For God’s sake, let us sit upon the ground And tell sad stories of the death of kings:” Richard II Act 3. Scene 2.
WHAT TO CALL THE DARN THING
Let’s get something out of the way first off. The long version of the name of the play is The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark . Nobody ever says that. They just call it “Hamlet”. ‘Course if you want to appear smart, you can just call it “the Danish”. For instance, “‘Hamlet’ is such a wonderful Danish Pastry.” Just like you can call the Scottish play “the Scottish play”. If you’re an actor, you do not want to say the play’s name. You’ll have more double-double-toil-and-trouble than you can shake a stick at.
Never ever say that “Romeo and Juliet” is “that Italian play”. It just won’t fly. Shakespeare wrote so many Italian plays that people’s heads would spin like Regan in “The Exorcist”. Pretty soon they’d be calling in a priest to do the exercis-isms. And I am not talking Pilates here. Personally I like tai chi and walking myself. But enough about me.
The thought just came to me. The reason Shakespeare wrote so many Italian plays was that he was getting a kickback from the Italian Tourist Bureau. The English would see one of the Italian plays and they couldn’t wait to book a flight to Venice, Florence, Verona or Rome.
If you want to show off, just say “The Dane” and everybody will know it’s The Danish Play. Just like everybody knew that the Beatles were talking Johann Sebastian Bach when they sang “Get Bach”. Now that that is out of the way, it’s on with the show.
WE ALL KNOW THE STORY
If you don’t, it goes like this. Hamlet (he’s the main dude) comes home for spring break. Finds out his Uncle Claudius has done his Dad in, married his Mom and taken over the family business. Pretty lousy homecoming I would say. Talk about a bummer.
Next thing you know. Dad’s ghost shows up. This ain’t no Scrooge kind of ghost. This ghost is out for blood and he wants Ham to do the bleeding. Prince, and that is not His Purpleness either, isn’t so sure what he should do. Maybe he is hallucinatin’. Maybe he has gotten hold of a bad batch of LSD.
HAM AND EGGS
Now there’s this girl Ophelia. Her friends call her Eggs. She was such a good egg. She’s been out on a few dates with Hamlet. Nothing serious. Just some necking to “In a gadda da vida”. They are young. They don’t know any better.
I could say that they were a golden couple, doing the Mick Jagger and Marrianne Faithfull thing. ‘Course we know how that one turned out. And Eggs would probably be singing “As Tears Go By” sooner than later. You can blame it on Egg’s Old Man, Polonius, and her Big Bro, Laertes. They demand that she have nothing more to do with Ham.
In the dating department, he’s persona non grata. He’s a prince and he can’t marry just anybody. He can have sex with just anybody, but no marriage. Father and brother don’t want to see her pregs. It’s the Middle Ages and unwed mothers were treated badly. They might go as far as kicking her out of the castle. The castle may be cold in the winter, but she didn’t want to thrown out in the cold. She would freeze her knickers off.
SEX, DRUGS AND ROCK ‘N’ ROLL
Eggs tells her dad that she just saw Ham. He’s off his rocker, ranting and raving, raving and ranting. Of course, he’s off his rocker. That’s what too much sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll will do to a fellow. It don’t help that his dad is dead and his mum has married the murderer.
RUNNING AND BABBLING, BABBLING AND RUNNING
Polonius runs and blabs to the king. Ham has a thing for his daughter, and he’s got it real bad. At least, that is what Pol thinks.
Two of Ham’s boyhood buds show up. They are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. You’ve heard of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, Simon and Schuster, R and G are the originals. Ham used to play “Robin Hood” and “Cowboys and Indians” with them. Now they are playing James Bond and they are no 007s.. Ham gets out of them that they are working for Claudius. He doesn’t even have to do water-boarding.
ON WITH THE SHOW, THIS IS IT
Anyway they tell Ham that there is an acting troupe in town. It’s led by none other than Will Shakespeare, star of stage, screen and tv. Just kidding. There was no tv in those days. TV antennas didn’t work in the castle anyway. And Claudius refused to pay for cable. On top of everything, he set a bad example. He illegally downloaded the latest episodes of “Game of Thrones”. But he had a very good reason. He just had to know what happened after the Red Wedding.
Ham is delighted. He has an idea how to find out if Claudius really did Dad in like the ghost says. It’s the play he wants the actors to do, “The Murder of Gonzago”. Yes, that “Murder of Gonzago”. Only he does what all directors do. He does a rewrite. He wants the play to re-enact how Claudius did the murder. If Claudius reacts to the murder, then Ham will know he’s got his guy. This will prove once and for all that Uncle Claudius is a badass. Or does he just play one on tv?
