Saturday, April 11, 2009

Female Hamlets

Hamlet:  Frailty, thy name is woman!

Did you know that the first person to play Hamlet on screen was Sarah Bernhardt in 1900?  Did you know that the first Hamlet on radio was Eva Donne in 1923?  Since the 19th century, hundreds of leading ladies have taken up the black mantle of this challenging role, which has been called "the hoop through which every actor must jump."   Many of the best Hamlets of our time have been women, most likely due to the fact that the character struggles his own 'feminity' and 'passivity' in the play.  Hamlet is always striking out at the women in his life, naming them duplicitous, weak, and inconstant.  In Act One, Claudius calls Hamlet's grief 'unmanly,' and in Act Five, he and Laertes spend a tremendous amount of energy trying to one-up eachother like a couple of frat boys.

Other examples:

Hamlet: Oh most pernicious woman! - I.v.

Hamlet:  Man delights not me, no nor woman neither - II.ii.

Ophelia:  'Tis brief, my lord
Hamlet:  As woman's love - III.ii.

Ghost:  Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works - III.iv.

. . .

Other actresses who've played Hamlet include Sarah Siddons, Charlotte Charke, Charlotte Cushman, Asta Nielson, Diane Verona, Frances de la Tour, Angela Winkler, and Eva La Gallienne.

It is also interesting to note that Henrik Ibsen's play Hedda Gabler has often been called "the female Hamlet."  Like Hamlet, Hedda Gabler is intensely psychological, giving the leading actress the option to take the play in a variety of different directions.  Her vacuous life leads her into acts of destruction, including her eventual suicide.  She also struggles with her inherent femininity, playing with her fathers pistols and showing digust at flower arrangement or the idea of bearing children.

*Sarah Bernhardt in Hamlet, Act V Duel Scene

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Madness in Great Ones

Gertrude:  Alas, how is't with you,
That you do bend your eye on vacancy,
And with th'incorporeal air do hold discourse?

Is Hamlet truly mad?  What makes a person qualify as insane?  The words 'insanity' and 'madness' are no longer used to diagnose mental illness.  Instead, specific scientific terms such as manic depression or schizophrenia are used to categorize different psychological disorders.  Does Hamlet exhibit traits commonly associated with these mental diseases or is it purely an act?  Even before his first encounter with the ghost of his father, Hamlet has already established himself as the "Melancholy Dane."  Is this part of a natural mourning process or could Hamlet be slipping into depression?  Later, in the Queen's bedchamber, he sees the ghost again.  But unlike before, when Horatio, Barnardo, and Francisco could see and share the paranormal experience, Gertrude does not perceive the spectre of her dead King.  Could this mean that young Hamlet is losing his grip on reality?  I think you could argue either way. 

At the very least, an actor or director must accept that lunacy and madness are major themes in the play.  Ophelia, at least, we know has lost her marbles.  She may have even deliberately
committed suicide.  Hamlet, we know, has also flirted with suicidal thoughts.  He is blessed (or cursed) with a deeply philosophical mind.  His private thoughts tend towards themes of death, spirituality, life's purpose, sexual depravity (mainly in women), as well as his own supposed inadequacy.  So, I think its fair to assume that even if Hamlet is not certifiably insane, he is at the least unbalanced.

In India, people who are thought to be mad are treated as mystics.  Instead of viewing the condition as a misapprehension and misinterpretation of the nature of reality, they see the insane as being privy to a truer, deeper world.  Author and poet Kahlil Gibran writes, "Be mad and tell us what is behind the veil of 'sanity.'  The purpose of life is to bring us closer to those secrets, and madness is the only means."  R.D. Laing, an unorthodox psychiatrist, also emphasizes the link between mystics and schizophrenics.  He says:  "The mystic and the schizophrenic find themselves in the same ocean, but whereas the mystic swims, the schizophrenic drowns." Hamlet, I think, manages to swim by the end of the play.  Even though he meets his death in the final scene, he seems to have conquered many of his neuroses.  Ophelia, on the other hand, drowns.

*Here is a music video I found that just screams Ophelia and Hamlet:
Beautiful song...the video reminds me of Millais' Ophelia

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ophelia's Infantile Sexuality

Ophelia:  I do not know, my lord, what I should think.

