“He was not of an age but for all time.” Ben Jonson, Shakespeare’s fellow playwright and rival.
Shakespeare is a literary person’s Santa Claus. And an actor’s too. For an actor, it’s not like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney saying, “Let’s put on a show.” Well, it kinda is, but it is still Shakespeare. You say, “You do Shakespeare really well,” and the actor’s in hog heaven. Of course, there’s one of Ol’ Will’s plays on every actor’s bucket list. Jim Carey’s been wanting to do Puck for centuries.
Like Santa Claus, you don’t even have to say The Bard’s first name. By the way, Santa’s first name is Will. Just like Will was Shakespeare’s. Guess that is how we ended up with where there is a Will, there is a way.
Once you get hooked on Shakespeare, you’ve got Christmas 365 days a year. There’s so many presents under that Christmas tree. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. Only the Bible competes. And Johann Sebastian Bach.
For instance, there’s the Sonnets. One hundred and fifty of them. Like the Psalms. Each of the Sonnets has something to say. It’s like sticking a shell against your ear. One day you hear a symphony. The next day it’s a sonata or a nocturne. You could read Sonnet 18 everyday for a year and you would get something different for each day. Now how many things in life can bring you that much pleasure?
As an actor, an actress or a scholar, you can build an entire career on one of The Bard’s plays. “King Lear” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, “The Tempest” or “Hamlet”, “Othello” or “As You Like It”. An actor can play Romeo early in his career, then move on to Hamlet and Macbeth and Richard III and Henry V. This is how Olivier became Olivier. At the end of days, there’s King Lear. For a an actress, you’ve got Juliet, Desdemona, Ophelia, Gertrude, or Rosalind, and Prospera and Hamlet.
Then there’s the villains. Shakespeare had some villains that would make the Wicked Witch of the West or Lex Luthor look like a Barbie Doll. I am speaking of Iago, Lady Macbeth and Richard III, and Hamlet’s Uncle Claudius. Now those were some real villains who put the capital e into Evil.
And nobody does it better when it comes to a lovable character. Falstaff is as unique as Don Quixote and a lot more fun.
“Hamlet” is a roller coaster ride of a play and nearly four thousand lines long. This Moby Dick of a play is a good four hours, Shakespeare’s longest. Only Kenneth Branagh has tackled the complete text on film.
It is the ultimate Cain and Abel story. It is about the consequences. How the families of the murdered and the murderer are affected.
By the end of the play, there are eight corpses. Only Horatio, Hamlet’s friend, escapes alive. And Hamlet requests that he retell his story. Which means that every time the play is performed, Hamlet asks that it be performed again. And again. And again. Ad infinitum. For those who don’t know Latin, that’s forever.
Nothing in the play is black or white. It is all gray. It leaves us with more questions than answers.The questions it leaves us go to the core of who we are. And what it means to be a human being.
For the actor, this is the Mount Everest of roles. Many of the best actors have embraced it on the theatrical stage. Laurence Olivier, Richard Burton, John Gielgud, Ralph Fiennes, even Sarah Bernhardt. The actor becomes Hamlet, Hamlet becomes the actor.
The role takes all sorts of courage for it is as scary as hell. It completely strips an actor naked, requiring him to give everything of himself, and more. One might even say that it us the ultimately long day’s journey into night. But for an actor, who is up to the role, not to take the role is even scarier. One thing is for sure. Only those who are willing to give everything can do Hamlet justice.
Opening up “Hamlet” is that Box of Chocolates Forrest Gump talked about. Maybe his mama had read Shakespeare. So come along with Uncle Bardie this year and taste some of the chocolates you will find in “Hamlet”. They may not be good for you, but they’re not fattening either.
Do you have a favorite Shakespeare play?