul mood, describing Denmark as a 'prison' or a 'dungeon' as far as his soul is concerned...

O, God! I could be bounded in a nut-shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams!

Question - is Derek Jacobi a rubbish actor or not? I mean, he was great in I Claudius. But he was really really rubbish in Scream of the Shalka. But he was good in Deadline and that Kenneth Branagh film where he's a psychic. I don't know if he was good in that detective monk thing. He was good in Frasier, but then again, he was playing a rubbish Shakespearean actor...

Here, he's not all bad. Eighty per cent of the time he's on the ball. But for that twenty per cent, he makes some very odd choices. And part of the problem is that he's a 'nice' actor, a sort of Martin Jarvis type, with a habit of starting sentences in a posh, plumy, lightly-pitched, well-spoken voice. He's not really an angry young man, and it's the anger that lets him down. He can't really do simmering bitterness and resentment. He's too much of a luvvie for that.

[Plus he doesn’t believe that Shakespeare wrote his own plays because he wasn’t privately educated which unfortunately means Jacobi is both a snob and an idiot. Honestly, so-called Oxfordians are the literary equivalent of moon-landing conspiracy-theorists. They do not deserve the time of day. It’s also very depressing that with all the wonderful things there are to find out and discuss about Shakespeare that some people fixate on a non-existent authorship debate. But anyway, I’ve previously written a wholeblog about this. Jonny 2014]

What piece of work is a man? How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! ...And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?

Oh dear, say Rosie and Guildy. You do seem gloomy. I suppose not even the sudden and unexpected arrival of a group of colourfully-dressed tragedian actors could cheer you up now.

However, Hamlet confides in his friends that he too is 'acting'. He's not really mad. Well, not all mad. He's pretending like in that film where Cary Grant is being chased by a crop-duster.

I am but mad north-north-west - when the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw.

Polonius enters, and Hamlet has a lot of fun at the old man's expense. Because Hamlet is prince, Polonius has to do his best to humour him, even though Hamlet is very insulting towards him and his daughter and acting very strangely indeed. To be honest, at this point Hamlet comes across as a complete tosser as Polonius is an entirely undeserving recipient of his cruelty.

The actors enter and Hamlet has them do a little bit of one of their plays; the death of Hecuba. The chief actor does a good job and Hamlet is particularly impressed by his ability to cry on cue about a dead woman he's never met - he's very convincing. So Hamlet arranges for them to perform a play for him with some apposite subject matter - yes, it's The Mousetrap!

The play's the thing wherein I'll catch the conscience of the king!

[Actually it’s a common misconception that the play in Hamlet is called The Moustrap, it’s not, that’s Hamlet making a joke, it’s actual title is The Murder of Gonzago. Jonny 2014]


King Claudius and Polonius are chatting about Hamlet; is he really bonkers, or what? Polonius thinks he is certainly certifiable under section 2, but King Claudius isn't so sure. They duck behind a curtain as Hamlet wanders in for a bit of an um and ah about what he should do next.

To be or not be - that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or to take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them?

Now, of course, this is famously a mixed metaphor. A 'mistake'. Or is it? No. Because actually what it is is a brilliant piece of concise writing. 'Arms against a sea of troubles' is not about fighting. It is about making a futile gesture. Like King Cnut - another Dane - attempting to order  the tide. So what Hamlet is actually considering here is whether he should a) put up with all the injustices in the world or b) make a doomed and futile attempt to fight them - doomed because  he will die in the process and there will always be more. He will only be 'ending them' by opposing them i.e. being killed by them. Which is why he goes on to say:

To die. To sleep. No more - and by a sleep to say we end the heartache and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. 'Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished.

i.e. he thinks if he dies he will be better off out of it. But will he, though? Is it such a good plan?

To die. To sleep. Perchance to dream - ay, there's the rub!

Nope. Not such a good plan after all.

For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, when we have shuffled off this mortal coil, must give us pause.

