Hamlet and Me, A Reflection on Story

1996. I was sitting alone in a movie theater…well, not alone; I mean I was without company. I mean nobody I knew came with me to the theater. It was a movie house in the Embarcadero in San Francisco. Back then I knew San Francisco well, living just outside the city. I didn’t know it like a native but I knew it like a friend who has never invited you to their home but asks you to drinks regularly and seems generally interested in your life. So, I felt at home, is what I’m trying to say. I wasn’t a tourist so I don’t think I have over sentimentalized the event.

I was in the theatre to see Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet. It’s a four hour beast, the full text of the play, and the only movie I remember seeing, aside from Gone With The Wind, that requires an intermission. The works of Shakespeare, it turns out, do not come in neatly wrapped and tied packages. Like most holy texts, there are multiple versions, bits here and there. Branagh, the screenwriter, director and lead, pulled from every source available and used every last drop of it and I hung on every word. I was enthralled because Branagh made every effort to bring the text to life and help us interpret Shakespeare through action and emotion. My blog (one of them) is titled “By These Pickers and Stealers” after a line in Hamlet that I didn’t understand until I watched Kenneth Branagh say it while wiggling his fingers. He made the play bigger and smaller at the same time. It’s a simple story with complex characters and language but a simple story still, and Branagh trusted the easy truth of it beneath all the staging and language.

It’s one of my favorite movies. Already a sucker for Hamlet, I reveled in the full text presented without apology and I appreciated Branagh’s production, lovely and precise and visually respectful of the poetry within the play while being something new. I watched it two more times while it was still in theatres (that’s a total of 12 hours) and I have watched it three or four times since. Nobody has ever sat through the entire movie with me.

Ten years later I was disappointed to hear one of my heroes (and a Shakespearean-like character in his own odd and private way), Ray Bradbury, say he preferred Mel Gibson and Franco Zifferelli’s more traditional and truncated 1990 version of Hamlet over Branagh’s. The movies cost about the same to make (Branagh’s 18 million against Gibson’s 20 million), though Gibson’s was half as long.

But I was talking about Bradbury. He liked Mel Gibson’s movie better. It was hard for me to understand Bradbury’s preference.

Though Ray Bradbury recognized me at book signings and speaking engagements and we corresponded occasionally (he answered everybody, by the way), by the time I heard him talk about Hamlet he was in a wheelchair and they didn’t allow people to chat with him much at events because he would tire quickly. So, in 1986 when I first met him, we could have talked about Hamlet, but in 2006 he no longer had the energy to do more than sign books.

My guess is that Bradbury liked the visceral, crazy, Mel Gibson Hamlet more than the intellectual, crazy, Kenneth Branagh Hamlet. And that would be a good point. You can read Hamlet as broken at the core of his being or you can read him as broken in his ability to process his current reality (and other ways too). Does Hamlet break from the inside out or the outside in? There you have Gibson and Branagh, in my mind, their Hamlet’s and maybe the actors as well. I am no scholar and an amateur reader at best, but here you also have a central question in the play. What kind of crazy is Hamlet?

Even if you have not seen their depictions of Hamlet, all you need to do is imagine Mel Gibson and Kenneth Branagh (as they are displayed for better or worse in other movies and in public) and there you see before you the embodiment of the question. Did Hamlet’s madness move north or south from his broken heart?

To ask what kind of crazy is Hamlet is to ask, What sort of crazy am I? That’s what I’m up to here. It’s not my intention to write an analysis of Hamlet. Even if we just count the very good books and essays on Hamlet, they are countless, like Bible commentaries or Chess books. I’m trying to write about why Hamlet as a story and Kenneth Branagh’s movie in particular—even singularly—is so meaningful to me.

Shakespeare, whoever he was, does not need me to vouch for his genius. In the case of Hamlet, I think that genius is most evident while looking at efforts, movies or plays, to present the Hamlet story using only bits and pieces of the original work, as with every other movie version except Branagh’s. As a storyteller, I wonder why I love Branagh’s Hamlet so much.

