Tag Archives: play: hamlet

The Cumberbatch Hamlet and the missing rogue’s gallery

Like many, many other people (judging from buzz and cinema ticket sales), on Thursday night I went to see the Barbican’s recent production of Hamlet with Benedict Cumberbatch in the lead role, courtesy of NT Live. While I thought that Cumberbatch himself performed well enough under the circumstances, I wasn’t at all impressed with the production. In fact, it’s safe to say that it lost me from the opening moments: in this production, the play opens with Hamlet sitting alone on the floor, listening to old records (his father’s?) and weeping. If you’re familiar with Hamlet, you’ll remember that this isn’t how the play begins; it actually opens with two soldiers on watch, jumpy and afraid, waiting for another sighting of the ghost they’ve seen before. It’s always mattered very much to me that Hamlet doesn’t begin with Hamlet: that no matter the intensity of Hamlet’s own concerns, there is a whole world beyond him and outside him. It matters to me that in the original text, we meet Horatio as his own person before we see him as Hamlet’s friend. It matters to me that we first see Hamlet in conversation with other people, not brooding by himself. When you cut the first scene entirely, and open with Hamlet alone, you lose all that – and a production that doubles down on the idea of Hamlet as isolated loner just isn’t one that I would ever be interested in.

This sense of intensified isolation carried into the director’s decision to move up several of the soliloquies into the midst of ongoing action, with the other actors suddenly reduced to frozen figures in a shadowed background, while Benedict Cumberbatch was ringed in spotlight. The other characters were shoved into murky insignificance; nothing and no one else, the production kept insisting, is as real as Hamlet is. And this Hamlet didn’t even appeal more to the audience instead; for the most part, the soliloquies were for himself and himself alone.

Then there were the peculiar cuts and changes to the text. I could probably write an entire blog post on those all by themselves, but I’d like to focus on one cut in particular: one small example of the production’s continued focus on Hamlet’s solitariness, and why that focus isn’t necessarily a good thing. In the “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” soliloquy, Cumberbatch’s Hamlet asked, “Who calls me villain?” then stood quietly for a few beats and wearily continued, “I should take it”: a vague and anemic hypothetical, hardly capable of catching his imagination. But here’s Hamlet in the original text, with the cut lines in bold (I’m quoting a bit beyond that point, because I’d like to take a look at the longer passage):

…Am I a coward?

Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across,

Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face,

Tweaks me by th’ nose? gives me the lie i’ th’ throat

As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?

Ha? Why, I should take it: for it cannot be

But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall

To make oppression bitter, or ere this,

I should have fatted all the region kites

With this slave’s offal…         (2.2, TLN 1611-1620)

What gets lost, with these cuts, is Hamlet’s febrile, obsessive imagining of exactly how, and in what variety of ways, the outside world might call him villain. Other people, and how they see him, matter intensely to the Hamlet of this soliloquy; he pictures them heaping scorn on him, over and over and in the strongest ways possible. They don’t just give him the lie; they do it “as deep as to the lungs,” as if they’re shouting it from the rooftops. They’re jostling into his space, assaulting him physically – hitting him over the head, plucking at his beard, tweaking his nose – while he can only stand there and take these indignities. This isn’t a Hamlet who is safe in his own private bubble of thought, only seeing others as shadowy abstractions; other people are in there with him, challenging him, calling him to account.

One of the trickiest things about cutting Shakespeare is that you don’t just lose the general sense of the lines you take out: you lose their specificity and sound, too. Take a look at the intensity of those verbs in those cut lines: breaks, plucks, blows, tweaks, all aggressive, active words to go along with Hamlet’s aggressive questioning and choppy lines. (The cut lines are also full of caesurae, or pauses in the middle of lines: Who calls me villain? || breaks my pate across? These often indicate short phrases, and possibly thinking made less orderly by some strong emotion.) Then listen to their sound: do you hear the sharp ‘k’ at the end of “break,” “pluck” and “tweak”? That ‘k’ sound is what’s known as a plosive: a consonant sound in which the air is stopped by our lips or tongue when we make it. We sometimes call these “hard” sounds, and these verbs are full of them: the ‘b’ of breaks and blows, the ‘p’ of plucks, and the ‘t’ of tweaks are all plosives too. Say “Plucks off my beard and blows it in my face” out loud, and you can hear how those sounds practically explode out of your mouth, full of energy and anger; it sounds totally different from a line like Romeo’s “See how she leans her cheek upon her hand,” where the dominant repeated sound is that sighing “ee.”

