Last Thursday, my class and I went to see a production of Hamlet at the Royal Shakespeare Company Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon. It was a very interesting performance and I really enjoyed watching it. The production company decided to interpret the story in a very unique way. Instead of having the play take place in medieval Denmark, it took place during modern times in an African culture. Although different from the standard interpretation of Hamlet, I thought that this decision was a very intriguing one to take, as it allowed the audience to see the characters and society of Hamlet in a brand new light.
However, the play was not without its flaws, and the most striking of those flaws was the RSC’s inability to fully commit to its African vision of the play. The production company was clearly trying have the play take place in an African setting. This was evident because of their casting, music, and set decisions that they made in regards to the play. However, the lines that the actors used still indicated that the story takes place in Europe; Denmark specifically. In order to do justice to the vision that the RSC had created for Hamlet, they should have made the play take place in an African country.
One could argue that it is essential to remain faithful to the text when producing a play, but when the director of Hamlet decided to set the play in what is obviously an African country, the intent of the text was altered anyway. The characters dressed in African clothing, the music used in the play was African, and the design of the set was African. To present this African imagery to the audience and yet insist that the play still takes place in Denmark is asking me to suspend my disbelief too far.
The RSC’s production of Hamlet was fun to watch, but in order to become a stronger performance, the RSC needed to fully commit to their vision of Hamlet in Africa. Such a decision would have strayed from the text, but it would have given the production a stronger continuity and the performance would have been more polished as a whole.
Yesterday morning, my class and I went to an exhibit at the British Library known as Shakespeare In Ten Acts. There were many interesting artifacts contained in the exhibit, such as old scripts and books, but the item that caught my eye the most was a lone skull resting in a glass rectangular case. The skull was a real human skull that was meant to bring attention to the skull that Hamlet is famously pictured as holding in his famous “to be or not to be” speech.
The skull might be a really common image, but the reason why it struck out at me so fiercely during that moment and time is because it is a morbid reminder of what the human body transforms into after death. We always picture the human face as one of the most vibrant aspects about us. It has rose red cheeks that are filled with emotion, bright eyes filled with excitement for life, and compassionate smiles that welcome other humans into its proximity.
The skull is the exact opposite of this. Over the centuries, the skull has been dehumanized and it is seen as a hollow inanimate object. It has gone from being the fearful mascot of a pirate flag to being imprinted on the mask of a little kid who is dressing up as a skeleton for Halloween. It is also considered to be an icon of horror in general. We as humans have become so distant from the skull that we tend to forget that it is the core of our facial structure. If all of the skin on our heads magically disappeared, then those heads would be no different from the skull that I saw at the exhibit.
Shakespeare really drives this point home in his play, Hamlet. He has the character of Hamlet in the presence of this skull. At first glance, one would think that the scene is just of a man holding an object, when in reality, Hamlet and the skull are two sides of the same coin. Hamlet is the side that is full of life (however depressed he may be) and the skull is the side that used to be full of life but is now a bleak hollow object with nothing left to look forward to. The skull serves to show the gravity of what Hamlet faces. If Hamlet abandons this dark path, then his life will continue, but if not, then the appearance of death is all that he has to look forward to. This is why the skull was the key item that held my interest yesterday, because I, along with most of humanity, spend so much time thinking of it as just an item symbolizing death, when in reality, the skull is a fundamental part of the living body.
Wednesday afternoon, my class and I watched a production of Macbeth in London’s Globe Theatre. Not only was it a very engaging performance, but it also made me rethink the entire vision that Shakespeare had for his works of fiction. Earlier this year, I had read Macbeth for the very first time. I found it to be a very enjoyable play because I reveled in the action that took place and the exploration of Macbeth’s dark actions kept me engaged until the very last act. Therefore, I was very excited to watch the play yesterday. Though, little did I know just how different watching the play and reading was going to be.
I got a lot out of the reading of the play, but there were times when the dialogue and the action did not match up. For example, in the scene when Macbeth and Macduff are about to engage in their final fight, they execute long intense speeches that are meant to dramatically build up the battle that they are about to participate in. However, since Macbeth is a play and not a narrative, the specific actions of the characters are not described. Therefore, the opening speeches of both of these characters are only followed by quick stage directions before embarking on dialogue that takes place much later in the battle. Again, the story never stops becoming interesting, but it is a bit jarring when the plot of the play is moving faster than my mind can picture it.
This is why watching the play unfold onstage is so useful in illuminating Shakespeare’s vision for Macbeth. While I can’t create pictures of the characters in my head like I can while reading the play, a performance allows those scenes that move so fast on paper to be organically drawn out on the stage of the Globe. Using the example of Macbeth and Macduff’s duel once again, the two characters were able to fill in the gaps of their dialogue with several exciting minutes of fighting, and the sound effects created by the tech crew made the battle all the more engaging. Reading the play of Macbeth gave me the privilege of picturing the story however I wanted to in my own head, but watching the play on the stage of the Globe allowed Shakespeare’s vision to be presented in a natural and exhilarating manner.
Yesterday, I visited the Westminster Abbey; a brilliant and historic piece of architecture that held the graves and monuments of many well-known and popular figures from ancient history. One of those monuments was dedicated to William Shakespeare, the playwright who is the subject of this course. The majority of the monuments that honored most of the deceased figures in Westminster Abbey were rectangular slabs of grey stone, but that was not the case with William Shakespeare’s. Shakespeare was etched in a full body statue, and the act of forging an image of Shakespeare in such a way says a lot about how much the society of England revered him.
In the statue, William Shakespeare is leaning over an object with a fist under his chin. He seems completely relaxed and confident; as if he knows for a solid fact that everything is great with his life and that nothing is going to go wrong again. This is an image of how the sculptors of Shakespeare viewed him and his writing. It appears that they viewed him as a self-assured and confident master of his art. They seemed to view him as an individual who could confront and surpass every writing challenge without even breaking a sweat. He truly appears to look like a man that has never had any doubts about how he should have written his work and Shakespeare seems to believe that he has executed it perfectly.
However, the most glaring piece of evidence that demonstrates how greatly Shakespeare was revered as a writer was the object that he was leaning on, which was a couple of books resting atop the heads of English monarchs. The sculptors of this statue revered Shakespeare so much that they associated him with the royal family. The statue literally depicts his work as that of royalty. In fact, he is placed higher than royalty in this statue, for he is using the royalty of England as a convenient tool for having a place to rest his books and take his relaxed stance. This statue of Shakespeare was found among the writers’ section of the Westminster Abbey. Since he is associated with royalty in the guise of this statue, Shakespeare does not only appear to be presented as the king of all writers, but as a figure beyond even kings themselves.