Saturday, April 3, 2010

A Portrait of Hamlet as a Young Man

I’ll admit right off that I’m no expert on Shakespeare. I’ve read several of his plays, seen a few stage productions, seen a few screen versions. Not a CV worth noting.

But I’ve got a soft spot for Hamlet. I’ve got one of the Gielgud productions as an audiobook on my iPod, and whenever I get bored with my music or my podcasts or other audiobooks, Gielgud’s Hamlet slips right back into the queue. Is it nerdy to say that it never disappoints?

Well, suck it. It never disappoints.

Gielgud wasn’t an actor. He was an Actor, back before The Method or Stanislavski or whatever gave birth to the well-meaning creature whose inbred offspring finally limped and fumbled their way into begetting mumblecore.

It’s a brilliant thing to listen to Gielgud deliver Hamlet. When he’s over the top, he is positively scraping his follicles on the ceiling. His scene with the Ghost of Hamlet Sr. is, to put it softly, a scenery chewing binge that would bring rouge to the cheeks of William Shatner.

But why not? Why not? Your father dies, comes back as a ghost, and tells you that your uncle did it, and oh by the way, please kill the aforementioned offending party, who now happens to be married to your mother and who also happens to have a plaque inscribed with “King of Denmark” on his desk.

Right. Let’s see Brando cool his way through that one:

“That’s a bum rap, Pops. I’ll see what I can do.”

Dis. Satisfying. You need some Drama in your drama.

But where Gielgud really shines is in the low notes. The quick asides, the deadpan sarcasm he tosses at his “uncle-father” and “aunt-mother.” You can feel Hamlet’s bitterness as he absorbs every footstep that tramples over his father’s memory.

Anyway, I’ve been listening to Hamlet again lately, which prompted me to spend some time on the web, researching the play and it various interpretations over the centuries. And it occurs to me that people are kinda doing it wrong. (This is where my complete lack of qualification swoops in. Hold off the gong for just a moment, though, if you please.)

It seems like the major debate around the character of Hamlet himself focuses on his lack of, shall we say, agile decision making. Hamlet agonizes over his charge to kill his uncle, even though his own beloved father dragged himself back from Hell in order to give Hamlet the Columbo version of what happened, and then demand that his death be avenged.

Well what is this Hamlet guy waiting for? Just kill dear old Uncle Claudius and get cleaned up for dinner. Plenty of leftovers from the funeral/wedding.

Well, he’s crazy, say some. Or he’s indecisive. Weak-willed. Or my favorite, badly written.

Oh, I’m sorry Mr. State College Literature Thesis Guy! Did William Fucking Shakespeare not write the most complex character in human history to your exacting specifications? Maybe we should take a look at your own masterwork of dramatic writing, cleverly entitled Jack Squat.

So, here’s what I think. I think that Hamlet’s long, tortuous journey toward vengeance only seems weird because we’re used to seeing middle-aged men playing the part. Gielgud. Burton. Branagh. Hell, even Gibson.

I’m sorry, but aren’t we forgetting the fact that Hamlet was, oh, a teenager?

That’s right. A teenager. A college student, one who liked living it up – drinking, fencing, chasing girls, going to see the players. Your general Animal House lifestyle. His back and forth would probably seem a lot more understandable if he were more frequently cast as Luke Skywalker instead of Old Ben Kenobi.

Of course it seems weird to see Mel Gibson hemming and hawing his way through trying to work up the nerve to kill his ghost-convicted murderous letch of an uncle. Mel Gibson killed 193 people in the first five minutes of Lethal Weapon. Okay, not really, but he’s a grown man. A grown man would know his own mind well enough to make a choice and take action. When he can’t, it seems a bit off.

But Hamlet is a kid. If he and Romeo had met, they would probably have hung out, staring at blacklight posters, listening to Pink Floyd and talking about their girlfriends. Hamlet’s not ready for the big-boy world of regicide and revenge and supernatural death warrants. Hell, three weeks ago, he was trying to pick between Intro to Sociology and Business Management 101. It’s a big adjustment.

Hamlet’s smart, clever, creative, naive, but also cynical, self-doubting, impulsive, and fearful. Sound like any demographic you know? He wants to do his father’s bidding, but like any good teenager, he has to do it his own way. Hell, Brando would understand that. A kid’s gotta rebel a little, doesn’t he?

What I’m saying is this: I want to see an age-appropriate Hamlet. I want to see a Hamlet who just got his fake ID, picked his major, had humiliating first-time sex with a co-ed, and then gets the call from home.

Put down the beer bong, young prince. Your father, King of All Denmark, is dead.