Five, Count ’em, FIVE Hamlets

Five, Count ’em, FIVE Hamlets

In a fit of misplaced ambition I offered to teach a course on Hamlet in the Continuing Ed program at Southern Oregon University.  The idea was that we’d look at five filmed Hamlets, not simply to compare the productions, but to consider the decisions actor and director had made in conceptualizing  the transition of the play to the screen.  We began by identifying what we actually know from the text and what “unscenes” had to be imagined in order to carry the plot (?) along.  We don’t get a lot of help from Hamlet in a play in which the central character pauses to speak to us in regular fits of soliloquy;  yes, he wants his flesh to melt, yes, he’s got something against fardels, of course he feels like a peasant slave at times, but here’s the rub:  What’s an actor playing Hamlet supposed to want when he walks through the door?

There are two easy outs available to actors, neither of which actually answers that question but which at least give the actor something to do with his hands.

The first is the Hamlet and Oedipus template popularized by Ernest Jones in the appropriately entitled Hamlet and Oedipus.  The notion is that Hamel has lost all his mirth and forgone exercise because his mother has married his uncle.  There may be treason and murder in the mix around the edges, but the existential dilemma has to do with feeling out of sorts and angry at and repulsed by women.  Some productions goose that along a bit by amplifying the Jocasta part of the program, portraying Gertrude as all-too-physically fond of her kid.  The queen intuits Hamlet’s distress at her “oer hasty marriage” and may feel a slight tingle even though the heyday in the blood should have calmed down.

Awkward and unpleasant, this choice appears to have been in Laurence Olivier’s mind as he created his Hamlet.  His is a melancholy Dane, at times so depressed that he seems drugged, pumping up to action in the conversations with Ophelia and Gertrude.  Things get loud, physical, messy, and way beyond suggestive  when the brooding gives way to grabbing. As Erica Moulton noted, “When Olivier stages a climactic argument between Hamlet and his mother Gertrude, with the two writhing and struggling on her bed, he isn’t insinuating anything.”

The second out is the unpredictable adolescent Hamlet, careening from hyper-sensitivity to manic pique.  Derek Jacobi’s Hamlet wobbles between self-conscious snarkiness and self-aware reflection.  In putting on an antic disposition, Jacobi’s a witty Hamlet, a shrewd Hamlet.  All in all, Jacobi’s Hamlet is a self-protective Hamlet, not entirely timid, but, detached, wary.  Jacobi has said that every Hamlet is inescapably the actor’s persona writ large; it comes as little surprise that it was in playing this Hamlet that Jacobi unleashed his own demons and became virtually paralyzed by stage fright for more than two years. This Hamlet is precocious; he’s intellectually far more sophisticated than any of the characters in this political thriller, but emotionally unprepared for the situations in which he finds himself.

It’s worth noting that every Hamlet appears to be unprepared, which raises all the obvious questions as to what Hamlet thought was waiting for him when he finally left school at the age of thirty.  He may have been born to set things right, but it takes quite a while for him to begin to pull things into focus.  It is only at Ophelia’s grave that he declares himself Hamlet the Dane, then obscures his kingly mien by leaping into the open grave to wrestle Laertes.  “Eat a crocodile, I’ll do it.”

That’s what comes to mind?  Crocodiles?

The only Hamlet that comes to mind to me in the leaping and bizarre non sequitur universe is Zeffirelli’s choice, Mel Gibson.  The key to appreciating Gibson’s Hamlet may be in recognizing that the director rewrote the screenplay, dropping scenes, shoving them around, in effect creating the stripped down, muscular, lightly indecisive action script, and a central character who has been described as robust.  Simmering beneath the surface, Gibson’s steam has been boiling , expressed  in biting contempt until he virtually rapes his mother.  It’s easy to believe that this Hamlet would have no problem bumping off Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.  The ending remains the same, but the final scene gives us a swashbuckling Hamlet, finally allowed to unleash the physical energy that has been compressed throughout the rest of the film.

If we think Hamlet has a tough time summoning meaning as he walks through the door, consider Ophelia’s dilemma.  Hamlet may put his antic disposition on from time to time, but Ophelia has to travel from meek submission and sisterly affection to raunchily inappropriate suicidal madness in under an hour.  The question for any actor taking on the role has to be whether Ophelia has always been a bit too finely tuned.  Zeffirelli’s Ophelia, Helena Bonham Carter, is a disconcertingly effective Ophelia.  Gibson is fun to watch as an actor; Bonham Carter can break hearts.

