April 19th, 2016

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30 days of Shakespeare: Day 1 - your favourite play

It's about time we had some more culture around here. Since it's the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death on Saturday, here is a 30-day meme about the Bard; feel free to chip in or copy as you like.

Day #1: Your favourite play

This is not very difficult: it's Hamlet. To repost most of what I said about it a few years ago, this is pretty much the pinnacle of Shakespeare's literary powers, and has been rightly regarded as such for centuries. A lot of this is because of the fascination of the central character, advised of his father's murder by his father's ghost, and then taking a troubled but compelling path to vengeance, which ends up not only with his own death but also those of his father's murderer, his mother, Polonius and both his children, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Also, of course, the language is amazing. This play surely has more famous quotes per page than any other, most of them short phrases that neatly bracket some concept - "a consummation devoutly to be wished", or "the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune". It's occasionally rather startling to hear the original context of some commonplace line, though it doesn't really jar the play.

Apart from the main plot, I find two interesting themes in the play. One, not surprisingly, is death. Everyone is talking about it, from the king to the gravedigger. Depending on how you count Julius Caesar, this is the first non-historical play with a ghost. We end up with the stage littered with corpses, and I think there are more on-stage killings than in Titus Andronicus - and unlike Titus Andronicus it isn't over the top. (It's also difficult to deny that there must have been some connection in the author's mind between the title character and his own son Hamnet, who had died a few years earlier aged eleven.)

The other theme I picked up was the theatre. It's not just the play-within-a-play (though that is more interesting here than the comedy of A Midsummer Night's Dream, let alone the peculiar unfinished framing narrative of The Taming of the Shrew); it's the conversation of the players with Hamlet before the show, and the final discussion between Fortinbras and Horatio about telling the story and displaying the bodies. Shakespeare isn't overdoing it, but he does seem to want to make us think about what the theatre is and what is happening when we are watching (or in this case listening).

I first saw it as a (somewhat cut) school production in 1979 when I was 11 or 12. I think I may have seen a student production in Cambridge as well. I enjoyed the David Tennant version (and I want to do a fanvid some time cross-cutting between him and Derek Jacobi in the 1980 version, where Lalla Ward was Ophelia and Patrick Stewart was Claudius).





But I want to particularly mention a great stage production I saw in Brussels 18 months ago, "Hamlet Unplugged", which had just four actors, each playing Hamlet in turn, and speaking only Hamlet's lines, everyone else miming the other parts. It was brilliant.

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