To mark its 50th anniversary last year, the National Theatre in London relayed its most recent production of Hamlet (2010) to cinemas around the country. The production, much praised, was bad in almost every conceivable way: its scenery, costumes, overall conception, and much of the acting. My wife, who is French, noticed that the diction of the younger actors, including that of Rory Kinnear, who played Hamlet, was much inferior to that of the older, and she was right. It was as if diction, being an undemocratic skill, were no longer taught in our drama schools.

There is no getting away from Hamlet in Hamlet: if Hamlet fails, the production fails. It did not help that Kinnear was balding. This was not his fault, of course, any more than it would be the fault of an actress playing Juliet that she were 65 or of a Falstaff that he were thin and asthenic. But casting has, or ought to have, a logic of its own; it cannot be an equal opportunity employer, any more than can a professional sports team.

Much worse, though, was Kinnear’s acting. It was as if he had taken the prince’s injunctions to the actors who came to Elsinore not as prohibitions but as recommendations. “Do not saw the air with your hand,” Hamlet tells them, and Kinnear proceeded to do that very thing: never was air so vigorously sawed. Hamlet says:

Oh, there be players that I have seen play and heard others praise (and that highly), not to speak it profanely, that, neither having th’ accent of Christians nor the gait of Christian, pagan, nor man, have so strutted and bellowed that I have thought some of nature’s journeymen had made men and not made them well, they imitated humanity so abominably.

This sums up Kinnear’s performance pretty well. He lay down on the stage and beat the boards, he punched the walls with his fists, so deep were his simulated feelings. It was acting for an age of emotional excess, without subtlety, in which nothing was left to the imagination. This was a histrionic Hamlet untouched by intellect.

The production, as is now more or less de rigueur, was done in modern dress. Kinnear appeared in a gray flannel tracksuit that made him look as if he had just emerged from an unmade bed at midday after a hard night’s drug-taking somewhere in a housing project. During the most famous soliloquy of all, he lit up a cigarette, and I almost hoped that the Health and Safety people would come and take him away for breach of the law against smoking in a public building.

The overall conception of the director, Nicholas Hytner, as he described it in an interview, was based on an interpretation that I found unconvincing to the point of absurdity: namely, that Hamlet was an allegory of totalitarianism—Elizabethan England having been a totalitarian state—and that its main theme was the omnipresence of surveillance. No interpretation can be definitive of a work such as Hamlet, of course, in proof of which whole libraries have been written about its meaning; but it does not follow from the fact that no interpretation is definitive that any interpretation is possible. Here, Osric is got up like a junior officer of a Communist police force—and, indeed, plays him as grim-visaged, making a mockery of Hamlet’s description of him as a water fly. Communist policemen were many things, but not water flies. In his determination to pursue an impossible interpretation, one had the impression, therefore, that Hytner was determined not so much to out-Herod Herod as to out-Shakespeare Shakespeare.

All productions of Hamlet cut the text: without such cuts, it takes five hours to perform, and indeed there are inessential passages that, if played, would reduce the dramatic tension. But one tiny change in the text revealed Hytner’s incompetence. Polonius, the king’s pompous and verbose adviser, tells the king and queen that Hamlet is mad—as usual, making ten words do the work of one. Exasperated, the queen asks him to speak with “More matter, with less art.”

Madam, I swear I use no art at all.
That he is mad, ’tis true. ’Tis true, ’tis pity,
And pity ’tis ’tis true—a foolish figure;
But farewell it, for I will use no art.

Hytner changed the word “figure” in this passage to “expression”—a foolish expression rather than a foolish figure. When I heard this, I experienced a shock, as if live wires had been built into my seat to wake me up from time to time. Not only is it insulting to an audience to suppose that it would not understand that the figure meant here was a figure of speech; but the substitution also ruins the rhythm of the lines. Worse still, it destroys the irony—for, of course, the alliteration in which Polonius clearly delights is part of the art that he swears that he does not use. Seldom can the substitution of a single word for another have wrought so much aesthetic havoc.

