What’s Love Got To Do With It? Quite a lot, actually, when it comes to the key characters of Hamlet. Jeffrey R. Wilson throws light on Shakespeare’s fascinating foray into perhaps the most complex emotion of all.

What is Shakespeare’s Hamlet about? It’s a deceptively difficult question, and will elicit no consensus. Even though Hamlet is the most frequently assigned Shakespearean text in schools, and the most frequently written about in academic Shakespeare studies—or, probably, because of those facts—we have difficulty agreeing on its basic concerns. According to SparkNotes, the study aid that thousands of students turn to every day, the themes of Hamlet are “the impossibility of certainty,” “the complexity of action,” “the mystery of death,” “the nation as a diseased body,” “performance,” “madness,” and “doubt.” But what if we take ourselves—and our cliched interpretations—out of this question? What if we listen to the text itself? What if we start with some data?

The word “love” appears 84 times in the Folger edition of Hamlet. By comparison, “Father” only appears 73 times, “play” 60, “think” 55, “mother” 46, “mad” 44, “soul” 40, “God” 39, “death” 38, “act” 35, “life” 34, “nothing” 28, “son” 26, “act” 23, “honor” 21, “spirit” 19, “kill” 18, “revenge” 14, “doubt” 14, and “action” 12. Love isn’t the first theme that comes to mind when we think about Hamlet, but is surprisingly prominent. Hamlet is a play about love.

1504262882wpdm_8
[Photo: Johan Persson]

Prince Hamlet loves his father and mother. Claudius loves Gertrude. She loves him and her son. Hamlet loves Ophelia, as does Laertes. So what does Hamlet say about love?

Love is a many-splendored thing. It is blind. It is patient and kind, does not envy or boast, etc. Love conquers all. But, baby, sometimes love just ain’t enough. To quote another 90s jam—what is love? (Hamlet, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more). Or from the 80s—I want to know what love is; I want Hamlet to show me. Love – emotional investment in another – involves feeling for, caring for, respect, admiration; duty, obligation to; willingness to serve; confidence in; dedication to; affection for.

But love is tragic in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The bloody catastrophe at the end of the play is principally driven not by hatred or a longing for revenge, but by love. And, I’m going to suggest, that creates a significant relationship between love and one of the few substantive words that appears even more frequently in the play, “king.” What’s the relationship between love, monarchy, and tragedy? To go back again to the 80s, what’s love got to do with it?

Three kinds of love appear in Hamlet. First, there is what the ancient Greeks called philia—friendship—in the service Prince Hamlet and his friends offer each other, which they repeatedly call “love.” Hamlet’s first love, as it were, is Horatio, along with Marcellus and Barnardo, but Hamlet also refers to his relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as “love.”

1504262835wpdm_6
[Photo: Johan Persson]

Second, we see romantic love—what the Greeks called eros—in the “hot love” of Hamlet and Ophelia (yes, that’s an actual phrase from the play). Eros also appears in Gertrude’s marriages—first to King Hamlet, then to Claudius – which are reflected upon in the extended discourse on love between the Player King and Player Queen during the play-within-the-play.

Third, we encounter familial love, which the Greeks called storge. “If thou didst ever thy dear father love,” the Ghost tells Prince Hamlet, “Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” This form of love also appears in the Fortinbras family and the Polonius family. Hamlet even pits his eros for Ophelia against Laertes’s storge: “I loved Ophelia: forty thousand brothers / Could not, with all their quantity of love, / Make up my sum.” Similarly, Gertrude and Claudius’s eros challenges Gertrude and Prince Hamlet’s storge.

These three forms of love each undergo the three vicissitudes of love identified in the play. First, fortune leads love. As the play-within-the-play asks, “For ’tis a question left us yet to prove, / Whether love lead fortune, or else fortune love.” Did Claudius’s love for Gertrude lead him to murder his brother, or did the death of King Hamlet lead to Gertrude and Claudius’s love? Hamlet says his mother’s “lust, though to a radiant angel link’d, / Will sate itself in a celestial bed, / And prey on garbage.”

Second, love hurts. This is what Polonius refers to as “the pangs of despised love.” Ophelia’s love for Hamlet is not returned (she feels); Hamlet’s love for Gertrude is not returned (he feels). “Truly in my youth I suffered much extremity for love,” Polonius says.

1504262853wpdm_7
[Photo: Johan Persson]

Third, there is love’s ecstasy. It makes us do crazy things, as Polonius says of Hamlet’s madness:

This is the very ecstasy of love,
Whose violent property fordoes itself
And leads the will to desperate undertakings
As oft as any passion under heaven
That does afflict our natures.

Love turns us from cold calculating machines into living beings who make decisions based not entirely on reason but instead on emotion. Love makes us happy, but also causes us to make mistakes when emotion exerts more of a pull upon decision-making than reason. Claudius’s “shameful lust” for Gertrude motivated his political crime. Hamlet becomes “passion’s slave” after the death of his father. After Ophelia’s death, Hamlet attacks her brother’s love: “Why I will fight with him upon this theme / Until my eyelids will no longer wag.”

After King Hamlet dies, succession transfers through romantic love, not familial love. Laertes warns Ophelia that love for Hamlet must be political, not personal. Hamlet’s love for his father is the basis for his revenge. Polonius and Laertes’s love for Ophelia is the basis of their misogyny. Hamlet gets caught between his love for his father and his love for Ophelia. Ophelia’s love for Hamlet, Polonius, and Laertes is the source of her tragedy. Gertrude’s love for Claudius is the source of hers. The centerpiece of Hamlet, the play-within-the-play, is all about the inconstancy of love.

