The Rude Mechanicals present Hamlet

About the Play

Directed by Jaki Demarest

Universality in Hamlet

There's an apocryphal story about a sociologist who tried to establish the universal applicability of Hamlet by telling the story to an African tribesman.

"King Claudius," the sociologist explained, "married Hamlet's mother after killing his father."

"That was good," the tribesman nodded. "He should have done this. It was his duty to take care of the woman and her son."

So much for the universality of Hamlet, it was thought.

But leaving aside those questions of cultural norms, Hamlet continues its centuries-long reign as the crown jewel of English literature, arguably the greatest play ever written. The depth of its introspection and emotion, the very flaws of the characters draw us like lodestones. Whether we love him for his pure cast of thought or revile him for his whining inefficacy, there is something in Hamlet that continues to represent the confusion of every age, four hundred years after the fact. And that is as universal as anything gets.

Hamlet is for everyone whose bitterness of soul has ever made him careless of consequences. For everyone who ever felt vanishingly small in an infinitely vast universe. For everyone who has ever used cruelty as a salve for his own pain. For everyone who has ever taken a gift of love and treated it carelessly. For everyone who has ever felt betrayed. For everyone who hungers, wanting the seeds of greatness to take root in them, for everyone who has ever felt the breathless cast of possible/impossible ambition, like a thin flame running under the skin; for all those more nebulous, nameless, shapeless forms of wanting.

"Whoever has become thoughtful and melancholy through his own mishaps or those of others; whoever has borne about with him the clouded brow of reflection, whoever has seen the golden lamp of day dimmed by envious mists rising in his own breast, and could find in the world before him only a dull blank with nothing left remarkable in it; whoever has known 'the pangs of despised love', he who has felt his mind sink within him, and sadness cling to his heart like a malady, who has had his hopes blighted and his youth staggered; whose powers of action have been eaten up by thought, and who goes to play as his best resource to shove off, to a second remove, the evils of life by a mock- representation of them--this is the true Hamlet."

Those words were written by William Hazlitt, nearly two hundred years ago. The language has since reshaped itself in a thousand ways; the emotions remain very much the same. Shakespeare was thoroughly a master of the mixed motives of human character.

I grew up in a small suburban house in New Jersey, where Nap Time was an expected custom, my mother's way of getting some time to herself in the afternoons. She knew I wasn't sleeping, and she didn't care as long as I was quiet. So I was bad. I directed my stuffed animals in classic plays on the canopy bed. Shakespeare. Aristophanes. Sophocles. (Doggie, my favorite, played all the female leads.) I knew, even then, I wanted to direct. Specifically, I wanted to direct Hamlet. This particular dream has been nearly thirty years in the making, and everything I've ever done theatrically has been to prepare me for this task.

But how to approach it? The Aristotelian approach has its merits in the case of Shakespeare: in the simplest terms, tragedy is the plight of noble men wrestling with noble problems, while comedy is the struggle of ignoble men with ignoble problems. Society's norms are upheld, fear and a sense of identification are raised in the audience, and catharsis is achieved. A perfect approach to Oedipus, where the nobly-born hero is clearly in the wrong, but what does it do for a character who defies his surroundings and is in the right, and dies for it anyway? Aristotle, with his upper-class snobbery and view of theater as an instrument of social control, misses many of the more complex aspects of Hamlet. The contemporary theater has simply grown beyond Aristotle's Poetics.

I thought very seriously about a Brechtian approach, Brecht being the anti-Aristotle, the one who saw theater as an instrument of social change. Where Aristotle very much wants his theater to appeal to the emotions, Brecht wants to leave the emotions untouched, and make his appeal purely to the intellect. I believe there's a good Hamlet there, but a fundamentally soulless one.

What appeals to us most about Hamlet is the sense of identification it inspires. We are more than spectators. The characters speak to us directly, we hear their innermost thoughts, we catch the passions living as they rise. In our confusion, our undirected anger, our deepest introspection, we are Hamlet. In our inability to rise above our surroundings, we are Ophelia; death by drowning seems the only possible end for her. In our yearning to seize the stuff of life before it fades, we are Gertrude. In our unrequited loves, we can only hope to be as wise and gentle as Horatio. Even Claudius speaks to us, in the depth of his regret. The intellectual distance of Brecht robs us of something fundamental, leaves the empty shell of empty characterizations.

Hamlet should be an incendiary experience. The traditional approaches of theater have their limits, and have to be transcended by acts of absolute belief. In seeking what we seek in this, the Rudes have to borrow the best of all possible worlds, the innovation and social consciousness of Brecht, the catharsis of Aristotle, and walk on virtually untrammeled ground. Infinite risk for infinite reward. We hope you'll enjoy the results.