David Tennant’s Hamlet is pretty finely tuned as well, a taut Hamlet, frayed and about to snap at any moment.  It has been observed that Tennant seems to fall into character as he becomes increasingly antic, an observation that presents the next-to-last template, the tortured, existentially damaged Hamlet, a Hamlet whose pain emerges as the biting wit of the smartest guy in the room.  Tennant is a hipster Hamlet who operates on a tight leash until the moment he pops, too loud, drawing too much attention to his torment.

Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, on the other hand, is in charge, seemingly deciding when and how to put revenge into action.  He’s a competent Hamlet whose antics are delivered with a comic’s timing.  There’s nothing adolescent about this Hamlet; from the first moment, as Jacobi’s Claudius insults him by dealing with Laertes before turning to the his nephew, the Queen’s son, the Prince, this Hamlet is composed and sharp.  It’s clear that he’d rather spend his time with actors than with affairs of state, but this Hamlet could handle things as well as a Claudius who seems not to notice that Fortinbras and the Norwegian army have invaded his nation.  Branagh is a special case as an actor and director in that he has almost single-handedly made Shakespearean English accessible to a wide range of audiences.  He speaks the speech trippingly with masterful inflection, so beautifully delivered as to inhibit great chasms of emotion, although it is clear that his Hamlet has no patience for those who don’t catch his meaning quickly.  This is a Hamlet who pulls the foppish courtier Osric into a duel of words to amuse himself even as he prepares to go to what Horatio fears is his death.

Here’s the last template then, the one an actor such as Branagh seem to inhabit:  this Hamlet has landed in an alternate universe in which the entire population is operating as though nothing untoward has happened.  In this model, it is the court which is schizophrenic, not the Dane.  There are points of confusion and contention,  not the least of which is the obvious and immediate usurpation of the throne.  The court seems to have gone along willingly, and the Queen seems not to mind having her son knocked over in favor of his uncle.  Ophelia and Hamlet have been busy, but her equally busy father in using her as proto-spy causes Hamlet to see her as the fair Ophelia to whom he wrote a charmingly awkward love letter and as yet another conspiratorial agent of the crown.

The contending realities template supports the seemingly endless stream of events and characters who are not what they seem, taking us back as expected to the opening lines in the play, which ask, “Who’s there?”.










End of the world? Meh.

End of the world? Meh.

The article entitled “A Nightmarish Climate Report” describing the findings  of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has been sitting in my inbox for more than a week.  It is, without doubt, the most significant article I’ve received in the last five years.  Vitally important.  Time sensitive, as it were.  Last chance.

Unopened for a week.

Because I’m overwhelmed.

Here’s an early paragraph just to establish the gravity of a temperature rise of more than 1.5 degrees.

Last night, in Incheon, South Korea, after a week of deliberation, the I.P.C.C. released the new findings. The summary tells a nightmarish tale—one much worse than any of those in the I.P.C.C.’s previous reports—surveying the climate-change impacts we’re already experiencing with one degree of warming, and the severity of the impacts to come once we surpass 1.5 degrees of warming. Ten million more people would be exposed to permanent inundation, and several hundred million more to “climate-related risks and susceptible to poverty.” Malaria and dengue fever will be more widespread, and crops like maize, rice, and wheat will have smaller and smaller yields—particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Central and South America. Security and economic growth will be that much more imperilled. “Robust scientific literature now shows that there are significant differences between 1.5 and 2 degrees,” Adelle Thomas, a geographer from the Bahamas and also one of the report’s lead authors, told me. “The scientific consensus is really strong. It’s not just a political slogan: ‘1.5 to stay alive.’ It’s true.”

It’s true.

No surprise really, absolutely anticipated, terrible, catastrophic.  And yet …

What am I supposed to do about it?

I have to guess that the passengers on the Titanic would have done something  had they known their watery demise was imminent.  Maybe?  Or, would they have continued to assume that someone in charge would eventually do all that was required to keep the ship afloat?  Is that my problem?  Am I still waiting  for the grown ups to do what grown ups do?

