Hamlet versus “Hamlet”

The other day I saw a splendid production of “Hamlet”. God how I love seeing this play, when it’s well done. I’ve seen it many times by now, and each time I discover something new. The play resonates on so many levels, and keeps my brain buzzing for days afterward.

But I’ve noticed something interesting about the place of “Hamlet” in our society. On the one hand, it’s so iconic, so much a central part of English-speaking culture. Everyone knows Hamlet’s most famous solliloquy (or at least they know the first ten words). But most people in the U.S. haven’t actually seen the play (or maybe they’ve seen some abbreviated movie version with Mel Gibson).

And so what they don’t know is just how oddly, crazily, bounce-off-the-wall weird it is. I mean, the fun thing about “Hamlet” is that the idea of it manages to be completely iconic within our culture while the actual play itself is so utterly loony – in a very good way. The whole thing pingpongs back and forth between heart-breaking tragedy and vaudeville comedy.

Hamlet isn’t just a tragic hero. He’s also pre-Elizabethan Denmark’s answer to Groucho Marx. The first person he shows a deep emotional connection to is a man who’s been dead for twenty three years (we learn this while he’s holding the guy’s freshly dug-up skull in his hand) – apparently because as a child Hamlet had learned his sense of humor from the man.

There are plots within plots, plays within plays, a gravedigger who’s shtick is straight out of “Seinfeld” (or, more accurately, “Seinfeld” descends from that gravedigger’s shtick), ghosts, drag queens, wild plot twists, secretly switched letters, fast talking men and crazy suicidal women.

Every one of the several romantic relationships in the play is a different kind of quease-inducing incest, our hero drives his own girlfriend insane (literally), sends some poor saps to their death just because he’s mildly annoyed at them, has an unfortunate habit of accidentally running the wrong people through with his sword, and spends about half the play spouting complete gibberish.

And yet we like him, because Shakespeare knows what he’s up to – and Shakespeare is very, very good at what he does. The play’s peculiarity, its strange quirks and complete nuttiness, manage to cohabit with a story of great depth and beauty. We recognize in the hero’s antics and deliberate non sequiturs our own frustration at a world that oftentimes seems mad.

In essence, Hamlet is us. He embodies our own struggle with trying to find sense when no sense can be found. He is Woody and Juno and Benjamin Braddock and Yossarian and George Carlin and John Lennon and Lenny Bruce and all of their kin, all rolled into one.

It’s strange to me that so many people in America don’t know this – because they haven’t seen the play (or maybe they once read it in high school and hated it because it was forced down their throats). They don’t know how damned funny it is, how peculiar and transgressive and exhiliaratingly wacked out – how modern. Sadly, “Hamlet” remains in the unseeing American mind something vaguely boring, like Mount Rushmore.

If only they knew.

3 thoughts on “Hamlet versus “Hamlet””

  1. The production was at the Duke Theater in NYC, in a brief run that ended Sunday (we caught the last performance).

    Arnt, it’s clear you’ve never seen this play performed with a great cast and direction. There is no language problem when it’s played well. I envy you – getting to see it done properly for the first time!

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