1504262962wpdm_2
[Photo: Johan Persson]

Shakespeare was not saying that we should not love others. He was not a Buddhist asking us to detach ourselves from worldly cares. In our everyday lives, we all love all sorts of people in all sorts of ways, and it doesn’t end in tragedy. Love is a source of joy, a feeling of togetherness, a sense of belonging. Shakespeare wrote many comedies about the joys of love working out in the end. He also wrote Romeo and Juliet, where love is not the source of tragedy as much as the sacrificial calf: love actually doesn’t conquer all.

But, in Hamlet, love causes tragedy to happen. Why? What does it mean to say that the tragedy in Hamlet happens because of love? And why would Shakespeare see love as tragic? What are the circumstances in which love is tragic?

Love is tragic in Hamlet because the governmental system in place forces family dynamics to spill over into politics: in a dynastic monarchy, small-scale family drama has large-scale social consequences. Dynastic monarchy brings the emotion that usually characterizes family drama into government, which is supposed to run on reason rather than emotion. That’s because love personalizes and makes passionate decisions that social institutions try to render impersonal and objective. Hamlet shows what happens when the dynamics that govern our private lives come to have consequences for public policy.

To say that love is tragic in Hamlet is to suggest that monarchy is doomed to collapse. To view Hamlet as a tragedy of love is to observe that the themes usually seen as central to the play—revenge, uncertainty, madness, loss, despair—do not come into existence without the precondition of love. Hamlet never seeks revenge if he doesn’t love his father so much. Ophelia never loses her mind if she doesn’t love hers so much. But these love stories only have massive social consequences because the form of government in place is heavily contingent on who and how the ruling family loves, whether it’s philiaeros, or storge.

1504262934wpdm_1
[Photo: Johan Persson]

This tragedy of love—where emotion and intimacy short circuit the workings of government—appears in examples ranging from the succession crisis of Elizabeth I to the pseudo-dynastic administration of Donald Trump. One would think that, if love is tragic only in the context of monarchy, then most people in the twenty-first century need not worry. Yet the tensions love creates in the petty kingdoms of our families and friends often feel like tragic love. If, as Arthur Miller insisted, contra Aristotle, there can be a tragedy of the common person—if tragedy is not exclusive to the upper echelon of society—then tragic love survives on the smaller scale of the communities, not kingdoms, we inhabit. Whenever a parent disapproves of a boyfriend, or two people grieve the loss of a loved one in different ways, tragic love is possible.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this article and would like to read more, please donate to Shakespeare Magazine.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Jeffrey R. Wilson is a faculty member in the Writing Program at Harvard University, where he teaches the “Why Shakespeare?” section of the university’s first-year writing course. He is the author of two books, Shakespeare and Trump and Shakespeare and Game of Thrones. This piece comes from the Essays on Hamlet project, which asks big conceptual questions about the play with the urgency of a Shakespeare lover, and answers them with the rigor of a Shakespeare scholar. His work has appeared in journals such as Modern Language Quarterly, Genre, and College Literature, and been featured in public venues including National Public Radio, Literary Hub, Zocalo Public Square, and MLA’s Profession. Find him on Twitter: @DrJeffreyWilson.

Shakespeare Reinvented or just another Tragedy of Errors? Earlier this year, we live-Tweeted our lockdown viewing of the opulent 2018 Ophelia film directed by Claire McCarthy which starred Daisy Ridley, Clive Owen and Naomi Watts. Here it is in all its irreverent glory…

Right, it’s 8.06pm UK time – let’s watch Ophelia. (Hits ‘Play’)

Creepy skull in crown logo, very Shakespearean gothic.

Quickly introducing all the main characters.

Claudius is a total rogue, played by Clive Owen.

Hamlet is just 15, which is about the right age for a student Prince in those days.

Naomi Watts as an ethereal Gertrude.

This film has absolutely gorgeous colours.

Little girl Ophelia is press-ganged into becoming a lady-in-waiting.

Now she’s grown-up Ophelia (played by Daisy Ridley), the other ladies-in-waiting think she’s common.

But her super-power is… she can read.

Daisy Ridley in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing) (02)

Gertrude mentions a sister. COULD THIS BE RELEVANT?

Ah, the Queen is getting Ophelia to read something a bit racy. Trying to figure out what it is. Boccaccio perhaps?

Hamlet has grown, and is “Every inch a king” – King Lear reference.

Hamlet and Horatio catch Ophelia having a swim.

Hang on, when she ran away she was completely dry?

Back at the castle, Ophelia tells the story of Diana and Actaeon.

I really like the way the film takes us into the castle’s nooks and crannies. Very immersive, almost 3D.

Uh-oh. Claudius is making a move on Gertrude. Hope her dangly earrings don’t get tangled in his lusty locks.

Ophelia sees all, of course.

Hamlet is suddenly madly in love with Ophelia, having spent about three minutes in her company.

OPHELIA_D22_061217_IMG_4431.CR2

“I’m afraid I dance like a goat,” she tells him.

Great little sword-fighting scene with Claudius winding up Hamlet.

The camera moves around a lot, and tries to show us what several characters are thinking.

Next, a Romeo and Juliet-style ball scene.

Again, I’m loving the colours and immersive sense of intimacy and depth.