If you look at the passage again, you see that it’s full of plosives. And what’s remarkable is that so many of them also fall within stressed positions in the lines, so the actor is putting even more emphasis on them when he says them aloud. Below, the bolded syllables are stressed and the underlined sounds are plosives; you can see how often the two coincide:

…Am I a coward?

Who calls me villain? breaks my pate across,

Plucks off my beard, and blows it in my face,

Tweaks me by th’ nose? gives me the lie i’ th’ throat

As deep as to the lungs? Who does me this?

Ha? Why, I should take it, for it cannot be

But I am pigeon-livered and lack gall

To make oppression bitter, or ere this,

I should have fatted all the region kites

With this slave’s offal…

(That Shakespeare. He really knew what he was doing.)

You still get some of the plosives in the version of the speech that Benedict Cumberbatch gave, but the highest concentration, especially of initial plosives, is found in the lines that were cut. And that’s a lot of energy for an actor to lose out on.

People often suggest that we should “revere” Shakespeare’s verse without explaining why, or suggest that it shouldn’t be cut because it’s somehow sacrilege to do so – as though Shakespeare is simply precious in some empty, undefined way. And that attitude can understandably make people want to knock Shakespeare off of this perceived perch, or declare that the language doesn’t matter nearly as much as story and character. But language and verse are character: all of Hamlet’s intensity is there in the sound and structure of what he says, and the vividness of those verbs, even if modern listeners are a bit hazy on exactly what it means to give someone the lie. And this is why I teach Shakespeare the way that I do: inching through texts at what can seem like a snail’s pace, making my students pay attention to scansion and caesurae and consonant sounds in a way that some might see as arid or merely academic. Because when it works, and they finally get why they’re looking for all of these things, this is the payoff: there is so much to be learned about how a character feels by training a magnifying glass on the way he speaks.

Text: Since the textual history of Hamlet is so complicated, I’ve quoted here from the Folio text at the Internet Shakespeare Editions site, hosted by the University of Victoria, and modernized the spelling and punctuation slightly. See <http://internetshakespeare.uvic.ca/Library/Texts/Ham/F1/scene/2.2&gt;. Accessed 17 October 2015.


Romeo and rhetoric; or, why I care about anadiplosis

At long last – at least from my students’ point of view – we’ve finished up with Romeo and Juliet, so I’m in the process of saying goodbye to my beloved play for another year. I suppose it’s only fair to do so by looking at how Romeo begins his goodbyes to Juliet in his final soliloquy. After he has mortally wounded Paris (not knowing, at first, who he is), Romeo honors his promise to bury Paris with Juliet:

I’ll bury thee in a triumphant grave.

A grave? O no, a lantern, slaughtered youth;

For here lies Juliet, and her beauty makes

This vault a feasting presence full of light.     (5.3.83-6)

There are many things about these lines that I find heartbreaking and hard to read, even now – from Romeo’s final depiction of Juliet as a source of light (a theme he begins with “O, she doth teach the torches to burn bright!”), to the fact that “Here lies Juliet” sounds painfully like an epitaph. But this time around, my attention was caught by the use of a particular rhetorical device: anadiplosis, the repetition of a word at the end of one line and the beginning of the subsequent line. In this case, we see anadiplosis in Romeo’s use of “grave” in lines 83 and 84.

I spend a fair amount of time on rhetorical devices when I teach Shakespeare. For one thing, I think it levels the playing field: even students who think they don’t “get” Shakespeare can spot examples of devices like anaphora or epistrophe, once they know what those things are. And I like to think that it takes away some of the intimidation students sometimes feel when studying poetry; even if my students don’t remember the specific names of these devices, they’ll have learned that they are capable of noticing and talking about them, and these poetic features won’t be alien to them when mentioned by other teachers or professors in the future.

But the most important reason for focusing on rhetorical devices when teaching Shakespeare is that Shakespeare focused on them. Early modern writers knew their rhetoric, and put it to good use. After I read Renaissance authors like George Puttenham and Thomas Wilson and Angel Day, who wrote and compiled detailed rhetoric manuals for people of varying levels of society, and as I read modern scholars who detailed how crucial rhetoric was to early modern thought, it no longer made sense to me that we so often avoid this subject when teaching Shakespeare, simply because the terms can be unfamiliar. After all, if Shakespeare uses these rhetorical devices to draw his characters more fully, then it can only help us – as students, as audience members, or as actors – to pay attention to what it is he’s doing with them. And we can only do that if we know enough to look for them, when they’re there.

