Ask Philippa: HAMLET Edition

Philippa Kelly, resident dramaturg for Cal Shakes and production dramaturg for Hamlet, shares her thoughts on the current production, and invites your questions. Hamlet runs September 19–October 14, 2012.

Philippa Kelly

Photo of Philippa Kelly by Jay Yamada.

“What a piece of work is a man! How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god—the beauty of the world, the paragon of animals!” Shakespeare’s Hamlet apprehends the soaring heights to which human reason and imagination can aspire. He displays a character of enormous depth and range (as well as outlandish humor). Hamlet suggests that he feels the complex effects of his political and personal situation; and yet struggles (as do we all, in different degrees) to understand the forms that this feeling should take. And he apprehends, all too keenly, the depths of depravity to which humans can sink. When all is said and done, what is this creature, humankind, other than a quintessence of dust?

Are you going to see our production of Hamlet? Do you have questions or comments about the production’s music, cast, themes, creative choices, or anything else? Please leave them in the comments, and I’ll be sure to respond.

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42 Responses to Ask Philippa: HAMLET Edition

  1. Carol says:

    Hi Philippa! In their word play doesn’t it comes out that Hamlet is 30? , the grave digger says something to the effect of he had the job since the day Hamlet was born 30 years ago. Am I confused on this? Isn’t that rather old in Shakespeare’s time? So is this a middle aged story in some sense?

  2. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Carol,
    This is a great question. Yes, you’re right – Hamlet is 30. I think this is because Shakespeare wrote the part for his friend Richard Burbage to play (he played many of Shakespeare’s famous roles.) Burbage was born in 1567 and would have been 30-ish when Shakespeare started writing the play. But if we consider the context of Hamlet’s age (particularly the fact that people of thirty were often in their middle age, since the average age of death for a well-ff person was 42), what does this age imply? What has Hamlet done in his life until then? How ‘adult’ does he see himself as? We know he has not been married, although he has had an understanding with Ophelia – but we also gather from Polonius and Laertes that they definitely don’t trust that this ‘understanding’ will lead toward marriage, given that Hamlet is a prince and would, if he were to marry Ophelia, be marrying beneath himself. So in a sense Hamlet is not yet formed as an adult – and I think this is the crux of Shakespeare’s ambiguous description of his actual age. He wrote Hamlet’s role so as to be old enough to really apprehend the implications of the amazing philosophical thoughts that he articulates (he is definitely Shakespeare’s most philosophically informed protagonist) and yet ‘unformed’ enough to embody all of the contradictions of these philosophies and speculations as they emanate from his tortured soul. Directors who cast Hamlet tend to go either way: in some productions (Olivier, Branagh) the actor is thirty or more, and in others (Liesl’s) Hamlet is about 23. The main thing is that the actor plausibly embody all of the contradictions of heart, mind, soul, that Hamlet’s speeches evoke: and, of course, today we are so much more psychologically informed than people were in Shakespeare’s day (there were barely any words in Shakespeare’s time to connote the psychological complexities we can readily articulate today.) THIS gives rise to a whole further issue: how far our language creates our complexities of thought. Come to the grove and I will tell you more!

  3. Daniel Smith says:

    As an epidemiologist, I must comment on your implication that Hamlet would have been considered “middle aged” at 30. The average lifespan was indeed a good deal shorter in those days, but primarily because deaths in infancy and childhood were much more common, which brought down the average. Once a person survived into adulthood (and if you were a man, and not subject to the dangers of childbirth), a person could expect to live a reasonably long life. As a thirty-year old, Hamlet would have been a vigorous young man, and even a forty-year old would not have been considered “elderly.”

  4. philippa kelly says:

    Thank you, Daniel, for this correction – I’m so glad to get it. And on reflection I stand corrected – gladly so. There is a famous manuscript written by Thomas Whythorne in 1576, when he was 48: it is really a meditation on the ‘ages of man’, and is entitled,

    A book of songs and sonetts, with longe discourses sett with them, of the chylds lyfe, togyther with A yoong mans lyfe, and entring into the old mans lyfe. devysed and written with A new Orthografye by Thomas Whythorne, gent.