Oh dear, having kissed Ophelia, Hamlet is heading back to university.

And Gertrude has sent Ophelia into the forest to see a Witch…

Now Ophelia has turned into Little Red Riding Hood.

The witch lives in a luxurious 5-star hovel.

Hang on! The witch is Gertrude’s twin sister!

Daisy Ridley and Naomi Watts in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing)

She’s also Gertrude’s drug dealer.

Back at the castle, King Hamlet tells Gertrude that Claudius is quite literally a bastard. (Quite an interesting idea, actually)

Which hasn’t stopped Gertrude heading straight to the ramparts, presumably to meet Claudius.

Grown-up Laertes is played by Tom Felton.

He says that Horatio bribed a grave digger to get hold of a corpse.

HE DID WHAT?

King Hamlet is dead, bitten by a snake in the culmination of all the snake references that have already piled up in the film’s first 35 minutes.

Got to say, though, this is one of the nicest-looking films I’ve seen in a long time.

Claudius has been elected king, but Hamlet is back in time for the funeral, I mean wedding.

The film’s dialogue is a bit clunky, but Clive Owen is doing a commendable job.

Clive Owen and Naomi Watts in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing)

Tom Felton a troubled, sensitive Laertes.

Polonius does his famous speech…

The film’s biggest problem is that the actors playing Ophelia and Hamlet don’t feel quite right for the parts.

The other problem is that Ophelia isn’t very likeable.

I feel quite sorry for all these blokes putting up with her endless snark.

The witch tells her origin story.

It involves a highly improbable Romeo and Juliet potion, what scholars of cinema would refer to as a “magical bullshit device”.

Also, if Claudius really did get her pregnant, where was her sister Gertrude during all this?

The film now seems to have turned into Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, with an obliging Friar conducting Ophelia and Hamlet’s secret marriage and tasteful firelit wedding night montage.

The mood at the castle is now paranoid.

Daisy Ridley in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing) (03)

Claudius and Gertrude are doing drugs together.

Fickle Gertrude is being cruel to Ophelia.

Claudius has decided to enlist Ophelia in his schemes.

Okay, here’s the big twist.

In the “Get thee to a nunnery” scene, Ophelia and Hamlet are play-acting for the watching Claudius and Polonius, while having an urgent whispered conversation.

The Players have arrived, but we suspect Hamlet has gone mad for real because he’s wearing eyeliner.

Turns out he really wants Ophelia to go to a nunnery, because she’ll be safe there.

“You erased me,” Ophelia tells Gertrude. CLUNK.

Ophelia wakes up to be told Hamlet has killed Polonius (Ophelia’s dad).

Wonder if this might possibly place a strain on Hamlet and Ophelia’s secret marriage…

George MacKay and Daisy Ridley in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing)

Laertes is back, in a rage.

And Ophelia is being forced to marry one of Claudius’s guards.

The bitchiest lady-in-waiting tells Ophelia she’s fat.

(Hmm, as we never see her eating anything, what could possibly be the reason for her weight gain?)

The bitchiest lady-in-waiting also tells Ophelia that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have killed Hamlet.

Ophelia contemplates suicide in various picturesque locations.

The ever-patient Horatio reckons Hamlet is still alive.

Claudius rumbles Ophelia and flings her in jail.

Resourceful Ophelia breaks out 30 seconds later.

She grabs some flowers and charges into the royal banquet, singing and pretending to be mad.

OPHELIA_D16_060517_IMG_2667.CR2

Claudius has this “Oh God, what is that brat doing now?” expression on his face.

This film certainly isn’t dull, it’s racing along.

But there’s no time to digest anything.

Ophelia escapes (again), glugs the magic bullshit device – er, I mean potion – and proceeds to apparently drown in the style of an iconic Pre-Raphaelite painting.

But she’s not dead, and obliging amateur grave-robber Horatio has kindly dug her up.

Ophelia is looking extremely dry and well-groomed for someone who was recently fished out of a pond.

Also, her brand-new coffin is remarkably free of soil…

Gertrude’s witch sister still loves Claudius.

Oh no, now she doesn’t.

She’s gone to betray him to the invading army.

Naomi Watts in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing)

Gertrude appears in her witch sister’s lair.

This is becoming a tragedy of errors.

Hamlet is back, and about to have a sword fight with Laertes.

Ophelia has short hair, so no-one recognises her, and she’s calling herself – favourite minor Shakespearean character alert! – Osric.

But Hamlet won’t listen to her, so she dumps him.

Impressively, Ophelia has done something that characters almost never do in films – she’s got out while there’s still plenty of time.

I mean, the sword fight hasn’t even begun yet, and she’s already jumped in a boat and rowed about a mile from the castle.

Minor point, but there seems to be some confusion as to whether this scene is taking place during daytime or at night.

The sword fight is still in progress, but pregnant Ophelia has already managed to ditch her rowing boat and climb a mountain…

Ah, I see. We’re being shown Ophelia’s long journey (of self-discovery) to the nunnery as events at the castle play out in a different time scheme.

Clive Owen in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing)

She’s now piloting a horse and cart.

What next? A skateboard?

Holy Moly! Gertrude has just run Claudius through with Hamlet’s sword.

Meanwhile, Ophelia must have travelled a long way, because she’s approaching a mountain range, and one thing Denmark doesn’t have is any mountains.

It’s all kicking off at the castle.

Laertes drops dead.

Gertrude contemplates a potion overdose.