Which brings us back to Romeo, and his repetition of “grave.” One of the things I love about Shakespeare is that he shows us characters listening to the last thing they said and interrogating it, changing their minds about it. You see it quite a bit – as when Richard II declares that he and his followers should “choose executors, and talk of wills; / And yet not so, for what can we bequeath, / Save our deposed bodies to the ground?” And Hamlet famously does this just as he’s on the cusp of killing Claudius and freeing himself from the terrible debt his father’s ghost has placed him under: “And now I’ll do’t; and so he goes to heaven, / And so am I revenged. That would be scanned”. Watching a character thinking his way through something – not just declaiming the results of his decision, but considering it at the moment of speech – is one of those little things that make characters seem more vivid, less static and unchanging; the more so because those moments are usually “unnecessary.” Romeo could simply start this speech by saying that Juliet’s beauty makes the tomb a feasting presence full of light, and we wouldn’t lose any of the sense of the passage. Juliet would still be beautiful enough, even in her presumed death, to light up the grave. But without that moment when he calls the tomb a grave, and then stops, and hears himself, and changes his mind – “A grave? O no, a lantern, slaughtered youth” – we would lose the moment when he notices Juliet’s beauty, as if anew, and by noticing it in the moment, shares the discovery with us.

Text: Romeo and Juliet, New Cambridge edition, G. Blakemore Evans, ed. Cambridge UP, 2012.

Emoticons and unnecessary scenes

I’ve embarked upon a minor project to get rid of some of the Shakespeare editions I seldom or never use by copying my teaching notes into the editions I use on a regular basis. (I’ve acquired a lot of editions that I wouldn’t otherwise have purchased in the course of teaching various Shakespeare classes.) This project is occasionally mortifying, because my teaching notes can sometimes veer into the ridiculous. For example, I drew a starry-eyed emoticon (*_*) in the margins of one copy of Hamlet, instead of, you know, proper words. Because I am a grownup and a scholar.

What caused such an ignominious descent into emoticons? This exchange in 1.2, when Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo approach Hamlet with the news that his father’s armor-clad ghost is wandering the parapets of Elsinore:


Armed, say you?


Armed, my lord.


From top to toe?


My lord, from head to foot.


Then saw you not his face.


O yes, my lord, he wore his beaver up. (1.2.225-228)

This may seem like a strange passage to go starry-eyed over, especially as it follows fairly close on the heels of Hamlet’s tortured first soliloquy, the first of the play’s sustained glimpses into Hamlet’s mind. This exchange is, by contrast, prosaic, even unnecessary. As it happens, though, that’s precisely why I love it – because it doesn’t need to be there, and yet there it is. We’ve already heard from Horatio that the ghost is “Armed at point, exactly cap-a-pie” (1.2.199), so in addition to being unnecessary, the exchange verges on the redundant – although it does provide a helpful gloss on “cap-a-pie” for those of us who need one. But if that’s the reason for the passage’s existence, why do we need both “From top to toe” and “from head to foot,” when some other expression of confirmation on the part of Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo would suffice? The nitpicky insistence on exactly how much armor the ghost is wearing starts to feel a little bit ludicrous.

But then comes the next line: “Then saw you not his face.” And this is where the starry eyes come in. Suddenly, instead of telling us about the ghost’s armor, the exchange is telling us something about Hamlet: it’s showing us his quick wit, his need to interrogate even the most innocuous facts for inconsistencies. And his line has the potential to be an accusation: you’re lying, it says; I don’t trust you. (I think the rapidity of the exchange contributes to that sense.) But even if we see it as a question – see the note about punctuation, below – it still shows us that Hamlet cannot simply accept what he’s told, can’t turn off his thinking self, even for a moment. The first soliloquy shows us what Hamlet’s mind is like in extremis, under the pressure of extraordinary passions; this odd, unnecessary exchange shows us the everyday workings of his intellect.

(There’s another one of these unnecessary passages in this scene, when Horatio, Marcellus, and Barnardo start arguing about the length of time the ghost was visible for: Horatio says that the ghost stayed “While one with moderate haste might tell a hundred,” causing Marcellus and Barnardo to cry out, “Longer, longer.” Horatio then responds, “Not when I saw’t” [1.2.236-8].  Since we have only seen the ghost once so far, with Horatio, there’s no inconsistency for the audience in the two appearances of the apparition, and no particular reason to draw our attention to one. The sole function of this little argument, as far as I can see, is to provide the kind of extraneous detail that refers us to a world beyond the immediacy of the scene: things happen even when we don’t see them.)

Text: Hamlet, edited by Ann Thompson and Neil Taylor (London: Arden Shakespeare, 2006).

A note on punctuation: The line “Then saw you not his face” ends in a question mark in the First Quarto and the Folio, but with a period in the Second Quarto. Since I like the idea of this line as accusation rather than question, I prefer the Second Quarto’s rendition.