Rehearsing Shakespeare: Hamlet's Proof
"every single line and thought has to feel like ice and fire fighting in their veins"
The sudden ending of the Murder of Gonzago and the King's frantic exit would seem to give Hamlet all the proof he needs that the ghost was speaking the truth. This would imply a bigger truth vindicating Catholic beliefs about life after death. There is a delicate choice to be made in the way an actor interprets Hamlet's reaction to Claudius's exit. Questions for both character and player. Is the nature of the exit: "Give me some light, away!" realły definitive proof of guilt? Could it not also be interpreted as the blind fury of a deeply insulted man responding to an appalling public accusation; anger despite innocence. Hamlet’s weird chanting of childlike jingles could be played ambivalently as if confusedly trying to convince himself he'd got to the truth rather than the hysteria of triumph. At this point in the play Claudius's act of good natured well meaning to his nephew has finally broken down, and although there's another possible explanation for his dramatic exit, it's very understandable why Hamlet gets so excited. But is the moment as revelatory for the audience as it is for him? No. We have not actually been in the same state of uncertainty as he has. He still only had the ghost’s word for it, who, up until this moment may still be a devil seeking to lead a soul to damnation. But we, on the other hand have been privy to the King’s private thoughts in the form of an aside in Act 3 Scene 1.
Polonius says: "'Tis too much proved, that with devotion’s visage
And pious action we do sugar o'er
The devil himself."
And Claudius turns to us and says:
"Oh, 'tis true.
How smart a lash that speech doth give my conscience.
The harlot's cheek, beautied with plastering art,
Is not more ugly to the thing that helps it
Than is my deed to my most painted word.
Oh heavy burden!"
So we, the audience, arrive at the play within a play, knowing that every word old Hamlet's ghost said was true. His son does not. Our position of knowing more than the hero is why we accept his post play behaviour as the reactions of a man freed from doubt and would find low key ambivalence puzzling and unconvincing. This is how directors and actors narrow choices - by forensic examination of the evidence in the text. So the text is the only true guide but where does that leave background historical information? Is it really helpful in rehearsal to think about whether or not Catholic beliefs are being upheld, while Protestant ones are thrown into doubt? How could you play that? How could an actor ever hope to communicate, to a modern audience, points of Elizabethan theology that most people know nothing about and care less? And what difference does it make that to the Globe audience in 1600 it would have been a massive issue of interest and perhaps even the entire point of the play. I don't know; perhaps it's useless even to try to imagine the furious rows that may have erupted between friends and among families on the way home from the theatre. But I do know that for the actor playing Hamlet every single line and thought that touches on the question has to feel like ice and fire fighting in their veins. The audience will only receive its significance through the intensity of the performance.
Meanwhile, what of the murderer? When we see Claudius alone, on his knees attempting to pray, we have double confirmation of his guilt. What should his situation evoke in us? We are the only witnesses to the agony of his conscience in this moment and it is a deeply unsettling experience:
"O, my offence is rank! It smells to heaven.
It hath the primal eldest curse upon it:
A brother's murder. Pray can I not,
Though inclination be as sharp as will."
In the same way as Shakespeare, throughout his work, shades comedy into tragedy, and tragedy into comedy, so here, he bleeds the proof of villainy into an aching pity. Playing Claudius truthfully in this soliloquy is to show him as lost, frightened and made utterly vulnerable by the thought that he has passed beyond redemption. At the start of the play he should appear so plausible that the ghost’s story seems unlikely. Directors and actors are battling against a huge weight of knowledge with a play as well known as ‘Hamlet’ which carries with it an extra amount of hard work the purpose of which is to make every member of the audience doubt what they think they know and to see the play for the first time even if they have seen it several times before.
It's true that a man or woman might smile a lot yet have a cruel, even criminal nature. People in general are seldom exactly what they seem, and every one of us, to a certain extent, acts the part of ourselves. We are our own creation that we play to the world. The way we "act" in life illuminates for the actor how to play Hamlet who spends so much of his story acting. I've always found it so strange that the question "is Hamlet really mad or only pretending to be" never quite goes away when the text makes it crystal clear. He tells his best friend, Horatio, perfectly plainly shortly after his first meeting with the ghost, that from that moment he will put on "an antic disposition". It's an idea taken directly from the original story of Amleth. There the hero poses as insane in order to appear harmless and thereby stay safe. Like Claudius he's pretending to be someone he isn't to gain advantage. What he produces is a performance good enough, "real" enough, to convince his mother, his sister and the crafty and suspicious Polonius who seems to know a thing or two about duplicity, that he really has gone mad. Possibly at times he is so deeply into this act that it begins to feel real even to himself and he wonders if he might actually be going mad, but at any moment he's able to flick the switch to become himself again. Only Claudius seems to have doubts, which is a richly ironic and beautifully balanced dramatic situation as he is the only other character also giving a major performance. The two "actors" instinctively doubt one another.