The Norwegian army comes crashing in, led by a terrifying bloke on a horse (presumably Fortinbras) and with Gertrude’s vengeful witch sister in tow.

I think this scene of slaughter would be really chilling if there was no music.

The ‘Doubt thou the stars are fire’ song doesn’t really work with these visuals.

Daisy Ridley in OPHELIA (Blue Finch Film Releasing) (01)

And there’s a stunning overhead shot of the aftermath, but it’s spoiled by Ophelia’s voiceover.

Ophelia’s telling us how great she is, and she seems to feel there’s this titanic, cosmic dimension to her adventure.

But all she’s really done is get pregnant and do a runner.

It’s not exactly epic.

And thus ‘Ophelia’ ends.

I like this film, but find it frustrating.

It’s touted as a feminist re-write of Shakespeare, but it still leaves most of the heavy lifting to Shakespeare.

Still, it’s visually beautiful and has a strong cast.

What did you think?

OPHELIA-Poster

Go here to buy or rent Ophelia.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this article and would like to read more, please donate to Shakespeare Magazine.

Dating back to the first half of the nineteenth century, the earliest Finnish language translation of a Shakespeare play was fated to fade into obscurity. Almost 200 years later, Kayleigh Töyrä unearths the intriguing tale of how Macbeth was adapted to the forests of Finland.

“To be a well-favoured man is the gift of fortune; but to write and read comes by nature.” – Much Ado About Nothing, 3:3:14

What do you do when Shakespeare isn’t written in a language you can speak or read? You translate. You adapt. You make it your own. And for a young Nordic country on the fringes of Europe, taking on Shakespeare in their burgeoning language in the 1830s was tantamount to saying “We’ve arrived”. For most of its existence, Finland was caught between its two neighbours, the regional powers of Sweden and Russia. This meant that the question of Finnish language was a question of independence – an independence Finland finally won from Russia in 1917.

IMG_9318
[Photo: VisitFinland]

The nineteenth century saw people changing their names to make them sound more Finnish. Cities and streets were also renamed to be more Finnish-sounding. Fierce debates on the creation of a Finnish lingua franca and the merits of regional dialects divided writers and academics. In less than a hundred years, Finnish was transformed from a largely oral language spoken in a variety of dialects into a language that could be used for education, culture and government. And in the 19th century, after years of seeing Shakespeare on stage in Swedish, the Finns wanted their own Finnish Shakespeare.

Enter Jakob Fredrik Lagervall who in 1834 adapted Macbeth, transporting the ‘Scottish’ play to Kurkijoki in Karelia (then a part of Eastern Finland, now in modern-day Russia). Lagervall’s is the first Shakespearean translation into Finnish. (According to Wikipedia it’s also the first tragedy in Finnish).

He justified the change of location in his epilogue with the pithy “Walter Scott didn’t think it happened in Scotland either.”

Ruunulinna
[Detail from the play’s title page shows a man playing a kantele (traditional Finnish instrument). ‘Ruunulinna’ is ‘Macbeth’, while ‘Murhekuvaus’ is an old-fashioned word for tragedy]

Karelia is an interesting choice: it’s a part of Finland bordering Russia on the Lake Ladoga that was ceded to Russia during the Winter Wars of the 1940s. As a region, it has always been a rich source of Finnish culture and mythology. In fact, a lot of the national epic Kalevala was ‘collected’ there. (Kalevala was compiled by Elias Lönröt from oral songs and stories told to him by Finnish peasants).

Lagervall openly acknowledged the challenges of writing the play in Finnish, justifying his linguistic choices.

He wanted to use a Finnish that would be understood by as many people as possible, but still preserve the richness of the country’s regional dialects.

In fact, Lagervall actively resisted the cultural homogeneity of an official language that would erase regional differences.

Largervall leant on the poetic tradition set out by Kalevala by using the Kalevala metre and adopting the Kalevalian practice of repeating lines that function as ‘echoes’.

Act1Scene1
[The opening scene of Lagervall’s Finnish Macbeth.]

In Lagervall’s hands the witches became Finnish forest sprites and figures of Finnish folklore.

The line of “upon the heath” became “Or the dark forest wilderness/or the house of Northland”, conjuring up home-grown Finnish imagery.

The opening scene is made longer with references to specific Finnish and Estonian locations and towns over which winds and storms are raging.

In the second scene, a fictional King of Finland talks about the various Finnish tribes battling it out, telling us how the brave Savonians were held up in a strait, unable to save the bewildered Tavastians.

The play was never staged and Lagervall had it self-published after refusing to adhere to suggested edits by a publisher. He didn’t take up Shakespeare again.

Nowadays, Lagervall’s contribution is generally forgotten, overshadowed by the impressive figure of Paavo Cajander who translated pretty much all of Shakespeare’s plays into Finnish from the 1870s onwards. Many of his translations stood the test of time.

Shakespeare in Finland continued to thrive, both on stage and in print in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Sibelius, Finland’s most famous composer, even wrote incidental music for The Tempest in the 1920s (one of the last things he did before his 32-year ‘silence’ when he mysteriously stopped composing).

Sibelius monument
[Sibelius Monument, Helsinki]

The very opposite to silence, adapting Shakespeare in Finland was about bringing light to the dark wilderness of the Northland.

It was about merging Finland’s homegrown cultural imagery and nascent linguistic confidence with a larger cultural conversation.

It was also about declaring that Finnish was a language worth reading and writing in – a language that, after all, had to wait until the 1840s for its first novel.

