When was Shakespeare born? Given the need to insure his soul before infant mortality took his body, we can assume that his baptism on April 26, 1566 followed hard upon his birth. We know when he died: April 23, 1616. It was St. George’s Day, a last elision of the man into the language and the national mythology. This patriotic tidiness seems to have inspired the eighteenth-century biographers who fixed Shakespeare’s birth on St. George’s Day too. In the same spirit, S. Y. Agnon, who reformulated literary Hebrew much as Shakespeare reformulated literary English, claimed to have been born on Yom Kippur, the better to embody his national drama. That wasn’t true in fact, but it was true symbolically. When it comes to literature, symbols might matter more.
“Happy Birthday, Bill!” was scrawled on the notice outside the Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on St. George’s Day, for the homecoming show of the “Globe to Globe” tour of Hamlet. Two years ago to the day, the small cast and crew embarked from the wharf in front of the Globe, to begin a theatrical emulation of Sir Francis Drake’s circumnavigation of the physical globe. On Saturday, after giving 295 performances in 206 countries before more than 250,000 people, and after a penultimate stop in the fictional Hamlet’s real home of Elsinore Castle in Denmark, they returned from the lands of the anthropophagi to their symbolic home—and, judging from the reactions of some of the audience, to their friends and families too—singing and playing a Celtic jig, “A roving I will go.”
The production traveled light. Eight actors played as many as four parts each, as well as musical instruments. The set was composed of a curtain strung between the stage’s two pillars, a stack of flight cases and some benching, which doubled as the battlements of Elsinore, a bed, and the turned-up mud of the graveyard. The costumes were mostly khaki, with some Tudorbethan trimmings. The effect was that of an amateur production staged in some hot corner of the British Empire, not least because the audience gave an ovation as soon as the cast took the stage.
The performance, however, was superbly professional. Its director, Bill Buckhurst, has pitched his interpretation at “the indifferent children of the earth,” many of whom might not understand English. The cast extracted every possible laugh from the script, with jokes in Spanish, Mandarin, French, and German, but they also remembered to serve “caviar to the general.” A reading that balanced the broad and generous with the constricted and self-absorbed worked like a bellows. When the ensemble played together, there was hot air from Polonius, hearty physical comedy, and great gusts of laughter from the audience. Then, when Hamlet was alone, there was the sharp intake of breath as Matthew Romain, plunging inwards into his dilemma, turned his mind outwards to the audience, and drew the audience into his secrets.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet is in late twenties, an ancient by Elizabethan standards, but Romain’s Hamlet is a creature of nervous, adolescent confusions. Last year, London audiences saw Benedict Cumberbatch unfold “To be or not to be” as a series of logical propositions, like a deduction by Sherlock Holmes. Romain plays the soliloquy as a circle of uncertainty. “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” is a devastating exercise in teenage self-loathing. In “I have of late, I know not wherefore, lost all my mirth,” Romain moves to the bare apron of the stage as he describes the world as a “stale promontory,” dangling his legs over the abyss and among the groundlings, marking time like a student prince.
Jennifer Leong’s perky Ophelia is another disturbed adolescent. Leung’s Ophelia is less the victim of her distracted older boyfriend, than of her presumptuously intrusive father and brother. Polonius and Laertes, obsessed with status and “honour,” monitor her virginity and desires. Like an immigrant’s daughter threatened with arranged marriage and honor killing, madness and a hushed-up suicide are Ophelia’s only escape. With half the world’s population under twenty-five years of age, and the fathers and brothers very much in control of most of them, the emphasis on the dilemmas of adolescence was a clever choice. How, you wonder, did this production go down in Saudi Arabia, where the Globe to Globe company gave the first mixed sex performance in the history of that rotten kingdom?
Hamlet is a hard play to perform well. Eliot considered it “certainly an artistic failure,” and Freud complained about Hamlet’s lack of psychological breakthrough, his inability to commandeer his dream of his father. The second half is where such thoughts tend to arise. Cumberbatch’s Hamlet sank in its second half amid a portentous set, but the Globe’s rapid, light production helped sustain the “piteous and profound” aspects of the drama. This exposed the political profundities that those of us raised under liberal dispensations often overlook, preferring instead to gaze into the piteous omphalos of Hamlet’s private psychology.
Earlier that morning, the cast, serving caviar to the general, had performed scenes from Hamlet in a private show for President and Mrs. Obama. At Elsinore, as in Buckingham Palace and the White House, the private is political—especially if you are a politician. The author of Dreams From My Father was in town to issue an executive order on behalf of David Cameron’s campaign to keep Britain in the EU, an eventuality more likely to benefit American trade than British democracy. As Barack and David acted out the special relationship rather less convincingly than Claudius and Hamlet, the press took great umbrage at an American president, of all people, telling the British to submit to an unrepresentative and extractive foreign empire.
Modern Britain, unlike Sir Walter Raleigh, has found a river of foreign gold. Along with the House of Windsor, Shakespeare is a major tributary of the tourist industry. The Globe Theatre is not the real Globe, but a modern replica. The same can be said for many modern treatments of Shakespeare. This excellent production, however, had the rawness of tartare as well as caviar: the cruelty of Shakespeare’s age, as well as our own.
The dumb show that Hamlet contrives to “catch the conscience of a king” is a show trial as cold-blooded slapstick. Watching Claudius (John Dougall) compassing his stepson’s murder in England and conspiring with Hamlet’s treacherous friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I could not help but think of Saddam Hussein sending his enemies into the wood chipper, and executing a suspect son-in-law after luring him to a family reunion.
“The body is with the king, but the king is not with the body,” says Hamlet, a political philosopher feigning madness. “The king is a thing . . . of nothing.” Kingship, Richard II rues when he passes his crown and life to Bolingbroke, is a “brittle glory.” The crown is a symbol of the monopoly of violence. “Revenge,” Claudius tells Laertes, “should have no bounds.” Colonel Gaddafi, shorn of his brittle glory, was pinned on the hood of a car, and impaled on a “point envenom’d.”
You wonder what went through President Obama’s head as he watched this Hamlet. Perhaps he was already looking ahead to that afternoon, when he was scheduled to mount a golf cart with David Cameron. The player and his caddy, Prince Hamlet and his daddy: special relationships, all.