    So his entry into ‘the old man’s life’ would have been about mid-forties.

    Thank you so much for writing in, Daniel, and if you have any more information to share, it would be hugely appreciated. This also impacts on why Shakespeare largely left a vigorous career in his late forties. Many say that he was laying down his tools as an old man lays down his working life; but I’ve always felt instinctually that this is WRONG.

    Will you be out at the grove during the show? I’d love to chat more with you about all of this, if you happen to be there on one of my grove nights. I do the talks for all the previews, opening night, the first and second shows, and a few others dotted here and there.

  5. Haskel says:

    Hello Philippa,

    I must say a few words on behalf of Fortinbras. Hamlet is not a domestic tragedy. It concerns the royal house of Denmark and the affairs of Norway, Poland and England are prominently discussed. I have always found that one useful way to look at the play is as a study of the contrasting ways that three young men mature and seek political power. At the end only the unreflective, unemotional left you with no easy way to include the great “How all occasions to inform against me” soliloquyFortinbras is alive and in power. It would have been unthinkable for Shakespeare to have left Denmark with no one in charge at the end of the play. As a practical matter, leaving out Fortinbras also left you with no convenient way to include the great”How all occasions do inform against me” soliloquy.

    .In your Grove Talk on Thursday you asked why Hamlet delayed killing Claudius after the play within a play and what made him finally complete his revenge. One answer to the first part is that he didn’t delay. He is ready to kill the king immediately but doesn’t because the king is at prayer and would go straight to heaven. This is not frivolous. The ghost, whom he now trusts completely, had told him that he was suffering because he had not been at prayer when he was murdered. Hamlet then thinks he is killing the king when he kills Polonius. Claudius realizes this and immediately ships him off to England. Hamlet kills the king pretty much as soon as he can after his return . However, Hamlet does talk about delay, most prominently in the omitted soliloquy – maybe because he feels guilty about not believing the ghost immediately, maybe because of his obsession with futility and suicide, maybe because of a general feeling of inadequacy. As usual with Hamlet there only questions leading to more questions. If an explanation is needed for why Hamlet does act, I think it was Dr. Johnson who said something about knowing you will be hanged tomorrow concentrates the mind. Laertes has just told Hamlet that he has no more than 30 minutes to live.

    A long time ago a teacher of mine began a discussion of the diordered world of Hamlet by pointing out that the play begins with a question, and the wrong person is asking the question. This production left out the second part of that point, perhaps to save five seconds. Which brings me to my final question. Would it be so terrible to stage a four hour Hamlet?

    I want to thank you and everyone at Cal Shakes for providing the opportunity to once again reflect on all these question and much more.

  6. philippa kelly says:

    Hello, Haskell,
    What a fantastic response you wrote!! I didn’t know it was there – I was actually just coming to the blog to post a list of references that someone asked for last night. AND here was your wonderful post, ready for me to get my teeth into.

    Firstly, I really appreciate your thought about Fortinbras. We had to give the ‘Good night sweet prince’ to Horatio because we didn’t have a Fortinbras. But it is just so difficult to know how to shave off parts, particularly as this is the last play of the season and we didn’t want people to be too cold. (It is possible, of course, to have a five-hour Hamlet!) The Fortinbras/Norway plot came to Shakespeare from the old Amleth story – but as you mention, he uses it so strategically to give a sense of the civic, as well as filial, task that confronts Hamlet. This is not just a personal task of revenge – a whole map of Denmark, and, indeed, of Europe, depends upon it. But we just felt that Fortinbras had to go – someone had to. I loved the laser beam focus Liesl brought to the play as she cut and refined and restored text.

    And I love your answer to the ‘delay’ question. It really puts the Christianity issue right in the forefront. I think the line about there being a divine providence in the fall of a sparrow is a turning point for Hamlet – at that point he gives it all over to God, so in a sense his ‘revenge’ is not so much revenge as the execution of a role in a divine plot. There is so much more I could say in response to your fantastic comments, but I have to run out to the grove. But do post again if you want to continue the conversation. I am just going to leave off here, as it is 6.05, and post this list of diaries I have collected.