Polonius:  Marry, I will teach you:  think yourself a baby


Ophelia is conditioned to believe that what is of most value about her is her virginity.  Laertes tells her in I.iii.  "Then weigh what loss your honor may sustain If with too credent ear you list his songs, Or lose your heart, or your chaste treasure open To his unmast'red importunity."  Polonius echoes these warnings shortly thereafter, emphasizing the amount of masculine pressure put on Ophelia.  But Ophelia is also blossoming into womanhood, developing a natural curiosity about sex and inspiring desire in young Hamlet.  How's a girl to manage being sent so many mixed messages?  In order to be desirable she must embody feminine virtues (obedience, passivity, sweetness, chastity, etc.), and yet her obedience to her father is the very thing that takes her farther from the object of her desire.  The skills that she has cultivated include a diverse repertoire of folk songs as well as an almost Victorian knowledge of herbs and flowers, both their meanings and arrangement.  She is herself a flower, full of springtime and loveliness, but lacking any real world utility.  This is all fine and well until Act Four, when Polonius is murdered by Hamlet, who is then sent to England.  There is no big brother to turn to, as Laertes has returned to school.  She is left alone to deal with a situation that she is completely incapable of handling.  No one has taught her how to think for herself, and the lack of female companions in Castle Elsinore means that her idea of what it means to be a woman is what men think women should be.  The closest thing she has to a mother figure is Queen Gertrude, who wears sensuality like a diamond tiara.  Gertrude, who is really an Ophelia matured to perfection, has learned how to stay afloat in a man's world.  She swims in the same waters Ophelia drowns in. 

Of all the characters in Hamlet, my clearest mental image is of this watery, weedy damsel.  Perhaps it is because she has been a favorite subject of artists and poets throughout history.  She has the curves of womanhood, but her face is open and infantile:  wide eyes, rosy cheeks, soft ringlets, and a generous cupid's bow pout.  Like a baby, she is designed to look cute so that someone will want to take care of her.  In her distress, she turns again to childhood songs and daisy chains.  By the time Laertes returns to Denmark, overwhelming grief has already pushed her mind past the breaking point.  In the mad scene, we hear for the first time her uninhibited voice, and with it she completely dominates the limelight.  It really makes you wonder what sort of person she could have been if only she had had the social liberties and education of a modern woman.  One lingering question I am left with is this:  If Gertrude can describe with such detail the events leading to Ophelia's death, why did she do nothing to stop it?  What was she doing out by the water in the first place?

*A clip from Slings and Arrows:  Geoffrey explains Ophelia's madness.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Gertrude's Side

Gertrude: Oh Hamlet, thou hast cleft my heart in twain.

Shakespeare's Hamlet is undeniably one of the greatest roles written for the stage.  Most actors, male or female, would give their right arm to for a chance to portray the melancholy Dane.  By way of the soliloquies, which take us on a spiraling journey deep into the inner workings of Hamlet's pysche, the audience develops a rapport with the prince, sometimes to the detriment of the other characters.  We tend to see Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius, and Ophelia through Hamlet's eyes and his eyes alone.  Their actions often appear petty, sly, weak, or manipulative, and Shakespeare does not give them as much of an opportunity to explain themselves as he does his hero (the exception being Claudius' prayer in III.iii., which just so happened to be Abraham Lincoln's favorite speech in Shakespeare's canon).  Imagine for a moment, Hamlet without the soliloquies.  Suddenly, his actions and inactions make no sense at all, and he becomes just another angsty teenager with parental issues.  

I would be interested to see what Gertrude would have to say in a soliloquy.  Did she have an inkling about her husbands murder?  Is she a victim of circumstance?  Or, has she learned through years of experience how survive in a man's world?  By marrying Claudius, she bonds herself to a powerful political ally and prevents herself from becoming superfluous.  If, for example, Claudius were to marry someone else and produce an heir, what do you think would happen to her and her son?  By joining hands with her husband's brother, she secures the succession for Hamlet and retains all the power she formerly enjoyed with Hamlet Senior.  Katharine of Aragon did much the same thing when she married her husband's brother, Henry VIII (too bad for her, she still ended up as a cast-off).  When you think about it, her only other option would've been to help Hamlet seize the throne, an endeavor which I doubt he would've been prepared for before the events of the play.  Gertrude is not stupid; she knows what's up, even if she doesn't always let on that she does.  She penetrates straight to the cause of Hamlet's distemper ("I doubt it is no other but the main, His father's death and our o'erhasty marriage.") and her final gesture in Act V of intercepting the poisoned goblet could be construed as intentional.  She seems to feign ignorance of the violence and intrigue in Elsinore, perhaps because the less she knows the safer she'll be.  When Hamlet confronts Gertrude in her bedchamber, he forces to her to face her own sins ("Come, come, and sit you down, you shall not budge; You go not till I set you up a glass Where you may see the inmost part of you.").  Her reaction to his subsequent tirade shows that she would rather pretend everything is okay than accept the truth: that every night she spends between Claudius' sheets, she is accessory to her own husband's murder.