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HAMLET, REVISITED

HITHERTO, HAMLET’S principal appearance here at SimanaitisSays was in the Classics Illustrated comic book version. And a fine example of the graphic genre it is.

Classics Illustrated Hamlet, No. 99, by William Shakespeare, 1952, Gilberton Company, reissued 1969.

I also have a rather more detailed Hamlet; this one in The Annotated Shakespeare (Three Volumes in One): The Comedies, The Histories, Sonnets and Other Poems, The Tragedies and Romances, edited by A.L. Rowse, Greenwich House, 1978.

The Classics Illustrated is a quicker read.

Intermediate to these two is an article in a London Review of Books, September 13, 2018. Rudely enough, but in keeping with Elizabethan bawdiness, the article by Michael Dobson is titled “Elsinore’s Star Bullshitter.”

The article is a review of Rhodi Lewis’s Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, a book another reviewer called, “a work of tremendous erudition, channeling a formidable range of classical and humanist texts as well as contemporary criticism into chapters of Hamlet’s sustained engagement with early modern discourses of selfhood, hunting, cognitive theory, poetics, and moral and speculative philosophy.”

Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, by Rhodi Lewis, Princeton University Press, 2017.

Part of the fun of Dobson’s LRB review is that he doesn’t particularly agree with Lewis or with this other reviewer. Briefly, Dobson objects to the book’s “discrepancy between the argument it professes to be making and the emotional colouring of its prose.” Succinctly, too much B.S. What’s more, like other writers in the LRB, Dobson has a wonderful turn of phrase.

For example, Dobson writes about a Hamlet he saw this spring “at Ivano-Frankivsk in western Ukraine, in a Soviet-era theatre built in a similar brutalist scale to the National in London but with less of its self-effacing eagerness to fit in.”

The Royal National Theatre, aka the National, on London’s South Bank. Prince Charles once described the National’s Brutalist school of architecture as being like “a nuclear power station.” Image by Philip Vile from dezeen.com.

The Ukraine Hamlet was avant garde to an extreme, performed not in the theater, but in the building’s “cavernous concrete basement, only partly full of heating ducts and obsolete electrical equipment….”

“About four hundred of us,” Dobson recalls, “were led through dark passages and down rusting stairs into this shadowy modern crypt by hooded figures carrying candles, and there among the broken floor tiles and rusting cables the principals in Shakespeare’s play were laid out on biers as if dead…. selectively revived in turns by a sort of black mass….” The players came to life accompanied by what Dobson calls “a Goth-influenced rock soundtrack and some exquisite passages of wordless dance.”

This is not A.L. Rowse’s Hamlet. But maybe it can be.

Actors performing in a playhouse. Woodcut from Orbis Sensualium Pictus, Comenius, 1689. This and the following images from The Annotated Shakespeare.

I gleaned plenty of insights from Dobson’s analysis of Hamlet. For instance, on lamenting his father’s funeral followed oh so quickly by his mother’s remarriage, Hamlet says to his pal, “Thrift, thrift, Horatio. The funeral baked meats/Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables.”

Dobson writes, “… it certainly isn’t the kind of remark Oedipus was ever allowed to make: Previous tragic characters may have spoken of funerals, but they didn’t mention the cost of the catering or implicitly liken their remarried mothers to a meat dish inappropriately served twice.”

I’m gaining a new appreciation for Hamlet here. Aren’t you?

Hamlet, as portrayed by John Philip Kemble. Portrait by Sir Thomas Lawrence, 1801.

Dobson informs us that one of the play’s famous utterances, “ ‘To be or not to be,’ was already begging to be an anthology piece when the play was first composed….” He also cites Samuel Pepys “spending a whole afternoon reciting ‘To be or not to be’ to himself in 1664, and in 1680 he commissioned a recitative setting of the speech from Cesare Morelli, an expatriate Italian composer.”

“At some point around 1600, when the play was still new,” Dobson says, “the Cambridge scholar Gabriel Harvey was already noting (in a blank space at the end of his copy of Chaucer) that Shakespeare’s Lucrece and his tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark have it in them to please the wiser sort.”

And, of course, more than 350 years later, other wiser sorts included my junior high school English teacher and the editors of Classics Illustrated.

Hamlet was popular at our junior high school because of all the knife fights. Engraving from Academie de l’Épée, Girard Thibaust, 1628.

“I admire Lewis’s learning,” reviewer Dobson writes, “but when looking to improve my understanding of either Hamlet or Hamlet, I would infinitely rather risk death watching the play in that Ukrainian cellar again than reread his book.” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2018

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