  7. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Don,

    Here is a list of diaries to get you started. There is a Puritan one in this list that you might be especially interested in.

    The Diaries of Lady Anne Clifford, ed. David Clifford (Wolfeboro Falls: Alan Sutton, 1991).

    Elaine McKay: The Diary Network in Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Century England. Monash University School of Historical Studies, 2001; on-line access: http://www.arts.monash.edu.au/eras/edition_2/mckay.htm

    The Private Life of an Elizabethan Lady: The Diary of Lady Margaret Hoby, 1599-1605, ed. Joanna Moody (Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1998),

    Gervase Markham, The English Housewife: Containing the inward and Outward virtues which ought to be in a complete woman; as her skill in physic, cookery, banqueting-stuff, distillation, perfumes, wool, hemp, flax, dairies, brewing, baking, and all other things belonging to a household. Ed. Michael Best (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1986)

    Richard Rogers, Two Puritan Diaries, By Richard Rogers and Samuel Ward, ed. with an introduction by M.M. Knappen (1933) (Gloucester Mass.: P. Smith, 1966)

    Female and Male Voices in Early Modern England: An Anthology of Renaissance Writing, ed. Betty S. Travitsky and Anne Lake Prescott (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000).

    The Autobiography of Thomas Whythorne, ed. James M. Osborn, modern spelling edition (London: Oxford University Press, 1962)

    ‪The Diary of Ralph Josselin, 1616-1683‬, OUP, 1991

  8. Gary Downing says:

    Hi Phillipa, Our troupe loved this production of Hamlet and talk back afterwards causing vigorous debates during the ride home which I wanted to share two points:

    1) You and the cast pointed out the strength of Orphelia’s decision to commit suicide over Hamlet’s prolonged agony and resulting extended bloodshed. We felt however that her decision could equally be seen as a weakness, or copout. Might we simply be looking at this through too modern a lens, or was suicide more acceptable during Hamlet’s time?

    2) Several of us felt that the use of machine guns as props from the guards made the production more anachronistic, particularly as swordplay is such an integral part in the closing scene. Was this the intention?

    As always, thanks so much for your insights and intellectual pleasure you and Calshakes bring to our lives.

    Best, Gary

  9. Gary Downing says:

    One additional note re: your Grove Talk question you asked why Hamlet delayed killing Claudius? I believe the frame of reference was after being instructed to revenge from his father’s ghost.

    My perspective is that Hamlet wasn’t entirely sure that the ghost was trustworthy, especially as this implied murder. Why else would he stage the play within a play to watch Claudius’s reaction? Although he hated the marriage of his mother with him, he needed more evidence before he could take this in his own hands.

    Of course, one could say that this delay resulted in most of the corpses on stage at the end.

  10. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Gary,
    I love both your posts. Firstly, your point about suicide is most apt. In Shakespeare’s time, everyone believed in God/heaven/hell. The chiming of the town clock reminded people constantly of these two timescapes – the temporal one and the ‘real’, eternal, ever-after time. So the decision to end one’s life was much more freighted than it is today – because suicide would likely result in eternal hell-fire.

    The machine guns – I understand dramaturgically what you mean. And yet if one took your thought to its end-point, we would have everyone on bare boards with Elizabethan dress and bare bodkins.

    And in regard to your second post: I think this is such an astute reaction to the idea of delay: Hamlet is ever-scrupulous, and so he is swimming in the hiatus between thought and action (he can only escape this when he gives it all over to Providence to sort out); and, indeed, his delay leads to further bodies piled up.

  11. Alan Cunningham says:

    What a huge difference there is between attending a Sunday matinee at the Bruns in late September and seeing one in June!

    In the latter, one drives home in sunshine after a long performance and a stimulating talk-back. In the former, one arrives by day and goes home after dark. Lights are on, and a daytime performance has morphed into a night production.

    Watching the current, powerful performance of Hamlet on its opening weekend, I was struck by how much this difference in seasonal ambience actually became part of the performance.

    As we arrived in sunshine, Jonathan walked by and kidded me about not needing the sweater I was wearing. By the end, the sweater was on tightly. And as that final, somber dance of death unfolded, the light was fading and a chill breeze blew across the front of the stage.

