An Infinity of Mona Lisas

Last night, after forcing my wife to watch a portion of Hamlet, I told her “You know I’ll watch the whole three hours again.  With remote in hand, stopping and rewinding.”

I tried to explain why that is.  It’s more than just “I liked that movie, I would watch it again.”  With Shakespeare’s masterpieces you get this dual-nature thing going where on the one hand you’ve got what Shakespeare wrote us 400 years ago.  That’s not changing.  You could see Hamlets now till the end of time and the source text isn’t going anywhere. But on the other hand you’ve got this particular interpretation.  It is one of a million.  So, sure, Hamlet always says “To be or not to be”, but how did this particular actor say it?  And why? How does it differ from how that other actor said it?

I was at a loss to explain the analogy. I started down the path of saying “Imagine you have a chance, regularly, to go see the Mona Lisa.  But that’s not quite it, because that’s a masterpiece that doesn’t change, it’s the same every time you see it.  What if every time you saw it, it was different?  Still the same, still the Mona Lisa, still a masterpiece.  But … different.” 

Does anybody know what I’m trying to say?  Many a science fiction story has been written about all powerful core sources of “stuff”, be it energy or life or power or what have you, and the notion of seeds or splinters of that wellspring being used as the essence of new “stuff”.  It’s a bit like that.  Here you’ve got this body of work that’s essentially infinite in that we can continue to draw on it forever.  So each time we perform it we’re taking a little sliver of it and creating something new. 

Make sense? Am I babbling?

Love it when she does that.

So, Wednesday night before Hamlet came on, I was lying in bed with my wife watching some other program that she likes.  Typically she falls asleep a lot sooner than I do, so it’s easier to just DVR my programs and watch them a little later.  She knew full well that I’d be watching 3 hours of Hamlet later, and since it was also my birthday I threatened to require that she watch it with me :), but I did not follow through on that threat.

Anyway, it’s getting late, she’s falling asleep and mumbles, “I know you want to go watch Hamlet, go ahead and go back downstairs.  Hark who goes there.”

Me:  “….”  <open mouth> ” …. ” <close mouth> “…..”  <shakes head> ” … what?”

Her: <mumbling> “Go downstairs, watch your show.  Who goes there.”

Me: ” ??? You know that’s the opening line to Hamlet?”   (* Yes I know it’s more like “Who’s there?”, work with me here.)

Her: “Yup.”

Me: “I had no idea you knew that.”

Her: <snore>

Boggles my mind when she does that.  Not “To be or not to be” or “what a piece of work is man”, quotes she hears the children say all day long.  No, she quotes (accurately or not) the opening line, which many people wouldn’t even recognize. I have no idea if she looked it up in one of my books just so she could do that (doubtful, otherwise she wouldn’t have waited so long to deliver it), remembered me talking about it (possible, though I certainly haven’t done so deliberately in months), or remembered it from an actual Hamlet production we’ve seen (less possible, as it’s been years since we watched Hamlet).

I think I’ll keep her.

The Shrug Heard Round The World

If you haven’t seen the Tennant/Stewart Hamlet yet, read no more!  Spoilers follow about “the thing”.

Here, while you’re waiting, have a look at this completely unrelated clip of the “best death scene ever”…

Ok, let’s talk about this.  Claudius, holding a cup of poison and with Hamlet’s sword to his throat, *shrugs* before voluntarily drinking the poisoned wine.   I called it the biggest WTF moment in a movie full of them. I fast forwarded to that part just so I could show it to my wife, just so I could complain about it to a live person.

Can anybody come up with a logical interpretation for why he’d do that?  For that matter, the final scene is a real character switch for the man.  When Laertes is about to spill his guts (possibly literally), Claudius leaps up and begins frantically waving to have him taken away before he talks.  When Hamlet draws on him. Claudius *grabs the point of the sword*, which is rather unusual, but then at the ensuing booboo on his hand he shows the crowd and says “Help me, I am hurt!” 