Alhough Lagervall’s 1834 Macbeth has now largely been forgotten, its confident mixture of Shakespeare and Finnish mythology marks an important precedent. Shakespeare continues to find fertile ground in the Nordics, where the challenges of translation and adaptation often lead to boldly re-imagined plays.

If you’ve enjoyed reading this article and would like to read more, please donate to Shakespeare Magazine.

Waiting for Shakespeare to make his entrance: References and remembrances in two classic twentieth century ‘New York’ novels, The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath and The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger

As a fellow Shakespeare fan, perhaps you experience this too. Quite often when I’m reading a book or watching a film or having a look at something on television, I get a slightly eerie sense of premonition, the feeling that a Shakespeare reference is about to be deployed.

Big deal, you’re probably thinking. After all, there are Shakespeare references in practically everything. Well, yes. But it’s still an interesting phenomenon for me, and I do find it fascinating the way my senses seem to anticipate these occurrences quite some time before they come sauntering around the corner, as it were.

To give one recent example, I was dipping into Stormbreaker by Anthony Horowitz, which is the first book in the series about teenage secret agent Alex Rider. After a few chapters, my Shakespeare sense started tingling, and a couple of pages later, when a disoriented Alex wakes up in a strange room:

“He had seen rooms like this in books when he was studying Shakespeare. He would have said the building was Elizabethan.”

Yesterday I started reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, which came out in 1963, a few weeks before the author killed herself in awful circumstances. It’s one of those books that I always think I’ve already read. But then I realise this is merely the cumulative effect of having perused the opening sentence many times in my life before somehow contriving to proceed no further.

Anyway, if you’ve chosen to read this article the chances are you’re very au fait with The Bell Jar, so I’m sure you’ll be thrilled to hear I’m enjoying it a lot so far – if enjoying is quite the right word.

Bell Jar

And like me you’ve probably played the little game of wondering how you would assess The Bell Jar if you didn’t know anything about its author (indeed, it was originally published under the pseudonym Victoria Lucas). My breathtakingly original observations are that it puts me in mind of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye if it was written by Patricia Highsmith. Actually, it reminds me perhaps even more of Salinger’s novella Franny and Zooey, which came out a couple of years before The Bell Jar.

Incidentally, Highsmith was 11 years older than Plath and Salinger was Plath’s senior by 13 years. I don’t know if their paths ever crossed, but they were all floating in the same firmament of Ivy League colleges and New York literary magazines that the Bell Jar, set in 1953, so vividly depicts.

An early sequence in The Bell Jar sees the narrator and her friend visiting the outlandish apartment of a country music disc jockey who has “twenty grand’s worth of recording equipment”. The setting is placed three years before Elvis Presley broke through with Hound Dog, but I can’t help wondering if this is the very first description in literature of the rock ’n’ roll/hillbilly aesthetic.

All this is about as far from Shakespeare as you can get, but it was right here that my Shakespeare Sense – let’s call it my Bardometer – started burbling. However, it wasn’t until 16 pages later that something popped up:

“My German-speaking father, dead since I was nine, came from some manic-depressive hamlet in the black heart of Prussia.”

What a sentence. There’s a lot in it. First, and most obviously, the words “manic-depressive hamlet”. Athough it means hamlet as in a small village, it’s also a literary witticism, as it wouldn’t be unusual for a writer of Plath’s generation to refer to Shakespeare’s Hamlet (ironically or otherwise) as having a manic-depressive personality. There’s another tangential reference: Plath’s semi-autobiographical narrator Esther, like Hamlet, has a dead father.

As a youthful polymath, Plath would no doubt have been aware that Shakespeare enjoyed huge popularity in Germany, with Hamlet a particular favourite. A famous 19th century poem by Ferdinand Freiligrath even asserted that  “Deutschland ist Hamlet”. There’s the sense here that the German-speaking father is essentially benign, like Hamlet’s father, but the fact that he comes from “the black heart of Prussia” hangs over him like the evil murderous brother in the play. And it almost goes without saying that black is the funereal colour invariably associated with Shakespeare’s tragic prince.

Three pages later, after Esther digresses into an account of studying physics for a semester:

“My plan was that I needed the time to take a course in Shakespeare, since I was, after all, an English major.”

This makes me feel like those people who get up and leave the cinema if the name of the film is spoken on the screen. But no, I have resolved to continue reading The Bell Jar – and not just to count any further Shakespeare references.

Now I recall that there’s also a reference to Hamlet in The Catcher in the Rye. On page 100 of the Penguin edition (original US text) the narrator Holden Caulfield discusses Romeo and Juliet with a pair of nuns. Nuns and Shakespeare will of course make the savvy reader think of the line from Hamlet “Get thee to a nunnery”. And sure enough, five pages later Holden gives a scathing assessment of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 Hamlet film.

“He was too much like a goddam general, instead of a sad, screwed-up type guy.”

I’m sure many readers have ruminated on the fact that The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield and The Bell Jar’s Esther Greenwood essentially inhabit the same universe and their narratives take place within just a few years of each other. I can certainly imagine Esther going to see Olivier’s Hamlet at the cinema, but I wonder if this is the version Plath had in mind when she employed the phrase ‘manic-depressive’.

As she lived her final years in England, perhaps Plath witnessed or heard about interpretations by newer, younger actors like Paul Scofield, Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole. I’ll have to look into it.