    It suddenly struck me how perfect all that was, as if the whole package had been planned, just like the myriad technical details, the set, the music (and sound effects) and the painstaking efforts of director and actors to get every nuance honed just right.

    Nature had given us exactly the right mood for that ending, one that Shakespeare himself might have longed for.

    It left me wondering if Jonathan, when sitting at his desk pondering which plays will be presented in a coming season, takes into consideration the profound effect that the changing of the year has on how each performance will be perceived.

    • philippa kelly says:

      Hello Alan,
      I’m so glad I just pressed the ‘find’ key on the word, ‘Hamlet’, because I had missed your beautiful post. I hate this particular term, but am going to use it now because you’ll see how it’s appropriate – the cal shakes theatre gives us a ‘whole body’ experience. We can experience these plays in the changing light of the sun or the moon, in the changing of the seasons, and, indeed, in one week, in the changing (soaring or sinking) temperature of the climate. We can eat and drink – not forgetting that during a 2 or 3 hour play, our bodies have needs and sensations. I’m so glad you have mentioned this. And I’ll ask Jon to answer your question, making his own post here if he has time.

  12. Jennifer Koutralatkis says:

    I would like to ask you for the name of the song that Opehlia sings during/at the end the “straight jacket scene”? Adrian said it was by the group the Smiths.

    Thank you for all the great information you relate to the play.
    Jennifer Koutralatkis

  13. philippa kelly says:

    Thanks for the lovely comment, Jennifer. As for the song, it’s ‘Girlfriend in a Coma’.

  14. Haskel says:

    Hello Philippa (again),

    I am taking you up on your invitation to post again with some random thoughts about Shakespeare, Hamlet, and the night sky. I hope I don’t overstay my welcome.

    Horatio bids his sweet prince good night as he always has. Fortinbras doesn’t much care. He finds himself surrounded by corpses and conveniently remembers his own claim to the throne. Before even hearing that Hamlet has given him the crown, he assumes command and restores the natural order with the final speech of the play.

    Does Ophelia commit suicide? The only direct report we have is from Gertrude who says a tree branch she was holding on to broke causing her to fall into the river. Maybe Ophelia has also arrived at the same wisdom as Hamlet, that “the readiness is all” and simply accepts her fall. Of course Gertrude might want it not to be suicide for her own peace of mind, to insure Christian burial, and maybe to appease Laertes who has arrived at the castle at the head of an army. Which brings us back to politics.

    Kaya Oakes says in the program that when we look at Hamlet we see ourselves. This is not just a universal self but our individual self. One of the miracles of the play is that when people describe Hamlet they tend to describe someone very like themselves, actual or ideal. My daughter, who was studying international politics, wrote a school paper about Fortinabras as hero. I wrote a school paper about the comic in Hamlet. I claimed that Hamlet spoke directly only when talking to himself or Horatio – he plays with everyone else, puts them on, talks to them with the wit, irony, and aggression of a stand-up comic. It was Hamlet as Lenny Bruce, my hero at the time (and maybe still).

    Is there a house rule requiring the use of modern popular music in all Shakespeare productions. It was appropriate in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Tempest, and Romeo and Juliet; but I didn’t understand the use in Hamlet, either in general or in the particular songs chosen.

    When you mentioned that you didn’t want to keep people out too late in the cold my first thought was “start earlier”. Then I remembered that one of the problems when the New York Shakespeare Festival staged Hamlet in the Delacorte Theater in Central Park was that they were stuck with playing the early ghost scenes in daylight. This problem was eliminated with your late season production. I saw every Shakespeare Festival production in Central Park for over 40 years, since before the Delacorte was built. It was a great joy when I discovered your theater (it was King Lear) after moving to Oakland in 2004. It is a litlle more expensive, and a little colder, but once again world-class Shakespeare in the open air.

    • philippa kelly says:

      Hello Haskell,
      It is lovely to hear from you again. This post only just came up on my machine – when did you post it?