Of course, some grown ups did start to organize a world-wide effort to contain carbon emission and global rise in temperature.  But then, in a moment, the work of decades was undone, and the temperatures continues to climb.  So, my faith in government to respond, even with catastrophic information in hand has been beaten out of me.  So many individuals working around the globe to bring attention to imminent and irreversible mayhem, and yet, those with perhaps a decade or so left on the planet they govern maintain a bizarre imperviousness to science, reason, and the responsibility of stewardship.

Lesley Stahl interviewed the president on 60 Minutes, pressing hard with each question.  Here’s the portion of the CBS transcript of that interview that has to do with greater global warming:

Lesley Stahl: Do you still think that climate change is a hoax?

President Donald Trump: I think something’s happening. Something’s changing and it’ll change back again. I don’t think it’s a hoax, I think there’s probably a difference. But I don’t know that it’s manmade. I will say this. I don’t wanna give trillions and trillions of dollars. I don’t wanna lose millions and millions of jobs. I don’t wanna be put at a disadvantage.

Lesley Stahl: I wish you could go to Greenland, watch these huge chunks of ice just falling into the ocean, raising the sea levels.

President Donald Trump: And you don’t know whether or not that would have happened with or without man. You don’t know.

Uh, but we do know.

“It’ll change back.”

Maybe, after human life has been eliminated.  Good chance of some equilibrium then.   But that is then, and this is now, and now is all that matters to the folks in charge this week.  Well, now and the trillions and trillions of dollars.

If we all chipped in, could we do something?  Like have a bake sale or a car wash?  I’m a confirmed inactivist, but I’m scared enough that I’d chain myself to …. what?  Where’s the point of intersection?  What’s left to do by ourselves?

So I’m overwhelmed by the complexity of turning the ship and increasingly dispirited by clumsy, ugly, self-serving partisan chicanery.  Seems as if a hefty portion of the country is putting up points on a different scoreboard.  It’s not easy for me to acknowledge that the dismissal of the UN’s report is touted as one more victory over the forces of pointy headed progressive secularism, necessary to the systematic undoing of the fetus killing liberal establishment.

Partisan political skullduggery stinks of macho one-upmanship, connected t the preservation of privilege.  It’s a rotten game and the stakes are too high to see it as anything but criminal.

One characteristic of sublime ignorance is the failure to see connections, to recognize causes and anticipate effects.   Here’s an effect, reported by Ben Guarino in the Speaking of Science section of the Washington Post:

“Insects around the world are in a crisis, according to a small but growing number of long-term studies showing dramatic declines in invertebrate populations. A new report suggests that the problem is more widespread than scientists realized. Huge numbers of bugs have been lost in a pristine national forest in Puerto Rico, the study found, and the forest’s insect-eating animals have gone missing, too.

In 2014, an international team of biologists estimated that, in the past 35 years, the abundance of invertebrates such as beetles and bees had decreased by 45 percent. In places where long-term insect data are available, mainly in Europe, insect numbers are plummeting. A study last year showed a 76 percent decrease in flying insects in the past few decades in German nature preserves.”

Pesky bugs.

The term used by the post to describe this report is “Hyperalarming”.

I am alarmed, and what difference does that make?











Maybe This Is Why …

Guest Essay by Mary Fish Arango –

I am grateful for whatever led this video to my FB feed this morning. It helped clarify some of my disorganized thoughts about assault, truth telling, sharing one’s story, resentment versus gratitude, addiction and alcoholism, entitlement and privilege, courage and cowardice, wisdom and stupidity, aggression and kindness. The video makes the important point that one of our president’s core qualities is that he flips the tables, making the accused seem like victims.

I have super-developed sensitivity to people who cultivate resentment. It goes along with a childhood spent living with an alcoholic and a rage filled dry drunk, both of whom abused prescription drugs. I am wary of people who go out of their way to feel resentful or create situations that promote resentment. In my experience, people who cultivate resentment do it in order to justify acting out, whether that be overspending, overeating, binge drinking, gambling, drugs, rage, or some other addiction or problem behavior. I can’t trust people who cultivate resentment, because they put blame on someone else in order to dodge their own responsibility and give themselves permission to act out. I am like the dog under the table waiting to get kicked: the sound of fostered resentment makes me want to leave the room to avoid what inevitably comes next. The overeater is gearing up to consume the chocolate cake. The alcoholic is gearing up for bourbon or beer. The gambler is gearing up to put the house mortgage at risk.

