Tag Archives: plosives

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.