      Regarding the house rules regarding music, no, there is none. Just however the director and sound designer feel that music can enhance and enrich the production. I love what you say about Hamlet being a reflection of whoever we are – the elliptical nature of the play’s imagery, the vastness and richness of the metaphor, the beautiful word-play of solid/sullied, a dew/adieu… I think of Coleridge who famously said, ‘I have a smack of Hamlet myself.’ Who are we as humans? We are constantly striving to know better and more fully and more comfortably who we are. My brother was killed in a climbing accident last year. I felt that he took with him the childhood we shared – whole chunks of it – but now I try to think that his death gave them back to me, in a horribly poignant way.

  15. Doe Myers says:

    “Doubt thou the stars are fire;
    Doubt that the sun doth move;
    Doubt truth to be a liar;
    But never doubt I love.”
    I’ve always loved these beautiful words. While I knew they were Shakespeare’s, I just had not tracked that they were Hamlet’s. Must admit, I was a bit taken aback (sad even) during the show when they were read from Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia. Hamlet’s love for Ophelia has always felt like one more expendable sacrifice in this tragedy. Then, was quite moved hearing both Ophelia and Horatio (?) recite those words simultaneously. Very touching. This production totally gave greater due to their relationship than I’ve felt in other productions.
    Finally, I very much enjoyed seeing Horatio sort of ‘bearing witness’ to Hamlet’s story. In some way, it reminded me of the boy in King Arthur who Arthur insists must leave the battle field so that he can go out and tell the story of Camelot. Horatio gave a frame that helped me focus on the complex comings and goings of these flawed, but very human people.

  16. philippa kelly says:

    Dear Doe,
    What a beautiful post. I will send your words on to our director, Liesl. But I am also provoked to more thought by your words (which is, for me, the beauty of having this blog, which was actually Jonathan’s brainchild, begun when we did Happy Days a few years ago). So Doe, I would ask you – is this what we call ‘authenticity’ – the capacity, as Hamlet articulates it, to hold a mirror up to nature, to show virtue her own feature and vice her own scorn, to doubt everything and to be sure of nothing? And yet, if we accept these words – his words to Gertrude about mimesis, and his words to Ophelia about doubting the world itself and yet never doubting raw emotion – do we not also have to accept his eventual disappointment in the failure of art? A player can cry real tears as he speaks of grief – and yet these real tears may be unavailable to the person who suffers the grief. Art gives us a form – but as Hamlet tells us, again and again, feelings aren’t always available to form; they aren’t always containable by form; and they simply may not be ‘up to’ the histrionics of form.

    And yet – the beauty of Shakespeare is that he comprehends this and, indeed, gives it a form. He gives us drama that constantly questions the parameters of its own capacity to connect – and, in so doing, he gives us the irresolution, the inadequacy, the overwhelmingness, of feeling and of life itself.

  17. Liz says:

    Saw the show last night and my friends and I are still scratching our heads over the swimming pool. Are the players drowning in their own tears?

    • philippa kelly says:

      Hello Liz, I answered this on my iphone on Saturday and somehow it did not post. Sorry about that. The swimming pool evokes a scene of decadence, partying, that Hamlet has not been a part of. He is completely alienated from this world. The toys strewn about are perhaps like the symbols of childhood – so important then, but with no resonance now, in this alien, corrupted world.

  18. judy musa says:

    hi philippa, we missed you last night, but the show must go on..and it did..very stimulating and memorable.
    two qujick questions:
    can you explain the use of the empty pool as the setting for the play. is it to connote deteroriation.and
    is hamlet the most performed shakespeare play?
    many thanks,

    • philippa kelly says:

      Hi Judy, yes, deterioration, and coming in on last night’s party – a kind-of alienation.

      AND Hamlet is right up there in the ‘most performed’ group, along with R and J and The Tempest. Interestingly, I was talking with my colleague Professor Hugh Richmond today, and he remarked on the opinion that certain plays – Othello, Merchant of Venice, and Taming of the Shrew – should not be performed. BUT as Hugh commented, it is precisely BECAUSE of their incendiary themes that these plays are often found to be so stimulating. Shakespeare wrote them in order to press on a raw social nerve and see what emerged on the stage. Hamlet is so popular, I think, because Shakespeare used this young man to straddle various contentious issues and states of being: the feudal system/capitalism; youth/age; prince/kingship;illumination/darkness;intellectual ambition/depression

  19. Lauren says:

    Liz, we were talking nonstop about the same thing!!!
    Plus, our performance was stopped due to a temporary lighting outage before the end, so we never got to see if there was any explanation! Please let us know!