I can even live with those, at least a little bit.  I can live with the idea that, once cornered, Claudius is basically a coward.  He has others do his dirty work for him, or he gets you in the ear while you’re sleeping.  But when he personally is called to the carpet?  He panics.  I can accept that.

It’s the shrug where I lose it.  Two seconds ago he was panicking that he’d been caught.  He makes a play to save himself (Help me, friends!), but no one comes to his aid.  So now he goes all stoic and with a “What the hell,” suicides?  No fight at all?  No *flight* at all? If you just declared him a coward, at least have him run for it and get it in the back or something.

Anybody got a justification for this one?

Double Casting?

So Patrick Stewart played both Claudius as well as Hamlet’s ghost in the David Tennant production that we’re all still talking about.  I’m told that this is common practice.  Fair enough.  Never really thought about it one way or the other.

My question for discussion, though, is … why?  I understand a live theatre troop having to double up on actors because they don’t have the bodies, or need to keep costs/resources/complexity down or whatever the real world reasons are.  I’m not talking about that.  When you’ve got plenty of budget and big name stars to work with, double casting to begin with is clearly a choice.  To double cast the major roles obviously has a point, such as the fairly obvious one when we see Theseus and Hippolyta double cast with Oberon and Titania in Midsummer.

So then, why Claudius and his brother?  What’s the point of that particular choice?  Is it to show that Hamlet’s issues with Claudius are really unresolved issues with his dad?  Is it to suggest that Hamlet’s dad and his brother were so close in physical resemblance that we can forgive Gertrude for essentially replacing the former with the latter?  Hamlet several times plays up the differences between his father and Claudius (the line “like Hyperion to a satyr” comes to mind), so is it to draw a stark contrast to that, to suggest clearly to the audience that they weren’t really so different after all, and Hamlet just wishes that they were?

Any other “well known” double cast decisions you want to talk about?

Calling Doctor Shakespeare! (Or maybe Dr. DeVere?)

Unfortunately the JAMA article linked in this Washington Post piece about Shakespeare’s medical knowledge is available only to AMA members, so I’m left linking a link of a link :(.

The article points to a piece from the “100 Years Ago” department that ponders how Shakespeare acquired his “extensive knowledge of medical matters.”  Deniers will, of course, tell you that this very sentence is prove that Stratford Will could not have written the plays because he was not a doctor, and we should be seeking out the medical professional who did write them.  (I heard that Oxford once successfully put a Band-Aid onto the pinky finger of his left hand, however.  So he’s still in the running.)

But Shakespeare did know his mental illnesses. The article notes that in his day, mentally ill people weren’t locked away in institutions. Shakespeare could train his powers of observation on people suffering all manner of mental disorders without going out of his way to encounter them.

It’s interesting to periodically step away and look at the words from this “100 years ago” perspective.  We’re so used to what Freud told us about Hamlet that we rarely stop to differentiate what Shakespeare couldn’t possibly have been trying to say (because the very concepts did not exist yet), from what he really was trying to say that we’re not seeing because we fail to look at what he gave us from his own terms.  Would Shakespeare have had a name for the behaviors that he gave to Ophelia? Was he describing what he’d personally seen in someone else?

Since Freud comes so much re: Hamlet, I’ve often wondered what other modern psycho/socio creations we have today that Shakespeare might have been showing us, in his own way.  Does Hamlet, for example, go through the “five stages or grief”? Do any of his characters suffer from textbook schizophrenia?  In my review of Tennant’s Hamlet earlier today I deliberately made reference to Asperger’s (and, on Twitter, ADHD) to see if anybody with more knowledge of those subjects would pick up on the thread.

You know what just occurred to me?  I don’t recall seeing a single peanut in any of Shakespeare’s works.  Perhaps Shakespeare was suggesting that Hamlet was allergic?  More importantly could he have found a rhyme for “epi pen” while still getting the meter to come out right?

