Why Hamlet still resonates

April 9, 2013

I posted this thought on Facebook last night, but the only response I got was from Scotty Southwick, who referred me to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, which did not exactly give me the emotional closure I was looking for. So here I am.

I’ve been watching this PBS series Shakespeare Uncovered which is absolutely fabulous!!! and last night’s episode was on Hamlet. It was presented by David Tennant, who did a marvelous job in a sometimes marred-by-weirdness version for the RSC and then the BBC about three years ago.

I adore Hamlet. I’ve read it and watched several filmed versions (Branagh’s four-hour epic several times) and have seen it live. I’ve read whatever criticisms I could get my hands on. But as I watched the episode last night, I got this insight which I haven’t seen anywhere else. Not that no one’s thought it before, just that I haven’t seen it elsewhere, and I think it’s a good idea (look who’s telling me that), so I shall sally forth.

Hamlet has been in almost continuous production for over 400 years. There are always new interpretations of it and it continues to fascinate. Why? What could a play that’s been done to death possibly have to say to us sophisticated, jaded denizens of the twenty-first century?

The answers are many, but my new insight is that I think we identify with Hamlet as a wannabe hero.

There he is, Hamlet, miserable about his father’s death and his mother’s hasty remarriage. He’s plodding along through life as any one of us would do in a similar situation. Then he’s suddenly confronted by his father’s ghost. Bam! But that’s not all—his father hands him an heroic quest: “avenge my murder at your uncle’s hands.” Cue dramatic music! The stakes have been raised!

Now Hamlet has a larger-than-life purpose. He’s been lifted out of everyday dross and set on a course to become heroic. But he keeps backing off. Why? I think, among other things, it’s because he’s simply not a hero. He wants to be, but he’s not.

I think of the many hours I used to spend role-playing with good friends. Everyone always wanted to play an elf or a thief and have magical powers and slay dragons, but their ordinary lives were lived without flare or panache.

We all imagine what we would do if we were confronted by pure evil, say, Hitler. We like to imagine if we were hauled up before Joe McCarthy we would resolutely refuse to name names. We would resist the always unexpected Spanish Inquisition. But the truth is, most of us cave. Because we’re human. We’re simply human.

A slight regression: since Freud, actors have been faced with the question of how much of an Oedipus Complex Hamlet has for his mother. Olivier played it straight out, kissing his mother on the lips. But it’s known as the “closet scene” because it was originally staged in an antechamber to Gertrude’s bedroom, not in the bedroom itself. I loved Tennant’s interpretation where, in the big showdown with his mother, they fly at it hammer and tongs but then have this moment where they’re just a mother and son, suddenly at odds over a major issue, when previously there had been deep love and amity between them. And that love is still there. It was played in a tender way which I found very touching.

So, back to our main thread: If we accept that Hamlet truly loves his mother (and maybe has something of a complex, but I don’t buy it as his only driving force), when he finally kills the king at the end, I think he does it in reaction to his mother’s poisoning, not as his father’s avenger. After all, he’s had a thousand opportunities to kill the king, including coming across him alone at prayer. It’s only when circumstances become extreme and force Hamlet to some kind of action that he does, finally, act. But he doesn’t drive his sword through his uncle’s chest, as an heroic figure would do. No, he forces the king to drink the last of the poison—the poison which has just killed Hamlet’s mother. In that act, I think Shakespeare is setting up the final reveal of Hamlet’s character. He could not be a hero for his father, but he could, when forced, out of sheer desperation, take revenge for his mother.

Why does this matter to us? Because we’re with Hamlet all the way through (except in Branagh’s version, where three hours in I’m going, “Kill the king already!!”) and we feel that catharsis with him at the end. And we are perhaps relieved that Hamlet dies immediately after. Being a hero in this play means becoming a murderer. It means crossing a line that cannot be uncrossed. Hamlet is faced with moving beyond the normal bounds of human experience and becoming a killer. He continually shies away from that until the very end, when he’s as good as dead himself from Laertes’ poison.

And this relates to us in our very human way because we dream of being like Hamlet and taking heroic revenge but at the end of the day we’d prefer to lie on the couch and watch TV. We go to the grocery store and get gas in our cars and Do Our Jobs and drink and smoke and take care of our kids and blah blah blah. We rarely “stand up on our hind legs” and Do Something. We are human. Not heroes. In extreme circumstances, when pushed, we will leap into the river to save the drowning child or step in the way of a bullet meant for our buddy, but for the most part we just muddle along. Just like Hamlet. Sighing, crying, laughing, dying.

And so it goes.