For all Hytner’s efforts, however, it is difficult to empty Hamlet entirely of its impact. It is like an unsinkable ship or an indestructible building: you could set it on the moon, among moon men, and it would still mean something. But what, exactly?

Trying to decide the meaning of Hamlet is something like trying to decide the meaning of life; everyone has his opinion. Ernest Jones, the Welsh doctor who was Freud’s disciple and apostle in the English-speaking world and who wrote a three-volume hagiography of his master, famously used Hamlet as grist for the mill of the Oedipus complex. (In the National Theatre production, Gertrude was played as an overripe slut running to plumpness who doesn’t quite fit into her female executive’s business suit and who pours herself Scotch at the drop of a metaphor.) As a doctor myself, I have long been fascinated by the minor question of the pharmacology of Hamlet, for quite a lot of poisoning goes on in the play, with three different poisons.

Most famously, of course, is the leprous distilment, the cursèd hebona, that Claudius pours fatally into the ear of Hamlet’s father as he sleeps in his garden. Hebona does not exist as a substance: What, then, is it? And can one, in fact, be poisoned to death by the aural route? These are the kinds of unessential but fascinating questions that preoccupy some aging doctors at the end of their careers.

I once attended a lecture on this subject by an ear, nose, and throat surgeon nearing retirement himself. First, he assured the audience that some unpleasant experiments on cats had established that it was possible to kill creatures, at least cats, in this way (Shakespeare was a remarkable physiologist for his time); but the poison with which the cats were killed would not have been available in Elizabethan England. I had supposed until going to this lecture that, because of the verbal similarity, hebona was henbane, a common poisonous plant in England that contains hyoscyamine and scopolamine; but experimental evidence (not from humans) suggests that it would be impossible to kill by this method. According to the surgeon, “distilment” of yew berries would be the most likely candidate; but the truth cannot be known.

There is also the less studied but equally intriguing question of the identity of the rapidly fatal poison that Laertes smears on the point of his rapier—with which he intends to kill Hamlet—as well as that of the poison that Claudius dissolves in the wine that he will give Hamlet if the rapier fails to kill him and that kills Gertrude quickly instead, when she drinks the wine in his place. In those days, there was neither cyanide nor ricin—the poison at the end of a pointed umbrella used by the Bulgarian secret service in 1979 to kill the Bulgarian dissident Georgi Markov in London (and which, in any case, did not kill him as quickly as Laertes’s “unction” bought “of a mountebank” killed both Hamlet and himself). Clearly, though, Shakespeare’s audience must have believed that such poisons existed, even if they did not exist: a superstition, perhaps, akin to our confidence that supposedly wonder-working psychotropic drugs will smooth over all the difficulties of life.

Yet questions about the poisons in Hamlet hardly go to the heart of the play’s meaning, which, of course, lies elsewhere. The mechanics of a machine are not its purpose, which can only be in the mind of its maker: and we cannot know what was in the mind of the maker of Hamlet, the most elusive and protean of all authors. We can only surmise.

A few lines, easily overlooked, may be crucial to the meaning of a Shakespearean tragedy, or so I find it useful to think. For example, in King Lear, Kent warns the king, who wants to retire and divide his kingdom among his three daughters, not to place too much weight upon their words and, in particular, not to be influenced by Cordelia’s refusal to proclaim her love in the grandiloquent manner of her two sisters:

Nor are those empty-hearted whose low sound
Reverbs no hollowness.

It is Lear’s naïve credence in words alone—his refusal to believe that they can be hollow, that they can conceal at least as much as they reveal—that leads to tragedy. (“Words,” wrote Hobbes, within living memory of Shakespeare, “are the money of fools.”) How many tragedies have resulted from Lear’s mistake! And Lear, though a fool, is far from unintelligent: foolishness is not the same as intellectual incapacity.