MURDER NUMBER TWO
Are you still with me? Will Shakespeare has written a doozy of a play in this “Hamlet”. Lots of twists and turns, turns and twists, and a few exit stage lefts too. Kind of like dancing, don’t you think?
Claudius sees the play. He is white as a sheep. Ham now knows for sure that only one thing could turn Claudius white as a sheep. Viagra. Next thing you know Ham’s in his mum’s room, giving her the third degree, ranting and raving, accusing and accusing. “Claudius offed Dad,” he’s saying. Polonius. Remember him. He’s Eggs’ dad. He hides behind a curtain, spying.
If you are going to spy from behind a curtain, don’t cough. It can cost you big time.He coughs. Ham thinks it is Claudius. Ham stabs the curtain. Somebody should have told him not to stab the curtain. Then he sees it is Polonius he made corpus dilecti. “Oops, wrong guy.”
GETTING OUT OF DODGE
Claudius decides that it’s off to England for Ham. Let the English do his dirty work. They’re good at it. They’ve offed their share of royalty. Why, just look at what Henry 4 did to Richard 2 and Richard 3 did to a lot of royals. Claudius sends R and G with Ham to make sure the deed is done.
On his way to England, Ham runs into the prince of Norway, heading to Poland with his army. Norway has this prince thing down. He is good at it. Right there and then, Ham decides he’s going to be good at it too. He will act. He will have his revenge. No more “to be or not to be.” No more Mr. Nice Guy. Being the Elvis in this play, he could very well have belted out “All Shook Up”.
GOING OUT OF HER HEAD BIG TIME
In the meantimes, Eggs loses it. She loses it big time. Her daddy is dead. It was her Elvis that done it. Guess you’d lose it big time if that had happened to you. I know I would. She runs around, a Patsy Cline doing “I Fall To Pieces”. Then she goes off and drowns herself. You might say that she is glug-glug-gluging out of her head.
BIG BAD LEROY BROWN
Her brother, Laertes, is back in town. He’s ready to do some harm to the dude that done Daddy in. He’s hot under the collar. Unlike Ham, he ain’t hesitatin’. He is out for blood. Just as the castle is burying Eggs, Laertes jumps into her grave, mad with grief. His grief is grieving. First Daddy, then Eggs. It’s like the Rapture has come and left him behind.
THE BOY’S BACK IN TOWN
Ham escapes R and G, and Claudius’ plot to do bad things to him, Ham arrives just in time to join Laertes in the grave. He proclaims just how much he loved Eggs. She was such an egg-ceptional girl. He loved her a lot.
Egged on by Claudius, Laertes challenges Ham to a duel. Ham accepts. Claudius poisons a glass of wine. It’s for Ham if he wins. He tips the sword of Laertes with poison too. So Ham and Laertes are in the castle hall, doing a sword to sword. The queen drinks the poisoned wine and dies. Ham and Laertes are poisoned by the sword tip. As he dies, Laertes repents of his hatred for Ham. He tells Ham that it was the king that poisoned the tip and the wine. Ham stabs Claudius, then falls mortally wounded.
At the end of the play, the last words are Horatio’s. “Good night, sweet prince,/and flights of angels sing thee to rest.”
SO THERE YOU HAVE IT
Lots of sneaking and spying, spying and sneaking. And lots of blood. Two families wiped out. Two kings and a prince dead. A Polonius and his son, Laertes, dead. Eggs first mad, then dead. Makes Ingmar Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock look like amateurs. On top of that, you get seven soliloquys for the price of one. I know how many. I counted them. Want to know what a soliloquy is, you are just going to have to stick around.
One gets the sense that the reason the play is so long is because Shakespeare kept saying, “Just one more dead body. Just one more.” Makes me think that the title of the play should have been How many Danish can I kill off without really trying.
IT IS NOT ALWAYS GOOD TO BE THE KING
All this got me wondering what Ham’s father did to get his crown in the first place. Who did he have to do in? The Bible says that a man will be cursed to the fourth generation. Whatever great grandpa did, it wipes out the family. So it must have been bad. Real bad.
Denmark ain’t prosperin’. The Medievals believed that if things were rotten at the top, things were rotten at the bottom.. They got that from the Ancient Greeks. As the rulers, so the ruled. That was why Oedipus plucked out his eyeballs. I got to tell you that really hurts. Then he did an Edward 8. He abdicated. So his country could prosper. One thing is for sure. “Hamlet” is the downside of ambition.
Like “Macbeth”, “Othello” and “King Lear”, there is madness in the castle. Living in a castle can do that to you. All the dust in all those rooms and you can’t find decent help to dust. It’s enough to drive a king bonkers. And not in a good way.
Indeed something is rotten in Denmark. Got that? Just to make sure, let’s say it again. Something is rotten in Denmark.
Just how rotten we’re about to find out.