As both men try to prepare themselves for action a moral confusion begins to emerge which needs to be confronted and dealt with in the rehearsal room as it has a bearing on Hamlet’s motivation and evolving state of mind. It is a dilemma that Shakespeare appears not to have worried about or tried to solve as Hamlet himself never addresses it despite being highly sensitive and deeply intellectual. It's the kind of lapse in psychological consistency that simply didn't bother the Elizabethans, but that modern actors have to find a way of resolving. In the profoundly Christian world of early modern England, revenge was seen as solely the prerogative of God. Old Hamlet's plea from beyond the grave that his son should avenge his death is therefore deeply un-Christian. This paradox may explain the way in which, after the proof provided during the play, Hamlet speaks a soliloquy of an untypical crude and bloodthirsty tone as if trying to conjure up the killer in himself. Convinced beyond further doubt that his uncle killed his father, he says:
"T'is now the very witching time of night,
When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world: now could I drink hot blood,
And do such bitter business as the day
Would quake to look on."
These are the first "sane" words he has spoken for some time. So long as he was acting madness the performance came easily to him. He was so mentally churned up that the pretence of lunacy acted as a safety valve, or a way of expressing his real emotions without giving away what he knew. As with any actor the drawing on real feelings about his mother, uncle, father and girlfriend, fed directly into the authenticity of his performance. Now the time for acting is past and the time for action has arrived. Now he needs to find the assassin within him and lose, if only temporarily, the university intellectual. His new part, the Revenger, was a contemporary favourite.
However, the actor playing Hamlet has to figure out why the character doesn't express, and so presumably doesn't feel, the dilemma mentioned earlier. The ghost has seemed to be a repentant spirit, so how can it ask him to take on God's role and become a murderer putting his own immortal soul in danger? The clever student from Wittenburg must know the Bible with its clear statement: "Vengeance is mine sayeth the Lord." That piece of spiritual instruction is strangely ignored by the same man who elsewhere speaks so eloquently on the Christian prohibition of suicide wishing that: "the Everlasting had not fixed his canon against self-slaughter." Even Laertes, who is no one’s idea of a deep thinker, has to admit to himself that to avenge his own father's murder is to "dare damnation". The shade of Old Hamlet has told us that his purgatorial punishment is to last until the sins he committed on earth are "burnt and purged away." Are we expected to believe that revenge on his brother is worth another thousand odd years on his tariff, which is probably the going rate in Purgatory for ordering a murder? Even if we can accept that that's what a couple of months in hell can do to the spirit, how can we possibly believe that young Hamlet never considers the consequences for himself?
I can hear the reader beginning to silently scream that none of us these days takes any of that kind of stuff remotely seriously! But that's just the point! If as a director you are asking the actor to truly get inside the language rather than float on top of it, never quite meaning what he's saying, and allowing a modern patina of irony to cover the cracks in those crazy old Elizabethans’ primitive ways of thinking, then you have to confront the fact that the actor has no choice but to accept that his character believes in an afterlife of the kind described in the play. If that isn't the case then there is no logic to the tortuous dilemma he finds himself in. There is no way round it. The actor’s imagination has to be flooded with this reality. Although the past is another country and we can never know it utterly, I am certain that in 1600 most brains were awash with an awareness of and apprehension about a vast "undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns." Unless, perhaps, as a ghost.
At the beginning of Laurence Olivier's film of the play a voice over intones that we are about to see a story concerning a man who could not make up his mind. I don't think that's a good summing up of the play at all. After the "hot blood" speech Hamlet has the perfect opportunity to kill Claudius when he comes across him unguarded, alone, unaware of his presence, on his knees and at prayer. At least, Hamlet thinks he is at prayer, and the misconception temporarily saves the man’s life. Hamlet’s strong sense of the justice of his cause and the horrible nature of his father's fate as well the depth of his criminal betrayal makes him hesitate. Claudius appears to be praying, and to kill him now in a state of grace, sending him to Paradise while his father remains suffering torture in Purgatory, seems little short of an insane idea, something only a madman would contemplate! The fires of Hell are real to him, and a place in this eternal inferno is what his uncle deserves. If at this moment the actor plays Hamlet as putting off something he hasn't the stomach to do; that the argument about his uncle going to heaven is just an excuse by a man incapable of making up his mind, then the spirit of the text is betrayed, the energy of the scene dissipated, the passion, intensity and sheer magnitude of the situation diminished. A wholly false relationship between thought and speech is created instead. In other words it is to make a subtext where none exists. Characters in Shakespeare speak what they are thinking - their speaking is their thinking.
