Oxfordian Journal Chapter 3: Realizing that Prince Hamlet is Drawn from the Author’s Own Psyche

Standing in the wings during our Hamlet production in college, I was watching and listening to the prince’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, when he winds up concluding that “conscience” is what often prevents us from making a decision and acting on it:

“Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, and thus and native hue of resolution is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great pith and moment, with this regard, their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.”

Hamlet and Ophelia – by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1858

On the surface he’s talking about being afraid of doing something that’ll get us killed, in which case we’d have to face the “undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”  He also seems to be saying that “tough guys” don’t bother with conscience, so they never hesitate to go into battle – to take revenge, make war.  They act first, think later — without regard for the rights and wrongs, the pros and cons, the grays.

Hamlet lives in that gray world where nothing is either black or white.  He and John Wayne inhabited very different worlds.

I found myself drawn into the prince’s dilemma, to be or not to be, to fight or not to fight; and I could feel his painful self-loathing.  Then Ophelia enters.  The young lady is bewildered by his mood swings and erratic behavior, but she tries to put on a cheerful face:

“Good my lord, how does your honor for this many a day?

“I humbly thank you: well, well, well.”

And soon he turns on her, like a madman, saying, “I loved you not” and telling her, “Get thee to a nunnery!”

Hamlet & Ophelia – Kenneth Branagh, with Kate Winslet in the 1996 film

Standing just offstage, I was horrified by his treatment of her; but next came Hamlet’s speech that struck me with such unexpected force:

“Why wouldst thou be a breeder of sinners?  I am myself indifferent honest, but yet I could accuse me of such things that it were better my mother had not borne me.  I am very proud, revengeful, ambitious, with more offenses at my beck than I have thoughts to put them in, imagination to give them shape, or time to act them in.  What should such fellows as I do, crawling between earth and heaven?  We are arrant knaves all; believe none of us. “

Well, I knew he was still putting on his “antic disposition,” so he was exaggerating about being such a terrible guy.  But maybe because the actor playing him [the late Richard Kavanaugh] was so forceful and believable, it seemed to me he was also telling the truth – at least part of it.  Here, I thought, is no “classical” protagonist but a very modern main character of extraordinary complexity, full of surprises and contradictions, and he’s actually criticizing himself for having the worst kinds of human flaws.

Moreover it struck me right then that Shakespeare could not have drawn the character of Hamlet strictly from the “old tales” he had read, nor could he have created the prince out of whole cloth.  No, this character must be in some ways … autobiographical.  The playwright must have created Hamlet out of his own psychic turbulence.

So if Hamlet had become my friend it follows that the author must be my friend as well…

After that show I approached a member of the college faculty.  “What do we know about Shakespeare?” I asked him.  “I mean, what do we know about him as a person?”

“Well,” the professor said, “we know he was an actor.”

I waited for more.

“And,” he said, “we know he became a writer.”

“Ah,” I said.

The professor looked at me.  I finally nodded my head as though everything had become clear.

“Thanks,” I said.

“You’re welcome.”

Many years later I would remember this conversation and wonder why I’d never tried to learn more.

(To be continued)

Published in: Uncategorized on August 1, 2012 at 6:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Oxfordian Journal Chapter 2: When Prince Hamlet Became My Friend … My Soul Mate!

We put on Hamlet in my senior year of college.  I was cast as Laertes and began several weeks of practice with the fencing team, to prepare for the duel with Hamlet near the end of the play.  In fact it worked out well, with the two of us bounding up and down stairs, leaping off various parts of the set and clanging our swords (foils) according to a choreographed duel that we kept intensifying with each performance.

The 2nd Quarto of “Hamlet” (the first full, authorized version) was published soon after Edward de Vere Earl of Oxford died on June 24, 1604, and then no more authorized printings of yet-unpublished Shakespeare plays appeared for eighteen years.

Laertes, of course, is the brother of Hamlet’s bewildered young girlfriend, Ophelia, who is also his potential wife.  And of course the father of Laertes and Ophelia is Lord Polonius, chief minister to King Claudius.  And of course Claudius has murdered Hamlet’s father and married his mother, Queen Gertrude, thereby stealing the crown of Denmark from the prince – who, in England at least, would have been the automatic successor.

It would be a very long time until I heard anything about the eccentric and Hamlet-like nobleman Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, Lord Great Chamberlain of England.  It would be many years before I learned how Lord Oxford had married the bewildered young Anne Cecil, whose father was William Cecil Lord Burghley, chief minister to Queen Elizabeth, and the man who, like Polonius, made spying and the enlistment of spies an integral part of life at the royal court (and everywhere else).

I am not sure whether any of that Elizabethan history would have interested me.  I was an actor, after all, and the world I was trying to inhabit was strictly the world of the play.  Nor did I have any interest in the identity and life of the author, Mr. William Shakespeare – “the play’s the thing,” as Hamlet himself put it, so why bother with anything outside it?  [Only much later did I realize that the prince is making that statement within a much different context than the one used by those who argue it doesn’t matter who wrote the play.]

Edward de Vere 17th Earl of Oxford (1550-1604) — portrait of the eccentric, Hamlet-like nobleman at 25 in 1575, when he toured all through Italy

Looking back, it’s ironical that later in my senior year we put on Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, in which I played the older brother, Jamie, and it seemed quite natural to be keenly interested in that author’s life and how the play reflected it – especially in that particular masterwork, which is autobiographical inside-out.  I read all I could about O’Neill, including many of his other plays, but I had no such interest in learning about Mr. Shakespeare.

For reasons that never crossed my mind at the time, we had no inkling there might be a connection between the character of Hamlet and the character of the author who had created him and brought him to life with his pen.   On stage we were in the world of Denmark, not England, and in the world of Denmark we stayed.

Meanwhile I was becoming so fond of the prince that I listened to everything he said, not only when I was with him on stage but while standing in the wings as well.  I loved the guy – for his quick mind, his sharp sense of humor, his rebelliousness, his howls of pain.  I loved that he was hiding his true self from everyone except his pal Horatio, whom he trusted.  The other characters on stage had their different individual views of the prince (all of them wrong), but they were unaware that he was putting on an “antic disposition” to keep them off track.

James Dean (February 8, 1931 – September 30, 1955) — in “Rebel Without a Cause,” released on October 27, 1955, a month after Dean’s death in an auto crash

Not since I’d first seen James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (yelling to his parents, “You’re tearing me apart!”) had I come upon a character whose inner life seemed to connect with my own.  I was being drawn into Hamlet’s inner self.  He had become … my friend!  He was … my soul mate!”

I loved his soliloquies and was thrilled by them:

“O, that this too too solid flesh would melt, thaw, and resolve itself into a dew … O all you host of heaven!  O earth!  What else?  And shall I couple hell?  O, fie!  Hold, hold, my heart … O what a rogue and peasant slave am I! … To be or not to be, that is the question … How all occasions do inform against me, and spur my dull revenge!  What is a man, if his chief good and market of his time be but to sleep and feed? … “

I loved the language, too.  I grew to love the rhythm of the lines (like music) and how that rhythm helped to convey their meaning.  Surely my personal discovery of Hamlet was a central event for me.  And then one night during a performance I was standing in the wings, watching and listening, and heard the prince say something that gave me a jolt … a sudden feeling, a thought, that may have changed my life …

(To be continued)

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