Hamlet. Dir. Laurence Olivier. Perf. Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Basil Sydney, Eileen Herlie, Norman Wooland, Felix Aylmer, and Terence Morgan. 1948. DVD. Criterion, 2000.
The rule of infinite regress is only one reason to have many different versions of Hamlet
. Another is the rule of chess.
I hope the title of this post hasn't misled anyone into thinking I'm writing about Thomas Middleton's A Game at Chess
(a play you should all read when you get a chance). Instead, I'm thinking about the ways the rules of chess are like the rules of producing any version—film or stage or personal reading—of Hamlet
Do you all know the rules of chess? Do you all know the rules of baseball? Do you know the plot of Hamlet
? Those questions pry into your knowledge on an abstract level.
How many of you remember game seven of the 1987 World Series? On the bleak and horrible day on which that game was played—October 25, 1987—the St. Louis Cardinals suffered defeat at the hands of the Minnesota Twins. Can you recall Game Six of the 1985 World Series? It was October 26, 1985. Kansas City. A bleak and weary town. An umpire called a Kansas City player safe. As a result, some argue, the Cardinals lost the game that would have secured the championship. How many of you remember the 1987 match in Brussels between Ljubomir Ljubojevic and Garry Kasparov? How many remember the 1948 Hamlet
with Lawrence Olivier? The questions in this paragraph are about specific applications of the abstractions in the previous paragraph.
All these different games have extensive similarities. There are general rules (the rules of baseball, the rules of chess, the text of Hamlet) and specific application of (or failure to apply) those rules (the 1985 World Series, the 1987 Ljubojevic / Kasparov match, the 1948 film version of Hamlet
). Moreover, the specific games may or may not be remembered—and some may be best forgotten. But the abstraction of “The Game” continues and is enduringly interesting.
Twenty opening moves are possible for white in a game of chess; and black may respond with any one of twenty moves. After three or four moves, the number of possible moves increases somewhat. After eight or nine moves, the number increases enormously—but, as pieces are removed from the board or become trapped, the number rapidly decreases. The end of the game is determined, ideally, by checkmate, although other endings are possible. I cannot calculate the number of possible chess games—mathematically or otherwise—but I estimate it to be infinity minus three. The virtually-unlimited possibilities—within (and this is most vital) a rigid structure—ensures continual fascination.
When a reader, teacher, student, or director approaches the text of Hamlet, the same concept applies. Seemingly-small decisions like which text to use, how much of the plot to reveal, who to cast in a given role, and how to have that actor play that role have a cumulative effect. Moreover, each small decision has an effect on every other element of the play. In the highest levels of competitive chess, the opening ten moves may seem perfunctory. Yet those small moves are determining the tenor of the entire game. In reading Hamlet or in directing a stage or film version of the play, the decisions readers and directors make about each character, though similarly incremental, determine the nature of every other character in the play.
For example, here are three of the characters in the play and some of the ways in which incremental changes to the characters around them change our understanding of each one's own character:
Ophelia. The more overbearing her father is, the stronger we must imagine her to be if she rebels against him in any way. Further, her eventual madness may be predicated on harsh treatment by her father if he is overbearing. Or her madness may be motivated by her guilt at her complicity or her guilt at not doing all her father asks. Or it may be motivated by genuine concern for her father.
Hamlet. The more evil Polonius is, the less we blame him for Polonius’ death. Indeed, the more terrible Poloinius is, the more we may view his death as deserved. But if Polonius is more of a comic figure, it makes Hamlet’s action more misguided.
Claudius. The more power-hungry Polonius is, the more he may influence the King. The more the King is influenced, the weaker he is. And the weaker he is, the sneakier we imagine the murder to be. Of course, the weaker Claudius is, the weaker Hamlet himself must be not to act against such a weakling. Directors must achieve a delicate balance in this and other interpretative decisions.
That's just an opening gambit—call it the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Gambit, if you like—on an important issue. This idea has extensive implications for staging, reading, and watching productions of Hamlet
. I'm currently interested in portrayals of Shakespeare in Vietnam. Some would argue that these incremental changes eventually become large enough that Hamlet
is no longer what is being portrayed. Instead (they argue), the Shakespeare has been lost. I disagree, preferring to see the interest and significance in the ways different cultures make sense out of characters, speeches, and plots that westerners have also made sense out of—in different ways.
I'll return to this issue later. Re-reading Laura Bonannan's "Shakespeare in the Bush"—a popular article on relating the plot of Hamlet
to a homestead of the Tiv people in Nigeria—has given me a great deal of food for thought (beginning with the pejorative-sounding title of the article). The article is extremely interesting—although it strikes me as somewhat contrived and somewhat naïve. But you'll hear more on that later!
Note: The Olivier Hamlet is used as an example here because I've had this image of the back of Hamlet's head for a year now and haven't done a thing with it! Links: The Film at IMDB.
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