In other words, he's worried that after he's dead, he's going to end up watching an endless 'clip show’ of his life - and in particular, all the things he f*cked up. And that worries him, because if he does the wrong thing now, it's going to be repeated on an infinite loop.

He then goes on for a bit about all the wrongs and terrible things that people do put up with in life - and why do they put up with them?

But that the dread of something after death - the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns - puzzles the will - and makes us rather bear those ills we have than to fly to others that we know not of?

It's kind of like Tim in The Office. In life, he's rolled a 3. Does he throw that away for another roll of the dice - which might not be as good as a 3? No, he'll settle for a 3.

And so here, Hamlet, and possibly a thinly-veiled author, argues that it is the threat of an afterlife which is the seed of conscience which is what keeps people in line and allows them to be oppressed. Kind of Marxist view of religion, that. People are afraid of doing 'wrong' because they're frightened of the infinite clips show. But - and that is the question - what is 'wrong'?

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all - and thus the native hue of resolution is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment with this regard their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.

Hamlet knows what his problem is. Like Paul Simon on his rather good Hearts & Bones album (much better than Graceland) - he knows he 'thinks too much' and because he is spending so much time worrying about the consequences of his actions (in the afterlife) he never bloody gets round to doing anything. He analyses things to death - he's a bit of a nervous nellie. What he needs is for someone to tell him that if it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly!

Anyway, who should walk in but - walking sniffy wet-nose alert - Ophelia!

Get thee to a nunnery!

Now, this is a bit I don't quite understand. Hamlet here is pretending to be mad - or is he? Because he is simply abominable towards dear, sweet, walking wet blanket Ophelia. Is he trying to get her out of the way, for fear she will get caught up in his mousetrap? Or is he really so discoloured towards marriage, and womanhood in general, and people in even more general, that he wants her out of the way - permanently. Or - and this is the big 'or' - is he merely acting because he knows he is being overheard by the King? (That's how the BBC version interprets it)

Be thou as chaste as ice, as pure as snow, thou shalt not escape calumny!

Certainly that quote would seem to indicate the 'you're f*cked whatever you do' attitude (which, come to think of it, is pretty much the theme of the play). But - and Jacobi gets this, more or less - a lot of it is his anger talking, his frustration, and maybe he is a little bonkers too.

There's a bit just before the 'nunnery' line where Hamlet is debating the nature of beauty, and its dishonesty in that it presents things not as they truly are. This struck me as being a boiled-down version of a similar discussion that takes place in, er, As You Like It, I think it was.

Anyway, Ophelia runs off, squeaking in dismay, and Hamlet, well, he puts on a play.

Claudius and Polonius emerge from hiding. Claudius remains unconvinced that Hamlet is bonkers - and, fearing that Hamlet may know more than he’s letting on about the whole who-killed-the-old-King-business, he decides that Hamlet should be banished.


Elsewhere in the castle, Hamlet gathers together the actors and tells them how to do their jobs (actors always love being told how to play a part, it makes their lives so much easier).

Speak the speech. I pray you, as I pronounced it to you, trippingly on the tongue, but if you mouth it, as many of your players do, I had a lief the town-crier spoke my lines. Nor do not saw the air too much with your hand, but use all gently.

Lovely little speech that. Not sure how Hamlet became such an expert on acting, though. It does have the feel - along with the 'borrower' speech from earlier - of being a bit of, if not a complete shoehorn, a thing-from-elsewhere seamlessly slipped in. After all, it is the sort of thing that Billy S would’ve been telling the players in his plays, and like all writers, he would live in perpetual dread of actors f*cking up the script.

Suit the action to the word, the word to the action.

What he is after is a naturalistic performance - that way, the play will be most effective in terms of his whole 'get the king to blurt out his guilt' plan. Before too long, in traipses King Claudius, Queen Gertie, Wet Ophelia, Dotty Mr Polly, and various Rosencrantz’s and Guildenstern’s, sitting down to what they presume to be a great evening's family hentertainment.

