Hamlet: “As a meditation upon human fragility in confrontation with death, it competes only with the world’s scriptures.”*

May 25, 2010 at 1:52 am (Hamlet, Local interest (Baltimore-Washington), Shakespeare)

On Sunday May16, we “Folger friends” saw a new production of Hamlet. Someone asked me how many times I have seen this play. My answer: not sure, perhaps seven or eight. But I never miss a chance to see it again, because with every new production, I gain new insight. Hamlet is a bottomless well of profundity.

I am always thrilled to hear my favorite lines spoken once more:

“For this relief much thanks; for it is bitter cold and I am sick at heart.” What is the secret sorrow that so oppresses Francisco? And why should I care – He is a minor character; this is, I believe, his sole appearance in the play.

“Thrift, thrift, Horatio! The funeral baked meats / Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.” Hamlet’s sarcastic  rejoinder to his friend Horatio.

‘And then it started like a guilty thing / Upon a fearful summons.’  Horatio describing the ghost as it hears the crowing of a rooster at dawn.

There is yet more concerning the significance of the crowing of the cock. Horatio goes on to say that he has heard tell that once this sound is heard at break of day, any ghost or spirit walking abroad must at once quit the land of the living and flee “To his confine” – wherever that may be; we are not told.

Another of the guards, Marcellus, confirms that the ghost vanished when the crowing of the cock was heard. He then launches into one of those tangential disquisitions that are, for me, one of the special joys of Shakespeare:

Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.

Well! what of that? Horatio’s brief response is both cautious and tantalizing:

So have I heard and do in part believe it.

Which part do you believe, Horatio? And which part do you doubt? I have long been intrigued by the singular lack of religious sensibility evinced by most of Shakespeare’s characters. Here is a notable exception. Another thing fascinates me about this exchange. Hamlet was written around the year 1600. The Middle Ages, with their admixture of religious fervor and superstitious terrors, had been left behind. But powerful remnants still trouble the minds of those who have come of age in supposedly more enlightened times. And of course, these men have just seen an amazing apparition and are trying to make some kind of sense of the experience.

Horatio follows his terse response to Marcellus, quoted above, with two of the most ravishing lines of poetry imaginable:

But, look, the morn, in russet mantle clad,
Walks o’er the dew of yon high eastward hill:

Whenever I think of these lines, I see some kind of giant, with majestic mien, his face turned upward, his magnificent cape swirling about him as he strides among the hilly summits.

Now here’s an odd thing: I was listening for this portion of dialogue between Horatio and Marcellus. I was listening – but I did not hear these lines at this performance. Does that mean they were not actually spoken? Not necessarily, I suppose. I only know that I was primed to hear them – and did not.

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This production of Hamlet was  set in modern times. There appears to me some kind of military dictatorship in power. The set was stark; some, but not all, of the male characters were attired in uniform. The ghost of Hamlet’s father is so attired. His make-up was such that he looked rather ghastly, quite ghostly – and believably deceased.

Here is a video trailer for this production. Graham Michael Hamilton plays Hamlet:

In this video, director Joseph Haj comments on his vision of the play:

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After the play we were waiting, on the wide steps outside the Folger, for our group of four to assemble. There were quite a few other people there as well. After an uncertain start to the day, the weather had become glorious. Suddenly out through the theater’s doors strode Graham Michael Hamilton. If recollection serves, he had his head down. He may have been hoping to escape unnoticed. No chance – the crowd burst into spontaneous applause. A woman rushed up and threw her arms around the young actor. Along with many others, I went up to him and complimented him on his performance. His smile was absolutely radiant.

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*From Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, by Harold Bloom

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