The lines that seem to me crucial in Hamlet are those that occur in act 3, scene 2, in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seek, at Claudius’s behest, to sound out the reasons for Hamlet’s strange behavior, so akin to madness. Hamlet asks Guildenstern to play upon a pipe. “I know no touch of it, my lord,” he replies, and when Hamlet insists, pointing out the stops, Guildenstern says, “But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony; I have not the skill.” Hamlet then says:

Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me! You would play upon me. You would seem to know my stops; you would pluck out the heart of my mystery. You would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music, excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make it speak? ’Sblood, do you think I am easier to be played on than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though you can fret me, you cannot play upon me.

This passage is of enormous significance on many levels—personal, philosophical, psychological, and even political. For the mystery of Hamlet, that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would “pluck out,” is the mystery of what it is to be a human being. If we could pluck out that mystery, then we should be able to play upon people as upon a pipe, treat them as objects rather than as subjects. Is such a thing conceivable? What are the consequences if we think that we can pluck out the heart of Man’s mystery? What are the consequences if we accept that we cannot? What is it to understand others, to understand oneself?

Hamlet tells Osric that “to know a man well were to know himself [i.e., oneself]”; but since it is impossible to know another man well, it is impossible to know oneself, either. Often, I have asked patients who have demanded an explanation of their conduct—always conduct that is problematical to them or to others—what would count as an explanation that would satisfy them completely, so that they now understood their behavior. Not one, from total illiterate to Ph.D., could answer. They wanted the illusion of understanding rather than understanding itself: for humankind cannot bear too much uncertainty.

Hamlet does not want to be understood because he fears that such understanding would confer power on him who possessed it, and he does not want to be played upon like a pipe. Polonius, a courtier by profession and a faithful servant of whoever is in power, is confident that he understands the cause of Hamlet’s mad, or madcap, behavior: it is the unrequited love of his daughter, Ophelia. “That hath made him mad,” he informs her. Later, he tells the king that “I have found / The very cause of Hamlet’s lunacy.” He tells Claudius, with all the certainty of a psychiatric formulation, that, because of Ophelia’s rejection, Hamlet

Fell into a sadness, then into a fast,
Thence to a watch, thence into a weakness,
Thence to a lightness, and, by this declension,
Into the madness wherein now he raves
And all we mourn for.

Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, does not agree, but holds firmly to a theory of her own. She tells the king:

I doubt it is no other but the main:
His father’s death and our o’erhasty marriage.

Polonius devises a test of Hamlet’s unrequited love for Ophelia by arranging for them to meet, while he and the king hide to observe the scene. The test fails utterly. “Love! His affections do not that way tend,” the king concludes. But Polonius is unwilling to give up, as many of us are when our theories are disproved: “But yet do I believe / The origin and commencement of his grief / Sprung from neglected love.”

Does Hamlet love Ophe- lia, or did he ever? Trying to answer this question is like picking the petals off a daisy to find the answer: he loves her, he loves her not, he loves her. . . . In the first act, Ophelia tells her father: “He hath, my lord, of late made many tenders / Of his affection to me.” And: “My lord, he hath importun’d me with love / In honourable fashion.” And again: “And hath given countenance to his speech, my lord, / With almost all the holy vows of heaven.”

In act 3, Hamlet says to Ophelia that “I did love you once,” but a few lines later that “I loved you not.” Then he treats her almost as a prostitute:

I have heard of your paintings too, well enough. God hath given you one face, and you make yourselves another: You jig, you amble, and you lisp.

But in act 5, at Ophelia’s funeral, Hamlet, irritated by Laertes’s protestations of love for his sister, says:

I loved Ophelia. Forty thousand brothers
Could not with all their quantity of love,
Make up my sum.

Not only is it impossible to detect what Hamlet’s feelings for Ophelia really are or ever were, but it is also likely that Hamlet himself does not know what his feelings really are or were. And if he does not know, how could he, let alone Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, pluck out the heart of his mystery? This confusion of sentiments is not abnormal; on the contrary, it is frequent and even universal—indeed, inevitable—given man’s conflicting and irreconcilable desires. Thus, simple explanations of human conduct—economic interest, low levels of serotonin, the Oedipus complex—will always fail.

