To thine own self be true

1 Sep

Ophelia_5

 

Last night I saw the Bell Shakespeare production of Hamlet, with Josh McConville in the lead role, stealing all the thunder.

As we drove home, we rather sheepishly admitted to one another that we’d both thought at points during the performance, ah! That line would do well for Tony Abbott! And that one for Dyson Heydon! And that one for the entire Labor Party. Which is, when you think about it, a double tragedy in itself: that we are so immersed in current politics we can’t watch Hamlet without reference to them, and that those politics are of such a hysterically dramatic  and comedic nature, they lend themselves to the centuries-old utterances of the imaginary inhabitants of the rotten state of a fictional Denmark.

Of course this is an aspect of Shakespeare’s genius. Capturing the timelessness of emotion and its multitude of expressions, particularly, in this play, through politics both public and private.

The production was comedic, more so than any production I’ve seen, and it worked remarkably well. Hamlet is the blackest of black comedies, with a rapid-cycling central character possessed of a sharp wit, honed by grief and rage, intent on revenge, maddened by betrayal, cruel in his torment, unspeakably savage to the hapless Ophelia, who loves him. The scenes of Hamlet’s emotional and at times physical savagery towards Ophelia are awful to watch. He raves, frothing, then grabs her crotch in a gesture drenched in both violent contempt and desperate desire, as she, poor girl, attempts to protect herself from forces beyond her comprehension. Then he kills her father. Swine.

For a modern audience, Shakespeare’s ability to leap without warning from the comedic to the tragic to the farcical is a little disconcerting: we’re used to consuming our entertainment in discrete categories and when it is dished up complex, it’s more likely to be found in lengthy television series such as The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, both of which, for mine, are Shakespearean in their mastery of emotional complexity. So it’s a tad challenging to cope with such variety in a period of two hours, and I admire Elizabethan audiences for their stamina.

This morning I found in my inbox the following pome from lovely M. I woke up with Ophelia on my mind, thinking she had so little voice, so little agency, and I wanted another ending for her rather than suicide in the river. While the pome doesn’t give her the outcome I’d have chosen I think it is an interesting one, and the last stanza is perfect, opening up another aspect of Hamlet’s complexity not explored in the play. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, Than are dreamt of in your philosophy. 

 

OPHELIA’S TECHNICOLOR G-STRING: AN URBAN MYTHOLOGY

By Susan B. Anthony Somers-Willett

The air tonight is thick as curry;
like every night this summer I could cut it
with my wine glass, spray it with mace.
Over and over it would heal together
like a wound, follow my click and pace of heels
down Conti Street, St. Ann, Bourbon.

Oh Hamlet, if you could see me now
as I pump and swagger across that stage, cape dripping to the floor,
me in three-inch heels and a technicolor G-string—
you would not wish me in a convent.
They’ve made me a queen here, married me off
to a quarter bag and a pint of gin.

The old men tend bark and splatter, rabid
at each table. I think they stay up all night
just to spite the moon. They bring their diseased
mouths to the French Market in the morning,
sell Creole tomatoes to tourists who don’t know
what they are. Each bald head shines plump and red.

It seems like so long ago that I modeled
for those legs outside of Big Daddy’s—
the ones over the door that swing in, out, in, out—
the sculptor made me painted as Mardi Gras.
I thought you might recognize them if you ever passed
with the boys, parading from Abbey to Tavern,
or think them royal feet in need of slippers.

Someday I expect to find you here,
sitting at the table between the first and second rows,
fingering bones or something worse.
And in the end you will throw me a columbine,
light me a Marlboro and take me to a 24-7 where
jukebox light quivers, makes us as thin as ghosts.

But for now, I will dance for the fat man
who sits in your place and sweats his love for me at 3 a.m.,
because only he knows I am Horatio in drag.

Susan B. A. Somers-Willett, “Ophelia’s Technicolor G-String: An Urban Mythology” from Roam. Copyright © 2006 by Susan B. A. Somers-Willett.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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4 Responses to “To thine own self be true”

  1. Stewart Hase September 1, 2015 at 1:08 pm #

    The reference for Abbott may well be, ‘To thine own self be shrew’

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hudsongodfrey September 1, 2015 at 8:48 pm #

    Can we just rework the narrative sufficiently to cast Abbott in the role of Yorick?

    Liked by 2 people

  3. doug quixote September 2, 2015 at 12:55 pm #

    Poor Ophelia was collateral damage in Hamlet’s battle with his demons and the murderers of his father.

    The Bard drew upon his own experiences at Court and in the running of a troupe of players as well as his experience with a wife who he thought to be unfaithful . . .

    No, not the jobbing actor from Stratford, who was a catspaw. The real Bard was Edward De Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford.

    The one with experience at Court, who at one stage stood to lose his inheritance by being declared a bastard; the one who travelled widely in Italy and lived in Venice for many months, who went to a volcanic island in the Mediterranean and who was captured and ransomed by pirates. The one who learned the law, who knew John Dee the occultist . . .

    in other words, one who knew what he was talking about in the plays.

    Like

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