Yo, Hamlet

Peter Sarsgaard was pitch perfect as Hamlet last night, at the Classical Stage Company on 13th Street near 3rd Ave. He went up a couple of times in the second half (roughly, Acts IV-V), but even these falterings seemed in keeping with the character, the prince who can say “the readiness is all” because in the end that’s all he is, layer after layer of preparation for what he refuses to do.

Ay, there’s the rub, who is this man Hamlet? Ask the question a different way: why is everyone in the play befuddled by his utterance, thus enabled in their interpretations of his behavior? Why are we, after all these centuries?

There are two ways to answer, I think. You can say that because he’s merely the register of competing narratives of what happened at Elsinore, he never becomes a completed character, someone whose words and deeds become predictable by, say, Act II (Ophelia matches up with Hamlet in this respect, but nobody else). That is why he seems the mirror of whoever looks at him after the fact, after the 17th century.

Or you can say that Hamlet comes from the future, where one’s life choices will not be determined or limited by one’s birth, title, family, or estate, but will instead be dimensions of individuality—-of intelligence, education, and deliberation. He simply refuses to play by the rules of his still medieval time, which required him, as heir to a dynastic succession, to avenge his father’s murder by killing his uncle and banishing his mother. That is why he seems so anomalous to his peers, and so close to our notions of personal judgment and comportment that we appoint him the first modern man.

These are actually the same answer, aren’t they? The resolute moderns in Shakespeare-—Romeo, Juliet, Cordelia, Edmund, maybe Caliban, and notice the “diversity,” as we would now say, of these characters—-are mysteries to the rest of the cast, who also see them, correctly, as violations of received tradition because they simply won’t abide by anything inherited from the past.

Nobody understands what Hamlet is talking about, for example, not even his best friend Horatio, although Claudius has enough of an inkling to send him off, and the gravedigger gives as good as he gets. He might as well be from another world, this man of too many words, a visitor from a different moral universe.

Sarsgaard’s Hamlet was pitch perfect, to my ears and eyes, because he never addressed himself during the soliloquies (I would guess that the director, Austin Pendleton, enabled this choice), which the more ponderous renditions of the play have him do on the assumption that this expansive interiority is what makes us modern. He never turned inward—-he never turned away from the constituency that Shakespeare, like every other writer, hoped to create among those who came after his moment in time, which is to say among us.

Sarsgaard’s Hamlet was slippery, slouching, sometimes silly, in a parody of the gravedigger’s physical antics, and yet it was sharp and angry as well, as the circumstances demanded. He kept looking and walking away from the mystified people he addressed on stage, and his posture, his affective bearing was always at an angle to the dignified, lugubrious stances and sounds of his interlocutors, especially Claudius and Polonius, but Horatio as well (here again, Ophelia’s freedom of motion or use of space matches up with Hamlet’s).

Sarsgaard delivered the lines colloquially, fast and funny, never with iambic gravity except when he performed for the players themselves. And the scandal of Gertrude’s remarriage always freighted them—-this Hamlet was always on the verge of hysteria about the spectacle of his own mother’s sexuality, or rather the division he had to witness, in her, between maternal and female desire.

He kept appealing to us, the audience, for some understanding of his position, his plight, his place in a time out of joint, because he knew it couldn’t come from where he was, only from a world elsewhere, the world we inhabit.

Brilliant.

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