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.
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.]
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.
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)