Recently saw a semi-competent performance of Hamlet, shortened to approximately 2.25 hours running time by extensive cutting of lines. And something dawned on me…
With each passing year, I relish all the more the two unabridged Hamlets that I possess: The Arkangel Shakespeare audio, on three CDs. And my most-prized worldly possession, my DVD of Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, 1996.
I listen/watch to both at least once a year, religiously. It takes a number of sessions to get through these unabridged renditions, to be sure. Four or five late evenings to watch, six to ten drives hither and yon to listen.
Now, I do of course recognize that actually performing Hamlet on stage poses the enormous challenge: So many friggin lines. And people don’t like to sit for four hours.
But I would like to go on record officially; I would like to proclaim to the world: If you are going to mount a Hamlet; if you are going to perform Hamlet, but Marcellus (after the crowing of the cock, and the fleeing of the ghost, in Act I, scene i) –if, in your Hamlet, Marcellus is not going to say:
Some say that ever ‘gainst that season comes
Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated,
The bird of dawning singeth all night long:
And then, they say, no spirit dares stir abroad;
The nights are wholesome; then no planets strike,
No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm,
So hallow’d and so gracious is the time.
…If these lines are going to be skipped, in the interest of time, then I would prefer to go for a walk. Thank you very much; all the best; good luck with your production. But I had rather go for a walk than sit for a Hamlet with a lot of missing lines.
Hamlet contains two marvelous ‘mysteries,’ in the religious sense of the term.
1. None of the truly important events of the drama actually occur on-stage. And the most important plot element (the history of the genuine love between Hamlet and Ophelia) never even gets mentioned explicitly. To understand just how much they truly loved each other, one must read between the lines of their respective ravings.
2. The plot of Hamlet does not particularly matter. The plot does not satisfy, in and of itself. The plot serves as the trunk of the tree, on which hang the fruits of people saying incredibly interesting things.
At the Hamlet I recently saw, all the appropriate people lay dead on the stage at the end of the play. And we, as the audience, more or less understood why. But it was as if we had just eaten a BLT with no mayonaise. A McMuffin with no egg.
I present here a brief laundry list of lines culled in the production I saw. Tragedy of tragedies, to leave such lines unsaid!
1. In Act I, scene iv, Hamlet, Horatio, and Marcellus, overhear the boom of the cannon, which has sounded because Claudius has drunk himself silly on his wedding night. Hamlet remarks, regarding the unworthiness of this custom of Danish kings (which his father never practiced)…
This heavy-headed revel east and west
Makes us traduced and tax’d of other nations:
They clepe us drunkards, and with swinish phrase
Soil our addition; and indeed it takes
From our achievements, though perform’d at height,
The pith and marrow of our attribute.
So, oft it chances in particular men,
That for some vicious mole of nature in them,
As, in their birth–wherein they are not guilty,
Since nature cannot choose his origin–
By the o’ergrowth of some complexion,
Oft breaking down the pales and forts of reason,
Or by some habit that too much o’er-leavens
The form of plausive manners, that these men,
Carrying, I say, the stamp of one defect,
Being nature’s livery, or fortune’s star,–
Their virtues else–be they as pure as grace,
As infinite as man may undergo–
Shall in the general censure take corruption
From that particular fault: the dram of eale
Doth all the noble substance of a doubt
To his own scandal.
A worthy reflection on Hamlet’s part, given daily proof in our age’s journalism.
2. Of course, the account of Priam’s slaughter, recited so movingly by the chief player in the traveling troupe, fell altogether by the wayside in the 2.25-hour turbo Hamlet.
We readily admit that Act II, scene ii, of Hamlet, as printed in the Folio, is itself longer than many plays. But, again: If, in your Hamlet, Hamlet will not say “come to Hecuba,” then I had rather go for a walk.
3. This famous exchange, from Act III, scene ii…
HAMLET Horatio, thou art e’en as just a man
As e’er my conversation coped withal.
HORATIO O, my dear lord,–
HAMLET Nay, do not think I flatter;
For what advancement may I hope from thee
That no revenue hast but thy good spirits,
To feed and clothe thee? Why should the poor be flatter’d?
No, let the candied tongue lick absurd pomp,
And crook the pregnant hinges of the knee
Where thrift may follow fawning. Dost thou hear?
Since my dear soul was mistress of her choice
And could of men distinguish, her election
Hath seal’d thee for herself; for thou hast been
As one, in suffering all, that suffers nothing,
A man that fortune’s buffets and rewards
Hast ta’en with equal thanks: and blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled,
That they are not a pipe for fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please. Give me that man
That is not passion’s slave, and I will wear him
In my heart’s core, ay, in my heart of heart,
As I do thee.
Yes. Cut. A painful cut. Getting your running time down to 2.25 hours is not worth cutting this conversation, my friends!
4. In Act III, scene iv, when Hamlet ponders how he will outwit Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends he trusts “as adders fang’d”…
For ’tis the sport to have the engineer
Hoist with his own petard: and ‘t shall go hard
But I will delve one yard below their mines,
And blow them at the moon: O, ’tis most sweet,
When in one line two crafts directly meet.
Yes, the coining of the delicious phrase “hoist by his own petard.” Cut.
I could go on. But let me leave off complaining. Better just to meditate on some of the fascinating things said by Hamlet, and other characters, in the unabridged Hamlet.