The tragedy of Hamlet follows the story of Hamlet of Denmark and the path he takes to revenging of his murdered father. The play was first performed as early 1607 and is still performed widely today. The fact that it is still performed today can be put down to the universality of the themes and issues of the plot. For my production, I have chosen to keep a traditional setting in order to emphasise the universality of the play. By leaving the setting unchanged, it allows a modern audience to fully appreciate the relevance of issues from and Elizabethan era, and the way in which they relate to the current day.
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The universality of Hamlet is emphasised by Kenneth Brannagh who, in an introduction to Hamlet, discusses the fact that ‘many of the lines from Hamlet are in our everyday speech’ and have become second nature to be used. The start of the play is one of the most pivotal scenes for my production. In this scene I chose to explore the rapid movement from Old King Hamlet’s funeral to the wedding as well as Hamlet’s separation from the rest of the characters as this allows for a good background to the events to follow in the play.
Similarly to Zefferelli’s version of Hamlet, I chose to have the play start with the funeral of Old King Hamlet. In my production I start with Gertrude lamenting most extravagantly, wailing and throwing herself upon the grave of her late husband in a pale white dress. This scene would be instantly followed by Gertrude, in the same white dress, marrying Claudius. By keeping Gertrude in the same costume, the rapid change can be observed by the audience, and allows them to understand Hamlet’s anger towards his mother’s hasty decision to forget her husband and marry his brother.
In this scene the separation Hamlet creates for himself from the rest of the characters is important. “A little more than kin, and less than kind” displays Hamlet’s obvious desire to be disassociated. To stage this, I plan to have Hamlet physically separated from the rest of the characters on stage: symbolising his mental and moral separation. Similarly to Brannagh’s production, Hamlet should be wearing black, while the rest of the court, including Claudius and Gertrude are wearing colourful costumes. This also creates an obvious visual point of difference and separation between Hamlet and the rest of the characters on stage.
Hamlet sees the people of the court as pretentious so this wedding scene would be performed in an exaggerated, melodramatic way by the members of the court, contrasting with a subdued, introspective style adopted by Hamlet. One of the main thematic concerns of this play is verisimilitude. Many of the characters develop a two-faced nature, creating a conflict between appearances versus reality. This is seen primarily in the character of Hamlet. He chooses to assume ‘an antic disposition’ in order hide is true self from others.
In doing this, Canadian university lecturer Ian Johnson says that Hamlet “uses his famous “wit” to erect a defensive barrier between himself and others and at times to lash out cruelly at them”. This is often seen in the text when Hamlet puns and makes comments that are not understood by the people he is conversing with. For example, in Act 2 Scene 2, Hamlet has a conversation with Polonius in which he states ‘Then I would you a so honest a man. ’ making reference to the duplicitous nature of Polonius’ character, without his knowledge. It is argued amongst many that Hamlet truly is mad.
However, the idea that madness is a cover behind which Hamlet hides, is more convincing. For example, in Act2 scene 2 we see the shift between Hamlet pretending to be mad and the reasoned persona he reveals when he removes his mask. In their conversation Polonius believes Hamlet to be mad, but as Polonius is leaving Hamlet remarks about “these tedious old fools”, revealing himself to be a sane. Also in that scene Hamlet warns Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, although they fail to understand, that he is not as mad as they think he is when he states “I am but mad north-north-west: when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw”.
In my production, Hamlet’s pretence of madness can be portrayed through Hamlet adopting a different, more fluid physical characterisation, a different vocal characterisation such as a change of pitch, or an affectation such as a laugh. The characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern also create a conflict between appearances versus reality, as they do the bidding of Claudius whilst holding up the pretence of being Hamlet’s trusted friends.
In my production, to visually show this, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern would be equipped with masks that they would wear when talking to Hamlet, and take off when talking to Claudius. This ‘changing of faces’ highlights to the audience the verisimilitude of the characters. Another major thematic concern of Hamlet is Mortality. Death is a fundamental element in Elizabethan tragedy, notions of mortality, punishment, salvation and fate echoing through the play. Hamlet muses over death most famously in the ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy.
He focuses on intellectually evaluating the very nature of death itself, to philosophically ponder the connections between sleep and death, which reflected the religious beliefs prevalent at the time, as death was considered a sleep before God’s restoration to life. ‘To sleep: perchance to dream:- ay there’s the rub.. For in that sleep of death what dreams may come. ’ Francesa Bugliani describes this soliloquy as ‘a deliberation on the conflict between reason and passion. ’ as Hamlet struggles with whether it is nobler to live in misery or to take steps to put an end to such sorrows.
In the Kenneth Brannagh production of Hamlet, Brannagh discusses the use of the hall mirrors in order to create a sense of paranoia and allowing the characters to reflect about themselves, looking at themselves. The ‘to be or not to be’ soliloquy was presented in front of such a mirror, allowing hamlet to literally talk to himself and reflect on his intentions. In my production, I chose to have this pivotal scene to be set similarly to that of Kenneth Brannagh’s, with Hamlet soliloquising to a mirror, allowing the audience to see two Hamlets, displaying the moral dilemma Hamlet is experiencing, and how he is torn between two decisions.
This also furthers the idea of verisimilitude as even though the refection in the mirror shows an identical replica of Hamlet, what is within the person cannot be seen. In conclusion, the tragedy of Hamlet’s universal appeal is evident through the thematic concerns it displays. Through my traditional production of it, I believe the modern audience will be able to make clear connections with the issues presented and create meaning for themselves in doing so.