Sunday, June 30, 2013

“Hamlet” and the Concept of Story

If you can possibly see American Players Theater’s superb version of Hamlet or any other version, go for it. Why would today’s novelists care? Because this isn’t just a psychoanalysis of a neurotic guy or a righting of the moral order (“The time is out of joint; O cursed spite,/That ever I was born to set it right!”). Shakespeare tackles the nature of storytelling itself.

The play cleverly opens with someone other than Hamlet confirming the validity of his murdered father’s ghost. We know the ghost is “real.” But only Hamlet hears the instruction to wreak revenge, and “there’s the rub.” Does the ghost seek justice, or does it ascend from hell to doom Hamlet’s soul? In other words, how do we know what’s true?

The entire play flirts with this. Hamlet looks to theatre for the answer. He’ll study the king’s response to a dramatization of the ghost’s version of events: “The play’s the thing,/Wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the king.”

To gather information, Hamlet feigns madness. Yet even Ophelia’s ridiculous dad (Polonious) says of Hamlet, “this be madness, yet there is method in‘t.” Method indeed. Hamlet’s step-father (Claudius) freaks at the re-enactment of how he poisoned his brother to steal throne and queen. It’s a lot more convincing than mere “Words, words, words.”

But when Hamlet unwittingly kills his “girlfriend” Ophelia’s father, she goes quite literally mad. “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Now Hamlet’s supposed friends become enemies, and enemies (like Ophelia’s vengeful brother) become friends. Treacherous Claudius convicts himself, leading directly to “The rest is silence.” The play concludes with nearly every character dead, and only Hamlet’s loyal friend Horatio left to fulfill Hamlet’s last request: “Tell my story.”

This tragedy transcends one story to capture the power of storytelling itself—an art so persuasive that Plato wanted to drive all storytellers from the city. As a novelist, you’re a storyteller, and whatever genre you write in, this play teaches some new old tricks.

~ Convince us. (Shakespeare uses a ghost to prove that Hamlet isn’t mad.)

~ Tease us. (The ghost is tangible. But is its message real?)

~ Play us. (Hamlet refuses to be played on like an instrument. But in the end, he, too, is dead, as we both did and didn’t expect.)

~ Entertain us. (Even in this tragedy, there’s flirtation, sensuality, and both wry and broad humor. Tragedy needs humor; humor needs edge.)

~ Persuade us. (As Hamlet puts it, “More matter with less art.” Focus on the substance, not just the style.)

~ Move us. (The uncertainty, pain, vulnerability, and courage—Hamlet is all of us.)

Tip: As Cole Porter put it, “Brush up your Shakespeare.” You won’t be sorry.

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