But why do all these authors scatter Shakespeare references about their works like so many literary breadcrumbs?

That is the…

If you’ve enjoyed reading this article and would like to read more, please donate to Shakespeare Magazine.

This Victorian Shakespeare Colouring Book is FREE for everyone to download and print out at home!

Dr Michael Goodman, curator of the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Archive, has made a unique Shakespeare colouring book, and it is free for everyone to download and print out at home!

IMG_8672

The colouring book features 35 gorgeous Victorian illustrations by the great H.C. Selous from the title pages of 35 Shakespeare plays.

“If you want to engage your kids with Shakespeare in a fun way,” Dr Goodman says, “or if you want to just relax yourself with 35 lovely images, then you can download it here!”

IMG_8671

Dr Goodman adds that the colouring book had over 100 downloads in the 24 hours since he first tweeted the link. Let’s see if we can get that to 1,000!

Go here to download the Victorian Illustrated Shakespeare Colouring Book.

IMG_8674

Watch an exclusive archive clip of actor Tom Hiddleston talking about Shakespeare!

Film-maker Richard Denton, co-producer of some of our favourite Shakespeare documentaries, has very kindly shared a fantastic clip of actor Tom Hiddleston talking about his formative Shakespeare experiences.

The clip is available to view on Shakespeare Magazine’s Facebook Page. Enjoy!

IMG_8660

UPDATE!

Richard Denton has now shared another clip of Tom Hiddleston talking about Henry V, including the line that Hiddleston refers to as “The greatest piece of wisdom on personal responsibility that I’ve ever read”.

Tom Hiddleston on Shakespeare Part 2 is available to view on Shakespeare Magazine’s Facebook Page.

IMG_8664

Watch Hamlet (George MacKay) take on Claudius (Clive Owen) in this Exclusive Clip from director Claire McCarthy’s new Shakespeare-inspired film OPHELIA starring Daisy Ridley in the title role, with Naomi Watts as Gertrude and Tom Felton as Laertes

OPHELIA is screening in selected UK cinemas from Friday 22 November, and will then be available on demand from Wednesday 27 November on these platforms: iTunes, Amazon, Sky Store, Virgin, Rakuten, Chili.

A full Shakespeare Magazine review of OPHELIA will follow shortly.

OPHELIA-Poster

Timothée Chalamet in The King: England’s legendary warrior prince is reinvented as a petulant and introverted man-child in this ponderous revision of Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V plays

p3d3c9u7f

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

There’s never any Shakespeare on Netflix, the online streaming channel which seems to specialise in teenage shows about Satanism and suicide. Still, we’ve held off cancelling our subscription in order to see The King.

The film is the brainchild of Joel Edgerton, who co-writes, produces and plays Falstaff. His fellow Australian David Michôd (who made the excellent Animal Kingdom) directs and co-writes. The project first came to our attention a couple of years ago when Edgerton made some comments about cutting the “long-winded” Shakespeare speeches and adding some Game of Thrones spirit to proceedings. I tweeted scathingly about this at the time, but to be fair to Edgerton, he has played Prince Hal and Henry V on the Australian stage, and he seems like a pretty open and honest (not to mention talented) bloke, so his vision for The King might just work…

The film has a pretty striking opening with young northern noble Hotspur (Tom Glynn-Carney) sending an unfortunate Scottish spear-carrier the way of all flesh. Then we see Hotspur in conference with King Henry IV (Ben Mendelsohn), where he refuses to hand over his prisoners, and spits out a selection of scathing and treasonous insults in his monarch’s direction.

We then relocate to the tavern where Henry’s elder son Prince Hal (Timothée Chalamet) is misbehaving. We quickly learn that Hal really hates his Dad. In fact, his bad-mouthing of the old man is almost as treasonous as Hotspur’s.

By now we’ve been introduced to Falstaff (Joel Edgerton). Now, Shakespeare’s Falstaff is infamous for being exceedingly old and humongously fat, but Joel Edgerton is neither. His Falstaff has a bluff rugby player physique and his character is full of bluff ‘wisdom’ to match. His accent sounds Yorkshire to me, but at different points in the film will veer from Mancunian to Scouse to Scots. Initially, he seems more Hal’s Kindly guardian than the gleeful corrupting influence of Shakespeare’s version.

The film does have some nicely framed interiors – there, put that on the DVD sleeve! But storytelling cliches abound – so of course we have to have the hero refusing his quest in the form of Hal refusing to go and see his dying dad (and later refusing to go to war with France) and so on.

Hal surprisingly bests the rebel Hotspur in a bout of single combat rather early in the film, which of course robs the confrontation of the revelatory power it has in Henry IV Part 1. At this point my impression of Hal is that he’s a somewhat sulky, slightly slimy, sexually ambiguous vampire who seems unable to make eye contact, treats people like dirt, and is no friend of the square meal. The traits of Shakespeare’s Hal, which have fascinated audiences and readers for 400 years are clumsily smelted into an uneasy mixture of narcissism and self-hatred. Well, I suppose that’s very 2019. The problem is that he seems too languid to ever have truly been a hell raiser. This Hal is less Bullingdon boy and more lonesome emo.