[Credit to vtelizabeth on Twitter for the Tweet which pointed me in this direction.]

Review : David Tennant as Hamlet, Nerd of Denmark

Ok, here we go!  The easiest way to review Hamlet, I’ve found, is to break it into three distinct reviews : the direction, the rest of the cast, and Hamlet himself.  Otherwise it’s just too hard to separate what David Tennant did with what he was given to work with. Let me just first say that watching Shakespeare on “live” TV as if it were some sort of major event was just awesome.  It was this wonderful combination of nostalgia (remember the days before DVR where if you got up to go to the bathroom you missed stuff?) with modern technology – I sat on Twitter and did play-by-play throughout most of the show.  Could I have DVR’d it?  Sure, and I did, kind  of — I was running maybe 45 minutes behind everybody else.  But it was important to me to watch it as live as I could, as if we were watching the Academy Awards or something.  I wanted to share the experience with my geeks.  Great time, and I look forward to what PBS has in store for us next time..

First, the direction.  I think I’ll call this the WTF? Hamlet, because it had more WTF moments per scene than any production I can remember.  Parts were cool, like how the opening scene is shot from the ghost’s point of view.  We’re not even going to see the ghost? That’s a neat way to do it.  But then … here’s the ghost, standing among everybody.  And oh look, it’s Patrick Stewart.  WTF? He doesn’t look like a ghost.  At all. He looks, as I wrote on Twitter at the time, like he’s just walked out of a first-person shooter video game. That was weird.  Later, Stewart’s ghost physically interacts with Hamlet.  Grabs him, hugs him.  WTF, again?

Much of the movie is shot as if through the eyes of security cameras.  I saw this done once before in a Macbeth production, done up as if they were all drug dealers.  It was interesting there, increasing the general paranoia of a man who thought everybody was his enemy, even if they had to come back from the dead to get him.  Here it’s … interesting, but I’m not fully sure what the point was.  The cameras move and track, as if somebody is controlling them.  But who?  In the most obvious scene, where Claudius and Polonius are spying on Hamlet and Ophelia, they are hidden behind a two way mirror.  Yet in a very key moment, the cameras move.  So, who moved them?  Hamlet will often look directly at them, and at one point rips one out of the wall.  But was that the whole point, just to have him rip one out of the wall?

Last thing on the direction, otherwise I’ll go on far too long.  The actors look directly into the camera.  All the time.  Hamlet does it, Polonius does it.  I’m sure if I went back and paid closer attention I could find others doing it.  STOP THAT, it is very disconcerting.  It’s like watching The Office.  I appreciate that in a live theatre production, certain asides and soliloquies could be directed at the audience.  But there’s a difference between speaking to the audience in general, and singling out one person to talk to. When you look directly at the camera you destroy all suspension of disbelief and pull the audience back up to the “Hello there, I’m an actor on a stage doing a show for you, is it not lovely?” level.

On to the supporting cast, and by that I basically mean Patrick Stewart.  It’s a bit of a shame, really, when you have such a high powered “leading two” like this, because no one else is going to get the time of day.  If you take in a community production of Hamlet where everybody is an equal, you can appreciate the nuances of what Ophelia or even Guildenstern might bring to their role.  Here it’s all about Claudius and Hamlet, and everybody else pales in comparison.  Laertes is … goofy.  That’s the best way I can describe him.  I suppose that’s a good thing, he’s got that sort of awkward “I know what I’m supposed to do in this situation but you can tell I’m nervous about it” thing going, which makes sense.  Ophelia never gets much to work with.  I just plain didn’t buy her crazy.  Black eye make up doesn’t make you crazy, it makes you look like one of the kids from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome.  In a weird directorial choice, crazy apparently does mean stripping near naked (not sure if she went the full monty on the live show) in front of the king before running off.  I say weird choice, because in the next scene don’t we learn that she drowned precisely because her heavy clothing got soaked and pulled her down? She doesn’t go skinny-dipping in the First Folio, I don’t believe. 🙂  Polonius is…irritating.  He’s often played for comedy, but here he’s more annoying than anything else.  In a good way.  The supporting cast around him, tolerating him, are the funny ones.  But this is a Polonius where you just know that you’d not want to be in the room, stuck waiting for him to finish his sentence.