Hamlet is opaque to others—they cannot work out whether he is really mad or only faking madness (though a paper in The British Journal of Psychiatry once found that the majority of people who persistently faked madness wound up truly mad)—but he is no more transparent to himself. He does not understand his own delay in revenging his father on Claudius, the usurping king:

Now, whether it be
Bestial oblivion, or some craven scruple
Of thinking too precisely on th’ event—
A thought which, quartered, hath but one part wisdom,
And ever three parts coward—I do not know
Why yet I live to say “This thing’s to do,”
Sith I have cause and will and strength and means
To do’t.

In other words, no exterior cause exists to prevent Hamlet from doing what he thinks he ought to do but only an interior one, and he cannot identify it. He knows neither the origin nor the nature of his own thoughts. As soon as an explanation occurs to him—moral scruple—he thinks, “But is it really that, is it not really cowardice?” Which came first and is the source of the other, scruple or cowardice? Such a question is not susceptible to a definite answer, and elsewhere Hamlet says:

Thus conscience does make cowards of us all,
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action.

Conscience here means not scruple but self-consciousness, too much of which serves as an obstacle to resolute action. Is, then, the answer to suppress “conscience”—self-consciousness—and press ahead regardless? By no means, for

What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? A beast, no more.
Sure he that made us with such large discourse,
Looking before and after, gave us not
That capability and godlike reason
To fust in us unused.

If man is to be distinguished from the lower animals, he must reflect upon the past and consider the future (“looking before and after”); and even on the evolutionary view, which sees man as the product of an impersonal and purposeless process, consciousness must serve some biological function and cannot merely “fust in us unused.” More succinctly, Hamlet says: “Give me that man that is not passion’s slave”—in other words, that man whose actions are the product of his thoughts as well as of his feelings.

Hamlet the character and Hamlet the play elucidate the inevitable and insoluble paradoxes of human existence, the very heart of our mystery, which no technical sophistication will ever pluck out: a mystery that explains why puzzlement at our own situation is the permanent condition of mankind.

Man is condemned by his nature to the task of understanding himself, but he can never do so fully. That inability is both good and bad: bad, because it condemns us, Sisyphus-like, to an impossible task destructive of our tranquillity; good, because if we were to understand ourselves, we should play upon one another as upon a pipe, or at least be played upon by some malevolent and omniscient political authority. (The impossibility of total understanding is what makes totalitarianism unviable in the long run. It makes Mao’s dictum, that the masses are like a blank sheet of paper on which the most beautiful characters and poems could be written, simultaneously fatuous and evil.) Our impatient and hubristic pretense, repeated throughout history, that we fully understand ourselves and others inevitably leads to nemesis.

All men must interact with others, and some must act politically—but always on an incomplete knowledge both of themselves and others. They always see as through a glass darkly. Too analytical, too reflective, and too scrupulous, Hamlet brings about the death of all the play’s main characters—Polonius, Ophelia, Laertes, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Gertrude, Claudius, himself—by his delay and irresolution. But precipitate and unreflective action is at least as disastrous. Hamlet meets Fortinbras, who is commanding an army to fight the Poles over a worthless patch of land. He reflects:

I see
The imminent death of twenty thousand men
That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,
Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot
Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,
Which is not tomb enough and continent
To hide the slain.

A little more of Hamlet’s irresolution, scruple, and reflection might prevent a hecatomb of pointless death.

What is the solution to the dilemma? None exists that can be laid down in advance of any particular situation. The best that can be hoped for is the person who can discipline his thoughts by his feelings and his feelings by his thoughts:

And blest are those
Whose blood and judgment are so well commingled
That they are not a pipe for Fortune’s finger
To sound what stop she please.

Photo: Rory Kinnear in the National Theatre’s 2010 production of the play (TRISTRAM KENTON / LEBRECHT MUSIC & ARTS / THE GRANGER COLLECTION)


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