Teaching Hamlet with dvds & downloads
I keep them off the Gibson and the Branagh
by ruthlessly critiquing certain scenes.
Olivier won an Oscar and they yawn,
hating the way he minces in his tights
and codpiece. Nicol Williamson? It’s like
I know his Hamlet. He bartends at the Ives
and reads Sestinas at an open mic.
The Burton? He “asses about,” “vulgar and mannered.”
So says John Gielgud who directed him!
And Jacobi’s too fluttery and unbuttoned.
Maybe it really is impossible,
as Hazlitt said it was, even for Kemble.
The Gielgud’s on CD (magnificent);
I’ll teach soliloquy as aria.
“At least Mel Gibson’s Hamlet has cojones,”
opines a scholar. Yes, but Mel is short
on princeliness and lacks the “haunted” aspect.
I show the ghost again (Olivier)
and emphasize the preternatural.
The ghost is real. It’s not brain chemistry,
and, though he dawdles, Hamlet must obey.
The King’s provoked, Ophelia drowns herself,
royal cadavers pile up on the stage.
Goodnight sweet prince, your dynasty’s kaput;
that’s what you get for gabbing with a ghost.
Horatio, even, tries to kill himself.
I read “King Claudius” by Prince Cavafy
and all worked up I talk about the ghost
that drove Day-Lewis off the stage mid-scene,
and off the stage, so now it seems, forever.
Listening to Ophelia’s mad scene
(recorded by Ellen Terry in 1911)
She does sound like she just got out of Bellevue,
lost in the park and singing in her slippers.
Or worse, a mother freezing on a lifeboat,
crooning a lullaby to her dead child.
You hear Ophelia’s wantonness as well,
what Dr. Foreman said (1502)
of female lunatics: “If they get loose
they’ll climb up, naked, on the roof and cry
‘come kiss me’ to the standers by below.”
Well, Ellen kissed her friends prodigiously
and hugged her fellow players on the stage,
influencing Victorians to touch
each other more (and more), and Henry James
deplored her onstage “tenderness” in Scribner’s.
Now travel back a century, Mr. James,
when patrons could find seating on the stage,
and foppish troops of Romeos would crowd
the tomb of Mrs. Cibber, mad to have
her Juliet expire in their arms.
And what of Woffington, who played the whole
part of Cordelia, clasped around the waist
by some besotted fan. She dragged him on
from scene to scene as if he played a role,
her gaping parasitical appendage.
A comforter perhaps, picked up in France?
Dying like King John
(Poisoned by a monk at Swinstead Abbey)
I’d rather die like Lear, but there’s a problem.
The moral grandeur has to emanate
from deep within. The tragic soul must churn
like smoke that billows from a bombed cathedral.
I’ll die more like King John, a dupe upstaged
by Constance and her little brat, Prince Darling,
who jumps out of the castle onto rocks
and lies there blond, adorable and crumpled.
I’m upstaged by the strutting Bastard, too,
whose “poetry,” so Mark Van Doren claims,
“will work like yeast in every line he utters.”
It’s my job to be blamed for everything,
though History’s the culprit here, not me;
it pounds us flat and grinds us into jelly.
My barons league with France then hurry back
in time to see me poisoned; the French relief
is wrecked, and half my troops are washed away,
our frantic captains doggy-paddle, gulp
the brine and drown, their tents and baggage swept
off with the tide. Then Constance dies offstage,
frenzied with grief, and Elinor, the queen,
my mother, dies neglected and ignored.
They all are thrown aside, undone, forsaken,
“the sport of blind and insolent caprice”
(E. Burke). The Bastard blabbers on, and when
I die on my Amfortas couch no one
is noticing, they’ve turned away to heed
the Bastard holding forth! Well, Bastard me
no Bastards, and as for all his yeasty verse,
a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 8, on page 38
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