Don’t get me wrong about the businessman/playwright who was William Shakespeare, as far as what I said about the profit motive. But given the way some info about Virginia Woolf humanized your sense of the choices she made in Mrs. Dalloway, I figured I might appeal to some familiar concepts to show that Shakespeare was some kind of combination of Steven Spielberg and Aaron Sorkin, assuming people are still watching their movies 400 years from now.
The fact that directors like Spielberg and writers like Sorkin make money doesn’t mean that they have low standards for their work. And with Hamlet, Shakespeare is at the height of his powers, as his art, English politics and his personal tragedies converged in the explosion of creative and intellectual energy that is the play.
So let me get to a few points that might make tomorrow’s class move a little faster. To recap, we talked in class about the atmosphere of suspense that Shakespeare creates. And we talked about connections between The Lion King and the medieval play that inspired both Hamlet and The Lion King.
What we didn’t talk about was this play’s particular dualities. Hamlet’s first few lines move from a general sense of wordplay involving words with double meanings. Hamlet and Claudius are “more kin than kind.” When he is not in the clouds but “too much in the sun,” he doesn’t want to be considered Claudius’s son. While Gertrude tells Hamlet that death is “common,” Hamlet replies, “Ay, ‘tis common,” though with the bite he puts onto his words, we know that he doesn’t mean it as something that occurs frequently, but as something base, less than noble, which might be how he is characterizing his mother’s behavior.
And finally, as he talks in more depth, he introduces the “meta-dramatic” language that will characterize so much of the play. “Seems, madam? I know not seems” – What people seem to be and what they actually are is at the heart of the play. “These are actions that a man might play, but I have that within which passeth show, these but the trappings and the suits of woe” – actions, play and show are all words that belong to the realm of the theater, and the plays within the plays provide subplots that dramatize the theme of seeming and being.
In addition to some of the details of language, we have met three young men of Hamlet’s generation. There is Prince Hamlet, whose father, we will find tomorrow, was killed by Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius; and whom Hamlet will swear to avenge. There is Prince Fortinbras, son of the King of Norway, who was killed by Hamlet’s father and is plotting to take back the lands Norway lost to Denmark in that duel. And there is Laertes, headed back to France now, whose reason for seeking revenge we haven’t yet encountered.
These parallels between a younger generation and an older generation will provide yet another subplot that develops the play’s central theme, revenge.
Once we finish Act 1, we will discuss a bit of the background of the play as provided by Stephen Greenblatt’s Will in the World, my favorite book about Shakespeare. In the meantime, we will learn about Hamlet’s internal and external tensions, as well as the life of his girlfriend, Ophelia, which is about to be flipped upside down by the manipulations of the men who try to direct all the actions of the people under their control, much the same way a play director moves his or her actors to do what the script tells them to do.