Interestingly, the discussion briefly takes a very irrelevant turn, as Hamlet asks Polonius if he has ever acted. Polonius replies:

I did enact Julius Caesar - I was killed i'th' Capitol. Brutus killed me.

To which Hamlet responds with a very poor pun. But what this line is, I think, is a sort of in-joke. Hamlet contains frequent and numerous references to Julius Caesar and the events of the play - which had been staged a year before Hamlet. And the actor here is saying 'You may remember me from my previous role – we’re drawing a parallel if you would care to pay attention! In that play I was killed by the sort-of hero - you never know, might happen again!'

Because the parts are quite similar - they would have been given to the same actor - both doddery old men, forgetful, infirm, long-winded and unsure of themselves. Possibly played by Shakespeare himself. Although Polonius is more of a comic version of Caesar, it has to be said. But because this 'enact Julius Caesar' is otherwise completely f*cking pointless, it must be pointing up the fact that most of the audience would’ve seen Julius Caesar or at least would know what had happened in it.

It's interesting, I think, to get the context. After all, Hamlet is a play about a King gaining power by killing his brother and marrying his widow - something we had seen before in Richard III and something not a million miles away from what Henry VIII sort-of did with Katy of Aragorn, which was then declared invalid and/or incestuous. Either way, not something to be encouraged.

Anyway, a hush falls, and it's time for the play-within-a-play to begin. The Mousetrap! The curtain opens to reveal a 50s hotel lobby. The guests have been snowed in, the telephone lines have been cut, and one of them is a murderer. Sergeant Trotter gathers everyone together in the lobby to reveal the identity of the killer...

...and King Claudius, being the only person in the whole world who doesn't know whodunnit in The Mousetrap, is taken aback by this turn of events! Here he is, looking aghast: 

Of course, it's not really the Mousetrap, it's the Violent and Bloody Murder of Gonzago and His Enormously-Bosomed Wife. To begin with, Claudius is hoping that Gonzago's wife's clothes will fall off, and she will attempt to cover up, but it's too late, he's seen everything.

Incidentally I was passing The Mousetrap the other day, it's at the St Martin's theatre. Except when the name lights are lit up, you could be mistaken for thinking it was saying 'SAMARITANS'. I wonder how many suicidal people have wandered in only to find themselves watching a rather stodgy and stilted piece of 50s drama?

Enough of me talking shit. Hamlet's plan works - the play strikes close to home. The King is angered by it, shouts 'Light!' and storms out. Queen Gertie finds the portrayal of a widow marrying her husband's murderer a little hard to bear. Which is why she says:

The lady doth protest to much, methinks!

Hamlet informs Horatio that his suspicions have been fulfilled. Claudius did kill his dad, the ghost really was his dead dad and was telling the truth. Hamlet then thinks black thoughts to himself about how he will wreak his terrible revenge.

Tis now the witching time of night! Heh heh heh!


The King, Claudius, finally gets a soliloquy to himself. His character strikes me as a bit under-developed - though mainly that’s due to the fact that we very rarely see him alone when he isn't keeping up appearances. Anyway, it turns out he is haunted by what he has done...

My offence is rank, it smells to heaven!

And he imagines he has blood on his hands which he can't wash away - now, where did Shakespeare use that motif again? Anyway, having been reminded of his foul deeds by the events in the play, Claudius prays for forgiveness. Even though he knows he is doomed to go to hell for eternity for what he has done.

You see, if Macbeth is all about murder, Hamlet, you see, is all about death. It takes a curious mix-and-match approach to the afterlife - and explores each version. In his big speech, for instance, Hamlet considers it first a nothingness and then a sleep haunted with clip-shows. Later on there's the gravedigger business, and I lost count of the number of mentions of 'dust' in the play - which reinforces the idea that there is nothing after death but worms and maggots.

On the other hand, here you have the more traditional ideas of heaven and hell, with death merely being a process which determines whether you take the up escalator to the top floor or the stairs to the basement. And, of course, all of this is pretty moot because in the play we also have ghosts returning from beyond the grave, so death isn't all that final after all. The undiscovered country from whose bourn to traveller returns, except when they do.