    • philippa kelly says:

      hello Lauren, please see the post to Liz above. Interestingly, I took my mom swimming today, as she is visiting from Australia – and it was so far from a feeling of alienation. One big difference – the pool was not empty today.

  20. Bernard Jones says:

    Recently saw “Hamlet” at Cal Shakes and thought that over all, it was an excellent production, even though we too were shaking our heads over the fact that it took place in a swimming pool(!). The only question I had was regarding the “color blind” casting of some of the roles. This practice seems rather common in this day and age and I certainly don’t have a problem with it, but my companion who attended the play with me was wondering why, for example, the director didn’t go all out and cast black actors for Polonius and Laertes–especially since the Ophelia was black. Was there much discussion about this among the cast and/or audiences? At any rate, congraulations on a strong “Hamlet” at Cal Shakes!

  21. Ellen says:

    We saw Hamlet yesterday and unfortunately, because of another commitment, couldn’t stay for the talkback. I really wondered, especially after seeing Ghostlight (in Ashland and Berkeley,) about the presentation of the Ghost. One of the themes in Ghostlight is the interpretation of the Father/Ghost in Hamlet, and there are SO many possibilities. My first reaction to the one we saw yesterday was ZOMBIE! Is there anything to that?

    • philippa kelly says:

      Hello Ellen,
      This is a superb question. One reason for having the ghost (Adrain Roberts) played as a zombie figure is to make a clear physical distinction between the two characters Adrian plays. They are physically similar (as Hamlet notes, his uncle is a ‘counterfeit’ of his father), and yet they are completely different characters. The zombie-look emphasizes this distinction, and also the fact that the ghost is very much dead, while his brother is very much thriving in the corporeal world of Denmark. But then your question also brings to mind a wonderful comment by Tony Cascardi from UC Berkeley – that the ghost may emblematize the suggestion that each of the characters in the play is in a sense a ‘creature’ of Hamlet’s brain. In this respect, Hamlet is an image (an intellectually/emotionally hyperbolized one) of all of us: as we move through this world and interact with people, they are all, in their own ways, ‘creations’ of our own brains. They ‘are’, or they exist, as they appear to us.

  22. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Bernard,
    The rationale behind color-blind casting is that it encourages ethnic diversity in a production where race and ethnicity are not the focus of interpretation. Character descriptions in plays – or the origins of the plays – often implicitly encode racial inequality in casting. (i.e. the play may be by a white man about white characters.) Color-blind casting (or, as it has been sometimes called, ‘non-traditional casting’,) opens out the range of who a character might be. You could have a black actor as Polonius, but equally you could have a white actor – the focus is not about what genes have fathered the two children, but what parent has fathered the two children. So, in this production, we wonder about what makes Ophelia so obedient to her father despite her devotion to Hamlet. Issues of appearance come up even in the casting of Hamlet himself. His father’s beard is referred to as ‘a sable silver’d', and so, strictly speaking, from the text, Hamlet would be likely to have at least black hair, not the bleached blonde that many directors cast him as (because they think: Danish/blonde). But the white hair is just as ‘appropriate’ as the black hair, because the play is not ‘about’ Hamlet’s ethnicity.

  23. Claud Goodman says:

    Hello Philipa,
    Please forgive me for being a clod when it comes to expressing myself about artistic matters, but the bard has inspired me to try. This blog is a wonderful idea. I have learned so much from reading it. I was at the Sunday, September 30th performance & enjoyed the play immensely. I would like to extend my most sincere & heart-felt gratitude to the cast. The actors clearly invested their whole beings into their performances & I am the richer for it. I also enjoyed the use of modern music & the other modernizations. Please do not doubt the depth & sincerity of my gratitude to everyone involved in this production if I make one small criticism.
    There is only one little change in the text that my brain snagged on. While listening to the “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy, unless mine ears deceived me, “bare bodkin” was replaced by “unsheathed dagger.” It has been 32 years since I read this play in high school, but I still recall what a bare bodkin is. This departure from the text surprised me. It might just be the alliteration, but bare bodkin is fun to write, fun to say, and fun to hear. I would have preferred that the director left this piece of the play unchanged “as she cut and refined and restored the text.” Perhaps having Hamlet visually demonstrate the baring of a bodkin would have both informed the audience and left the bard’s poetry intact.