Can we talk Patrick Stewart? He is, for most of the play, the … coolest … Claudius you’ll see.  He’s awesome.  He’s got the throne, he’s got the queen, he’s got everything well in hand and he knows it.  Calm, cool, collected.  He’s exactly the kind of king who, after Hamlet kills Polonius, has his thugs tie Hamlet to a chair down in the soundproof basement before coming down, taking off his jacket, rolling up his sleeves …  they don’t end up going for any sort of interrogation/torture sequence, but they well could have.  It would have been in character, and would have been very impressive.  I wouldn’t have expected Claudius to do any of the dirty work, but he’d have no trouble having his goons do it.

The ghost in the queen’s bedroom, by the way, was excellent.  I hated the ghost at the beginning, but in the second coming he’s done quite well.  This is actually a credit to the direction, not so much the acting, as it’s all about the camera work and whether we’re looking at the scene through Gertrude’s eyes, or Hamlet’s.

But then….  see, I can’t spoil things for people that haven’t seen it.  All I can say is that there’s a moment when you’ll stare aghast at your screen and mutter a disbelieving “Oh, Patrick…no…oh, no…..”  I can only hope for the love of all that is good and Shakespeare in the world that what happens in that moment was purely a director’s choice and that Stewart was forced to do it against his will.  It is the biggest WTF moment in a movie full of them.

Ok, now let’s talk about Dr. Who.  I’ve honestly never seen Dr. Who, none of them, so I come to David Tennant’s performance with no preconceptions.  To me the man is Barty Crouch from the Harry Potter movie.

What’s up with this dude’s eyes?  He always, always looks like he’s got some sort of psycho-stare going.  This works later in the play, of course, but it’s very offputting in the beginning.  He actually does something very annoying in the opening scenes in that he makes no eye contact with anyone.  Asperger’s? Later when speaking with Horatio it seems like he does the opposite, getting well up into his friend’s personal space for no good reason.  I think that this was a deliberate choice, and it’s what makes me give this review the headline that I did.  He’s playing up the nerd aspect.  We all know that Hamlet is the smart kid who’s been away at school.   Why shouldn’t he have some social adjustment difficulties?

David Tennant plays Hamlet as crazy.  Simply put.  Before he ever sees the ghost, he’s got issues.  After the fact he’s full on lunatic.  Which gets very weird, because he’s looking you in the eye and he’s telling you, “I’m not crazy, I’m just acting this way.”  There are parts when it ends up making him look like an insufferable ass, like a spoiled child who’s not gotten his way and is now throwing a gigantic tantrum up and down the palace while everybody tries to humor him.   This ends up being what I have the most trouble with.  It’s like he took the job just so he’d get to do his crazy act.  He’s practically Jim Carrey in some scenes, and that’s not a good thing in a Shakespearean tragedy.

Don’t get me wrong, the man’s a good actor, and I’ll speak more on this in a minute.  There are moments, even the briefest, where it is entirely the acting that gets across what’s happened, without the backing text.  When Laertes gets in his cheap shot and Hamlet realizes that he’s been using a sharpened foil, Tennant’s “Nay, come again!” is very clearly, as I wrote on Twitter, him really saying, “Oh you mother f%^&*ing son-of-a%^”.  You have to see it.  He realizes, not that he’s been poisoned, but simply that Laertes is essentially cheating, trying to hurt him.  And his instant reaction is, less colloquially, “Now, see, that pisses me off.  Ok, punk, you want to play like that? Well I have the pointy stick now, let’s see how you like it.”  Coupling such a moment with the earlier depiction of “nerd” Hamlet brings things full circle rather nicely.  Throughout the play we’ve had a very non-threatening Hamlet, someone who clearly thinks he’s the smartest kid in the room and gets by on his wits alone because he can.  He’s never a threat to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and even when he’s got a chance to kill Claudius he’s too hesitant.  But here, here he’s caught off guard, he’s angry, and he’s got a weapon.  And now he lashes out.  Even the nerdiest nerd will, pushed to his limits, throw that haymaker punch that knocks the bully out.