Our current president is exceptionally talented at stirring up resentment cultivators. You speak loudly, you exaggerate, you repeat an untruth for effect, and resentment cultivators like having someone nurture and support their resentment and stir up anger. It entitles them to acting out and not being accountable. Giving it air time on television repeats the message like a hypnotic suggestion and collects more and more followers who wish to be unaccountable and entitled to acting out.

Not all people who have been sexually assaulted are women. If you think it’s rare for women to report sexual assault, consider the likelihood of a man or boy reporting sexual assault or sharing his story. Ask yourself how many people have shared their personal stories of assault with you. Is it because it hasn’t happened to people you know, or is it because you are not a safe enough receiver of that story? Would you believe the story if it were told to you? Would you shame the person for their experience? Would you end a friendship over the telling of the story? Would you marvel at the courage and endurance and emotional strength of the person extending trust enough to tell an excruciating story? Do you wish they wouldn’t change your world by sharing something you can then not un-know?

For an assault survivor, the events of the last several weeks have been triggering in a way that cannot be overstated. If “triggering” is a word that doesn’t have intense immediate impact for you, it may be because you are not a safe enough receiver of someone’s devastating story. Rage and bullying are triggering in themselves. Hearing someone claim, “She must have been mistaken,” when she says she is 100% certain….. Having someone discount the emotional impact or challenge the veracity of a compelling and detailed account…. Blue eyes and gray hair…. Responding to a question with redirection and the insinuation that the questioner is in the wrong…..


Someone who has been sexually assaulted will never question someone else’s waiting 36 years to relate the story. If you’ve never been molested or tortured or brutalized or assaulted, you may have the luxury of wondering why someone would wait to tell their story. If it has happened to you, you know exactly why someone would wait and you feel it in your core. You know exactly what it is to feel threatened and overpowered and unable to protect yourself. If you have been bullied or harassed or intensely and aggressively intimidated, you probably don’t wonder why someone wouldn’t relate their story, either.


I had been afraid of the dark for my entire life — not just kind of afraid of the dark — panic-stricken, stomach-clenching afraid of the dark. Afraid of things that might be under my bed, afraid of closet doors that were a tiny bit ajar, afraid of dark spaces behind hallway doors, afraid of turning on lights in a darkened house that I returned to at night, afraid of getting into a dark car on a dark street…. I got a puppy right after I graduated from college, and the dog was my constant companion for 14 years, my protection from gripping fear of the dark, a living thing making noises in the silence. Several years after his death, I walked down the wooden stairs at night into our basement family room, during a storm that had knocked out power in our neighborhood. My hand on the railing, I paused at the foot of the stairs and realized I was no longer afraid of the dark — for the first time in my life. In the same moment, I realized it was because my aggressor could no longer be a threat to me; his brain was strangling with dementia.

It takes courage to hear people’s anguished stories, whether they are stories of grief or loss or anger or despair. Their stories might change you, might affect you, might refuse to be forgotten or put aside. If you have the courage, ask the people you love to tell you theirs. If you hear enough of them, you may join those who understand why someone would wait so long to tell their story.

The cure is not in the disease

The cure is not in the disease

This piece is about the cure and the disease, and I’ll get to that in a bit, but I need to present something like reasonable context for using that particular language, the identification of contemporary events as diseased, not that the events of the past week have failed to slam the reality of a nation in peril down our throats.  I follow the news, shudder, and retreat to books seeking reassurance that there is some abiding commonality in humanity somewhere.  These are ugly days, but I’ve seen some remarkably encouraging days in the course of a lifetime; I’d like to think we might find our way to decency if not to kindness.  So, I read.

I recently read The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America to friends;  it’s an important book, devastating and challenging.  King’s first thought was to entitle the book, Those Pesky Redskins, an impulse he barely contains in wryly presenting the continuing disenfranchisement in America’s incomplete genocide.  Like Killers of the Osage Moon, King’s account is a painful read;  justice is not served and will not be served.  King’s outrage is understated, unadorned description of callous mendacity delivered in plain language.  Inescapable past, inescapable legacy of injustice, inescapable evidence of systemic inhumanity.

That’s pretty much a fact.