  24. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Claud,

    This response is so lovely. I’ll make sure the cast sees it. Yes, we changed ‘bare bodkin’ to ‘bare dagger’, and, on reflection, I can’t help agreeing with you. ‘Bodkin’ is a wonderful term, and in fact Hamlet uses it elsewhere in our production: ‘God’s bodkin!’ I am so glad you put ‘pen to paper’, although you were slightly timorous about doing so – and I hope you will write in again. I also run an off-season blog and am always thrilled to answer questions when they come to mind – about Shakespeare’s life or plays or any aspect of the theater we make. And if I can’t answer them with authority, I’ll always send them on to someone who can.

  25. Lynne Inman-Hoffert says:

    After the performance on 9.23, I suggested to you that the set symbolizes the sinking ship of state. Afterwards, I discussed this with people in my OLLI classes and at Ashland. Then I remembered that James I was very interested in submarines. Now there’s a sinking ship! Though later than Will. Shakes wrote “Hamlet:” “The world’s first practical submarine was built in 1620 by Dutch engineer Cornelis Jacobszoon Drebbel, under the patronage of James 1 of England.”

    • philippa kelly says:

      Hello Lynne,

      I actually didn’t know that James I was interested in submarines! I’ll just let you know that James took the throne in 1603, the year that Elizabeth I died – and she, of course, was very, very concerned (and the subject of much concern) because at the time that Hamlet was written she did not have an heir (and the chance for her to have a child had long-since passed). So, although Elizabeth was enormously popular, the institution of monarchy felt very fragile in 1599.

  26. Mike says:

    After the grove talk last night, I asked you about Shakespeare taking a lot of jabs at the rich, powerful, and royal in this play. From the grave digger’s observation that Ophelia would not be buried as a Christian if she was not of the court, to Hamlet being told how thoousands will die in a war for a worthless piece of land no one wants, Shakespeare takes shots at the elites. How did he get away with this? Was there more acceptance of one’s social status and thus the aforementioned scenes were not so much criticism as description of that’s the way it is?

    I did not get this production. With all the cuts, the choice of music, the staging and the wardrobe, the director had a vision of what she wanted this production to do. She had some insight or understanding of the play or character Hamlet, but at the end of the show I felt I’d missed something. What am I missing?

    Finally, your article in the program develops an understanding of how important it is that Hamlet weighs all sides of his decision to kill the king. It is what make him, and us, human. He makes and carries out many, less consequential decisions throughout the play. He follows the ghost. He swears Horatio to secrecy. He has Rosencrantz and Guildenstern killed. He asks forgiveness from Laertes after the grave scene. He sets up the players to trap the king. He kills Polonius, thinking it is the king. He is always thinking about his decisions. But killing the king… would that result in his own death? Was it the right thing to do? Is revenge sanctioned by God and the heavens?
    I think of Steinbeck’s East of Eden, chapter 24, particularily section 2. Timshel.

  27. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Mike,
    I think Shakespeare felt the pulse of the society and consciously built its uncertainties into his play. The instability of the monarchy as an institution; the conflicts all over Europe; the claiming of lands; the shifts in religious affiliations… By setting the play in Denmark, he manages to avoid any implication of criticism of England (there is only the joking reference to how the English are so mad that Hamlet’s madness won’t be noticed there!) I think that the framework of political instability also sets up a wider context for the question: what is the value of a life? This question is internal to Hamlet’s expressed consciousness; and it is also implied in a wider sense by his actions (what is Polonius’ life worth?)

    As for Hamlet always thinking about his decisions, I agree – there is a sense of a tide always moving – the tide of his consciousness (‘This conscience does make cowards of us all – ‘conscience’ in those times meaning ‘consciousness’).