I am fond of the idea that we need stories because all stories are about us. It’s a small twist on the Gestalt method of dream interpretation in which everything within a dream is you. I’m not a big believer in understanding or interpreting symbols in dreams because I think it misses the point and causes us to act as if the dream came from somewhere else or is a coded message from our subconscious that requires a kind of Orphan Annie decoder ring to understand. If you really want to extract value from a dream simply speak, think, or write from the point of view of every person, place, or thing within the dream. If you dream of a chair skipping down a street made of green taffy while the Bee Gees sing Staying Alive from their perch on a cloud high above, start with the chair. Write, “I am a chair…” Answer all the basic questions as the chair. Why are you skipping? Where are you going? What are you thinking and how do you feel? Do the same for the taffy street, the clouds, the Bee Gees, and even the song Staying Alive.

Stories work in the same way, I think. But it goes beyond how we identify and empathize with the main character. We are all of the characters in every story if we want to understand, even a little, about why any of them make an impression on us, why we laugh and cry and wish the movie would not end or are grateful when it does.

Yes,  you are Batman.

I like Hamlet because, perhaps like you, I am a little broken in places and a little insane at times. I love Branagh’s Hamlet because he makes me look so stunningly poetic while I slip off the cliff of reason. In the mirror of my personal madness Mel Gibson makes me look like I’m tripping over a rock whereas Branagh makes me look like I’m performing a beautiful swan dive as I descend into the abyss. One is likely and one is aspirational.

We are Hamlet, just as we are the dead king and traitorous uncle and passionately, ambivalent mother. We are the lost and drowning Ophelia, the angry Laertes, the ambitious and angry Fortinbras. We are even the dumbstruck ambassador from England who at the end of the play wonders who he should tell that “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.” Maybe most of all we are Horatio, the friend, survivor, witness, and surely the teller of the tale.

Hamlet and me. I don’t know for sure why these things come to my mind when thinking about Hamlet more than other stories. I think maybe it’s because within Hamlet one finds so many aspects of personality and the play itself presents a complete picture of being human. And in full text you even get the boring parts to complete the picture.

The best example of the full text providing a full length mirror reflection of being human is the presence of Fortinbras, the prince of Norway. When Hamlet is staged or filmed Fortinbras and his entire subplot are often the first thing to be cut out because he is easily removed without disturbing the central plot and action. He is absent from both Olivia’s and Gibson’s Hamlet. Though he speaks the final words of the play these are sometimes given to Horatio in his absence. But to me it completely ruins the story or, at best, turns it into something else. Fortinbras is the Bizarro World Hamlet. He is a Prince named after his father who was killed (by Hamlet’s father). So they are not just contrasting characters they are entwined.

Hamlet without Fortinbras is incomplete because without Fortinbras, who seeks revenge for his father’s death by any means with determination and without hesitation, we have only Hamlet’s maddening deliberation and self-examination. Hamlet tells the travelling actors visiting the castle to perform the play “Gonzago,” in a way that will cause his murdering Uncle Claudius to display guilt.

Young Fortinbras would not play such games (even if he could conceive of them). If Fortinbras was the main character, it would be a very short play because he would slit his uncle’s throat before the end of Act One, probably in the second scene.

Mel Gibson’s Hamlet is not only without Fortinbras, but Horatio is pushed into the background. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are removed, eliminating yet another part of “my personality” from the story. (Oddly enough, the play and movie Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is my second favorite version of Hamlet.)

The Disney Film Inside Out gave us an glimpse inside the emotions of an 11 year old by personifying aspects of her personality. I could have saved you a lot of time by just saying this up front, but I think Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet is basically “Inside Out” for my personality, and I don’t think I’m alone. Hamlet has been turned into a movie more than any other Shakespeare play (beating Romeo and Juliette by at least 10 films) and by almost any measure it is his most popular play. Thinking about Hamlet as Inside Out for adults helps me understand why I had enjoyed and appreciated the play but was not stunned by it until I saw Branagh’s full text movie.

It’s easy enough to say Hamlet is a troubled soul but outside of the full text I don’t think he’s troubled enough, or he is troubled in a way that makes the story a different story about a different Hamlet, an alternative universe versions, maybe. Hamlet with or without Fortinbras? Spock with Vulcan destroyed or with Vulcan intact?

Well, Hamlet might be in the eye of the beholder, a mystery, an adventure, an Oedipal puzzle, and I’m sure my love for the play had different reason at one time than it does now and will change in the future. Nevertheless, there is me in 1996, going to the movie alone and even after four hours remaining in my seat while the credits roll, my mouth open, forgetting where I am and wondering what just happened. I’m still trying to explain it to him.

Mike Ferguson
December 2015

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