The DVD version of the 2008 Royal-Shakespeare-Company Hamlet has found its way to the local public library, allowing me to return again to my favorite subject: Don’t cut lines from Hamlet!
I have heard David Tennant play a fun Macbeth porter and an endearing Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, not to mention a vivacious Launcelot Gobbo in Merchant of Venice and a crushingly pathetic Edgar in King Lear. (He enacted all these for Arkangel Shakespeare, way before he became Dr. Who.)
But this 2008 Hamlet, for all its earnestness, will go down in history as the version in which they trimmed lines from “To Be or Not To Be…” Party foul, people.
First, however: The unforgettable and amazing thing about RSC 2008 Hamlet: Patrick Stewart’s bad-ss Claudius.
Scary, as in scary frightening and scary good. Claudius’ speech in III.iii, when he tries to pray, but cannot bring himself to renounce his dishonest gains; “O my offense is rank, it smells to heaven” (at 1:21, below)–as heartbreaking a literary artifact as ink has ever left behind for us. Stewart utterly nails it. You wish he could repent. But you relish that, in fact, he cannot.
Indeed, a great deal of Hamlet‘s dramatic energy comes from the fundamentally evil sexual tension between Claudius and Gertrude. The more decisive the acting in this area, the greater the energy of the performance as a whole, since everything revolves around Claudius’ and Gertrude’s sketchy marriage.
In the best movie ever made, Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet, Derek Jacobi convinces us that Claudius follows after Gertrude like a poor puppy who cannot resist Julie Christie’s ferocious allure. For Jacobi’s Claudius, wearing the crown seems only an undesirable corollary to his original scheme. He could just as soon do without being king. He would have killed his brother in cold blood solely to get the queen for a wife.
In 2008 RSC, though, Stewart’s dominant Claudius preys on Penny Downie’s inability to deal with all her ambivalences. This approach, though quite satisfying in many respects, has one significant problem: it does not resonate with inconvenient lines in the script. Stewart’s Claudius would make it hard for us to believe the “Hyperion-to-a-satyr” contrast between the dead king and Claudius which Hamlet draws in I.ii. (Especially since Stewart also plays the Ghost in this production.) Problem solved, though: they cut that line.
The two-hour Hamlet I saw in Staunton in April simply did not make sense as a whole, so much of the script had gone unsaid. By the time this three-hour RSC production ends, it looks a lot like Hamlet. (Though they cut the last exchange! We never see young Fortinbras!)
The problem is, in this Hamlet many of the most-important speeches don’t make sense. Editing has eviscerated them of crucial sentences. How can we have “To be or not to be..” without a “bare bodkin?” Please.
Another problem: Forgive me for generalizing, but there are two kinds of Hamlets. Skinny adolescent ones and manly ones. Shakespeare wrote a manly Hamlet. Never crossed Shakespeare’s mind to doubt that ghosts can and do appear to people. Hamlet, as written by Shakespeare, has no Oedipus Complex. He simply has to deal with what a ghost has told him. Things like that can happen, after people get murdered.
The 20th century gave us skinny adolescent Hamlets with complexes. David Tennant gives us a 20th-century Hamlet.
I thought we had moved on.
Summary: If you take the trouble to watch this RSC 2008 Hamlet on DVD, you will wish, every 1-2 minutes (except when Claudius is speaking), that you were watching Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet instead.