  28. Valerie says:

    Hi Philippa,
    We saw Hamlet last Friday night (and told you after the Grove Talk that it was fantastic!). In the “readiness is all” speech, Hamlet says something in lieu of “We defy augery.” In the “To be or not to be” soliloquy he uses the word dagger instead of bodkin. Were these artistic liberties or is there a source in one of the folios? Also, how often do productions completely omit any reference to Fortinbras and the political conflict that is brewing?
    Thanks so much.

  29. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Valerie,

    Liesl put in ‘dagger’ instead of ‘bodkin’ because she thought that people might not know the word, ‘bodkin.’ And the Fortinvras plot – I think it is not that often left out completely. But we felt that if there was only a tiny shaving of it left, it might be best to leave it out altogether. One loses the sense of the wider question that is also asked in its specifics: ‘What is the worth of a life?’ (i.e. what is the worth of the elder Hamlet’s life; of Polinius’ life; of Hamlet’s own life; and of the lives of so many nameless people who are lost in the course of war.’ But what you get is a tighter, more ‘domestically’-focussed script. Did you miss the Fortinbras plot?

  30. Mike says:

    I reread hamlet and have a couple of little questions.
    When Hamlet returns to Denmark he sends letters to Horatio, the king and the queen. What happened to the queen’s letter? Couldn’t Shakespeare easily have had just two letters? Why three letters and one never noted?
    Hamlet, Horatio, Barnardo, and Marcellus see the ghost. . In “to be or not to be” soliloquy Hamlet says, “The undiscovered country, from whose bourn No traveller returns”
    But Hamlet has seen his father’s, albeit brief, return.
    Gertrude does not see the ghost. The ghost says, “Conceit in weakest bodies strongest works.”
    Who has the weakest body/mind?

  31. philippa kelly says:

    Hello Mike,

    I’ve gone over the play too, in light of your email, and I can’t see the reason for the letter to the queen except that Hamlet has very different messages to give them both. But there is no evidence that the Queen acts on any advice or information given in the letter.

    You are spot-on about the ghost and the ‘no traveller returns’ inconsistency. I think Shakespeare could have done with your dramaturgical advice. I really do – this is an excellent thing to notice. I think we could put it down to the absolute one thing we can be sure of – that human character is inconsistent and unpredictable.

    And as for your question of who has the weakest body/mind, I think Shakespeare was subject here to the patriarchal view (fuelled by the rise of Puritanism) that women’s minds and wills were weak and easily perverted. Some male writers of conduct literature even advised men not to let their wives ride out to market for fear that what they saw outside their homes would pervert their weak minds.

  32. Cindy says:

    Philippa,
    Why was a swimming pool set chosen for this rendition of Hamlet? I understand the decay aspect of it, but why a swimming pool? The set seems a bit awkward and clunky. Please comment.

    Also, someone mentioned that your talk had explained the significance of the ghost’s bloody and encrusted appearance. Please explain.

    Thank you.

    • philippa kelly says:

      Hello Cindy,
      The swimming pool evokes a scene of decadence, partying, that Hamlet has not been a part of. Also, there is something about a pool – full or empty – that evokes the subconscious. So important for this play.

      As for the bloody and encrusted appearance of the ghost, firstly this distinguishes him from Claudius (as they are played by the same actor, they play two similar-looking brothers – counterfeit of each other, as Hamlet notes – whose experience is yet so VERY different. So the ghost could never be mistaken (physically or emotionally) for Claudius! And also the encrusted appearance evokes the fact that he says ‘a loathsome crust did cover all my smooth body.’

  33. Mike says:

    Yes, it seems the assumpton Shakespeare would be playinig off of is, the “fairer” or “weaker” sex has the flight of fantasy, but there is some kind of twist going on here too. Only men see the ghost. Only men throughout the play imagine or envision self grandeur, or nobility, or act upon some delusion or pray… all the world’s a stage.
    Sometime I’ll have to go back and look more closely at what the women say and do.

  34. philippa kelly says:

    This is such a great thought, Mike. I wonder whether Shakespeare here was betraying his own subjection to the patriarchy of his time?

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