For my 35th birthday, Steve and I drove to The American Shakespeare Center to see Hamlet. I figured it was long overdue since I teach the play, but had never seen it before. What I discovered on this little jaunt was delightful.
Shakespeare's plays are divided in to three categories: his comedies, tragedies, and histories. And Shakespeare, in general, was an expert at drawing in all members of his crowd, from the groundling peasants to Her Highness, the Queen. One way to do this? No holds barred sexual innuendo and tongue-in-cheek banter.
My list of Shakespearean plays that I've seen is shamefully small; it will be remedied, one at a time. But through the plays I have seen, and the film adaptations of a slightly larger list, I've never seen a tragedy take on quite the humor that this particular rendition of Hamlet did. And frankly, it was unexpected and appreciated.
We all know I'm a nerd, a geek, or as Shelly so lovingly puts it, a dork. I care not what you think; I enjoy my literature. But I can't help but immediately envision film noir techniques when I think of William's tragedies. They're supposed to, as Aristotle points out, elicit feelings of fear and pity and sadness, enough to bring on a catharsis. When I read the plays, I seek out the flashes of comedic relief to break up the sheer curtain of mourning that drops down on me. Come on - His expressions are beautiful, but dark. The directors of the film adaptations seem to take that feeling and run with it, though many times their intent seems too contrived.
But here, joy of joys, was an adaptation that fully engaged the banter Shakespeare is known for. Granted, a few errors in the memories of the illustrious actors helped - seriously - Polonius was ranting on about his son, Laertes and forgot what came next. The poor audience member who had the luck to sit in the Lord's chair on stage was asked what came next. "Line? What's my line?" "Um, I don't know..." Hilarious! Yes, some impromptu improvisation took place throughout the play. But the actors still, for the most part, owned their roles. Hamlet, the younger, was quite convincing and would provide much fodder for discussion in my class - was he truly insane? Did he pretend too much until he took on some of the insanity? Or, as Steve thinks (and with this rendition, I tend to agree) did he really know all along his own wits and simply fool everyone else?
My point is that this is the first time I've witnessed any sort of Shakespearean tragedy that made use of the full amount of comedy present in everyday (Elizabethan) colloquialisms and vernacular, in banter, in day-to-day emotions that we have as children, parents, friends, sisters, brothers. This particular troupe truly made the play come alive for me, and I can hardly wait to bring these ideas to my classroom. For now, though, I need to re-read Othello...Summer reading projects will be here before I know it.