The annoying pedant would probably want to point out that all these 'versions' of the afterlife are mutually inconsistent, and that in particular it seems odd for Hamlet to think of death as being a 'dream' after he has seen the ghost of his father wandering about in full battle armour. But this overlooks the fact that Hamlet is uncertain about everything - he's uncertain about whether he really saw his father, he's uncertain about whether he is sane or not, he's not even sure want pencil to use – 2B or not 2B? He is riddled with inconsistencies, which on the one hand make him a rather hard fictional character to understand but on the other hand it’s that complexity that makes him so compelling and which makes you want to try to understand him. 

In other words, he's like a real person. That's the genius of Hamlet, I suppose, what sets it up above the rest. It contains the most realistic, most three-dimensional fictional character there's ever been. Freud certainly thought so when he psychoanalysed the character. I say three-dimensional, but actually, we are afforded another dimension - much of the play is conducted through Hamlet's eyes, and so we also see his internal conflicts as well as his external conduct. The play gets right inside his head, and what a confused old noggin it is. 

And, as I said, it's all about death. The play is, at heart, about the great human dilemma, the agnostic crisis, of asking 'Is there any more to this?' and it's logical follow-up 'If there isn't anything more than this then why isn't this any better?'

Anyway, while King Claudius is praying, Hamlet sneaks in with a sword, ready to do him in. But Hamlet - who in this scene believes in heaven and hell, or at least thinks it's worth considering - knows he can't murder his step-father while he is praying, because if you are murdered during prayer you are guaranteed a first-class ticket to heaven in the afterlife, no matter how naughty you have been during your life. And the last thing Hamlet wants is for his murdering step-dad to go to heaven, particularly because it would also mean a guarantee first-class ticket for himself to go to hell. That wouldn't be fair, surely? So Hamlet sneaks back out again - having deliberately thrown away his chance of revenge forever. And of course the audience are all shouting 'behind you!'

I'm not sure about this 'if you kill me while I'm praying I'll go to heaven and you'll go to hell' get-out. Surely, if that was the case, you could just keep praying all the time, just to be on the safe side? And what if you had killed someone who was praying but then you yourself were killed while you were praying, would you go to heaven or hell? And what about the person who killed you, where would they end up? To be honest the whole thing is a logistical nightmare. Almost enough to make you think it’s a load of made-up bollocks.


Hamlet  visits his mum - she has summoned him to her bedchamber, it's all very Freudian. She is chatting with Polonius just before he walks in, and so Polly ducks behind a curtain with his feet sticking out of the bottom. It's a very good hiding place. Nothing can possibly go wrong.

Hamlet storms in, not in a happy mood, and spying two slippers poking out from the bottom of the curtain, he shouts 'Die, rat scum!' and stabs the curtain. Polonius staggers out from behind the curtain, suffering from what literally a pain in the arras, and dies. It's kind of like in Romeo and Juliet - the death of the comic relief character brings on the mood of inevitable tragedy.

Anyway, Hamlet is a bit annoyed with himself for accidentally murdering Polonius - but, let's face it, who does get on with their ex-girlfriend's dads? He then has a go at his mum for marrying his dad's murderer, and his mum realises that she has f*cked up in a big way.

And then who should walk in but the ghost of Hamlet's dad, wearing his pyjamas!

He's not quite so chatty, and this time only Hamlet can see him - Gertie thinks her son is talking to thin air [like Macbeth haunted by Banquo], which finally convinces her that he has bought a one-way ticket to the bananas. However, he tells her that he is not mad at all - his pulse isn't even raised - and he orders his mum to never sleep with Claudius again, and tells her that he has vowed to kill the false King.

I must be cruel only to be kind.

The Queen, terrified of her insane progeny, agrees to keep his little regicidal/step-patricidal plan secret. Hamlet will go to England as ordered - but he will come back, yes, he will come back.

For 'tis the sport to have the engineer hoist with his own petar!

Not petard. 'Petar'. Aaah.

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