To fit the length of the traditional High Park show duration of about 90 to 100 minutes, our production of Hamlet, at Shakespeare in High Park, is based on a significantly condensed version of the text. Also, my adaptation approaches the play from a particular angle that casts a slightly different light on each of the major characters. I’m interested in questioning what is “normal” and what is “mad” in today’s understanding of these terms. I want audiences to consider not only Hamlet’s perspective as the normative lens through which to experience the play, but also Gertrude’s and Claudius’.
So, early on in the rehearsal process we spent some time digging deeper into the psyches of the play’s personnel with this approach in mind. I developed a questionnaire for each actor that they were asked to answer through their character’s eyes. This didn’t only help in building their own character, but sharing these answers also allowed us to start building relationships between characters. Meanwhile, these answers provided great insight for me into each performer’s individual understanding of how our adaptation affects their character. Here’s an excerpt of my questions for Frank Cox-O’Connell and Rachel Jones, who answer about Hamlet and his mother, Queen Gertrude, respectively.
Does Hamlet like people, or does he prefer being alone with himself?
Frank, about HAMLET: He clearly likes being alone. This is not something he’s found since his father’s death, it’s something he’s been dealing with since the death, fighting with. He wants a connection with someone, anyone, He doesn’t get it from anyone in the world of the play, which leaves him with nowhere to go with his thoughts but to the audience. But this is a person who’s used to being alone.
What’s Hamlet’s relationship to nature?
He abhors it. He doesn’t like being outside and isn’t used to being outside. He values civility and intelligence over instinct and the trapping of the natural world (he only refers to animals when finding examples of stupidity and baseness). Obviously this changes over the course of the play.
Did Hamlet have any inkling his uncle Claudius might be in love (or lust) with his mother?
Not before his father’s death. Perhaps with the benefit of hindsight he comes to understand what was going on. But no, he didn’t suspect anything, this is why it’s so painful and why he needs to unpack the very real belief that his parents really were in love, “why she would hang on him,” etc.
What most vivid memories does Hamlet have of his father?
Images of him, and of him with Gertrude? A loving, romantic relationship. Others speak of his military triumphs, but Hamlet’s memories seem to be either the static image of the Royal Magistrate or of a gracious husband—an image of “love” that is troubled in various ways.
What political system does Hamlet believe in as a future for Denmark? For the rest of the world?
They’re living under a series of regional absolute monarchies. But each nation requires popular and diplomatic support to keep order. Hamlet recognises the value of the system, but also recognises that to maintain it there is a need for a leader to be truly exceptional. Instead, there is this calculating, diplomatic politics that is the new world order, which Hamlet dismisses. A real leader is the nation in his flesh. Hamlet’s politics are really quite conservative.
What’s Hamlet’s biggest fear?
His biggest fear has to be death. And with that a vision of both hell and the unknown.
The hang up on murder—the fear of taking a life and the questions this poses—is born of his obsession and fear with his own death.
Maybe even off the top of the play there’s already a deeper fear within this fear of dying: a fear that the religious code isn’t right, isn’t enough, and that there’s nothing to justify the exceptionalism that he was raised on… that he’s not special. And we return to these “base uses” (that is, we die) without legacy, without greatness, and without a God waiting on the other side.
How does Gertrude see her role in the government of this country?
Rachel, about GERTRUDE: She has always had a huge interest and a very good understanding of politics, economics, etc. (She studied this on her own, as she could not go to university.) She wanted to contribute to the governance of the country but was never consulted or encouraged to give an opinion. Claudius and she have talked at length about these subjects over the years and he knows that her opinions are good, so she is planning to have more input. She is somewhat disappointed when Claudius sends her away so he can consult with other people, such as Polonius, and later Laertes, but she is still generally optimistic, at least early in the play.
What does Gertrude like to do in her spare time—if she has any?
Read. Study languages. Garden. Sing. Recently she has more openly studied privately at a kind of graduate level with an expert in politics and international relations.
Is there a history of mental illness in her family?
Depression, yes. She had it herself, hence her worry about Hamlet’s seemingly depressive behaviour early in the play.
What’s her biggest fear?
That something will happen to Hamlet. And that he may become like his father, Old Hamlet.
Is she afraid of death?
Yes. She is just starting to live now. She doesn’t want to die, although there was a time when she did.
What does she regret?
Her marriage to Old Hamlet. Not leaving, although that was really not an option. Having a nanny for Hamlet, and not being his sole caregiver, although, again, this was not her decision.
When did she meet and marry Old Hamlet?
She met him when she was eleven and was married to him at fourteen. He was thirty-five at that time.
Who is Hamlet’s favourite artist (in any discipline)?
He loves theatre and literature. The Player King really has to be his favourite artist. Hamlet uses theatre and storytelling as a tool throughout the play, but it’s not something he has access to before the ghost visitation.
At the beginning of the play, when Claudius tells him to change the way he’s behaving because he’s behaving without performance, Hamlet is incapable of putting something on to cover it—his is not the show of grief but the real deal. Claudius does know how to act. This is what Hamlet realizes after the ghost’s revelation: that one may “smile and smile and be a villain.” Then Hamlet starts acting himself; then he understands the power of theatre in various ways (holding the mirror up to nature, but also that “murder, though it hath no tongue will speak with most miraculous organ”). People all around him are using art, specifically acting and artifice, to shape reality. Finally, he does too: even with his dying voice, he’s concerned with how his story is told.
What does it mean to Hamlet that young Fortinbras is a woman?
It makes her not as much Hamlet’s double as she would be with a male Fortinbras. It also relieves a bit of the misogyny that Hamlet develops in the play: the fact that he gives his dying voice to her redeems him a bit for all the woman-hating he’s been doing.
What does Gertrude like best about Claudius?
Claudius is kind. He respects and likes Gertrude and she him. He is funny. They were friends for so long that their relationship now is easy and peaceful and life-affirming, but it is also passionate. She did not know it could be this way. And Gertrude believes Claudius cares about Hamlet.
What did Gertrude really think and feel when she heard Old Hamlet was killed by a serpent? (Do serpents even exist in your climate?!)
She was stunned. It seemed like such a strange and shocking way to die. I had never known anyone to die that way before. Serpents exist in Denmark, but for there to have been a venomous one on the grounds of the castle was unheard of. She watches for them now. But, honestly, she was relieved. Worried about the fate of the country and of Hamlet and herself. But personally relieved.
What’s her dirty secret?
The abuse she suffered from Old Hamlet. It would break her heart for Hamlet to find out, as the knowledge of who his father really was and of her weakness (in her mind) in taking it would break his.
Not all the details in our imagined backgrounds for these characters will be visible to an audience member. But elements of them will show in the storytelling as they shape the ways the actors relate to one another. Gertrude’s history of abuse influences how she reacts in moments when men want to take control over her—even her own son. Her strong desire to fight for her newly found happiness will be palpable in how she negotiates the events that unfold around her. Hamlet’s fear of death, and how he ultimately overcomes it, as he arrives at the resolution that “the readiness is all,” informs how he acts in the different instances when he is forced to consider death in the course of the play. Frank, Rachel, and the rest of the cast members have brought this knowledge into their performances in ways which, so I hope, audiences will find enriching and intriguing.
Birgit Schreyer Duarte is the director of Hamlet, on at Shakespeare in High Park until September 4, 2016. For tickets and more information, click here