Anyway, the events of the Henry IV plays are raced through in 30 minutes as Henry senior dies and Hal becomes King Henry V. Then there’s an interesting scene where Henry receives congratulatory gifts from the rulers of places mentioned in other Shakespeare plays. This scene also reveals Henry’s court to be surprisingly small and rather parochial. From France, he receives the insulting gift of a ball (in the play, of course, it’s a box of tennis balls), which he bounces off a wall in a manner reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

Stripped of Shakespeare’s poetry and wit, this script can feel ponderous and banal. Chalamet certainly isn’t helped by clunksome lines like “I appreciate your umbrage, William”, but compared to Saoirse Ronan in this year’s Mary Queen of Scots he’s almost likeable. And at least we haven’t had a gender studies lecture yet. Oh, hang on though – there’s still one hour and 40 minutes left to go.

As a new king, Henry’s approach is to pardon all his dead dad’s enemies. Although when his Chief Justice (Sean Harris) says “Great reforms are best enacted with regime change” it sounds like it’s come straight off the autocue at a White House press briefing.

I may have dreamed it, but I think there’s a bizarre moment where Henry’s kid sister (Thomasin McKenzie) strokes a camel. She’s the Princess of Denmark and wise beyond her years, so she gives him sage advice (presumably before boarding a private jet to go and combat climate change). Henry reiterates how “all the unrest in the kingdom” was his father’s fault. His anti-dad hatred really is deeply unappealing, especially since the old man seemed pretty cool, from what we saw of him. At this point, I feel my attention waning. The film seems headed for the valley of sanctimony.

And I feel bad for saying it, but the longer Timothée Chalamet is on screen, the more the film’s vitality seems to ebb away. At times I find myself wondering ‘why are we wasting time with this fella?’ as he just seems like a minor character. We want Henry the bloody Fifth, not some twitchy man-child.

“You wish to be a king for the people” says the Sean Harris advisor guy a bit later. Then he mentions “the mood of the people”. I get the impression he used to work for Tony Blair. After having played a severely constipated Macduff in Kurzel’s Macbeth, Harris’s approach here seems to be to recite every line as if he has a hedgehog in his throat.

After a French assassin is caught, Henry decides to send some tough words back to Charles of France. But will he ever stand up straight, that’s what I want to know? That stoop is really starting to grate. Also, there’s 86 minutes left, and I’m beginning to wonder if anything will ever happen. For a film that set out to cut all the “long-winded” Shakespeare, there is an awful lot of talk. Yes, Shakespeare can be slow-moving, but the pace of The King is positively glacial.

Some traitors are caught, but when Henry says “Tomorrow you will have your heads cut off”, the timing of the line is so odd that I burst out laughing. His next line, “I have chosen you as an advance party to Hell”, sounds like something out of The Expendables. We are nudging into ‘so bad it’s bad’ territory.

At this point I’m wondering how can Chalamet be such an uncompelling lead. He’s got good hair, great cheekbones, he’s quite beautiful in an early-’80s English pop star way, but where’s the vitality? It makes me appreciate how bone-crunchingly brilliant Tom Hiddleston was in this role. The Hollow Crown was historical pageant, bawdy comedy and medieval action movie, but still Shakespeare through and through. I can understand the need for a radically different approach (if, indeed, the makers of The King are even aware of The Hollow Crown), but why so dull?

The subsequent execution scene is well done, and properly horrible. My prayers have been answered and Henry is finally sitting up straight. An absurd twist promptly follows – Henry returns to the tavern to recruit Jack Falstaff because there’s no-one else he can trust.

This is the point at which Falstaff’s accent veers into Scottish, while Henry’s dialogue is now so cumbersome it’s like he’s gargling marbles.

By now I’ve pinpointed what bothers me about Chalamet’s performance: it’s like he’s heavily medicated. And the mumblecore performance simply doesn’t work in the medieval context. Okay, I can appreciate you don’t want to be bellowing like Olivier, but how’s this going to work in the upcoming battle scenes? Are you going to whisper to the troops? Use sign language?

And so it is that Falstaff – Shakespeare’s legendary coward, wastrel and bullshit artist – is here introduced to Henry’s captains as a heroic battle veteran who’s going to lead them. I don’t know what they were thinking, but this is surely the apotheosis of Hollywood/Globalist Entertainment Corp idiocy.

It’s like those Stallone films where Rocky and Rambo make a creaky comeback, except Joel Edgerton doesn’t really look old enough to be making a comeback. And how weird that Falstaff, who famously wasn’t in Henry V, now seems to have become the main character.

So we get to France, where there’s some good siege engine action, and Chalamet seems more charismatic when speaking French. It’s a fugly film, though – the English are just a succession of interchangeable dour men with pinched faces and slightly overcooked regional accents. Falstaff has now overtaken Henry as the most annoying character, but Henry seems to be in love with him. And then the Dauphin (Robert Pattinson) turns up to chat in the middle of the night.

This is an eccentric performance by Robert Pattinson. Well known for playing a vampire in The Twilight Saga, he threatens to drain Henry’s body of blood. He’s like a Monty Python character, but he does capture some of the prideful idiocy of Shakespeare’s Dauphin. However, R-Patz quickly reveals a predilection for decapitating little English boys, so it’s clear he needs a serious talking-to.

There is some semi-interesting stuff about methods of waging war, but Falstaff is becoming such a pompous bastard and it’s all terribly heavy handed. Maybe if the whole thing was in French it would fool me into thinking it was good.

The subsequent Henry-Falstaff face-off seems to imply sexual intimacy, as did the scene at the beginning where Hal performed impromptu surgery on Falstaff – yes, really.