The actor’s job is to make thought and action one, speech as revelation to the speaker. Speech that is located right in the moment of thought, not speech about thought, and certainly not saying one thing while thinking another. What the actor needs to create is the feeling of passion and fear that comes from a mind that believes in Heaven and Hell, not as metaphors, but as realities, and is expressing the alive, unmediated thought of the moment. This is different from the modern mind which loves the idea that language is often used to conceal thought rather than reveal it. But this doesn't put it beyond our reach - we can access this immediate relationship between thought and language. Prevarication is a very modern mental state. It's also very easy for a modern actor to play, especially as irony can have a pleasingly endearing and comic effect on an audience. Expressing revelation is hard because today our default sensibility is ironic, downbeat, knowing, and on the back foot. The Elizabethans were just discovering layers of sensibility, that have become commonplace to us. Just as their mariner adventurers were discovering new countries, so their artists and intellectuals were discovering new mental landscapes full of new associations and possibilities of motive, action and self awareness. In the second in which he might bring down the sword on Claudius's neck, Hamlet has a starkly vivid picture of this man in paradise, the same man that heaved and sweated drunkenly in his mother's bed, and poured poison in his father's ear. For an incredulous moment he has a vision of what he might inadvertently cause to happen, something so absurd and inappropriate that it shocks him into restraint, causes him to pull up just in time. This is absolutely not prevarication. The energy trapped by this aborted action is then carried through into the next sequence of events. A state of indecision would be far too limp to work as motivation for the electric confrontation with his mother and recklessness of the accidental murder of the man behind the arras.
In most Elizabethan revenge drama, both before and after Hamlet, there is sympathy for the avenger until they actually kill someone, at which point they become contaminated and are condemned usually suffering death as a consequence of their actions. Whatever revenge God might take was his business, but when it came to the Elizabethan state the position, in law, was clear: private revenge was strictly forbidden. There was a strong system of justice in place and any action outside that framework was illegal. No one in authority wanted a return to medieval notions of honour codes and the taking of personal retribution. And here is a remarkable thing about Hamlet: there is no sense in the play of Shakespeare presenting, or even hinting at, an authorial point of view; no indication of what he thinks his hero ought to do. This was revolutionary for it implied that the audiences were expected to decide for themselves. There is no moral message. In the poem he drew on not only are there no players, there's no ghost either, it's just a straightforward morality tale. The principal source for Romeo and Juliet, a poem by the Italian Bandello, is a cautionary story about the perils of falling in love too young and not taking parental advice. Under Shakespearean transformation both narratives become complex webs of conflicting imperatives and contradictory passions. This is where Shakespeare speaks to us, this is where we feel part of the same complicated world as him and where outmoded ideas about Hell and damnation cease to matter, but it doesn't mean they can be ignored, because what we find familiar and what we find alien are wrapped up in each other, you cannot extract one strand and leave the other intact without fatally enfeebling the whole play.
Consider Hamlet's state of mind after the accidental murder of Polonius and after the trip to England that was meant to end in his death and meet him again in the graveyard. I have always found it puzzling and hard to describe. I think it is hard to play too because it feels like a kind of moral limbo. Whether reflecting on mortality by the side of an open grave, or responding to the unexpected challenge of a fencing match, his mood seems passive and fatalistic. The complexities of life appear to have stripped him bare of motivation, of any "cue for passion". Is he now simply waiting for God, or Providence, to deliver an answer? The emotion and anger that drove the task of revenge has seeped away, leaving him apparently calm and philosophical. Is this how he was before the start of the play? How he was before the chaotic moral confusion that the crisis of his father's death and mother's marriage overwhelmed him with? When he innocently loved Ophelia? How he was before we met him? There seems something deeply and quietly Christian about his thoughts as in:
"There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, it is not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all."
Is that what he was like before? Is that question worth asking? How many children had Lady Macbeth? Academics sometimes express the view that Shakespeare's characters spring into view fully formed, ready to go, without a past, and to ask questions such as "what was Hamlet like before his father died and his mother married his uncle?" are irrelevant. What they mean, I think, is that they are not part of the writer’s purpose and that such speculation would have meant nothing to him: that such a way of thinking was no help in the effects he wished to create. Maybe. But a modern actor needs a backstory, needs to know the character as deeply as possible - as if they were real. But this pre-Freudian writing seems to have no need of it, so the director and the actor have to invent it by working backwards from the information in the script. You can't play Lady Macbeth without knowing how many children you've had. And you can't play Hamlet without having some idea what you were like before your father died, and even assuming that his death hasn't changed you much, you need to know what your relationship was to him when he was alive.
Here Elizabethan and modern sensibilities part again, and the rehearsal room is where you build the bridges.
Bill Alexander ©