I found the cure is in the disease concept in The Music Shop by Rachel Joyce. The difference in tone between the two books is obvious, and it is odd that one should speak to the other, but there is a moment in The Music Shop in  which things have gone terribly wrong.  Desperately wrong.  No way back wrong.  Desperate times call for desperate measures; a character attempting to rebuild the world in which she lives suggests that the cure for a friend’s hopeless discouragement is in honoring the loss that has broken his spirit.  The cure, she believes, is in the disease.

There’s enough disease  to go round.  I’d like to think there’s something in the nature of our collective illness that could be restorative, and yet…

It’s been a tough week as the presumptive appointment to the Supreme Court has shown himself to be yet another blustering, entitled bully, certainly a liar, possibly guilty of assault.  Bad enough, but the partisan fury with which his behavior is defended reveals the bald self-interest of politics and party.  My spirit is not quite broken, but with each day’s revelations, hope is harder to summon.  The disease I see in this country is malignant, virulent,  venomous, and deadly. Contention is one thing; warfare is an entirely different experience.

Contending forces have been in play here from the start, which is testimony to the difference between this experiment and the history of other nations, almost all of which came into being as accidents of geography or topography; our founding was intentional and intentionally celebrated institutionalized contention, checks, balances, made possible under the rule of law.  Contention is not easily managed in the best of situations; toss in irreconcilable convictions and dangerous atavistic forces, racism, sexism, homophobia, misogyny, and contention gets truly ugly.

The idea back at the start, remember, was that the will of the majority would serve the greatest number, preventing the acquisition of absolute power by the wealthy and powerful.  It hasn’t quite worked out that way.  Wealth and power aside, the rule of a majority has proven to bring some unexpected complication.  Travelling the new nation in 1826, for example, Alexis de Tocqueville suggested that the greatest threat to democracy might finally come at the hand of a tyrannical majority.

“The moral dominion of the majority is based as well on the principle that the interests of the greatest number must be preferred to those of the few. Now, it is easily understood that the respect professed for this right of the greatest number naturally increases or decreases depending on the state of the parties. When a nation is divided among several great irreconcilable interests, the privilege of the majority is often unrecognized, because it becomes too painful to submit to it.”

De Tocqueville wasn’t wrong and was proven prescient within fifteen years of the publication of his analysis.  The abolitionist movement, preeminently a cause championed in the free states, accepted nothing less than the abolition of slavery in the United States.  Abolitionists saw slavery as an abomination, a crime against humanity.  The slave states believed themselves to have been accorded the right to conduct themselves as the majority in their state decreed.  A last-ditch bitterly negotiated effort to keep the Union intact, the Compromise of 1850, protected slavery by enacting fugitive slave laws, brought California into the Union as a free state and postponed civil war for a decade.  But only for a decade.  The free states could not allow slavery to continue; the slave states could not allow free states to dictate morality.

The election of Donald Trump startled those of us who had become used to the notion that progressive humanism, inclusion, and social justice  were priorities held by the majority of people in the nation.  It turns out that we were wrong.  There were folks at every point along a continuum, from eager partisans of nasty Trumpist tribalism to moderate conservatives, for whom the social order had changed too quickly or too radically.  The election was a referendum on progressivism, the same sort of referendum brought to Great Britain with Brexit.  Our situation is the more dangerous because, at the heart of the divide, is not globalism or even immigration, but the question of abortion.  A voting majority, supported by a court largely seated by that majority, ruled that women could legally seek an end to pregnancy; the minority found that an abomination and a crime against humanity, its implementation tyrannous.  Both convictions claim the moral high ground, and as was the case in 1850, there is really no room for compromise.

Majority rules, and today that means a majority in the US Senate, voting on principle or with regard for the political reality that brought them to Washington, will confirm the appointment of a judge who will accede to the dismantling of Roe v, Wade.  Although there are any number of conservative judges more than ready to carry out that function, some in the Senate, perhaps a majority, will vote to confirm the appointment of a man who has revealed himself to be lacking in the qualities of temperament or character expected of a jurist in the highest court.  They will vote to confirm because they can.

There have been other voices in the past who have spoken when holding power in victory: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds…”.

The wounding disease, I think, is malice.  The cure, charity.  Today, the odds seem to favor malice, but we are charged to finish the work we have been in all along, the only chance we may have to bind up our wounds, and that will take a truckload of charity, charity I’m not dredging up very successfully this week.