There are so many lulls in the action that even the lulls have lulls. Which makes me ponder that whenever people set out to make Shakespeare “less long winded” they always follow the same approach: 1. They take out all the good stuff. 2. They replace it with a bunch of new stuff which paradoxically has the effect of slowing everything down and bumping up the run time, and 3. They just generally make it incomprehensible. Ergo: The King.

There is so much that could be cut here: a scene where a messenger is called for and issued instructions like it’s going to be significant but then nothing much happens as a result of it. And the other problem is that it’s so static. Too many scenes of people sitting and talking, or standing and talking, or walking slowly and talking. The very things that stage versions of Henry V try to avoid, this film can’t get enough of them.

Well, it’s the eve of the battle and surly Falstaff has revealed himself to be a master tactician and all-round dispenser of earthy wisdom. Henry, however, hopes to avoid battle, and challenges the Dauphin to single combat – well, it worked with Hotspur.

The Dauphin responds with gross sexual insults, so Henry finally gets really riled and gives a stirring speech to his troops. Okay, it’s not Shakespeare, but at least he puts some much-needed vim and vigour into it.

The battle (Agincourt) is well done, especially when Henry enters the fray and we follow him from one crashing life-or-death martial encounter to another. It’s literally hand-to-hand combat, often dispensing with weapons altogether. We don’t even see Henry wield a sword until a satisfying encounter with the Dauphin, which I won’t spoil. Suffice it to say, it’s a rare occasion where a major change to Shakespeare (and to actual historical events) works really well.

We bid adieu to Falstaff, but now Henry goes to meet the French king – another windbag – who proposes that Henry marry his daughter Catherine (Lily-Rose Depp), or Princess Stony McStoneface, to give her full title.

(Is it deliberate that Timothée Chalamet is so un-kingly in this? On the voyage back to England he looks like a little orphan boy in one of the Titanic’s lifeboats.)

A bit of romance would be nice at this point, but Princess Stony has other ideas. “I will not submit to you,” she announces in a drab monotone. “You must earn my respect”. A minor point, but Princess Stony has just told us that she doesn’t speak English, but then proceeds to inform Henry at great length what a worthless little toerag he is – in English. At any rate, it feels like the aforementioned gender studies lecture has arrived. Or maybe it’s a job interview. “Do you feel a sense of achievement?” she asks icily. I’m half expecting her to follow up with “Why do you want to work in Human Resources?”

Admittedly, the acting styles are fairly complementary here – in that he’s a blob of jelly and she’s a plank of wood. In Shakespeare, of course, this scene is played for bilingual laughs – although recent stage productions have done everything in their power to remedy that. And so she sneers while he squirms, but once again it’s a scene with two people talking while seated. It’s not exactly a rollercoaster thrill-ride.

“All monarchy is illegitimate,” Princess Stony opines. Which is great, as I was just thinking that what this film needs is an injection of Neo-Marxist theory.

“It would seem that you have no explanation for what you have done,” she continues, with all the moral authority you’d expect from someone whose brother liked to chop children’s heads off. Clearly rattled, Henry then turns detective to uncover the true motives of his shifty war enthusiast of a Chief Justice. So now we’ve had three awkward scenes of static conversation in a row. This time, however, Timothée Chalamet sits while Sean Harris is commanded to stand precariously on a stool. I can’t help thinking it must be a metaphor for something.

Finally the film ends. So what have we learned? I dunno, maybe ‘Don’t send a man-child to do a warrior king’s job’? We are a couple of hours older, not a lot wiser, and there’s still no Shakespeare on Netflix. Ah well, at least we can cancel our subscription now.

The King was released on Netflix on 1 November 2019.

Special Offer! Get 12 Issues of The Oldie for just £12 – And Help to Save Shakespeare Magazine!

Image-68.png
That’s right, we have a very special offer for you. Shakespeare Magazine readers can now get 12 issues of beloved British periodical The Oldie for just £12*. This is a saving of £45 on the cover price. And, even better, when you take out your subscription, The Oldie will give Shakespeare Magazine £15!

To order this subscription right now, you simply need to go HERE.

* For overseas subscribers (ie outside the UK), the offer is 12 issues of The Oldie for £24.

Image-69.png

[To clarify the offer. You will receive 12 issues for £12 (a saving of £45.00 on the shop price of £57.00). If you do not wish to continue receiving The Oldie after your 12 issues for £12, you can cancel your subscription and pay not a penny more. But if you want to continue to subscribe after your first 12 issues, you need do nothing and your subscription will automatically carry on at the low rate of £42.50 every 12 issues (saving 25%) until you decide otherwise. The 12 issues for £12 are yours to keep and Shakespeare Magazine will be given £15 by The Oldie, whatever you choose to do after receiving your first 12 issues.]

To get 12 issues of The Oldie for just £12* and help Shakespeare Magazine, just click HERE!

Image-70.png
ABOUT THE OLDIE MAGAZINE

The Oldie magazine was started 25 years ago by the great Richard Ingrams, the former Editor of Private Eye.

The Oldie has developed an extraordinary talent to amuse, with some of Britain’s greatest writers gracing its pages: Craig Brown, Gyles Brandreth and Virginia Ironside. You may well enjoy Lucinda Lambton’s regular Overlooked Britain feature.
“You won’t get retirement advice or tips on fighting old age,” says Editor Harry Mount. “Oldies aren’t grumpies, but we are liberated by age to say the unsayable. The Oldie has no political agenda. You will get buckets of laughs.”
*For readers outside the UK, the offer is 12 issues for £24.