Wednesday, October 07, 2009

'Hamlet: The Undiscovered Country' by Steve Roth.

Someone asked me, not too long ago, how much literary criticism I’d read on the subject of Hamlet, then raised some wonderfully cartoony eyebrows when I told him that I hadn’t. “But” he must have thought “You write that blog…” The problem with much of the criticism that’s been published in the past couple of centuries (at least from what I’ve seen) is that orthodoxy has led to stagnation and too often writers tie themselves in knots quoting from and disproving what has gone before instead of contributing something truly innovative on the subject. Plus it’s usually impenetrable and oppressive to the point of becoming unreadable.

Which makes Steve Roth’s Hamlet: The Undiscovered Country (of which the author was good enough to send me a copy) a rare pleasure because it’s very readable and manages to illuminate at least two aspects of the play that hadn’t occurred, at least to me, to the point that it makes me wonder if theatre has been doing the play a disservice for the past four hundred years. Roth’s persuasive central thesis which for some reason isn’t mentioned on the cover (making the book seem from the outside like just a general survey of the play) is that Hamlet is a teenager, just sixteen years old and that the time scheme of the play spans the six month period from September 1601 and February 1602.

Roth was influenced by L.C. Knight’s 1933 essay, “How Many Children Had Lady Macbeth?”, the setting up of a literary mystery based upon a tiny inference then shaking the whole of the text to see the extent to which it might yield an answer. Using a forensically detailed linguistic analysis of the text and it has to be admitted some disapproval of previous critics, Roth presents a range of evidence from quotes to background material, and does so in narrative style as he talks us through the steps he took and the brainwaves he enjoyed in working towards his answer.

The opening chapter regarding Hamlet’s age is available at the book’s promotional website along with a wealth of background evidential material. It seems only proper to let you read the chapter yourself and enjoy the eureka moment (assuming that, like me, you’re not a textual scholar). Whilst it’s true that “sexton” does refer to “officer charged with the maintenance of its buildings and/or the surrounding graveyard” [wiki] sixteen does seem like a better fit – and indeed Shakespeare always substituted words to create double meaning – his intention could have been to imply both.

If you assume that Hamlet is indeed just sixteen as the text of the First Folio suggests, as Roth goes on to demonstrate in the remainder of the book, all kinds of curious elements of the play begin to fall into place. Hamlet’s somewhat petulant behaviour becomes perfectly natural when we realise that we’re watching the story of a teenager on the edge of adulthood, that it’s a good old fashioned coming of age tale, a tragic teen drama with the cast predominantly made up of youngsters playing Ophelia, Laertes, Horatio, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

I love this. I also love that the gravedigger, far from the being the pensioner that turns up in most productions could in fact be “just” thirty years old, and Gertrude too, which as Roth notes means that she’s still of child bearing age and able to produce an heir to the throne to cement Claudius’s rights, simultaneously removing Hamlet from the accession (and explaining why he wasn't given the crown to begin with). It shows that even when a director thinks they’re stripping away the political dimension by cutting Fortinbras, it’s all still there even if it's refocusing on Elsinore’s court rather than the whole of Europe. This is not just a domestic drama.

In the appendixes, Roth does address why Shakespeare seems to wait until so late in the play to address the characters age. I simply assume now that at time of production, those casting the play would simply have been aware of the playwright’s intentions or the audience would have been aware of the artifice through some other means, something which didn’t filter through in the printing of the text and have been lost since. There is evidence that mature actors like Burbage played the role at the time but like the casting of boys for girls it's simply something else that the audience has to suspend their belief for.

Of course that doesn’t mean that in more realistic times when boys are boys and girls are girls that the various productions of the play in which adults walk around saying these lines are wrong. They’re following the orthodox version of the play in which the gravedigger is talking about his length of service and the prince is thirty years old (even if it also means that he’s a mature student). It’s simply part of whatever overall interpretation they’ve constructed and it certainly has more legitimacy than when Romeo & Juliet are portrayed by thirtysomethings even though Shakespeare isn’t as vague about their age.

The chronological discovery is equally fascinating, though it be would be wrong of me here to give all of that away. Suffice to say that Roth once again shows Shakespeare’s words to be a multi-faceted, clever writer, potentially layering into the play biographical commemorations. There’s an interactive version of his findings on the website, and again when you realise that the play takes place over six months, that far from dithering, Hamlet is playing the long-con, which only fails because of his hot-headed accidental manslaughter of Polonius. If this book gains the large audience it deserves, perhaps we’ll sometime see a film, which, after the Ghost scene features the caption “Two Months Later. Tuesday 5th January 1602.”

Hamlet: The Undiscovered Country by Steve Roth is published by Open House Books. £9.95. ISBN: 978-0970470201.

[Update! 8/10/2009 Writer Steve Roth has been in touch with a corrective: "Knight's "How Many Children..." is actually rather a sendup and denunciation of the kind of extrapolation that I engage in to some (?) extent. "Twere to consider to curiously, to consider so..." I do like to think that Knights would have found a decent dose of value in the book, even so..."]

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