Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Hamlet (Writers and their Work) by Ann Thompson & Neil Taylor.

“There is no stable entity called Hamlet”, the authors proclaim at the top of chapter six of their discussion and once again I found myself nodding along. Well of course there isn’t. Apart from the three extant texts (Q1, Q2 & F1), there’s the various conflations from multiple editors, the Garrick adaptation, the Devenant playbook, not to mention the thousands of versions of the play which are created by each director whenever they’re foolhardy enough to agree to the job rather than do something fun like a comedy (“The cuts! I can’t believe the cuts!”).

With that in mind, the whole process of literary criticism is in itself a fools errand as is reading most of it since every proclamation must be read and absorbed on the understanding that the writer has themselves had to choose which version of the text to comment on. As Thompson and Taylor note, theatre producers are desperate to give audiences as little Hamlet as they can, publishers the exact opposite. With that in mind, this short discussion spends its pagination surveying the multiplicity of available criticism unpicking traditions left and right.

The result de-constructs Hamlet's academia with much the same zeal as Charlie Brooker when eviscerating of modern news production. The recent inflated tendency to characterise King Lear as the great Shakespearean tragedy is punctured by noting how many of Hamlet’s lines have entered the national consciousness and how many iconic images, notably the prince holding Yorrick’s skull immediately define the play in ways that aren’t possible with Lear. But the inclination of critics to sacrifice simply clarifying the surface meaning of the words and pictures in favour of a kind of thematic archaeology is equally skewered.

Every chapter provides an excellent survey of the present critical state of the art (for better or worse) and still manages to find something new. A prime example is the chapter on Hamlet and Gender which shows how tradition has rather clouded the positions of Gertrude and Ophelia within the fabric of the play, how the histrionics so often attributed to the latter in performance aren't actually in the text.  Some of the more memorable Ophelias have underplayed her desperation making the tragedy of her psychological breakdown all the more upsetting (Claire Jones at the Unity, Lisa Gay Hamilton in the Hallmark film).

It’s impossible to agree with everything. Comparing Daniel Day Lewis at the National unfavourably with Mel Gibson on film seems unfair since the former didn’t have the benefit of Zeffrelli selecting his best takes. But that minor detail isn’t enough to stop me from recommending this text to everyone with an interest. At the back of the book there are a series of images from ancient productions which includes the court scenes as rendered by William Poel in 1881 at Liverpool's St. George’s Hall in what looks like the Concert Room. I wondered if they considered that the same space would be used for a similar purpose over a hundred years later.

Hamlet (Writers and their Work) by Ann Thompson & Neil Taylor is published by Northcote House Publisher's Ltd.. £10.99. ISBN: 978-0746311417. Review copy supplied.

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