Ok, here’s my overall summary of David Tennant as Hamlet.  This is a story that happens to be Shakespeare, not a Shakespeare story.  The stars here are the actors, not the words.  It’s not just David Tennant, either – I mentioned on Twitter that Laertes gets in his own “you can tell what I meant whether you understood the words or not” moment when he first sees Ophelia enter.  If you took this whole movie and rewrote all the dialogue like you might normally write an action/drama movie? You’d have the same movie.  Tennant doesn’t need to be speaking Shakespeare’s words to act out his Hamlet.  He just happens to be doing that.

See what I mean?  I don’t think this is a bad thing, I think it’s an important thing.  Hanging out last night while it played I noticed two very different camps.  There were the Shakespeare fans who were hesitant, at best, about Tennant’s performance.  But then there were the Tennant fans who thought he killed it, and actually made Shakespeare interesting.  I think that’s the crucial distinction.  This movie was more for them than for us.  We Shakespeare geeks can go debate how he delivered the third soliloquy, but the Dr. Who geeks are going to go and debate how he *behaved* during the Mousetrap scene.  They want to talk about him, and his acting, and Shakespeare is secondary.  If we want to talk about the Shakespeare first and the actor is secondary, we can do that too.  But neither group is going to be more right than the other.

(Didn’t love my review? JM has his own take on this one over at The Shakespeare Place.)

Not By Shakespeare

UPDATED!  This has become such a popular topic that we’ve spun off a completely new site.  Please visit Not By Shakespeare for the most up to date research into who actually said what.

I was very upset yesterday to discover that in my Shakespeare Day blur I’d retweeted a quote as if it were by Shakespeare, only to later realize it is not.  (Yes, that kind of thing bothers me.  I would much rather answer “I don’t know” to a question, or remain silent, than to be wrong.)  What’s annoying is that if you google these quotes, the vast majority of “sources” on the net will in fact claim them to be Shakespeare, but with no citation.  If you can’t find it in the works (and don’t forget to check Venus and Adonis!), it’s probably not in there.

So I thought now would be a good time to collect some of the more popular ones in one place, and give proper attribution.  At least, disclaimer, I’m giving what I *think* is proper attribution!  Correct me if I’m wrong, and feel free to add what I miss.

“I love thee, I love but thee With a love that shall not die Till the sun grows cold And the stars grow old.”

This is the one I goofed on.  It is Bayard Taylor, from the Bedouin Song.

“When I saw you I fell in love. And you smiled because you knew.”

Arrigo Boito.  (Who, by the way, was apparently famous for his work on the operas Otello and Falstaff!)

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

William Congreve in The Mourning Bride (1697).  Shakespeare did say “Come not between the dragon and his wrath,” and “How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child” (both King Lear, I believe?), which both seem to be to be of a similar spirit.

“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”

Walter Scott, Marmion.

“If you can’t get rid of the skeleton in your closet at least teach it to dance.”

Speak of the devil, I saw this one for the first time on the same day I posted this article. How can anyone think that’s Shakespeare? It’s George Bernard Shaw.
It’s worth noting that there’s already at least one other site covering this topic, but two of the ones I list above, that I see on a daily basis passed around Twitter, are not even on that page.  And that one has a whole bunch of stuff that I’ve never seen attributed to Shakespeare.  The list above, so far, are quotes I’ve personally seen attributed incorrectly to our boy in Stratford.

So, the next time you catch somebody forwarding along that “til the sun grows cold” line as if it were Shakespeare, then you smack that person right back down and take away their Complete Works. 😉  And don’t forget to link.  Geek needs the google juice. :)!

UPDATED!  This has become such a popular topic that we’ve spun off a completely new site.  Please visit Not By Shakespeare for the most up to date research into who actually said what.

Star Trek Captains of Shakespeare

So just now I see a story about Kate Mulgrew taking on Cleopatra.  Not a Trek Geek? She was Captain Janeway, from Star Trek Voyager.

Naturally that got me thinking. 

Captain Picard, Patrick Stewart? Well, we know all about Patrick Stewart.  I can’t even find a single story to link, there’s too many obvious choices.

How about William Shatner, Captain James T. Kirk?  No problem.  Hamlet, no less.

Now, now we start to get tricky.  What about Avery Brooks, also known as Captain Sisko of Deep Space Nine?  He’s Othello.

Aha, but what about Enterprise, and Scott Bakula as Captain Jonathan Archer? Alas I can’t find video, but might I point you to this synopsis of Quantum Leap Episode 411?

The Play’s the Thing January 8, 1992 September 9, 1969 New York City, New York 411
Sam leaps into a man named Joe Thurlow who’s dating a
much, much older woman and must convince her not to move back to
Cleveland with her straight-as-an-arrow son and his wife. And somehow he also has to get through a nude version of Hamlet.

I hate this picture they keep using.

The Boston Herald’s got a review up of David Tennant’s Hamlet (called “Prepare to be bard to tears…”) so I had to go check it out for that negative headline, if nothing else.  They didn’t like it, though I don’t think the negative aspects of the review live up to the headline, which makes it sound awful.  The author gives is a C+.

What gets me, though, is that crazy picture that I’ve seen used in several articles now.  If we didn’t know what was happening at the time, wouldn’t that look like something straight out of a bad B horror movie?  Why the frick does Hamlet have a crown on his head, has he been playing Henry V? Is Claudius that engrossed in what he’s doing that he’s let a potential assassin get that close to him? He of all people should know you don’t live long as king of Denmark without watching your back!

Saw a production of Hamlet once where they all carried guns instead of swords.  During this crucial scene, Hamlet is at one side of the stage with the gun leveled at Claudius’ back.  I thought that was an interesting way to merge the ideas of “I’m this close to doing it” with “well, if I had a sword I’d kinda sorta have to be within arm’s reach of him…”  Not to mention all the implications that come with the “good guy” shooting someone in the back, even if it is Claudius.

Who? Hamlet. Where? PBS. When? Tomorrow, April 28

I almost forgot about this, but once again PBS is presenting some modern classic Shakespeare as part of their Great Performances series.  Last year it was Sir Ian McKellan’s King Lear, this year it is David Tennant’s Hamlet (also starring that other guy, what’s his name…. Sir Patrick Frickin Stewart(*)).

I’d seen Lear before PBS broadcast it, but I’ve not yet seen Tennant’s Hamlet.  I’ve actually been eyeing (? that doesn’t look right) it this week, but as my birthday approaches I figured I’d give the family a chance to score it for me first.  But since I never actually mentioned it to anybody it’d have to be a heck of a coincidence.  We shall see!

P.S #1 : I expect my subtle subject line humor to go over the heads of the folks who don’t recognize that David Tennant also played a character called Dr. Wherewhen.

P.S. #2 : I am from Boston, where when we feel strongly about somebody we give them a new middle name.  Another owner of this proud distinction, but for completely different reasons, is Bucky Effing Dent.

P.S. #3 : UPDATED, The date is tomorrow April 28, not Thursday April 29.  The latter is the date of Open Mic Shakespeare, which was on my brain because I’d posted it earlier in the day.